Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Horror on the 33

Of those grim events I find it difficult, even at this late date, to write. Strictly speaking, they did not even involve me, but Knavle, my dear friend, from whose voluminous correspondence alone I know of them. But we are close in soul, Knavle and I, and through his accounts, hellishly circumstantial as they were, I can say that I too, in a manner, lived those moments of horror with him.

When that first dread encounter befell him, Knavle had been a wino for almost exactly a year. He was in fact observing the anniversary month (he had already lost his memory for exact dates) of his choosing that bibulous career.

I must confess that all of us who knew him sought to discourage him from following this alcoholic vocation. Even I, his closest confidant, had been so unsupportive as to call his choice of lifestyle a “downward path.” He had mildly replied that his was no smooth downhill way; that it was far easier, in fact, to be a short-order cook (for example) or a bank president, than to be a wino; that, moreover, in being an object of compassion, he was performing a vital moral service for those more fortunate than himself who would otherwise, lacking such flagrant specimens of misery, pity only themselves.

Fortunately, over the months, Knavle’s happiness and dedication persuaded me of the narrowness of my prim response, and by the time I write of, our breach was well healed. In the last letter I had from him before the one detailing his encounter, my friend had written with calm gaiety of his simple rituals of anniversary: apart from drinks cadged from others’ bottles, over whose nature he had no control, he was drinking, throughout the month, only Santa Fe White Port—his first “poison” (so he fondly called it) as a fledgling sot.

Ah, the contrast of that letter with the next! The former closed with an airy reference to von Schecklestumpff’s remark that religious faith lies more in small observances than grand beliefs, and in the postscript Knavle put the bite on me for five dollars. But even as I was sealing my reply, with a two-dollar money order, his next letter was dropped through my door slot, thick with Knavle’s scrupulous detail. About its pages hung—not the festive fragrance of Santa Fe—but the light stink of sweating fear!

Knavle is slight and short—in general, large-bodied winos don’t survive well. Knavle was one of those who could fold themselves out of sight to take their doses of oblivion. An important concomitant of this skill is the habit, on waking, of lying perfectly still until one has rediscovered one’s surroundings. This Knavle did on the night in question.

He climbed up out of the chasm of two quarts of White Port to find himself folded up, vibrating. He lay on a taut surface of ocher-colored plastic whose texture parodied skin, and which had a scorched smell. He was, he realized, on a bus. That it was late at night, he judged from its being interiorly lit, and from the absence of voices. And by the fetid hum beneath him, Knavle knew he was over the bus’s motor, at the rear of the great rattling fluorescent barn of a vehicle. Knavle turned his face up, and looked above.

He could see the contents of the bus without sitting up, because it was a new model, with yard-square windows that, when it was dark outside and light within, formed facing walls of mirrors. Out either side, the bus’s interior, in hologram, lay adjoining itself. Thus Knavle saw all just by twisting his head slightly, and the image quality was excellent, even down to the striates of the red rubber aisle-mat and the felt-tipped graffiti on the aluminum screen up front, concealing the driver.

As plainly mirrored were the bus’s two other passengers, closer to the front. One was a small elderly Oriental man, sitting motionless, wearing a suit and tie, his skull appearing as soft as the thin ashen hair slicked down across it. And the other, some seats behind him, was an old woman, a trashbagger.

She was, with her three bulging handbags and two doubled grocery sacks of junk, one of the shopping-cart crazies, the trashcan scavengers who wheeled their wealth, mumbling, through just such parks and public squares as Knavle frequented. This one he had never seen. Her hair was a frozen yellowish thornball, like tallow radiating in spikes from her dirty, nut-hard face. Even as Knavle studied her, she rose and carried her baggage up the aisle to the little Oriental gentleman’s seat, muttering to herself as she went. He turned up to her, inquiringly, his smooth bulged brow that suggested infant frailty; the frecklings of age around the deep orbits of his eyes gathered into the constellations of a painful smile. The old woman plumped down beside him and began mumbling with more purpose, almost audibly to Knavle where he lay.

My friend watched, expecting the old man’s attempt to extricate himself. The little person made none. His mouth widened—a smile now of absorption in what the old she-crazy was saying. Tenderly, absently, he almost-touched the careful knot of his tie, and replied something. The white spike-radiating head rocked, nodding.

