In the mid-2000’s I began to notice an undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment surfacing across the country. Such racism has existed within our society since the first immigrants came in the 1800’s, and though largely diffused over time, or as some would have it, repressed by civility and political correctness, it appeared to grow more visible within public discourse in the 2010’s. This may have been inflamed by the often controversial influx of investment, largely in real estate, from newly rich mainland Chinese pouring into Vancouver, but in some ways it had long been lying in wait. Regardless, the prevalence of these dangerous sentiments, various experiences related to me by my international friends, and incidents like Cody Olmstead’s murder, all converged to inspire this story, which I wrote while in university. I originally dismissed this short work as lesser, developmental work, but to my surprise it was later included and published in 2010 in an international anthology out of the UK. I’m revisiting it here now in the hopes that you both you enjoy it and glean something useful about this messy, evolving infant of a society we call Canada.
Dancefloor in Outer Space
by Paul Duke
My eyes flutter open, sticky with the rust of a long dream, aching like I’ve been asleep since the moment I was born. Gradually I orient. Still on the bus, the same cold plastic seat pressing up at my rear, the same dull rumble from the diesel engine. The hunting knife is still there in my chest pocket, and it weighs down that side of the jacket. Everything about me feels the same, and yet I’m certain that something in the bus, hell something in the universe, has shifted. I cross my arms under the knife and wonder if the old lady with the wild green hat sitting next to me in the window seat has noticed, but I find she’s no longer there. And that the bus isn’t actually moving. We’ve stopped. But where?
Passengers squeeze down the aisle on their way out, some hoisting stuffed backpacks, others carrying little. Roughly half of them leave, and empty seats pop into view like mushrooms in one of those time-lapse documentaries about the forest floor–moss and shit.
Outside, I see only white, the winter prairie, white as blanched bone, that cuts one the western half of Canada off from the other; my half, Ontario. I notice the small terminal, covered in snow and icy drippings, all of which conceal the name of the stop.
I approach the driver. Perched on his seat reading the newspaper. Long white hairs curl out of his ears like whiskers on a big drunken cat and he reeks of coffee. “Did we already pass Thunder Bay?” I ask.”Not yet, be there couple hours,” he says. The steering wheel is ready to collapse in the vice-grip of the driver’s thick powerful fingers. “Still time for a leak kid.”
Hadn’t thought of that, but he’s right; so I go to the washroom in the station and come back to the bus.
When I return, I have to line up behind new passengers boarding the bus. New faces, new threats to assess. Who are they, really? What can they do? They fall into their seats, and I shuffle toward the rear of the bus, toward my seat. When I reach it, I find this Chinese girl sitting where Mrs. Greenhat had been, in the window seat. This Chinese girl, imagine! Well, Korean, Japanese, I don’t know. Never met one before. Thing is, what the hell?
I stand in the aisle my thighs leaning on the seat edge. Sweat forms in my ears, and I squeeze my hands into hard bricks. I’m ready. Keeping my head pointed straight ahead, I peek out at her from the corner of my eye. I’ve never been so close to an Asian before. Only seen them in kung-fu movies where the women hide swords in their hair, and the men leap over trees; gangster movies where the Triads blast away at each other in fancy restaurants. But there’s nowhere else to sit, so I take my seat beside the woman.
She makes this little nod with her head, as if she’s trying to tell me something. What? Probably speaks no English. She gives me this little smile, a kind of smile I can’t read. What’s her angle here? The bus fills. The driver hollers back at me, says sit down kid. But there are no other empty seats now, so I can’t even move. Damn. The girl throws another of those kung-fu head nods at me, and shuffles a bit as though to make room. What else can I do? I ease into the seat, but keep my eyes zeroed on her. No way in hell she’s chopping my head off.
“Hello.” She speaks.
I say nothing. Instead, I jam the earbuds of my iPod in and crank The Stone Roses. The girl wraps her arms around her chest and looks out the window, as if to watch the snow freeze solid.
