“Give me a check.”
“Testing one two, one two, bus bus bus, uh, diesel engine.”
“Turn out of the wind, it’s a little crunchy.”
“Better now? Wind’s at my back.”
“Yeah, great. Okay, whenever.”
“Alright,” said Tim, leaning over the microphone he held in his hands, hunching his shoulders against the cool evening breeze blowing the garbage down the long asphalt corridor of Manzanita street. He swallowed, composed himself, and then put on what I think of as his “podcaster’s voice,” brighter and with a slightly faster cadence, simultaneously authoritative and friendly. “Hey everybody! It’s Tim, here again with sound-guy Matt, doing some in-the-field on-the-ground at-the-scene broadcasting. We’ve got a pretty great show today, or at least we hope it’s great – it depends, I guess, on whether it works out or not. If not, it’ll be pretty boring, actually, but that’s the risk you run when you listen to: The BusCast!”
I pressed the headphones against my ears. They were cheap, off-the-shelf VocaTeks from the store, $25 bucks with a coupon. They did the job, barely, but they didn’t fit very tightly on my head and I was always having to adjust them. But Tim sounded fine – we’d get an episode for the podcast out of it, at least.
Tim and I had met in a Freshman chemistry class, both undeclared majors just kind of drifting through courses. Since we were sitting next to each other we became lab partners, but it turned out we had similar senses of humor and interests, and soon became friends. We moved off campus our sophomore year and became roommates, getting a tiny, shitty apartment way off campus, the only thing we could afford. It was a forty-minute bus ride from our place to school, and that was how I learned about Tim’s true obsession: municipal transit.
“Oh neat!” Tim had said one morning as our bus slid around the corner and into view, unabashed enthusiasm underlining his words. “That’s a BYD C9! I didn’t know the city had any in the fleet.” He had blushed a little at my confused expression. “It’s a new model of bus, Chinese built and designed, one of the big thirty-footers. Electric battery, onboard GPS, pretty advanced.” He’d continued gushing when we got on board, pointing out the driver’s bubble windshield, the graphite composite handrails, the special design of the emergency exit windows. I’d never seen him so excited.
“You sure know a lot about buses,” I’d said, legitimately impressed.
“Ah, well,” he’d laughed and shrugged. “I grew up in a tiny little farm town, middle of nowhere Washington, but my grandparents lived in Seattle, and when we’d go visit I’d get to ride the bus everywhere. Even as a baby, I loved riding buses apparently, and you know how your grandparents will, like, get an idea in their heads about you and just go with it? Well, they decided that I loved buses, so every birthday, Christmas, whatever, all through childhood, they’d get me books on buses. Obscure stuff too; my Grampa knew a guy on the Metro Authority in Seattle, and he’d get these huge technical manuals from him, diagrams and designs and blueprints, urban planning too, passenger logistics, traffic flow, all that stuff. And I read ‘em all, at first just to show that I’d appreciated their gifts, but then, well, after a while, it was just kinda cool, you know? I got into it!”
After that, I’d quizzed Tim on buses whenever we were at the stop or riding. And he knew his shit! “That’s a GM 2000, Detroit-made but based on a VDL Berkhof chassis from the Netherlands,” he’d say, pointing out the older buses idling at the transfer stations. Or we’d be riding along, and he’d just explain how “the big change in American buses came when Skoda Transport, a Czech company, got bought by Flixliner, a big European conglomerate. That meant their emission standards had to come in line with EU levels – now it’s almost all Chinese designs, especially on the West coast.” Stuff like that, real Jeopardy shit, trivia and history and engineering, everything you’d ever want to know about buses.
We were at our local dive, the Scow, one night, and Tim was still talking about the overhaul that’d just been completed on Madrid’s bus system, when I, half-joking, suggested he should do a podcast.
“You could call it ‘Bussin’ Out!’” I’d said, draining my gin and tonic.
“‘Bus your Nut!’” He’d joked.
“‘Tim’s Bussy’” I’d cackled.
“Fuckin’ Christ,” he’d choked on his beer. “What would my grandparents say?” He’d laughed, but I saw the twinkle in his eye. The seed had been planted, and it wasn’t long before he got serious about it.
