This was a story I wrote that won a Silver Key in the Young Authors of Arizona 2016 competition.
Ty always hated taking this route home. The noises from the traffic, the smells of the sewage and smoke, and the darkness of the night really seemed to be more prominent than usual for even someplace as dirty and scary as Manhattan.
She came to the central crossroad. Ty knew if she turned left, she would get home about five minutes faster. But Ty had never turned left on this road, and the thought of deviating from her routine nearly made her sick. So right it was.
Work had been long and boring. Average. She grabbed her dinner from Guidos, the turkey sandwich on white. No lettuce, one tomato. Bland. She continued on home to begin her daily marathon of “Colombo”.
Her usual bus had broken down today. It was out of the blue, and for a reason that the maintenance people “couldn’t explain”. She wanted to walk home, because after all, she could follow the usual route of the bus.
Why do anything different if your routine has kept you safe so far? she thought.
But the streets down those sixteen blocks were closed. There had apparently been a horrendous car accident, resulting in a huge car pile-up, that went on for well, sixteen blocks
So, in other words, Ty had no other choice but to walk through the ghetto to get home. This was more variety than what she had had perhaps, ever, in her daily life, so you can imagine what a nervous frenzy she was in trying to ignore the dirt and smoke and traffic and lights and noise and weird people who may or may not have the desire to murder her as she beelined home.
Just as she was getting a little bit too uncomfortable, a bus stopped right in front of her.
“Oh thank you,” she said, running up the steps and paying in the coin slot.
She looked around, noticing that no one else was on the bus but her, and the driver, of course. Not caring, only relieved, she slumped down in one of the seats.
The bus started moving. Ty began to fidget, as if she couldn’t find a way to get comfortable in her chair. She looked out the window, and saw that Manhattan was getting smaller and smaller, and her surroundings merely began to fill up with air. The white lights on the bus continually flickered, until they were off completely. The bus motor slowly whirred to a stop.
“Don’t panic,” the bus driver said. “The backup generator should kick in any minute now.”
Ty’s whole body froze. She could feel the air forcing itself out of her, each breath surpassing the next. Her eyes began to water. It was as if ice was flowing through her entire body, and she could see the walls closing in on her.
Ty felt a cool towel on her face as her eyes blinked open. She was still surrounded by darkness.
“Now,” a voice said. “Everything’s going to be ok. Just take some deep breaths.”
In the midst of her daze and lack of sight, Ty could tell that the voice belonged to a woman. She began to massage the back of her neck with her forefinger and thumb.
“What’s two plus two?” said the voice.
Ty closed her eyes and muttered “Four.”
“Good, angel. Now, how many days are in a year?”
“Three…three hundred and sixty-five.”
“Good job!” said the voice. “Thank goodness. I was afraid you’d hit your head. How are you feeling?”
“Who are you?” was Ty’s response. “What just happened? What’s going on?”
“Alright,” the voice said. “Now, before I answer any of those questions, I need you to promise me that you’re not going to panic again.”
“I can’t guarantee that. I’m pretty high-strung. I freak out easily.”
“Now, don’t you go getting sassy on me. Promise.”
Ty sighed. She knew she had no other choice. “Fine. I promise.”
Ty could see through the dark just enough to notice the woman move her position so she could sit against a seat across from her.
“Well,” she said. “I was driving this bus, you were sitting in the back, and all of a sudden the bus just decided to stop working. I don’t really know any other way to explain it. It was like it just…gave up.” She paused for a moment. “Well, anyway, I thought the backup generator was going to kick in at some point, but it never did, and then I heard you panicking so I came over and helped. And here we are.”
Ty lay completely still, amazed at this woman. Here she was, telling this story like it was some sort of everyday occurrence.
“You still didn’t answer my question,” Ty said. “Who are you?”
Ty could feel the woman smiling. “You can call me…Clara.”
Ty felt like she should be panicking. She should be screaming, crying, seeing the walls close in on her again. But, strangely, this was the calmest she had felt since…she couldn’t remember when.
“You’re not very scared, are you?” Ty said.
