by Rosko Tzolov
Andy is working late at night, feeling lonely
“It was quiet in the kitchen. Dark. Mr. Mouse crawled out of his hole in the corner, his whiskers quivering. There seemed to be no danger. He smelled cheese. Our hero hesitantly took a step, then two, and trotted across the floor before stopping at the foot of the table. He sat and brushed his whiskers with his front paws, as mice like to do. Then Mr. Mouse continued ahead until he found the cheese. What a feast there will be! he thought, and began to eat gluttonously. Then the trap snapped shut. Mr. Mouse rushed backward and tried to get out, sniffed here, sniffed there, but there wasn’t any way out.”
“This is not a good story, Dad,” said Annie, a girl of nine or ten years of age. “It doesn’t start well.”
“Why?” Andy asked from where he was sitting on the floor next to his daughter’s bed. “Just wait until the end.”
“It’s a sad story,” Annie said, scrunching up her nose.
“True stories are sometimes like this.”
“I’m feeling sleepy. I think you’ve killed enough mice tonight.”
“Falling asleep early today?” said Andy. “Okay. As you wish. Get some sleep.”
Andy kissed his daughter and left the room. In the living room, his wife, Lena, was sitting on the couch sipping a glass of white wine and reading a book.
“Did she fall asleep?” she asked.
“She’s on the way, yeah. She’ becoming increasingly picky about these stories, though.”
“Well, you tell her grown-up stories. Refrain from the carnage and gore, please.”
“There has been no death and gore in the story,” said Andy. “But maybe that’s the problem? Children fall for carnage and gore. Each and every self-respecting fairy tale has them in excess.”
He stretched and then plucked the glass from his wife’s hand. He took a sip of wine and then handed the glass back to her.
“Yes,” Lena began, “but usually the bad characters are the ones who die. Not the hero.”
“Well, I'm trying to diversify things,” said Andy. “Tonight was just a mouse. The trap snapped... and there he was. No way out. I haven’t told the story to the end yet, though. And if you want to know, your daughter is very impatient and didn’t even wait to see how it would end.”
“I understand. And how exactly does it end?”
“Well, I’m not sure yet. I’m finding it out with her. I’m telling the story to both of us.”
Lena drew her hand back when Andy tried to take the glass again. “Ahem,” she said. “No, don’t drink anymore. You will smell of alcohol. And you have to drive.”
“You’re right, you’re right. Ah, what a smart woman I have,” Andy said. He began to hum as he put on his coat and hat, and then he turned to Lena. He took off his hat theatrically and bowed.
“Good-bye, Ma’am. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
His wife laughed as Andy opened the door and walked out of the apartment. He descended three flights of stairs, the walls of which were decorated with graffiti, and opened the front door of the apartment building. Outside, the light, cold breeze nibbled at his face. It was nine o’clock at night in the middle of November. Dry, brown leaves were sprawled across the sidewalk, crackling softly as Andy stepped over them. After ten minutes, he had reached the bus stop, and soon an empty bus came. The front door opened and Andy rushed up the stairs before leaning over and saying menacingly to the driver, “Your life or the money!”
“The money,” said the driver immediately. “Always. The money is here in the collecting box. It must be a hundred dollars. If you have a hammer, go ahead and break it. But is it worth it?”
“Ah, Joe, it is,” said Andy. “I’ll buy Annie a stuffed toy, and Lena and me a nice dinner.”
“A worthy cause,” Joe said and he pulled the bus away from the stop. After a while, he said, “I parked my car two stops away from here in the morning. Let me drive till there, and then your shift will begin.”
“All right,” Andy said. “Step on it!”
They soon reached Joe’s stop. They said their good-byes and Andy took over from Joe in the driver’s seat. He tuned the radio to the rock station and drove off.
At nine o’clock, Andy’s was the only bus along a single route at night, which made a loop around the city every hour.
After twelve o’clock, the city was completely desolate. A passenger boarded the bus only rarely. The traffic lights followed one another monotonously through the night, bus stop after bus stop. The red tail-lights of a random car overtaking the bus at the three-lane road next to the bridge would disappear in the night and the fog in the distance. Beyond the bridge, the neighboring town was sprawled along the river.
At around 2 o’clock in the morning, a late passenger boarded the bus.
“How are you this beautiful night?” Andy asked with a smile as he opened the door.
“I’m tired,” said the passenger, a man in his sixties, wrapped in a coat. “I don’t envy you. You have to work the whole night.”
The man climbed into the bus and sat behind the driver’s seat.
