[A version of this story was published on on July 16, 2018. It won second-place in the creative writing competition.]

BEIRUT-TRABLOS

By Mike Azar

Viraf was plodding down a narrow sidewalk along the highway, dragging behind him two bags that screeched over the lumpy pavement. He was with his friend, Masoud, searching for the Charles Helou bus station. They were on their way from Beirut to Viraf's hometown of Trablos-Tripoli in English. Masoud had never been there before–-this was his first time in Lebanon-–and he was quite amused by the chaos of the place.

They walked and walked under the oppressive Mediterranean sun that hung high above, causing them to gush sweat from their every place. Finally, and without any warning, or any design logic for that matter, the sidewalk vanished before them. The thought of turning back and retracing their steps was daunting indeed.

Ayry b'hayati, Viraf mumbled. He rarely cursed in Arabic but, when he did, it came instinctually and made him nervous.

"Amazing. Google Maps can figure out walking routes in Antarctica, but can't decipher the roads of Beirut," Viraf complained.

There they were, cooking in the blaze that radiated from the sun above and from the asphalt below. The sidewalk was no more, the highway could not be crossed, and quite simply, there was no conceivable way to reach the station now.

Suddenly, a savior appeared. A small white Volkswagen microbus came flying out of nowhere. Through squinting eyes, Viraf made out the hand-written "Beirut-Trablos" sign that sat half obscured behind a windshield that evidently had never been washed. Hamdillah!

The bus pulled over and the doors creaked halfway open. Viraf squeezed his head in and asked "Trablos?"

"No!" shouted the driver, waving his hands wildly.

"Then why does -" Viraf stopped. He had been in Lebanon long enough to know there was no point in asking, so he apologized and stepped back into the frying pan outside to contemplate his and Masoud's misfortune.

A second bus rattled up behind the first, which was presently screeching away, leaving behind a puff of tire smoke, the driver still waving his arms and yelling. The second bus had no signs and Viraf wasn't sure that it was even a commuter bus. The driver reached over to roll down the passenger side window – the main door could not be opened from the inside.

Viraf poked his head in. "Yalla Trablos?" he asked.

The bus driver shouted out a destination, but only a hoarse rumble escaped his aged vocal cords. It sounded either like 'Trablos' or 'Tartus' (or something with a 'T'). Viraf faced a decision that was like choosing between drowning or burning to death. He cranked open the door with both hands and they jumped in. Yalla Trablos. Or somewhere.

The small bus had rows of two-person seats along the left side and one-person seats along the right. Masoud took a one-person seat and Viraf a two-person seat in the same row and put his bags next to him – the driver had laughed when Viraf asked if there was a cargo compartment.

The frame of the bus could only be described as loosely glued together, but it still somehow launched with the force of a SpaceX rocket, and Viraf experienced the nausea that usually accompanies g-force.

"This fucking guy," Viraf thought.

While recovering from the effects of gravity, Viraf noticed that he was no less hot in the bus than he had been outside. He tilted his head up and reached for the air conditioning vent to open it as wide as possible. He fantasized about a cool gust of wind that would reinvigorate his soul. He was met instead by a warm blast of engine smoke that made him curse everything holy. He grimaced, withdrawing his face immediately. With his body now contorted beyond recognition, he fought through the hellish blaze to close the vent. He had just stepped back from Jahannam, the Hell that his grandmother taunted him with as a child, only to find himself back in the slightly lesser Jahannam of the bus. Forget air conditioning – that was a luxury for foreign well-to-do's anyway.

Viraf was a natural optimist and felt his luck was turning when he saw a pleasant Mediterranean breeze had materialized outside. The trees were swaying gently, and he imagined a lovely journey ahead, with the cool wind twirling and dancing across his face. He tugged at the window beside him, but it wouldn't budge; it was broken, lodged in the closed position. The realization that he would slowly roast in this bus settled into him like last call at his favorite bar. Allah yistor.

