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Psychophysiological Responses to Bus Time Dilation Near Tooloobaika

38 min

Unbearably hot conditions spark combustion between innocuous travellers waiting for the only bus to the utopian village of Tooloobaika.

Dear wanderer,

This story is quite long, about ten thousand words, which is a good half an hour read, and perhaps can be classified as "a novelette". It may be quite inconvenient to read such opuses online hence they often stay unread, lingering in loneliness, which isn't a nice thing, is it?

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Psychophysiological Responses to Bus Time Dilation Near Tooloobaika

Unbearably hot conditions spark combustion between innocuous travellers waiting for the only bus to the utopian village of Tooloobaika.

A relaxed 30-40 min read.

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We stand, we wait and wait—the bus, an absent promise, refuses to materialise, time and time again. The stop is in the midst of a field, though one wouldn't call it a stop if one didn't know it was supposed to be here. One can only find it by the trampled grass on the pavement, though there's really no pavement to speak of, a verge, or not even a verge, but merely the edge of the road. There used to be a signpost here, I remember it—wooden, rotten, with gaping cracks, covered with moss on the northern side. Once, an eagle, or a hawk, or a falcon perched on it (I couldn't tell them apart). Of impressive size it was, all majestic and stern, with big wings, quite formidable. No post now. Someone stole it, perhaps, or it rotted away into nothingness. Or, well, beavers ate it, as would say the local council. On the ground lies an old rusty sign "To Tooloobaika," the paint long faded and the text only readable if one knows it was once there. Just like everything else here.

Around, stretching into infinity, the oats glisten, trillions of spikelets rustling in the light, June summer-warm breeze. Instead of a horizon ahead—oats, to the left—oats, to the right—one would never guess. More oats. The oat stalks used to seem taller; now they reach at most to the chest. A child could get lost in them even if walking straight, but we, like all normal children, never walked straight. In autumn, after the harvest, the straw was rolled into bales and wrapped with thick white plastic strings. We cut them, tore apart the bales, and built forts and castles from the straw. After improvised day-long wars in such castles, we would return home itchy, scratched bloody by the straw falling everywhere from beneath our clothes.

—Yesterday, there was a fire in the field,—says the old man standing next to me. He wears a life-worn blue New York cap, sweat pouring from beneath it.—A couple of hectares, they say, all burned down. Terrible.

—Eh?—asks the full-bodied woman next to him, wearing black sunglasses and holding an open newspaper.

—Terrible, I'm telling you,—says the old man.

—A real nightmare, indeed,—says the woman.

—It ignited by itself, they say,—the old man mutters, wiping sweat from his forehead.

—No wonder — with such heat, I might ignite by myself as well. Oof!—says the woman, starting to use the newspaper as a fan.

—Drought, they say.

—That's for sure.

—But there's been a drought every year, heat every year, as long as I can remember, and all is on fire only this year. Coincidence? I think not.

—It burned in the past too, in other places.

—It doesn't just ignite by itself, though.

—Oh, it does, look at the sky and how it's blazing up there. Although no, don't look, you'll burn your eyes out.

The road is dusty, asphalt-less, cracked. Though, calling it a road is a bit of a stretch. You need to know it's a road, then maybe you'll find it; otherwise, it's just a large path through the field. Above the scorched surface, the wind chases mirages. You can see the air melting; look closer — and you feel your brain melting too. The sky is not even blue, but sheet-white. From the sun, scorching halos spread across the sky like ripples on water. If I were alone, I'd have taken off my shirt long ago, but I don't dare do that in front of the strangers. Not in the best shape, I am.

—They say their machines are powered by clouds,—says the old man.

—Whose?

—Don't you watch the news?

—What about them?

—Don't you know what people are saying?

—All sorts of things nowadays, aren't they?

—They've sucked the clouds away, and now it's nowhere to hide from the sun.

—Who has? People? What nonsense are you spouting?

—Not people, not only people. "People", oh, love.

—Then who? Demons?

—Those too, mayhap.

—Who? And why would they do that?

—So we'd have nothing to eat.

—You eat porridge every day, aren't you?

—Every morning. All my potato tops have dried up too.

—Well, you should water them. Take a hose and water them. And don't eat potato tops, perhaps.

—Water or not — same result.

—Won't make them tastier, indeed.

As my group theory professor used to say, true learning ought to be painful, akin to muscle soreness—it must be felt. If you don't feel it, you're not learning; you're merely warming a seat. Patience, too, is a skill. Few of us know but scholars distinguish between two types of waiting: scheduled and unscheduled. The only difference between them is that with the former, you know when the awaited event is supposed to occur, yet both are irksome and unnatural to a human brain. Take, for instance, the bus to Tooloobaika. It supposedly runs on a timetable, and having arrived early, I found myself immersed in the first type of waiting, time seemed to hasten slightly, and the sensation was rather pleasant—I was heading home, where my parents waited for me, bustling about, my mother likely baking pasties (with cabbage, egg and rice, mince, and marmalade from orange peels and gooseberries), my father smoking some meat, beef, or pork (or perhaps fish — he's quite an angler), and the dog, which I haven't yet seen, preparing its fluffy tail for vigorous wagging upon meeting me; the cat, presumably, would be asleep, indifferent to my arrival, with its own feline affairs and priorities. You wait, agitated, trembling with anticipation, like on the eve of your sixth birthday, only for the bus to fail to arrive on time, turning waiting from an exhilarating process into a suffocating one. Time, seemingly realising how unbound it can be, begins to torment you, passing with different speed at different moments, in different places. Excited anticipation morphs into nerve-wracking anxiety. What if the bus doesn't come at all? What then? My parents would be disheartened, the pies would go cold, the dog, tired, would lie down to sleep next to the cat, the house would be shuttered, the stove extinguished, and the lights and the telly turned off. The prodigal son once in a decade promised to visit but didn't. What a deceiver they raised. What would the neighbours say? Every few minutes (there's no set interval here—it could be a minute, five, or ten; time in the brain is such—it speeds up, slows down, writhes before you like an uneven sine wave), you pull out your overheating phone, check the clock over and over. Then, realising the battery is about to die, or the phone might as well ignite itself, you start counting seconds in your head, your breaths in and breathes out, listening to the wind and the rustle of oat stalks. Meditation, they say, is beneficial—it helps train your waiting muscle for that very nothing that never happens.

—Why do you seek enemies everywhere, old chap? —asks the woman.

—I'm not looking for them, love. They find me. You can't hide from them. They've got the whole Earth in the palm of their hand. Like this,—says the old man and shows his palm with his fingers sprawling.

—No one cares about us or our village, don't you worry. We're not even marked on the map.

—That's precisely the problem. The situation, in fact, is dire. They can do whatever they want to us—drop a bomb, poison with gas, burn with lasers—no one would even notice. But they've chosen a more refined approach.

—And what's that?

—First thing, they've sucked away the clouds, cranked up the sun, and now they're smoking us alive. How it used to be: you'd step out at dawn, face the sun, close your eyes, bask in its warmth, sit down in a garden chair, sip your cuppa with a biscuit, then off to work, right? The sun would still be scorching, but it would feet good, soul-warming, you see, because you would knew come evening, there'd be a downpour, so to say, to sprinkle up the garden, and all the other little household plots. But now, how is it? Stepping outside is impossible. One step out of the shade, and you're scorched, first a tan, then, before you know it, skin cancer sends you sideways. That's their plan, you see. I knew an old chap, a reverend fella, he was 108 years old, running around like a little boy, drinking vodka like a bloody elephant, but this year he died. In his sleep, they say, but I know that he was sun-struck the day before. So it goes. Slowly but surely, we'll all perish one by one, and as you said, dear, no one will notice. We're not even in a footnote on the map.

—You know,—I say out of boredom,—what if this is some sort of social experiment?

—Anti-social,—says the woman.

—Perhaps anti-social, that's not to be ruled out.

—The lad's got a point. That's how it happens—they test it on us first, then on the whole country, and then on the entire planet. And then—it's curtains. Total kaput. That's why our role in this is bigger than you can imagine. We must fight however we can. We must resist. But now I'm going to stretch my legs; they've gone completely numb from standing still.

The old man straightens up, adjusts his cap, and starts to walk in figure-eights along the road. He barely lifts his feet, causing a cloud of road dust to rise with every shuffle of his soles.

—Have you been away for long?—asks a voice from behind.

The dialogue seemed over; everyone had gone quiet, it was time to breathe out and think my thoughts, so hearing that voice, a gentle young woman's voice, I startle with surprise.

—Oh, sorry for scaring you.

I turn around. Before me stands a young woman with fiery ginger hair tied back in a ponytail. She's wearing a white cotton dress with sweat stains showing at the chest and underarms. The hem, reaching to her knees, is covered in dust. Between her collarbones, she has a piercing, a golden sun with eight rays, resembling tongues.

—Am I distracting?

Nerves up-heating, I shake my head. Where did she come from? She must have just arrived, silently, like a mouse.

—You're not distracting, quite the opposite. There's nothing to be distracted from.

—From enjoying the majesty of summer. Isn't that wonderful?

No, it's not. But I don't say that. I'm trying to maintain communication here, civilised dialogue between two adults, two bored adults.

—And why did you think I've been here before? Do I look like a local?

—Oh, stop it. No one's here for the first time.

—How's that?

—It's simple. You can be born here, leave here, and then return. That particular chain of events must happen. No one in their right mind would come here for the first time on purpose. You're aware, I assume, that tourism isn't exactly booming here.

—It's not.

—So, how long has it been?

—Since I finished school. And you?

—I haven't left. I live here.

—In Tooloobaika?

—Well, not in the field, obviously?

—Who knows. And how is it now, in Tooloobaika?

—Quite wonderful. I'd even say delightful. Summer, heat, the river, flowers, berries. But most importantly—look how the Sun shines. Ah!

The word "Sun," spoken with a capital letter, sounded clear, deep, with respect, as believers would say "God." As she says that and exhales, the expression on her face acquires blissful qualities.

—Bright.

—Very, but such is life. Without the Sun, it would be the eternal night.

I don't quite know how to respond. Probably, yes, it would be. It's dark without the sun. I can't really disagree, nor I want to agree. That would make me submissive, wouldn't it? Thus we stand, in silence, looking at each other. Awkward. But not embarrassing. Yet. I smile nervously.

—By the way, I'm a teacher. And you, what do you do?

—It's dull. I'm into… computers.

—Oh, can you fix my printer?

—What?

—Just kidding, I can fix my printer myself,—she says with a smile.—And Windows, I know how to install it.

—Good for you.

—A programmer, I presume?

—That's right.

—What do you program? You know, there are all sorts of programmers these days.

—It's difficult to explain.

—Try me. I'm not some country bumpkin, after all, am I?

—Clouds.

The young woman frowns and looks at me inquisitively, in a teacher-like manner. Even through my black sunglasses, I feel her gaze. It drills me through eyeballs, brain, all that in one precise glance.

—Very funny.

—I'm not lying. I do program clouds, for real. Have you heard of such a thing?

—I have not. And why would you do that?

—To make it rain.

The teacher's expression darkens.

—I see. So that the Sun, it seems, shines less.

—So that it rains.

—To each their own. And is it difficult to live with that?

Live with what? What kind of question is that?

—Not particularly. It pays well.

—I see.

She seems to be disappointed in who I am and what I do. That doesn't surprise me. People here often think programmers are new kulaks and have to be liquidated.

I feel the sun fiercely reaching its zenith, as if taking out a magnifying glass, and beginning to shine through it as if it were a fifth-grader, and we were ants, the battle — unequal, the fate — unenviable. I wish I could program some clouds now.

In the distance, an engine roars. The sound grows louder. Hearing it, the old man steps off the road. A few seconds later, a motorcyclist speeds past us, a young man with a pink mohawk, helmetless. A cloud of dust rises from the irritated earth, mixing with the black exhaust fumes, or rather an atrocious gas, enveloping the bus stop in fog and entering our nostrils. Everyone starts sneezing and coughing. I come to my senses. It smells of dust, straw, engine emissions, tedium, and the colour white.

—Degenerate on a jalopy! Who buys you those? Imbeciles!—says an old woman sitting on the dry grass. She wears a headscarf. Few know that, but scholars discovered that all old ladies wear headscarves—it's like a mohawk for punks, an element of subculture. Without it, an old lady simply isn't accepted as one, and she remains forever young. When I arrived, ages ago, she was already sitting here and has been silent until this moment, so I've forgotten about her existence, just like many of us often forget about the old ladies and their existence.

The old man returns to the woman with the newspaper-fan and continues the conversation.

—Have you heard about the panels?

—What panels?

—That solar shite show.

—And what about them?

—What do you mean, "what"? Haven't you heard? Everyone's talking.

—What are they saying?

—Terrible things, they're saying. Just terrible.

—I'd never believe it.

—But there's no need to believe. Facts, love, facts. Do you know why all this is happening?

—We're having trouble with electricity. It's always failing. We lived a week without light. With panels, it might be better. They're right there — within reach. And it's hot, so.

—Maybe so, but with these "panels", they'll be aiming their devices at us.

—Don't be silly, old chap. What devices?

—Have you seen who's installing them?

—No.

—There you have it! That's the point. They rustle about at night. I've seen them, woke up one night to noise on the street. I go out and see—the field is all lit up. At first, I thought—a fire, but I see neither flame nor smoke. I approach closer, and there they are, right by the panels. They're right by my house, you know. Did I tell you? Terrible, in a word.

A tanned boy with sun-bleached hair, like a surfer's, approaches the bus stop. The boy is playing with a ball, or rather not a ball, but a white inflated balloon with a large red digit six on it. For him, it is, however, a ball. He walks around kicking it.

—Are you his teacher?—I ask the young woman.

—What? No. He's just a boy, I don't know him. What made you think I teach children?

—You mentioned you're a teacher.

—That doesn't mean I teach children, does it?

It kind of does.

—Who do you teach, then?

—Whoever needs to be taught. Whoever needs teaching.

Okay, I guess?

—But, if you're not his teacher, why is he alone in the middle of the field, the boy?

—Why should I know?

—Well, you're a local. Everyone knows everyone here.

—Where else should he be?

—At school?

—It's the summer holidays. Have you ever gone to school?

—It was long ago but I did. Why is he alone, though?

—He's going home from the town. He's waiting for the bus to Tooloobaika, just like us. Deduction. You're so odd.

No one had ever told me straight to my face that I was odd, but it sounded convincing, as if I had always known it.

—Why would you say that? Why am I odd?

—You ask odd questions.

—Perfectly normal questions. You ask odd questions too.

—I'm just curious. I like to meet new people. Are you a city guy?

—I am.

—Which city?

—Riyadh.

—Oh, really?

—Yes. Do you know where it is?

—I'm not some village bumpkin, am I?

—No, sorry.

—It's in Saudi Arabia.

—Yes.

—So far away. How did you end up there? I've never been. What's it like?

—Hot.

Boring. Time seems to stand still until you strike up a conversation. The teacher takes a book out of her bag and starts reading. The title is somewhat peculiar. It blurs before my eyes, incomprehensible, but it seems to be "Sol Invictus", whatever that means. Is that Latin? The book is well-worn, suggesting it's interesting. Uninteresting books just sit untouched. I should have brought a book too, any book, an uninteresting one would do, too.

I see a mouse scurrying across the road, small, grey-brown, resembling a pebble with eyes and a tail, or perhaps it is a pebble.

—Look, a mouse,—I say calmly.

—What? Where?—the teacher responds, surprised.

She scans the ground, clutching the hem of her dress.

—There,—I say, pointing right at her feet.

She squeaks and jumps aside. The other people on the bus stop turn around at us. The surfer boy with the balloon stands still and looks at me, creepily, as if I had stolen his chance to spot the mouse first and announce it to the world. The mouse, however, is now nowhere to be seen.

—It seemed it was a mouse,—I say, shrugging.

Adjusting a stray lock of ginger hair, the teacher stretches a fake smile.

—You really are odd.

—It's not far from here to a stroke,—says the old woman sitting nearby.—I'm old, you know, scare me like this and done. Boom. Who's gonna buy me a coffin? You? I'd like a redwood one.

—Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Just bored waiting for the bus. Trying to amuse myself. That's all.

—He's amusing himself,—the old lady says, grumbling.—You'd be better off dancing then. Dance for us.

Is she insane? "Dance." Unbelievable.

—I'd rather not.

Her pupils dilate, her left eye starts to twitch. I mentally prepare for the worst. Not sure what that is, but there's always something worse to prepare for.

—Smarty-pants,—she says, spits on the ground, and turns away.

Silence falls for a few moments.

—What was that?—the teacher asks.

—What was what?

—Why did you upset the old lady?

—I didn't upset anyone. She was already upset when I arrived. While I've been waiting here for all those hours, and she's been upset the whole time. By the way, do you know when the bus is coming? What's the schedule like these days?

—No, I do not know. You scared me with that mouse. It affected my memory. Now I'm oblivious.

—Sorry, my fault. It must be the sun has heated up my head.

She frowns.

—You are odd.

—Fine, I am odd. My phone's almost dead; I don't even know the time.

—It's half-past one,—the teacher says, glancing at the small gold watch on her right wrist.—There's also the word "please" in our language, by the way.

—Thank you. Please.

None of us can believe I'm forming sentences like that when talking to people.

—Do you wear your watch on your right wrist?

—I do.

—Why on the right?

—I like it like that.

—Are you left-handed?

—I am.

—I see. The bus ought to have been here half an hour ago.

—The bus doesn't owe anyone anything. It's simply a bus.

—I wish I could be simply a bus.

—You could if you really wanted.

—That would be odd, though.

—It cannot be any odder, "though".

The teacher looks at me languidly and then returns her gaze to her reading. I notice a page has fallen out of her book, and I lean down to pick it up, managing to read a few lines, or not managing—the lines immediately slip from my memory. Something about the Sun, the capitalised Sun. I hand the page to the teacher. I'm trying to be nice.

—That's not mine,—she says.

—How is it not yours? Whose then?

The teacher shrugs. Weird.

—Has anybody lost this?—I ask those around, lifting the page high.

Silence ensues. I'm utterly convinced it fell from the teacher's book. I swear I saw it slipping.

