At the Bus Stop

Tuesday, 14 March, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan

The alarm blares and Kate moans.

Her bed is just a futon mattress on the floor, the ancient digital alarm clock—broken badly enough to look like it’s falling apart but miraculously still running—is perched on an old plastic milk crate near her head that functions as Kate’s night stand.

The alarm blares again and Kate moans again, but this time she resolves to roll over, sit up, and turn the damned thing off.

The alarm blares again. Sighing, Kate rolls over, sits up, and turns the damned thing off.

It is six o’clock in the morning, still pitch-black outside and in. Rising, Kate shuffles out of her room and the few steps to the entryway to the kitchen, working up the nerve to turn on the lights. As she does every morning in the dark months, she finally flips the switch and is horrified anew at the number of cockroaches on the counter and in the white porcelain sink that instantly scramble to get out of the harsh light glaring down from the ceiling. Only when they’ve all hidden themselves and Kate can at least pretend that they’re not there does she step to the sink to get herself a glass of water from the faucet and take a drink.

“Breakfast!” she smiles at the half-empty glass.

~

Wednesday morning, once Kate gets out into it, is overcast and dreary again, like so many days lately. As she walks to the bus stop, still half-asleep, her open umbrella propped on her shoulder and her downcast eyes watching the sidewalk, Kate reflects that at least it’s not freezing cold anymore. That still doesn’t make it very much fun.

The bus, of course, is late, every seat in the little shelter is taken, and there are already half a dozen people standing outside it huddling under their umbrellas. Four of the people with seats inside the shelter are men, and four—well, now five—of the people standing outside the shelter are women. None of the men would dream of standing up to offer their seat to a woman, and none of the women—well, except one—would dream that such a thing would ever happen. Because Ann Arbor, you know, is Feminist! Which really means, as far as Kate has been able to discern, that women should be treated exactly as men. In fact that women are exactly the same as men. So feminism actually ends up meaning that everybody is a man, and there are no women at all. Which seems to Kate—who still believes herself to be a woman—sub-optimal.

So Kate stands as close to the leeward side of the shelter as she can get, and tilts her rickety umbrella toward whatever direction the wind seems to be blowing. Staring at one of the large rain puddles on the pavement, Kate lets her mind go blank. For once there are no immediate problems to worry about: she has paid the rent, and she has a job where nobody is trying to slime her. And a new paycheck appeared in her account at midnight, which means that today she can get some actual food. If this does not quite add up to Kate’s idea of a wonderful life, it is, at least, not quite the slow torture she became accustomed to in the last couple years. And it’s kind of nice to just—go blank.

After a time raindrops begin to fall, disturbing the reflection of the hospital in the big puddle.

Kate has always loved to look at reflections in puddles, and she keeps looking at that hospital in spite of the occasional raindrop-bombs that disrupt it in spreading rings.

The surface of the puddle is not water, it is a discontinuity in spacetime that lets you see from one universe to the other. The universe of her dreams.

Oh, don’t cry, honey.

But Kate isn’t crying, she’s smiling, just a little. Because she can see that that alternate universe really is there. It has always been there, and all she has ever needed to do is to just go. It’s a world—well, maybe not a world in which her parents are still alive—

No, I’m sorry. That is not possible.

— but a world of infinite joy and excitement nonetheless. And all she has to do to get there—Kate concentrates on the rippling surface of the puddle—is to cancel out the nefarious effects of those enemy disruptor bombs—she frowns, considering. Little parts of the surface of the puddle are always perfectly flat, in between the moving ripples of the disruption ripples. The right piece of equipment should be able to keep those pieces in memory, throw away the distorted parts, wait until other parts of the puddle/gateway are undisrupted, grab those, and gradually fit all the flat parts together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Except that they overlap. But that actually helps, because it makes them easier to line up—

Kate feels the beating of her heart slow down, kuh-whump, kuh—whump, kuh——WHUMP.

And it happens. The reflection in the pond snaps into perfect clarity, even though she can see the raindrops still falling. They disappear as they reach the surface. And on the other side of that puddle is a brighter, more beautiful world.

“Oh! Oh my God!” Kate gasps inadvertently.

“Miss?” one of the men standing next to her under his umbrella asks. “You OK?”

Kate looks up in shock at the sound of the man’s voice, having been so lost in her fantasy that she forgot that the real world was still out here.

Except it isn’t. As she focuses on the man’s face, Kate realizes that she is now in the other world, the better world, the world through the puddle looking glass, beyond the disruptor bombs of the enemy at last.

The man’s face glows with vitality, his skin and eyes radiant with the force of his life. The blue-and-gold Michigan knit cap that he has pulled down over his ears is brilliant, vivid, sharp, each thread distinctly visible.

“Y-yes,” Kate answers the man quietly, but her voice sounds like an alto pipe organ of vast subtlety and beauty, an instrument capable of expressing magnificent ranges of emotion and wonder. “Yes, thanks,” she whispers.

“Do you want to get on the bus?” the guy asks her solicitously. “The bus is here.”

She missed its arrival? Kate looks at the bus and her whole sensorium is filled with the gleaming-steaming-beaming chrome and glass and neon glare reality of the great machine: the kaleidoscope colors of the clothing of the people climbing aboard, each step as stately as a procession of slow-motion ballet dancers.

“No, no,” Kate whispers. “I’m waiting for a different one.” She isn’t sure whether the shelter has emptied out now or not. Is the man who spoke to her still here, or is he gone already? Time is running either too fast or too slow, jerking instantaneously between the two states.

“Um,” the man suggests uncertainly. “Miss, there isn’t any other bus that comes here. It’s just the number three. You sure you don’t want this one?”

~

“No,” Kate whispers as she carefully sits down. “No thank you.”

But the bus is gone, and she is alone with the astonishing wind blowing through the astonishing plexiglass panes of the shelter.

This is how I saw everything when I was two years old Kate thinks.

She turns and lifts her gaze to the vast curtain wall of the Health Center across the street: a crenelated edifice of brown stone and blue glass towering above her even from so far away, touching the scudding clouds.

Now Kate’s heart is racing, pounding like it’s trying to get out of her chest.

I have to calm down.

What is happening, anyway? It’s as though some filter has come off her eyes, and this ‘new world’ she fantasized about really is here. Except it’s just the normal world, but seen without the filters. But the vividness is terrifying. Everything is so intense!

Is something wrong with me?

Kate remembers a movie from many years ago with John Travolta in it, where he saw a UFO and then started changing, started being able to do weird things, but in the end it turned out he has a brain tumor that was making all of this happen and he eventually died from it. Also there was a much older movie—was it from the 50s or 60s?—called Flowers for Algernon where some scientists made a retarded guy very smart, but it didn’t last. Did he die, too? Why do they always die?

Leaning forward, Kate closes her eyes and puts her hand over her ears and stays that way for a long minute, willing herself to be normal.

Could there be something wrong? She had that dizziness on Monday, the weird dream last night, and now this. Does she need to see a doctor? Can she afford to see a doctor? Would it do any good? She can just imagine what any doctor would say after listening to her describe these ‘symptoms’. Another crazy girl, cracked by life.

Slowly, cautiously, Kate opens her eyes again—and the world is normal. The road is wet and drab, the overcast sky is depressing, and the looming Health Center looks like it has seen better days.

If there were something wrong, would it just go away like this? Does this mean it was just a temporary problem, or is it something that is going to keep showing up, keep getting worse?

With a sigh, Kate straightens up on the bus shelter’s bench and picks up the umbrella that she let fall when she stumbled in here. Someone else is coming up the sidewalk to wait for the next bus. She’d better not miss this one or she’ll be late for work.

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