Short Story: Curtain Call
I wrote this short story (~2,500 words) under the following prompt:
In memory of Terry Pratchett write a story that showcases the following:
-characters who face death bravely
-stories that turn the traditional ideas of death on their heads
The No.1 bus trundled along the streets of Bristol. The driver yawned behind the wheel. Another grey Monday morning. Men and women in suits filed silently onto the bus, flashing the driver their season tickets. School children chattered and laughed and hogged the upper deck. An ordinary day.
It’s a fact that extraordinary days have ordinary beginnings.
Rose Penelly got on the bus.
I sit near the front. Two rows back, aisle seat.
Behind me, two men in suits and a woman in a full-length niqab get on. The men go upstairs. The woman stands at the front in the space for wheelchairs. She grips the pole like she never wants to let go. The veins stand out on the back of her hand. Her eyes catch mine, two dark holes. I look away.
I check my iPod and switch to Katy Perry. ‘Roar’ fills my ears. The headphones block out all other sounds. The woman to my left gives me a dirty look. I flick the volume down a notch and think about my lunch date with Rob. Something to look forward to after a morning of dry lectures.
The bus pulls out into the traffic. Red rear lights filtrating the early morning greyness. Keeping left, we edge into the bus lane and accelerate past the queue.
The woman in the niqab moves forwards to speak to the driver. Maybe she doesn’t know which her stop is. Her lips move, but all I hear is Katy.
The bus sails by the next stop. I turn my head as we go past. What’s the driver playing at? There’s a queue of people waiting. Through the dirty glass, I link eyes with a man in the line. He stares, disbelief etched in his brow. He gives the bus the finger.
The woman stands next to the driver, her back to the passengers. The driver’s hidden from view behind a perspex shield. She clutches her stomach and moves her head closer to the shield. Her mouth almost touches it. Is she ill?
The bus flies past another stop. More silent mouthing and shaking fists. The line of angry business people disappears into the distance.
A nagging feeling grows at the back of my mind. Mild nausea in my stomach. I pull off my earphones. The silence is deafening. The only voice is the murmur of the woman addressing the driver.
There’s a restless vibe. Other passengers shift in their seats—craning their heads to look back at the stop we missed.
The woman turns around to face us, clutching poles on either side with tense hands. Her niqab covers all of her, except eyes and hands. Her eyes dart from side to side.
The bus heads steadily down the road. The woman takes a deep breath, heaving her chest upwards. Her high-pitched voice wavers.
“When this bus reaches the BBC broadcasting house, I shall activate a bomb.” She releases one hand to clutch her stomach again. A cold chill runs down my spine.
“You will all die. This is a message to the world that we will not tolerate Western supremacy. As I speak, bombs are going off in every major city in England. Allahu Akbar!”
The bus flies past another stop. In less than a minute it would reach the BBC. Is she for real? I’m going to die in less than sixty seconds? It’s a joke, right?
And then I catch her eye again. I read fear. She laughs, high and nervous. Her eyes are wet. Holy crap! She means it.
A murmur of panic rises in the bus. Passengers throw themselves under seats. An odour of sweat hits my nostrils.
A businessman on the other side of the aisle starts to stand up.
“Can we talk about this?” he asks her.
“Sit down!” Her voice is shrill. “Or I’ll blow it, now.”
He sits. “Please.” His voice cracks. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Listen to him!” A man shouts from behind me.
The woman doesn’t reply. Just stares.
The BBC stop is ahead. Death is thirty seconds away. Death sits on the No. 1 bus.
What the hell, I’m dead already. Let’s go for it! My heart is about to thump out of my chest and all my nerves tingle.
I stand up in one fluid movement and look the woman straight in her wide, staring eyes.
“Stay where you are!” She shifts her hand. “Don’t come any closer.”
The bus approaches the BBC bus stop. I make an immense leap forwards, aiming for the woman’s hands. If I can grab her hands, she can’t set the bomb off.
