The morning ride

It’s dark and cold on a Monday morning. I pull my old coat tighter around me as I wait for the bus. Officially the lines that serve this stop don’t start for another hour, but unofficially...

I smile as my ride rounds the bend. It’s not the 7X, the 7X would take me all the way to downtown where I’d have to catch another bus to campus. I don’t know what line this is, because the bright LCD screens over the windshield just sputter and flash with visual noise, but it gets me two blocks from my first class, so I’m not complaining.

I know I’m not supposed to be on this bus. It stops for me anyway. I board and smile at the inhumanly pale driver, whose face is contorted in an ugly sneer of hatred and horror. He hisses at me, mouth agape.

“Morning to you too, sunshine,” I say as I walk past. I don’t bother showing him my pass. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t care.

There’s only one person on the bus, a middle-aged woman humming cheerfully and knitting in the seats towards the back. She gives me a friendly smile as I walk past and sit, curled up in the far back of the bus. As usual.

The driver turns back to the road after a minute and begins driving again. His driving style scared me at first, but after I realized he never hits another vehicle no matter how many times the speed limit he’s going, I learned to relax and enjoy the ride.

We trundle along in silence for a while, the only sound being the grinding of the wheels and engine, and the cheerful tune the woman in the pink sweatshirt is humming to herself. I don’t recognize it. I briefly consider doing my Spanish homework, but I’m still much too asleep to focus so I decide to just close my eyes and listen to my walkman.

The bus stops in the middle of a street, and the doors hiss open. The cars outside have all stopped, and in the distance I see a bird, suspended in the sky, unmoving. A man boards. He is short and he is carrying a briefcase. He smiles at the driver, who nods politely back. The doors close and traffic begins to move again.

The man walks down the aisle, glancing around and smiling vacantly at the empty seats. The woman looks up and waves. “There’s an empty spot back here!” she calls.

“Oh!” exclaims the man. “Thank goodness!” He sits next to her. “My, it’s crowded this morning,” he says. We are the only three people on the bus.

“Always seems to be, lately,” says the woman, nodding agreeably.

Streets pass by. The two chat idly about this and that. There’s some sort of audit they’re not looking forward to. A cute lady in accounting who the woman has a bit of a crush on. A coworker who leaves half-eaten sandwiches all over the breakroom. The blood that’s always dripping into the lobby from the tangle of pipes far above. Typical tales from the cubical.

“I wonder,” says the woman after a while. “Do you ever think about...” She trails off. They sit in silence for a few minutes.

“All the time,” says the man grimly. “It is very concerning.”

The bus driver glances back and opens the intercom. A sound like a waterfall played backward booms through the coach.

“Sorry!” calls the man, waving. “My bad.”

“Yes,” he says, turning back to the woman. “We are very concerned.”

“I wonder if they’ll get involved,” says the woman.

The man nods solemnly. “It is a very real concern,” he agrees.

The city beyond the windows is suddenly replaced by an awful, scorched, black landscape. Jagged spikes litter the horizon, which a blood-red light is just beginning the filter through. I hear something in the distance that sounds like screaming.

“I love the view on this ride,” comments the woman, gazing out the window.

“Picturesque, isn’t it,” says the man happily. “I used to have an apartment near here.”

She glances quizzically at him. “Isn’t it expensive?”

“Oh, that was a while ago,” he explains, laughing. He pauses. “I remember there was a waterfall,” he says. “And caves. People in animal skins lived in them. Their was so much fear in their faces.” He smiles wistfully. “It was a long time ago.”

“You know, I remember them,” says the woman, nodding. “I think they were afraid of the shadows.”

“Ah, yes,” says the man. “That makes sense.” He chuckles. “They certainly should have been.”

“It’s certainly much more upscale these days,” says the woman. She tugs at her knitting. “Oh dear, I think I botched this row.”

“No, no!” exclaims the man. “There’s this trick — let me show you.”

There’s an awful, wet squelch. “Oh!” exclaims the woman happily. “That’s marvelous. I must remember that.”

A drop of something thick and red splatters against the floor by their feet.

“I learned it a few years ago from this lady I met in HR,” says the man. “She made blindfolds. And howled.”

“Do you knit, then?”

“I used to quite a bit,” says the man. “Of course, that was before the thing with all the hands.”

“Ah, yes,” says the woman, nodding solemnly. “Of course. Things just haven’t been the same since then.”

The landscapes flickers, and we’re back in the city, miles from where we left and moving in the opposite direction.

I can’t decide which class I should go to first. Spanish is first, but I haven’t done the homework. Poli sci is an hour later, and it ends two hours before it begins, so it’d give me some time to finish mi ensayo. But the extra hour always makes the day feel so long...

(I always wonder if I’ll run into myself outside the poli sci classroom, but I never have. I wonder how that works.)

The man and woman chatter on as I watch the city pass by. Soon enough everything turns an absolute pitch black, and the woman looks up in alarm. “Oh dear!” she exclaims, yanking the stop cord. “We almost missed our stop.”

“Glad you caught that,” says the man, nodding. “I wasn’t paying any attention. And the next stop isn’t for another few blocks.” He gathers his things. “I hate that walk. So many... you know.”

They leave the bus chatting amiably together. As the man slips down the aisle, muttering “excuse me,” and “sorry” to empty seats, I wonder, not for the first time, who they are. Maybe she’s vice president somewhere, with a wife at home, in a little house with a white picket fence. Maybe he’s a single father, with a handful of kids, who he regales at the end of each day with stories from work. I’d made up any number of stories over the months we’d been taking the bus together, none of which were ever contradicted by what I overheard.

They smile and nod and the bus driver, who is now a gibbering shadow, tendrils of darkness flashing and warping across the seat and floor. The bus trundles on, and soon we’re in the city again, approaching the university, the driver back, hunched in his seat as though he had never left. Maybe he hadn’t.

The end of the term’s coming up, I reflect, as I get off the bus. I sigh. I’m going to have to pick classes again soon. I wish they still taught computer science here. Things just haven’t been the same since the thing with all the hands.