Flesh Like Stars

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - ERIKA THORKELSON

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.”

“Yeah?”

“Died the week I was born.”

“I’m sorry.”

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.

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