An Chinese girl. Of all things. She says something to me again, but I don’t reply. I’m not falling for the trap.
The bus pulls out and before I know it, the woman is asleep, her head of oil-black hair set against the window. She has on an expensive-looking dark overcoat; it’s black too, and her lower legs are sealed in glossy black boots. Fashionable, I suppose, but vaguely medieval. She makes no sound, and is so completely still she could be a carved-in-ice sculpture.
She’s Chinese, just like that murderer on TV. Change seats before it’s too late!
It was all over the TV that week. New reports of the murder of a young man named Cody Olmstead, killed while on a bus crossing the Canadian Prairies, by the paranoid schizophrenic passenger, apparently off his meds, sitting next to him, a Vincent Weiguang Li. At some point, Li had snapped, turned a concealed Rambo knife on Cody Olmstead and decapitated him. He even displayed the boy’s head to the other passengers. Naturally, they were traumatized. The whole thing had given me nightmares for a few days, then had been replaced by the next drama in the news. Iraq. Kandahar. Wall Street. Name it.
That same week, I had dropped out of school, thinking, I don’t know, I’d get a job at the Hamilton Steelworks, the black iron world where my father had worked for over thirty years, and where he was eager to see me rot for the next thirty years of my adulthood. “Seems like you’ve found God’s master plan for you son,” he said, and set about getting me hired on. “School’s not for everyone,” was what my mom said. I couldn’t believe they let me get away with it. Shouldn’t they have shit all over me and forced me to re-enrol? Not what I expected. But the Steelworks weren’t hiring, in fact were laying-off three hundred workers, so there was no spot for me and even my father lost his job. God’s master plan had turned to shit.
But I needed to do something, needed to do something. I didn’t really care what. A job seemed to be the usual answer. But the city of Hamilton had long been crumbling into financial ruin, and jobs, well, there were none. So my father arranged for me to head out to Thunder Bay and work with my Uncle Rollie at his auto shop, still thriving.
Then, the news of this murder hit the TV, and my parents freaked out.”How in God’s name does a monster like that get into our country?” said my father. “Why wasn’t he locked in a bloody cage?”
“They say he’s Chinese,” said my mother. “They say that while this Li was killing that poor boy, he ate chunks of his flesh, and he was, they said, he was calm. Like he was at the beach or something. What is that?” Finally, putting her hands to her face, my mother began to cry. “Can’t we at least drive him up ourselves?” she said.
“Now, dear,” my father said, finally setting down his newspaper. “He’ll be fine. It’s only a nine-hour trip.”
“Maybe they don’t take to our land, too much space…?”
“I’ll be fine,” I told them. I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled to go to Thunder Bay, but happy to get away from my folks, The working-class humility and ethos they’d been drilling into me my whole life had begun to feel a heckuva lot like mediocrity. I was bored with Hamilton. The arcades, pollution, Shitty football teams. Sulphur. “It’s only a nine-hour drive, mom.”
“God creates the good ones, but he creates evil ones too,” said my father, handing me something wrapped in a green cloth bundle. Between the folds of cloth was his favorite hunting knife, a six-inch military issue Bowie, snug in its black leather scabbard. “You keep your eyes open now, and watch out for strangers. Foreigners, you know what I mean.”
No evil Chinese madman is gonna mess with you now. He tries, you cut his damned head off.
When I boarded the bus the following morning, I sat next to this old lady with the green hat, one of those Queen of England numbers. We talked for a while, about school mostly and her poodle, but then got to her reading and me to my iPod. Best not to mingle with anyone, even Mrs. Green-Hat.
It is the first time I’ve traveled on my own.
She makes one move, you stab her eyes out!
Hours pass and my limbs rust to the seat. Careful not to wake the Chinese woman, I rise to my feet and do some stretches. She doesn’t move. One side of her face remains pressed against the window, now black with cold night.