He’d settled on the boring but PG title of “BusCast.” I’d offered to do the sound and editing, something I’d been interested in since my time as a High School A/V geek, and Tim would host. At first, it was just kind of a dumb thing we did, more like a structured hangout where Tim could get all the bus-related facts out of his system. But the internet is a wild place – nothing is too niche to find an audience, and we soon had a couple hundred subscribers. They even set up a subreddit, for fuck’s sake! For a podcast about buses!
It might not have been a lot of people, but the listeners we had were passionate – constant emails about topics, questions, clarifications, it was extremely active. “BusCast” had a very vocal group of fans, which was how we found ourselves standing on Manzanita street, looking for the number 23, Southbound.
We were coming up on our twentieth episode, a nice round number that also meant we were closing in on a year of the BusCast. We’d asked for listener ideas for topics they’d liked to see, and out of the dozens of ideas we’d received, one really stood out. A friend of the pod, “Flyer_700_Dutchman,” had heard a rumor from a friend whose wife had a ex on the city’s Transit Authority that, basically, ticked all the boxes for us.
Our city, like a lot of cities, had changed over the years. Gutted by recession and stagnation, the old manufacturing side of the city was long dead. Sure, they were trying to claw their way back by becoming an “innovator hub,” whatever that meant, but a big part of the city’s old economic life had been lost. In the face of industrial collapse, they’d slashed bus routes as a money saving measure, especially in those parts of the city hit hardest by the downturn. They’d drastically reduced coverage across the board, and basically cut a lot of the city off from the downtown and the suburbs.
And that’s where the rumors started. See, Manzanita was the old blue collar drag in the city – slaughterhouses and rendering at one end, canning and packing at the other, serviced by a now defunct rail line for livestock. That’s all done with now of course, factories closed and the working-class neighborhoods left behind to rot in place. Needless to say, they’d cut Manzanita right out of the city’s transit map…but according to the rumor, there was still a bus running down that old road: the 23.
Thing was, though, if that bus was travelling Manzanita, then it wasn’t doing so under the authority of Metro Transit. That line hadn’t been in operation since the 90s, when the Augustino Meat Packing Plant shut down. No more workers, no more buses. According to the nth degree rumor we’d heard, Metro Transit was currently pulling its hair out trying to find an unauthorized bus still servicing that route.
The city had had a bunch of complaints. Some city maintenance guys nearly run down by a bus as they tried to cross the street, a bicyclist who’d been forced off the road and into a culvert by a bus that had loomed up out of nowhere behind him. There were a number of near misses at the intersection of Manzanita and Park too – the 23 ignored signs, traffic lights, and other cars with reckless impunity. At least one late night driver had swerved into a lamppost as the bus made an illegal right turn in front of him. Apparently, the number of calls had gotten so bad that they’d actually sent a pair of Metro police officers over there to investigate. Don’t know exactly what happened to them but, according to the newspaper, there was now a cop on permanent disability and another in the ground over at Dunwoody Cemetery.
“…so that’s what we’re doing here today,” Tim said, wrapping his intro up. “We’re gonna solve the mystery of the 23 Bus.” He nodded, and I switched off the recorder. “Got it?”
“Sounds good man,” I said, pulling the headphones off my ears and hanging them around my neck. “Guess we got the intro. Now all we gotta do…”
“…is find this fucking bus!” Tim laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it, and we examined the photocopy of the 1979 transit map he’d made at the Historical Society.
“So we’re here,” I said, pointing at the corner of Manzanita and 51st. We were pretty far north on the street, a block or two from the first of the shuttered slaughterhouses that made up the old meat packing district.
“And it looks like the first stop of the old 23 is just about,” he paused and scanned the sheet. “Here!” He jabbed his finger down: corner of Manzanita and 49th. “And,” he continued, flipping the copy over to scan the schedule he’d scribbled in pencil on the back, “according to this, the next bus should come at 7:02 P.M.” I looked at my watch.
“Twenty minutes,” I said. “We can get some commentary while we walk.”
We started south down Manzanita, Tim chattering into the microphone, talking about the map he’d found in the archive and discussing the east side’s transit history. I watched the levels but didn’t really listen; for one thing, I’d heard it all before, but for another, I was absorbing the atmosphere of the street, so different from anywhere else I’d seen in the city.
