Not in Service

Winner Year 6: Short Story
Otto Paton, Rozelle Public School.

I stand alone beneath the dripping roof of the bus shelter. The rain lashes down and horns complain as traffic clogs up Victoria Road. It’s six o’clock, and sky is dark and dismal. A torrent is rushing through the gutter and spilling onto the footpath. There’s no hiding from the wind. It creeps under my clothes and sends goosebumps up my arms. A white car slips and swerves round a Ute just in time.

I check the road, I check my watch. Buses keep barreling past, but they all say “Not in Service”. I’m getting really cold and I don’t want to miss the movie. At last! This looks like the 501. I can’t quite read the display through the rain. Damn! It’s another “Not in Service”. But wait. It’s slowing down. It’s stopped. I can make out the silhouettes of people through the fogged-up windows. That’s weird. Why would there be people on a “Not in Service” bus? The doors hiss open. The bus looks so warm and inviting, and it is so cold out here. The movie I was trying to catch has probably started, so I might as well see where I end up. I step aboard, the doors close.

 
The bus pulls away from the stop, and I lurch, grab the handrail and look up. But – gulp! – the driver’s seat is empty. The steering wheel turns by itself, cogs and chains clatter and click near the pedals. I reach to stick my ticket in the machine, but in its place is a fish bowl with a red goldfish in it, swimming in circles above a pile of tickets of different shapes and sizes. I gulp again. The water of the fish bowl sloshes round dangerously, but never spills. The fish seems to stare at me. I gingerly drop my ticket into the bowl. It sinks to the bottom like a feather falling, wafting from side to side. The fish gives me something you could call a nod. I move down the bus to look for a seat.

Whoa! The first passenger I see is a huge green lizard wearing expensive headphones and a T-shirt that says “PAY YOUR DEBTS” in large purple letters. “Erh-hem” coughs a woman behind him, who looks around with darty eyes while scribbling notes on an enormous clipboard. Across the aisle a nervous-looking man wearing big glasses clutches a sign to his chest as if he doesn’t want anyone to see it. I move on. It’s an old bus, rusty in places, and the seats are brown vinyl and hard. Halfway down the bus sits a businessman in a grey suit, holding a briefcase in one hand and a bone in the other. Opposite him is a man with many dreadlocks, holding in both hands a white glossy ball. He gazes into it like a child with a new toy.

Two seats from the back are three enormous stacks of books with a Shakespearean air about them. Amongst them is a tiny woman trying frantically to stop them from falling over. She is wearing old-fashioned librarian glasses and has curly grey hair, with the occasional gold strand. “Come here, boy,”she says softly. “This if for you.” She holds out a particularly thick volume and turns to a page bookmarked with a piece of faded crimson ribbon. Her bony finger taps twice at the head of the page.

I read:
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

Before I can read on, she snaps the book shut and withdraws into her bookpiles.

At last I sit down on a seat I think is empty, until I see sitting next to me a grey cat playing Snake on an old cell phone.

“What are you here for?” he asks, still looking at the phone.

“What?” I croak, turning to the cat.

“I said ‘what are you here for?’” A pause.

“I..”

“You don’t know why you’re here. Like me. Like the rest of us. Because we’re not in service. We’re the ones that don’t fit in, the ones without a place in society. The outsiders”. The cat puts down the phone.

“Are you one of us?”

“No.” I am worried. Will I be punished? Kicked out?

“Suit yourself,” says the cat plainly, and keeps on playing on his phone. I look down the aisle. It looks kind of like a road. At the front of the bus the little nervous man has turned around and seems to be holding something up to show me. It says 501. I frown. The sign. The aisle. The 501. The road. I blink. There it is, the 501 at the top of the road. At last. I flag it down, and hop aboard.

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