Five weeks ago, sitting on the short bus that brings me home from the train station every night, I watched a woman die.
When I entered the bus she came running from inside the train station and the driver waited for her. There were a few people at the front of the bus but none in the back. I sat alone in the back seat and watched as the middle-aged woman dug through her purse. Every few moments she seemed to speak. I thought she was just talking to the driver.
Finally she pulled the electronic ticket out of her pocket, the beep announced that she had been charged, and she made her way towards the back of the bus.
While walking down the gangway she kept throwing glances at the other people sitting in the bus. And I realized that she hadn’t been talking to the driver – she kept murmuring to herself. The woman slumped into a window seat two rows in front of me. I was the only one behind her. Her murmurs grew louder.
“Don’t do that!”
“Please, I can’t leave my daughter alone.”
She slapped with her arms in the air towards her left.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Leave me alone!”
Her head and arms slammed backwards against the window.
Some of the people in the front looked back, but they quickly turned around. I too tried to look away, but in the corner of my eyes I saw how her head hit the window again. And again.
“Please! Please no!”
Her head hit the window again. I saw blood on the window.
I got up and carefully walked to her seat.
“Are you okay?”
“Get away!” she said “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Her head hit the window again. The thud was so loud that the other people in the bus turned around. I took a step back to show that it was not me that was hurting her.
There was more blood on the window.
Her head thumped against the window again. A small crack appeared in the glass and her eyes were suddenly unfocused. Her arms sank down. She seemed nearly unconscious but she was still moving. Her head moved to the side, away from the window.
Another man got up and walked towards us.
“Madam, do you need help?” I asked.
Her body was bent over towards my direction, the isle. Abruptly her head was pulled towards the window. The glass exploded in all directions. The blood splashed over the seat and ran in between the layers of double glazing.
She didn’t make a single sound.
Her head stayed stuck in the glass. Her chin fell and her mouth opened wide. The rest of her body slumped like the limbs of a mannequin.
I tasted bile. There were sirens. People in uniform asked me questions. Most of the night is just a blur.
In the paper there was a small page 3 article on her death.
“Local Woman has Psychotic Attack; Commits Suicide.”
Three paragraphs that mentioned a job as a cashier. Financial trouble. An eight year old daughter. Nothing more. The article concluded that “mental disorders are more common than most people think” and that “her is just one of hundreds every year.”
I got a week off work. A week that I mostly spent online and in bed. Thinking about it, I never even left the house and lived off my reserves of frozen pizza and dry pasta with pesto. They arranged me a therapist but I never called him.
What bothered me wasn’t that she died. What bothered me was that it happened right in front of me. That I could have stopped her, somehow, from injuring herself. That something in her head wasn’t right and I had failed to react. I felt like it was all my fault.
The Monday that I had to return to work I felt most of all apathetic. I felt as if nothing mattered anymore.
There was a new bus driver. A young man with black hair. I only noticed him because he wore a suit not unlike mine. He said hello and I nodded back.
The workday was horrible. I wouldn’t have minded the work, but everyone seemed to want to talk to me. Everyone wanted to hear the details.
“Did blood get on you?”
“Why didn’t you do anything?”
Only Francois, a friend of mine that had his office at the other end of the building, came over to ask me whether I was okay. I shrugged.
“Things like that can happen,” he said. “It’s not your fault.”
While sitting in the train I felt cold sweat on my neck and back.
The way to work had been okay, a half-slumber trip like any other. The way home was different. I felt as if she would be there again. When the bus stopped, just for the fraction of a second, I thought I saw blood on the window.
It was the new driver again. He greeted me and I greeted back.
I sat in one of the first seats. Just not back there. Just not alone. Just not where I could see that seat and window.
During the drive home I felt as if the driver was staring at me. I only caught a few of his glances but somehow it felt as if his eyes were always resting on me, even when he drove.
That night I had nightmares. The new bus driver, laughing. My colleagues, laughing. The woman, with her chin hanging loosely off her head, laughing.
My alarm saved me from their laughter.
I sat on the shower floor and let the water run over my head and shoulders. I kept my eyes open. Whenever I closed them I just saw her.
I winced when I saw the bus driver. The new one, again. Again in the same black suit. He smiled and said hello. I first had to remind myself that his laughter had just been a dream. I greeted him back.