—Absolutely sure it's not yours?

—Positive,—she says, keeping your face down, reading, not showing any signs of emotions. Perhaps I've upset her.—What's in it?

—I don't know. Haven't read it, something about the Sun.

—I see. Why don't you read it for us?

—I'm not good at reading aloud.

—Give it a try. Everyone's bored. We're all friends here. No one will judge.

Why would I do that? What for? Am I becoming submissive?

—Alright.

Well, here I go, I think to myself. I silently read the first line: "Oh bright Sun, on thy heavenly chariot." An auspicious beginning.

—Seems like some sort of poem, or maybe a song.

—About what?

—The Sun, as I said.

—Could you read it out, please?

I skim to a random line: "With thy beams, burn the wicked, thoroughly vanquishing deceit!"

—I would rather not read it out loud.

—Why not? Stubborn as a child.

—Perhaps you'd like to read? You are a teacher, after all; you have a better voice.

—You found the paper—you read.

—I would rather not.

—Making a tragedy out of such nonsense. You really are odd.

Odd again. Always odd. I take a deep breath, the hot air scorching my nostrils and lungs. My neck is in a vice. That's the physical sensation. A cold sweat runs down from it to my back, instantly warming. It feels like being called to the board to recite a poem I haven't learned.

—Fine, if you insist. But I warn you, I'm not a good speaker.

—It's okay. Anything's better than just standing here in silence, isn't it? Some amusement for the bored.

I read with as much expression as I can muster:

Oh bright Sun, on thy heavenly chariot

Arising daily over the earth!

Thou—the all-seeing eye, the life-giving luminary,

That drivest away the creeping darkness.

Oh righteous Sun, whose visage lights up the fields and valleys!

—Could you possibly read a bit louder?

My throat's slowly drying out and beginning to itch.

With thy beams, burn the wicked, thoroughly vanquishing deceit!

To thee we raise our praise and thanksgiving

And offer sacrifices without end.

—Could you add a bit more volume? Afraid they can't hear you in the back.

Let us exalt the Invincible Sun, that breaks through the morning mist!

Before thee, its golden rays, the stars dim and fade.

Wash us, cleanse with thy righteous fire the sinful filth!

May the wicked perish in the darkness eternal!

Upon finally hearing what I have been reading, the old man flies into a rage. His face wrinkled up, flushed with anger, he hobbles over to me.

—You bastard! One of those, are you?!

—One of what "those"?

—Those very ones! A glib-tongued eunuch!

I see the old man clench his fists and I begin to back away as he keeps stomping towards me, picking up pace, kicking up dust as if smoke trails behind him.

—You sun-scourged maggot!

He reaches me and grabs me by the collar. Turns out, the old man is strong and has a formidable grip, much gripper than mine.

—Oi! Easy there!—say I.

—Give it to me, you slag!—shouts the old man.

Releasing one hand, he tries to snatch the page from me with the other. I dodge. I dodge well.

—Hey, it's not mine!—I exclaimed, trying to gently push him away.

—Not yours?! Whose then?!

—I found the paper.

—And you'll say it was brought by the wind next! Bastard!

—Quite possibly. I, the fool, picked it up. Never seen anything like it before. Never will, hopefully.

The old man calms downs a little, probably to catch his breath.

—Not from around here, are you?

—Yes-yes, local through and through, heading to my parents'.

—Do I know your parents?

—You might, sir. It's the white house at the very edge of the village.

Sir? That's an anti-sir in front of me. His frown deepened, and, unsure whether to believe me, he loosened his grip.

—Give me that bloody shite then.

Having no reason to keep the page, I hand it over to the old man. He skims through it, scowls, and spits on the ground.

—What filth. No shame, no conscience. The invincible sun, my arse. Fuckin' 'ell.

—Not in front of the children, mister—says the teacher. She's irritated and tense.

—He knows words worse than that, right, laddie?

The boy silently nods. There's a hint of a sly smile on his face. Little bastard.

—Own up, whose paper is this, then?—says the old man.

Silence falls. The teacher says nothing. She stands there, staring at the ground, arms crossed, hiding the title of her book. But I know it's "Sol Invictus". It was her doing, definitely her.

—Eh?—the old man presses again.

—Probably dropped by the motorcyclist,—the teacher murmurs.—There he is, coming back again, by the way, you can ask him.

True enough. The familiar engine sound intensifies. Over the field, a vast cloud of dust and atrocious gas soars higher and rushes uswards. The hairs inside my nose curl up, anticipating the pungent invasion. I'm preparing to sneeze. Against the backdrop of the sweltering air, the same motorcyclist with the pink mohawk appears on the road. Shielding our faces with our hands, we step back to the verge, almost into the oats. The white balloon slips from the boy's grasp; he tries to reach for it and steps on the road, but the woman with the newspaper pulls him back.

—Punks Not Dead!—the motorcyclist shouts, roaring past and, either by accidents or deliberately, as if it's a dead fly on a urinal, running over the balloon.

The balloon pops. Its rubber fragments lay scattered on the road. No signs of "six" seen. We all stand together, watching as the motorcyclist disappears into the depths of the field.

—It was definitely him,—I say.

The boy silently walks over to where the balloon mayhem occurred, picks up the rubber remains from the ground, and begins to sob, quietly.

—There, there, love, come here,—the woman with the newspaper says, trying to hug him, but he shrugs off her hand and steps aside.

—These sun-blasted fools, damn 'em all,— grumbles the old man and walks away from us.

—Degenerates!—adds an old woman.—Shall they perish in hell! Shall their souls forever boil in oil. Shall their balls dry out.

—Nowt else to add,—says the old man.

The ordeal is over, but I don't feel any better. I am tired. Thirsty. Sweat runs down my back. All my clothes are soaked through. Still no sign of the bus. I hope it will have AC. But who am I kidding. At my parents' house, it was always warm in winter and cool in summer without any air conditioning. I know what I'll do when I'm in Tooloobaika. I'll take a shower in the garden and dive into my old bedroom like I did as a child. There was no sun there – it faced north. It was like a cave. On one of the walls, there was wallpaper of a golden birch forest stretching into infinity with a gigantic raven flying above it. I used to love lying on the bed, being in that forest, imagining walking under the birches, losing myself, finding myself. I hope my parents haven't changed it. When I arrive, I'll switch on my old PC, if it still starts up, sift through my old CDs, pull out old games. What a plot, what gameplay they had! They don't make them like that any more. I hope my eyes don't bleed from the graphics, though.