There were no coffee shops or boutiques here, no sports bars or noodle shops – it was just industrial decay, rust and plywood boards and padlocked chain fencing. Twilight oozed up from cracked pavement and ancient asphalt, dripping into the empty buildings on either side of the street through broken windows and poorly hung doors. The streetlamps that still worked were flickering on, lonely towers of sodium orange against a bruised sky. The interstate a half mile away was a dull roaring river, but here in the dry bed of Manzanita street the only sound was Tim’s voice and the rustle of windblown fast food wrappers. The air was cool, but there was more to the shiver in my spine than simple air temperature.
At the corner of 49th we found the first of the old slaughterhouses, its sun-bleached sign just visible in the dim light, “United Stockyard, Inc” in big faded letters. Just inside the locked gate was a rotting fiberglass statue of a cow, various butcher’s cuts inked out on its dingy plaster hide. The weather hadn’t been kind to it, though: huge hunks had been taken out of its side and flanks, exposing a hollow interior stuffed with beer cans and crumpled cigarette boxes. Weeds had sprouted under its hooves.
“So the bus stop would’ve been around here somewhere,” Tim said, looking down at his map and then up at the street. We were in a dark stretch of the road, the streetlight over us cold and unresponsive. Tim got his phone out and turned its light on the curb. “Yeah, see, the road’s been resurfaced here, probably as part of the expansion back in ’95 when they were hoping to get that chemical factory here. Most likely took the curbs out then, so we won’t be able to figure out exactly where the stop was – ” He stopped, and we both listened, trying to find the source of the sound, a rhythmic shuffling slap echoing between the abandoned buildings along the street.
“Sounds like footsteps,” I said, pulling the headphones down and straining to hear.
“Coming closer, too,” said Tim, looking south.
A red glow was clotted in the west, but night had fallen fully on Manzanita. We squinted into the dark – there was a flickering streetlamp on the next block down, right at the corner, and we’d soon see whoever was making those strange, flapping, stumbling steps. It was probably just the dark abandoned buildings and the quiet empty street, but for some reason I didn’t really want to see whoever was walking towards us. Something about the flaccid, almost wet sounding slaps of each step against the concrete made my skin crawl. I swallowed, but couldn’t pull my eyes away from the scene. The sound bounced off the pavement, growing louder.
A figure lurched into the dim cone of light a block away, long spidery arms and short bowed legs moving strangely out of rhythm with one another. The figure was carrying two heavy bags, one in either hand, and they swung like opposing pendulums to the interrupted syncopation of his odd gait. A shaggy head was stuck straight out on a long neck, bobbing birdlike with each twitching step. He paused briefly at the edge of the street, looked one way, then the other, then stepped of the curb and out of the light as he crossed, a shadowy stick figure in the night, clattering towards us up the block.
Tim and I glanced at each other, then back at the figure who swayed and wobbled along the edge of the sidewalk. Obscured in darkness, his movements were even stranger; he wobbled to unheard music, his big flat feet beating a weird cadence. We both started to move aside, hoping to let him pass without incidence when, suddenly, the figure stopped. The sudden absence of sound as his feet stayed firm on the ground was strangely chilling. He swayed in place, the two shadowy bags he carried swinging in his big hands, then, with a ponderousness strange in such a stick-like frame, he slowly, heavily, turned to face the street. He was standing nearly in the middle of the block, maybe ten yards from us.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered.
“Uh, it looks like he’s waiting for a bus,” Tim said.
And that was what his body language seemed to be – couched, passive, like he was standing in a line of one. Once, as we stared, he turned to look in our direction, north, but even in the dark we had the sense that he wasn’t looking at us but rather past us, up the street. Like you do when you’re waiting for a bus.
“What time is it?” I asked. Tim looked at his phone.
“6:58,” he answered.
Holding a microphone makes you bold, I guess. Under normal circumstances no one in their right mind would approach a weird dude on a dark street next to an abandoned slaughterhouse, but Tim and I wanted content, so we didn’t even really deliberate.
“Excuse me, sir?” said Tim, walking to within a few yards of the figure. The shape turned to face us, deeper darkness pooling in his eyes and mouth, rendering him featureless.
“Ye~esss?” he said, voice sepulchral, tone sardonic.
“Is this the bus stop?” Tim said, his voice breaking only slightly. “For the number twenty-three?” The man shivered. His whole body rippled. We heard the rustle of plastic as his shudder translated itself into the two bags at the ends of his arms.
“It most certainly is,” he said, finally, his small seizure done. Electricity droned overhead, like wasps roused from their nest, and a flash of yellow light cut through the dark, surrounding us in sudden illumination. A streetlamp we hadn’t even known was there had suddenly come to life, giving us a clear view of the little segment of the street and the man standing there.