Everyone on the bus is asleep. From behind, even the Driver looks asleep, His hands are welded to the steering wheel at perfect 10’s and 2’s. The whole scene feels fake, as if I’m part of some Wax Museum exhibit: TYPICAL CANADIAN GREYHOUND BUS WITH PASSENGERS, CIRCA 2008.
I settle into my seat again, my eyes fixed on the Chinese woman. No way I’m passing out and letting her get at my neck. I keep my mind on the Bad Brains track thundering from my iPod.
A short time later, without warning, we slam into something on the road. The front of the bus strikes it first. Then the back wheels hit it and I bounce up in my seat. My iPod slams to the floor. I feel the bus skid and twist back and forth on the icy road, the driver trying to straighten its course. Everyone’s awake and buzzing with confusion. Bodies swing and slam into each other. In a few moments, the driver has the bus moving steadily again. Impressive, I think. “Sorry folks,” comes the calm voice of the driver. “The Mafia dumps a lot of bodies out here. Nothing to worry about.”
This shuts them up. I glance up at the rear-view mirror and the driver. He winks at me and grins. “Just kidding. Dead coyote.”
A wave of relieved laughter sweeps through the passengers. I laugh, and reflexively sort of, turn to the Chinese girl. Incredibly, aside from a few strands of hair that have swung across her face, neither the bouncing bus nor the laughing passengers have had any effect on her. She’s still asleep. If anything, she somehow looks even more asleep.
Then again, maybe she’s dead, I think. Discreetly, I lean over and turn an ear toward the lapel of her overcoat. She does seem to be alive, but is this normal breathing? Maybe Chinese women breathe differently. Maybe she’s on pills. Hell if I know. Where they come from I don’t know, but hazy images form in my mind of old Chinatowns, all clutter and alleys, where sad fallen concubines smoke away their shame in gloomy dank opium dens.
I notice on her wrist she wears a Gucci watch, hardly the sign of someone “fallen.” In fact, I realize, her clothes look pretty fancy. Expensive. Not the sort of thing you see in Hamilton, where fancy means a pair of fresh Kodiak work boots. Actually, the more I look at her, the more I begin to think she not only doesn’t look dangerous. Not exactly, but still…
Her hands are folded around an LV leather purse on her lap, its strap hung tight around her shoulder. It’s open a little, a mere finger’s width, but I can see inside the purse a small box of Cherry Nibs. My hunger reaches a stealthy careful hand out and I slowly ease the box out of her purse. in seconds I devour the Nibs.
So what if you take her Nibs? What’s she gonna do about it? Remember, you’re the one with the knife.
Over the next couple of hours, I relax some, but still keep my eyes on the Chinese girl. Gradually though, she feels less like a threat and more like a mannequin in that wax museum. I mean, she doesn’t move an inch! She just rests there, head on the glass, breathing softly, this peaceful expression on her face. It occurs to me that, except for sitting beside female classmates in school, I’ve never even been this close to a female stranger.
We reach Thunder Bay, and the Driver announces he’ll stop for an hour before carrying on across country. At the small suburban bus station, there’s a public washroom, fuel terminals, and a Tim Hortons. Smothering everything in sight is a thick layer of snow and ice. And it’s cold. Really fucking cold. Time to find my Uncle, and start my life in Thunder Bay, so I leave the bus.
I scan the small crowd inside the station, but uncle Rollie is nowhere to be seen. I head into the Tim Hortons. There are a couple dozen shivering customers, but no Uncle Rollie. I buy a coffee and plop into a chair near the window to wait. I’m tired of sitting.
You made it safe and sound. She didn’t get your head. You’re in your new home. Good work son.
Questions simmer in my mind and I think about the Chinese girl. She’s still on the bus, still asleep for Chrissake. Where had she come from? And where was she going? And what’s with all the sleep? She reminds me of those giant crane towers on construction sites, the ones that run up through the centre of a building while it’s being constructed. You never see them arrive, never see them being erected or lowered into place. One day they’re just there, and you have to live with the mystery.
