The Bus From the Inner City

Tony Del Degan

Image of Tony Del Degan

Tony Del Degan

When I was in high-school–decades ago now–I had been friends with a girl. I liked this girl, in the way a middle-class nobody likes a sports car. He sees it in the shop window and peers through the glass,  hoping one day he might be able to afford it; but he never manages to save up. Not long after, the nobody reads in an auto magazine that the car was never as put-together as he thought. The engine whines and clunks, and it rides like it's been rode by twenty different past owners, even if the odometer's freshly set. He realizes he should be saving for a sedan instead–one that's reliable and bolted together right.
I found my sedan, and let go of the sports car a long time ago. But now, as I stand here in this square, watching the bus pull up to the sidewalk, I see that familiar face behind the glass–the window of the shiny blue metal monster that hauls the changed ones out of the inner city.
She's different now. 
She was never one to be satisfied with herself. All the time, she'd make deprecating comments about her nose, or her eyes, or her height. All the time, I'd assure her she looked fine, thinking–like a child–that doing so would make her notice me. 
Painted on the bus is the company logo; I've seen it so many times, on billboards, or commercials. The doors slide open and the... people... start to emerge. There's a crowd–loved ones, waiting to receive their sons and daughters and fathers and mothers.
The first boot hits the sidewalk. It's an old man, walking with a cane.
Funny. I would have fixed my spine if I'd been him. But he fixed his wrinkles, and now he looks like a wax doll, with stuck-on hair. 
She's not getting up.
All the changed ones file off the bus. Now. She stands, and I see her framed in the bus door. 
My God.
Her eyes are gone–now there's a curved piece of glass embedded in her face. The nose is fixed. Her feet have been implanted with some kind of lifts–beneath the skin, into the skeleton. She wears a dress that accentuates her figure–also altered, but not in the way one might expect. The hair's a different color. There's no sign of the girl I knew from high-school. She might as well be dead. 
Something tells me I shouldn't have come. Curiosity had overpowered me. 
Now she sees me.
She comes over, and her voice is smoother–not the slight rasp I remember. Guess she hated that too.
"Aaron?"
"Hi, Sylvia." 
Something flickers behind her glass visor. "What are you doing here?"
"Beth told me you were getting... I was passing through–to get some stuff for dinner. I saw the bus pull up."
She pauses. "Do you..." She spins a circle.
"It's... I'm happy for you."
"Thanks. I haven't seen you in a while."
"No. No. Things are all different now."
"How so?" A sidelong look.
I'm not disguising my horror well enough. "Just... life. I mean life. I can't even remember who I was in high-school."
"Me neither."
That plucks at something in my chest. "Do you... have kids? Married?"
"Oh... No, neither. I just never settled down."
I can't even feign surprise. "I found a girl. We're married now."
"I knew you would. You're a sweet guy." A little shift in her expression. I can't tell what.
"Was it... expensive?"
"Hmm? Oh. Yeah. But I feel like I've been saving up for it my whole life."
I want to leave now. There's a multitude of reactions from the crowd as they receive their loved ones. In the back of my mind, I register the weeping, and the shouting. I look over and see the waxen old man. He approaches his grandson, and the boy hugs his mother's leg and screams.
"Let's talk somewhere else." She pulls my arm, and I almost recoil at the touch. I'm led away, up a set of stone stairs, as I hear the hydraulics of the blue bus breathing, then the rumble of the engine as it starts up and pulls out of the square. It flees down the long highway, painted under orange sunrise.
 
--
 
Bluejay. Pharmaceuticals and genetic research.
She tells me about the program–what she did to decide how the surgeons would dissect her. One applies online, and has to be accepted first. You have to be suitably damaged, but not so much that some cosmetic tweaking can't fix you. The lucky ones–if lucky is the correct term–then catch the bus, and are taken to the inner city. They process you, stick you in a waiting room, until a doctor comes in to assess and ask what it is about yourself you despise. There's a hotel stay–at least she calls it a hotel. An on-site one: concrete building with one window to each room. But there was running water, she says.
Once your time comes, you're escorted by the doctor to the surgery room, and they give you knockout gas to keep you from screaming. When you wake up hours–sometimes days–later, you're different. Designed and altered. Then they take you back on the same bus, and you're free to start the next chapter of your life.
She met someone there. A guy who wanted his ears shrunk down and his musculature artificially stimulated. He didn't come with her on the bus, and she doesn't seem to care. I doubt she even knew his name.
We're sitting in a cafe now. I'm trying not to stare at her alterations. I can't decide how I should look at her face–into her visor. It's like looking at someone with sunglasses on, and not knowing where they're staring while talking to you. 
"Have you... kept in touch with anyone?"
I have to think about it. "A couple people."
"How's Lillian?"
"I... She's not one of them."
She mouths ‘ah' silently. There's a brownie on her plate. It gets lifted, bisected by pearlescent teeth.
"Have you?"
"No. Not really. Not anyone." The brownie returns to the plate, bleeding crumbs.
They used to be friends, her and Lillian. Inseparable. But that's how life works; it gifts you things needed for your growth, then cuts them away when their usefulness is all spent. Once you've outgrown them, and moved on. But she hasn't moved on. We wouldn't be sitting here if she had.
"What's your wife's name?"
"Oh... Andrea."
Silence.
"I met her at work." I try to distinguish what emotion is displayed on that face. It's hard to tell with half of it hidden behind glass.
"I... No, never mind. Shit."
"What?"
"Well, I... I never told you this before, but... I really liked you in highs-chool."
I don't say anything.
"I was always waiting for you to ask me... you know."
My mind is blank. "I didn't know that."
Her hand slides across the table and takes mine. Her skin is pale and cold. I pull away. She frowns, and sits back in her chair. "What?"
"What are you doing?"
A pause. "What do you think I'm doing?"
"I'm sorry, Sylvia." I stand, push the chair in.
"Me too." Something flickers behind the visor. A pop. Two glass halves peel open to reveal a swirling black void. Metal teeth grow from her gums, the pearlescent nubs in front folding outward in a way that looks painful. I'm yanked back into the chair and forced to stare dumbly into the evolving horror. I hear something.
Wake up, Mister Samson. 
A hook in my chest–at least it feels like it. I'm pulled upward, until my ribs try to burst free.
White light–from a lamp. 
"All done, Mister Samson. Didn't take five hours."
It's a doctor, with a bluejay embroidered into his cap. My face hurts, and my chest. They shove a mirror over me, andI see myself staring back–except it's not me. It's someone else; someone with a fixed nose, and correctly spaced eyes. Beneath the skin of my chest, I feel muscle. It flexes painfully as I try to sit up.
"Don't push yourself."
I thank them, and leave an hour later. Waiting for me in the parking lot is a bus–blue, and hulking. It's only myself and a few others riding. There aren't many people around anymore. But I've always hated how I looked. Now was as good a time as any.
As I take the ride out of the inner city beneath the sunrise, I think of her. That had been ten years ago now. Haven't seen her since.

This work was selected by the Loft on EIGHTH publishing team in partnership with Calgary's Central Library as part of a creative community project to showcase local writers and local tales.

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