Betwixt by Caroline Fleischauer

Betwixt

by Caroline Fleischauer

 

Luce pulled a cigarette out of her pocketbook and looked around for a light. No one was on the street, not even the guy who went around collecting cans at all hours of Sunday morning. Sighing, she took the fag out of her mouth and stuck it behind her ear.

       

She had called for a ride forever ago. Minutes, hours, who knew. Her mind was reeling. At least she knew where she was. The bar had closed down a while ago, and her ride still hadn’t shown up. Come to think of it, she hadn’t even seen a car pass down this road, not one. Not even a set of headlights from far away. Putting her red-lacquered fingertips to her temples, she tried to put her thoughts in order.  

       

Had she even called? She checked her phone again. No Service. But she had called inside the club, right? She moved her thumb over the contacts icon. The list came up blank, a white screen glowing back at her, eerie in the pitch blackness of what she assumed was early morning. Bloody phone. It was new, too, her company phone having been reclaimed that morning – an added indignity piled on top of her termination. A slew of curses found their way around her tongue, thick and sandpapery, before rolling out en mass into the stillness of the early morning air.

       

Luce leaned back against the brick wall behind her, taking the weight off of the one sky-high stiletto heel that still remained on her foot. The other dangled by a thin leather strap from a single finger, the skin on her left heel rubbed raw and bloody. With a thump that echoed down the dark alley, she slid the rest of the way down the wall, landing on the concrete.

       

She hadn’t even wanted to go out tonight. It had been a long day at work – her last, apparently – and she had been ready to turn in at half past nine. But Talia had dragged her out, convincing her like she always did that all she needed to make herself feel better was some lip gloss, a Cosmo, and some raunchy club-bathroom romp with a stranger. And, like always, her system was foolproof. For Talia. For Luce, it meant that she was out 43 quid and had blisters the size of quarters riddling her heels.

       

The pounding behind her eyes was growing stronger. Groaning, Luce removed a hand, digging around in her bag for something, anything that would relieve the pain. She came up with a nearly empty box of spearmint Tic-Tacs. Tilting her head back, she poured them into her mouth all at once, hoping that they would quell the battering of her brain against her skull. They didn’t, but they were tangy. When was dinner? Luce wondered, as her stomach growled in response to her crunching a Tic-Tac into sugar dust.

 

Alright, thought Luce, options: stay here and rot or start bloody hiking home.

       

Neither was appealing. But at least Option B ended beneath her down duvet, forthcoming hangover placated by a liberal dosage of aspirins. And there had to be a station or bus stop nearby. Decided, she mentally steeled herself for the impact of the concrete with her throbbing feet.

       

She hadn’t surmised how hard it would be to pull herself up. Using the wall for support, and sacrificing the faultless glassy sheen of her nails to the scabrous brick, she managed to pull herself into a position that was half-standing, half-leaning. Her breath came faster, as if she had just scaled the wall instead of used it to raise herself a mere meter and half above the ground. As her body ricocheted with a deep expectorating cough, she again fingered the unlit fag now tangled in the hair behind her ear.

       

With one hand still on the wall, her left heel dangling from the other, Luce limped towards the corner. She sucked a lungful of the cold night air, coughing as it battered her insides like a hailstorm. Shivering, she berated herself for the short leather skirt she had chosen to wear. “I’m not fifteen anymore,” she had argued, “I don’t need to parade my twat around to get into a club.” But Talia had disagreed, and shoved her into this binding swath of animal skin.

       

Every step, Luce examined the ground for holes, trash, animal shit, before putting her foot down on the sidewalk. Between her vigilance, and needing to be supported by the wall, she chose not to look up, to see how far away the corner still remained. Though she piqued her ears, she had yet to hear the army of taxi cabs and buses whisking away the London night-dwellers. One step at a time, she thought, gingerly stepping over a crushed Strongbow can.

       

It could have been minutes, hours, she wouldn’t have known. What she did know was that the walking was getting easier. She no longer had to support herself on the wall, and her feet were finding the sidewalk with more confidence. Her destination, before a mere intersection in the distance, had to be getting close. She lifted her head, Orpheus-like, but to her dismay the corner still seemed as far away as ever.

       

Luce looked around. Perhaps up ahead was a new intersection, that she had already passed the one she had been aiming for. She didn’t remember crossing the road, but much of her night was fuzzy, after all. As she swiveled her head around like a compass needle, determining her next course of action, the taillights of a bus disappeared around a corner. She must have been so busy looking at the ground that she had missed it. How she had missed the familiar roaring of the engine, though, was a mystery.