She’s no crane, and you’re lucky you got away from her alive.
“Later, kid,” the driver says, walking out of the Hortons carrying a box of donuts. Passengers follow him onto the bus. The engines spit frozen grey exhaust into the air, dissolving Thunder Bay in the cloud. I don’t know what it is, but this weird thought floats up in the front of my consciousness. Maybe it’s just curiosity, I don’t know, but I think, like nothing I’ve ever needed before, I have to be there when this woman wakes from her sleep. There’s something waiting for me when she does. Some key piece to the puzzle. I hate puzzles.
So I buy a new ticket. Can’t fucking believe I do it, but like, whatever. I don’t have enough to pay for a full ticket extension, but the agent at the ticket window is this young lady with a pierced nose. I give her my last nineteen dollars, throw my iPod into the deal, it’s got thirty great playlists I tell her, and she hooks me up.
I run to the bus and pound on its steel shell. The driver swings open the door. “I’m stayin’ on,” I pant in icy breaths.
What are you doing? You’re supposed to get to Thunder Bay, not West to Wherever!
The driver crushes a Honey Cruller in his jaws like some giant alien beetle eating a truck tire, and closes the door behind me. opposite my old seat is a Businessman reading documents spread over his lap. He watches me closely as I make my way back to my old seat, which is still empty.
The businessman’s’s probably a Freemason. Those papers are the secret plans for the New World Order.
You’re going the wrong way.
When I reach my seat, the Freemason’s gaze traces a line from the woman’s boots up to her hair. There’s something lewd and ugly about the way he looks at her; he reminds me of an escaped prisoner, hiding in the wilderness, suddenly coming across an extra large pizza. I shoot the guy a look that says ‘beat it creep,’ and he turns away. Pleased with myself, I settle in my seat and, as the bus pulls out of the station and onto the Trans-Canada highway, last stop the West Coast, turn all of my attention to the sleeping woman.
I watch her for the next several hours. We stop in Winnipeg briefly, and nobody gets off the bus. Outside, the stretch of flat land billows past us, fresh snow blows in soft gusts, swirling in spirals that cover everything and form ghostly faces that stare back at me.
As the bus rumbles on from Winnipeg toward Saskatoon, the Prairie morning gradually appears.
Hours pass. Maybe days. I’m not sure. As the bus rumbles toward Saskatoon, the Prairie morning appears, but there’s nothing to see. The factories, warehouses, strip-malls, brick homes and highways have dissolved away, leaving nothing to look at but a passing, rusted-out tractor with flat tires. The odd cow. Mostly, there’s just an endless white table. Nowhere in this great gulf of emptiness that spans the country do I see a single living person. Outside the bus, there is nothing. We might as well be sealed within a space craft, drifting through the cosmic abyss.
Saskatoon station is virtually empty. No new passengers, nobody getting off. I see only a single ticket agent, sipping coffee and staring into space. The place gives me the creeps, and I’m relieved when we get back on the highway, and head for Calgary.
My eyes are burning and dry, and it’s a real struggle to hold them open, never mind locked on the woman. When my eyelids begin to drop, I try propping them open with my fingers, and inhale long, deep breaths until I feel energized once again. I stand and stretch. This works for a while, but gradually this technique fails me. Sleep seems to reach out and claw at me, determined to drag me back to its world. But I’m determined to see this woman wake up, to meet her, so I summon a kind of raw will I didn’t know I had, and lash out at the sleep attacking me; screaming with all my breath: you will not take me!
It works. The sleep releases its grip on me, and once again I feel refreshed and alert.
Her pale skin is still pressed against the cold glass when night comes. A thick darkness swallows everything outside the bus like some super-massive Black Hole eating a star, and as the bus’s interior lights turn the window beside the sleeping woman into a cold dark mirror, I see in it my own wasting face staring back at me.