Shock registers in her eyes as I yank her hand off the bomb and twist it behind her head. She cries out in pain. I pry her other hand off the pole and twist it back to join the other, throwing my whole body weight against her.
The bus driver slams on the brakes.
We fly forward and smash into the windscreen, me squashing the woman into the glass. She screams at the force of the impact and I shout in her face as I desperately hang onto her arms. “I won’t let you do this, you bitch! ”
Another jolt throws us onto the floor. I twist in midair so she ends up underneath me. Something must have crashed into the bus. The back end swivels round. The front smashes into a stationary lorry on the other side of the road.
Beneath me the woman fights for breath. I feel energy flow through me and the blood rushes to my head.
The front window shatters, spraying my back with glass. The woman screams again and struggles beneath me. I bash her head backwards, smacking it hard on the bus floor. Her eyes are dazed.
“Open the doors! Open the doors!” I grab the woman in a bear hug, her arms behind her, and pull back onto my knees. I look over at the driver. Blood trickles down his face from a gash on his forehead.
“Open the doors!” I scream at him.
Comprehension dawns. The doors open with a hiss.
I hang on tight. I have to get her off the bus. My muscles scream with the effort as I drag her to a standing position. She fights me every inch of the way, trying to whip her body from side to side.
I take a deep breath and soften my knees. I launch myself and the woman out of the bus. The road comes up to meet us.
She yells on impact. My ankle twists and bends. I cry out as pain shoots up my leg. Involuntary tears fly from my eyes.
I smell her scent now, musky, sweaty, intense. The black cloth enfolds me as I cling to her. Suffocating. I throw my head back.
Gritting my teeth, I put the pain to the back of my mind. It can wait. I yank the woman sideways and roll over with her. Grit and mud fly in my eyes and mouth. I spit, and focus on getting the woman away from the bus.
From the corner of my eye I see legs run towards me.
“Get away! She’s got a bomb!” I scream.
The legs hesitate and retreat.
I pin the woman’s arms to the ground and push my chest up. At a distance, like statues frozen in time, stand the driver, some passengers, other commuters. No one moves.
“Run!” I scream. The sound waves spark movement and one by one, they turn and flee.
I shift my knee up to the woman’s chest. There is an ominous click. Dark eyes gleam.
BBC ONE : 6 O’CLOCK NEWS
The world has been rocked by devastating terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. Bombs went off in ten major cities across the country, including the capital. The attacks took place on public transport in key media locations. Many people are dead and many more injured. The death toll is currently unknown, and feared to be in the hundreds.
A story of extraordinary bravery has reached us from Bristol. Rose Penelly, a 21 year old Psychology student at Bristol University, was travelling on the bus chosen by the suicide bomber.
She singlehandedly overpowered the bomber, throwing her out of the bus into a clear area in the road. The bomb detonated and Miss Penelly lost her life. Thanks to her courage and bravery, no other life was lost in Bristol, although several people were seriously injured.
There will be a two minute silence at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning, in memory of the bombing victims.
Rose opened her eyes. Blackness and silence surrounded her. Her palms began to sweat and panic rose in her throat. Where was she? What had happened?
Images flashed through her mind. A bus. A woman in black. Glass flying everywhere.
Vomit rose up her throat and a cold sweat came over her face. She swallowed and wiped her forehead.
Was she dead? The bomb must have gone off. Why wasn’t she lying in a million pieces on Whiteladies Road?
She ran her hands over her body. No aches and pains. There was no grit in her hair, no glass shards on her back.
The warm, dusty atmosphere around her stifled her breathing.
A sound rose in the distance. Roaring? No. Cheering? Clapping? Where the hell was she?
Rose raised her arms and her fingers grasped thick material. A curtain? She moved forward and pushed against the fabric.
A zipping sound came from overhead and the fabric split in two, straight down the middle. The swathes disappeared on either side of her. The cheering intensified as if the volume had been turned up.
A white spotlight beamed in her face. Rose squinted and shaded her eyes with her hand. Below her feet was a wooden platform. Was it a stage of some kind? Beyond the spotlight she could make out the forms of people.
