A great many years ago – or maybe not so long ago – I’ll leave it to you to determine – it was decided, quite against my will, that I would take the Number Fourteen bus to school. The bus was a great beast of a thing. It rattled deafeningly as it struggled over mud-covered roads and sleeping policemen, which were so common to that part of the world. At times, the din made distinguishing your seatmate’s words a miraculous feat. Not that it mattered what was said, of course. Most of our time was spent circumventing the thick layer of gunk that lined the insides of the beast. Years of pencil shavings, lost homework, forgotten notes and dropped snacks – the fleeting histories of bygone students – had gathered there, immutable to the passage of years.
Bus Number Fourteen, for there were at least twenty such monstrosities in the school’s squadron, was the smallest of the metal contraptions. Its white and green coat, despite being regularly applied, curled and flaked with each journey and it seemed always to be in a process of rusting; a process spurred on by the iron red dust that so prominently coated both interior and exterior. You could not sit down without finding a trace of it on your trousers. The windows were coated in a thick layer of the dust, too, tinting the scarce light inside an unsettling shade of red, like the gloom of a whale’s mouth.
It was in that unusual light that I first noticed the boy. He was a small creature, his diminutive size magnified by the hulking interior of the bus and the fact that he sat alone, peering through the grimy windows and struggling to keep an enormous leather-bound volume on his lap. Each time we encountered a sleeping policeman, the volume would pull him out of his seat and sink toward the mucky sea of filth on the floor.
As I recall, that day I was telling Fourteen’s younger residents something about the devastating consequences of a magical quill. Often, when Fourteen’s rattling permitted it, I would entertain the voyagers with a story. While these tales were often frivolous imitations of each other – dragons and talking beasts – the children would listen entranced, gathering around me like disciples in a Renaissance painting as I shouted over Fourteen. They pleaded every day for a story and cheered when I told one. I felt like a monarch, the ruler of a precarious kingdom.
The boy never sat with the other children though, or rather, they never sat with him. He would perch on the edge of his seat, ears perked, but eyes dreamy; half-closed, they were as cryptic as a roosting chicken. On seeing this, the other children would remark candidly as they passed him,
“I don’t think he can hear us…perhaps he’s ill…Let’s not sit too close.”
One morning, I boarded Number Fourteen and found it unusually empty. Only four of the usual twenty-three were present. Not even Gerry, a friend of mine famous for his uncompromising immune system, was there. Gerry was prone to radical political attitudes, beliefs which he sported proudly on his shirts and jackets. In those days, he and I would while away the bus hours by attempting to discuss the latest gossip in our respective classes, for he was a few years my senior, did you hear how…I heard that they did …no she would never…I said she would never…I said…we would shout. The unusual emptiness magnified all human movements and it was then that I had my first proper encounter with the creature. As I was making my way over the filth-strewn floor, the small boy looked up from his seat. It was the first time he ever really looked at me, or I at him. It would have been a piercing gaze were it not clouded by an indescribable sorrow and even then, it was disconcerting. I forgot myself and trod right onto the discarded wad of gum we had all been avoiding for three weeks.
“Euch-yuck!” I picked up my foot, and with it maybe ten years of grade school drama. The driver, impatient to finish his route, let out a frustrated sigh and shifted into first gear. Fourteen gave a deafening moan of protest as it jolted back onto the road. With my foot still in the air, I stumbled onto the seat next to the little creature. He stared as I unsuccessfully tried to scrape the gunk off my shoe, his shoulders rising and falling slowly, as though he carried a great burden. The large volume he clutched close to him today and it anchored him to his seat. I deserted the task. Turning towards the uncanny gaze of the boy, I greeted him,
“Hullo there” I called over rattling windows “– perfect way to start the day, isn’t it? Don’t suppose you have anything to scrape this off?” I nodded to the shoes. The creature sat unmoving, unblinking, his moonlit eyes examining me. The great heaves of the bus seemed to pass over our bench and, for a moment, the racket to which the residents of Fourteen had grown so accustomed, grew fainter. As I settled into the seat, the gloom around us seemed to thicken.
“What’s your name by the way? I’ve never heard it,” I tried. An unsettling feeling was building in my stomach. Something flickered distantly within the glass orbs,
“Say, can I ask you something – only I’ve been wondering for a while. What’s a small guy like you doing carrying around such a big book? Don’t misunderstand, it’s lovely, but why do you carry it everywhere?” I tried once more. Still, he remained motionless. The flickering intensified, like a shadow on a windy day. I wasn’t sure whether he couldn’t hear or whether he wouldn’t, but it made me squirm. He looked so intently. What if he could see the future? This though unnerved me so I began to sweat. The next time Fourteen acquired a passenger, I would change seats. No sooner had I gathered my book bags though, that something, call it empathy, magic if you will, stopped me. We fell into mutual silence for the rest of the journey.
Nothing much happened on the passage home or during the rest of that week. But my queasiness persisted.
A few weeks later, the semester’s annual stomach flu spread like wildfire in forms one through twelve. Not a single class passed wherein a student, green and pale from lethargy, would not suddenly leap out of the room, scattering pen and paper and beeline towards the lavatories. I fell ill fairly often, but this time it seemed fate would exclude me. When I boarded Number Fourteen, caked red from recent rains, I smirked at all the vacant seats.
“A whole bus just for me…” I thought. Not even poor Moses, the bus assistant, was present. A girl had been sick all over him yesterday afternoon and though he sat stoically through the remainder of the bus ride, I noticed him shiver faintly each time Fourteen stopped to discard a passenger.
Cautiously, I edged around the fading disaster spot and chose a seat far away from the smell. I grunted as I tried pushing the tinted windows out of their mucky embalming.
“It helps when you push down first,” came a faint voice behind me. It echoed eerily over Fourteen’s rattle and din. I whirled around, astonished at another’s presence when I thought myself alone. Peering through the seats, I saw him – the small boy. Same leather-bound volume clutched in hand, same orb-like eyes. I did as he said.
“Much obliged,” I nodded at him, closed my eyes and placed my face in front of the current of moist air. I felt the pressure on the bench change and I turned. The boy had slid into the seat next to me and was holding the great book before him. I felt the gloom around us congeal again and shroud us in its thickness.
“Would you mind…” his uncannily clear voice probed.
“What? Reading to you?” He nodded, pushing the book toward me. I squinted at the faded golden lettering and sighed. It was unlikely he would hear me over the rattling windows and loose screws. Besides, the letters were much too small to see. But glancing at him, I flipped to the first page. He sat upright, looking ahead, a hungry look in his usually misty eyes. I recognized it easily – the jitteriness – like when you bring out the cake at a children’s birthday party.
“Good story,” I remarked and began, “Call me Ishmael…”
We read until the engine turned off, my quiet voice somehow piercing the cacophony of scraping tin and metal. When I looked up, I gasped at the familiar school houses around me already. The creature took the volume as I handed it to him. He looked no different, yet the stormy flickering within the orbs seemed to have cleared. This time, when he looked up at me, he smiled,
“We will continue later?” he asked. I supposed so and he dashed toward the primary section, stumbling under the weight of his book and bag.
That was how we spent bus rides for the remainder of the term. We scarcely exchanged words. One sunny day in mid-November, I boarded Fourteen after being ill in bed for a week. The boy broke into a resplendent grin and ushered me to the seat next to him. The storm in his gaze had dissipated, replaced with a lightness like sunlight through polished glass.
“I’m Adam,” he blurted out when he handed me another book. A moment of stunned silence later, I told him I was pleased to make his acquaintance and that was that.
Fourteen’s other children had noticed this change over the past weeks and grown sullen. While they no longer congregated around me or asked for stories, I felt them listening intently as I read. Though they pretended not to care, they started moving closer and hushing one another. Eyes peeking around seats, clandestine fingers poking and pointing betrayed their interest. Still, they never came too close to Adam. When he looked at them, the sunlight in his gaze was too strong. They smiled uncomfortably and averted their eyes. With each journey through each chapter, Fourteen became tamer. It rattled still, but less violently. It seemed Fourteen was listening too.
That was the year, for one reason or another, my family and I had to leave that country. When I told Adam, he said nothing, but cast one of his intense looks on me. His gaze, so much harsher with its new sunlight quality, was agonizing. Again, I got the distinct feeling he was reading my future. The other children said nothing either. We arrived at school a quarter hour late, but before we prepared to exit Fourteen and go to class, the other children gathered around me in a tight embrace. Even Gerry, who hated anything to do with physical contact and had developed an awful habit of grumbling, wrapped his arms tightly around me. My eyes began to sting and I heard several sniffles. When I glanced up from the group of arms and eyes, I could make out Adam’s faint form receding into the primary playground.
The days until the summer holidays passed. It grew steadily colder. Each day brought us closer to the final farewell. I found myself dreading the end of the school year – a remarkable feat since I never enjoyed school all that much. Though Adam and I read every day, the storm clouds seemed to be returning.
As I boarded Fourteen for the last time, the beast let out a muffled purr. I gave its iron railing an affectionate pat and, making my way through the gloom, found Adam in the same spot. Perched on his lap, on top of our usual reading, was a tin box painted with miniature houses whose orange light glowed in the snow. In the bus’ strange darkness, these little lights seemed to flicker and come to life. He handed the tin to me.
“For you,” he said, a smile tinged his peaky features and for a moment the storm clouds were dazzled with summer sunshine.
“Thank you. It’s been my pleasure, Adam.”
We said no more and I read until we arrived at school.
I pried the tin open in my driveway when I got home. On top of a dozen shortbread biscuits sat a letter. Shivering in the dry wind, I opened it…
I’m not sure how much use it would be for me to tell you what was in that letter. After all, it was addressed to me and not you. In fact, I’m not sure how much use this narrative has been at all. If anything, it’s made that ache, that hard thing, which I have carried all these years wake from its deep slumber. I can feel it lifting its hairy head and moaning as I write.
To resist the dramatic tendencies and conclusions, which we all so ashamedly love, would be preposterous, so I will leave you something. I heard that Moses switched to bus Ten after suffering flashbacks each time he entered Fourteen. Gerry majored in political science at some liberal university. But the other day, as I strolled through the city where dust is only gray and policemen only sleep at embassy doors, I saw a group of children boarding a bus. A gust of wind pushed past me as the last child disappeared into the bus’s depths and as it passed, I swear I heard a soft voice somewhere beginning “Call me Ishmael…”
Noor Ender is a German-Egyptian third-year student at BCB. She spent most of her life in Nairobi, Kenya.