IS IT YOU? by Ray O'Bannon

Joe had never liked bus stations. He'd been through quite a few of them, and their atmosphere always seemed somehow odd... they usually felt strangely subterranean even though they were above ground, and the air always reminded him of the inside of old suitcases. More than anything, bus stations always felt so forgotten, so doomed to some rapidly approaching extinction, and being inside one always left Joe feeling just as faded and temporary as his surroundings.

His gaze drifted aimlessly around the nearly deserted room. The frail old man who had sold him his ticket, peering out like a caged bird through the row of iron bars that filled the little office window, had now shuffled off to a back room somewhere. A few other passengers waited here and there, shifting in their hard plastic chairs, rendered colorless by the flickering fluorescent lighting. They seemed like zombies. The pop machine in the corner continued its endless buzzing, as though trying to harmonize with the raspy ticking of the antique wall clock and the uneven whine of the ceiling fans. ‘Had to take a bus, eh?’ asked a little voice in the back of Joe’s head. ‘You’re forty seven years old. You couldn’t just catch a plane?’

And of course Joe could have probably afforded to fly back home, if he’d dropped by the pawn shop with his last few possessions first. Instead, what wasn’t here in his backpack was in a storage facility in New York, awaiting some bright mythical day when Joe would suddenly cast off all his debts, problems and shortcomings. Meanwhile Joe just wanted to get the old farmhouse sold. He had inherited the place while in New York but hadn’t actually been home since his twenties. Unless you considered the funerals, and Joe didn’t like considering those very much. If he could sell the old place he’d have enough money to finish his album, try one more time to keep his tepid musical career alive. It wasn’t as though he’d ever want to live in the old farmhouse himself. His childhood had been happy enough, but he’d never really felt he was where he belonged. An adult life of drifting hadn’t brought him any closer to finding a place that seemed to fit him. When he considered it, nothing in his life had ever quite seemed to fit. Still, now that he was heading back on a bus, he couldn’t help thinking of the old place as ‘home’.

Glancing across the gloomy bus station, Joe now noticed an old man who seemed somehow out of place. He stood cocooned in a stained and tattered parka, his arms clenched around his chest as though he were cold. Stepping forward, he began shuffling from one person to the next, pausing momentarily before each of them. ‘Just another bum’ thought Joe with a trace of contempt. But if a little spare change would do the poor loser any good, why not? Joe’s hand began fishing around in his pockets as the old man drew closer. Stopping within a few feet of Joe, the man turned directly towards him and pulled back the hood of the parka. At first Joe saw only the wrinkled weathered face of a very old man. Then a distant memory came screaming to the surface and Joe’s mind was knocked back nearly thirty years.

The bus station had been much the same, but Joe was a nineteen year old musician on his way to California. He didn’t know at the time that all his plans for the band, all those opportunities their agent kept talking about, all of that would come to nothing. He couldn’t know how bleak and uncaring his future would ultimately prove to be. So his head had been filled with hopeful illusions that day, as he sat waiting with his backpack and guitar case. Then gradually he began to feel strangely ill at ease. There was a subtle tension in the air, as though an enormous trap were about to be sprung, with devastating consequences.

Joe glanced up to see an old woman entering the station. She was bundled in several layers of thick clothing and scarves hid her face from view. She moved from one person to the next, stopping before each to mumble a few words. At first Joe thought the old lady was begging, but then he noticed she seemed to be holding something in her gloved hands, as though making an offering to those she stopped to speak to. But whatever it was, no one was taking it. Everyone seemed oddly repulsed by this strange old lady, and Joe felt increasingly nervous as she approached. He became able to hear the question she was asking each of those she momentarily stood before. “Is it you?”

A sudden sense of panic was tugging at Joe’s mind, but he really didn’t know what to do besides wait for the strange old lady to make her way past him. As she drew near he noticed her pale grey eyes darting constantly from side to side, never resting on anything for more than a moment. She continued muttering her odd question to those she passed, and then she was suddenly standing before Joe, her cold dead looking eyes staring directly at him. He glanced down and realized she was holding a small tarnished coin, holding it out to him.

“Is it you?” came the brittle voice.

Joe’s mind was flailing desperately for some sort of answer when the punker stepped forward. Joe had noticed the kid upon entering the station, a tall skinny teen with a green Mohawk and the name of some obscure band spray painted on the front of his shirt. He had given Joe a scowl and slunk off to the opposite side of the station. But he was now at Joe’s side, reaching towards the crazy old lady. Joe noticed the punker’s earlobe had a notch carved out of it.

“Thanks, Grandma! Need me some cigarettes…” the punker sneered as he reached forward. And then he was ripping the coin from the old lady’s fingers. And then he blew out.

That was the only way Joe could ever explain it to himself… the kid had somehow just ‘blown out’ like a snuffed candle or a blown light bulb. The color had drained from his face, the mocking grin had dropped from his lips, and the cruel sparkle in his eyes was replaced by terrified confusion. He stood holding the coin without looking at it. Joe backed slowly away, his mind desperately rationalizing the situation.

So the punker had robbed the old lady, so what? The coin couldn’t have been worth very much. And the old lady had drifted away without complaint, so why worry about any of it? But watching the punker stumble unsteadily to a seat, where he sat holding the coin without looking at it, without looking at anything, Joe couldn’t help feeling as though something unutterably horrible had just taken place.

Eventually the bus arrived. As it left the station, Joe glanced out the grimy windows to see the punker still seated in the waiting area, still holding the coin and gazing at nothing. Then the bus was making its way through town and Joe’s thoughts returned to the band, the recording contracts, all the magnificent dreams that would never be.

And now there’s a terrible thought trying to form itself in the back of Joe’s mind, something about fate and predestination and all sorts of things Joe’s never really believed in. But it’s so hard to concentrate, staring at this bum in the stained and tattered parka. Because the cold dead looking eyes have stopped darting from side to side and are now fixed directly upon his own. He looks away, focusing instead on the earlobe with its missing notch. The old man speaks.

“Is it you?”

And the little voice in the back of Joe’s mind is screaming, screaming just as loud as it possibly can, ‘No, it isn’t me, it’s not me, It ISN’T!’ as he reaches forward, without looking, to take the coin.