21 Oct The Passenger
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"The Passenger"Written by Michael Whitehouse
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Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
Several months ago a friend of mine alerted me to a puzzling incident on an inner-city bus. Being a bus driver himself, he had heard many of the usual generic stories that would be exchanged around the depot – muggings, broken windows, the occasional couple attempting drunken sex; some drivers even spoke of ghostly passengers who would pay their fare, take a seat on the upper deck, and then vanish without a trace.
Those latter stories were of a kind which my friend enjoyed hearing but never took seriously, considering them to be merely fictitious entertainment shared amongst co-workers, alleviating the tediousness of an empty depot at night. That was, until a fellow driver told him about Ruby. So intrigued by the account was I, that I took the time to contact all involved, piecing together what occurred as best I could.
Ruby was a pleasant woman, even though she had reason not to be. In her early 40s, life was much harder than it should have been; each day a struggle. Burdened by relative poverty since a child, she was compelled to spend most of her time scrimping and saving via two endless jobs, both of which she found neither well paid nor enjoyable, but her current financial situation dictated the need.
During the day she worked as many hours as possible at a supermarket, stocking shelves and occasionally bagging groceries at the checkout for customers. At night she would attend her second job as a cleaner at a factory manufacturing, of all things, cleaning products; the irony was not lost on her, and neither was the tediousness of it all.
At the end of each drawn out, tiresome day, Ruby would return home at night via a long and vapid bus journey, with just enough time to kiss her 13 year old daughter Angela on the head, whispering ‘sweet dreams’ to her as she slept, before herself turning in. This short, private moment of affection was what carried Ruby through her day, as it was for her daughter that she struggled.
Angela’s father had abandoned her when she was just two years old, and with no other family to speak of – at least none who could be relied upon – Ruby was left to work her fingers to the bone each day, clothing and feeding her daughter while paying for a series of crippling medical bills brought about by the child’s severe asthma. She of course did not grudge the situation, for her daughter’s condition had improved markedly and that sentiment meant more to her than any amount of work or hardship ever could.
One night, Ruby was asked to work a few extra hours at the factory. While she was perpetually exhausted and yearned even for the most meagre of rests, she accepted the offer gratefully as more hours meant less debt; she simply could not afford to decline the opportunity.
At 11:37 P.M. following the end of her shift, she stood at the nearest bus stop, illuminated by an overhead street lamp in the darkness, waiting with heavy eyelids for the last bus of the night to arrive. Thankfully, the wait was not long and soon the elongated vehicle cumbersomely inched up the road, slowing before stopping, opening its hydraulic doors with a hiss, welcoming her into its embrace.
The driver, a balding and irritable man who appeared equally as tired as she did, grumbled for Ruby to pay her fare – which she did after rifling through her handbag for what seemed an age, finally producing the desired amount of loose change, much to the driver’s annoyance.
In a dazed lethargy she wandered down the aisle, taking a seat next to a window at the back. As she prepared herself for the long boring route home, the vehicle shuddered back into life, pulling away from the pavement as the doors sealed shut, stumbling with unsure progress on the last leg of its journey for the night.
The engine growled, the vibrations climbing up the frame of the bus, rattling the windows slightly and causing the seat, which Ruby now slumped in, to quiver in response. The vehicle had seen better days and was clearly reaching the end of its life; the grime on the windows and floor was a congealed reminder of the countless thousands who had sat in each of the seats, weary and thinking of home – discarded gum stuck to a shoe, the murmured grievances of its passengers vented daily – yet at night the enclosed frame of rusting and neglected metal seemed almost serene in its apparent emptiness.
With each turn of a corner the bus juddered from side to side, and while the bright fluorescent lights, which beamed down from sterile fittings in the ceiling above, were enough to keep anyone awake, Ruby found that sleep still lay at the forefront of her mind.
But for the driver, the bus lay empty – as best she could tell without climbing the coiled stairs to the upper deck, which remained obscured. As is quite common of weary commuters, Ruby lay her head against the vibrating window to her side and persuaded herself that it would be acceptable to rest her eyes for a moment; just for a few minutes, enough to find some solace from the tiredness which forever haunted her. As the bus turned yet another corner, the soothing shaking movements rocked its lonely passenger slowly, gently, and finally to sleep.
How long her eyes had been closed for Ruby did not know, but as her conscious mind came back sharply into focus from its slumber, the concern of having missed her stop presented itself – she detested leaving her daughter alone at home in the first place, never mind for any longer than was necessary.
This worry, however, was soon replaced by something else. An uncomfortable sensation; of personal boundary and social convention broken; of the air displaced by the form of something close. For as Ruby’s eyes adjusted to the jagged fluorescent lighting once more, and the bus itself shook and grunted along the darkened concrete below, she stared at her reflection in the window: A mirror image now altered from what it had been before. A chill crept up her spine as she viewed the appearance of her own overworked, sleep-deprived and worried features, alongside the strange impression of the person now sitting in the seat next to her.
As the city lights flashed by from outside, Ruby stared at the window momentarily. Then, nonchalantly turned her head to look around, deliberately avoiding staring at the individual beside her, but this only added to the sense of unease; for other than herself, the driver, and the passenger, there was no one else present. This was not unusual as public transport was never that busy at night except during the weekends; the city quite happily asleep, or readying itself for bed only to wake in the morning for work; but what concerned her was that a person would choose to sit next to a perfect stranger on an empty bus, at night, when they were surrounded by vacant seats.
Not wishing to be rude, she continued to gaze at the reflection, as the passenger’s appearance captivated her attention, being unusual somehow – head bowed as if staring at the ground, features obscured by the hood of a dark green jacket. This also added to the peculiarity of the individual as it was a summer’s night, and yet they were clothed as if for winter.
For a little while they sat in silence, but as the bus continued on its journey, Ruby felt increasingly agitated, partly by the proximity of her unwelcome companion but more-so by an unknown factor. She could not truly identify why she was so anxious, but a nervousness had begun to overcome her, and the vocal silence which proved the only buffer between them poked and prodded at that sense of discomfort, pulling away at it like a scab.
As seats rattled and the floor vibrated with each uneven depression of the road, she peered out of the window once more attempting to allay her unquestionable, yet unexplained trepidation. The street which they were currently on was familiar to her, and with a welcome sigh Ruby realised that she had not slept long enough to miss her stop. The sense of relief was enough to momentarily overcome her apprehension, and while caught in a more positive frame of mind, she began to consider simply talking to her unexpected travelling companion – to break the uncomfortable silence of one sitting so close.
Slowly, she turned to the passenger. Laying her eyes upon the figure, their appearance was far removed from the distance and unreality of their mirror image. Immediately Ruby felt frightened, as if staring at someone who should not be. The dark green jacket was dirtied and scuffed in places, accompanied by a damp smell, with a blackened material around the rim of the hood where once a lighter colour had ruled, and it occurred to Ruby that she had not seen anything like it for many years; made from waxed canvas, a raincoat in style yet seemingly untouched by water for some time.
The passenger’s gender was a mystery, as what could be made out of his or her features implied neither, yet both. With head still bowed, staring down at the ground, the tip of a nose could be seen, the impression of a chin given, yet nothing more.
‘It’s getting a little cold in here’ said Ruby – half statement, the rest a question. She was surprised herself that the words flowed out of her mouth, but the peculiarity of the situation urged her to break the ice, for conversation is the melody of the mundane.
Yet the passenger did not answer, remaining focused on the floor beneath their feet, the bus shuddering once more as it negotiated the city streets, almost completely devoid of life. A few minutes passed before, anxious at the lack of a reply, Ruby spoke once more remarking that the driver had seemed a little grumpier than usual, concluding the observation with a nervously gentle laugh. Yet again, the passenger said nothing.
Watching the world pass by outside, she decided that two attempts of conversation were quite enough. She would leave him or her alone, and hope that the rest of the journey did not drag in too much, as a desire to be away from the strange person sitting beside her grew.
Then a sound.
An unnerving noise, one which crawled under the skin; of nail upon wood. Turning slowly to face her unwelcome companion once more, she found them staring down at the ground as they had always been. Yet the sound was coming from that seat. Scratching, tearing. The passenger’s hands were now poking through the gap between his or her own legs, dragging nails up and down against the wooden underneath which supported the cushioned material on which they sat, in a horrible stuttering, jagged motion.
The sound pierced air and eardrums alike, increasing in volume until Ruby, tired and now irritable, could no longer endure it.
‘Could you stop that please?’ she asked.
Yet it continued.
‘Please stop that!’ Ruby said, this time in a forceful tone sharpened by exhaustion.
The passenger ceased, and yet did not move, nor face her, nor even acknowledge her presence. Agitated, yet relieved in a sense, Ruby gazed out of the window once more, trying to extinguish the growing sense of annoyance which was now building inside. She took a deep breath in and calmed herself with the knowledge that she would soon be home.
Rummaging through her handbag, she found a half-eaten packet of mints and began to unravel them, before popping one into her mouth. Looking up, what she now saw froze her to the core – the passenger’s face peered out from behind her head. Eyes deep and blackened, mouth deformed and skewed gaping wide, captured hideously in the glass reflection.
She screamed at the sight of the face. Shock turned to fear, and fear leapt to panic as she yelled and pleaded for the driver to help. The reflection leaned in, as a rasp of cold breath climbed down the back of her neck, body quivering in revulsion as the passenger placed a shrivelled hand on her shoulder, two of the fingers long since removed at the knuckle.
The touch was cold, and it awoke a sense of fear Ruby had never known. Clawing for survival, she shrieked as the distorted hand pulled her close. With effort steeped in terror, she tore away from the abhorrent grip, leaping into the seat in front, scrambling over the aisle and falling to the ground, bashing her cheek against the floor.
The bus vibrated and rattled, and hissed, and groaned as the passenger rose slowly to its feet, head bowed, shrouded by hood; dark-green and tattered.
‘Please, God, help me!’ Ruby screamed, pulling herself along the floor by her fingertips. The passenger followed intently, stepping out into the aisle proceeding slowly towards her.
Scrambling and terrified, Ruby pulled herself to her feet, but as she did so the bus veered wildly, untamed across the road. She stumbled against the momentum, but the hooded figure remained rooted and firm. The engine now roared and growled as it tore down the wrong side of a main road, then swerved around a corner onto a side street.
Yet the passenger stepped assuredly ever forward.
As the vehicle raged onward, Ruby screamed for the driver to stop, but then it occurred to her: The bus had long since left its planned route. It screeched across concrete, before hurtling down a lane which was barely wide enough to house a car, let alone anything more substantial.
Then just as suddenly, the driver slammed on the brakes as the bus lurched to the side before coming to an abrupt halt. Thrown by the force, Ruby grasped onto a seat to brace her fall. Twisting her wrist painfully through a safety handle in the process.
The engine roar diminished to a weak whimper as the passenger stepped forward once more. Bruised and shaken, Ruby stumbled to the front of the bus, bashing her hands in desperation against the closed sliding doors, desperate for escape.
No matter how loud she yelled, no matter how many times she struck with the sides of her fists against the metal and glass, it would not yield; she was trapped. Turning to plead with the driver to open the door to his cabin and shield her from the monstrosity bearing down upon her, she saw that it was too late. There he lay draped across the wheel, unconscious or dead, his body entombed in the glass cubicle, the release button for the bus door goading her from the dashboard on the other side. Escape was inches away, yet denied by a panel of safety glass which she did not have the strength to break.
A hush then fell as the figure continued towards her.
‘Please leave me alone.’ Ruby begged, fighting back tears.
Yet the passenger did not answer. The head remained bowed, as each footstep cleanly and clearly knocked on the floor, one after the other. Closer. Nearer.
‘What do you want from me!?’
But again, no answer, for a thing which should not be needs no justification. Tears now flowed down Ruby’s face as terror spread like a cancer, clouding her thoughts and stemming her actions. Yet the passenger drew closer still, unmoved by her pleas.
In a fit of utter desperation, Ruby turned to the driver once more.
‘Wake up! Please. God dammit, wake up!’ she cried, but he remained motionless – however the passenger did not. It was upon her. Standing only inches away, the muddied green raincoat sheltering a grotesque being implied inside.
Raising its shrivelled, deformed and incomplete hand into the air, Ruby cowered; but as the figure came violently at her, a moment of utter instinct took over, she ducked out of the way at the very last second. Countless shards of glass rained over her as the passenger’s half fist impacted against the driver’s cabin with brutal force – shattering the protective shell.
Thrust by opportunity, Ruby poked her hand into the cabin, battering the release button next to the driver’s head. The doors seethed open, and just as the passenger raised its hand once more, Ruby escaped into the night.
The police were called and quickly attended the scene only to find the driver, covered in glass; dazed but alive and well. He remembered very little of what took place, as the last thing he recalled was Ruby paying her fare, before he then passed out. There was no memory of driving the bus on the final leg of its journey, nor did he possess any knowledge of the hooded passenger who had smashed the driver’s cabin.
With no small amount of digging on my part, I was able to contact Ruby who, after a little persuasion, spoke to me in detail about that night. The entire ordeal had taken its toll upon her, but she was not thankless for the experience. For despite not being on its route, the bus had mysteriously stopped outside of her home. Stricken with terror, she had instinctively entered her tiny apartment and locked the door behind, but before phoning the police, she quickly called for an ambulance: Her daughter had suffered a terrible asthma attack and lay moments from death on the floor – thankfully she survived.
The police found no evidence of the passenger, no CCTV footage nor eye witnesses. It was as if the hooded figure had vanished without a trace – all but for one chilling reminder that it had indeed been there. For at the seat where it had sat was a message, clawed into the wood underneath. Two words which simply read: ‘Not Yet’.
In Ruby’s mind, those words have haunted her more than any hooded figure ever could, for if ‘Not Yet’, when?
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