Alan Jacob Campbell, the man with the terrible eyes, is on a bus. The bus is in the middle of nowhere particular.
He watches idly as the landscape outside changes, shifting from lush greens to dry yellows smattering occasionally with a dry, thirsty green. The trees change from curved and large-leaved to tall and spindly. Branches no longer sprout from one another in a tangle, but stick orderly from the sides of the needle-like trunks of trees that have no leaves, but thin needles. Many of them are dead, desiccated white splinters, torn from the ground by the harsh wind. But most are not. Most are missing branches on their left side-- the side where the wind hits them, but some are not. The sky is blue and cloudless, but looks dusty through the bus window. The ground is covered in short, dense scrub that looks as wind-worn and weary as the trees.
He sighs and wishes he'd brought a book. He is three hours into a six hour drive, and nature sighting can only stay interesting for so long.
Dog sits beside him, half resting on his lap and half resting on the seat. Occasionally Dog will snore or grumble in his sleep, and another bus-goer will glance at them with concern, irritation, or trepidation, but Alan just smiles and shrugs and then ignores them.
The bus is mostly empty; there are twelve other people in a coach that seats upwards of thirty. Technically Dog isn't supposed to be on the bus. Technically Alan isn't supposed to be on the bus. It isn't a city bus to be stopped and boarded by anyone with a couple dollars on them; it is a reserved-seating bus destined for the next state over. Everyone here but him had signed on weeks ago, bought a ticket for over a hundred dollars, and then had packed and prepared accordingly with books and charged smartphones and hand held games.
Alan had shown up at the bus depot, found a bus that looked like it was going far away, and had hopped on, Dog at his heels.
"He's my seeing eye dog," he'd said, pointing at his sunglasses. "My eyes are bad."
"Where's his jacket?" The driver had said. "His papers?"
"Where's your bags?"
"Don't need 'em."
And here he'd glanced over his sunglasses at the driver. "Right here." He'd presented a printout piece of paper with the scan-code on it-- the same page everyone who'd legitimately paid for their ticket had received via email and could have chosen to print out at home or print out in the depot lobby. The driver had held up a hand-held machine that scanned the code with a red laser dot, and the machine blipped in approval. Alan had bobbed his head and smiled and pointedly let Dog on first, daring the driver to say anything.
Of course he hadn't paid for his ticket, but he'd found that-- the same way he could manipulate electricity and computers-- he could manipulate the ticket printout machines in the lobby. He hadn't been very good at it, and there was a trash bin full of tickets for buses he hadn't wanted to catch, or buses that weren't scheduled to leave for days, or buses that he is fairly certain do not actually exist, but in the end he'd managed. It was a start, and a skill he would have to hone.
So now he is on the bus, staring vacantly out the window but looking at nothing, and watching unobservedly as the sun slowly sinks over the mountains. The only two things of interest to have happened in the past several hours were a short conversation between two of the other bus riders about their jobs (a casino hotel maid and an apprentice plumber respectively) and him experiencing his ears popping from altitude change for the first time in his life.
At around seven PM, according to the red marquee clock at the front of the bus, halfway up the mountain, a deep rumbling starts coming from the back of the bus. He doesn't mention anything, figuring that they must be running over rocks or something. But then the air begins to smell, and Dog starts to bark.
"Quiet your dog!" says the driver.
"Something's wrong," Alan says, holding onto Dog, who is thrashing and pawing at him.
Before the words are out of his mouth, the engine makes a screeching noise, then a puttering noise, and then dies. The driver curses and pulls over to the side. Smoke billows out of the sides and front of the bus, filling the view from the windows.
"Everybody out!" the driver roars. "One at a time, no shoving-- forget your bag, sir!" She points at a man who is trying to pull a large bag from the overhead area and holding up the aisle.
"But what if the bus explodes?" the man says.
"Then you'll kill us by holding up the line!" says a woman behind him. She gives him a shove and he moves forward, still complaining about his bag. Alan is the last passenger out, Dog ahead of him. Unlike most of the others, he'd held onto his duffel and had it ready to go should the need arise.