Events in the news feel closer. Somewhere out there on this same highway, another young guy riding a bus had randomly crossed paths with a monster, and paid the ultimate price for his bad luck. How could God create such a violent evil, and just stick it out there on the Prairies like that, waiting for innocent lives to stumble into it? The whole thing seemed to me like some sick cosmic joke.
Some people are good, some are just plain evil. That’s life. God’s will. Just be ready when you run into it.
I don’t know how she does it. Days surely pass. With the snow streaking by the window now in white horizontal fingers, time is snatched away, leaving in its absence a deep cold that somehow, despite my overwhelming fatigue, seems to sharpen my focus on the woman even more. Whereas the girls back home were flasks of cheap vodka at the football game followed by a stale beer at the pub, this one is an evening of theatre followed by champagne cocktails at jazzy piano lounges: Mulligan, Getz, pre-heroin Chet Baker. She has this gravity, and I can’t seem to pull my gaze from her.
She’s about twenty-five. Maybe. Her black hair falls to the shoulders of her black overcoat and spreads across them like the leaves of a weeping willow in the moonlight. The soft, grey fur of her overcoat’s hood frame her alabaster face like a fox curled around a stolen pearl. A gold necklace, thin as a leaf held sideways, hangs over the pale skin visible at her chest. Her narrow eyes are closed just so, a thin veil of blue shadow above them. Her delicate black eyelashes point at some lucky spot on the floor. Her eyes are so thin I can’t help wondering if she can see as much of the world as I can. The sad pout of her lips are a soft, remote red. Her ears, two pale flowers in the early moments of their spring blossom. Her nose rises from her face so subtly, is such a gentle hill of snow that it’s impossible to say where the snow begins or ends. On her fingers, she wears no rings, but her nails are…flawless.
Life isn’t like the movies, where the villains are ugly and the heroes always pretty. She’s still dangerous.
Calgary comes and goes. I don’t even get off the bus. My legs wouldn’t hold me up anyway. They’re completely numb. It’s clear where the woman is going now, and I’m excited to imagine the end of the ride. Vancouver, eleven hours away, is the next and last stop on our trip.
Go back to Thunder Bay and start your job. You’re not capable of anything else.
Soon we’re into the Rockies. The road a long incline, ever higher. The air flowing into my lungs thins and my breath grows shallow. The snow outside might be clouds, cosmic gases or even cotton candy. I can’t tell; it’s all just a haze that swirls into my mind until eventually the last of my focus drifts. My eyelids, heavier than I can hold any longer, finally close as sleep overtakes me.
All around me is a darkness as thick as prehistoric tar. I’m tumbling through outer space. Silent. Cold. But this outer space has no stars and no planets. No moons or meteors. There’s nothing but deep, black, nothingness. Just like the Prairies. Up, down, east, west, north, south. None of it means anything. But being weightless feels great. I whistle a half-decent rendition of Oasis’s “Wonderwall.” The vague sense that some force is tugging on my legs appears, pulling them in some direction, maybe down? Then, I’m moving faster and faster toward something. My face ripples; my skin stretches like a rubber balloon. I see in the distance a tiny speck of light. I’m falling towards it, accelerating with impossible speed, until I’m close enough to see clearly what it really is. It’s a wide, flat surface, round and lit with a thousand coloured lights. And standing on it, no, riding it, as though it’s an enormous circular surfboard, is the sleeping woman. Only she’s awake, and she’s not surfing exactly. She’s dancing. On a gigantic round disco dancefloor.
What the hell?
I brace myself for the coming impact. The woman is still dancing, and doesn’t see me coming. I’m heading right for her, as though it’s her gravity that’s pulling me. With incredible force, I slam into the dancefloor. I tumble across it like a cubic bowling ball.
She jumps back, her hands covering her mouth. She looks terrified.
“It’s only me,” I tell her, offering a smile. “I sat beside you on the bus?”
She pulls away without saying a word. Maybe she can’t speak English. Or maybe she doesn’t recognize me. I glance down and check myself for any anthropological irregularities, extra legs and such, but I look the same as always: jacket, jeans, white Nike sneakers.