If he had stood straighter he would’ve been nearly seven feet tall, easy, but with his hunched posture and thrust-forward head he was eye-to-eye with Tim, who just cleared six feet in his socks. Long, lank, blonde hair hung wild around his ears and over his face, fringing a pair of startlingly large and disconcertingly watery pale blue eyes set far apart on a wide chalky face. A thin pointed nose and a broad slashing mouth swam somewhere south of those strange unblinking eyes. He was thin, cadaverously so; I wasn’t sure how his rail-like arms could support the two bulging plastic shopping bags he was holding. Whatever was in them was heavy, about the size of a volleyball, and leaking a brownish fluid that dripped intermittently from the seams on the undersides of the bags. He wore a ratty pair of flipflops on his huge, hairy feet, his splayed toes wiggling in the night air, like grubs emerging from soil.
“And, uh,” Tim stammered, gamely going forward with his interview. “Do you take this bus, uh, often?” A greasy grin split the man’s face, huge yellow teeth flashing in the lamplight.
“Every day of my life,” he said, thickly.
“And does the bus uh, does the bus keep a schedule or…” Tim’s voice trailed off as the man, still smiling, nodded his head over Tim’s shoulder. We both turned, and gasped. There was a pole there, topped with the blue and white of a Metro Sign. Half-way up was a plastic box, housing a yellowed print-out of the schedule for the Number 23 Bus (Southbound).
“How the hell did we miss that?” I said, surprised. Tim had been walking right along the curb – he should’ve run clean into it in the dark. Some animal-like sixth sense must’ve made him step around it, unaware.
“It’s a schedule for the 23 alright,” he said, looking it over closely and speaking softly into the microphone. “There’s the one we’re waiting for, too,” he compared the posted schedule to the sheet of paper from his pocket. “Seven Oh Two Pea Em,” he enunciated clearly. “Assuming it’s on time.”
“Oh, it’s like clockwork,” said the man, nodding his head vigorously, making his plastic bags hiss. “See!”
An engine rumbled up the street, and we saw two bright cat’s eyes flash around the far corner of 50th as the bus turned onto Manzanita. The engine coughed, the gears sighed, and the blocky bus came barreling down the road towards us. I could smell diesel fumes as it swung up against the curb.
“Holy shit,” said Tim, astonished. “Look at that! A goddamn Grumman 870 Metro! Where’d they get an antique like that?”
Even if it hadn’t been belching clouds of exhaust, I knew it wasn’t a normal bus – almost everything in the city’s current fleet is either electric or CNG. And aside from the fact it was smoking like a chimney, it wasn’t anything like a modern bus. None of the smooth lines or glossy plastic housing of the usual Metro Transit buses. This one, rather, was a brick, long and dingy, chipped paint exposing the aluminum sideboards underneath. And rather than the clean looking blue and white color scheme used by the city, the number 23 was brown and red, like a wound. It also lacked a digital display on the roof – there was just a long clear box on the outside of the windshield, and inside a black board with white plastic numbers that said, simply “23 SOUTH.”
The brakes squealed as the 23 came to a stop, and the doors swung open with a heavy, mechanical hiss. The man with the bag shuffled through the door and up the steps, ignoring us. Tim looked at me, grinned, and followed him on board. I followed Tim.
“Pardon me,” said the bag man, “could you possibly give me a hand?” He lifted the bag in his right hand and thrust it towards Tim, who stammered something and took it. “Thank you,” said the man, digging into his pockets with his newly freed hand. I leaned over Tim’s shoulder and tried to see into the bag – there was something large and round in it, but whatever was in there was only dimly visible beneath layers of plastic wrap. I moved my shoe to avoid the drops of brown liquid that still seeped from the bottom of the bag. The man finally found his change; I heard the rattle of coins in the box, and then he turned and retrieved his bag. “Thank you very much,” he said, then shuffled to a seat near the dark back of the bus, his huge flipflops slapping against the vinyl flooring.
“Fifty cents,” said the driver, before Tim could ask. There was no card reader, just a heavy metal box on a stand with a slot for coins.
