It is 12:47am on a Wednesday – a day of no particular significance, sitting square in a month with no corporate holiday, filling in a colorless year that will soon be forgotten. The congested, screeching friction of hot metal and harried commuters has cleared to long stretches of silence. Lethargy broken only by the occasional passing rush of an errant driver, the flickering lights of a gas station, and the incessant chirps of scraping, membranous wings. It is in this perpetual cycle of day and night that human souls are crushed molded by unyielding, mundane, and entirely artificial forces – a brief respite available only in that sliver of time between sleeping and waking.
See: to your right – the gothic archways with their curves and crosses, framing stained glass that, in the light of day, paint inspiring tales of needless sacrifice and bloody hate and a rapturous End that will swallow the world. How powerless it looks now, though, with no Pied Piper on the stage singing innocent children and sinful rats alike to their burning, eternal salvation. What could this wondrous architecture of man be but the Vessel of divine love?
See: in front of you – the perfectly bland and symmetrical honeycombs of cubes and desks and halls that, under florescent lights, harness the plodding potential of the drone within the man. When the burning sun sets and the bulbs dim, the Hive disperses to find respective rest and sustenance, a temporary exodus before the inevitable return.
See: them accept the pause that they’re all given, gifted by the presence of a belabored Sandman (and a Tempur-Pedic mattress). These dreams that come and go will, in some near time, disappear into the seductive whispering maw of the permanent Black – but until then, drift easy, drift free for a finite moment.
Thus does the summation of human existence plod along, occasionally captured in the harsh glare of a Shell Service Station, shining alone on the corner of a deserted street at 12:47am on a nondescript Wednesday. It is a glorious, underwhelming moment of perfect, middling, banality.
Right here, at this intersection – nightly distributer of fuel for the modern rider and his iron steed, and Doritos bearing Savior of the drunken man – a bus sweeps through on the final leg of its journey to the garage. It is emptied but for an evidently well-loved copy of Playboy splayed next to a suspicious dark stain, and a single passenger. Snoring contentedly with his neck bent against his right shoulder (it will ache when he wakes), and the crown of his head resting against a smudged window, this modern-day Rip Van Winkle remains oblivious when the bus merrily roars through his stop without hesitation. There will be no off-brand Snickers and egg-salad sandwich for him tonight.
The driver is intently focused on the road ahead, as though by will alone he can suddenly reach the end of his route. And yet, the end comes and goes with not even a whimper. Bus “Not in Service” (and when did the LED sign lose its numbers and destination?) continues forward and leaves the grainy imprint of the garage behind in a burst of exhaust fumes.
Winkle is bounced painfully against his once-pillow when the bus jolts from a badly paved dip. He looks out the window with a groggy, uncomprehending stare. Though those are certainly Austin trees – dried, stubborn tufts of green hiding unforgiving nests of bird shit – and these are certainly Austin roads, cracked, uneven messes that they are, there is only an echo of the familiar. This is no part of the route he has followed for the past three years, and no part of the city he has lived in for four. Winkle turns to the driver but pauses before the question even leaves his mouth.
This scruffed mountain man whom he has seen and greeted day in and day out, but whom he has never known (the same way that the dull-eyed grocery bagger can never be known, nor the IT representative who blends together with every other IT representative over the phone) is gone – and Winkle is left adrift. Though the driver’s shoulders are the same broad wall of sinew and flesh, and his hair the same wild mop of dirty blond – or maybe it is a light brown – and his face the same generic face of all driversandwaitersandcashiersandwalmartmanagers, Winkle cannot find comfort in this figureless figure because he is not the same.
Winkle squints in confusion as the tiniest bit of fear creeps into his asthmatic lungs. There is a flickering in the peripheral edges of his vision when he shifts his eyes away from the bus driver, but perhaps this merely heralds the onset of stressed exhaustion. Perhaps what he sees are oddly gruesome floaters in his eyeballs, and not the peeling, fluttering, transparent skin of the driver fading into cracks of nothing. Perhaps he is falling into the black grasp of a diabetic coma, and imagining the dark slivers that pulse around the driver and grow into consuming shadows.
The terribly ordinary commuter is struck with an overwhelming desire to run, to hide, to escape this thick, sludgy dread that chokes his wheezing throat and coats his chest like the slimy imprints left by warm, blood-soaked fingers. As Winkle falls on to the grimy floor, gagging, the Driver turns around with a smile pasted on his melting, wax face – a creature of dripping flesh and oil with bones of rust protruding from his hollow cheeks. A ring sounds in the distance, as “Stop Requested” flashes across the ceiling, and the world slips sideways and over. Outside the windows pass flashes of death and worse and vast deserts of burning darkness, until Winkle can see no more.
He cannot see (or hear or speak) because there is only enough blood to feel, red life trafficking in the tunnels beneath his skin as he is flayed, seared, stripped and torn from the inside out. Interminable moments of not-pain and not-death until he feels translucent – until he is nothing but a beating, oil-pumping chrome heart wrapped in skin…
At 6:42, the bus returns to its route. Women in suits and children with lunchboxes and men in shiny leather shoes alight and descend. Another Thursday, and another day closer to the weekend. They say “thank you” to the driver – sometimes not even this – with their ears plugged and eyes ahead. To them, the driver is as faceless and forgettable as the motionless, smiling commuter sitting in the very back, who smells vaguely of eggs and caramel.