Knavle’s neck was cramped, and he was just deciding to sit up when he saw the old woman throw a look round the bus. There was something in the alert competence of the look that chilled him. He felt sure she had not seen him, and that look made him know that she must not. The bus increased speed, plowing down a long slope between sparse lines of streetlamps just visible through the interior reflections in the windows. The motor went into a higher, sighing key, and the boom and hustle of the great chassis erased all traces of what the trashbagger was now saying to her seatmate.

As she spoke, she began actually to touch the little man, to groom him here and there—pat his tie knot, smooth the hair like fine dead grass at his temples, stroke his lapels. While she did these things, the man’s head drooped forward; he gaped at her and seemed to want to deny something that she was saying.

Then, all at once, the old woman shifted in her seat and went straight to work on him. She unknotted his tie, dragged it out of his collar, and wadded it into one of her bags. She reached down, seemed to fumble obscenely for a moment, then sat up, tucking one of his shoes into a different bag. Lastly, she rousted the comb from one of his back pockets and snagged it decoratively in her waxy locks. The old man gazed at her, rapt, with the expression of one who wants to smile politely, but finds what has been said a bit too difficult, or shocking.

As what seemed a finishing stroke in this senseless touch-up, the trashbagger tilted the man’s head slightly to one side. Then she set all of her parcels down in the aisle, reached up and took hold of her own throat with both hands, and stripped her face clean off her skull. However, it was not a skull that was revealed, but the head of some huge wasp, or great carnivorous fly. Its merciless oral machinery sank into the old man’s neck. For perhaps fifteen seconds, the trashbagger fed.

Then she pulled her face back on, swept up all her goods in one arm, and supported the little body like some drunken crony on the other.

Staggering down the aisle to the head of the bus as the vehicle suddenly slowed for a stop, she tendered a small something to the unseen driver. The doors gasped open, and the spiky head descended.

Knavle could not resist sitting up to peer outside. They were at an in-town park he knew, at an intersection where the neon of an all-night coffee shop added to the light of the signals, set to idiotic pulsations of red and yellow. From the intersection, he knew he was on the #33 bus.

She set the small gentleman’s body on a bus-stop bench backed by the park’s dark wall of foliage. She walked on toward the crosswalk, leaving him sprawled in a slovenly way that the neatness of the man himself would never have tolerated. Knavle looked at him and saw that across the street a bored waitress, leaning at her counter in the coffee shop, stared at him too. Then he glanced back at the corner and saw that he himself was being studied by the trashbagger. She had paused in her hobbling departure and now looked Knavle straight in the eyes. They stared at each other a long moment across the disjointed figure that slouched in the poison¬candy-colored light. Then the bus pulled away. With a groan, my friend shrank back down in his seat. Alas! In a world of glass, where can a man lie hidden?

• • • •

A person without experience of the wino perspective could easily miss the peculiar dismalness of Knavle’s position. He and his caste inhabit the waste corners of the world and have therefore the least power to hide of any class of men. Only a man who possesses things has any power to rearrange his life, to avoid or defend; as for the resolutely destitute, they are already clinging to crannies and last possibilities. There are only so many places to sleep for free, or to get a morning’s work distributing supermarket advertisers, and to these places Knavle had to go.

In his account of the day following the incident, his style was firm and factual, but the activities he reported betrayed how disturbed he was. In the first place, around noon, he bought and ate, not only two hot dogs, but an order of fries as well. In the second place, after his meal, he went and reported the murder on the bus to the police.

The food alone was very telling—any serious wino dislikes buying it. Wine is a corrosive that reduces and disposes of one’s time. Nothing is expected of it, it commits one to nothing—its purchase expresses not even the bare assumption that the morrow will dawn. How different the act of buying food, a stark confession of belief in the future! I needed no more than this to tell me that Knavle was contemplating positive action and might even go so far as to try to save his life in a coherent and serious way.

But of course, I had further and far more startling evidence of this. To go to the police! Knavle! He was himself shocked that he had gone to this extreme, as his letter ended by expressing. Here follows Knavle’s own account:

I went to the central station, McPittle, instead of one of the local tanks where I’m known, because I reasoned that such heavy news should go straight to the heart of the organization, for promptest action.

The central station is a square glass building at least twenty-five stories high. It’s a mirror-shaft, it reflects everything around it—sky, neighboring buildings, street traffic.

Inside the building, though, total transparency takes over. There are some floors where you can see the entire width of the place through hundreds of glass cubicle dividers. A forest of heads bobs in and out of view among the window-maze, round black heads as numerous as the acres of little round black holes in the ceilings. These, like a field of boringly orderly stars, are hung with ugly fluorescent moons—square aluminum grids like ice-cube trays. The slightly chilled air has a mausoleum smell, I think from the presence of so much underarm deodorant.

The first man I saw asked me if I had a record. I expected this, what with my good suit off at the cleaners, and having left my shave and my shine in my other pants. I said I had a record, but I hadn’t done anything lately and that I had come to report a murder I’d witnessed last night after midnight on the #33 bus, Airport to Flanders Heights. The murder was of an elderly Japanese or perhaps Chinese gentleman, and by an even more elderly woman of a vagabondish, addled appearance. The man I spoke to turned to his partner and said, thumbing at me: “Get this individual’s name and data. I’ve got a feeling he has a record.”

The partner took my name and data, and I waited for about an hour on a cushioned bench without a back. Finally the report came up from downstairs that yes, I did have a record. They gave me my file number and sent me up two floors to see a detective. All the detectives were busy, so I waited in the detectives’ waiting room for about two hours. At last they called me to the bench. The girl asked for my file number. I had lost it.

They telephoned downstairs, but the file-number department was closed. They told me to come back in the morning, and I left, blessing my luck, for I’d managed to work out of my system this strange compulsion to report this thing, and without having actually to do it. More important still, I’d thought about the trashbagger through all those hours waiting and come to realize something about her: she would never let herself get caught, and no human power would ever take her against her will.

After this, Knavle’s fatalism returned—or so I believed. His letters pointedly excluded mention of the incident, and the life they reported, divided between the usual parks and missions and neighborhoods, was his old life unaltered. It would have been tactless to applaud the stoic bravery of this. We both knew that he had confronted an entity of the direst kind, which now knew him as a witness to its act. But to live on in spite of this, to make, after his initial excited folly, no move to hide or defend himself—this was no more than his wino’s code of honor required. To praise an integrity that he would want his friends simply to assume him to have, would have insulted him.

But I was misled, and his behavior was in fact not perfectly fatalistic. After several letters he “let slip” that, not only had he not cut down on his bus riding—he had increased it and had begun to ride the #33 with especial frequency. This was a converse species of betrayal of his ethics. I wrote him so at once, my real concern, of course, being greater for his life than his code of behavior. But I stressed this point—to seek the inevitable was as mad as to flee it. What had happened to his sot’s detachment? I knew his desert-fringed city well enough to realize that he could get around it quite adequately without using the #33 line, and told him quite forcefully that this he ought to do. His reply was rather airy. He insisted the #33 had always been one of his entertainments. Aside from its offering, if taken round-trip, three hours of warm lodging, its cross-town course gave one an excellent panorama of the city—from its spectacular glass-and¬girders heart, through successive ethnic zones, through the outlying bean fields, orchards, and eucalyptus windbreaks on the town’s fringe, out to the airport. Moreover, he added, he never took it at night anymore. Small protection! For Knavle’s second encounter was soon enough in coming. And it happened on the #33 in broad daylight, at high, glorious noon!

On the #33’s return ride from the airport, the farmland is succeeded by a black-and-Latin ghetto whose streets are broad, their asphalt striped with grass-tufted seams, and on whose plank fencing or raw cinder-block walls cholo writing jostles the styleless black graffiti. The land rises into minor hills after this, where the streets are crowded with taller, more Victorian frame structures. Chinese, Korean, and aged white people live here. And here, as the bus topped a rise, the cloud cover that had dimmed the whole first half of Knavle’s ride broke up before a fresh breeze. Tons of honey-colored sunlight was poured upon the steep shingled rooftops; the winter-scoured pavements glowed white and dry. My friend rejoiced in the sight and wondered if his sole fellow passenger did likewise. She was a little chicken-necked biddy, wattled with age, and wearing a small round Sunday hat cum non-functional fragment of blue veil. She sat near the front, Knavle the rear; he could not determine if she even saw beyond the window glass beside her. The bus, just past the rise, pulled into a stop, its big new-model brakes making barely a squeak. The door wheezed and clapped. A thornball of tallowish hair rose, like a malign jerky sun, from the step well. Paying nothing, the old leather-faced trashbagger mumbled up the aisle as the bus pulled away. Had there been a hum of revolution from the roll of identifying plaques set in the bus’s brow? Perhaps to NOT IN SERVICE?

Oddly, Knavle did not feel directly endangered, though he was perfectly visible. Without knowing why, he felt sure from the first that the biddy was to be the old vagabond’s prey. Just so. The trashbagger gasped to a seat just two aft of the biddy. She sat mumbling, rummaging without system among her multiple tacky baggage. Knavle watched, with no slightest concern to conceal the focus of his attention. The crone had not met his eyes as she came up the aisle.

Now she got up and advanced to the lady’s seat—she sat, as many of them like to do, on its aisleward edge. The old nomad stood there in a bearish slouch, hugging her bags and sacks of trash, muttered down, and made a vague uncouth movement with her head. The biddy looked up at her, and Knavle could feel, though not see, how her knobby hands fretted with the gloves they doubtless held in her lap. Yet with the disquiet, there was also in that biddy’s brow the same knit of fascination Knavle remembered from the little Japanese gentleman. Her thrifty, bony chin hung slack an instant, then she positively smiled, tightening the threads of age across her lean jaw. She moved in to the window, and the trashbagger plumped herself down in her place.

The she-tramp set her bundles down in the aisle, then leaned forward to massage her legs, speaking in a steady rumble the while. The biddy, whom Knavle saw in profile, wore as she listened a beaming church-social smile that he was sure was the liveliest in her repertory. She nodded to some remark, then lifted her hand with a little gesture that suggested the sliding-aside of some intervening panel. Leaning close to this aperture of special confidence she had created, the biddy murmured an eager sentence to the trashbagger, who, sitting up from rubbing her ankles, nodded deliberately.

They sat bent in closer conference. The spiky head spoke; the biddy’s; again the spiky. And as she spoke, the trashbagger casually reached up and plucked one of the biddy’s earrings off of her earlobe and pocketed it. The biddy nodded dazedly—seemingly, more at something said than done. The trashbagger muttered and plucked down the second earring.

Knavle, for no clear reason, expected the old vagabond to take the Sunday hat as one of her trophies, but she did not. She took the coat of the biddy’s blue knit suit off her with surprising address and, as with the Japanese gentleman, a shoe last of all. Knavle had been asking himself if he would watch to the end. Now he sat powerless to look away as the crone seized her own throat and wrenched off the rubbery bag of face and scalp, freeing the huge insect head with its black nodular eyes and the compact surgical apparatus of its mouthparts.

It was not the busy, multiple scissoring movement of these that Knavle watched as they sank into the biddy’s neck—but rather the eyes. Since each of them was a hemisphere and they faced opposite directions, he knew that they had wraparound focus and saw the bus’s whole interior. Nevertheless, he had the overwhelming feeling that they were aimed at himself, centrally and exclusively, in the manner of a human gaze.

For fifteen seconds, he and the immense arthropod stared at each other while the latter fed. The exuberant unpent sunlight poured through the all-admitting windows and lit those compound eyes with a rainbow coruscation. Knavle marveled at the radiance fractured on those hundred thousand lenses; the creature seemed gilded with immortality in those moments, with the gorgeous streets and sky passing outside.

Then the trashbagger was pulling back on the wigged sack, shouldering the biddy and her bundles on either side, and shuffling out, as the bus sighed curbward for its first stop since she had gotten on. She tendered something at the driver’s stall and got off. She set the biddy on the bus-stop bench and shuffled away, round the corner, gone. The biddy sat askew—coatless in her lace-throated blouse, but still wearing her Sunday hat—and seemed to sleep with a faintly abandoned air, publicly, shamelessly, like an old wino in a park.

• • • •

After receiving Knavle’s account of this second confrontation, I awaited his next letter with dread. I hoped he would decide to abandon that city, but had too much reason to expect him—not only to stay—but to seek out the Trashbagger again.

When his next letter came, it brought not only the disappointment of seeing my fears justified, but a more subtle unease as well. I present that brief epistle in its entirety. Knavle’s unsettling degree of intuition about the Trashbagger, the particularity with which he surmises the Trashbagger’s aims and her laws, strongly suggested to me that my friend was already to a critical extent subject to a kind of hypnotic influence exerted by the creature. I subjoin the document:

March 17

To Mr. J. Bradley McPittle

Dear McPittle:

A wino is a frontiersman, a romantic. He lives squarely in the wasteland that most men so furiously deny, though it surrounds them. For all our best mirrors and lenses, aimed star- or atom-ward, tell the same tale: motes of matter wheeling in gulfs of black space.

Anyone who takes a walk on the desert at night, on a clear night, can see this truth without lenses. I’ve often insisted, McPittle, on the fact that my city stands on a desert. Even lacking this, any big city at night is in itself a good facsimile of a desert, and a good wino is the official desert rat of all such wastelands.

Any wino who is not merely a timeserver inhabits the desert out of pride, because it is the truth, or at least the truth’s image. He scorns the glass mazes of responsibility, wherein so many well-upholstered heads bristle and bob and keep the ever-deepening streams of data creeping through the crooked course of systems!

But I digress. I’m on the bench at the park stop of the #33 line. It’s late afternoon now—near rush hour. I’ll stay on the bus all night if need be. I distributed advertisers yesterday—endless miles of advertisers! I have with me both fare and provisions. In a nice stout paper bag I have a quart of Santa Fe White Port, a quart of Italian Swiss Tawny Sherry, a quart of Thunderbird, and a pink bottle of Pagan Pink Ripple. I’ve got three packages of cracker-and-peanut-butter sandwichettes, fifty cents’ worth of beef jerky, two Three Musketeers bars, and a package of Beer Nuts. Also, in a separate bag made out of red plastic netting, I have five pounds of oranges.

For the past half-hour I was wondering why I got the oranges, which I don’t like—but I just remembered that we used to take them with us as kids when we rode the bus to the beach.

I’m petrified. But I am also strangely sure of one thing: it’s in that last conversation you have with the Trashbagger that all is won or lost. Only if she outtalks you there, only if she hypnotizes you, does her face come off. If you outthink her and resist her will, you win your freedom.

I wish I had a gun! I couldn’t even afford a kitchen knife!

There’s something else I know too, McPittle. I’m convinced I’m not the only man in this city to have witnessed the Trashbagger’s crimes. And I feel that her other witnesses have been as powerless to testify as I was, perhaps through fear of madness, or torpor of the will. How many of those people in that coffee shop across from me, eating there doggedly, docilely, on display, how many of them have seen and are saying nothing? Their fat, freckled earlobes, their veiny noses, move slightly in mastication. Their neckless profiles are a trifle stiff with the pretense of invisibility to the roaring street . . .

Whatever else, I won’t hide. I won’t—the bus, two blocks off. Must seal and send. May luck sit on my shoulder!

Yours,

Knavle

• • • •

I intended to present a digest of Knavle’s subsequent letter—the last he ever wrote. But despite the vagaries of my friend’s style, and the rather baroque imagery to which he was addicted, I feel it would be unfair of me to interpose myself between the reader and what must be the sole firsthand account of the Trashbagger extant.

I here present then, with the most poignant feeling, the letter itself, intact as before, despite its length:

March I?

Dear McPittle:

Taking the #33 at rush hour is a kind of drowning, an immersion in breathless waiting men. Children, or an occasional addled vociferous type, will send ripples of response through the mass, but then all our engines return to idle. The feel of all those idling psychic dynamos around one causes, at moments, an unbearable suffocating suspense. How can we all wait like this, you think, packed, paralyzed? You think of the thousand unguessable impulses that any one of us could explode with at any moment. The fact that we don’t, that we all sit and stand, drowned in silence—it becomes amazing, awe-inspiring in itself.

As the light fails in the sky and the interior lights come on, then we, a fluorescent-lit thicket of the drowned, go more minutely on display to the sidewalks we pass. We are they, shown them as plainly as are the mannequin displays in plate glass. We flee, a little copse of shadows, across the concrete. Perhaps we look like an exhibit in some future museum of our culture. We are quietly posed, seemingly intent, unaware that our world lies buried a millennium deep in time past.

We were all agreed to sit and wait in silence. Most of the other passengers had other agreements going, such as about taking baths and washing their clothes. They resented anyone’s waiting in silence with them, who had not entered these other covenants too.

Therefore, since I was already in bad odor with the company to begin with (so to speak), I didn’t aggravate matters by sneaking any sips. I ate my cracker sandwichettes, and then an orange, as quietly as possible in the window seat I had gotten. I waited.

Around eight it was safe to start getting a gloss on, and I did so. I wasn’t yet afraid, because I really expected nothing until the post-eleven thin-out of riders. Now I nursed my wine and enjoyed the sense of being on a cruise. A bus has the same rock and surge as a boat, and at night it contains you in an alien element—the dark—just as a boat does. I peered through my reflection at the streets outside, or followed the easy-paced changes of the faces of my fellow-travelers—augmented at one door, eroding away at the other. I did the latter discreetly by watching the windows. I had the contented feeling, as I did this, of guaranteed distraction, such as watching TV can give—though this, of course, had far more variety than TV.