While Tim got his wallet out, I examined the driver. He was enormously fat, with huge arms, huge shoulders, and a huge head. His skin was pink and shiny, like it was coated with a thin film of moisture. Beneath the folds of his forehead two tiny black pinpoints glimmered out at us. He wore a blue jacket with a patch that said, simply “BUS” on it, and a small blue cap perched on the top of his round head, “DRIVER” sewn into its front in bright red threads.
“All I’ve got is a dollar,” Tim said.
“Exact change,” grumbled the driver, undulating in time to the idling of the engine.
“How about for the two of us?” said Tim. The driver sighed, took the dollar between two fingers round as sausages and tucked it into a pocket inside his jacket. He then shifted himself in his seat, a tremendous feat, like a glacier calving into the sea, to get access to his pocket. The maneuver completed, his hand emerged with four very dirty looking quarters which he, very carefully, plunked one at a time into the box.
“Ah, thanks, sorry,” said Tim. We hurried down the aisle, getting a seat on the sidewalk-side, about halfway down the bus. The seats were simple plastic benches with a fuzzy stubble of worn orange cloth over flattened and battered cushions. The interior lights dimmed as the door closed, and then the bus groaned to life and resumed its rattling journey down Manzanita.
“Holy shit,” repeated Tim as we sat down. “They haven’t even made this model of bus since ’83! What the hell is it doing here?”
“No place for swiping a metro card,” I said.
“Yeah, old model coin box, looked like a CashStar or maybe a Safecoin, could be either. They didn’t switch to the magnetized strips until the mid 90s, actually. This is wild,” Tim turned in his chair. “Check it out, see those ropes? That’s the old way they used to signal a stop, you tug on them and it literally makes a little flag swing down from the roof up there by the driver. Dings a bell too, like an actual little bell. This is fucking nuts!” He was grinning maniacally, deep in his element.
I looked at our fellow passengers. The bag man had slumped down in his seat, the top of his head just visible against the window in the back row. I wondered where he had stowed the bags, and who would have to mop up whatever mess leaked out of them during the ride. Other than him, there were only two other riders with us on the bus – a heavy set man with a severe crew-cut and the thickest pair of owl-eye glasses I’d ever seen a few rows back, and a woman who, conservatively, looked to be around 150 in the seat across from us. In her shriveled hands she clutched a heavy denim purse that bulged with its contents and looked ready to burst. As I glanced in her direction, I watched her reach into the breast pocket of her knitted vest and remove something. With her other hand she opened the purse slightly, and I saw a small hairy hand, like a monkey’s, dart out to take whatever she was offering before slipping quickly back into the purse. She saw me looking her way and, with an impish grin, raised a long, gnarled finger to her lips. I turned around quickly.
“Who the hell are these people,” I said.
“Locals, I guess,” laughed Tim. He was still enthralled by the bus itself. “Take a look at this,” he said, pointing at the plastic rim around the window.
“Shit, hold on,” I said, reaching for the headphones around my neck, “I should make sure this is all coming in clean.” I got them over my ears. Tim must’ve seen my face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s just,” I said, trying to find the words. “It’s all fucked up.”
An electric whine whirred and clicked in my ears, and something else played just on the edge of hearing, like a voice mumbling in the next room over, low and urgent but completely unintelligible. It made the hair on my neck stand up though – there was something unpleasant to the sound, grating and, well, unnerving. I pulled the headphones off and let Tim listen.
“What the fuck is that?” he said, crinkling his nose at the sound. “Have we not been getting any of this?” He looked crestfallen.
“It was fine at the stop,” I said. “Maybe it’s just these cheapass headphones. Here,” I unplugged them from the recorder. “Lets playback with the speaker.” Tim rewound ten seconds back, and we leaned close.
It was tinny and very quiet, but Tim’s voice was clear as he talked about the bus and the stop signaling rope. He looked relieved.
“Thank God,” he said. “Can you imagine if we’d lost this!”
“Yeah, must just be the headphones, I guess.”
The bus shivered, swinging up to the curb and screeching to a halt again. The interior lights flickered on as the door opened, and a short child-sized figured trundled up the steps to deposit their coins in the box. They were bundled up, head to toe, like it was the dead of winter rather than early autumn, a heavy quilted coat, long scarf wrapped around their mouth and nose, and a woolen knit cap pulled low, nearly covering their eyes. As the child shuffled by, they stared hard into my eyes. Their skin had a strange grey caste to it, slatey almost, and their deep black eyes were red rimmed and furious. I felt a strange wave of nausea, but maybe that was just the rocking of the bus as it started on its way again. It passed, and the kid was out of view, taking a seat farther back.