Outside, the evening air is only slightly warmer than the conditioned air inside the bus. The other passengers stand alongside the road, in the dirt. Some, like him, have their smaller bags, others do not. They grumble among each other in a directionless sort of way; nobody blames the driver, but they do blame the bus.
"Piece of crap," says one man. He has a suitcase in one hand and a cellphone in the other, and is texting while he talks.
"Will they send someone else out?" says a woman with a messenger bag so full the flap is stretched out, held closed only by the straining clasps.
"They better," the man says. "If they don't, I'll demand a refund."
There is a general chorus of agreement and the driver emerges from the bus.
"All right, folks," she says. "As you can see, we've had some technical trouble--" she's interrupted by a bang! that causes those closest to the bus to jump. Then another and another and another. All four tires have spontaneously popped.
"That bus is a fucking death trap!" shouts the apprentice plumber.
"What the hell?" shout a few others. Everyone starts getting even more agitated. Tempers grow foul and Alan grows uncomfortable. He discreetly backs away from the group, Dog at his side. There's a rocky outcrop nearby, and he goes to sit on it.
Dog looks at him, head tilted.
"I didn't do it," Alan says quietly, glancing at the others who all have their phones out. Some of them are making calls, some are texting, and a few like the casino girl are taking pictures of the smoking bus. "I mean, I don't think I did..."
He'd know if it was him, right? He'd've felt something, right?
I break TVs, not buses!
"Is anyone getting any reception here?" someone shouts. A few people are. Most are not. The driver borrows someone else's phone and assures everyone that she's calling home office to get everything sorted.
"Take a seat. This could be a while."
There's a small chorus of whining as everyone spreads out a bit, looking for shade to stand in or a place to sit. Alan looks up at the sky. The sun is setting and setting fast, and though the air is warm now, he knows it will not remain so for long. The back of his neck pricks. He rubs his hand there and feels the band aid covering his third eye. The eye is not what caused the pricking sensation, but he rubs the area around it anyway, scratching the band-aid even though it is not itchy.
As if on cue, a cold wind blows past his neck and goosebumps creep up his spine. His chest tightens. He looks at the other passengers, searching for any sign that one of them is up to something, but none are. They ignore him and focus on their phones, both functional and non-functional alike.
"C'mon, Dog," he says, getting up. "Let's go for a walk."
Dog wags his tail in agreement and follows him away from the group.
* * * *
The woods are dense and heavily shaded. Branches and brambles catch on his clothes. Roots that he's certain were buried before seem to stick up when he passes, as though trying to trip him. He stumbles often.
Dog, who by all rights ought to be having as much trouble as he is, glides past him with liquid grace. He does what dogs do in woods, which amounts to a lot of sniffing, the occasional digging, and marking trees. Whenever Dog pauses, whenever he stops moving, Alan loses sight of him. It's as though there is some stillness inside the animal that the woods is seeping out. Shadows where Dog stands grow deeper when he's in them, and it's not until he inevitably sneezes or wags his tail that Alan can find him again.
Alan does not know if this is really a skill of Dog's, some aspect of the woods, all in his head, or something else entirely. He does not question it, and instead treads on, trying not to slip on some mossy stones. They wander together, never out of earshot of the bus, but away enough that they can no longer see it.
The creeping sensation in Alan's head worsens into an almost physical sensation, like some imaginary and slimey thing is sliding down his neck. He does not whip his head around to look, which is his first impulse. Instead, he slowly and deliberately glances this way and that, as casual as he can. Nothing is there but forest and the usual things that live within forests. But he feels it; something is watching them.
He stops walking.
"Let's go back to the group," he says to Dog.
Dog does not want to leave. Dog has found a patch of moss where something had, at one point, dragged the carcass of a squirrel and left an interesting combination of scents. Alan scowls as Dog rolls on the moss and turns to go.
"Fine," he says, walking away. "I'll meet you back at the bus."
