Take the Four-Thirty Six :
Hollis Gommer sat on a bench, one shoelace irreverently untied, the laces brushing against the dusty concrete, the other tied in a pristine double knot, hardly untied for several days now. The evening sun beat upon the back of his head, even filtered through several layers of pink and orange clouds. He wondered somewhere in the back of his mind why his hair felt so warm, like his back was to an oven, he thought. He wondered what was cooking in that oven. It must be cornbread, he could almost smell it, a slightly sweet, slightly pungent aroma wafting lazily up one nostril, down the other and across his tongue. He could taste it, the grainy yellowness, buttered, with jam, blackberry, not the stuff with the little seeds that catch between each and every tooth, but the smooth kind, a little bitter, a little sweet.
A bus went by. He looked at the old digital wristwatch on his right hand—the six-forty two. He needed the seven-something. He thought to himself, which was it, the O-one, the twelve? Damn it all. He looked to his left, north, from where he came, not too long ago, still too recent to know the bus system he reckoned. He looked to his right, south, he thought, home, somewhere.
There was nothing around him. The road was cracked and dry. A slight breeze gave relief to the droplets forming on his forehead, and he let out a sigh. The cold of the night would fall soon. He knew that he needed to be indoors before the sun fell. He looked back behind him towards the sun and squinted, his eyes feeling like they would split in four, roll back and stretch by the very optical nerve down his low cheekbones.
The orange and blue that swirled around the sun quickly faded to the east into a deep velvety purple. Far off into the horizon, specks started appearing, little pricks of light, little pricks Hollis thought, who are they? Burning for thousands of years, sitting in space, spinning around, twirling their celestial dance to no end, to no cadence, to no rhythm, to nothing, no point. He turned his head back to the sun, almost at the horizon and thanked himself for it. He knew as well as anyone only one thing. The buses didn’t run once the sun went down.
He looked to his right and saw something far off in the distance. A cloud of dust, nothing more he thought, but it got closer, a rickety old school bus it looked like, the side panels long since faded from their bold yellow into a grimy filth. He tried to place the color as the bus drew nearer—white maybe? No, eggshell white? He tried to think harder as a slight pain erupted in his left temple—eggshell—he was hungry enough to take even one of those right now, but cornbread would be better.
The sun was almost down and a shiver went through his spine. He crossed the road and waited. The old machine rattled closer and closer. Something about it didn’t sit right in the pit of his bowels. As it came closer and closer, he could tell that it was moving at a speed that no vehicle of that age could handle, it had to have been going ninety down that old desert road. Ninety? Maybe eighty, his eyes were deceiving him, no it had to be going only fifty. He realized then that it was slowing down, forty maybe, thirty. It screeched to a halt in front of him and the door opened. The bus driver sat behind the wheel, crouched down, white wispy hair hanging low below his eyes. Hollis couldn’t see his eyes. They remained trained forward staring at the road. His stomach did something of a somersault as he stared at the steps leading up to the bus. A dried green slime caked the steps, bleeding over like a stagnant waterfall, dripping over, step by step by step.
He looked up at the driver.
Still nothing. He heard no voices coming from the bus, only the low rumble of an engine far past its prime.
He listened still, stillness, Hollis stood still, he looked at his watch on his left wrist now—fifty-seven. Close enough? He thought to himself. A bus is a bus. Even Hollis couldn’t deny that fact. A bus. Is a bus. Maybe going to way from which he came, but still, he looked to the west at the sun, now half below the horizon, the purple spreading farther and farther to the west as the gold ochre disappeared.
Hollis stepped forward and grabbed the rail, hardly thinking. It felt cold in his hands, ice in his palms, sweaty from the sheer oddness of the vehicle, even Hollis thought it was strange, as if a single snowflake had fallen onto his tongue, melting quickly in a spike of chills. The seats were empty, the old fake leather cracking with no attempt at repairs, no tape or glue, just spiderwebbing fractures in nearly every seat.
“Sun’s almost down,” he said to the driver with a cautious smile as he took the front right seat.
“Hmm.” The driver kept looking forward through his matted and greasy hair. The engine roared as he slammed his right foot down on the accelerator. Hollis could feel himself being pressed back against the back of his seat and his heart leapt, skipping a beat, if he had been keeping track.