“Don’t be afraid, it’s only me,” I say, my hands held out.
“I can’t talk to you,” she says.
“You speak excellent English for a Chinese girl.”
“I’m not Chinese, idiot. I’m Canadian.””Oh,” I mumble, feeling stupid. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, I’ve been waiting to talk to you for such a long time.”
The woman takes several steps back. “I can’t do that.”
“Is it because I’m Canadian….caucasian?”
She shakes her head. “That stuff means nothing in here. We all share genetic ancestors, so race is merely an illusion of time and geography. Migration.”
“Glad to hear it. Then why can’t you talk to me?”
“You’re a stranger in here,” she says. “A foreigner. I have to be careful.”
“Well, I know what you mean. You never know if someone’s good or bad,” I say, and take a step closer to her. “But really, I’m not the least bit harmful. I just wanted to meet you.”
She bites her lower lip, puzzling something over. She brushes her black hair away from her eyes. “Still, I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you that’s just, well, wrong.”
She nods her head. “Wait. What sort of music do you listen to?”
“Well, I like rock, soul, even jazz.”
“Jazz?” her eyes widen, and a hesitant smile breaks at the corner of her lips. “I like jazz too. That can’t be it then.”
She doesn’t look like a jazz fan.
“Who said that?” she stiffens.
“I don’t hear anything,” The voice is as clear as ever. I’m sick of it, but don’t know how to stop it. I change the subject.”Hey, I’ve been wanting to ask you.” I say. “Why do you sleep so much on the bus?”
The woman’s eyes trace arcs in the air, searching for something only she can see. “Because I’m afraid.”
“Afraid? Of what?”
Why the hell should she be afraid of you? She’s the foreigner.
“There!” Before I realize what is happening, the woman has reached into my jacket, and pulled out the knife. “How dare you bring that into my dream?”
“It’s my dream too.”
She throws the knife to the floor as if it were white-hot. Her eyes widen with terror.
Quick, stab her eyes out!
The knife begins to shake, vibrating as though it’s about to explode. Then–and I can’t believe what I’m seeing–a thin line splits the knife down its length, and it hatches. “Look what you’ve done.” She runs at me and with her fist and pounds at my chest, but gives up and I put an arm around her and she accepts the gesture, burying her face in the curve of my inner shoulder. I can smell her perfume.
What comes oozing out of the knife is formless at first. A slimy blob. With amazing speed, it seems to catch its breath and grow, taking the shape first of a featureless infant, a small boy, then finally, it raises an adult head and looks directly at us. It is not quite a complete human, just a form, and I recognize it from TV. Christ, it’s Vincent Weiguang Li. Or rather, his form. A Li-form. It stoops down and picks up the two pieces of the knife, and squeezes them back into its original deadly shape.
The woman grabs my hand and pulls me to the centre of the dancefloor.
“How’d he get in here?” I say, sweat pooling at my back.
She turns and glares. “You brought him in.”
A jukebox appears, and immediately starts playing some obscure 1960’s Bossa Nova tune, which is weird because I don’t know any. The Li-form advances toward us, brandishing the knife above its shoulder.
She swings me around. “Dance!”
As we dance, the entire dancefloor begins to rotate around us. It’s actually, I notice, a gigantic galactic LP record. I feel dizzy. The Li-form is only a few steps from us now. Her feet slide gracefully over the coloured lights. I follow, doing my best not to trip on my Nikes, which squeak and stick a little the way they do on a basketball court. The Li-form stabs at the woman, but misses; we’re spinning faster now, and the centrifugal force pushes against him. He stumbles and falls to his feet, but again slides further away, struggling to hold onto the floor. I get a clear look at the creature. His face is void of any human features, his skin looks made of translucent green Jello, and his eyes are solid black lines. But looking into his expressionless face, my perception shifts. I see my own face. “I” come into focus: my wavy brown hair, my green eyes and big ears. The Li-form, or Me-form, whatever it is, is even wearing my Nikes.