Andy nodded slightly, then smiled. “Still, there are good things about driving that late,” he said.
“What, for example?”
“Well, different things. I love to daydream. Moreover, at this time one could have a good talk with a stranger. People relax and talk. They’re more sincere. I mean, not always, but you know what I mean.”
The man looked at Andy in the mirror, then out through the window.
What can one see in this darkness, thought Andy.
“You do like to talk,” the man said finally. “Feeling lonely, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Andy said after a short pause. “You could say so. I prefer to talk to someone rather than to just drive. So, what do you do?”
A slight smile appeared on the man’s lips. Then he said nonchalantly, “I prepare people for their funerals. I put some make-up on, arrange the flowers. Things like that.”
“You’re kidding,” Andy exclaimed.
“Afraid not. I work at River’s Funeral Home—do you know it?”
“Yes. You have a pretty strange profession,” Andy marveled.
“Same as you, I like my job,” the man continued, “no matter how strange it is.”
“What do you like about it?”
The older man thought for a bit. Then he said, “Death always reminds me that I must live fully. You never know when your turn will be. Also, at funerals, people are real—they don’t wear masks. Same as when it’s late in the evening and they’re tired, when they mourn, they are sincere. Then they say things that they wouldn’t usually say.”
Andy was silent, waiting for the man to continue.
“I’ve worked all night until now,” he finally said. “I was preparing a client for his party tomorrow. My colleague called in, so I had to work later than usual.”
A cold chill had begun to pass through Andy’s body, but he shook his head to chase it away. Hell, this guy has somehow managed to creep under my skin, he thought. Then he asked aloud, “Are not you afraid to be alone with the deceased so late at night?”
“Not at all,” the man said with a shrug.
“Don’t you think of spirits and things like that?”
“The only thing in my mind when I was preparing the deceased tonight was that someday I would be one of those dead in the River’s Funeral Home,” the man said thoughtfully.
“Why exactly there?” Andy asked.
“Well, it’s the life insurance that the company offers. Free funeral. I’m terrified when I think that my colleague will be the one to prepare me...”
“If you think about it, it doesn’t matter so much, but I will probably look like a vampire. I’ve seen Ralf, my colleague, applying the make-up on the clients. He doesn’t do it well. However, I don’t think too much about it. My friends will not care what I look like—at least I hope they won’t.”
Andy nodded. He guessed, “You don’t have any close relatives, do you?”
The man looked at him in the mirror with surprise.
“It’s weird that you ask,” he said. “No, I don’t, not really. Only cousins whom I’m not very close with.”
Andy felt sad for the man, who just smiled and said, “Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking—this guy only has the dead. But it’s not like that. I have friends. They are my family. Sometimes a person has no family, and he may still be happy.”
“I believe you,” Andy said. “You know, sometimes. late at night. I feel trapped. The trap is the bus. I go into it in the evening and go out in the morning. It’s hard. I mean, others can’t help you. It’s only you.”
“Of course they can. It’s the same with everyone. I feel the same sometimes. The important thing is to not get lost in such moments. One has to remember that the rest of us are always around. Even if there are some tough moments, one shouldn’t be discouraged. Your whole life shouldn’t feel like a trap just because of these.”
“Yes, I guess you’re right.”
“When you know that there are people around you...” the man said. “Sometimes, when you forget about it and you only have your closest family, or worse—your job—you’re the loneliest. You might not even realize it, and that’s the worst. Sometimes only a stranger can get you out of your trap. They become the only reminder of humanity that one has.”
“I understand...” Andy said. He didn’t actually understand, but he didn’t want to argue with the man.
The stranger was silent for a moment, but then something seemed to occur to him. “I’m glad that you understand,” he said. “Do you know when it gets the worst at my job?”
“When?” Andy asked curiously.
“When they bring two or three dead people at a time, and I have to stay alone with them. From time to time—well, there’s no way it would happen, but one begins to think about what it would be like if only the dead were left. When you work alone at night, don’t you think about it?”
“Sometimes,” Andy said, and then nodded with a smile. “I guess over the rest of the night, I’ll think just that!”
“Just imagine,” said the man. “You’re driving the bus, and all the rest—the whole fucking city is dead. There’s no way that would influence you mentally, right?”
“Yes,” said Andy. “I even begin to imagine it very clearly.”
“All right. You will be able to imagine it perfectly well. The next stop is mine.”
“You’re a real prankster, aren’t you?” Andy joked without conviction.