“We’ve gotta talk to the driver, Matt,” said Tim, leaning forward in his seat.
“Don’t make him tap the sign, Tim,” I giggled.
“No, we don’t want to get thrown off,” he laughed. “For real though, we might have to ride this thing to the end of line. I mean, there’s no way this is a legal, authorized bus. No GPS, and the driver sure isn’t calling in the route progress or anything.”
“What do you think is going on?” I asked. Content is king, after all, and this was shaping up to be a hell of an episode of the BusCast.
“Man, I dunno,” he said, shaking his head. “Like a pesero or something maybe? But it’s not just a big van or anything. It’s a bus, a real bus – you need to know how to drive one of these things.”
“But why would you need a bus for Manzanita?” I asked. “I mean, there’s nothing here, right?”
As I said it though, I looked out the window over Tim’s shoulder and I saw that I must’ve been mistaken. The streets were full of people, some hurrying between glowing streetlamps, others huddled close in doorways and on stoops. In fact, now that I was paying more attention, I saw that there were lights on in buildings that I had assumed were empty, their pallid interiors glimpsed through windows as we sped along the street.
“There are still neighborhoods and things around here, I guess” said Tim, following my gaze out over the street scenes whirring by. “Maybe somebody just felt like they needed a bus, and if the city wasn’t going to help…” he squinted out the window. “But this side of town is way more active than I thought. Look at all these people!”
Neon signs flashed by, their cursive lettering flaring with hellish color. “Balam’s” glowed over a bar, it’s crimson aura caressing a line of six or seven people waiting to get in. There were tarot places, liquor stores, all night laundromats. I saw a copy place proudly advertising, in bright green neon, the fact that they had a fax machine inside. Tim grabbed my shoulder suddenly.
“Look at that!” He pointed out the window at a low, long building on the corner. It looked like a burger place, big glass windows giving a frankly despairing view of people slumped over theirs trays in booths, while an orange-aproned teen slowly wiped a cloth across a counter. There were two huge orange circles on the sign, the name “Wetson’s” was scrawled in fat bubble letters between them.
“A fucking Wetson’s?” I said. “I thought those were all gone?”
“Yeah, they all closed down like, uh, a while ago,” said Tim, watching the restaurant shrink and vanish as the bus kept travelling its route. From behind us, a few rows back, the kid in the winter coat laughed, a shrill, piercing, maniacal giggle that stabbed through the engine rumble and the heavy silence of the bus. I hunched my shoulders at the noise, but Tim didn’t seem to notice.
“Where do you think we’re at?” I asked. Tim looked down at the route map he’d printed.
“I haven’t been able to see any cross streets, but I think we’ve gone six or seven blocks, right? Maybe more, I got a little distracted by the molding on these seats.”
“Where’d the 23 go to?” I asked. “I mean, back when it was an official bus?”
“Ah, well, it used to end up at the old southside transfer station, here,” he pointed to the terminal point on the map. “They closed that in ’97, I think, ’98 maybe? They opened a new transfer station south of the airport, shut the old one down somewhere around then. I think it actually burned down shortly after that, if I recall.”
The bus lurched to a stop again. The driver was hitting the breaks pretty hard – every stop was very sudden and came without any warning at all. I said as much, and Tim grinned.
“Driver’s not really up to Metro standards,” he whispered into the microphone. The old woman across the aisle from us must’ve heard him, though – she darted a scandalized, scowling glance our way. The bag in her lap squirmed.
“Try and spot the cross street, okay?” Tim asked. I stretched my neck around and looked for a street sign, but couldn’t find one.
A harsh white light filled the interior of the bus as the doors groaned open to let new passengers on. I must’ve gasped, because I felt Tim’s elbow hard in my side, but you can’t really blame me. I’d never seen anything like the three people mounting the stairs.
They were nuns, three of them, broadly similar to the ones who had taught me at St. Xavier’s, but instead of the usual penguin suits, their habits and veils were a deep, rusty red, while the normally white scapular cloths around their throats were all a deep, lightless black. Around their necks, tiny silver symbols flashed in the bus’s running lights – they looked like a bull’s head, upcurved horns and a broad snout and tiny red spots for eyes. The nuns’ faces were pale and perfectly immobile, like antique porcelain dolls, cold and yellowed and chipped.