My wine ran out at about ten-thirty. Since we were nearing the outbound end of the run, I decided to get down at the last intersection before the bus entered the airport. I could replenish at the liquor store that stood there and get the bus again as it came back out of the airport.

Just after I got down, I realized I hadn’t gotten a clear look at the driver’s face. I hadn’t remembered to do this on the previous encounters and had told myself to keep track of the drivers this time out.

But when I got back on, I was startled by the bus’s being completely empty, and when I took my seat a ways back, I still hadn’t noticed the man behind the wheel.

The bus almost never left the airport without someone aboard—not before midnight, anyway. The implication of its being empty did not escape me. I sat literally on the edge of my seat, meaning to face the Trashbagger standing if she got on. This was irrational. I knew she could only be escaped through debate and that no physical dodging could save my life, failing in this. Still I sat poised.

But absolutely no one got on. Not at the lonely stops in the rural stretch, where the dead light of the brown-vapor highway lamps lay on the black rank and file of identical orange trees. Not in the ghettoed hills, where the intersections were lit by the Coors sign of a ten-stool bar, the traffic signals, and an old-fashioned streetlight on a pseudo-Corinthian column of cement. And not in big-money downtown, in whose glass-box megaliths the ceiling lights formed shapeless mosaics, hanging like white larvae in hives. Not for over fifteen miles. We got onto the freeway for the last short stretch to our turnaround downtown.

This was nothing short of impossible. It was a minor order of impossibility, but it was one nonetheless. Not once did the bus pause to fall back into the schedule that it must surely be getting ahead of, barreling stopless on, as it was. The longer I delayed saying something to the driver—going up, for instance, and making a jocular remark about its being a busy night—the more powerless I was to speak. The bus spun through the turnaround in the downtown terminal and roared back out and onto the freeway again.

The certainty—panicky and insistent—that if I pulled the cord, the driver would not let me off, almost drove me to try, though I was resolved so fiercely to come face to face with my enemy, and though this was so clearly a premonition of our confrontation. We roared through the recrossing of the city. Once more, absolutely no one got on.

I got numb enough to my suspense to open the bottle of port I had bought when I got off. We turned through the airport without a pause, and with a deepening hum of gears, charged out on our return. I heard a snort, a cough, and a stir behind me.

I turned. Six seats back, near the rear, a tousled unshaven face—toothless though relatively unsenile—sprouted into view, scrubbing gummy eyelids with a blackened hand whose dirtiness was so deep-lying that it was glossy. It was a fellow wino, just ending a nap that must have been going on for hours. As I stared at him, as blank as his own scarce-wakened mind, the bus braked with a whistling gasp, and its door clapped open.

I will relive that moment of waiting for as long as is left me. We sat in that weird triptych of the interior adjoined by its differently tilted selves on either side. There we were, six winos, waiting, amid six rows of chrome arcs on the empty seat-backs, like shiny rib cages.

Up from the doorwell rose, dodderingly, the spiky tallowish planet. The Trashbagger passed the driver without paying, and waddled toward me—me now, I was sure!—as the bus pulled out. I could not move. My nerves cried rise to my legs, but the electric impulse fell down into a bodiless gulf where no legs were.

Her body was a squat mass of dowdy brown overcoat, a matronly non-shape. Over this her burst of electric hair—like a dirtied dandelion seed-puff—and her brown face as etched with line as an oak’s bark, floated with a faint tremor that suggested inner voltage, fierce, secret meditation. I looked at my reflection in the window beside me, asking myself why I did not rise, stand ready, fight, or flee.

But as she stood near my seat, looking at me, I found that I feared not so much for my life, as lest I should make a mistake. It was something like stage fright that I shook with, an overawing sense that in this interview I must make my ultimate and all-determining account of myself, and that my subsequent fate should be precisely as good as my performance now. The urgency of escape was muffled by this dread. The Trashbagger set her parcels down on a seat across the aisle and, with a whispery concussion, dropped onto the seat next to me. With the panic of a nervous child who blurts the first thing he can think of, I asked her:

“Do you push around a shopping cart?” For I had seen many like her who did.

The old face aimed itself at me—the hair gave off a whiff of something like shoe polish with the movement. The walnut-shell topography of skin gullied and rivered more deeply with the tightening of a smile:

“Yes. You bet I do.”

“Why?” I croaked.

“Why, to collect everything that’s mine.”

“And what . . . is yours?”

“All trash.”

I nodded. I did not want to ask my next question:

“And what’s trash?”

