"Everyone Has Come" by Jasmina Odor
2017 CBC Short Story Prize finalist
It was some years back, what I'm thinking of now, long before I moved to Canada, before I was married, before the kids. I'm looking out my kitchen window, where I live, in a suburb of East Vancouver, and what I see is the worn white siding of my neighbours' house, our own patchy lawn, the kids' bicycles and little shovels that I will have to put away later. No one is at home but me; they won't be back for a little while, and then I will think about what to prepare for the kids to tide them over until dinner time.
The thing I'm thinking of was in Bosnia, when the war was still going. Before I ever might have thought I would end up here. I'd been separated from my family by the fighting during the war, but we were going to be reunited; I was on a bus full of refugees that was going west, to where my family was waiting. On the bus with me was my friend Lela: before we ended up on that bus Lela and I had lived under the siege as best we knew how, and before that we were philosophy students at the Sarajevo University. We had only just got through our first year when the war started up, which is too bad because we were having a really good time — philosophy girls were the most popular and all the guys wanted to date us. We were respected and I don't know exactly why that was; I do know none of us respected money — who cared if you studied economy or tourism? But what I'm thinking of has to do with when the bus finally got to where it was going, when I first saw my family again after all those months.
It was early evening when the bus arrived at the station in that city, the city my family had got away to, where there were many refugees and no war. There was a big crowd of people at the station; they had been waiting since dawn, the bus was so delayed. When I spotted my mom and dad in the crowd, they were scanning the windows with their eyes, but they couldn't see me yet. I saw my brother yell something to my father, saw my mother pull on my father's sleeve. It was a bright day, the sun had just gone down. Lela and I got out together, into this crowd of anxious, terrifyingly hopeful people.
I waved and yelled across the noise, like everyone was doing, "Mom!" I yelled, "Dad!" The look on their face when they saw me. They hugged me and hugged me and cried and cried. Mom looked a little wild, Dad looked old, my little brother was wearing his hair short, really short.
Then we waited with Lela for her aunt, who was supposed to get her, but didn't seem to be here. Not far from us was another family, a father and grown son smoking, pacing, a mother sitting on the bench, her arms twisted together. They were still scanning for someone though the bus had nearly emptied now. We smoked too, I think, as we waited. My mother had me by the forearm, my Dad, tall, would let go of my shoulder only to squeeze it again and again.
After some time we heard a deep moan, "Sanja, my Sanja, where are you." It was from the woman on the bench. I saw the father and son look at each other then look off again at the crowd. I knew a Sanja, Lela did too; we had had some lectures together. That Sanja had ended up on a bus headed to another destination, a prisoner camp. But there are lots of Sanjas. This one was a tall girl, and pretty, and, well, it probably doesn't matter too much now what she was.
Before all this at the station, during the bus journey, we had stopped somewhere, in the middle of the night, and we were told we could go outside and stretch our legs. This was good for Lela because she had had an asthma attack on the bus and it was I who had to push at people to give her some breathing room, but really there was little room for anyone to move anywhere and there were curses and the scene made the atmosphere hotter and ranker than it already was. So thank God we could go outside, and God, was it a nice night. Warm and a clear sky and a bright moon. Lela said to me, "What will you do first?" That's something we'd talked about a million times before. We said we would take the longest shower in the world, drink a real cup of coffee, put on a lot of makeup and go out on the town. But at that moment I could picture that my parents, my brother, all of us would go home and there would be food, yes - but I couldn't picture the next step, the falling asleep or the waking up.
Lela's aunt did finally show up at the station. And already she and I were in different worlds, that's how it goes. When Lela asked her to, her aunt hastily wrote down a phone number on a receipt from a coffee she must have had at the terminal earlier and pressed it into my hand. And then there was Lela, looking just like any other person walking away. Mom and my little brother and I stood waiting for Dad to bring back the car. Mom's hands were clasped around my wrist, forearm. The buses stood empty but that family was still in the same place. There was a yelling exchange between some men and then two of them, fat bus drivers, climbed into the buses and drove them into the garage.
The woman on the bench started weeping. Her moans echoed along the whole station, "Everyone has come, only my Sanja isn't here," she cried. She cried, "Only Sanja is missing, why is my Sanja missing." On and on.
It is difficult to listen to such cries. The woman gasped for breath violently like Lela had gasped earlier on the bus from her asthma. But here's the thing about it: the thing about it was that for some reason I then pictured my own family in their place and when I did that, when I imagined them still waiting for me as everyone around them picked out their loved ones and left, when I saw my mother moaning and my father and brother stone-faced, when I recalled the hope and fear on their faces as they looked for me, when I put them all in that place and took myself out of the picture, well - only then did I realize the thing for what it was.
Then what I remember is my brother hurrying towards me with a fresh hot burek he had just bought at the bakery, him putting it in my hands; it was heavy and steaming when I unwrapped it, and then I started to cry.
She cried like she would never stop crying, that's what my mother would tell people for years.
As we were leaving the station, the sun was going down and a man in blue overalls was sweeping the platform. Another man, older, was standing near the entrance to the terminal, dressed in a fine old-fashioned suit and neatly shaved, his face calm, as if he were ready to wait the night through. And that family, the mother bent over at the waist and holding her gut as if it were in danger of spilling out, the father and son looking into the distance with lost eyes. I think now I should have turned back and said something to them, offered help, asked their name. The Sanja I knew was Sanja Brkić. Both names, first and last, are so common. The traffic was bad through the city and Dad drove slowly. We were starting and stopping a lot. My Dad said, "Now that we are all together, everything will be alright." The burek sat in my lap, still warm. At some point before we reached the house I must have started to eat it.
Now from Vancouver, I call my parents on the long distance plan sometimes. If it happens to be an odd time of night, they say, "Is everything all right?"
"It is," I say.
"The kids, your sweetheart, are they all right?"
"They're more than all right," I say.
It's better that way.