12M

by Ho Cheung Lee

Cherry left the university alone as the writing session for the gifted finished. In her one-piece blue uniform, which her school forced her to wear, she waited at the nearby bus-stop heading for the city centre to meet her mother. A single-decker bus, numbered 12M, arrived before she was done with her cell phone entertainment. She got onto the bus and sat next to a gentleman wearing a suit.

            The Secondary Two girl was never curious about strangers on the bus but her neighbour this afternoon looked somewhat uncomfortable to watch. He was dressed like a magician ― black suit with sparkling powder, bowtie, tall juggling hat, and a clipped moustache. The man took down his hat just as the engine roared and the bus was on its way.

            “Do you like rabbits?” the man whispered to the girl as he put a hand inside his hat.

            Cherry did not feel very much at ease to chat with him. All she did was to give him a hesitant smile, without eye contact, and she carried on with her game on the tiny screen.

            “I take that as a yes,” the man replied to her reticence and pulled out from the black hat a furry grey baby cat. The animal was so adorable that no child, or even adult, would be able to stay undistracted. Cherry saw it and showed a much bigger smile when the curled-up cat yelled like a new-born child as the man gestured above it with his fingers and swept and tapped on its soft white abdominal fur. Cherry could not help but meet the man’s eyes briefly and turned to the kitten. The magician’s eyes were blue like gemstones. Without the moustache he should look no older than twenty-five.

            “Wanna play with it for a while?” he offered. “It doesn’t bite or pee, no worries!”

            Though feeling much more relaxed, she still refused to speak. She shook her head with a grin, took a final look at the kitten, and looked away from the man. Through the windows, Cherry saw the old Governor’s house and she knew she would soon reach the Admiralty MTR station, where her mother would be waiting.

            “I should just ignore him for another ten minutes,” she thought, looking around the bus for any other empty seats just in case she needed to find shelter. All of a sudden, she felt something soft, fluffy and warm land on her bare arms. She almost dropped her phone. Cherry let out a feeble scream and found the kitten in her embrace. Its eyes were dark, shiny marbles which seemed to have crystallised into two whirls of galaxies. She found herself stroking the animal and talking to it as if expecting words of reply from its tiny mouth. It was the cutest thing she had ever held since she had last held her baby cousin a month ago. But, then, the magician covered the pet with his hat. Cherry looked at him, wondering what was going on. The man did not speak but signalled the girl with his sharp gaze to look at the hat. Cherry still felt the shifting of the small animal on her hands under the hat. She grasped its limbs as if something was about to happen to it.

            “Watch this,” the man ordered, and he removed the tall hat only to reveal a big bulky rabbit whose limbs were clenched by the girl. Cherry’s jaw dropped so low that it seemed she would never be able to retrieve it. The man pointed the inside of the hat towards the girl to show there was nothing in there. The kitten was gone. Only the rabbit was there now. Cherry was in disbelief. Her head turned back and forth between the empty hat and the rabbit. But she stroked the animal all the same. The furry pet was so calm that it gave her the feeling it was trained, or medicated.

            The bus came to a halt at the red traffic light before heading down the slope. The other passengers did not seem to have noticed what was going on between the man and the girl in the middle section of the vehicle.

            “Thank you,” Cherry spoke to him finally and handed him back the rabbit in style.

            “How about a flight with me?” he replied in an airy mysterious tone, as he put the rabbit back into his black hat.

            “What?”

            “Watch this,” the man raised his right hand to the girl’s eye level and snapped his fingers. The fricative sound from the muscles at his fingertips was so loud that it sounded like a clap in a quiet cave with an extensive echo. And at that moment, Cherry found the environment whirling as if she was riding in a merry-go-round. The girl looked fearfully around the bus but the other passengers were not at all affected. She saw the outside view whooshing past so fast. It was a train circling at full speed.

            “W-What’s going on?” Cherry asked the man, feeling dizzy then.

            “You’d better fasten your seatbelt girl,” the man said as he plugged the two metal pieces together.

            Cherry had no time to make sense of what he said, but fumbled for a seatbelt, though she knew there should not be any seatbelts in a 12M. Before she succeeded, she felt a powerful pressure thrusting her towards the back of her seat. She heard the noise of the engines getting overly aggressive. Her own voice muted as the vehicle tilted upward and took off. Cherry grasped the nearest handrail and was about to lose balance when the bus climbed up in a crescendo of pace. Her ears were blocked and she was forced to swallow. She looked down from the windows, seeing the roads, buildings, people and cars shrinking into models. Soon enough, clouds went past and covered the remaining visible objects from the ground. She was expecting the other people on the bus to have fallen down and be screaming like wild animals, as some had been merely standing without much protection. Weirdly enough, the men who had been standing were still standing, and those sitting were still wearing their indifferent looks. An old lady at the far end peeked out of the window for a while, yawned widely, and returned to her usual nap.

            Cherry stood up slowly, her legs trembling. The bus flew steadily and she felt exactly the same as if she was on a Boeing 747. A layer of silvery cloud formed a new horizon out there, like a blanket of marshmallows. The girl walked down the aisle carefully, supporting herself by clenching every back corner of every seat. The direct sunlight yellowed the interior, casting sharp irregular shadows at an odd angle. Soon, she reached the exit and held onto the metallic rail tightly. There was a long red button on the bar and the girl felt it with her left hand. She pressed it with effort. There was a staccato note from the bell, which lit up the red light above the door right in front of her.

            The engines died down and the vehicle slowed down slickly until it stopped. The door folded open. The man saw the girl looking back at him and gave her a nod, as she hopped off the bus. Through the glass, he saw the girl join a woman at the entrance of the MTR station. Their arms connected and the two blended themselves into the streams of pedestrians in the busy district of Admiralty.

            The man watched the new line of people feeding the bus. A large boy chewing something in his oily mouth approached the empty seat next to him. The man wiped his hairless face with his hands, shifted rigidly, pressed his head against the window and closed his eyes. A voice told him that his new neighbour would never take him that far.

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