Flesh Like Stars
The blue-haired girl got on the bus at Cambie and Hastings, a few stops after the beginning of Gordon’s last run of the night. Otherwise, the bus was empty. It was 9:06 p.m. and he was running three minutes early, so he slowed down. On the journey west, Gordon had watched behind the wheel as the sky went through the mango and strawberry colours of sunset, everything running smoothly. Now he was travelling east and the city ahead was uniform grey.
The number twenty-seven was nothing like Gordon’s normal run. It meandered into the far Eastside, where crumbling concrete replaced downtown’s glass spires. During rush hour, as grim-faced passengers bustled through his doors, the feeling reminded him of his last few commercial flights as a pilot when everyone was so on edge, so wary of each other, the tension crackled all the way up to the cabin.
He had hoped that this last run would be empty, but then the blue-haired girl got on and took a seat midway up the bus with her too-large hoodie draping hunched shoulders. Before she arrived, he’d been mentally navigating a console game that had been holding his attention for the last month. Now all he could think of was the way Marissa would change her hair colour in response to her mood. He took a sip of Irish coffee from his portable mug, closed the door, and pulled out into traffic, struggling to trap his mind in the present.
The transition from airline pilot to bus driver had been easier on Gordon than most. When the planes were grounded for good, cutting off air transportation to all but the wealthiest in the western hemisphere, most of his colleagues had nothing to fall back on. Gordon knew a few flight attendants who, bored with the desk jobs they’d nabbed after it all fell apart, started a high-end prostitution ring. Some of his younger colleagues signed up for private security organizations and spent their days ferrying around dignitaries or dropping the occasional guided missile onto secret enemy forces. Many just disappeared.
Gordon was happy with the position his cousin had secured him behind the wheel of a bus. After all those years in the air, he was lucky he had anyone left on the ground who was willing to do anything for him at all. Besides, crawling around
the city of his birth at fifty kilometres an hour appealed to his well-formed inner scheduler.
Now, he entertained himself on slow afternoons by making middle-aged women swoon with his intercom voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he would say in a tenor as smooth as melted chocolate. “We are now approaching a cruising speed of forty kilometres an hour. The temperature today is a balmy twenty-eight degrees Celsius with winds blowing warm out of the southwest.”
Then he’d wink at whoever was seated across the aisle and feel the adoration wash over him. Maybe he encountered the odd mess. Maybe he was threatened with the occasional knife in lieu of the eighteen-dollar transit fee. So what? Most of his passengers were harmless.
The number twenty-seven, however, didn’t feel harmless at all. Maybe a little company would help clear the air, bring him back into the present. The blue-haired girl seemed nice enough, and it wasn’t like he had any other choices.
“Hey there,” he said, loud enough to reach the middle of the bus. “Hey, miss!” He twitched his gaze from the girl’s reflection in the rear-view to the road before him. “Do you have an address you’re going to?” he asked.
The girl touched her ear and shook her head. He waved his hand forward. “Why don’t you come sit up here, miss?”
She shrugged and gathered her book bag to take the seat across from him. Up close he could see she was wearing no makeup, just the ghost of mascara on the delicate skin around her eyes. The network of veins beneath almost matched her hair. Gordon’s daughters kept their hair in long, white ropes reaching their toes, thickened and extended by expensive transplants, and augmented by grey plastic threads and small pieces of machinery. Compared to them, the blue-haired girl seemed pedestrian, gentle, and he feared for her safety out here.
The girl shifted in her seat. “Is there a problem, sir?”
He smiled at her quaint politeness. “No problem. I just thought it might be safer for you up here with me. This is a bad neighbourhood.”
“I’m aware,” she said, her voice soft and dry like autumn leaves that crumple to dust in your hand.
The boom of his voice felt crass in comparison, his cheerfulness like aggression.
“How far are you going?” he said, trying to modulate toward a less intense tone. “If you like, I can drop you anywhere along the route. Heck, if it were up to me, I’d drop you right at your door but my hands are tied in that department. Schedules! I’ve been going around in circles so long I feel like a clock.” Gordon chuckled, realizing he was babbling.
The girl looked at him sideways, her lips pressed together. “It’s still a ways yet. I’ll know it when I see it.”
“What brings a nice girl like you all the way out here?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” she said.
He sounded like he was hitting on her. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment and he shook his head to clear the thought.
“Roger, little lady. I hear you. You know, I used to live out here when I was about your age. It was the cheapest rent in the city. I guess that’s still true, hey? Used to ride my bike down this street late at night when there was no traffic—seemed like me and my girlfriend were the only people in the world sometimes.”
