Flash Friday 7: “Collision Course” by Stephen Ramey
About the Author
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in various places, from Scissors and Spacke, and Microliterature to Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and the twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com
by Stephen Ramey
Ralph drives a bus for the city. He used to own a taxi cab. He made better money there, but the robberies were stressful, particularly that last one. He’ll show you the bullet hole if you ask, a dent in his upper arm like a pothole covered over with skin.
The imaginary casts real shadows, Ralph thinks. The shadow of money is debt, the shadow of security, adventure, and love’s shadow? He hasn’t deciphered that one. It may be despair, it may be hope. It certainly is not hate. Hate casts its own shadow.
Ralph’s wife left him for a plumber. He did more than snake their shower drain, it turns out. Ralph refused to pay the bill. His wife took the house and part of his savings when a judge put their imaginary holdings into an imaginary box, and sawed it into very real halves. She included the plumber’s bill as debt, thereby soaking Ralph for half of it.
Some days Ralph tells himself she deserves this windfall for standing by him in his taxi days. She deserves it for raising the kids. He imagines this is so, but his gut knows it’s not. The plumber makes better money. Why couldn’t she leave Ralph his own?
Ralph hates driving a bus. All that stopping and starting, impolite cars, impolite passengers, dispatch scratching at his ear. He’d quit if he could, but the economy is bad. The economy is imaginary: market cycles, busted bubbles, stock market trends. Capitalism’s shadow must be peace, or maybe war.
No, he doesn’t hate driving a bus, he loathes it, an emotion more active than hatred.
“Loathing,” he mutters. That’s the shadow cast by love. He releases one hand from the giant wheel, and digs the notepad from his pocket. He writes: Loathing is the shadow of love. He crams the notepad into his pocket, and sets his hand back upon the wheel. It vibrates loosely beneath his palm.
A ding. Ralph looks into the rearview. A lady with shopping bags has pulled the emergency cord.
“You missed my stop,” she says.
So I did. Ralph pulls over and lets her out. He flashes his blinker, and merges into traffic.
For a time, he pays attention. There are eight passengers when he stops at Sampson. He picks up six and lets off four. At Main, he lets off two, and picks up one. Hermitage is deserted. He barely stops there at all. Commonwealth comes. Five get on, and three depart.
How many are on the bus now? This is a game he plays to get him through the grind. Eight plus six minus four minus two plus one is nine. Nine plus five minus three, leaves seven. Seven passengers remain. He looks into the rearview.
The bus is filled, every seat taken.
“This won’t do,” he says. “It isn’t right.” He looks again. Nearly every eye is trained on him.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says. “Only seven, the answer is seven.” He slows the bus. Horns honk behind him. A passing motorist flashes the finger out his window.
“Which of you is real?” Ralph says. He blinks hard. The bus remains filled.
“Answer me,” he shouts. “Only seven of you are real.” He tries to recall faces, but can’t. He barely looks at passengers as they get on and off. To him, the men are all plumbers, the women wives.
Grumblings sound. People stir. A few stand. More than seven. Too many.
Ralph stands too. He will confront them one-by-one, and make the unreal disappear through observation. Yes. No. The lead passenger is as wide as the aisle, black as sin. He has a thug’s face. Security is an illusion too. Ralph collapses onto his seat. The line of people moves. He jams his foot onto the gas pedal. Momentum throws its weight. Grunts sound, bodies domino.
The bus strikes a car, another. It leaps the curb, hurtles a wrought iron fence. People in tuxes and crème-colored dresses scatter. Tables crash. Thump-a-bump-a-thump goes the bus. Ralph jounces in his seat.
They slam through plate glass. A billiard table skids. Faces flash, someone shouts. Ralph sprawls over the wheel. His head strikes something hard.
It’s over. Debris patters through the eerie silence.
Ralph wheezes in and out. Blood mists from his mouth. Did it work? When the imaginary collides with reality, the two must cancel out. It’s simple math, or maybe Physics.
His heartbeat stutters. He thinks of his wife with the plumber, their bed bouncing like a plunger, her eyes round and wide. His vision smears. His focus draws in, fixes on a dented arm, a hole that is not a hole, the bullet wound bandaged with skin, the only thing he knows is real.