       

Shuffling over, Luce examined the map on the outside of the plastic cubicle. Though covered in the various colored lines depicting London bus routes, Luce realized that she couldn’t recognize a single stop on the map. Where the hell am I?, she wondered, searching through the myriad of lines for somewhere familiar. A rustle, followed by a soft sneeze alerted her that she was not alone in the cubicle.

       

It was if someone had flipped a switch in her brain and it was now running in hyper-activity mode. Or maybe the adrenaline had burned off the last of the alcohol-induced grogginess as it coursed through her body. She was a woman. She was a woman alone. She was a woman, alone, at the wee hours of the morning, who didn’t know where she was or how to get back home. Hell, she didn’t even know if a bus would be there within the hour.

       

But she hadn’t seen another person since she had left the club. But she was well and truly lost, with almost no money and zero sense of direction. But the stranger in the cubicle could be a friendly soul, willing and able to help her out of this never-ending-nightmare spot that she’d gotten herself in. Plus, it wasn’t like she had anything worth anyone’s time, mugging-wise. She took two steps forward, into the shadow of the plastic overhang.

       

If Luce hadn’t have heard him sneeze, she would have thought that the small, elderly man on the bench was a statue.

 

“Oy, you there. Know when the next bus comes by?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“Depends on where you want to go. Some go back. And some go on.”

“I just want to get back to East Barnet.”

 

Dark eyes canvassed her body, moving upwards from her battered feet and settling on a point somewhere behind her head.

 

“Then you’ve got a long wait.”

 

Sighing, Luce sagged down onto the cold plastic bench and leaned her head against the back of the overhang. The old man returned to staring at his lap. Squinting, she noticed a thin sheet of newsprint, peering out from between the sleeves of his overlarge, dark blue polyester jacket.

 

“Mac” was stitched across the front in yellow thread.

 

“Bit early for news, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s never too early to know what’s going on in the world,” he paused. “Or too late.”

       

Cryptic, thought Luce. It’s too early for cryptic. She closed her eyes, willing the fire spreading behind her eyes to cease.

       

“Do you know where you are?”

Luce kept her eyes closed, sorry she had ever initiated conversation.

       

“Do you?”

       

“No,” she groaned, the fire now coursing through to the back of her skull. “That’s what it means to be lost.”

       

“Among other things,” he mused. “But if you’re lost, you can find your way back again. Become found.”

       

“That’s the plan.”

       

“Unless,” he mused, “you don’t want to be found. And then you may remain lost until you find yourself somewhere else entirely.”

       

“You lost me,” Luce opened her eyes. It was taking too much effort to shut out this strange little man. And river of fire was igniting more and more of her brain every second.

       

“So,” she asked, “are you lost?”

       

“No,” the stranger smiled, a sad, lonely smile that held no joy or depth of emotion. “I know where I am.”

       

“Then where is ‘here’?”

       

“Only you can tell us that.”

       

Luce released her breath, exasperating. “Let me get this straight. You’re not lost, but you don’t know where we are? Isn’t that the same thing?”

       

“Yes. And no.” The smile had stretched a fingertip further towards the outside of the man’s face.

       

“Listen. It’s been a long night. I’m just trying to catch a bus home. If you know anything about where we are, could you please tell me?”

       

“I don’t,” the smile stretched more so that it was now taking up the entire lower half of his face. “But you do.”

       

“I already told you,” Luce exploded, the fire in her head leaking into her voice. “I don’t know where I am. If I did, I wouldn’t be lost.”

       

“Take a look around, Luce,” the man said, his voice a whisper, the twinkle that had appeared in his eyes now a dull sheen. “You know.”

       

Drugs. He must be on drugs, Luce thought to herself, shifting further towards the far end of the bench.

       

“Think,” the voice urged, penetrating the blackness behind her eyelids. “You’ve been here before.”

       

She shook her head, trying at once to cancel out the voice and expel the burning pain that was now coursing between her temples like an electric pulse.  

       

“Think, Luce.” Urgency now colored the man’s tone. “You’re running out of time.”

       

The pain struck an agonizing blow behind her eyes, transforming the air forced from her lungs into a keening wail.  Frantic, she searched for something, anything. It was all wrong, so wrong. The pain threatened to envelop her, she pushed it back, it came back tenfold. There was no escape.

       

Cool hands found her temples, holding her head steady.

       

“Where are we?”

       

She blubbered uncontrollably. The pain was too much, too much.

       

“Where are we?” The coldness in his voice washed over her, extinguishing the fire, if only minutely. Enough to think, to breathe. To answer.

       

Luce’s eyes moved from one side of the plastic enclosure to the other, up towards the ceiling, and down towards her feet.

       

“London,” she settled on. “I know I’m in London.”

       

A hint of frustration crept into the man – Mac’s – voice. “Not good enough. More.”

