Oh, thank God.
I remembered my inner atheist and cringed.
But that was definitely a bus a few hundred yards away. I thought I might die out there, a slow, agonizing death of dehydration in a desert.
Please don’t be a mirage. Please.
My car had broken down several miles back.
In Death Valley.
That irony stopped being funny shortly after I’d left my car behind and began walking this dusty road into hell. It was only two years old. I changed the oil and honored the suggested maintenance schedule with diligence.
I sat in it a long time before accepting the fact. Help wasn’t coming. There was precious little traffic on this road. I was only on it because it was the most expeditious route to my new job in Los Angeles.
I had been living in Beatty, Nevada because that was where my mom was born. It was also where she wanted to die. I was a dutiful son; when she called, I put my life on hold, and I went. After I set up her hospice care, the two of us fell into a routine. I would make her morning coffee (something her oncologist was adamantly opposed to), fixed her breakfast (two eggs, scrambled), and then I’d read a bit to her (poems mostly, usually Whitman or Eliot). By then, it would be time for her first nap of the day. While she slept, I hunkered down and prepared myself the best I could for the hours ahead. Day after day, the sun beat down on the metal box that was our home, trying to cook us in the sweltering doublewide. While she slept, I mopped her forehead with a red handkerchief she’d won when she was twelve at the county fair.
I never understood why she wanted to go back there. It was a barren wasteland. People eked out little lives, doing what they could to make a few bucks. The place made me sad. Nights there were the worst. I used to love the night skies. Not anymore. The few months I camped out there, sleeping on a wretchedly uncomfortable sofa in the living room, changed me. The first few nights were terrific. With almost zero light pollution, the stars are thick in the black velvet above. After I put mom down for the night (thank you, morphine), I would grab a beer and sit on her patio on a chaise and marvel at the blanket of stars.
Always sweep the patio first, Andy. Them scorpions like to move around at night.
Mom was the only one who called me Andy; with everyone else, I held firm to Andrew.
I saw four the entire time I was there. Eventually, I got blasé and stopped sweeping the patio before plopping down on the lounge and gazing.
But on the third night, I started hearing the noises. When they began, they were just little dry cracks here and there. They seemed to come from some circular perimeter surrounding the trailer. I wrote the sounds off as natural, just some desert creatures moving about. But the sounds got louder and closer each night. I felt some entity was testing me, probing me, recording my reactions to the noises, seeing how much I would take before calling it a night and returning inside to that cursed couch.
The evening I heard what sounded like a sly, drawn-out pronunciation of Andy was when I decided not to venture out into the pitch-black nights again.
Lying on the couch, I could still make out the cracks and pops over mom’s snoring. Luckily, I’d brought earplugs. With the night kept safely outside the trailer and the sounds kept at bay by two pieces of molded rubber, I slept as well as I could with the three couch springs that always seemed to push into my kidneys no matter how I arranged myself on the thing.
Two nights before she passed, mom declined the morphine. She said she thought it was killing her. I placed the brass bell on her nightstand and told her to ring it if she changed her mind. I laid down on the couch and picked up the book I was reading: a collection of horror stories. As usual, I fell asleep, and my book tumbled to the floor. When mom started screaming in her sleep hours later, I knew I’d fucked up. I should have insisted upon the morphine. I’d gotten better at administering the shot. She said as much. She said she hardly felt it. I was supposed to be the adult in this situation. I leaped to my feet and stumbled down the narrow hall to her room at the far end.
“They have teeth, Annnn-deeee. Teeth,” mom said, sobbing.
Was it her I’d heard those times from the patio?
After mom passed, I went online and looked for work. I was motivated to leave this place as soon as possible. Four days after mom’s funeral, I got online and scheduled three interviews–for graphic designer positions in Los Angeles. One canceled. The second they filled before my interview. I only had one option left.
The nights after mom passed were the hardest. The sounds from the desert grew brazen, like mom’s presence-all 84 fearful pounds of her- was holding the monsters at bay.
I heard my name again. Then came the laughter. The second night alone in mom’s trailer, I thought I heard her snoring.
The next day, I called the third company. I had asked about the possibility of conducting the interview via ZOOM or Skype, but the person on the other end of the call laughed and said they didn’t do things that way. Old school. They were probably talking on a rotary dial phone with a kinked and twisted phone cord. I couldn’t tell if they were a man or woman. They sounded older.