The bus stopped and the front door opened. The man came down the stairs and then turned around to say, “Goodbye, Mr. Driver. I hope I didn’t upset you with my chatter, and I hope you get out of your trap. I was joking, you know, about the others being dead. Remember that there are always other people. Now, have a good night.”
Andy waved his hand, closed the door, and drove off into the night.
What a strange guy, Andy thought. Left alone, he started daydreaming again. The night was dark, with thick clouds, the headlights of the bus were piercing the fog like a knife. That man was dealing with the dead! And he had no family. Andy imagined what it would be like to have no family and to work with the dead every day. He shuddered as an incredible feeling of loneliness fell over him. Stiffness and sweat swept over his body, starting from his feet, up his legs, then enveloped his torso.
The radio had long ago stopped transmitting music. Andy tried to fix it, but the receiver had simply chosen to fail at that moment. The other cars disappeared from the streets. With the thick darkness outside pressing in, Andy felt like he was inside a coffin. He was a prisoner of the bus, the city, and its empty streets, trapped until six o’clock in the morning. How could that story have a happy ending? It was only darkness, and him alone. As if he was dead, buried deep underground. Where were Lena and Annie to save him?
At the other end of town, he answered himself.
Andy stopped at a bus stop next to a roundabout before the bridge. It was time for his short break. He was feeling like he was choking, and he got off the bus to take a breath of fresh air. But it didn’t help. He still felt stiff and sweaty, like he was deep underground lying under weighing a ton thick blanket of darkness.
He looked ahead. The bridge stretched over a deep precipice, connecting his city with another one across the river. The far end was lost in the fog. Andy, of course, had often gone to the city across the river, but it was so different at night. Driven by a strange, unexplained impulse, he headed for the bridge. He wanted to see the other side. Something drew him there, something he had to see in order to save himself from all the loneliness that he felt.
Andy walked slowly down the asphalt, and then he began to jog. After that, he was running. Little by little, the buildings on the other side of the bridge started to become visible through the fog. It was a city just like any other. Not very different from his. There was nothing to pull him up from the hole he was in.
Another bus had stopped close to the other end of the bridge. Just like Andy’s. And next to the bus was a driver smoking a cigarette. It was as if Andy was looking at a reflection of himself. The other driver was looking at him, too.
Andy raised a hand and waved. The other driver hesitantly waved back. The two men stood staring at each other for a while, and then Andy’s counterpart apparently decided that he had a nut-job in front of him. Just to be on the safe side, he got into his bus and started the engine. The red shine of the tail lights got lost in the dark.
Andy turned around with a smile. Seeing the other driver had helped him feel better. He felt alive again, and the stiffness went away. It was dark and foggy on the bridge, but there was more to it, he felt. There was a whole world around him. He was connected to it, not trapped anymore. Andy could hear the water churning beneath the bridge, the whistling of the breeze. He could see the puffs of fog passing by. The air carried the smell of moisture and impending rain. It was cold. But most importantly, Andy didn’t feel alone anymore.
Andy arrived home around six-thirty in the morning. He opened the door to the apartment, and he was surprised to see his wife and daughter lying on the sofa in the living room, Annie with a wet towel on her forehead.
“What’s wrong?” Andy asked Lena, softly.
“She ran a fever all night long. It just went down. She was up all night long,” Lena said. “But don’t worry. It will go away. I’ll take her to the doctor today. It’s probably just the flu.”
“Daddy,” Annie said as she woke up. “How was your shift?”
“It was all right,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” said Annie, “but all night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the trapped Mr. Mouse. You shouldn’t have told me about him.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know that the story would upset you so much.”
“I thought about it and about you all night. Somehow you were trapped, and there was no one to let you out. And you were so lonely.”
Andy looked at Lena. She just shrugged her shoulders in response.
“What is it, Annie?”
“How can Mr. Mouse get out of the trap?”
“How? Well, someone has to let him out, I guess,” he said. “A girl comes in the morning and sees the closed trap with the mouse inside, so she brings the trap out and opens it in the garden. Mr. Mouse rushes out, and then he’s free.”
“What if the little girl is sick? Who will set the mouse free? Will he die in the trap?”
“No,” Andy said softly. “If it’s not the girl, it will be her mother, or somebody else. No one wants the mouse to die in the trap, you know? No one wants him to be lonely. There are other people in the world who don’t want Mr. Mouse to be lonely and to die in the trap. Someone will come and set him free.”
“You and your stories, Dad,” Annie said, tiredly. But she was happy with the ending. Then she turned around and fell asleep.