The Black Bus

A few lights came on again. Neuron sat up and pulled his hat from a hook between the windows, settled it over his head. He looked down at her. “You might want to wait here.”

“For what?” she asked, words that barely escaped her dry throat.

But he was moving on his knees toward the front of the bus, along with some of the others, including old Crouch, who was coughing with a wet, bubbling sound as if the shaking had jarred something loose in his chest. The others from their old bus were sitting against the walls, the masked windows, some curled into fetal positions among the pillows, eyes squeezed shut. Yvette sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, watching Crouch.

Sonora looked over at Driver. His eyes were open but he was staring at the ceiling, looking contemplative, resigned. When he saw her looking, he smiled briefly, a darting flicker.

“Are you okay?” she said.

“I don’t suppose so,” he said. “On the other hand, does it matter?”

Crouch whistled sharply, and she turned to look down the aisle at him. But he wasn’t calling her, or any of them. He was looking up at the sleeping racks. One of them, up there, was stirring.

Just then, there was a loud pneumatic wheeze. A rash of warm air tore at her scarves, as if the bus had gasped out its last breath. A bitter metallic cold replaced the warmth she hadn’t noticed until it was gone. The driver — whose face she had not seen, who was no more than a scarcely registered shape in her memory — stepped from his seat and descended the steps at the front of the bus. Everyone watched him depart through the accordioned doors, his shoulders sharp in a dark, stiffly pressed uniform, disappearing outside. When he was gone, Crouch moved irritably toward the sleeper in the closest bunk.

“Come on,” he snapped, shoving the figure there. “It’s your time.”

There was a crackling sound, something like a canvas sail being unfurled in the confined space, and a creaking groan. What Sonora had thought were sheets slowly unfolded into wings. Pale leathery wings, bald as a rat’s tail, with clawed hinges. The sleeper, at Crouch’s prodding, rolled from the bunk and dropped to the floor, moving awkwardly on thin legs, its long nails catching and tearing in the mattress covers. She had only a glimpse of its face — but that was enough. Sleepy slitted eyes, long white snout, thin ranged mouth. Then Crouch was harrying it ahead of him through the aisle, down the steps and out the door. Only when it was gone could Sonora look away, and then her eyes went immediately to the others still slumbering overhead. They did not all appear to be of the same sort; but there were more like that one up there.

Suddenly the black bus seemed less of a haven than she had imagined. She went on her knees after Neuron, who was sitting at the edge of the platform pulling on tall boots. Her own sandals were below in a pile of shoes.

“Be sure you get the right ones,” he said as she rooted for her pair. “This isn’t the place to go walking off in someone else’s shoes.”

“You and your identity,” Crouch called back sourly from the doorway. Then he stepped off into the night, and Sonora distinctly heard his footsteps crunching down hard into gravel or sand. The sound reassured her. At least they were somewhere.

There was a pile of loose shawls and blankets near the shoes. She dragged a poncho with a mandala pattern over her head and went down the aisle, down the steps, looking over once at the driver’s seat and the dashboard as she went. She didn’t drive, herself; but it looked like any other bus.

Stepping out, she learned instantly where the heat had gone. Sucked up, sunk into the reddish sand, which instantly snatched the last trace of warmth from her body. She stood hugging the blanket around her, cold as alabaster yet not quite feeling the chill. That numb.

Footprints led away from the bus, toward the horizon. At the end of that lengthening trail was the dark uniform of the driver, plodding steadily along. But Crouch, who stood outside, and Neuron, who now jumped down beside her and stamped his feet as if to force nonexistent heat into them, were not looking that way. They gazed straight out ahead of the bus, in the direction it was headed. Neuron pushed back his cowboy hat for a better view of the winged silhouette that was lofting higher by the second against a dark sky with faint stars in it. It was the violet hour, wolf-glow, but lacking qualities she associated with dawn or dusk. Then she realized what it was. At the zenith was a molten orange glow, like a sun without definition; while spreading away from that in rippled waves was steadily deeper darkness, purpling till it coalesced into perfect blackness against the land. It was the exact opposite of sunrise or sunset; here, darkness massed at the horizon, and light retreated toward the center of the sky. Stars burned and flickered close to the ground, like the lights of a desert city. The flying shape, as it gained distance, gradually merged with the darkness that ringed them entirely. Behind them, she noticed, was no sign of the mountains they had traversed; nor of any river, for that matter.

Sonora was grateful to have at least the thick blob of molten light above, though it cast no warmth that she could feel. Even as she thought this, she saw that it was dwindling — that the darkness was not a static thing, a mere wall around them, but continued to grow and seep up across the sky. Blue and violet invaded the orange flare, weakening it while she watched. It was like a foreign cell under attack, dissolving. Stars marked the territory taken by night.

Well, she thought. At least there are stars. For the moment. I won’t take them for granted.

As the orange light faded, Crouch and Neuron grew visibly nervous. They peered hard at the horizon, squinting into the dark, until the old man began to curse.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Another one.”

“Maybe he’ll be back,” Neuron said. “Anyway, there’s more.”

“Not many!”

This, too, had the feel of an old — an endless — argument.

“Okay,” Neuron said, turning toward Sonora. “That’s about it for us, now. You better get back up inside there.”