The interview went great. I got the offer. It was more than I expected, but I would’ve taken anything to get out of Nevada.
I loaded up my car with my two bags of possessions and headed to Los Angeles. The most direct route I found went through Death Valley.
How far have I walked?
There was no way to tell. My phone battery died an hour into my walk.
I had carried only two bottles of water in my car. Two. On a trip through Death Valley! Madness.
But how much water should one carry through this barren wasteland? It’s not like I could carry gallons of it as I walked from my Subaru.
I focused on the bus ahead. It shimmered in the heat rising from the gooey soft asphalt road. For the most part, I stuck to the dusty shoulder. The gravel crunching under my feet slipped into rhythmic patterns, lulling me into a sleepy lethargy.
Don’t you want to lie down here? Just like down on the shoulder in this comfy, dusty, dry, never-wet dirt? Just for a minute? One little nap! That’s all you need. Then you’ll be right as rain. Good to go. A new man. Come on, one little nap.
“No,” I said to the proposition of a dirt nap.
I might have done better rationing the water, but I kept thinking another motorist would drive by.
Yeah, and would you stop for a motorist out here? If you were by yourself? Carrying no weapons, would you? Really?
I wondered if I would. That was how so many horror movies began.
I finished both quart bottles within five hours of starting out.
It was 3:17 PM and even hotter.
The bus continued to shimmer in the air ahead.
Please be real. Please.
I felt bad about littering. Tossing the second empty bottle into a ravine. The wannabe ditch looked deep enough to provide me with about fourteen minutes of shade if I were to lie in it and stay real still.
The bus drew closer.
I expected it to vanish any second.
In its place, I expected a giant, comic-book version devil twirling a rather manly mustache, laughing at me before disappearing to wherever the mirage bus went.
But the bus didn’t disappear.
I touched the metal side of the vehicle. It burned like hell, but I didn’t mind the pain.
The bus was real. I was saved.
Something is odd here.
The engine was running.
Why was a bus parked on the shoulder with its engine running?
They’re here to save me, of course.
Then I saw the note taped to the door. An 8×11 piece of notebook paper, with its shredded tiny loops from where it was ripped from a notebook. Its message was only one word long, not even a word, just three characters.
An acronym: “Be Right Back.”
What the hell?
I stood there for several seconds. Why had no one noticed me, come out, and offered me a beverage? I could drink an ocean.
I stepped closer to the heavily tinted windows and brought my face as close to the glass as I could without burning my skin. With my hands cupped, I could see inside the bus. My eyes traveled up the steps to the driver’s seat. There was no driver.
Just keep walking. Leave this bus. This is bad. Something bad has happened here. Leave.
What? I didn’t know where that thought came from.
Away from the bus, in almost any direction I cared to saunter, was almost certain death. There might not be another car for hours. If I left the road for the desert, I would almost certainly die even sooner.
I wasn’t going to leave the bus, that would be crazy.
I knocked at the glass. Maybe the driver wandered to the back to use the tiny bathroom or chastise an ill-behaved traveler.
“Hello?” I said.
Go. Just go. This isn’t the salvation you think it is.
“Hello! Open up, please? I need help. Water, I need water, please. Open up, damn it!” I shouted. I pounded on the door hard.
My pounding triggered something in the door’s sensors. It opened slowly. A blast of cool air hit me in the face.
I was saved.
“Hallelujah,” I said, basking in the cold air.
My inner atheist and I were playing tennis today.
Something is off here.
I stepped onto the bus’s first step. The inside air made my skin icy cold. I’d probably catch pneumonia. My arms and legs were uninterrupted fields of gooseflesh.
Be right back? Where did the driver go?
I rubbed my arms briskly. It did nothing to warm me. The cold felt good after feeling like my organs were cooking inside my chest.
Is everyone asleep?
Not one of the passengers wandered forward to see what was up.
Duh. Maybe it’s empty.
Surely no bus company could afford to run an empty bus through the desert. That would be foolish.
Leave. Leave now.
I climbed the three remaining steps.
The bus was empty.
Are you sure about that? Maybe you should take another look?
I looked again. There were no passengers on the bus. But there was plenty to suggest that passengers had been there. A blue sweater draped across the headrest of 2A, a purse in 2C.
