by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
For the third time since he crawled out of the wreckage, Felix pressed the power button on his phone. He hoped against hope that something, anything, would happen, but nothing did. It was exactly the same as the last time. His phone was inert, impotent.
“Why am I even alive?” he groaned, oppressed by the silence, of the shapelessness of evening.
Frustrated, he removed the back cover and took the battery out. He placed it between his palms and shook it desperately. For added measure, he prayed to St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Internet. “Help me,” he asked softly. “Spare me one small charge please, just enough for a status update, just enough for a text.”
The young man required only enough power to send a quick word for help — one small blip to tell the world where he was and that he was okay. But St. Isidore’s help line, it seemed, was otherwise engaged. His phone remained stubbornly, obstinately dead.
Despite the wrack of pain, he knew that he had no choice but to walk if he wanted to be rescued. “Forgive me,” he asked his passel of precious saints. “But if you wanted to really help me, you should have just killed me. At least I’d be with her.”
Felix had totaled his car on a remote and desolate stretch of highway. He hadn’t gone on a road trip since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. “You’re not the type to travel by yourself,” she had once warned him. “We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.”
He shook himself from the prison of memory and inventoried his things. The watch she had given him for his birthday had stopped ticking. There was a big, ugly gash on its beveled glass. His messenger bag, the one she had lovingly picked out from the recyclables store, was badly scratched but still intact. Nothing else in his car seemed worth saving.
Felix stared at the dark road that stretched out towards the horizon. The sodium vapour lamps had been spaced apart too widely, leaving only small islands of light in the vast ocean of darkness.
Before he took his first unsteady step, he made a sign of the cross and offered a prayer to St. Jude. Felix felt his soul sallow and threadbare. He needed to arm himself against the shadows. The night was still young and he worried about what further troubles lay ahead.
“Stop using prayer as a good luck charm,” his wife had chided him. “It’s not a religion for you anymore. It’s voodoo.” His little leaps of faith unnerved everyone he knew. But he didn’t really care what anyone thought anymore. Pain and loss had a way of turning even the smallest of comforts into crutches, and somehow his constant calls for intercession made him feel less desperate, less powerless, less alone.
Felix squinted and followed the thin line of orange lights that seemed to lead towards infinity. To his relief, he spotted a bus stop about half a kilometer away. Someone will pass by for sure, he thought. That would be his ticket back to civilization. The young man felt for his bus card in his pocket. He took it out and stared at it for a few seconds, as if to assure himself that it was really there. Satisfied, he started walking towards his forlorn destination.
The night was neither cold nor excessively humid but Felix turned his collar up as a precaution. He had walked about a hundred meters when he remembered that he’d left something of heartbreaking importance, something that he couldn’t live without. He slapped his forehead in dismay and quickly ran back to his car.
Where is that glove compartment? he thought, as he searched the wreckage frantically. The front of the car was hopelessly crumpled. For a minute, he thought that what he was looking for was lost forever and he started to hyperventilate.
“St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things... please, please help me find it. St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Please, please have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and repeated the litany in his head like a nervous tic. Felix forced himself to take deep breaths until his feelings of panic were checked. “I can’t have lost it,” he repeated, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t ever lose it.”
Felix took a step back to calculate where the glove compartment lay under the car’s twisted frame. When he settled on a spot, he started to remove as much metal and plastic as he could. What began as a careful, studied process slowly escalated into a frenzy of destruction. He tore through the wreckage until he found what he was searching for: a woman’s red turtleneck, carefully preserved in a still-intact plastic package. It had been protected from the crash by a magazine and an old rubber sleeve. The young man slowly pulled out his shrink-wrapped treasure. He opened the package then gently stuck his nose in. His wife’s sweet scent still lingered on the fabric.
Felix put the keepsake inside his bag and resumed his solitary walk to the bus stop. The terminal was unlike any he had ever seen. There was no sign indicating what station it was, nor in fact, any identifying marks at all. There were no bus schedules detailing arrival and departure times, nor any of the billboards that cluttered other shelters. There was only a small laminated notice, attached to one post, reminding commuters to “Select Option 2 for a return ride.”
Felix did not have to wait too long before something appeared in the distance. Like the stop it attended, the city bus that arrived was odd and strange. It was a heavy-duty Hino coach, with a low non-step floor and a spacious box-like interior. He remembered seeing a vehicle like this before, somewhere in the lumber of his grandfather’s dusty photos. An unsettled feeling came over him and he had to stop himself from running away.
The vehicle was painted sky blue all over, except for a white stripe that wrapped around the cabin, below the large plastic windows. A sign on the windshield said “AIRCON” and above it was an LED board that read “Non-Stop.” Both flanks were decorated with three white hearts. The smaller ones said “Save Gas,” while the big heart had “Love Bus” in bold, red and yellow lettering.
As the bus pulled up in front of him, he noticed that despite the vintage design, the bus seemed newly manufactured. So new in fact, that the chassis was spotless and the rubber on the tires showed no signs of wear. The surreal cleanliness added to his growing anxiety and his body made an involuntary shiver.