—Thank you,—whispers the teacher, sneaking up from behind into my reverie.

Here she is again.

—What do you want?

—I said thank you.

—For what?

—For not giving me away,—she whispers.

I nod stoically. "Giving her away".

—Was there any reason to worry about?

—What do you think?

—I don't answer questions asked in response to questions.

Rude? Or not so much? She falls silent. So, it was rude. Awkward. How odd I am. I should learn to communicate with people.

—What are you thinking about?—she asks.

At least she's not offended.

—The same thing as everyone, about the bus.

—I'm not thinking about the bus.

—If not the bus, what are you thinking about then?

—About Tooloobaika. Imagine, in a few hours you'll arrive in the village, what will you do then?

Few hours? Sounds optimistic.

—I'll be lying down.

—Is that all? You travelled all this way, from Saudi Arabia, just to lie down?

—Listen, I just want to lie down. I'm tired. I'll lie down, play games all week, eat my ma's cooking, watch the telly, and debate conspiracy theories with my pa. Today, I've learned some new ones. And I'll tell them about the deserts. Have you ever seen real dunes?

—Deserts and dunes aside, Tooloobaika has so much to offer: fancy fishing, then head to the lake or river, fancy a swim — you have it right there. Do you know how magically the water glistens in the Sunlight? The whole area is blooming now, the scents are countless, organic perfumery all the way along. Do you know how delicious the air here is? Not like in your cities. In Tooloobaika, even just breathing is always a pleasure. Step into a field or forest, take a deep breath, and you feel better, you're healed, cured of all your pain. You listen, and the wind whispers softly, crickets chirp, birds sing. Spread your arms wide, close your eyes, face the Sun, and your soul rejoices.

—You have plenty of moles, on your arms, legs, and face, by the way. You shouldn't expose them to the "Sun" too often. You might get cancer.

—I use cream.

—"Sun"-screen?

—Don't call it that.

—Why not?

—The Sun is a source of light, warmth, life, not a threat.

—Then why the cream?

—The sun cares for us and sends as much light and warmth as we need. And if a person lives in harmony with it, no harm will come to them.

—Then why the cream?

She looks at me with the most enigmatic gaze I've ever seen (she's topped it again), looks, and remains blissfully tranquil. Seconds pass, minutes, hours, centuries, stars flop and black holes become twice as dark.

—It makes my skin soft,—she finally answers.

—Ah, I see.

—Here, feel.

Unexpected, the teacher grabs my hand and placed my palm on her forearm. The skin is soft, warm, damp, and slippery from the sunscreen mixed with sweat.

—Well?

I withdraw my hand, look at my palm, then back at her.

—Well what?

—What do you think?

—Not bad.

—Hm.

She ponders then, without a warning again, grabs my hand and places my palm on her thigh. The skin is as slippery and sweaty but firmer and more elastic. She probably does many steps a day.

—What about now?

—Not bad. Better.

—Better? Is that all?

—Yes. Skin is skin. Very hot, though. And it's already hot enough. Now my hand is slippery.

—Odd you are. How's your sex life, "though"?

So I am the odd one.

—It's, well, a private matter.

—Do you have a girlfriend?

—As I said, it's a private matter.

—I see. Do you have friends?

—Of course, I do.

—In Tooloobaika?

—Not in Tooloobaika, of course, why would I need friends there?

—That's a pity.

—Why?

—I pity you.

—What?

—Will you come to ours?

—Ours? Where?

—To the club.

Club? What club? What is she talking about? Is it a youth club? A tennis club? Is it a drama club? Or a cult?

—What club?

—Interests club.

—What interests?

—Special interests, you'll like it. The Summer Solstice is coming, it'll be fun. Trust me.

I look at her — all in white, her face sweet, friendly, smiling. I think, ponder, evaluate the situation. If someone asks to trust them, it can mean only one thing.

—No, thank you, I won't come.

—Why not?

—Have you seen Ari Aster's "Midsommar"?

—No.

—Well, that's why.

So we stand, waiting. The old lady sits, silent, possibly dead. The woman with the newspaper has spread it over her head like an umbrella. She's not happy being here and likely feels sick, I can tell it from her face. A huge, nasty horse-fly is bugging the unballooned surfer boy. It's as big as a hornet. The boy tries to shake it off for a while, then, after a series of futile attempts, grabs it in his fist. The horse-fly buzzes, trying to escape, but the boy doesn't let go, nor does he squeeze it; instead, he takes a straw, inserts it into the insect's arse, and lets it go. The horse-fly, bewildered, flies off with the straw in its rear. Meanwhile, the old man, starts mumbling again.

—I awoke one night, my back seized in such agony I thought it would be the end of me. Yet, I recovered somewhat, ventured out into the garden to see if the hares hadn't made off with the carrots again, fluffy bustards. All seemed calm, serene even. And there I stood, enjoying a cigar sent by my son from Cuba, mind you. I only smoke 'em at night, in secrecy, for fear of the envious gaze and ill wishes of today's folk. And one night I heard a humming, subtle but annoying, like a ringing in the ear, but it seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Feeling otherwise fine, I deduced it must be something external. As I savoured my excellent cigar—for which I owe my son great thanks—I spotted something strange aloft. It was massive and indistinct, clearly not an aircraft for they don't glide so slowly, nor a bird, for it was far too large and had no wings. I fetched a torch, futilely shining it upwards, only to see a vague oval silhouette. I then took out my phone—another gift from my son, boasting a fine camera—and snapped a few pictures. Sadly, the screen showed nothing but darkness. I went back inside for my hunting rifle, thinking I'd take a shot at the craft. After all, what else could it be but one of their "devices"? But as I emerged, weapon in hand, the craft had vanished.

Silence.

—And that's it?—asks the woman from behind her newspaper.

—Just like that, it disappeared.

—Fascinating.

—Probably a UFO,—I suggested.

