The thirty-minute roundabout

©Wendell sat next to the misted window nursing the mug of coffee in his cupped hands and watching passers-by fending off the pouring rain. With hunched shoulders and bowed heads against the wind, this silent army was heading home from boring nine to five office, shop and factory drudgery. A sea of umbrellas, some colored but most black or dark brown, jogged for a position as pedestrians stepped around each other. Line upon line of thick, low-lying black cloud had prematurely darkened the late afternoon and in the half light, the scurrying figures passing gray buildings added to the dismal scene. He half grinned at his own reflection of unkempt long black hair and unshaven chin looking back at him and remembered Quigley, his math master, scolding him that morning about shaving. He skipped the afternoon, history was boring but he didn’t go home. Mom and dad would be mad, especially mom.  Past the reflection, he studied something more interesting and smiled.

Across the street above one door a bright neon of green and red flickered a welcome to Hotel Majestic. Just inside the narrow open doorway stood a woman, blonde, with ample bosom and un-ample skirt that revealed thick thighs and suspenders. Feet shuffling and arms folded against the cold, she moved forward now and again, looking along the street for a customer. When she saw a likely client, she spoke to him. Wendell noticed a tiny red glow followed by a stream of smoke each time she put a hand to her mouth. Behind her, a dimly lit passage with bare dark red walls awaited the clientele with little enthusiasm.

A loud hiss of steam from the espresso machine jerked Wendell back into reality. He turned as the squeaking metal fan on the counter swung slowly to face him. A rush of cold air laced with freshly ground arabica beans renewed his interest in the mug he was holding. He gulped the warm contents and cuffed the window in a large circling motion. The blonde was still on duty although she had shifted position and now stood on the pavement in front of the entrance with a short denim jacket over her shoulders and was holding a large white striped umbrella over her head.

“You gonna sit there on ya tush all day, boy. Times ya should shift ya ass and let me close.”

A fat black woman stood by the side of Wendell’s booth, her hands resting on wide hips. Half-closed dark brown eyes stared menacingly at him, threatening him, daring him to disagree. Her face suddenly creased into a smile and then, unable to contain herself, she threw her head back and burst into deep baritone laughter that boomed above the espresso machine and the ABC newscaster talking on the small TV hanging above the counter.

“You should see your face, boy. I aint never did see such a scardy face. Now c’mon and get ya home afore the weather it gets a lot worse.”

She stared past Wendell, out of the window at the moving human montage and sighed. “Don’t know what ya find so amusin, boy. Aint nothin out there to smile about.”

Not waiting for his answer, she walked away, her slippered feet flip-flopping across the linoleum floor.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Dina,” called Wendell as he opened the door.

A waving hand from Dina acknowledged him as she began cleaning up.

Outside the door, Wendell stood in the small entrance recess and pulled the green and gold woolen watch cap down over his ears and his jacket collar up. It was bitterly cold. Slow moving traffic hissed along as tires ran through water. He pushed his cold hands into the jacket pockets and stepped out onto the pavement. The rain covered him immediately and within seconds, he was drenched.

At the end of the street, he turned into the small bus station from where the local district buses and cross-country Greyhound services ran. The 35 to Ledbridge Heights was standing in its bay, a few people aboard and the driver already seated. Wendell boarded, paid his fare, and sat at the back as the engine rattled into life. It was an hours trip to the Heights, his stop being the last but one on the route before the return journey. He settled down and closed his eyes.

‘You know, I think I’ll stop at the store and see if they have any stewing steak,’ said a voice.

It had been three years earlier at the age of thirteen that what he called ‘the voices’ had first made their presence felt. At first, the phenomenon had scared him and then shortly after he felt nothing but anger. His concentration suffered at school, affecting his work and grades. That’s when he started to learn how to control the voices. If he concentrated entirely on something, especially anything visual, he could stop the voices. Some voices came faintly as though far away while others were very close. This was demonstrated one evening at home and caused Wendell a lot of problems.

His elder sister and her boyfriend had joined Wendell and his parents for dinner. As the meal finished and while he helped his mother remove the dishes, he heard his sister’s boyfriend announce their engagement. Wendell congratulated the happy couple but to his surprise, his remark was met with a stony silence and a look of thunder from his father who accused his son of eavesdropping or at the very least playing a terrible joke on his sister. As the dust settled, the boyfriend made his official announcement – word for word as Wendell had heard it earlier.

One refinement followed another until he could tell which people around him could be distinguished from the cacophony of voices as a whole and which people were no longer within earshot – those who had spoken but had disappeared since and so their voices were only heard once. It took Wendell several months to perfect the ‘gift’ as he called it. One constant that he found useful was that the time between voice and the actual speaker was exactly thirty minutes.

“You know, I think I’ll stop at the store and see if they have any stewing steak.”

Wendell tried to suppress his laughter as the woman in front spoke to her traveling companion. She gave Wendell a frosty stare over her shoulder before lowering her voice.

‘That won’t do you any good,’ thought Wendell. ‘I already heard what you’re saying now as we got on the bus thirty minutes ago.’ He smiled to himself.

As the bus reached Ledbridge Heights, Wendell heard a new voice, quite close. It was a middle-aged male.

‘Keep driving or I’ll blow your head off.’

Wendell got up and made his way to the front of the bus. As the bus slowed, he fell backward. “Driver, don’t stop. You’re in danger. Don’t stop!”

Too late, the bus came to a halt and with a loud rattle, the folding doors opened. A middle-aged man boarded. Wendell hid behind the nearest seat, his heart pounding. The voice spoke again.

‘When you get to Church Street take a right.’

Wendell looked at his wristwatch. It was 5 p.m. He peered around the end of the seat. The man was sitting just behind the driver doing nothing. There was still 25 minutes to go before the driver would be threatened and that meant the bus would be on the return route. Wendell pulled his cell phone from his pocket and found a no signal bar on the screen. He lay helpless, trying to think of a way to alert the driver.

As he lay, buffeted back and forth by the bus’s motion, Wendell felt a strange sensation course through his body. His eyes grew heavy and with a sickening feeling, he fell, tumbling over and over into blackness. A voice he recognized whispered into his ear.

“Wendell, it’s me. Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Wendell, I’m over here.”

Wendell’s head cleared and his eyes opened. All he could see at first was the back of the seat in front of him. He was still lying on the floor and the bus was still moving.

“Over here,” said the voice again.

Confused and thinking he was listening to a voice thirty minutes before its owner spoke, he took no notice and looked at his watch. Hardly any time had elapsed at all – just a few minutes since he first looked at the time.

 

 

Comments

What a captivating idea behind this story.I loved the scene setting - beautiful writing. The characters are so believable because they are so different and well described. I loved the fat black woman who stood with her hands on her hips. I wonder if she and the blonde woman with ample and unample skirt will appear in later chapters. They are such colourful characters. Wendell must be about last year of school. Is he?