“Why, don’t you know that? It’s everything, sooner or later.”

Her answers came with serene clarity. Yet I could not be sure, as I stared in her face, if her lips in fact moved, or even if she used a voice.

And each answer astonished me. Not in itself—but simply that I had received it. Without expecting for an instant that she would spare my life, I felt a mellow pang of faith in her. Her aura irresistibly inspired it. For despite her poverty and dirt, her agedness had taken on a wild-old-wicked-man quality. Hers, I felt, was the crusty, careless age of genius—Einsteinian, Whitmanesque, vital and bookish and humane.

It struck me then. To the old gentleman she had surely seemed benevolent, Confucian. To the biddy she must have been deaconish, and oozed a pastorly unction.

But realizing this did not free me from the spell. I found it impossible to recall what her head looked like when stripped of its living mask. I felt, and could only feel, that she was wisdom itself, that she was the very center of my hope and held the key to my salvation.

“But listen, ma’am,” I said—carefully, hushedly—“I am not trash.” She shook her head very slightly. “But you will be.”

“Tell me,” I said, “just give me a hint. What must I argue? What line of defense must I take? I only want a clue.”

“But what can you argue?” she said. My heart moved with a despairing assent to this. I saw through the reflection in the window that in this seeming-short time we had almost recrossed the city and were not far from the freeway stretch. In my stomach I felt an antlike crawliness. I remembered the maggots I had found, with horror, in the belly of a dead cat I had turned over as a boy.

“I think I understand you,” I said. “All lives are chance-formed electrochemical engines, vastly isolated in space. Then entropy . . . atrophy . . . death . . . trash . . .”

Each word I said sank me deeper in fear, till I felt I was suffocating in my speech. Conversations with the Trashbagger led to a single end. I’d seen it. This conversation too was a brief maze leading to the same door.

“But isn’t there something more, something else, that doesn’t become trash?” I cried. It took great effort to say this. She exerted a kind of gravity, causing the mind to fall into her mode of thought. It was like physical toil to formulate an idea alien to her. The words came out of my mouth stillborn. Her old eroded face was a desert my question got lost in.

“Something more? Something else?” she echoed, with remote, sad humor. Again I wondered—had she spoken with her voice, or had her eyes answered, cold black stars above her desolation of a face?

She leaned forward and scratched at a varicosity through a hole in her filthy socks. “Motes in space,” she sighed as she sat up, “wound up by accident, running down by necessity.”

I might have been speaking myself, so simple and direct was my assent to what she said. I heard a concluding note in her tone and sensed our talk was ending, but could not for my life deny what she had said.

“You’ve got to tell me,” I blurted. “Are you going to take it off?” She bent to scratch her other leg. “Take what off?” she asked me. “Your face.”

“My face?” she asked, sitting up. She looked into my eyes for a long moment. “Yes,” she said, putting her hands to her throat.

I saw the seam in the skin—crosswise to the esophagus—split cleanly, like withered lips parting. A thinner neck was unveiled within, bristling with black chitinous hairs and barbs. This could not be. There was, however, no other reality—only these three bus interiors and, outside, the arc-lit sixty-mile-an-hour emptiness of the freeway, which we had just entered. With a flabby friction, the empty bag of the old woman’s face slid completely off the instrument-cluster of the Trashbagger’s feeding apparatus, and off the vast compound eyes.

I looked in the window beside me and beseeched my image to move, not to sit there and die, but somehow to rise. My image did nothing. Behind me, the black multi-lensed planets, lit by a fluorescent sun, loomed near.

I did the impossible. I tore myself loose from my reflection. It remained still, stupefied, looking on, while I wrenched myself round to face the immense hymenopterous head. I felt as powerless to move as if there were no space around me, or as if I had become completely insubstantial. But with the same furious blind contradictiveness, I did move. I heaved, and brought upward arms and hands that held something. With this something, desperately, I smote the Trashbagger.

It was my plastic bag of oranges. It weighed several pounds, and the flexible neck of the bag made blackjack-like blows possible. The fruit had a meaty sound against the stiff and surprisingly tough globes of the Trashbagger’s eyes.

It was a groggy enough blow, given her mass and strength, but it had enormous effect. The Trashbagger rocked back on the seat, and in the same moment the bus swerved sharply; this, combined with her recoil, dumped her straight out of the seat. I had a glimpse of the wino staring on round-eyed from the rear, and then the sudden emergence of the driver’s head from behind his aluminum screen brought me around.