“Hello?” I said, stepping forward.
Laptop bags, purses, and a copy of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain lay open, face down in 4B, marking their progress, I guessed.
“Is everyone in the bathroom?”
I laughed, and a different kind of gooseflesh covered my back. Fear.
Thank you, 7A, a bottle of water. It’s only half full, and while I don’t relish drinking after someone else, I needed that water. I was seriously dehydrated. I chugged the bottle.
My insides began rumbling before I could return the bottle to the cup holder.
I prayed no one was in the bathroom. I take several steps in that direction. But I didn’t make it. I dropped to my hands and knees, shivering.
I threw up. It was a wholesale liquidation of all things at Stomachs-r-Us. Luckily the bus was parked on a slight incline, so all the liquid flowed slowly toward the rear. After a while, it was just air coming out of me.
I got to my feet, but I felt weak. My shivering had grown ridiculous. I doubled back and got the sweater. Funny. The idea of wearing such a thing. An hour ago, I never wanted to feel wool against my skin again. The sweater helped, but my bare legs were still cold.
There could still be people hiding, ducked down in the seats to the back. You need to finish checking out the bus.
“Hello,” I said.
That’s sure to inspire fear or laughter in any villainous sorts lying in wait for me at the back of the bus.
“I’m armed,” I said, sounding pathetic.
Where did everyone go?
I headed slowly to the back, carefully straddling the narrowing stream of vomitus below, slowly scanning, clearing each row as empty before proceeding.
Be right back?!?
I looked for something I could use as a weapon.
I found a parasol in an aisle seat.
Something bothered me about this.
What is wrong?
It’s an umbrella for the sun! If 17A had voluntarily disembarked, wouldn’t they have taken this with them?
I picked up the flimsy non-umbrella thing and gestured with it as if it were a fencing foil. It would be useless as a club. Probably a poky thing, but only if my assailants were made of gelatin.
A bag of Fritos lay open on 18B.
Ugh. Extra salt? Now? No thanks.
“This bus is empty,” I said to no one.
Is that a fact? Or a prayer?
I didn’t know.
Prayer? Really? Come on.
I reached the back of the bus.
No one was there.
There could still be someone inside the bathroom.
I made myself as tall as I could, took several deep breaths, and raised the parasol to what I figured might be the eye level of anyone lurking inside the WC.
Yes, standing here in this blue frilly button-up sweater, you’re sure to terrify anyone inside the bus’s lone bathroom.
“Shh, not now.”
With my left hand, I yanked the door open. It banged into the wall behind me and ricocheted into my right arm already thrusting forward with my anemic weapon.
The bathroom was empty.
Be right back?
I felt eyes on the back of my neck.
I spun around, again raising the flimsy accessory into what I hoped was a fear-inspiring posture.
I returned to the front. I rescanned each row, making sure I didn’t miss anyone on my first pass. At row thirteen, I nearly slipped on the water I’d expelled.
During the slip, I banged my right elbow, and the parasol slipped to the floor. I left it there.
In the eighth row, I saw the phone. One mounted on a flexible-legged tripod. The whole assembly, tripod, and phone were barely 12 inches tall. The legs had been squeezed into a crack between two of the seats. Only the phone protruded above the headrests.
I pulled the phone free from the crack, released the tripod, and tossed it onto the seat.
Someone had recorded a video.
Finally, a clue.
I sat down in 8A, hit the STOP button, and pressed PLAY.
I thought about closing the door.
You mean the door that opened for you? With just some vigorous knocking? Yeah, that would make you totally safe.
I thought about leaving the bus, but that idea was a non-starter.
The video started.
I saw the blue sweater I was wearing on the tiny screen. This time it was worn by a woman just a few inches shorter than me. She took it off and deposited it on the headrest so that I could put it on a little later.
The bus driver, a monster of a man was speaking. “…that’s right. We all need to get off the bus now. Sorry, no exceptions. It’s standard operating procedure, I assure you.”
Several passengers were more than a little defiant despite the driver’s obvious size and strength.
“Fuck that,” shouted a man.
“It’s hot out there,” a woman said.
“No way, I’m getting off the bus. I booked a passage to Carson City, and that is where I will leave the bus. There or any rest stops between there and now. There’s nothing here, man.” This from what sounded like a teenage boy.