Dog wuffs in agreement, and when Alan turns to look back at him, he is nowhere to be seen.
* * * *
Evening falls back at what everyone is calling "camp" despite the lack of camping gear, and there's no sign of the second bus. No tow truck. A few passengers speculate about helicopters, but the darkening sky remains clear.
Everyone has agreed that the bus will most likely not explode, and so the majority of the passengers have decided to sleep inside. Most are in their seats, dozing or amusing themselves with whatever they brought on the trip. A few stay outside, enjoying the air and the space despite the oncoming night. Alan is not one of them. He and the returned Dog are in their seat, snuggled up against each other as best they can be in such confined space.
Time passes. Night falls. People return to the bus. He doesn't realize he's fallen asleep until a scream outside wakes him up. He sits up with a jolt, or would if the weight of Dog's massive head hadn't been pressing down on his chest.
"Up," he says. The other passengers are already up; some are just beginning to stir, others who we're lighter sleepers or who had not slept at all are already half-way out the door.
"What's wrong?" says one. "What happened?"
"Remain calm!" says the driver. Nobody does. People are rushing outside to help, or to see what's going on, or because that is what other people are doing and they don't want to be left behind. Alan follows, Dog on his heels.
"Move," he says to the man in front of him who has stopped for some reason. He shoves the man forward and--
Lights. Colors. Sounds. Screams. The world goes insane. Colors do not act like colors. Light does not act like light. He can see sounds and taste the tangy metal of the bus through his fingertips, taste the dry denim of his jeans and the tart cotton of his shirt through his skin. The other passengers are screaming, but while he hears it, he also sees it; screams like black clouds streaked with red and purple and pink waft out of mouths like smoke from chimneys.
He looks on, dazed.
Suddenly, the head of a lion fills his vision-- the only blackness in the world of color. It looks like something has cut it into the universe, it is a hole in the fabric of reality. Its black mane wafts around its head as though it were underwater, and its eyes seem as pitch black as the rest, but when he looks closely, he can see tiny stars.
"Dog," Alan slurs, his voice sounding tinny and strained in his own ears. "You're really pretty. But why're you upside down?"
The lion head opens its mouth and to Alan, it looks like the mouth of a lamprey: a round tunnel lines with row after row of teeth going all the way down the impossibly long throat.
He winces and tries to turn, but Dog's jaws come down on his shoulder and pulls him away. It is only then that he realizes he has been on his back, lying upside down the entire time. He and the other passengers who left the bus are all piled at the bus's entrance; they'd been hit with the psychic attack upon exiting and had all collapsed, newcomers falling over the old.
Dog drags him from the pile and noses him until he gets onto his belly. From there, it's a struggle to get to all fours, then onto twos. He takes a step, only to fall over as suddenly the world shifts under his feet. The air is still full of screaming, both the smoke and the sound. Dog barks, and red shards of glass tear apart the air.
Alan gets to his feet again. Again he falls. He repeats the act several times, Dog circling and nosing him nervously the whole way. The fifth time he tries, the process is significantly less painful. When he finally stands and looks around, his head feels a little clearer. He sees the warped colors and shadows, but they're faded now, and he can see the other people still writhing on the ground.
They've stopped screaming; now they are moaning and groaning. A few are crying, and some whimper, but they are all quiet sounds. Their faces are streaked with blood, and for a second he is worried they've been physically attacked, but then he sees that the blood is coming from their noses, and when he wipes his own face, he sees that he is bleeding, too.
"Dog," he croaks. "What happened?"
Dog growls and looks to the woods.
"Someone was screaming," Alan says. "That's why we came out." He quickly counts the number of people in the area. He can see through the window that the bus is empty. Two bodies are missing.
Before the words are out of his mouth, a scream comes from the woods. One that starts as a deep-throated cry of fear that halfway through transforms into a shrill screech of pain. It stops as suddenly as it began, cut off before it could be completed. Without quite realizing what he is doing, Alan breaks into an awkward run towards where the sound had been. Dog trots along side him for a few paces before taking the lead. Alan follows without question; Dog is better at this than he is.