—May your tongue blister, you bastard,—the old man retorts.—It might well be a UFO, but I reckon it was that thing, their device, the one that slices through the ozone layer to boil us all alive here.

—One typically boils in water, though,—I note.

—You, sun-blasted fool, would be boiled dry.

—Just theorising. I'm on your side, after all. I program clouds.

—What?

—Clouds, programming them to bring rain.

—And where might your clouds be, programmer?

—Well, in Saudi Arabia.

—In the desert, you mean?

—Something like that.

—And who in blazes needs clouds there? To water the sand?

The conversation, it seemed, had reached an impasse, much like our bus somewhere. I lean towards the old lady to check if she was still breathing. Her eyes are closed. I peer into her face, listen for her breath, and she suddenly opens her eyes.

—Boo!

I jerk back, retreating towards the teacher with her book. She laughs.

—What a scene you're making. Trying to kiss the old lady.

—I thought she had passed.

—Would that make it a good idea to kiss her?

—I wasn't going to kiss her. I was checking if she's breathing.

—Oh, indeed, she'll outlive us all. You're the one restless and sweating, while she sits calmly, waiting. You could learn a thing or two about patience.

—I'm not one for waiting. Especially not in this heat.

—Suppose it's not hot in Saudi Arabia?

—Scorching. Fifty degrees now.

—There you go.

—It feels different there. At least they have air conditioning.

—Listen to the bourgeois, "air conditioning".

—I'm suffocating in this humid air. Feels like I'm on the verge of a heatstroke. Damned sun.

—Speak ill of the Sun, and you'll surely be struck down by it.

Suddenly, a distant hum encroaches upon our timeless space, growing louder. There was a fleeting hope, but it was quickly dashed. The hum turns into a familiar roar, a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes crawling from its source. Everyone braces themselves, covering their faces, turning away. Then he appears, the motorcyclist, hurtling towards us with his pink mohawk shining. Mohawks, I recalled, should properly be spiked with beer. Anticipating his approach, the old woman picks up a stone and, as the motorcyclist nears, hurls it at him.

Instantly, without a whistle or sound, the stone strikes his head with an accurate shot. The motorcyclist loses control before he could even cry out. The front wheel twists sharply, throwing him onto the road as his motorcycle crashes, tumbles, and flies off into the field, flattening a few meters of oats.

Silence.

To say the least, we are all in a profound, petrifying, trembling shock. It's fucked up. Forgive me, I simply have no other words. We stand, speechless with our mouths agape, staring at the contorted motorcyclist lying on the road.

—Take that, degenerate!—yells the old lady at the motorcyclist, continuing to sit in her place.

We, except the killer, collectively approach the disfigured, bloodied body of the motorcyclist. Legs twisted, trousers halfway down, an arm broken with a white-and-red bone protruding from the forearm. His bare, tattooed torso covered in cuts and scratches. His face, having apparently slid a few meters across gravel, is all torn up, bloody, and dirty, with no nose in sight, and his mohawk is crumpled.

No one says anything. They are either too stunned or overflown with intrigue. I lean over to the motorcyclist, listening.

—Not breathing, it seems,—I say.

A teacher presses a finger to his neck.

—No pulse either.

—Well, this is a fine mess,—says the woman with the newspaper.—What an actual situation. Oh.

—Well, there was a lad, and now there's a lad no more,—adds an old man.—Just like that. Poof—and it's all over. Eh...

—Don't even say it, old chap,—says the woman, grabbing her neck as if intending to strangle herself, while the other hand starts frantically waving a newspaper.

—Serves him right!—the old lady shouts.—Degenerate punk!

We look at her, speechless. I, for my part, have yet to fully grasp what has happened and that there's a real dead person lying in front of me. I've only seen such things in films and games before. In games, I could smash anyone's head with a stone. I could do that easily, about a hundred or thousand times per evening. Do I feel anything about that now? Probably not. He's just lying there. Well, shit happens, they say. I hope he doesn't come back to life and eat us. But what if he does? On one hand, it would be an intriguing twist of events, on the other — a bit eerie perspective.

—Perhaps we should call an ambulance,—I suggest.

—An ambulance?—says the old man.

—An ambulance,—the woman repeats after me.

—Look at him, what good would an ambulance do?

Indeed. Looking at him—an ambulance is hardly going to be of any help, even if it arrives sooner than the bus.

—And the police,—the old lady suddenly adds. Give that bastard a fine!

—A fine?

—You, you old witch, should be locked up, spend your life behind bars,—the old man retorts.—Fuckin' 'ell.

—They drive like that! Degenerates!

—You should hold your tongue, madam. You're only making things worse for yourself,—says the woman.

—Can't breathe here. The place is overrun with degenerates!—says the old woman.

—I'm calling the police,—I say.

—Go ahead,—says the old man.—The bus will come soon, we'll hop on and be off, and you can sit here waiting for the cops with the crazy old witch.

—We'll wait. This is a crime scene, after all. The old woman killed the motorcyclist,—says the woman.

—By cruel means,—I add.—With a stone.

I feel a pebble hit me in the back of the head. Painful. There'll be a bruise. I turn around — the old lady is picking up another pebble and, grunting, is getting ready to stand up.

—Hey, what are you doing!

—Off you fuck, punk!—the old lady says and throws another stone at me.

—Hey! I'm calling the police.

—Call your little Johny!

Another pebble. The old lady adjusts her skirt and, continuing to hurl pebbles, walks back down the road in the opposite direction from Tooloobaika.

—Where do you think you're going?!

—Mind your own fucking business!

I pull out my phone. It's off. I turned it off to keep it from overheating. I turn it on. Wait. Wait. Wait, a long time, seconds, minutes, hours, centuries. It turns on. One percent battery. There's even a signal. I dial zero two. The phone turns off and starts to heat up. Confused, I don't know what to do.

—Hey! Old lady, stop immediately!

Hands shaking, I start speaking into the turned-off phone.

—Police? There's been an incident here. Yes, on the road to Tooloobaika, a grandmother has killed a motorcyclist. Will you be coming soon? Brilliant. Hear that, old lady?—I shout after the departing murderer, but she either doesn't hear me or simply ignores me.

