The Dead Bus sighed and rolled silently into the neighborhood; its tires grinding against the pavement, churning and pushing up years of hardened gravel. Long forgotten, strandless pieces of paper floated as the whoosh of the doors opened and stirred a small, undetectable breeze.
From the adjoining block houses streamed the new recruits. One or two here. Three or four there. Wordless and cautious they gathered their bags and silently boarded the bus. The driver stared blanklessly ahead. He didn’t care who rode the bus, he was as much as a passenger as the rest of them. His only duty to make sure those who wished to ride were given a seat to do so. He craned his neck and looked back at those seated.
“That everyone?” he said, hand threatening to wind the door closed. Heads nodded, eyes averted. Some did not want to be here. Others weren’t really sure what they were doing. And some had been waiting a long time for this. The door began to creak shut when a pale, living hand suddenly stopped the doors from closing.
“Wait!” A voice outside the bus screeched. “Wait dammit! Please open the doors I’ve got to get on this bus!”
The driver quickly uncranked the door and stared at a perfectly healthy man.
“Oh. Thank you. This is the bus that goes down to the Bridgehead station right? I’m late for work. I missed the earlier bus.”
The driver blinked, unsure what to say.
“Oh, nevermind. You’re at least headed in the right direction. I’ll find my way in any case, um, yes, well.” The man searched for the ride fare slot. “Well, I’ll just give this to you then.” He handed the driver a flattened dollar bill. The driver pinched it between two fingers, open mouth gaping at the man. “Uh, yes, you can, well, uh, just keep the change that’s all right.”
The man walked deeper into the bus to take a seat. Nearly every seat was full. He hunched his back to avoid hitting his head on the grip bars overhead. “Mind if I sit here?” He smiled bravely at a woman with a beehive hairdo. “Could you scootch over just a smidge?” She glanced at him and turned back towards the window, firmly placing her purse in the space that he was wishing to occupy.
“Uh, well, okay,” Thomas said walking a few seats back. “Mind if I sit here?” He tried again to an older gentleman wearing an unseasonably large overcoat. The gentleman shrugged his shoulders and slid his weight down a few centimeters. “Ah, yes, thank you. I’m very late to work. Night shift. You know how it is.”
The gentleman didn’t answer.
Thomas grew uncomfortable. His leg pressed so tightly against this stranger. He felt he must say something, introduce some amount of familiarity into such close quarters. “My name is Thomas,” he said, “what’s yours?”
The gentleman cocked his head to the side. “My name was Dave, but, really, I’m not so sure anymore.”
“Ah, okay then,” Thomas said, realizing it was better to be only one kind of uncomfortable in this situation. He stared towards the front and saw that the bus driver was still staring at him and holding up the dollar bill between his fingers as if it were infected with disease.
“I SAID YOU CAN KEEP THE CHANGE!” Thomas yelled as he pulling his bag deeper onto his lap. “Looney old bin isn’t he?” he muttered.
Dave remained unmovable.
The driver took one last look at Thomas, shook his head and pulled the bus doors shut.
“About bloody time,” Thomas whispered to no one other than himself. The bus lurched forward and each head on the bus followed suit. Steam brushed against the sides of the windows as they exited the neighborhood.
“Did you know I’m missing my favorite TV show right now?” Dave said.
Thomas tried to ignore him, but Dave continued.
“I was looking forward to it for days and then I had to go and have a heart attack this morning at breakfast.”
“Excuse me?!” Thomas said, turning fully in his seat to look at Dave straight on.
“If I had known that last night’s episode was going to be the last one I ever saw I probably would’ve tried harder not to die.”
Thomas’s eyes widened. “Exc…c…uu…ss…eee…?” Thomas sputtered, sure that he hadn’t heard the man correctly.
“Did you know I didn’t even get to eat the steak I was going to have tonight? I pulled it out of the freezer and everything this morning. I was going to have a nice steak and watch my TV shows,” Dave said smooshing his face further against the bus window.
Thomas leaned in and whispered, “Are you dead?”
“Oh, I suppose so,” Dave said sadly. “I guess that’s why I decided to get on the Dead Bus.”
Thomas shook his head side to side trying to make sense of the words he had just heard. “Dead Bus?”
Dave slowly turned his head against the glass so he could look at Thomas. “Yeah, it comes around every night to collect the dead. You should know that, you’re on it.”
“I am not dead.”
“You must be if you’re on this bus.”
Dave didn’t say anything.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh God,” Thomas cried. “I’m dead! I died! I’m DEEEEAAAD!” he wailed.
Passengers mumbled in annoyance.
“You’re very dramatic,” Dave said. “Have you always been like that?”
“I died and I didn’t even know about it!” Thomas cried.
“Shut up!” an angry man from the back said. “YOU are not dead. WE are dead. WE don’t know what you’re doing on this bus.”
Thomas stood up.
“Sit down,” the bus driver said over the intercom.
Thomas sat down.
Tomas hunched over his seat and strained to see towards the back. “What do you mean?” he hissed to the angry man.
“Did you know I’ve had the same TV for the past 50 years?” Dave unnecessarily chimed in. “I bought it back when I moved into my apartment. Now I’ll never get to watch it again.”