As it had during the day, the woods seem to actively act against him. He stumbles and trips and runs into things that he ought to have seen. Frustrated, he calls electricity to his hands. Streaks of lightning like wire wrap around his forearm and weave between his fingers. He holds one hand out, and the shadows recede, but it's still slow going.
Up ahead, the trees break into a clearing. The light of the stars and moon, blocked before by the towering trees, now lights the area, and he can see. Specifically, he sees the two missing passengers, a man and woman, resting in a heap at the base of a tree across the clearing. He and Dog run to them, Dog already in the lead and baying like a hound.
Halfway across the clearing, there comes a swift movement on his right, followed by a terrible pain in his side as something, some huge, hulking, dark thing leaps out of the shadows --literally out of the shadows-- and throws itself at Alan. He goes down with a shout, hands in front of him in a last ditch attempt at protecting himself.
For a frantic moment, he is rolling with the beast, and his world is full of thick black fur long enough for his arm to get tangled in, white teeth, and the smell of rotting meat. Then, as fast as it had come on, it stops. The rotting stench is replaced by one of burning hair and flesh, and the creature bounds away from him, leaving him in the mud.
The creature is huge. He cannot see it well in the dark, but it must be as big as a bear. A bear, but with fluid, nearly-liquid grace he is sure normal bears do not possess.
It moves to attack him again, but Dog slams into it from the side. Relief floods Alan's chest, only to be swept away as the creature effortlessly bites on to Dog's back with white teeth very visible in the night and tears him off. It holds Dog in its mouth and shakes him like a terrier.
Alan shouts and blasts the creature with more electricity.
It stops shaking Dog and tosses him aside, like a discarded toy. Alan watches in horror as Dog falls limply to the ground and hits the grass, only to be apparently swallowed up by the darkness. Where he had landed, there is no Dog.
He looks up at the creature. It looks at him.
A psychic presence rams against the walls of Alan's mind. He recognizes it as the same mind-bending shock from the bus. The force of it knocks him down to one knee, but he rises a second later.
"Don't," he says, his voice raw. "It won't work on me."
The creature tries again. This time, Alan stays standing.
"I told you," he says. "I got used to it."
The creature growls. The ground vibrates with the sound. It strikes and he has no time to move. He looks up at what he is certain is his own imminent death, and meets the creature's eyes.
Time crawls to a stop. He falls forward without moving, and falls and falls. Hunger. Primal, hot-blooded, burning hunger. He needs to feed. He sees the two bus goers in their pile by the tree. Food. No-- the source of food. They emanate pain and fear, and it's more satisfying than any physical consumption could possibly be. Though he still intends to devour them when he's done. No use wasting meat, after all.
He prepares to move towards them, and the second he mentally shifts, the connection is broken. He stumbles backwards as the creature that had been poised to kill him tries to backtrack in midair, causing it to botch the landing and knock Alan over without killing him.
Both the creature and Alan scramble to their feet and away from each other. Alan's shoulder hurts. He's breathing hard, and with every breath comes a dull ache in his chest. He hopes he has not broken anything. The creature watches him warily.
Dog slams it from the side. This time, when the creature goes to bite him, Dog is ready. Instead of taking the creature on fully as he normally does, he strikes it and runs, disappearing into the shadows, only to emerge a split second later and strike again.
Both figures are huge and furry and black--virtually indistinguishable in the weak light. Electricity gathers in his hands, no longer just a light, but a weapon, and he does not know which to strike. "Dog!" he shouts. "Move!" One of the figures he assumes to be Dog separates itself from the other and turns to run.
Electricity spills from his hands, firing in a white-hot streak at the creature. It howls in pain and glares at him. He hits it again. It moves towards him, and Dog gets it from the side.
The game has changed, and the creature knows it. With a snarl, it turns and runs into the woods, past the clearing. The creature has given up. It runs from them, and they run after. Dog snaps at its heels as Alan fires at its back.