The frontmost nun dropped six coins into the box, and then the three drifted through the aisles, muttering somber prayers. As they slid by us, I heard their voices, low and sonorous. They were speaking French.
“…toi qui, pour consoler l’homme frêle qui souffre, nous appris à mêler le salpêtre et le soufre…” they said in unison, their voices falling to an inaudible mumble as they floated to the back.
The lights dimmed and the bus jumped forward, rattling us in our seats. It swerved hard into the street and the engine shuddered and coughed as it hunted for the right gear. Finally, with a rumble, it found its groove and, like a boulder, rolled on down Manzanita.
“Goddamn,” I said.
“Did you see where those nuns got on?” said Tim, peeking over his shoulder.
“It looked like a church, didn’t it?” he asked. “All lit up?”
“I was looking the other way, actually,” I admitted.
“Well, it looked like a church,” he looked down at the transit map copy. “Even saw the stained glass all lit up. Here,” he pointed at it on the map, about halfway down the length of Manzanita. “See, there used to be a cathedral around here. It was the meat packer’s cathedral – Saint Adrian’s, the patron saint of butchers. But I swear when I drove by last week it was completely abandoned.” He looked up from the map at me, puzzled. “I mean totally empty. The glass was broken Matt. Not even a bit of stained glass left. All boarded up.”
“Must be a different church then,” I said.
“I didn’t see any other churches,” he said, although his voice was uncertain. “I just wish I’d seen the cross street…”
“Young man,” coughed the old woman across from us. Her knuckles were white with the strain of gripping her purse – whatever was inside it seemed agitated and was writhing within its denim prison. “That was indeed St. Adrian’s Cathedral,” she said. Her voice rasped thin through her lips, dry and whistling. “I attend their Sunday service every week, a lovely church, Father Wroński is such a wonderful speaker, and the singing of the nuns! Ah! You should attend, they’re always looking for new members…” The bus hit a pothole as she spoke, an enormous one by the way the whole vehicle shook and crashed. Tim and I slid in our seats, and the tiny woman, mid-sentence, was slung forward, hard. She lost her grip on the purse and it spilled to the floor.
The old woman shrieked, and I saw a gray, hairy shape dart out of the purse and disappear beneath the seats, scattering pennies and tissues and assorted purse detritus as it skittered to freedom.
“Ah, my little Pyewacket!” moaned the old woman, and the bus erupted into chaos. The owl-eyed man with the crew cut lurched out of his seat and rushed to the back of the bus, away from wildly flailing old woman. The child in the winter coat screamed with laughter, and I thought I heard the nuns raise their voices in prayer, “…père adoptif de ceux qu’en sa noire colère
du paradis terrestre a chassés Dieu le Père…”
The bus driver, his piggish eyes glimmering in the rear-view mirror, glared back at us and barked “Stay seated while the bus is in motion!” The old woman ignored him and was on her hands and feet in the aisle, making little clucking noises with her tongue. The child was rocking back and forth, laughing and pointing. Something ran past my legs, brushing against my ankles as it sped by beneath our seat. I screamed and leaped up, crouching in the chair with my knees pulled tight against my chest.
“We gotta get off this fucking bus!” I shouted, struggling to be heard over the prayers and the laughter and the shouts and the little plaintive noises the old woman was making. Something scraped on the underside of our seats – it sounded like an animal scrabbling for purchase. I screamed again as, briefly, three or four very long fingers curled around the front edge of the chair, dirty black nails tapping against the plastic as it felt its way.
“Jesus Christ!” I screamed. I yanked off the recorder and the headphones and dropped them into the chair, then I hopped off the seat and scrambled over the back of the bench and into another chair.
“Don’t you hurt my Pyewacket!” screamed the old woman, pulling herself up onto her knees, a murderous light dancing in her black eyes. I didn’t answer – I leaped across the aisle and into another row of seats, trying to get away from the gray furry shape and the pair of terrible green eyes that had glared out at me from under Tim’s chair.
“That’s it you fucks!” shouted the driver, slamming his foot on the breaks, tossing everyone forward as the bus came to heel like a chastened dog on a yanked leash. I was slammed into the back of the seat in my new spot, my face pressed against the grainy, gouged plastic. I heard the other passengers picking themselves up off the ground, groaning and complaining; even the nuns had stopped praying.