It appears the teacher noticed my phone had turned off, and having heard my conversation with the imaginary police, she merely rolls her eyes and shakes her head.

The phone in my hand grows warmer, warmer, and warmer until it's as hot as an iron. A spasm involuntarily courses through my hand, and without my consent and with whole agency, it flings the phone onto the road. Approaching the device, I see that the screen is done.

—What about the police?—the teacher asks.

Cheeky she.

—They said they'll be here shortly.

—Is that what they said?

—Yes, that's what they said,—I say rudely, swallowing what little saliva I've gathered.—They'll be here soon. We wait.

—They never say such things.

—Well, this time they did.

—Alright, we'll wait. Don't you want to detain the old lady?

—I do not. Do you?

—She won't get far, that old nag,—the old man inserts.—The coppers will nab her right there on the road.

Meanwhile, the old nag, limping, vanishes around the bend in the road.

—Would you like to call an ambulance as well?—the teacher asks.

—An ambulance…—the woman with the newspaper says softly.

Only then, we see she's out of sorts, staggering, her eyes rolling back, legs buckling, she drops a newspaper and collapses onto the road. We approach her, check if she's breathing; she is, thankfully, but unconscious. Her forehead is burning like a stove. You could cook eggs on it.

—I can't, my phone's dead. Does anyone else have a phone?

—I've seen enough of your damned little phones,—the old man declares.—Ever wonder how they find us? Your phones have navigation chips in them. Be it towers, panels, or some other nonsense. 3G, 5G, damn them all. Look at the youth today, riddled with cancer from head to toe, all because of those phones. Radiation, that's what it is.

I glance at the teacher, expecting her to help with the next dialogue line, but she merely shrugs in response.

—I try to keep my mind pure,—she says.

Noted-understood.

—And you, boy? Do you have a phone?

Where would he go without a phone, I wonder. But what if he gets lost? Though, when I was his age, we ran around just the same. Parents off to work, you're off to the bus stop, jump on a bus, head into town with friends. Like cats, come and go as you please, and no one asks any questions.

The surfer boy just silently shakes his head.

—Let's move her into the shade. Grab her legs,—I tell the teacher.

I lift the woman by her arms. Her body is heavy, sweaty, slipping from my grasp. Or I am weak. We drag her to the side of the road, closer to the oats. That's where we lay her down. Of course, I realise, there are no signs of any shade. Even oats don't drop shadows. The newspaper, right. I take it, unfold it into a makeshift paper tent over the woman's head to create some shade at least. I notice the front page, in bold letters, it reads:

ANOMALOUS HEATWAVE. WHAT NEXT?

The teacher takes out a small flask from her bag, pours some on her palms, and starts rubbing it on the woman's face, then splashes some onto her lips.

—What's that?

Smells of alcohol.

—Sun water. For protection.

Uh-huh, "sun water".

—May I have some? For protection.

—You don't need it. You don't need protection.

Meanwhile, she looks me straight in the eye, brings the flask to her lips, and takes a swig. A lump slowly travels down her slender neck. She doesn't even flinch. And from the smell of it, there was reason enough to flinch.

—What now?—she asks.

—I don't know.

—Any ideas, programmer?

A thought occurs. A perfectly fine thought, but questionable.

We hear the muffled sounds of kicks. Turning around, we see the surfer boy standing and kicking the deceased motorcyclist. Meanwhile, the old man stands by, laughing as he observes the scene.

—Hey!—I shout at him.

The boy doesn't react and continues his kicking.

—What are you doing? That's a person there.

—It's a corpse.

—Was a person.

—Was, but gone now.

To put it mildly, I'm shocked.

—And why are you kicking him?

—Because he popped my balloon. It was my birthday balloon. I liked it. My girlfriend bought it to me.

—Happy birthday then. Still, kicking a dead man isn't right.

—Popping children's balloons isn't right, either.

—Kicking a dead man is worse.

The boy stops and looks at me, his eyes empty, his face devoid of emotion.

—Have you ever seen a corpse before, mister?

—No.

—Neither have I.

—Why kick it, though?

—The corpse doesn't care. But it amuses me.

Amuses him.

—It amuses you?

—No one's fighting back.

Indeed.

—Look, boy, that lady over there seems unwell.

The surfer boy looks at the woman, whose head is covered by a newspaper.

—What's wrong with her?

—Heatstroke.

—She was very upset by what she saw,—interjects the teacher.—We all are.

—Can I start kicking her too?

The grandfather laughs heartily, wiping the sweat from his brow.

—Look at the youth these days,—he says.

—There's no need to kick anyone. Stop it.

I kneel on one knee and take the boy by the shoulders.

—Where did you come from?

—From the town.

—Can you go back to the town and ask to send the police and an ambulance here?

—And the bus,—adds the teacher.

—And the bus.

—What's in it for me?

—I'll buy you an ice cream. The chocolate one. With hazelnuts. Do you like it?

—I don't want ice cream.

—What do you want then?

—A balloon. I want my balloon back.

—Alright, I'll buy you a balloon.

—Give me the money; I'll buy it myself.

Cunning. I look at him — standing there, pouting his lips, furrowing his brows, his gaze avoiding mine.

—Alright.

I take out a banknote from my wallet and hand it to the boy.

—It won't be enough for the balloon.

—Are you sure?

—Balloons are very expensive, mister.

I count out a few more notes.

—Here's for the balloon...

I hand him another note.

—And for the ice cream. Is that all?

The boy nods, turns around, and walks off towards the city.

—Call an ambulance and the police!—I shout after him.—And the bus.

Meanwhile, the teacher takes another generous sip of her "sun water."

—Look at the youth these days,—the old man repeats, shaking his head and, scratching the back of his head and fixing the NY cap, starts walking around the motorcyclist's body until he notices a tattoo of the sun with eight rays on the buttock beneath the lowered trousers.

—So he's one of them!—the old man exclaims and starts kicking the corpse too.

—Hey, stop that!

The grandfather doesn't react.

—I'll kill you all!—he shouts, unclear whether to the motorcyclist or to us. I'll show you. You sun-worshipping fanatics.

—Oi!—I shout at the grandfather, but he continues kicking.