Thomas side eyed Dave and then cautiously stole a glance at the bus driver. Both seemed distracted enough; the coast seemed to be clear. Thomas made his way to the back of the bus. It was much darker up here than it was towards the front. His eyes strained to adjust.
“Over here,” the angry man said, raising his hand just enough for Thomas to catch the quickness of his movement. The man pointed at the empty seat next to him. “Here’s the seat you were looking for.”
“Thanks.” Thomas said sat down, putting his bag next to him. “So, uh, is everyone here all really dead?”
“Yep. Some of us longer than others. Some of us not so long. Some of us like you, not at all.”
Thomas’ eyes widened.
“Just kidding. You’re the only one I’ve ever seen who’s ever gotten on the Dead Bus alive.”
“I’m just trying to get to work. I missed my regular bus.”
The angry man raised his eyebrows. “Night shift?”
“I know how that goes. Or, well…I did.”
“I’m Thomas” Thomas said, sticking out his hand. He pulled it back quickly. “Oh, wait, sorry.” He gritted his teeth. “Was that offensive? Can you shake hands?”
The angry man rolled his eyes. Geo” he said. “Name’s Geo.”
Thomas picked nervously at a loose string on his jeans. “So did you die today too then, Geo?”
“Who me?” Geo pointed a finger at his chest. “Oh no, I’ve been dead for a while now. Years now, actually. Probably a few decades.”
“Don’t you want to…?” Thomas nervously shuffled his feet, “you know…move on?”
Geo laughed a large guffaw that echoed throughout the bus. A few heads turned, giving squinty stares. “Why do you think I’m on this bus?”
“That’s what I’m doing. Moving on. This bus is headed to the airport, did you know that?”
“The airport?! What for?”
“To move on.”
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Ah, well, you will someday, but today’s not really that day I suppose. Let’s just say that I like to travel.”
“That sounds nice,” Thomas said. “There’s never enough time to vacation.”
“Ah, well then it’s too bad you aren’t dead. We could be travel buddies. I didn’t get to do too much traveling while I was alive.”
Thomas looked confused. “Why?”
“The big C,” Geo said simply.
“What?” Geo furrowed his brow. “No. Cancer.”
“Oh.” Thomas relaxed his face. “Right. Did you have a family?”
“Sure did.” Geo looked off in the distance out the bus window.
“Didn’t you want to stay near them? If I was dead and had a family I think I’d like to stay and see them for as long as I could.”
Geo sighed. “Some people think stickin’ around is the answer; that your loved ones would be comforted to know that you were still close. And that’s okay for some, but it’s not really like that. You find out that the people you loved move on a hell of a lot quicker than you think they could. I hung around mine long enough. I’d say it was time to move on, yeah?” he grinned sadly.
Thomas shrugged his shoulders.
“Ah, well. You’re too young then ain’t you?” Geo said. “This sort of thing is for the old guys, like me. We’ve been around the block. We know a thing or two. But trust me, if you ever die, don’t hang around.”
The bus prattled on, passing quietly over the bumps in the road; only stopping occasionally to let someone on.
“Nah, me. I had to leave. I’m not really sure where I’m headed now, but I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer.”
“Did you have any kids?”
Geo turned his head. “Yeah,” he said. “I had a son, but he didn’t really know me. I died when he was just a few years old.”
Thomas nodded. “That’s hard. I know what it’s like to lose a dad when you’re young.”
Geo blinked. “Oh yeah? Do you think about your old man sometimes?”
“Sometimes. I didn’t really know him, but I like to think when I met him that he’d like me.”
“I’m sure he would kid. Probably more than you think.”
Thomas looked down at his feet. “So am I stuck on this bus forever?”
He pointed up at a cable overhead that ran the length of the bus. “Nah. You can get off anytime you want if you pull the line.”
“You mean I’ve sat here on this bus and I could’ve left anytime I wanted?”
Geo laughed. “Well, yeah. What can I say? Being dead gets lonely sometimes. But, for the record, you were the one that got on the Dead Bus in the first place.”
Thomas sighed. He smiled at Geo and then reached up and pulled the line. A small ding echoed through the bus and lit up the “Stop Requested” sign that sat squarely over the driver up front.
“Promise me, kid, you’ll do something amazing,” Geo said.
Thomas nodded his head. He threw his bag over one shoulder and walked towards the front of the bus.
“Here’s your dollar back,” the bus driver said, handing Thomas his crinkled bill.
“Ah, no, you keep it,” Thomas said.
The driver tipped his hat. “Have a good night, sir. Hopefully we won’t be seeing you anytime soon.”
Thomas took the three steps down and walked out the open bus doors. They folded together behind him. He looked around. The Dead Bus idled behind him and then took off with a faint whoosh. He saw Geo at the back window waving. Thomas raised his hand and waved goodbye and suddenly a memory sprung from deep within his brain.
“Promise me, kid, you’ll do something amazing.”
He had heard those words before.
A long forgotten memory. The only one he had of him. Thomas gripped the handle of his bag remembering that his dad’s name had been George, but that he had sometimes gone by Geo.
Geo winked and waved one last time as the bus grew smaller and silently faded into the sunrise.