End of the Line
by De Paepe and Depuydt
Translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter
Donna Daems hadn’t felt right all day. She’d awakened with a splitting headache. Something she couldn’t identify sucked the energy from her bones, and a wave of nausea crept upward from her stomach with every move she made. She probably had a fever, but she didn’t dare reach for the thermometer, sure that doing so would mean she’d have to stay home from work. She’d only started at the Jan Palfijn Hospital in Ghent a week ago, and she couldn’t afford to call in sick so soon. It had been challenging enough to find a new position after being let go by her previous employer. So she’d shrugged into her heavy winter coat and, shivering, dragged herself to the deserted bus stop at the far end of the sparsely populated Meulesteedsesteenweg, the end of the line for the #6.
She was forty years old and still couldn’t seem to get her life on track. Her ex had custody of their kids, only because he had a bigger house with a bigger yard and bought them more toys than they could ever possibly play with. She had visitation rights once every other week, and the in-between times were filled with loneliness. Which gnawed at her as fiercely as the flu she seemed to have come down with.
All things considered, the workday hadn’t been too awful. The patients on the geriatric ward had even managed to cheer her up a little. Especially Mr. Sertijns, who despite terminal cancer seemed to consider his final weeks of life one grand adventure and whose humor made him the nurses’ pet. When, sighing, she’d begun to make his bed, he’d noticed she wasn’t feeling well and burst out in a verse of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” That had charmed a smile out of her, which in and of itself was more than she’d expected of the day.
Her shift had ended—without any noteworthy difficulties—at eleven p.m. She got to the bus stop in plenty of time to catch the last #6 to Meulestede. She vaguely recognized a few of the passengers, other hospital employees and residents of the apartments on the Watersportbaan. She knew the driver by sight too. The day before yesterday, after her first late shift, the same man had been behind the wheel. She was sure of that, recognized the tattoos on his forearms, his sleeves rolled up despite the weather. That previous time, she’d spent the entire ride staring at them in fascination. Two entwined nudes shimmied on his biceps every time he swung the bus left or right. The man’s black hair was going gray, and she figured him for about her own age.
Donna nodded at him politely and moved to the back of the bus. She dozed off almost before she was settled in her seat. The sudden warmth—the heat was turned up full—the stress of her new job, the long nights spent worrying about her children, and her ill health all conspired to send her off into a dreamless sleep.
The first thing she became aware of when she awoke was a rattling, like a loose garden gate shuddering in the wind. Through eyes not yet fully open, she saw that it was the hatch of what must be the heating system, under the rack where passengers left their luggage. Then she remembered where she was. She was lying stretched out on the back seat of the #6 bus, which was barreling down the road at high speed. Oddly, the interior lights had gone out. The only illumination came from the street lamps outside, which cast strange shadows on the empty seats as the bus raced past them.
The rattling sound was annoying. She reached for the hatch to close it.
It was all she could do to stifle a scream. She jerked back and cupped a hand over her mouth. There was something in there. There was something in the space next to the heater, something preventing the hatch from closing. Fear and curiosity warred within her, and she peered through the faint light, trying to make out what it was. Two gray trash bags were pulled over the large object, and there was something sticking out at the place where they’d been clumsily overlapped. My God, was that a human hand?
Horrified, she glanced up toward the driver. He was staring straight ahead, his hands gripping the steering wheel. She turned to look out the side window and was shocked again. Where in the world were they? They were on an empty road, dark warehouses on either side, chimneys belching smoke and flames, a shuttered gas station, a parking lot filled with semis. They must be far past the end of the line; this looked like . . . like the harbor.
She got to her feet and staggered forward, her head pounding. “Something’s wrong,” she told the driver when she reached him.
The man jerked in his seat and whirled around, sending the bus onto the wrong side of the road, then straightening out just in time to miss smashing into a streetlamp. Donna was thrown against the door but struggled upright. “Something’s wrong,” she said again, and waved a hand at the back of the bus.
“What are you doing here?” the driver snapped. “I thought everyone got off. Why didn’t you get off at the terminus?”
“I, ah, I fell asleep,” she stammered.
She noticed that the man’s forearms were no longer visible. He had a fleece on now, with the bus company’s logo embroidered on it. And he’d put on a cap. He looked different, but he was definitely the same person, which somehow comforted her. He had a surprisingly high voice for a man of his bulk. Under other circumstances, she might have laughed at the incongruity of it.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” he told her. “No passengers allowed after the end of the line.”
“Why are we at the harbor?” she asked.
He hesitated. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I’m heading for the depot.”
“Can I get off there?” Donna asked. “Is there another bus back to Meulestede?”
“Not tonight,” he said. He peered at her, her hand tightening on the support bar beside his seat to hold herself erect as he swung around a corner.
“What did you see back there?” His eyes stabbed at her, and then he abruptly returned his attention to the road. The fierceness of his gaze frightened her. Should she tell him? Had she really seen a hand, or had it been the tail end of a fever dream? And if she had seen it, what if the driver was somehow involved? They were on an empty road, deep in the harbor in the dead of night. She examined the nameplate pinned to his fleece. Dieter Doremans. D.D., the same as her.
“I’m not sure,” she said, “but the hatch for the heating’s banging open and closed. Isn’t that dangerous?”
An orange glow from a spotlight mounted on the side of one of the factories slid across his profile. She saw a vein pulse in his temple. His voice seemed even higher when he said, “I’ll have them fix it at the depot.” He stomped so hard on the brakes that she almost fell over. “But you have to get out,” he said. “It’s not allowed. It’s not safe.”
He pressed a button, and the bus door swung open.
Donna stared at him open-mouthed. “You can’t just leave me here. How am I supposed to get home?”
“Out,” he said, pointing at her. His forefinger practically jabbed her in the eye.
“We’re in the middle of the harbor,” she protested. “There’s nothing here.”
“Get out! You’re gonna get me in trouble!”
He lunged in her direction, and before she knew it, Donna was standing in the road. The bus door swung shut, and the #6 pulled away. Its headlights were off, she saw.
Copyright © 2018. End of the Line by De Paepe and Depuydt