Where was this coming from? He hadn’t spoken of Marissa in years—decades, maybe—though she floated around him everywhere he went. He wanted to tell this blue-haired girl about how, wordlessly, he and Marissa would fall into a race, about the way Marissa’s used road bike would dash out in front of him on the darkened street, dodging rare traffic across the lanes without care, her erratic movements filling him with fear and exhilaration, their bikes’ garnet and platinum flashing lights the only evidence of their passage.
They were on their way home from a show one night and he, feeling drunkenly poetic, shouted at her that they looked like fireflies. “Shut the fuck up,” she yelled back, and peddled so fast he had to work hard to catch up. They fucked in a park that night, their bikes resting against a tree, lights still as candles in a church.
He flicked his eyes from the road to the blue-haired girl. Her cheek rested on her hand, her eyes trained beyond her reflection in the window. What were they talking about? Oh yes, the neighbourhood.
“Left when we graduated. I took a job as a pilot and my girlfriend went down south.”
The girl looked straight at him for the first time, the streetlights reflected in her dark irises. “My dad did that, went down south.”
“Died the week I was born.”
The girl shrugged and turned away again. Nearly missing the next stop, Gordon pulled in a bus length past the sign. A group of four boys wearing toxic green dress jackets and tight white trousers ambled toward the door, dragging their feet to show displeasure. “Time to get your eyes checked, old man,” one growled.
Gordon nodded, forcing away a smile. He’d known a few men like him— aggressive to compensate for lack of size. Still, there was something jacked-up in their expressions that put him on guard more than usual. Their pupils were dilated and their hands twitched with the desire to become fists.
“Move to the back, son,” Gordon said, his voice calm. He could take the leader, maybe one other, but not all. If these boys wanted to fight, he wasn’t going to give them an excuse.
“No shit,” the boy said, leaning close to the blue-haired girl and covering his face with his hand. “Stinks like dirty pussy up here.” He cackled, a neon hyena, and led his crew to the back where they carried on a loud conversation about several women they’d met at the bar the night before. They congratulated one boy for tricking a smaller man into giving him a blow job in the men’s room.
The girl sat up straight now, her hands in fists beside her. She looked ready to jump through a window, if needed.
“Never mind them,” Gordon said, his voice low. “Boys never change.”
The girl looked at him again with those black eyes, her lips a line dividing her face.
As they travelled further east, fewer and fewer streetlights remained to track their progress. It was difficult to see with the brightness of the bus behind him, so Gordon navigated as he would in the night sky, by headlights and instinct. He wished he could think of something to say, a way to cut through the filth coming from the boys in the back.
Around Clark Street, surrounded by warehouses that had once stocked fish but were now used as ad hoc shelters, he noticed a point of light floating forward at the height of a man. At first, he thought it was a firefly, although of course they didn’t exist this far north. The light lurched, teetered and came to a stop before he realized it was coming from a man. It was a nose—the left nostril—and it was waiting for
him. The headlight hit the stop marker and the reflection illuminated the rest of the body. The man reached out his hand and waved. Gordon pulled over, gathered himself and opened the door.
“I been robbed and I need to get home,” the man said, his hands open to show he had no money. The boys at the back broke into laughter.
Gordon shook his head. There had been a time when that was allowed, but things had tightened these days. They were searching people before getting onto the subways now. He’d been told not even to apologize—just shut the door and move on. The man let out a series of expletives as the bus pulled away.
The blue-haired girl looked at him with narrowed eyes. “You could have let him on, you know.”
“Regulations,” he said, pretending a nonchalant shrug.
“I hate this city,” she whispered.
“I hate this city”—Marissa had said those exact words so often it had caused the fight that ended their relationship. While they were living together, Gordon had watched Marissa’s desire for change turn to disappointment, then rage. One day, she was ranting about some bit of news, some political affront, and he’d snapped. “If you hate the city so much, you should leave,” he’d said. A week later, she left to join the citizens’ resistance. She didn’t even leave a note.
While Gordon flew commercial flights across the Pacific, she became a hero on the ground. At least, that’s what the newspaper article said when they brought her body home. They said she was blown up emptying out a hospital after a bomb threat. After all these decades, even after he married and his wife gave birth to twins, she still haunted him. More so since he’d been grounded.
He should have left the blue-haired girl to her thoughts, but remembering Marissa made him needy. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
The girl drew her eyes over him, deciding. “My brother,” she said. “He’s been down here for weeks.”
“Why here? It’s just a bunch of dark warehouses.”
Her forehead tightened. “Don’t you ever look out the window?”
