Opal closes the lid on the last box and stacks it on top of the others. The whole dismal task is almost done. Only the cot and pram left to dismantle. She hears a clatter at the garden gate and looks out the window. Twelve people are trudging up the path to her front door. Oh no! Not now! Not again! Not more thoughts and prayers! Should she comb her hair? Put make-up on? Tidy the house? Start cooking? No. Instead, she will go to that meeting she’s been putting off for ages. She slips out the house by the back door.
Although the directions had seemed clear enough at the time she soon finds herself wandering in unfamiliar streets, into strange buildings, along corridors that twist and turn, up and down stairs, in and out of doorways. Every room she passes is empty except for one at the end of a long passage where she can hear voices. She follows the voices and enters a room full of people sitting in rows listening to a speaker at the front. She hovers at the back. No. This isn’t the right meeting. She carries on walking straight ahead past the audience, past the speaker who is droning on in a monotone. She comes to a blank wall instead of another door to walk through as she’d hoped. She turns back.
A young woman glances up and whispers, “What are you looking for?”
“A place farther away than I thought,” Opal answers. “I think I need to catch a bus.”
The young woman nods. “Just turn left at the front door and keep walking until you see the bus station.”
She follows the woman’s advice, but doesn’t recognise any of the streets. She wanders through a maze of back lanes and dodges across traffic-clogged roads. Crowds of people with bent heads and blank expressions scurry along the pavements. She knows there’s no point in asking any of them for directions. She’ll have to work out on her own which way she needs to go to find the bus that will take her to her destination. Destination? Destiny? She struggles to remember the right word.
She takes another left turn and sees the bus station straight ahead. A red double-decker bus has just pulled in. A man in a conductor’s uniform steps off the platform at the back.
She remembers that the number 25 bus used to take her home from school when she was a child, so perhaps this is the right bus.
“Is this the number 25?” she asks.
He ignores her and she repeats the question three times, adding, “Am I invisible?”
He turns his head and blinks at her. “This is not the 25. It’s a different bus. And, by the way, there’s no need to be rude. I am a very important person.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “But can you tell me where to find the number 25?”
He shrugs and walks away.
“So who’s rude now?” she calls after him, but he doesn’t turn around.
She feels sure that if she can find the right bus it will take her to where she needs to go, even if she can’t remember where that is, or why she needs to go there. She looks at the numbers on the front of each bus parked in the station. There is no number 25. She sees a small office at the back of the bus station and goes inside to ask for help. The room is empty except for a desk, a chair, and a computer. She sits down and turns on the computer to google bus numbers and destinations. But no matter how many keys she taps the screen shows only headlines from the daily newspapers:
WAR IN UKRAINE
GLOBAL FOOD AND OIL CRISIS
She tries to print the articles under each headline so she can read them later and catch up with what has been happening in the world since she last looked. That was in the before-time. The printer doesn’t work. Of course not. Nothing in her world works. And now, to confirm this, rain starts bucketing down outside so ferociously it bounces off the pavements and roars in a river down the gutters. Thunder cracks in the distance. Lightning rips through the black sky.
The storm stops as suddenly as it started, leaving a million raindrops shimmering on the leaves of a tree outside the office window. Each drop contains a rainbow. Opal ventures outside, pokes one of the raindrops, and watches it burst over her finger. The rainbow inside, now freed, expands and floats upwards, forming an arc of brilliant colour over the entire bus station. A small boy pulled along by his mother stops and points to the rainbow, his eyes wide, his mouth open, his face full of wonder. But his mother doesn’t look up. She yanks his arm even harder to hurry him towards a bus that is revving its engine and pulling out of the station.
Opal stretches her arms out on either side of her and begins to spin, slowly at first then gradually gaining momentum. The bus with the little boy passes in front of her as her feet leave the ground. The heads of all the passengers are bent over their phones. Only the boy sees her. He laughs and waves. She waves back before she floats away.
She follows the arc of the rainbow over rooftops, streets, cities, mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, and oceans to where it curves downwards to the burnt, blackened edge of a forest. She watches every colour in the rainbow spread over the bare earth and the dead trees and understands that if she lands there she might never reach her destination. But on the other hand, she reasons, she might.
is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She is the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ), Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK), and Sing No Sad Songs (Canterbury University Press, NZ). Her short fiction has been widely published and anthologised internationally. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions, and The Pushcart Prize. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia.
Author’s website: www.sandraarnold.co.nz