Hollis looked out the window at the scenery—nothing, nothing for miles, only dead grass and woody trees, no leaves, no bushes, only the quickly fading light casting long shadows over the land. Every last smudge of light in the east had been replaced with a deep velvety royal purple. The road seemed to go on and on, as the bus seemed to accelerate more and more. An orange moon was peeking out over the horizon.
“Moon’s coming up,” Hollis said, never breaking his gaze at the orb. He would swear that he could actually see it rising, making its nightly debut in the eastern sky.
“It’ll start soon,” said the driver, his eyes fixated on the road.
“What’s that?” It only then occurred to Hollis to wonder where he was going exactly. He only cared that he was on the bus going somewhere, maybe not the seven-something, but the late sixes is close enough to the early sevens, he supposed, six-forty five may have been better, safer he thought, what was this? The six-fifty two? Fifty seven? He wondered again what he should have taken. But, then again, a bus is a bus he thought, a bus is a bus is a bus, the wheels, the steering wheel, the engine, it goes, he thought and he stays still, he thought. His feet worked, but not well. He looked back out the window, the moon now in full view. He remembered a long time ago, sitting on a tire swing, hanging low from an old oak tree in someone’s yard, his papa’s, he thought, maybe, or maybe a neighbors, looking up at the moon, in the years before the grass died, before the sun had baked the dirt into a dusty cake.
“Where’s that?” He repeated.
“You got on the bus.” The driver replied nonchalantly, eyes still pasted to the road.
Hollis was confused.
“You got on the bus and the bus only goes one place.”
“Where’s that?” Hollis said once again.
“I only go one place.”
“Where’s that?” he said once again, starting to get aggravated, something that didn’t happen very often. He remembered the last time he had gotten aggravated; or rather he recalled what little he could of it, a red flash followed by running, lots of running, his feet hurting, his hands stained with something warm and squishy, he wasn’t sure why he was running, but his ankles buckled and he fell, fell hard onto the gritty ground, scraping his knees through his faded jeans, raw, a searing blinding heat shooting up his thighs into his stomach and he vomited—hard, expelling nothing.
“Only one place I go; you got on the bus, I thought you knew.”
“I don’t turn around.” The driver said.
“Should I ask you to?” Hollis’ stomach fell several inches, into his colon it felt like and he felt like he was going to vomit nothing again.
The driver let out a low chuckle and offered no answer.
Hollis felt the bus slow down, he was pushed forward by the force of the rapid deceleration. His face squished against the cold textured barrier in front of him and the bus was stopped. He stood up and ran down the grimy steps. He found himself amidst crowds, crowds of a magnitude he had never seen before. It was a metropolis without the buildings. There were no buildings anymore, not like there used to be, not like the monolithic testaments to the empirical imperialism of mankind that used to dot the landscape like a rash on the earth.
No one was dressed well. Rags at best. Trench coats to keep warm against the night. Every single person seemed to be going in the same direction—towards a collection of bright fluorescent lights on the horizon, just over a hill.
Hollis lightly grabbed the arm of a passing stranger, “where is everyone going?”
The stranger looked at him, eyes glazed over, pupils dilated, and shied away as quickly as he could. Hollis resigned himself to simply follow the crowd. They were a motley crowd, clothed in everything from rags to the finest coats. Nobody seemed to speak a word, it struck him as odd. The silence to him seemed loud, his own thoughts seemed to grow louder, persistently begging him to neither turn back nor keep going, or to stay put. He would do no good here or there, there or here, hither, thither, point A or point Q, F, Y, or V, he thought, no points mattered anymore. He walked up the hill with the crowd and just as the hill came to a peak, he could see a massive behemoth of a structure, at least ten stories high, at least, perhaps even more, he couldn’t tell. Hollis stopped where he stood and looked, and stared, he could do no more, he had not seen such a structure since, since—he thought harder, since the hospital, he thought, but maybe that was smaller, it sure seemed big, but his cold white room was small and sterile, two beds and a roommate rocking back and forth in the fetal position murmuring to himself, the queen, she stole it, she stole my heart, the damned queen, stole my spade, how can I dig now, I have to dig my own grave, gravity is lying, if you’re not dying you’re lying, if you’re lying you’re still dying every day, they sun passes, bakes the earth, the earth roasts, roasts in a pan, panning back and forth, of course, of course, of course—Hollis would cover his ears—of course, courtly fanatics fantasize over the strangest thing, don’t you think Hollis? Hollis? He pressed his hands over his ears even tighter—Hollis? He grew louder. Can’t you see it’s all a lie? If you’re dying you’re lying if you’re lying you’re still dying just putting on a store front, window shopping through life, I forgot, I should call my wife, she doesn’t know I took a vacation—you’re not married, Hollis thought, his hands over his ears as tight as they could possibly be.