He made the sign of the cross three times before coming on board. As he entered, he asked the crisply-uniformed driver where the bus was headed to. The man shook his head and did not speak. He pointed instead to the modern ticket reader behind him. Felix tried to engage in conversation, but as soon as the driver’s gaze came upon him, Felix shut his mouth. The man’s eyes blazed like hollow furnaces, burning away all questions, cauterizing all speech.
Felix absentmindedly flashed his bus card. Two options appeared on a small screen. These were simply labeled with the numerals “1” and “2.”
“You are young. Choose Option 2, my boy,” the coach’s solitary passenger told him, “I’ve selected Option 1 already. That way one of us will see where both will lead.”
“Thank you, sir,” Felix said as he moved uncertainly down the cabin. He sat opposite his fellow commuter, an old European man dressed in a black cassock, with a white Roman collar around his hearty neck.
The young man whispered another prayer of thanks. What luck that he was travelling with a priest. The presence of a man of God dispelled much of his naked fear and for the first time since his accident, he felt the faint flicker of hope.
“Thank the Lord that you are here,” the priest said. “I was slowly going mad by myself. What is your name, son?”
“My name is Felix del Mundo,” he answered softly, nervously, like a child’s prayer.
“I’m pleased to meet you Felix,” the old man said, in a deep, reassuring voice. “I am Father Vladimir of the Society of Jesus.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Father,” he replied, as he dusted the chair with his handkerchief. “There’s something creepy about the bus driver. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I don’t think he can speak. I’ve tried to converse with him for the best part of this ride. He simply took my last obolus and sent me to my seat.”
“Do you have any idea where he’s taking us? The sign on the bus says ‘Non-Stop’ but where is it non-stop to?”
“I wish I knew, son,” the priest said. “Your station is the only one I’ve seen since coming aboard. The odd thing is that this isn’t the same bus I started riding. I distinctly recall boarding a white LiAZ tourist coach.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean. But yes, something isn’t right,” Felix concurred. His dusting became more frantic. “I’ve never seen this kind of bus before. From which station did you board Father?”
“I... I don’t remember actually,” Fr. Vladimir muttered. “I was coming back to Estragon from a big Semiotics conference. At some point I think I was in a car accident. I still have my luggage with me.”
“Estragon?” the young man asked. “Where on Earth is... Oh my God! We’re dead, Father. I think we’re dead.” blurted the young man, seized suddenly by the unforgiving inevitability of mortality. “I saw this in a movie once. Think about it. We were both in car accidents, in different countries! How did we get here? That can’t be a coincidence. My God, we’re dead!”
Felix hung his head with the grim realization and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly, trying to overcome a sudden urge to scream. “Here I was, thinking how lucky I was to escape without a scratch.” Felix took out his hankie and brushed the back of the seat in front of him. He cleaned it thoroughly before banging his head against the foam cushion.
The priest let a few moments of silence pass before speaking. “Calm yourself, son. We don’t know that for sure, do we? I certainly don’t feel dead, but then again I’ve never been dead before. There could be other possibilities.”
“What other possibility is there?” Felix asked, befuddled by the unfamiliar logic of their situation. “We must be dead, and this bus is our hearse. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is... there is coincidence and then there is synchronicity,” Fr. Vladimir continued. “When two things happen together, they don’t always need to have a meaning.”
“Sorry Father, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young man said, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
“Sometimes things just happen together and there’s really no connection between them. That’s called ‘coincidence’. However, if you do find something, like an idea or a plan that connects the two, that’s actually called ‘synchronicity’.
“I believe what happened to us was pure coincidence. My accident and your accident are not connected. Yes, we’re on a strange bus heading to an unknown destination, but that doesn’t mean we’re on an omnibus to the afterlife. Think about it: if we’re dead, shouldn’t there be more people on this bus? Thousands of people die every day.”
“Are you for real, Father? I’m sorry, but you don’t talk like a regular person.”
“Well, this is far from a regular situation,” said Fr. Vladimir. “I’m not sure we are even in the regular world anymore. We could be dreaming or unconscious.”
“So are you saying that this is only in my mind?” Felix asked uneasily. He looked out the plastic windows with uncharacteristic diffidence as the bus swept by endless fallow fields wrapped in darkness. The pall of night reminded him of the vacancy, the finality of oblivion, but something in his heart told him this wasn’t death.
After a period of reflection he said, “Maybe you’re right, Father. I always thought that there would be a big tunnel of light when you died, and that the people you loved would be waiting for you somewhere. No, I don’t feel like we’re dead at all.”
“Don’t be too put out,” Fr. Vladimir said quietly. “This is all much too strange, even for me. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling moribund.”
The old man droned on about death and the persistence of memory but Felix just couldn’t focus enough to listen.
“The bus is moving too fast to jump off,” the young man remarked. “I just want to get out. Perhaps if we rush the driver together we can overpower him.”
Copyright © 2012 by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo