THE BUS RIDE TO ETERNITY
When the end of the world came, I’m ashamed to admit that I slept through it.
Yeah, that’s right. Go ahead and laugh it up. All my friends used to tell me that I sleep like a dead man, and that nothing short of an air horn in the ear can get me out of bed. So, as it happened, I spent the night cramming for a Physics final, and when I finally finished I just passed out, face-down on my mattress.
If I had known that would be my last night on Earth, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Hell, I would have tossed my textbooks out the window and gone down with my friends to Honeycutt’s Bar on Fifth Street to get hammered. Or maybe withdraw my savings account and hire a really expensive hooker.
But, no. Austin Proud, nerd extraordinaire, had to pass out after pulling an all-nighter and miss the grand finale. “You have to study hard,” my mother always told me. “You’ll have time to party later.” Shows how much she knows, because now she’s gone, along with my textbooks, Honeycutt’s Bar, Fifth Street, my college, my state, and everything else for that matter. If my friends knew what I had been doing during Earth’s final hours, I’m sure they would have never let me hear the end of it.
So there you have it. Austin Proud missed Armageddon due to a Physics test.
I knew something was wrong the minute I woke up. I was gently moving side-to-side, and I don’t own a waterbed. Also, I was sitting up in an uncomfortable little seat… I may sleep like a dead man, but even I know you don’t pass out lying down and wake up seated.
The other thing that tipped me off was that Bill was snoozing on my lap. Bill is my enormous golden marmalade cat, who’s entirely too spoiled for his own good. He’s well aware that he’s the one calling the shots in our relationship. So I know for a fact that Bill doesn’t sit in my lap unless he wants something. It’s his favorite vantage point to bite me in order to get my attention.
And my third clue that something had gone wrong was pretty evident as soon as I got a chance to look at my surroundings…
I was on a school bus.
A school bus. Frayed, vinyl-covered seats, gum on the floor, orangey-yellow color, dirty windows, creaking wheels, the works. I wondered if I was having one of those nightmares where I’m back in high school, about to get pummeled again by the seniors, but no, I couldn’t make out anyone else in the seats ahead of us. It was just me and Bill, sitting alone in the back row of seats.
Except for the hobo sitting next to us, that is. I don’t know how I didn’t notice him there; he wasn’t exactly hard to miss. I should have smelled him right away… that weird “old person” smell had joined forces with his filthy, ratty old clothes and the musty stench of someone who hasn’t bathed in weeks, a triple-combo knockout-punch of stink that very nearly made me pass out again. My eyes began to water from it. I couldn’t move; Bill was fast asleep on my lap and refusing to be dislodged. If I woke him up, I was essentially asking him to claw my legs open, so that was out.
So I tried to ignore the hobo’s stink and took another look at him. After all, there wasn’t much else to see. He was clearly pretty old; his tangled, matted hair and beard were a mixture of white and grey. I could see liver spots on the few bare inches of skin not covered by rags or hair. His coat had been patched many times, with no regard to matching the color or style of the existing material. Age had dulled the colors, anyway, so I suppose it didn’t matter. He had black loafers on, which surprised me. They had holes in them too, of course, but still.
His stench was making me light-headed again, so I decided to take a look out the window to my left. I goggled; there was a fleet of old school buses out there, too many to count, driving in a diagonal line down an asphalt road that stretched in every direction, far as the eye could see. No traffic signs, no street lights, no medians, just the road. I glanced upward at the sky and shivered; it was completely black, with no stars and no moon.
I think that was when I first started to understand what had happened.
“Some ride, ain’t it?” said a wheezing old voice next to me.
I jumped a little in my seat, startled. That wasn’t enough to wake Bill, of course. He sleeps almost as heavy as I do.
“Name’s Jones,” said the hobo, extending a wrinkled hand.
Not knowing what else to do, I shook it. “Austin,” I said. “Austin Proud. Do you know what’s going on?”
Jones grinned, and I counted approximately seven teeth in his mouth, total. “It ain’t obvious? We’re done, kid. You, me, the whole damn planet. The world ended, just like that.” He slapped his knee for emphasis.
“Just like that?” I frowned. “Well, what happened to it? Was it a nuclear war? Global warming? Giant asteroid impact, what?”
Jones laughed, and his beetle-black eyes twinkled. “Missed it too, did ya? I did too. I was curled up on a bench in Central Park. Happened fast, whatever it was. Nobody had time to do nothin’.”
“I was studying for a Physics exam,” I said grumpily, leaning back in my seat.
“You’re a student? Where at?”
“Clearwater Community College, Connecticut. The faculty called us ‘C Students.’” I stuck out my tongue. “Obviously, they thought that was funny.”
Jones nodded. “Guess it doesn’t matter now, does it?”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I thought there would be fires and floods, and the opening of the seven seals, stuff like that. I didn’t think it would happen fast.”