“It’s my first time on the twenty-seven.”
“That man you passed, you saw his face? He did that to himself.” She paused and cleared her throat. She wasn’t used to talking this much. “It’s a drug, something
extracted from a species of jellyfish. Starts with the place you take it—mouth, nose, whatever—then spreads until your whole body glows. Somebody started putting it in street drugs a while back and people love it. It’ll still kill you, but if you look at it right, it can be beautiful. There’s not much else that’s beautiful anymore.”
Gordon opened his mouth to disagree with the girl, but stopped as points of light appeared around them. There were no shop windows lit, no streetlights, only pieces of flesh like stars. He turned the bus lights down and they watched in silence. Why hadn’t the news caught on to this? Maybe they didn’t want people to know how unearthly it was becoming down here—maybe no one cared.
“Why would they do this?” he whispered.
The girl’s dark eyes glinted with reflected light. “Nobody knows,” she said. A sharp whistle from the far end of the bus pierced the silence. Gordon looked back and saw illumination coming from the boys.
“Hey grandpa,” yelled one from the group. “You getting romantic up there?” His pulse sped up—not something he was used to—and he turned the light back on.
“Here,” the girl cried. “Stop!”
She gathered her bag and made for the front door, but Gordon didn’t open it right away. “We’re close to the end of the line,” he said, his heart pounding. “I have to sit there for eighteen minutes but I’ll be back at 10:43. I expect to see you here.” He opened the door and the girl with the blue hair jumped to the curb.
“I’ll try,” she said and broke into a run.
“Wait! We want off here too,” said the loudmouth from before. He was followed by a chorus of agreement.
“This isn’t a stop,” Gordon said, closing the door and pulling away from the curb. He could feel what was coming as the girl disappeared. There was no way she could defend herself against four men, let alone ones that were on whatever they were taking. She wasn’t Marissa after all.
He saw in his mirror the leader of the group moving down the aisle, shoulders hunched, hands clenching each seatback as he moved.
“Let me—the fuck—off,” the young man growled.
He heard the click of the safety catch on a weapon and knew he’d lost. He pulled to the side of the road and let the boys out, hoping he’d given the girl enough of a head start. Their glow receded, joining the roaming constellations, but he couldn’t
tell if they were going in her direction. Compared to the people of this street, the girl was a black hole—that may have been all she had on her side.
He continued on his route and parked at the old bus loop at the end. There were no points of light here, no disembodied lips or tongues. Maybe the two remaining street lamps scared them off. He set his watch for eighteen minutes and pulled out the console game he’d been working on, but he couldn’t concentrate on the quest. He thought about his last flight, how his co-pilot had talked with excitement about the position he’d taken with a movie star.
“Just pick up and fly anywhere on a moment’s notice,” the co-pilot had marvelled. “Think of the freedom.”
“Sounds amazing,” Gordon had said, lying.
He finished off the rest of his coffee and stared at the clock. Usually he’d take a nap about now, his body so tuned to schedules that he would wake up seconds before the alarm. But time was stretching. He pulled out his bottle of whiskey, closed his eyes and took a straight pull. Then he opened them and looked at the clock. Only seconds had passed. If he left now, he would be running more than ten minutes early.
He got up and walked down the bus, collecting garbage as he went. On the girl’s seat, he found a necklace—a chain with a piece of copper wire bent into the shape of a bird. It was a cheap piece of costume jewellery that could have belonged to anyone, but something inside him screamed that it was a sign.
He made it back to his chair in three big steps, started the ignition, and pulled back onto the road toward the blue-haired girl. He would make up the difference at the girl’s stop. He pulled in at 10:38 and waited with the door open, the night air carrying a faint hint of campfire and roasting meat. The lights appeared as they did before, along with whispers from outside, deals happening in hushed illegal tones, moans of ecstasy and distress. Time was moving much faster now. His clock hit 10:43 and she was nowhere. Outside, the lit-up human parts floated like deepwater fish, avoiding the glare of the bus lights. He decided to wait two minutes more. He could get back on schedule by speeding between Clark and Main. It hit 10:45 and he was about to give up when he heard a faraway cry. A chilling sound. He imagined the boys he let off earlier catching up to the blue-haired girl, their weapon against her body, and realized that all this may have already happened while he was at the bus loop, waiting.
Before he understood what he was doing, he had left the bus behind him. Moonbright faces floated past. His heart had become a pulsar shooting magnetic energy into his arms and legs. And he wondered whether this was how Marissa had felt in her last moments, or if by the end, acts of valour had become so second nature, they didn’t even matter.