The biggest thing since the hospital, but monumentally larger, it was round, shaped like a pie tin with an open roof, all stark and bare concrete, a gray slate colored smooth surface from what he could tell. The walls of the structure angled out slightly, supported by immense columns of the same makeup, cold grey, smooth, industrial. The whole thing looked like it was barely finished.
He ventured down the hill, still following the crowd, growing louder and louder with each passing step, a general hum in his ears, and he was glad, his thoughts were covered, gently muffled like a pillow over his cognitive ears, no more former roommate babbling on. He recalled further what he could, a red flash, no running this time, just a red flash across his eyes and an burst of motion across the room. Not until he could feel the warm throbbing of his throat in between his hands was his roommate quiet, but still his words echoed after attendants rushed in and restrained him, if you’re not lying you’re dying if you’re lying you’re still dying slowly, painfully, more painfully than any pins forced beneath your fingernails, slowly, hear them squish as they force the flesh out…
Hollis felt no anger towards his old roommate. It only was. And was it was, he thought, thinking, was, he thought, wondering again what this building was. He could hear noise from it, a dull roar, a hissing, like white noise from a television set, like the slow trickle of a whispering stream intensified, over a waterfall, tumbling down with the television set, the glass tubes and bowed out screen cracking and splitting as they chased the water down the rocks.
He thought he could hear the glass breaking as he drew nearer and nearer to the building. He could tell now that it was a kind of stadium. He tried to fight his way out of the crowd, but it was too dense, people were packed shoulder to shoulder as they filed into an entrance, a door at least twenty feet high, twenty? He thought, maybe thirty? Before he could determine the exact height of the entrance, it was too late, he was already in.
As soon as he entered the monstrosity of a structure, the high density of the crowd immediately slackened, no longer shoulder to shoulder, Hollis finally felt like he could breathe again. He let each breath slowly enter his lungs, and exit his lungs, enter, exit, in, out, inhale exhale, he thought as the violet blue electricity running through his nerves subsided into a dull hum. It seemed to be the same kind of crowd as outside, eclectic in their mix, electric in their energy, all abuzz about something, something was happening, something was transpiring. Hollis realized that he was in a smaller hall, even though the ceiling was about three stories high. Vendors stood alongside the walls shouting out words that Hollis couldn’t recognize at the top of their lungs, an attempt to draw in customers. The walls were just as bare as the outside of the structure, flat matte concrete, a dull bluish grey. It seemed fresh almost, like it had been built less than a few hours ago, but he knew that it had to have been longer than that, at the same time, it seemed as though it had sat there for a millennia, untouched by the years, unscarred by the rain, unscathed by the thunder and passing wind, blowing over the desert plains in furious gusts on almost a nightly basis, kicking up dust in giant cyclones of litter and dirt, floating across the flatlands.
The smaller hall seemed to be adjacent to a much larger room, from which emanated a sound, a dull roar, what had to have been the voices of twenty-thousand people or more, all attempting to talk over one another, not shouting, but cumulatively an aural force to be reckoned with. He stepped into the main room in what was clearly now a stadium. A sea of faces seemed to all stare at him as he walked into one of the upper levels.
He was tired. He felt like he had been on his feet for hours. He looked at his watch, approaching midnight it looked like, perhaps he had, but he couldn’t recall exactly. It didn’t matter. There were places to sit, benches, made out of that same concrete, that same blue-gray cement. He squeezed into one of the rows, already packed with people and managed to find a seat between two larger men, both seeming to look down at him as he took his seat.