“Faster,” cries the woman. “Don’t stop yet.”
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I let the music, and the beautiful woman, take me into their flow. I dance faster, wilder, swinging my limbs with more…grooviness?
“Gosh,” she says, a glow in her dark eyes. “You’re a good dancer.”
“I’ve never danced before,” I confess. “The whole endeavour is absurd to me.”
“I’ll show you absurd,” she says, and with a swing of her long black hair, she spins me into a pirouette.
Finally, the dancefloor lurches and accelerates into another gear. The Li-Me-Whatever-form makes a final, desperate slash of the knife across empty space, then goes careening off the dancefloor, sucked out into space. In seconds, he’s a tiny speck vanishing into the dark void.
We’re alone again, safe. We stop dancing and catch our breaths. I bite for air. She seems fine, her breathing calm. She’s clearly in far better condition than I am. She touches a hand to my shoulder. “I’m hungry,” she says. A low dining table appears, covered with dishes of food. She takes my hand and pulls me down to the table. “Do you like sushi?”
I feel the urge to tell her how I stole the Cherry Nibs from her purse, but the words forming in my mouth go nowhere. “I’ve never had sushi before, but I’ll try it.”
She folds her legs under the table and sits. I follow suit; my legs ache with stiffness from the long travel. She slides a plate in front of me. A pulpy orange blob sits on top of an open shell with three-inch black spikes sticking out all around it. I stuff the thing whole it into my mouth. The woman bursts into a laugh. “You’re not supposed to eat the shell, silly.”
But it tastes wonderful, like the ocean, and makes my body feel warm and pleasant. The spikes poke out through my neck.
“It’s sea urchin. Uni.“
“Uni?” I say, the movement in my neck causing the spikes to wiggle. “Tasty.”
After dinner, we’re at the edge of the dancefloor peering out through the curtain of space. For some reason, I feel a deep, heavy sense of loss. Loss of what I can’t tell, it’s just a feeling that sits like a limestone rock in the pit of my stomach. What have I lost? I’m just beginning my life. “You said I’m a stranger, a foreigner, in here. But where is here?”
“The farthest edge of the universe,” she explains. “Yet, also it’s very centre. The place where everything converges. The great Nothing.”
“Kinda like a black hole?”
She nods. “The Nothing side.”
“The Nothing side of what?”
I let this swim around in my head for a moment, until the sloshing makes me seasick. “I think now I really have absolutely no idea what you mean.”
“Energy, life even, can only contract so much. Once things get sucked in, they squeeze through a sort of tunnel, and, reaching their maximum contraction state, burst through this wormhole deal and out the other side in a huge expansion of energy.”
I never did well in Physics class, but it sort of seems familiar to me. The woman is smart. I want to ask her what she knows about construction cranes.
“It’s not physics, but yet it is.” She continues. “Time, space, up, down, light and dark, Yin, Yang, in, out; Eros and Thanatos, if you prefer Freudian terms. Sex, Violence; Love, hate; creation, destruction. Each one its own complement, expanding and contracting. Alternating contradictions. Paradoxes folding into themselves. Everything is everything, all over again.”
“How about good and evil? How do they work in here?”
“Nothing belongs to either one side. Nothing comes from outside. Everything is in here, in ever-flowing oscillation.”
“What about when people die, do they come out here? I mean, in here?” I don’t know what I mean. But I want to know. She smiles at me. “They return to Nothing,” she lowers her eyes and gently nods her head. “Somewhere.”
Then, everything disappears and I wake up, weighed down, not with that feeling you get when you wake from a horrible nightmare and feel the comfort of reality overtake it, but the opposite. The terrible realization that dawns as I wake: the dream is over.