It leads them deeper into the forest. It has its home advantage, but while Alan is hindered by the brush and darkness, Dog is not. The creature darts from the shadows while Alan's back is turned, and Dog is there on it in half a heartbeat. The creature lunges to the side, and Dog is already there waiting. When he can, Dog bites down on the creature and holds it so that Alan may fire off more electricity at it, but more often than not, Alan is left following the two, inadvertently serving as bait.
It feels like hours before they reach another place without trees, but he knows it cannot have been that long; the skies are still dark but for the stars. They reach the edge of a cliff. It is a wide ravine, cut through the mountain from years of snow melt making its way down to the true river below. There's no water in it now, just a long drop and sharp rocks.
The creature backs against the edge, growling at them. For the first time, Alan can see clearly what it looks like. Big, black, a little like a bear and a little like a mountain cat, with a short muzzle, a whip-like tail, and bear claws instead of paws. It opens its mouth and he sees it doesn't have just one set of teeth, but rather rows of them like a shark.
He lets power pour into his hands. He tries to draw more in, but there are no streetlights or power cables for him to rob. Instead, all he has is himself. His eyes burn. His skin cracks, and light seeps through the breaks like blood. He holds up his hands, palms to the creature, and lets the power loose.
There is a flash of blinding white light. For a split second, the entire area is illuminated as though it were day rather than the dead of night. There is a howl of pain, and then nothing. Darkness returns. He slumps, and Dog is there, leaning against him, offering support.
It takes a minute for Alan’s eyes to adjust. The creature is gone. He walks to the edge of the cliff, his movements awkward and jerky, and looks over the side. It’s too dark; try as he might, he cannot see the bottom. But the creature is dead, he’s sure. He’s positive. It has to be.
“It has to be,” he says aloud. Dog tilts his head.
All the same, he tries to call up more electricity, just so he can shoot something down and light the place up for a second, but he cannot manage anything more than a few sparks. He’s used up everything he has.
“Come on,” he says wearily. “Let’s go.”
He’s lost track of where they are relative to anything, but Dog seems to know where to go. They go back to the missing and still unconscious passengers and load them up; the smaller of the two on Dog’s back, the other on Alan’s shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
This time, the trip through is easier, despite the addition of weariness, injury, and luggage. The branches no longer catch on his clothes, the roots no longer try to trip him. They make it back to camp just as the driver is organizing a search party.
There is a flurry of activity. Hands take the two injured from Alan and Dog. They say things to him, most of which he fails to hear and doesn’t remember later, but he gets the impression of praise. From what he gathers, cellphone reception had mysteriously returned before he’d gotten back. People have already called for help, and someone is sending over helicopters to take care of those who need them-- which seems to be everybody.
"Will they still send another bus?" Alan says.
"We all need to go to the hospital. This could be contagious,” the driver says. She is not looking at his face. It takes him a moment to realize why; somewhere in the night, he’d lost his sunglasses. He hastily looks down, face burning with embarrassment.
"I'm fine," he says, ignoring the pain in his side from the gashes and bruises forming there.
"You're not," she says tiredly. "Everyone here has had a major medical emergency. Your face is covered in blood, and you're in shock." She points to where the others are gathered. "Go sit down. It'll be another couple hours."
He wants to argue, but now that she’s said it, sitting seems like an excellent idea.
“But I gotta go someplace,” he lies weakly.
“So does everyone else,” she says. “Take a nap.”
The temptation is too hard to resist, and he goes to sit. Someone has brought all the luggage out of the bus and laid it out on the dirt. He barely notices when Dog drags his bag over. All he knows is that when he flops over onto his side, he lands on his bag as a sort of awkward pillow.
I really can’t let them take me to the hospital, he thinks muzzily. They’re gonna want to poke out my eyes.
I’ll think of something, he reassures himself. After all, he’s broken out of medical facilities before.
He curls up and falls asleep.