In a panic, I turn to the teacher.

—Say something to him.

—What should I say?

—To stop? That would be nice.

—All these bastards. You won't burn me. Reading their books, walking around shouting "the invincible sun, the invincible sun". Disgusting! Damn you all.

The teacher shrugs, finishes her sun water, and coming closer, whispers to me:

—By the way, I have a tattoo, too. Someplace. Fancy taking a peek?

I recoil from her, stumbling back, nearly falling, and move away. The heat's driven everyone mad. I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home. My brain's turned to mash, seems to have fused into one big heavy lump, swelling and pressing from the inside against my skull, especially around the temples and the back of my head. Where's the bus? My head spins, along with the surrounding oat field. I feel nauseous. I grab my hair and scream:

—Bus! Hey! We're here! Bus! Bus! Bus!

The teacher and the grandfather startle.

—What are you yelling for, you mad-lad?—asks the old man.

—Don't you worry,—says the teacher.—Calm down.

—Bus! Bus! Hey! Someone help!

—It'll come, don't be upset. The bus is always late.

—Don't be upset? Don't be upset?! Do you see what's going on?!

I settle onto the earth, enveloping myself with my arms. I don't feel like screaming, nor crying; in fact, I feel like nothing whatsoever, except perhaps for a yearning to sink deep into the ground, so deep that the cold seeps in, and warmth becomes a forgotten sensation. Yes, I crave the coolness, the chill, the clarity of thought, the lightness of the mind, my childhood bedroom, my cave. But instead, I feel as though I'm being boiled alive, like a lobster. Or worse, boiled dry. I fall to my side, curl up into a ball, press my cheek against the ground, and just lie there. I don't want to listen to anyone. I don't want to see anyone. I don't want anything. The surface, despite being as hot as everything else around, is slightly cooler than the air and smells of dust, straw, and manure. Suddenly, I feel a wet, cold hand on my shoulder, I shudder and shrug it off.

—Leave me alone! I don't want to see anyone of you any more.

—Just look up at the sky,—I hear the teacher saying.

—I don't want to look at your fucking sun.

—Oh, please. Language. But it's not the Sun.

—Then what? Moon?

—No, don't be silly, look. It's an airship.

Air-what?

—An aerostat,—she says.

Curious, I open my eyes and look at her.

—Don't look at me, look up. There,—she says, pointing in another direction at the sky.

I turn, propping myself up on my hands, and gaze at the sky afar. There, resembling a huge white cloud, an airship, an enormous dirigible balloon with a red digit six glides almost uswards. Its engine, possibly electric, emits a droning, sonorous trill, a single sustained note, resonating through the field, a choir of cicadas trapped inside a subwoofer. Trailing behind it is a cone-shaped tail of spray, covering an area of tens, perhaps hundreds of meters. The airship is bringing us rain. Oh, yes! Water! Sweet water! Come here, my dear!

—Hey! We're here! Hey!

—Over here!—the teacher joins me.

The old man too notices the airship and turns pale.

—They've found me…

He takes off his NY cap and with trembling hands he fumbles in his pockets, bending and groaning. After searching himself all over, he pulls a crumpled piece of foil from his trousers' back pocket, straightens it out, and wraps it around his bald head.

—Damn it! They've found me.

We, not at all surprised, continue to shout and whistle, in response to which the old man, experiencing a look of both universal, existential dread, and deep, childlike terror, crouches, and scurries over to us. His eyes blaze, the cap gleams.

—Shhh! Stop that!

We ignore him and keep trying to attract the airship's attention, jumping and shouting.

—Enough, damn you all. Shhh!

Then the airship shifts direction slightly and now heads straight at us, dragging its watery cloud behind. The old man sees this, crouches even lower.

—Tch! The lot of you! Bastards!

And so, ducking, nervously looking around, holding on to his shiny helmet, he darts from the open road into the dense oat fields and vanishes.

We watch him leave and continue to shout and jump. There's a warmth in our hearts, not in a thermal sense, but in an uplifting, hopeful sense, as if we, shipwrecked, have been stranded on a deserted island, and after years of waiting, a ship finally appears on the horizon. Not a bus, though, but good enough. Time freezes again, hangs in the air, and stretches into an endlessly long strip, like a taut string ready to snap at the slightest touch.

And then, we're engulfed in the airship's shadow. The sun hides behind a massive cloud looming over us for inestimable interval, while our bodies shake in anticipation. The teacher places her hand on my shoulder, and I don't mind; I too place my hand on her shoulder, and she doesn't mind. I stretch out the other hand, close my eyes, squeeze them as tight as I can, so tight that abstract shapes morph into oval blobs, the airship's imprint. And then, right away, we're drenched, by a fine, cool rain, like the kind you get on a cold autumn morning, which feels annoying, as if someone's spraying your face with an atomiser, but right now, it's all we want. Drench me, dirigible! Soak me through! Atomise me! And it does, with a dense tropical downpour, washing the dust off my face, rinsing the greasy clumped hair, washing away the sweat from my body, soaking my clothes with crisply cool water. Transcendent goosebumps run all over my skin, from my nape, down my back, along my arms, down my legs, even to my little toes. They are happy, too. As one, the teacher and I, we fall to our knees on the now-wet ground, arms outstretched, laughing, sticking out our tongues as far as possible to catch as much water as we can.

The rain stops, and with it goes away the shadow. Outside, there's coolness, the smell of wet earth; inside, bliss, a light shiver. We raise, soaked, and watch as the airship slowly drifts away.

Everything around us is now dewy and sodden. Puddles have formed. The dirigible-born rain has flattened the oats a little, washed the blood off the motorcyclist, mixing it with the mud. The woman on the roadside still lies there. A thoroughly soaked newspaper clings to her face.

Silence.

The sun rays are felt anew on my skin, comforting. We look at each other, clothes clinging to our bodies, water trickling down. The teacher smiles.

—Well,—she says,—now that no one hears us, would you like to talk more about the Invincible Sun?


Psychophysiological Responses to Bus Time Dilation Near Tooloobaika

Unbearably hot conditions spark combustion between innocuous travellers waiting for the only bus to the utopian village of Tooloobaika.

A relaxed 30-40 min read.

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