By Shay Hatten
The wheels on the bus went round and round and round, and sitting inside, Terry was dead, dead, dead.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, he looked out the window at the road ahead. And saw it end. Not in the earthly way, not with roadblocks and construction signs, but in a more ethereal sort of way. It just ended. Disappeared. So did the landscape that it ran across. The whole desert simply stopped about thirty feet in front of them. And they were moving towards it at full speed; which, for this bus, was about fifty miles an hour.
Terry rose to his feet and stepped out into the aisle.
“Going down!” the Driver called.
“Hey, Driver!” Terry shouted. “Is this it? The grand finale?”
“Not quite,” the Driver said, and spat a wad of tobacco out his window. “Got a few more passengers to pick up. Now sit back down, else you’re apt to come flyin’ up here next to me.”
“Yes sir,” Terry said, and sat back down. Sat back down, and watched through the window as they plunged off the edge of the road into the vast expanse of that unbelievably blue sky, sky bluer than any he’d ever seen.
He remembered it; his dying.
Remembered walking down Fifth Avenue. Remembered the pain shooting up his left arm. Passersby swarmed around him as he sunk to his knees. As he clutched his chest. As his vision faded out, and as his body released massive amounts of DMT, causing him to see that bright white light at the end of the tunnel. All that typical death mumbo jumbo. He was actually disappointed, in his final moments, how cliché it was.
Then he slept.
Slept for what felt like a day, but what was, he knew in reality, much, much longer. Or maybe not. Maybe it was mere seconds. However long, it was a span of time that existed outside of everything he’d ever known, and goddamn if it wasn’t the best night’s sleep of his life.
When he opened his eyes, he was standing in a desert unlike any he’d ever seen; a desert that stretched on in all directions with no mountains or other landmarks to denote that there was anything in the distance other than more desert. Even the sky was devoid of characteristics; no sun, no clouds, nothing but blue, blue, blue. Blue forever.
In this desert, there was nothing but sand. Sand, and Terry, and the road.
It was old and cracked and the paint was fading, but that was clearly what it was; a highway cutting across the ground, perfectly bisecting the desert, reaching forever in both directions. Terry stood by this now, underneath a sign marked, of all things, “Bus Stop.” Like the road, it was cracked and old and in dire need of replacing. At some point a shotgun had sent a round through the middle of the thing, rendering it barely readable. When he looked at it he was struck with the faintest pang of recognition. Something about all of this; the desert, the battered sign, seemed so familiar. Was it something from his childhood, years spent in Arizona? But no; his bus stop had been on the corner of his residential block and he had preferred his deserts road-free. Terry disregarded the notion.
He knew what he had to do.
He had to wait.
So wait he did. For an hour, two hours, longer, shorter, some length outside of time itself.
Finally the bus came rumbling along.
Rumbling; that was the only way to describe how it moved, spewing up black smoke and practically shaking from side to side. Although to be fair, Terry couldn’t be sure if that was the fault of the bus or the cracked road it drove on. The way it was going he wasn’t sure it would even make it to him.
And when it did, when it rolled up next to him, screeched, and rocked back on its wheels, he wasn’t sure it would ever start again.
The door squealed open and Terry found himself looking into the face of the Driver. Middle aged, overweight, and wearing a backwards Red Sox cap, the Driver looked at Terry with what resembled disgust, but could just have been neutrality worn on a face that time had rendered harsh.
“Can I ask you something?” the Driver asked. His jaw moved up and down as he spoke, and Terry could see the thick slop of tobacco working around in his jaw.
“Sure,” Terry said, for lack of anything else.
The Driver’s jaw worked up and down a few more times as he looked around; then he turned back to Terry and said, “Where are we?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Course I don’t know,” the Driver said. “You’re the one who this should look familiar to.”
“Well it doesn’t. Never died before.”
“Give it a minute,” the Driver said. “It’ll come to you.”
Terry looked around again, took in the sign and the endless desert, the sunless sky, and realized what he was seeing. “This is my childhood, isn’t it?” he said. “Not one memory, but the amalgamation of all the time I lived in Arizona. The bus stop, the sunny days…”
“Care to explain why I’m fat and old?” the Driver asked.