Something brushed her chest. She bent down and picked it up. A single stem rose. For her? More roses landed at her feet, apparently thrown from the audience.
Footsteps came from the right. Rose turned to see a broad, full-bearded gentleman in a white robe coming towards her. He held an enormous bouquet of flowers.
He strode over to Rose and caught her up in a strong hug. Her face pressed against his chest and the overpowering scent of roses filled her nose.
“Oh, my dear, my dear. That was masterful.” His voice broke. “Your command of the situation. Your courage. A performance beyond all expectation.”
He squeezed her tightly, before letting go and placing the huge bouquet in her arms.
Rose staggered under the weight. “I … I don’t understand. Where am I? Who are you?”
The man gave a booming laugh and waved a hand above his head. The spotlight dropped and Rose saw an audience of men and women in similar white robes. The women wore laurel wreaths on their heads. Many were wiping their eyes or blowing kisses at her.
She shook her head. Nope. Still didn’t get it.
The man put his arm on her shoulder. “I am the Great Theatre Director On High. And you are today’s star life performer. Congratulations, my dear. You gave us the most moving performance we have seen in many days.”
Rose’s brain caught up. “You saw me? D’you mean with the … the bomber? Am I dead?”
“Oh, yes.” He smiled kindly. “You did mankind a great service today. You fought the good fight. And now you have finished the race. I am here to welcome you to the afterlife!”
Rose’s mouth fell open. “This is the afterlife? ”
“Of course. What else would it be? And now, the eternal after show party awaits you. You are tonight’s guest of honour. Everyone is looking forward to meeting you.” He began to usher Rose towards the wings.
She planted her feet firmly. “Hang on a minute. What about heaven and hell? Where’s God? Where’s St Peter?”
“No heaven. No hell. Just us. Watching your lives, day in, day out. Deciding who gets to go to the party and who has to strike the set. You’re one of the lucky ones. You might even win an award for that performance, you know.”
“Are you God?”
“I’ll leave that for you to decide.” He gently pushed her into the wings and through the back of the theatre into a narrow corridor.
A door ahead glided open and bright white light streamed through. A figure appeared in the doorway. Rose moved forward. She recognised that silhouette.
“Of course. Who else?” Her Grandma came forward. “I’m sorry to see you here so early, Rose, but never mind. Welcome to the party that never ends! No hangovers. No tired feet. No warm beer. And you really must try the duck canapés—”
“But, Grandma, I—”
“Come on, dear.” Rose’s Grandma took her arm, and shunted a bewildered Rose through the door. Rose turned round as if to say something to the Great Theatre Director, but the door slid shut behind her before she could speak.
The Great Theatre Director smiled wistfully and smoothed his beard down his vast chest. He took one last look at the door, then wandered back towards the stage.
His wife, a well-built lady with a double wreath of laurel around her long, blonde hair, waved to him from the audience. He strolled towards her and she clutched his arm. “Oh, Rose was amazing. The best performance in a long time.” She twisted her hair around her finger, and sighed in delight.
He patted her hand and sat down. “Yes. She’s one in a million, isn’t she?”
“How did she take it?” A voice came from behind.
The Great Theatre Director shrugged. “As well as anyone. Bewildered. Disbelieving. Asked where St Peter was.”
A ripple of chuckles passed around the hall where the gods still wiped their eyes.
The Great Theatre Director leant forward and frowned. “It will never cease to amaze me how surprised they always are. I thought we left plenty of clues around the place.”
“Some of them got it,” came another soft voice. “Remember that chap, Pythagoras?”
“Yes. He was very intelligent, though,” said the Great Theatre Director.
“And don’t forget that Shakespeare chap,” said another voice. “He even tried to tell everyone. It’s not his fault they didn’t listen.”
The Great Theatre Director sighed. “Ah, well. They all find out the truth sooner or later.” He draped his arm around his wife’s shoulder. “What’s on tonight’s programme, my love?”
‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.’
– As you like it (Act II Scene VII)
– William Shakespeare