Viraf shut his eyes, murmured "Bismillah" in the way that Arabs always do in the face of adversity, and entreated to God that, during this holy month of Ramadan, He might see him through this journey.

Like most Lebanese raised in mixed religious neighborhoods, Viraf often found himself beseeching both Christian and Muslim prophets. Religion to him was just part of the vernacular. If life in Lebanon felt like wading in a raging river, and oftentimes it did, then Islam and Christianity were co-equal tributaries, the inextricable forces behind the flow of everyday life with all of its charm and brilliance, but also, naturally, its chaos. It was difficult for most people to identify which religion Viraf was born into and that realization always made him smile. And it made him smile that day, for a moment, until the bus suddenly jerked to a stop, sending Viraf's face directly into the seat in front of him.

Apparently, the driver was going to slam the brake for every pedestrian to ask if they needed a ride. In a city of more than a million people, that meant quite a few stops (and at least a mild case of whiplash for the bus's occupants).

After thirty or forty stops, the driver made a turn that took the bus off the highway to pick up passengers on Beirut's local streets. The thing about these streets is that between the hours of 9 AM and 9 PM (and probably 9 PM and 9 AM), traffic doesn't flow – it doesn't even crawl – it just sits there, festering in a crescendo of blaring horns signaling each driver's slow descent into madness.

A burly man with sausage fingers and a thick black mustache, who Viraf remembers as Abu Shwerib-shwerib meaning mustache in Arabic-had been growing increasingly agitated for a variety of reasons too long to list. He finally went careening off the rails at this scandalous detour. He yelled out, with an abundant bass in his voice: "Khalas! My neck is coming off its hinges from these stops! How much longer are we going to twist and turn and stop and go? For the love of God get back on the highway and let's go!"

The driver glanced back at the angry man through his rear-view mirror and mumbled: "Eh, Yalla. Yalla."

The bus was by now rather full, but the driver still slowed down to make one last pickup before finally getting back on the highway. In the distance, crowding around a corner of the street, Viraf could see a band of soldiers whose mud-encrusted boots and dirt-lined faces suggested they had just finished an all-night training session and had not bothered to shower.

"Oh God, please, no," escaped from Viraf's lips as he understood the fate before him.

The soldiers boarded the highway coffin with legs of lead. The bus compartment sank directly into the asphalt.

As Viraf feared, but also expected because that's just how life is sometimes, the most gigantic and filthiest of the new passengers trudged his way through the bus and squeezed himself into the seat right next to him. Viraf piled his bags on top of his lap and scooted closer to the window. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Viraf suddenly knew what Houdini must have felt like when he was handcuffed, gagged, bound, and put upside down into a water tank. Houdini, at least, had the possibility of escape.

Viraf squirmed, wriggled, and inhaled deeply, while his new neighbor looked at him with concern. His breathing quickened as he struggled to bring enough air into his lungs. He felt like his heart was about to burst from its cavity. A starry blackness started to take over his vision, and he knew that, if his thirty-one years of life and millions of years of evolution had prepared him for anything, it was this moment.

In between shallow breaths, Viraf managed to let out a whimper that carried with it an urgency, causing the enormous man to leap from his seat. Viraf pushed his way out of the corner, his bags thrashing behind him, and found an empty seat in the front row next to a Nigerian woman. He sat down and inhaled a satisfying breath and things got better for him, for a while.

But only for a while.

Viraf looked back to make sure that Masoud was still alive and shuddered to see that the once empty space between the rows was now occupied by folding seats.

"It's really amazing how many people they can fit in here," Viraf texted Masoud, who felt his phone vibrate in his pocket but couldn't reach it because of the enormous man squeezed next to him with his two daughters on his lap. Masoud's face was by now pale and sweaty, and his skin was cool. Viraf was familiar with the signs of shock from his EMT training. The chaos wasn't so charming now.

The bus toiled on and the passengers were thrown from side to side as the ancient driver with the heavy foot swerved to avoid cars, people, and stationary objects. From time to time, Abu Shwerib would blurt out: "You and that fucking brake!" This brought Viraf much satisfaction.