That day I met a new colleague. He was strange. Nobody even bothered to introduce us. He acted as if he knew me well. But most of all he looked just like the new bus driver.
During the day the new colleague dropped by my office. At noon he came over to ask whether I wanted to join him for lunch.
“I usually go with Francois,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m sure Francois won’t mind.”
“Are you sure?”
Lunch was nearly surreal. He sat opposite me and talked about his plans to someday travel to Peru, just the way Francois always told me about his plans to travel the world. He acted as if we had been friends for years.
At least after lunch he left me alone. I sent an email to Francois to apologize for not meeting him for lunch. He never replied.
I walked out of the train station and towards the bus stop. I recognized the driver straight away. He stood, again in his suit, at the bus station.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said.
The bus came around the corner.
“Your shift finally ended?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
He took a step away from me.
“I’m a regular,” I said, pointing to the bus.
The bus stopped. I waved my hand for the driver to enter first. He walked in, swiped his card and without a word went past the driver’s seat.
I swallowed my breath.
The new driver was sitting in the driver’s seat. He smiled and said Hello. I stood and stared, then finally overcame my confusion and went on the bus.
Just a mistake. I was certain it was just a mistake.
I looked at his face. The black hair. The smooth jaw line, perfectly shaved. The calm brown eyes. He looked fairly average, easily confusable.
Then I made my way further into the bus. There was no confusing.
He sat in the third row, leaning against the window.
He also sat in the fifth row, staring blankly ahead.
The same black hair, smooth jaw line, calm brown eyes. Three times in just one bus.
I don’t think there is a word for the moment that you realize that you have gone insane. It feels like a punch in the gut, followed by a man opening your skull and twisting your brain with a pair of tongs.
I stood in the corridor for a solid minute.
“Please sit down,” said his voice behind me.
The few people in the bus as well as the two passengers with his face all seemed to stare at me. I quickly sat in a seat in the second row.
I called Francois’ phone.
“You alright?” asked the bus driver’s voice.
“You were acting weird today.”
“I have to hang up.”
I sat, staring out of the window. Every thirty minutes the bus passed my house. Each time I tried to see the driver but from the distance I could never identify him.
I sat at the window for most of the night. At some point, when I saw a man with black hair and a suit walking his dog I got a knife and kept it next to me.
There were five of them on the bus. Then another two on the train. At work one of them sat at the receptionist desk.
At 9:30 one of them came into my office.
“Hey, what was that call about?”
“You called me. Yesterday. Remember?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
The man stepped closer.
“No, you did. You called me and then you hung up straight away.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You don’t remember?”
“You are Francois?”
The man turned my chair around.
“Are you stupid? What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You just look different.”
Every day there were more of them.
Every day more people look like him. Male. Female. It doesn’t matter. Even the fast food workers look like him. And they all wear the same suits.
I tried to talk to the therapist. I called him. But I recognized his voice.
Now they all look the same. Everyone looks the same. Black hair. Smooth jaw line. Calm brown eyes.
I can’t talk to the therapist. Even my mother’s voice is now that of a man. I don’t know whether I can deal with this on my own.
Sometimes, when I squeeze past them to find my seat on the bus or train, they try to grab my jacket or pants.
When I pass one of them I quietly tell him to stay away. Just in case. I don’t know what will happen if I don’t do that.
But their eyes follow me. Sometimes even their heads. They follow me when I walk on the bus and sit at the back. Their faces are turned to me even when their bodies keep facing forward. Sometimes they smile but usually they just look angry.
Not all of them were other people. Sometimes I see one of them on rooftops or in other places where no people should be.
I can feel their anger growing.
Last night, while waiting for the bus to go home, one of them stepped next to me. He didn’t say a word, but when the bus approached I felt that he was stepping behind me.
I stepped aside in the last second. His hands pushed me just when the bus arrived. His hands just touched my side.
When I sat down one of them walked towards me. It looked as if he wanted to grab me. His hands went towards my head.
I only escaped because I ran out. I pushed past him onto the gangway and begged the driver to stop. He did.
Today I didn’t leave the house. But I can see them outside, passing by every few minutes. They drive cars. They ride bicycles. They walk dogs.
And now there is one that stands on top of the bus stop right outside my house. He just stands there, calmly, with his eyes towards my bedroom window.