“Well, we’re all alone. We don’t know where we are or how to get back. We don’t know how long we’ll be here. Doesn’t that frighten you in the least?”
Ty heard a light chuckle. “Oh, angel. If I were scared of those things, why…I would be scared of life.”
Ty was taken aback. Her mind twisted and turned in ways that it never had before. Was that her problem? Was Ty afraid to even breathe?
“Now,” Clara said. “Do you want to tell me what just happened with you a few moments ago?”
Ty sighed. “It’s nothing.”
“That didn’t look like nothing to me.”
Ty paused for a moment. She had never told anyone about her panic attacks. No one was supposed to know.
But her secret had already been shown. There really wasn’t any more she could do to conceal it.
“I just,” she said. “Get these…anxiety episodes sometimes. It’s no big deal.”
“No big deal! You could have fallen on your head!”
“Hey!” Ty snapped. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay! We just met. Why are you asking me all of this personal stuff? Anyways, I’m fine.”
“Oh, angel,” Clara said. “I think we both know that isn’t true.”
Ty held her knees close to her body. She could feel the tears rushing down her face, hot and thick. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She wasn’t supposed to be here right now. If it had been like any other night, she would be at home, eating her turkey sandwich, and watching “Colombo.”
But this wasn’t like every other night. This was new, this was different, this was out of the ordinary, and nothing scared Ty more. The tears just kept rushing out, never ceasing, always flowing….
And then she remembered.
“It was September 10th,” Ty said. “The day before my eleventh birthday. We had bought a cake and everything. Mom bought me an extra present, because it was my golden birthday, so it was extra special, she said.”
“My mom and I were by ourselves. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had enough. I don’t know. Life was just happy. Simple. We had each other and that was all we needed.”
“My mom had to go to a work meeting the next morning. She never went to meetings. It was supposed to be just a one time thing, and she said that she wouldn’t ever have to go to one again. She said she would make it quick so we could have time to celebrate. She promised,” Ty heaved. “She promised she would come home.”
“I walked outside for a little bit of air. I looked to the left of me and I could see the towers. They were her favorite buildings. Lined up right next to each other so perfectly. She said if she had to sit through a boring work meeting, she would be happy to do it in either one of them, especially at the very top floor, where the rest of the city could look so small.”
“She was one of the first to die. She didn’t even get a chance to try and escape. The plane just rammed itself into her tower. The last experience she ever had was burning in a fiery pit of hell.”
Ty cried, “Bad things happen when you deviate from the schedule! If she had just…gone to work like usual I wouldn’t be sitting here, telling you about how I had to watch the only person that ever loved me die!”
Ty felt the silence in the air, palpable and waiting to dissolve. When she had quieted down a little, she said: “She wanted to read me a book that night. It was her favorite when she was a little girl, and the worst part is, I can’t remember what it was called. The only piece I have left of my dead mother and I can’t remember it.”
Ty could see Clara’s shadow stand up and open the bus door. “Come and look outside.”
Ty stood up shakily and looked out the door. An expression of shock made its way across her face as she realized that there was nothing but a dirt road and a cloudless sky surrounding the bus. “I don’t see anything.”
“Try looking farther ahead.”
Ty craned her neck. “There’s just empty space.”
Clara shut the doors. “Life is scary. You never know what horror awaits around the corner. But it keeps on moving. And out of all the horror, out of all the pain and the sadness and the treachery, there’s a beauty there, a beauty that wouldn’t exist if there weren’t those horrible things. If you’re scared of life, well…then there’s just nothing. As the great author Ludwig Bemelmans once wrote,To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh.’ ”
Ty looked up. The neck massage, with the forefinger and thumb, the one that she always did whenever Ty was scared. The way she addressed her as angel—Ty had never heard anybody else call her that before. And Madeline…
The book they were supposed to read the next day.
Ty could feel the bus start to move rapidly, so fast that time itself seemed to come to a stop. Her surroundings became a blur as she fell, down, down…
Ty opened her eyes and blinked twice. She was standing at the crossroad.
She turned left and began walking, muttering the words “Pooh-pooh.”