       

She turned, cupping her eyes against the clear plastic, clean, despite its purpose. She searched for something, anything – a marquee, a storefront, a street sign. A street sign! There, at the far end of the road, reflecting the effervescence of a solitary street life. Moriarty Court.

       

Pain once again exploded inside of her head. But it wasn’t the fire this time, but a different kind of pain. A vision of twisted metal, burning rubber. And, overtaking all else, the overwhelming scent of scorched flesh ripped through her nostrils and left her gasping.

       

“The cabbie…”

       

“Already moved on,” Mac shook his head. “He didn’t have much to stick around for. Hopped the first bus that came by.”

       

Understanding glistened amid the black turmoil roiling around her head. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

       

“For lack of a better term.”

“Am I, then? Dead, or not dead, or however you say it?

       

“Those are two different questions,” Mac said, raising an eyebrow and putting aside his newspaper. “Dead and not dead are different states entirely. But, to answer you,” Mac rephrased, noting the lines of frustration marring Luce’s forehead, “you, my dear, are neither.”

       

“Then,” paused Luce, “if I’m neither, then what am I doing here? Shouldn’t I be in a hospital or something?”

       

“You are,” Mac sighed. “As we speak, a nice doctor is preparing to shock your heart again. You lost a lot of blood – head wound.”

       

Luce’s fingers brushed the back of her head.  Where hair and skin should have covered bone, there was a ridged chasm. On their own accord, her fingers stretched deeper, until connecting with a distinctive rubbery mass. Upon the contact, a lightning bolt of pain sluiced through her skull. She yanked her hand back around, eyes wide.

       

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“You.”

       

Luce though for a moment. “Can I even go back?”

 

“This is a bus station. You can go anywhere you choose. Within reason, of course.”

       

“I have a choice?”

       

“Yes,” said Mac. “As I said before, you can go back. Or you can go on. The choice is up to you.”

       

Luce thought about her day. Her horrible, mortifying, irreparable day.

       

“What’s on?”

       

Mac looked at her, considering.

       

“It depends,” he sighed after a time, reluctant to disclose the information to her, “on what you want to see.”

       

Through the screen of pain in her mind, a pinprick of a memory grew into an image of a beach. White-capped waves beat against the dark sand, black in the shadow of angry gray clouds. Wind-whipped sediments dusted the air, bringing birds to the ground rather than try their luck above the tumultuous water. Ahead of her, a man, shoes in hand, held out his arms, palms open, as if welcoming an old friend. He turned to her and laughed with a glee that was swallowed by the wind. His face was in shadow.

       

“Do we all end up there? On, I mean?”

       

“Those that are brave enough to take the leap. Or apathetic enough that they’ve lost all sense of hope.”

       

Hope. Something to live for. A future. What was left?, Luce thought. She had lived for the job, and now it was gone. One mistake, a moment of weakness, and that had been it. No rewind, no redo button. She would be dis-barred, blacklisted, years of schooling and countless caffeine-fueled nights all swirling down the drain like the goldfish she had killed when she was eight. She had nothing. No one.

       

“The choice is yours.” Mac stood, nodding in the direction of a pair of yellow lights, growing larger as they sluiced through the darkness. He folded up his newspaper into quarters, running his fingers over each well-worn crease, and waited.

 

A bus pulled up alongside the curb. Red, with two stories, it was unrecognizable from any other bus in London. Except that there were no others. The doors swung open in expectation of passengers. Where there should have been a driver, there was an empty space between the steering wheel and the back of the elevated seat.

       

Craning her neck around the front of the bus, she made out the marquee, glowing a dull neon yellow in the darkness. All it said was her name: Luce. “Depends on where you want to go,” Mac’s words echoed in her ears, reverberating between them and making her brain buzz.

       

She dug through her handbag, around the now-empty box of Tic-Tacs and her flat wallet, her dead phone and a nearly expired tube of lipstick. But she couldn’t find any change. She looked at the fare box, wondering what the protocol was for a bus that drove itself.

       

As she pulled her hand out of the bag, it brushed against a paper stub: a bus ticket. Her soft footsteps padded up the stairs, and her ticket disappeared into the black hole of the slot. The folding doors clicked into place as she made herself comfortable on one of the plastic faux-leather padded seats.

 

Looking out of the window, she found Mac’s weathered face through the glass, misty from her warm breath. The corners of his eyes crinkled as his smile finally reached his eyes, twinkling in the beams of the headlights. As the bus pulled away from the curb, Luce could just make out a gnarled hand, raised in an open-handed salute, before disappearing into the darkness.

           

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***Caroline Fleischauer, originally from Ithaca, New York, is a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University with a B.A. in English Literature. She will be spending the next year teaching English at a school in Greece, and then hopes to return to the U.S. to pursue an MFA in Fiction.***

 

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