I’m On the Bus
“I’m On the Bus” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Mayank Srivastava, India.
I’m On the Bus
Araminta lived life through her smartphone, gossiping to Chloe who lived on the other side of the world, Sandy only two doors away, and anyone and everyone in her address book. It would not be obesity or type two diabetes that took away this young life, it would be the lorry that ran her down while she was chatting on her phone.
Catching the bus for the regular weekend visit to her grandmother, Araminta had her smartphone pressed to her ear, listening to the inane banter of Penny who could speak without stopping for breath. Not being able to get a word in edgeways was frustrating. At last Penny paused, giving her the chance to say, “I’m on the bus. Need to find my ticket. Got to go, Pen,” and end the call.
Araminta dashed upstairs to the back seat where she called Ben who never interrupted. She sometimes wondered if he listened to anything she said and was more absorbed with some computer game or other, slaying monsters or fending off invasions from heavily armed aliens. Ben was the only teenager she knew who could eat breakfast, talk on the phone, and hunt Pokémon at the same time. She could only wonder what he was doing by the time her bus stop came up - it was always better not to ask. Araminta told him, “Go now, Ben. This is my stop.”
Her grandmother, Maisie, was busy as usual. In full-time work, she still had time to deliver weekend meals on wheels and run errands for elderly neighbours in the same block of flats. Araminta’s visits were probably the only time she bothered to sit down. They relaxed on the settee, looking out over the other blocks of flats, laundry flapping on balconies and pigeons cooing amorously on the safety railings. It was one of the few times Araminta was prepared to switch off her smartphone.
“Now what have you been up to, then?” Maisie asked.
Araminta wasn’t sure what to say. When not chatting she was usually Googling gossip, watching the newest uploads on YouTube or listening to music. Her grandmother led a far more interesting life: she actually met the people in her circle of friends.
“Found this amazing new app which lets you link across social networks,” Araminta told her.
“Sounds as though Facebook will soon put a stop to that. Aren’t they rather possessive? I’m forever being bombarded with invitations to join them, but too old for that sort of thing.”
That was just Maisie trying to sound her age. She was more savvy about the Internet than anyone else Araminta knew and far too grounded in reality to waste time chatting to people on the screen when she could just walk along the balcony or into the next street to see them.
“What was it like without the Internet and mobile phones when you were young, Gran?” asked Araminta.
“Can’t rightly remember now,” said Maisie. “I was interested as soon as it was possible to do things on a word processor. When PCs and the Internet were available, writing a letter seemed very old-fashioned. Who knows, soon we will all email our Christmas cards because there won’t be any stamps."
"Already do it with most of my friends. Brilliant cards out there - with animation and catchy tunes. Wouldn't send one to Mum, though. She still likes the real thing."
"I brought her up well."
"But she can't make liqueurs like yours."
Maisie recognised the hint. "Like to try my new one? It’s a fusion of valerian and other herbs to help you relax.”
Araminta could see how that would have been ideal for her overactive grandmother, but wasn’t aware that she needed to calm down. The most exciting things in her life were online; dancing dogs, sneezing pandas and young men risking paraplegia by jumping into the sea from dangerously high rocks.
The valerian liqueur was sweet and highly flavoured to conceal the main ingredient, so Araminta swallowed it in one go before Maisie could warn her not to. Her granddaughter felt a soothing warmth surge through her body.
“Oh you silly little cow,” muttered Maisie as she cursed herself for filling the glass too full.
When Araminta woke up it was lunch time. She had promised to chat to Sophie on Skype at one: the satellite only allowed them 30 minutes so she didn’t want to miss the connection and needed to get to her laptop.
Araminta kissed Maisie and said goodbye, snatched up her bag and dashed for the bus.
It was strangely empty for midday.
She took her usual seat upstairs at the very back and pulled out her smartphone.
Before she could decide who to call, half a dozen teenagers got on at the next stop.
They were unusually quiet and seemed to float to their seats.
Maisie’s liqueur must have been stronger than Araminta thought because her surroundings started to take on a watery feel as the seats and the walls of the upper deck merged into a huge amoeba-like mattress. All the teenagers were bounced into a surreal dimension where the air buzzed with pixels trying to take on shapes without quite succeeding. There was something horribly fascinating about what they might have turned into... it could have been anything from a shower of frogs to herd of velociraptors.
Araminta tried to ask the others what was happening, but no words would come.
Her smartphone warbled its silly tune and she placed it to her ear.
“What did you say?” a voice asked.
“I said, ‘Where are we?’”
Araminta lowered the phone and tried to call out. Again the words would not come. The other teenagers were pointing at their mobiles. This was the only way they could communicate.
During the panicked conversations, each of them started to change.
Their faces became rectangular, started to glow and were transformed into a screen mirroring each owner’s device. All they could do was look at their phones and see themselves desperately trying to claw their way out of them.
To her horror, Araminta realised that she was also trapped inside her smartphone. That device, her closest companion, had turned the teenager into a flickering anomaly that could be wiped from existence with one tap on the screen, or perhaps fade away as the battery drained.
Araminta could also see the screen faces of the other trapped teenagers, screaming to escape. From having the Internet at their fingertips, they were now part of the pantomime that had kept them entertained and were appearing in search results for the trivial and amusing. They were probably getting more hits than those minor celebrities stranded in the depths of some jungle the wildlife had deserted out of embarrassment.
For the first time in their lives, the trapped teenagers desperately needed the real world. Maisie's aversion to the trivia on the Internet now made sense. There were only so many times singing goats, bald hedgehogs and idiots taking selfies on the edges of crumbling cliffs could be seen before the viewer started to wonder if life held a deeper meaning.
To make matters worse, the nightmare dimension that had engulfed them began to churn, whirling the teenagers and their phones round and round.
About them, all the silly selfies, would-be superstars and singing goats became bubbles of hot air which burst into oblivion.
Araminta’s head was still spinning when something wet started to lick her face.
She woke with a screech.
“Stop that Wellington! Leave the girl alone!” Maisie’s voice ordered.
Her neighbour’s dopey Staffie leapt from the settee and dashed out onto the balcony to return to its home two doors up.
“Stupid dog. It’s a wonder nobody’s lodged a complaint about him.”
“How long have I been asleep?” asked Araminta.
“Only half an hour. I didn’t wake you because you looked as though you needed it. Bad dream?”
The teenager daren’t tell her. Some nightmares are best forgotten.