“What about the driver?” Sonora said, for at the end of that long trail of footprints there was nothing now but more darkness.

“Looks like that’s taken care of,” he said, nodding up the stairwell. Driver himself had taken the seat, settling in with an eager look as he examined the dashboard, tested the steering wheel, and finally tried the lever that worked the door. It sighed shut casually, squeezing the inner light to a narrow slit between its rubber flaps — until even that went out.

“Hey!” Neuron shouted.

“Shit!” Crouch yelled. “Don’t move!”

The black bus was gone. There was nothing now but darkness sweeping in over the empty plain of sand, with the three of them standing there alone while wind erased the tire tracks.

Sonora spun to look around, to see where it had gone; but Neuron grabbed onto her, harder than she had ever been grabbed. “Don’t . . . move!” he cried. She could hardly see his face, it was so much darker now. A membrane seemed to have been pulled even across the stars. There was only a tiny sullen dot of orange being extinguished in the vault overhead. Once it snuffed out, there would be nothing left to see by.

Everything was quickening. Night came on like the wind, which roared out of nowhere as if bent on tearing them from their place. She planted her feet in the sand and knelt, dragging Neuron down beside her. Voices buzzed in the sand, which scoured her flesh, tore at her eyelids. She screamed and the sand rushed into her mouth, caking her tongue, drinking every ounce of moisture — stealing it from her, sucking the life away. Neuron and Crouch had her by either arm, holding her between them, and they were doing something she couldn’t quite see. Waving their arms, pounding the air with a hollow sound.

Suddenly something blocked the wind. As if a wall had been erected behind them and they stood now in a quiet, sheltered spot. Sonora brushed sand from her eyes, tried to look behind her, but something else caught her stinging gaze. The light again, a thin slice of yellow, opened up before them. The steps of the bus were revealed.

“Go!” Neuron yelled, and shoved her in. She stumbled on the steps, clinging to his arm, pulling him with her. Crouch, his face scraped raw and caked with bloody sand, swept the air with open hands, feeling for the door but missing it. Beyond him, something enormous moved toward them at inconceivable speed — like a part of the landscape curling and reaching for the bus. Sonora screamed and grabbed for his hand, and Neuron turned and saw it too, and also grabbed. They caught him by one wrist, but their screams -or the view — had startled Driver, and he closed the door with only that one hand yet inside the bus.

“Wait!” she said. “Open it — open!”

Driver was slow, as if stunned by what he had seen through the door. She couldn’t grab the lever herself, not without letting go of Crouch — and that wouldn’t have been wise. As hard as she and Neuron pulled, she could feel the old man’s arm slipping out of their grasp.

“Driver!” she screamed.

“Go!” Neuron yelled.

“The door!” Sonora cried.

“Just go!”

Driver stamped on the gas and the engine roared. His face was white, stricken. He started to haul on the stick shift, and Sonora could hear gears grinding, could feel the wheels catching in something, jerking them forward.

Yvette rushed up then, grabbed the lever and hauled it back. The door wheezed open again. At first all she could see was Crouch’s hand and forearm. It seemed to end in midair, just below the elbow; but that couldn’t be true. Driver threw the shift the rest of the way into gear. With a liberated growl that quickly became a whining purr, the black bus lurched forward, throwing its passengers back. Crouch flew into the stairwell and the door clapped shut, rubber flaps somehow sealing out the night.

Neuron moved quickly, gathering the old man up in a limp heap from the stairs, carrying him back to the padded platform where he laid him down gingerly. Sonora peered over his shoulder, expecting to see Crouch in rags, shredded and bloody, worse than he had been a moment before.

But he lay breathing quietly, sand covering his clothes, lining the wrinkles of his face, otherwise apparently untouched. He opened his eyes and breathed up at Neuron:

“Got me.”

“No, old man,” Neuron said. “You’re fine. You’re gonna be okay this time.”

Crouch shook his head. “I was out there — for ages. I just barely remember you. . . . “

Driver, at the wheel, still accelerating — though Sonora couldn’t imagine into what, with the windshield showing nothing ahead of them — twisted around to say, “What happened? I only shut the doors for a second — a fraction of a second.”

“To you it was a fraction of a second,” Neuron said, then turned back quickly to Crouch. “But you remember now, don’t you? You’re here again.”

“I’m changed, though — changing. I want . . . I need to lie down.”

“You are lying down.”

“No, I mean — up there.”

Neuron glanced at the overhead racks. Sonora thought she saw his lips move in prayer. Then he put a hand on Crouch’s breast.

“No, old man, you’re not —”

“Damn it, I know what I need. Help me up. I wasn’t asking, I was telling you.”

A few of the passengers moved to his aid, but Neuron was not one of them. Sonora put her arms around him; as much for her own comfort as for his. Crouch hobbled a few feet down the center aisle to the newly empty bunk, and allowed himself to be boosted up into the rack. They put a pillow under his gray head, swept the sand out from under him. Then he closed his eyes and turned his face away. In moments he was as quiet as the rest of the sleepers up there.

Neuron sank down onto the mattress. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “This is bad. I thought Crouch was — if anyone, Crouch was here for the long haul.”

Sonora kept her arms around him. She glanced up at the front of the bus, saw Driver’s face in the black glass of the windshield. What did he see out there, she wondered. How did he keep control?