“Folks, calm down. It’s only a safety precaution. Here, I have a video explaining this policy. It’s a new policy, so if you all want to contact your lawyers later, I understand. I get it. It’s hot out there. I don’t like having to do this or to get off the bus either, but we must. Here’s a video the company gave us to show you if this sort of thing happened.”
The man looked like a clean-shaven minotaur. I couldn’t see his lower half; he may be half bull for all I could tell.
The driver raised his palm in a ‘calm-down’ gesture. He then lifted an iPad to eye level.
“Please, everyone, watch this, and we can get this over with it. Again, I don’t like this any more than you do. But the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can proceed to Carson City. If we delay too long, we will be running behind.”
The passengers were still rumbling but less energetically.
“Everyone watching? I am only going to show you all this once.”
Content that everyone was watching the tablet, the driver pressed some button. The iPad exploded into a supernova of blue light.
I felt ill. Worse than when I puked in the aisle earlier sick. Ugh. What was that light?
The video continued.
The crowd was no longer groaning or complaining. Their justifiable reactions were gone. The crowd of typical humans had been replaced by a busload of sheep. Quiet. Obedient. Docile.
I looked on in horror as they silently walked off the bus and into the hot California sun. The driver stood perched by his seat, silently tapping each one on the shoulder.
He was counting them. He knew how many there were, and counting them saved him a trip to the restroom.
My blood ran cold.
The bus driver was the villain here.
Be right back.
I felt him step onto the bus. He was gigantic.
I ducked down.
Did he see me? Oh hell, did he see me?
He climbed the stairs.
I made myself as quiet as I could.
“Now, I would have sworn I’d shut that door on the way out before.”
My shivering was so loud I was sure he could hear it.
He sniffed loudly.
“Ahh, you weren’t a passenger. You stink of sweat. Too much sweat to be a mere passenger. And something else…”
Another loud sniff.
“Blood. They love fresh injuries. I think you’ve scraped your knee at some point, maybe?”
My index finger idly rubbed my knee. A few hours ago, I tripped and fell onto the mushy asphalt. The blood had mostly congealed.
“And what the hell? Did you puke on my bus?”
“Come on out, son. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Don’t make this a whole big thing. I’m tired. And they were extra hungry today. Come on out now. Stop playing; stop this foolishness.”
I thought about the parasol again and had to stifle my laughter. If I laughed, my mind would break into a million pieces.
I stood up from behind the seats, still wearing the blue sweater with white lacy trim.
Technically, we are both men. Realistically, we are as far apart as two specimens can be.
My shivering doubled again. My vision was shaking.
“I’m going to need you to disembark. It’s a safety protocol by the company. Sorry, I don’t like it any more than you do. But the quicker we get this over with, the quicker we can be on our way.”
I stepped into the aisle, still holding the iPhone. My shivering intensified, and I dropped it.
He glanced down at the phone and deduced everything in an instant.
He had a brain that was every bit as intimidating as his physique.
“Oh…, you’ve already seen all of this. I need you to look at the light.”
Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.
The blue light was much stronger when viewed live. The recorded version of it left me nauseous. The live event left me all but incapacitated. I was only a passenger in my body at that point. I wanted to run, to fight him, but my body was no longer controlled by my will.
“They are probably still finishing their dinner,” the driver said, glancing over his shoulder, looking at something in the hellscape outside the bus.
For several seconds, he stared deep into the desert.
“But hey, I’m sure they saved room for dessert.”
I looked at him with my jaw agape.
Incredibly, my head nodded itself.
No, no, no, no, no.
“Well, come on then.”
My traitorous legs propelled me toward him.
He raised a palm, and my legs stopped.
“Oh, snap. What do we have here? You’re an atheist?” he says, looking into my eyes.
My head nodded itself again.
Stop doing that.
“They’re going to love you,” he says, checking his wristwatch.
I tried to speak. To beg, swear, ask him about his family or favorite movies, anything, but my voice was no longer under my volition.
“Yes indeed. They are going to love you. They’re gods. Not the god. That cat doesn’t exist. So, you got that part right. But they are a kind of god.”
He looked deep into my eyes again, smiling.
“The kind with teeth.”
His fingers fluttered toward himself, and I was walking into the desert.
The dessert is walking into the desert.
I laughed at that. I felt my mind eat itself at that point. The funny thing was I found I didn’t mind much.