The lights changed. They went from a neutral white light to a deep soft amber, and changed again to a heavy scarlet. The crowd went silent.
Down in the middle of the stadium was a stage, a small platform, no more than maybe ten feet high, with a staircase leading up to it. A man climbed the staircase as the lights changed again, this time to turquoise, a color that seemed to hurt Hollis’ eyes. He squinted and he could see a small man walk up onto the stage as the crowd’s noise fell down from its dull roar. The man had no microphone, no amplification, but his deep voice carried to each and every set of ears in the massive stadium.
“If you aren’t lying you’re dying.” Hollis’ ears perked up and his eyes narrowed; the lights shifted back to red. “And if you’re lying, still, still as the night in rebound flight, you’re dying,” he knew this man, he remembered again back at the hospital, his hands around his neck, a rush of attendants and a quick shot to the rear then silence and restraint. “Still-hearted over cold hands with the one, tick, two, tock, three across an ivory face, to wherever mice may flee and men will flock,” the crowd cheered, “when they see and hear the hands and bells at ten just to pretend no ringing touched them, even then, only a small heart and smaller mind to defend,” a sense of rage began to build in Hollis, “they’re lying, but no, it’s only pretend, no mice of men the truth, failed to defend, only a deaf ear, of fear, of pain of washed out chalk in the summer rain, defend the one ear, but the rat of mice defends both, no pretend there, a blind ear to fear, no way to see scared.” The crowd erupted in applause and cheering. “Enjoy the spectacle,” he ended.
Hollis’ neighbor looked at him, “You look tense.”
Hollis said nothing.
“Here,” he said handing Hollis a green metallic bottle “drink this.” Hollis thought nothing of it, he was, after all, quite thirsty. He downed the entire bottle in a few swigs, it felt strange in his throat, bubbly, but not carbonated, lightly fluffy, he thought, and it was sweet, oh was it sweet, it made his teeth hurt for some reason, not a sharp pain, but a dull ache, somewhere in the back of his mind it registered that he perhaps shouldn’t drink something of this nature, but he was too enthralled with what was going on down on the floor.
Two of the largest doors Hollis had ever seen opened up on opposite ends of the stadium and two beasts emerged, one feline looking, blue with white stripes, the other bright orange, reptilian in nature. They stood at the opposite ends and seemed to stare down each other, both with hands at holsters. The crowd was silent and Hollis could hear the swift breeze outside echoing through the many doors and openings of the arena.
“You feel it yet?” whispered his neighbor.
Hollis wasn’t sure what he meant. What was he supposed to feel, he wondered as he often did.
“You all right buddy?” Hollis wasn’t sure again but something seemed off. His nerves were buzzing again, a violet-purple wave of electricity seemed to run through his body, from the tips of his toes to the top of his skull, buzzing, vibrating violently in an array of some bizarre sensation he had never felt before.
He pulled back from his neighbor as the man’s right eye slowly lowered itself onto his high cheekbone. The man’s eyebrows furrowed and they didn’t stop rising, they raised up into a perfect bushy point, far above his hairline. Hollis took deep breaths, in, out, inhale, exhale, he thought, just keep breathing, he thought, but no amount of breathing seemed to bring him enough oxygen. His chest expanded and contracted, painfully almost.
His heart leapt as the crowd erupted; he looked down below him and all he could see was a violent torrent of red and orange, blue and white. He looked back at his neighbor. His eye seemed to be back closer to his socket, and he let out a sigh of relief, only to be jolted back again when his neighbor almost aggressively nudged him and gave him a sadistic smile, “I knew you’d like it.”
The crowd continued cheering as the colors went back and forth, occasionally backing off from each other long enough for Hollis to see the two beasts, their sides moving up and down in labored breath, clearly torn from the relatively serious altercation. A wave of energy ran through his spine once again, making him feel nauseous, he bent forward and heaved but nothing came out, after all, he had a difficult time recalling the last thing he had eaten.
