Breathe

The doors ease open as he tries to calm his nerves. His mind is churning with thoughts of backing out, of going home and forgetting all about this ridiculous plan. It would be so easy, no one would ever need to know.

One foot after another, it’s almost midnight, dark, he’s the only one standing beneath the harsh glare of the halogen streetlamp, the only passenger waiting by the curb for the last bus.

The only one leaving.

He fumbles in his pocket, crumpling the ticket as he retrieves it, pressing it to the scratched Perspex that separates him from the only other human being in sight. He feels the engine, rumbling beneath his feet, the small window rattles noisily in its frame as the driver inspects his ticket, hooded eyes barely even glancing at the details.

The driver nods, gesturing toward the rows of deserted seats behind him without a word. His sole patron makes his way to the back of the bus and sits down, swinging his heavy rucksack onto the empty seat beside him as he holds his breath.

In a few seconds, it will be too late. In a few seconds the bus will be moving and he’ll be trapped, there will be no time for cold feet, no time for doubt, he will be on his way.

He waits, every inch of him trembling anxiously.

The doors close, the handbrake is released, and just like that, it’s too late.

He starts to panic, letting out his trapped breath in a shaky hiss. This is a mistake. When the bus eventually stops, miles from here, he’ll surely realise that his hectic way of life had never been a burden, and that it had never suffocated him at all.

He pulls back the hood of his sweatshirt, the soft fleece feels strangely loose across his chest, he has become so accustomed to stiff white shirts and choking neckties over the years that he has almost forgotten what it is to be comfortable.

He has lived in the city for as long as he can remember, and in the beginning at least, he loved it. In his younger years, he found the bright lights and constant thrum of speed and movement exhilarating, it was all so fast-paced and exciting that he didn’t even consider the fact that it never stopped, that he never came up for air.

And then suddenly he had left his youth behind him, and started working, living in the most luxurious apartment that money could buy, surrounded by wealthy, successful friends who drove the fastest of cars. He had been living the dream, and he had very quickly grown to despise it.

For almost ten years, he had been working behind the same desk in the same office on the same floor of the same building. The work in front of him had changed from time to time as he worked his way up the ladder, his yearly promotions almost became routine, but other than that his days were identical. His office walls were made of glass, and through that glass he could see his colleagues, sitting at their own desks, all working so furiously that they probably didn’t notice him drowning in the very next room. Didn’t they feel it too? Was he really the only one who felt as if he were merely a child, acting grown-up to impress his parents, wearing a suit that was his father’s and a pair of shoes he couldn’t even tie? The money was very good, and he could hardly deny that he lived comfortably, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Maybe, when he was younger, he had been driven by thoughts of living the high life, but now he just wanted out.

He thought of his options time and again on nights when he found it impossible to fall asleep. Even when he didn’t have a myriad of things to prepare for work the next day, the noise of the city kept him wide awake. The bright lights streamed through even the thickest blinds, and it was far from unusual for him to wind up on the couch in the living room, or even standing over the basin in the bathroom, staring at the shadows which seemed to cling to his eyes despite his best efforts to banish them. He had tried everything, every prescribed drug, every bizarre chai infusion he could find. He had trawled the internet, hunting for breathing exercises and meditation techniques, but nothing had worked.

There had been no respite.

He had tried for ten years, and it wasn’t getting any better. He was getting everything he was supposed to want, and yet he only wanted it to end. Perhaps sometimes it was better to run, better to turn your back on everything you thought you knew and try something new.

At the end of the day, that’s what he’s doing now, isn’t it? He’s on a bus heading away from everything he’s built for himself, with only a few of his belongings, hoping that he’ll never be found, never be pulled back into the city.

And yet, adults don’t need to run away. His parents won’t call the police, his photograph won’t be splashed across the front pages of the papers. If anyone asks, he will simply tell them that he was looking for a change of pace. It’s almost true. He can let them construct their own stories about the crippling panic and the endless fear that he might never escape.

He can’t bring himself to tell his friends and colleagues the truth.

He can’t cope anymore.

He has spent the day debating whether or not to board this bus, packing and unpacking his bag restlessly, trying to decide whether he’s doing the right thing.

But then, at about four o’clock that afternoon, it had struck him. He had to get out. Surely any move to do so was the right move, no matter how irrational it seemed. That’s why he walked to the bus stop, that’s why he is riding out of the city, that’s why he suddenly feels an enormous weight lifting from his shoulders.

He looks down at his feet, clad in nearly-new trainers, rather than his habitual black pointed office shoes. His panic has receded completely, and all he feels is this intense freedom. No ridiculously demanding job, no high-flying friends to impress, his life is in his own hands, just as he’s always wanted it to be.

“Everything ok back there?” the driver calls over his shoulder.

He nods defiantly. Yes.

What will he do, when he arrives? He’s not entirely sure yet.

He wants a change, he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of living the exact same life in a different place, he wants to start afresh. New house, new friends, new world.

In next to no time, he has dozed off at the back of the bus, his warm breath clouding the filthy window as he snores. For the first time in goodness knows how long, he doesn’t even dream. He is so peaceful.

He is woken, sometime later, by a shuddering jolt, and as his eyelids flicker open, he returns momentarily to his earlier panic. Where is he?

And then he remembers, and then he is calm.

“This is the end of the line.”

He stands, reaching for his rucksack and making his way to the front of the bus. He nods his thanks to the driver and steps off, the midnight darkness seems as bright as the midday sun to him now as he sets off down the unfamiliar street.

He is at once struck by how quiet everything is here. There are only a handful of cars, the people in the nearby houses are fast asleep, undisturbed by this gentle flow of traffic. It is so peaceful, and he can’t help but smile as he remembers that this is his life now.

“It’s going to be ok,” he tells himself, his voice cracking as he clears his throat for the first time since he boarded the bus, since he left the city, “The worst is over now, you’re here, you’re here, you’ve made it this far.”

He laughs to himself as he looks around at the sleeping town, the people behind the windows oblivious to the sheer euphoria coursing through his veins as he cries out, shouting at the top of his lungs.

“I’m here.”

And he hopes that someone, somewhere in this tiny, quiet place, hears him, or is woken by his shouts, because he hasn’t truly been heard in years.

He sinks down onto the low wall of the nearest garden. He looks up at the sky, he can’t remember the last time he saw anything so clearly. The glass towers of the city are so tall that they block out the moon, the lights so bright that it’s rarely this dark.

He breathes.

by Isabel Alexander

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