The garage spit her out on a parallel street to her office building. Grayness settled over downtown Chicago as the sun set behind the buildings. The sidewalks were surprisingly empty for a late Friday afternoon, she guessed many people must have left work early and were home glued to their televisions to learn more about what happened.
Amanda walked with no particular destination in mind and no path defined. She ambled up one street, turned a corner and walked back down the next street. This zigzag pattern continued for several hours as darkness settled over the city. At first, the chill penetrating her thin t-shirt was welcome relief, but she began to shiver as an unforgiving wind blew off the lake. The sound of the emergency vehicles grew faint as she continued to put more distance between herself and her now tattered office building.
The city felt like a catacomb. Only a few other brave souls were out on an evening when the bars and restaurants were normally filled. Part of her wanted to absorb the innocence of those she passed on the street. Did they look at her and see a criminal, a murderer? Walking along Lakeshore Drive, she flagged the first taxi cab she saw.
“Where to,” the driver said. Amanda’s nostrils filled with the mixture of curry and cigar smoke that scented his cab, reigniting the queasy feeling. Usually, Amanda would feel claustrophobic when cab drivers kept their heat on high, but tonight she welcomed the blast of warmth.
“Can you take me to the closest bus station?”
“We’re not far from Dan Ryan and 95th, is that good?” He eyed Amanda through his rearview mirror. She nodded.
Numbness cascaded down her body as she realized the radio was tuned to an all-news talk station speculating on the day’s events.
“The President elevated the terror alert in the event this was something more than a random office shooting, however, all signs point to an armed gunman who opened fire on an investment firm named in an indictment,” said a weary, warm voice on the radio. Amanda held her breath waiting to hear her or Josh’s name on the newscast, but the story cut to a police officer saying the death toll could be as many as seventy and some members of the investment firm were still unaccounted for.
Amanda suffered the rest of the ride listening to the unnamed voice of a family member frustrated over the lack of information. The man said that his daughter was a receptionist at the company and calls to her cell phone continued to go unanswered. He broke down weeping just as the interview ended and Amanda’s cab pulled to the front of the bus station. She tried to feel concern, or remorse, but she only felt numb. “Is it because I’m freezing?” Amanda said, watching her words turn to frost in the frigid night air. “Because, I can’t be that cold of a person. Can I?”
Only two windows were open at the bank of ticket counters; at one a pockmarked college student with his head dangerously close to a textbook, the other a woman with long red talons engaged in a heated phone conversation. Amanda looked up at the giant, ornate clock on the wall; unsure what bus would leave at this time of night or if she even wanted to be on it. A map of the country lured her over. She examined the faded areas covered with smudges that blotted several cities out of existence.
Amanda went to the woman’s window, but she continued her phone conversation, studying the lacquer on her nails and avoiding Amanda’s stare.
“I know the world is going crazy, but I’ve got to work. He’s just fine with his cousin and should stay put. Hang on,” she pulled the mouthpiece from her hands-free earphone away from her face. “Can I help you?”
“What buses are leaving tonight?”
With an overabundance of exasperation, the woman ran through a short list of departures. “St. Louis, Tulsa, Detroit, Memphis and El Paso with a transfer in Memphis.”
“I’ll do that one. Just a one-way ticket to El Paso.”
After a dramatic sigh and eye roll, the woman struck the keyboard and continued her conversation.
“I know we need to move out of the city, but do you think I work two jobs to afford a country home? No, I have to make sure my kids have food and clothes.”
Amanda looked around the empty terminal. The only people there were those with no one to go home to. She imagined the elderly gentleman buffing the floors lost his wife years ago, the only woman he ever loved. The man asleep on the plastic chairs was kicked out of his house by an angry spouse, only to find shelter among the transient. The college student spent too much time working and going to school to have friends. The woman at the ticket counter had a string of lovers, each one leaving behind a child to keep her forever bound to thankless jobs. This was where she belonged.
“You can get a non-refundable ticket for $130, you want that one?”
Amanda tried to casually pull the envelope out of her waistband; she suddenly realized if seen with this amount of cash, she wouldn’t make it out of the state.
The woman handed Amanda a ticket without another glance or word, continuing her phone conversation. As she walked towards the bus departures, her laceless tennis shoes made her feel like a patient in an asylum. Piercing squeaks echoed over the sound of the man buffing the floors of the empty bus station as she shuffled her feet to keep from losing the clunky shoes too big for her feet. Every few seconds she caught the powerful smell of citrus from the disinfectant, the only smell that could cover the dissonance of colognes, sweat, and bus exhaust that mingled daily in the lobby.
The one newsstand still open late at night sold a limited array of tabloid press, stale coffee, cigarettes and Chicago Bears sweatshirts. She vowed to get rid of the Bears sweatshirt as soon as she was able to buy more clothes, but in the meantime, she needed warmth. Her damp hair hung heavily down her back, as if frozen from the hours she spent on the frigid streets of Chicago.
She sipped her coffee and grimaced at the bitter taste, but grateful for feeling something other than cold and emptiness. Her eyes burned with exhaustion, but every time she tried to close them, she could only see the limp hand of her friend lying on their office floor with blood soaking her shirt.
A voice over the intercom called for pre-boarding. She got a seat near the middle of the bus, recalling that only the kids who did drugs and made out rode in the back. With her head rested against the window, she allowed the wave of uneasy exhaustion to wash over her.