He looked back at his neighbor and tried to ask what he had given him, but no words came out, his tongue seemed to be frozen in between his cheeks. He looked at his watch to see how much time had passed—three-forty two. A jolt ran through his body once again as he wondered how much time could have possible passed. Had he really just watched the swirling spectacle for over two hours, or three hours? Was it four? How long had he been in that seat? His mind turned back to his ex-roommate from the hospital and Hollis wondered where he was now. He was obviously still somewhere in the arena. He looked back at his watch and he realized he could no longer make any sense of the numbers, they were all just points of light on his wrist, emanating a strange neon glow onto his arm, stretching and swirling around his arm-hair, twisting and contorting in shapes he had never seen or even contemplated before.
The crowd cheered again and it was over. The dull roar of a thousand intoxicated conversations resumed as people started to file out of the place. Hollis tried to slip through the crowd as quickly as he could to get back out into the open air. He went through and between, maybe even over, he couldn’t tell and he didn’t care, he just wanted to be back. Back where? He thought. Back where, back where, not the hospital, not the bus stop, he tried to remember where he had been before, before, before the bus stop, before the hospital, before the road…
He found his neighbor again and he grabbed his arm, “how do I get out of here?”
“What do you mean, you follow the crowd and leave.”
“Is there a bus?”
“Take the four-thirty six.” He said.
Four-thirty six, thirty six, thirty six, he repeated in his head, he couldn’t forget, he needed to be out, to be away to be back to be somewhere once again.
He was out. The wind had picked up and was fiercely howling from the west. It kicked up the dirt and stung his face and the grit got into his eyes. The crowd seemed to melt into one entity, uniformly swaying back and forth, walking back up the hill towards nothing.
Or maybe something. He could hear the rumble of an engine, maybe two or three. As he walked up the hill, they sound became louder, much stronger, and he knew that there was a possible way out, a way back, back somewhere, a somewhere he didn’t know but a somewhere nonetheless—a somewhere is a somewhere.
He looked at his watch, the numbers making something of sense once again—four-twenty two. He breathed a sigh of relief, he still had time.
Hollis was on the tail end of the crowd and his legs were hurting again, they burned like they had never burned before, he kept stopping to look at the path he was on as it twisted and contorted like everything else around him, marveling at how he was able to keep a straight line in walking. The bland colors that he had seen before were now all shades of green and brown, blue, and an occasional red in the dirt. He finally came to the peak of the hill and saw buses of all shapes and colors leaving. His heart sank as his possibility for a ride diminished. But there was one left, the same one, it seemed, that had taken him there to begin with, the same eggshell-white rickety old schoolbus. He quickly got on the bus and the driver gave him no regards yet again, he just stared through his white and gray greasy cheek-length hair.
The engines rumble grew as he shifted out of neutral and into gear, the vibrations shaking Hollis’ body and making him want to vomit again, his stomach twisting and turning, not unlike his surroundings, still at times an amorphous blob of all sorts of colors and shapes, things he could not reckon with, things he could not make sense of.
The bus started down the road, slow at first. Hollis looked out the window and saw that they were on a bridge over some large body of water, the moon, now high in the sky, reflecting boldly over the water shone brightly into his dilated pupils. He looked down at his seat, trying to escape the inundation of discernment, something he had long since lost, he thought to himself as best he could, is this the world? Where have I been? He looked back out of the window and saw that they were no longer on the bridge but in a forest, a dark dense blend of dark evergreens and woody browns, and even though it was dark, he could see yellow ochre, bright crimson and the deepest orange he had ever seen, realizing then that it was fall. His stomach twisted in his gut and he wanted to vomit again but he knew nothing would come out, he knew that nothing good would come from trying.
It went faster and faster as the driver kept his glare at the road and shifted into higher and higher gears, more gears, it seemed, than a bus ought to have. Hollis was spinning in his seat, his eyes going from the forest outside to the floor of the bus, to the driver, to the floor, to the road outside through the front window, to the forest again, in all its vivid colors and he still wanted to vomit, his whole body spinning on its cosmic axis, its own entity hurtling through space at speeds unknown.
The bus stopped and Hollis got off as quickly as he could.
The sun was close to rising. Hollis could see the distant pink on the eastern horizon. He looked around and he was back in the deserted nothing.