I turn to the woman, expecting to see her still there, asleep, perhaps dreaming. But the seat next to me is empty. In fact, so is the entire bus. Even the driver is nowhere to be seen. We’re parked somewhere. Where did she go? When had she awoken? More to the point, how the hell had she gotten out of her window seat and past me in the aisle seat? To do that, she would have had to climb over me. Jeezuz, how could I have missed that? I hoist my backpack onto my shoulder, and as I do this, my father’s knife tumbles out from the chest pocket and lands on the floor. I stand there for a moment, my next step unclear. I’m pretty damned far from Thunder Bay, from Hamilton. I don’t even really know where I am. I think of those few words the woman had said to me, and that I’d never again hear her speak to me. That chance had passed.
Outside, I find the Driver. He’s alone, kneeling under the back of the bus, behind a wheel adjusting something.
“Excuse me,” I say.
“Hey kid,” he says, and pulls himself out from under the bus. He’s got gloves on, and they’re covered in grease. “Enjoy the ride?”
“I guess I fell asleep,” I tell him, rubbing my ear. We’re alone in the docking bay of a large station, and my voice echoes off the concrete walls.
“It’s a long trip, for sure.”
“Did you happen to see which way that Asian woman went?” I ask.
“Asian woman?” he tilts his head slightly. “What do you mean?”
“She was asleep the whole time. Beside me in the window seat?” My Nikes squeak on the wet concrete. “Did you see which way she went after she got off the bus?”
The driver shrugs and shakes his head. “But I wouldn’t sweat it kid. You like Asian girls, this town is full of ’em. Dime a dozen.” He laughs at himself, grinning his alien-beetle grin.
“I saw her,” comes a voice from behind us. It’s the Freemason, standing by the station entrance smoking a cigar. Its sweet rotten smell reminds me of the Steelworks. “A real looker.”
“You saw her? For real?”
“I saw her get off, yeah,” he says. “Inside the terminal, there was another woman, sister maybe, and she was calling out, trying to get her attention.””And then?”
“They went off together. Got a Taxi, looked like.”
Inside the station, hundreds of people crowd about, coming, going, lost. Greetings and goodbyes are everywhere. Frantic, I scan the crowd, searching for her black hair. But the driver is right; at least half of the people are Asian. I’ve never seen so many Asian people. This place is nothing like Hamilton, I think. And I can’t find her anywhere among them. She’s just…gone. Completely gone.
I think about the moment she boarded the bus, how she had said hello to me, tried to be friendly. I hadn’t so much as replied. Mister fucking Silence. Why had I acted like that? What the hell was I thinking? That had been my one and only chance to speak with her, to know why she slept so much, to know….her. That moment had come and gone, and I hadn’t even recognized it for what it was. My head had been too far up my own ass thinking she was some ghoulish monster. What an asshole. And now she had disappeared forever, folded back into her life, a millions light years from my own. It all seemed so unfair. I think, can the world really operate like this? What kind of twisted prick of a God makes up all these rules?
Well, you snooze, you lose pal. Dime a dozen. Now get going back to Thunder Bay.
A few moments later the Freemason appears beside me. “Hey son, I forgot to mention. I heard something. Her friend called out her name.”
It never even occurred to me that she even had a name. “Yeah,” he says. “Funny sorta name, Japanese I think.””Japanese?”
“Yeah, Uni. You know, like the seafood.“
“Uni?” I repeat.
“Yeah, funny huh?”
I have no idea what to do. I’m far from home. Light years. Drifting, untethered from my space ship. No idea where to go now, what to do. Even who to be. So I wander out of the station. Outside, it’s raining, the grey sky coated with thin cloud cover that looks like it’s almost done being there. The Vancouver air is nowhere near as the cold as the prairies had been, or even Hamilton. Can’t even really call it winter. I loosen my scarf and buy a smokie from a guy with a BBQ cart steaming at the curb. She’s here, I think, somewhere. Uni. Rising up on the horizon a few blocks away is downtown Vancouver, a dense forest of newly built apartment towers and office buildings, green glass gleaming with rain; hundreds of them. Poking up among these trees of glass, turning, twisting, hoisting, are ten, twenty…dozens of construction cranes.