“I did this to you?” Terry asked. Then he laughed. “When I was a kid, the school bus driver. He was this big scary looking dude; always terrified me.”
“Probably that’s it then,” the Driver said. “Now come on, get on the bus.”
“Where are we going?” Terry asked.
“Where do you think?”
Terry honestly had no idea, but regardless, he got on the bus. This desert, he thought, had shown him about all it had to offer.
As soon as he was clear of the door, the Driver spat a wad of tobacco through the opening. Then he hit a switch and the door slammed shut.
“Stay behind the line,” the Driver said, and pointed to a strip of peeling yellow tape on the floor.
“You’d think you guys would be able to afford better buses,” Terry said as he took a seat near the front.
“This bus could’ve been whatever you wanted,” the Driver said. “You’re the one that made it old.”
As the bus fell through the sky, Terry grabbed the front of his seat and looked out through his window. They were diving straight towards a body of water.
He would have called it an ocean, but that wasn’t what it was, not really. It was big enough to be an ocean, stretching in all directions like the desert had done, but with no waves, no wind, no visible wildlife, there was nothing to classify it as an ocean. It was just water. From up here it might as well have been a giant kitchen sink.
Terry braced when they hit, but there was no impact; they just slid into the water. Slid into it, straightened out, and then they were driving on nothing, watery blue stretching all around them.
Up ahead, Terry saw, was a young woman. He felt brief empathy at her having died so young, but then realized she probably hadn’t. Probably, like the ocean, this was some ideal version of what she had once been.
Terry was struck with a very strong urge to be able to see his own face, but when he looked at the window he saw that it bore no reflection. Even at the front of the bus there was no rearview mirror. He supposed it wasn’t necessary. No traffic on these roads.
The door opened and after a brief conversation, the Driver ushered the woman on board. Terry couldn’t hear the conversation, but didn’t think he needed to. It was likely the same conversation he’d had … minutes? hours? days? However long before.
“It’s a cool boat, isn’t it?”
“What’s that?” Terry asked. He turned to the woman, who had taken a seat across from him and was now leaning in timidly to speak.
“This boat,” she said. “It’s pretty kickass. And the Driver; what a cutie. I mean, if you’ve gotta die, this isn’t a bad way to do it.”
“Where did you grow up?” Terry asked.
“Arizona,” he said. “It’s a bus for me, and the Driver’s old.”
“That’s unfortunate,” she said.
“No,” Terry said. “It’s nice.”
She smiled at him and said, “Well I guess that’s the point.”
Terry smiled back.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them the bus peeled away for the briefest of moments. For just a flash, he was on a speedboat that was somehow swimming underwater, and the Driver was young and grinning and had what Terry had once heard his wife describe as ‘sex appeal.’ Then Terry was back on the bus.
“Going up,” the Driver yelled.
“Is this it?” the woman asked, leaning in towards Terry. “Are we moving on?”
“Not yet, I think,” Terry said. “I think we’re picking up more people.”
The bus took them out of the water and into the sky, and from there back down to Earth where they drove through jungles, and across icy plains, and over mountains, and through deep endless meadows. They drove through big cities in small towns and villages in the south of France, all devoid of people except for their one expectant passenger. And as the
seconds? days? years?
passed, the bus got more and more full.
Until, eventually, every seat was filled.
“Going up!” the Driver yelled.
The bus started to climb, rising from the boardwalk it had been driving across and ascending towards the sky. A sky blacker than Terry’s darkest dreams.
“Hey Driver!” he called. “Is this it?”
“This is it, alright!” the Driver called back.
“What’s next?” Terry asked. “What comes next?”
Terry looked at the Driver. And for the briefest of moments, the old man peeled away. For the briefest of moments, the Driver was a ship captain, a pilot, a jungle guide, a man, a woman, a child, black, white, big, small, there, gone. For the briefest of moments, he was everyone and no one. For the briefest of moments, he was everything. And nothing.
And still, he only smiled.
Shay Hatten has written three novels, several screenplays, and dozens of short stories. One of his short stories was recently published on TheFictionShelf.com, and one of his screenplays, titled Another Life, currently resides on Amazon Studios’ “Notable Projects” list. More information about him, as well as samples of his work, can be found at his website, shayhatten.com.