This story was prompted by my own neglect and/or stupidity. On my first night vacationing in Scotland, I looked the wrong direction (the right way in America), saw no cars and stepped into the street. Nothing happened, but when I looked the other way, a big double decker was halfway up the block. I stepped back before the driver could honk his horn.
The “what if” became H__NGS, published in September 2020 by Potato Soup Journal.
by DL Shirey
The American looked tired. The paper band of airport codes wrapped around the handle of his luggage told of boarding at La Guardia and deplaning in Edinburgh. He had caught the local rail here, to Waverley station. He was unfamiliar with the city in particular, Great Britain in general, and all of Europe, in fact. It was his very first business trip traveling abroad.
He exited the train. The only person on the platform was a young woman in a slicker, her blue hair plastered down from the rain. The American pulled out a phone and the directions to his hotel: cross the one-way street, left for two blocks and turn right. Hungry, he consulted Yelp, saw the sign for HONGS across the street and re-pocketed the phone. Looking left for oncoming cars he saw nothing, so he popped open his umbrella, regripped his rolling suitcase and stepped off the curb.
The bus driver had no time to brake, his only choice was to sail into the adjacent lane, bouncing a black taxi off the billboarded hull.
The swerve may have saved the businessman’s life. The bumper barely grazed his American jeans, but the bus’s side-mirror caught the man square on the chin. An instant before that damp snap of impact, the driver glimpsed the man’s expression, a mix of surprise and horror.
As the bus invaded the adjacent lane, the taximan also saw a face. It was on the billboard that came at him broadside. She had kohled eyes, pearlescent teeth and red lips in mid-sip on a glass of whiskey. The tumbler clinked a toast with the side of the cab, sending it up the curb toward the steel colonnades of the Chinese restaurant.
The girl with blue hair looked up at the noise. She saw a bus skid to a halt and pedestrians scatter before a runaway taxi. She saw five windows, two-meters tall, each framing one giant letter that spelled out HONGS. There was a couple sitting at the table behind the glass with the G. Even at this distance, the girl with blue hair could see the couple’s wide-eyed panic as the cab crashed into the letter O.
The waitress wasn’t looking out the window. Her eyes bounced from the clock to the last two customers from a busy lunchtime rush. The eldest daughter of the Chinese family was bringing leftovers in boxes, fortune cookies and change. To end her shift she only needed to walk to the table, unload the tray and bow her thanks. That’s when the window disintegrated, a million pebbles of safety-glass exploding into sparkles. The waitress’s lips formed an O.
Two windows away, the woman diner reached for the hand of her lunch mate and pulled the man away, scrambling toward the exit. The waitress’s father shouldered the kitchen door, a large knife in his hand, shocked to see his daughter standing, unharmed, next to the missing window. He shouted to her in Mandarin, then English, then ran to her side. She hadn’t even dropped the serving tray, still balanced on the palm above her shoulder.
The waitress blinked. It was as if the sight and sound had numbed time, lapsed it forward so her brown eyes beheld a miraculous portal opened onto Waverley, with her father suddenly standing at her side.
She crunched two paces to the glassless window and leaned her head out in wonder. Only then did the to-go boxes topple, one spilling its innards on the sidewalk, the other falling only as far as the tabletop. There it sat, unopened.
The teenager stepped off the platform at Waverley Station. She pinched a sop of blue hair and hooked it behind an ear. Her hand had been gripping the collar of the cheap raincoat, so now, one bony, bare shoulder was exposed.
First she looked at the up-ended umbrella, then at the abandoned roller bag. By the looks of the businessman, it was certain the clothes inside the suitcase would be too large for her. Perhaps there would be toiletries or something to hock. Onlookers were multiplying and a bus driver was warning them not to touch the downed man. This was diversion enough for the waif to pull up her collar against the drizzle, clench the suitcase handle to her hip and walk away toward H_NGS.
The battered taxi had bounced off one of the thick metal pillars that bracketed the restaurant window and rolled to a stop in front of the electronics store next door. The car had snapped a canopy pole and spilled a bin of cheap, used cellphones. Dozens were scattered on the sidewalk, a counterpoint to the pastiche of smashed window glass. The taximan seemed shaken but unhurt, as Samaritans helped him from the cab.
The girl with the roller bag cocked her head and selected a phone with a pink case that sparkled with rhinestones. She slipped it into the pocket of her raincoat.
In unison, all faces around the girl looked up and turned toward the sound of an oncoming siren. Blue hair moved in the opposite direction, pushing past the two diners, a waitress and an old man in a dirty apron and cook’s hat. The girl took care to steer the roller bag around a splat of noodles and plucked up the wire-handled box that sat on the table. There would be Chinese takeout for dinner tonight.
Out of the corner of her eye, the girl with blue hair saw something else on the table: a serving tray. She ignored the fortune cookies, but grabbed the coins and bills from the plate. She looked up at the overcast sky, to the money in her hand, then over at the red double-decker with the whiskey ad on the side. It was her bus.