The driver stomped through the aisle, squeezing his bulk between the seats, wheezing out of his flared nostrils, his skin deepening to a deadly shade of purple with anger. He reached the old woman, who had both her arms under Tim’s chair and was making cooing noises, and grabbed her roughly by the back of her knit sweater before dragging her to her feet. She squawked a complaint, and the driver shook her, hard, making her head bobble wildly.
“I said stay in your fucking seats!” he squealed.
“He was trying to hurt my Pyewacket!” howled the old woman, twisting in his grip to turn and point at me. The Driver pushed her along in front of him and stomped his way over to me. I tried to get away, but I could only back so far into my new bench. His huge sweaty paw reached out and grabbed me by the collar of my jacket.
“Come on, both of ya!” he said, hauling me to my feet. He was tremendously strong; both the old woman and myself were struggling, but we couldn’t get free. He frog-marched us to the front of the bus, lifting and pushing. I think my feet only touched the actual floor of the bus on every alternate step. As I was pulled along, I tried to say something to Tim, who just gawped at me, his eyes big and staring.
The driver swung an ample hip into the lever and opened the door. Then he dragged us down the stairs, off the bus, and with needless violence, hurled both myself and the old woman into a heap of garbage cans piled on the corner of the street. We disappeared into the pile with a crash, and the driver wiped his hands of us.
“People like you don’t deserve public transportation,” he hissed, and then stomped back onto the bus.
I tried to pull myself up out of the garbage, but kept slipping and falling back in among the empty cans, making a tremendous racket. The bus door closed and the engine rumbled into gear as the bus began to pull away. I finally was able to get to my knees and crawled a little way to freedom. I saw Tim, pulling down a window, still on the bus.
“Where are you going?” I shouted.
“I gotta ride this to the end! Sorry!” he called back, and then I lost him in a gout of diesel fumes. I watched the taillights of the bus dwindle and vanish. I stood, gasping and rubbing my bruises.
“Ah fuck the old lady!” I said, suddenly remembering her. I turned and started digging through the garbage. “Are you okay? Ma’am?” I called out. We’d been thrown a good five feet, bodily into garbage and on the hard cement – there was no way an old lady like that was okay. “I’m sorry about the trouble, I didn’t mean – ”
I had put my hand in something wet, and squishy, and cold.
With a yelp I leaped back, stumbling over a can and falling clean on my ass. I stared down at my hand in horror and saw –
Pumpkin guts. Stringy, orange. Loaded with seeds. Smelled like fresh pumpkin too. Must’ve been the remains of someone’s jack-o-lantern. I wiped the pumpkin on my pants and stood back up.
“Ma’am?” I said, resuming my search. I found a pair of chunky black orthopedic shoes. I found a knit sweater, full of dried yellow leaves and the rich smell of loamy decay. I found a pumpkin, shattered, its contents spilled out over the concrete. I did not find the old woman, not even after I’d shifted all the cans and garbage bags aside. She had just vanished.
I tried to call Tim’s cell phone, but it went right to voicemail.
I tried to use my rideshare app, but no one would pick me up in that part of town.
In the end I had to walk twenty blocks up Manzanita, up the way we came, back to where we’d started, back to were there was a real metro bus stop.
On the walk, I didn’t see anyone, didn’t hear anyone. All the buildings were quiet, dark, boarded up and empty. I stumbled along in the dark, past nailed up foreclosure signs and chainlink fences. I saw a dark neon sign in front of a dusty condemned bar, part of its tubing busted, that read “Balam’s.”
I heard a dog howl in the distance, very far away, very lonely.
The next morning I knocked on the door to Tim’s room. He wasn’t in, and it didn’t look like he’d come back at all in the night. I tried to phone him but, again, it went right to voice mail. I left a message, asked him to call me back, hoped he’d gotten some good audio for the podcast. I ate breakfast and went to class, trying to think how long I should wait before I called the police.
I got back to the apartment that night, and there was still no sign of Tim. His bed and room were the exact same as they had been in the morning, the same as the night before when we’d went on our trip. I stayed up well past midnight, pacing the small living room, compulsively checking my phone, the clock, the internet. Nothing. I finally went to sleep around three in the morning, exhausted, and vowed to call the cops in the morning.
When I woke up, there was an email from Tim in my inbox.
“Ready 4 Edit” was all it read. And there was an audio file attached too. A big one.
I still haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to it.