There was something wrong as I boarded the 8:15 bus into town, and I couldn’t place it. That was bothering me. I knew that there was a problem because it was there, gnawing on the back of my mind like an animal, but I couldn’t figure it out.
The bus had been a few minutes late getting to my stop, but that wasn’t it. The bus driver had shorted me three dollars when I accidentally fed a five into the box instead of a one, but that wasn’t it either. Annoying, sure, but it didn’t explain this dread that had settled over me.
I sat in an open seat toward the back of the bus, hardly glancing at the stranger next to me, and brought my book out of my backpack. I got three paragraphs into the chapter before I put it down again, frowning to myself and collecting my thoughts. What was it?
The passenger next to me cleared their throat, catching my attention. I glanced over again to see an old man staring at me pointedly. His lips parted to reveal age-yellowed teeth. “Excuse me, son, do you have the time?”
I pulled my jacket sleeve back to expose my watch. “Eight twenty-six,” I said, showing him the watch face. He peered at it for a moment before his eyes drifted back up to meet mine. He had an intense gaze that wasn’t helping to calm my nerves.
“Right. About time then, wouldn’t you say?”
I was about to ask him what he meant when someone in front of me screamed. And then the bus exploded. Or rather, something exploded into the bus. If you’ve ever been in an automobile accident, you know that the sound of metal and metal striking and then crumpling is one of the worst sounds in the world. Every instant is an eternity, and yet it all happens in the blink of an eye.
I saw it like I was in a dream. The midsection of the bus gave way to whatever had hit us, collapsing and bending. Forward motion all but stopped as we were swept sideways. Glass was everywhere. And then we lurched, tipped, everything from the left side of the bus thrown violently to meet the right.
It all stopped. Holding on to the seatback in front of me with a death grip, I turned my head to see a girl, maybe my age, maybe a little younger, in the process of being tossed into my lap from the seat across the aisle, splayed out in midair like a puppet on a string. Her eyes were tightly shut, she had a gash across her forehead, and blood on her mouth from where she had bitten cleanly through her lip in the impact. In midair, but not moving at all.
In fact, nothing was moving. None of the passengers, none of the traffic outside, nothing. Shards of glass were still suspended in midair. For some reason this was more dumbfounding than the floating girl next to me, or the man a few seats up who had been resting his head against the window when the Mack truck, which I now had time to see, hit us. I looked away, stomaching churning, resisting the sudden urge to vomit.
I released my grip on the seat back, sliding down the empty seat to curl up next to the aluminum siding. Shaking like a leaf in the complete silence, I could only—wait, empty seat?
“None of this is necessary, you know.”
I shouted involuntarily, twisting around, hands in front of me defensively. The old man was standing casually in the center aisle of the bus, as though it wasn’t tipped at a forty-five degree angle. He cocked his head as he stared at me, furthering the angle so that his head was almost upside down in relation to mine.
“Wh... I... what?” I stammered.
“Come now,” he said reproachfully. “You’re intelligent enough for this, son, that’s why we picked you.”
“I don’t understand.”
He sighed. “You’re here – on Earth that is, in this life – to learn lessons. Everything is a lesson. From the time you were born until the time that you die,” at this point, he glanced bemusedly toward the passengers at the mid-left section of the bus. My stomach lurched again. “you are constantly learning lessons. It’s the nature of things.”
I was completely bewildered, and my face must have betrayed my confusion, because he sat down next to me so that his face was near mine, and continued. “Sometimes the lessons are too important to be left to chance.”
“Then why not just tell me? Why do... why do this?” I waved my arm about listlessly.
“That’s not how we work, son. There are rules that have to be followed.” He shook his head. “No, I’m not allowed to come out and tell you, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t pound it into you over and over until you finally get it into your thick skull. That’s why I do this.” He swept his arm out dramatically over the bus.
“So what am I then, your pawn?” I retorted angrily. “I have to play your game and maybe I’ll get it right before someone dies?” To my surprise, he actually laughed, a booming, head thrown back laugh.
“They always say that, and I’ll never understand it. Pawn? I’m not some mysterious puppetmaster pulling the strings, son. I’m trying to help.” He sighed, mirth gone as suddenly as it had come. “If you were going to understand, you would have gotten it by now. That’s unfortunate. We’ll have to try again.”
“What, a car accident tomorrow? Plane crash next week?” I slammed my fist into my palm. “You can’t keep doing this, these are innocent people!”
“Next week?” He stood up. “You think too small, son.”
There was something wrong as I boarded the 8:15 bus into town...
It's the Season for Graves Cracking: The 2006 Quest for Fear