He was a young black man with a goatee and a half-length natural. The bus still roared forward down the freeway, and yet he had brought his head and shoulders completely around, to stare back at me in outrage and shock.

“Are you crazy, man!” he shouted. “What you doin’? Don’t you know who that is?”

“Jesus Christ!” I screamed back. “Look out!!”

The freeway poured toward us through the windshield behind the driver’s head, and there I saw a big two-trailer truck drop sluggishly from an on-ramp and into our lane ahead. It was barely doing thirty yet, and we were at sixty-five.

The driver looked around and, in slow motion, it seemed, pulled himself back behind the screen. Both trailers of the truck were heaped with oranges. As the vehicle struggled toward forty with dinosaurian effort, and as we began—too late, I saw—to brake and swerve aside, it seemed I saw each individual orange—dewy, porous, luminous, in the freeway’s arc lights. Our wheels locked before we could quite pull out of the lane, and the bus skated sideways against the trailers of the frantically accelerating fruit truck.

A rain of oranges drummed on our roof, and then our whole long rattling frame whirled through a half-circle and crashed rear-first against one of the legs of an overpass.

I clutched the seat through the impact, which sent the Trashbagger rolling down the aisle to the rear of the bus. Then we were motionless, and with a cough, the pneumatic doors flapped open. I sprang up, crossed the aisle, and jumped out onto the freeway. I took three running steps toward the on-ramp the truck—now sprawled ahead of us—had entered by. From behind the bus, the Trashbagger stepped out and stood in my way. I stopped and lifted my sack of oranges again.

One of her antennae was bent, half-folded sideways. In the arc light her great eyes seemed to brim with sight, each one of them like a cosmos of individuals—lenses innumerable as the tiny relentless lives of coral in an acre of archipelago. I realized with astonishment that, save for the orange truck beyond the bus, the freeway was perfectly deserted.

“There is no place to run,” the Trashbagger said. Unmistakably, it was a voice, the creature’s true voice—a dry chitinous whisper that made clicks and slotting noises serve for its consonants. “No place. Not in time. Not in space. Nowhere. Are you quite mad?”

“Yes!” I shouted, desperately eager to agree. “Yes! Stand back! Stand back, or I’ll hit you again!”

The Trashbagger’s mouthparts, a black and green bouquet of rasps and pliers, worked, clicking and twiddling with a curious energy. As if she did not have wraparound focus, she tilted now one and now the other globe of lenses at me, with a movement like a bird’s, or a mantis’s delicate head-cocking. Her shoulders shook. She made a low pneumatic commotion. I realized that she was laughing.

That laughter raised every hair on my body. It had the nasty final sound of a quarter falling into a glass box. It had some of that blind wild energy, that booming clatter, of an empty bus doing seventy on a midnight freeway. The locking tomb was in it too, the gasp of the closing door. I ran past her—she made no move to stop me. I ran straight up the ivied slope of the embankment, through the lamp-lit smog-oily leaves, cold and wet with the fog. At the top, there was a chain link fence. I climbed over it, and I ran. My God, McPittle, how I ran!

Knavle

• • • •

Knavle never wrote another letter, as I have mentioned. He said it was a morbid habit, and abandoned the practice.

He also abandoned the wino’s life. He has become an itinerant juggler, and as a result I see him much more frequently. And though he speaks wistfully of his days as a drunkard, he realizes that their attraction is largely a matter of that fortuitous beauty all things have when they are past. He is sincerely devoted to juggling, the art of which he first assayed using those same oranges that saved his life that night.

He was here just recently, for an engagement at the local Senior Citizens’ Center, and he spoke of his new calling:

“Juggling, McPittle,” he told me, “has given me something I never had as a wino. It is a defiance of gravity of the most beautifully direct kind. Everything that lives is a defiance of gravity! Everything has a dance in it which it is my joy to liberate, and I mean to specialize in precisely this, until my next meeting with the Trashbagger. Everything must dance, you see—everything—until it winds up in her shopping cart, that rattling jail!”

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Michael Shea

Michael Shea (1946-2014) was an American fantasy, horror, and science fiction author who lived in California. He was a multiple winner of the World Fantasy Award and his works include Nifft the Lean (winner of the World Fantasy Award) and The Mines of Behemoth (later republished together as The Incomplete Nifft), as well as The A’Rak and In Yana, the Touch of Undying. He was also a noted short fiction writer, with “The Angel of Death” (1979) nominated for a Nebula Award and “The Autopsy” (1980) nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards.