When I was in high school, I took the bus to school. Not the school bus—the city bus: Number 61, which ran from the suburbs to the city centre.
I took an early one because it was less crowded, and got off several stops short to listen to podcasts while walking the rest of the way. It was my favourite part of the day, strolling timelessly between the giant warehouses, before the daily bullying inevitably began. In the afternoons I repeated the route in reverse, and it was while waiting for the bus that I met Szandra.
She looked sixty and always wore the same clothes, patched black jacket, leather boots and jeans, no matter the weather. She never wore a hat, even in the winter, and her long, greying hair fluttered wildly in the slightest breeze.
The first times we saw each other we didn’t say a word. But weeks passed and we remained the only two people at the bus stop, and eventually we started talking. First small talk, then more. I found out her name, that she was Hungarian and that she worked in a nearby sporting goods warehouse.
Although we were separated by almost every metric imaginable (age, sex, ethnicity) we understood each other perfectly. She told me about her life in Hungary and how she had come to Canada alone, and I told her about my lonely home life and the bullying I suffered at school.
We sat beside each other on the bus and talked the whole ride. Although I loved my podcasts, I sacrificed them gladly for conversations with Szandra.
Around the middle of Grade 11, the bullying worsened. It stopped being incidental. They started seeking me out. And it morphed into harassment, then clear physical abuse. I had gotten used to emotional terror, but now that combined with threats of real violence. On the day it happened, I spent the last forty minutes of the day naked in the locker room as four classmates took turns beating me.
I ran to the bus stop in tears.
And they ran after me.
When the bus came, Szandra and I got on—and the bullies piled in after us. They sat in the back, sending texts saying they would find out where I live.
Szandra saw my tears, the swelling developing on my face. I told her what happened. “I’m afraid they’ll never stop,” I said.
Szandra closed her eyes, humming—
The bus became a swamp, sunless, pervaded by a dull, illuminating fog of oppressive dread through which sprouted the black jagged branches of dead trees, on one of which:
Four flayed bodies swinging:
On the bus:
Silence pregnant with realization. Screaming of public transiters. Squealing of tires as the bus itself came skidding to a halt. And we all saw the four skinned bodies hanging impossibly from the ceiling of the bus. Dead, horrified.
Beside me. Szandra. Eyes open.
Szandra—my old friend.