The only thing Viraf could do now was pray for deliverance. He tried to find escape by admiring the lovely weather outside, but it was too much like being in a prison cell with a view through barred windows. The bus was beginning to resemble a steam room engulfed with the thick essence of rotting garbage that clung to everything. He did not know if he would ever regain a sense of smell through his burning nostrils. Despite prayers to both Jesus and to Mohammad, the blaring horns outside suggested that this journey would not end soon.

The bus started making frequent stops to drop off passengers on the side of the highway, which is normal in Lebanon. At every stop, passengers in the front stepped off the bus to make way for those exiting from the rear. After a few of these stops, Masoud had been thoroughly shuffled in the bus like a deck of cards. He promptly disappeared into the crowd and was never heard from again. Rumor has it, he's still on the bus to this day.

Viraf began to notice that the driver refused to make complete stops. He would slow down, certainly, but just enough for passengers could leap out.

"Just fucking stop you asshole!" Abu Shwerib yelled at every stop, but the driver would just mumble back: "I have a schedule to keep!" as he floored the gas pedal.

Two and a half hours had passed and Viraf was very nearly well-done. "I wonder where Masoud is," he thought as he glanced back in a vain attempt to find his friend in the mess of sweaty miserable faces that all looked the same.

Just as twilight was falling, Viraf began drifting to sleep thanks to a combination of dehydration and mental collapse. As his body became lighter and his soul floated up into the billowing clouds, he forgot his present circumstances.

Suddenly, Viraf was startled by a high-pitched buzzing deep in his ear, deep enough to be coming from his brain. The mosquitos had come out to feast.

"Even the mosquitos? Why did I get on this fucking bus! Ayri bi hal mseebi," Viraf heard Abu Shwerib cursing from somewhere in the back.

If mosquitos are descended from dinosaurs, then Lebanese mosquitos are a little more so. They sound like pterodactyls and they bite like raptors.

The bites came quickly, bountifully, and glowed with fire. Viraf was in shorts and had undressed to his sleeveless undershirt to avoid heat stroke. His arms and legs felt like he had fallen into an acid bath.

He ripped a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of whisky from his bag – Ramadan be damned – and only barely managed to get the right substance in the right place. He doused his skin with the bluish-green toothpaste and chugged the whisky. He felt tremendous relief and went back to sleep looking like a drunk smurf.

After a while, he saw the sign for Trablos in the distance and, for the first time, optimism returned to him with the thought that he might actually survive this ordeal.

The same could not be said of Abu Shwerib, who was still agitated—and even more so now. He inhaled what little air was left on the bus, patted down his rebellious shwerib, and began: "Wluk the AC is broken, the windows don't open, we're starving for air in here! Show some mercy on us and turn on this radio so at least our minds can escape from this nightmare. Lek! Can you even see the road through those squinting eyes! A man your age should not be driving anymore. You should be retired and enjoying what remains of your life! We've been on the road for nearly three hours!"

"Two hours and fifty minutes, if you please. Lying is such an ugly trait," the driver responded.

The stop in Trablos was nearing and the driver asked Abu Shwerib if he would disembark there.

"I was going to get off here but I'm not ready to end such a pleasant cruise. I might stay on until we get to your house," the passenger said.

"Wallah?" asked the driver.

"No, let me off this death trap and wake me up from this fucking nightmare!" shouted Abu Shwerib, sounding even more irate, if that was possible. He jumped off the fast-moving bus like an acrobat and walked off cursing.

"And fuck your brakes!" echoed from the distance before the man disappeared into the city crowds.

Viraf was finally approaching his stop. When he stepped off the bus, the sky was clear, the bright orange sun was sinking into the sea over the far horizon, and the wind danced and smelled pure.

He sat on the sidewalk and lit a cigarette that tasted to him as sweet as it might to a soldier returning from Iraq. He took a deep breath, stretched out his arms, and thought: Next time I'll Uber it.

Then it dawned on him. Where's Masoud?

THE END