Jones leaned toward me. “You read the Bible, huh?”
I sighed and shook my head. “Used to. I’m an agnostic now, but when I was younger my parents dragged me to church every Sunday. I always kinda liked the language in the Book of Revelation, for some reason.”
The old man nodded and closed his eyes. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” he recited. “the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
“Yeah,” I said, a little surprised at how easily he quoted it. “I take it you’re religious, then?”
“Yup. Always have been. Even after I left my home and my job. I had to take that with me, if nothing else.”
“Wait, you had a job?” I frowned. That didn’t exactly fit in with my mental image of ‘hobo’.
“Yup. Used to work in an office, in a tiny little cubicle. Big company, investment banking.”
Jones shrugged. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. I didn’t make any difference. Couldn’t move up and couldn’t move down, so I just got up and left one day. I took a train as far as I could, spent the rest of my money at restaurants and cheap hotels. Eventually, I just wandered into Manhattan, and never left.”
I whistled. “Man. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Jones chuckled. “Don’t be. I got no regrets. I made my choice.”
We sat in silence for a while. Then a thought occurred to me. Since we were in the back row, I could easily see out the back window. I turned my head and looked up over the top of the seat… but the glass, if it was glass, was solid black, without even a reflection. “I can’t see behind us,” I said aloud.
“I’m not surprised.” Jones twiddled his thumbs.
“Remember what happened to Lot’s wife when she looked back?”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Jones. “It makes sense. The world we know is gone… no sense in looking back.”
“B-But…” I stammered, feeling dread settling over me like a quilt. “But that’s not fair… I didn’t get a chance to graduate. I never published my novel, I never got to meet Joss Whedon…”
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends, to my parents… I’m still a virgin!” That last one slipped out before I could stop myself; I felt my cheeks begin to burn.
Jones roared with laughter. He just laughed and stank and laughed some more, until he threw an arm around me. “Kid, you’re really not missing much. Trust me, it’s overrated.”
“Great,” I muttered. “A hobo gets more action than I do.”
Jones withdrew his arm and shrugged. “That’s life.”
I decided to try changing the subject. “So I guess this must be the afterlife,” I said, looking around at the bus’s interior. “It’s… not how I pictured it. I mean, I wasn’t exactly expecting fluffy clouds and angels playing harps, but still.”
The old man shrugged. “I dunno. I think we may not be there yet… this is just the way we get there.”
I wrinkled my nose. “On a school bus?!”
Bill yawned and stretched in my lap, flexing his claws. Jones shrugged and reached over to scratch his ears. “Why not?” he said. “Maybe God has a sense of humor.”
“If there is a God,” I said. “I kinda hope we find out… at least I’ll be able to make up my mind.”
Jones smiled. There was a gentle warmth in that expression. “Maybe He exists differently to different people.”
“I have to admit, I never thought of Him as an old man with a white beard,” I said. “I figured that whatever created the universe- God, Gaea, Odin, whatever – He or She would have to be totally different than everyone claims He is. Or She is, or It is. My point being, I think that God has to be totally beyond our understanding as humans.”
“Could be,” said Jones. “For all we know, he could be a giant basset hound.”
I blinked. “I thought you were religious…?”
Jones chuckled again, stroking his beard. “Doesn’t mean I can’t wonder. Mountain Dew?”
I stared. He was holding two soda cans, offering one to me. It was a Mountain Dew, all right. Green and yellow can, red lettering, it was unmistakable. Whatever I had pictured drinking in the afterlife, Mountain Dew was somewhere near dead last on the list. “Uh, no thanks. Where did you get those?”
His can made a hissing sound as he cracked it open. “Had ‘em on me when I went to sleep. I had stolen ‘em from a little street vendor outside the park.” Jones lifted the can and drank the yellow liquid greedily.
I sighed. “I never could stand the stuff. I had a science teacher who used to call it ‘radioactive piss water.’”
Jones spit Mountain Dew all over the back of the seat in front of us, coughing and sputtering. That knocked Bill out of his stupor, and he yowled and jumped off my lap, gouging my legs with his claws. The cat bolted down the center aisle of the bus and disappeared, hissing at me, Jones, and life in general for interrupting his nap.
I pounded Jones on the back, ignoring both the scratches on my thighs and the cloud of hobo-stink that rose up when I did so. “Hey! Are you all right? Jones?”
He wheezed, gasped, coughed again, and came up laughing. “Warn me next time before you say something funny, kid! Lord…” He settled back in his seat. I noticed that he put the can aside; I hoped I didn’t spoil his drink for him. “Must have been some science teacher.”
“Mrs. Dillerd? She was the best.” I smiled, but the expression slid from my face as I looked up the aisle where Bill had escaped. “Great. He’s never going to come out from under there without a bribe.”
“He’ll be okay,” said Jones. “It’s not like he can go anywhere.”
I sat back on the uncomfortable vinyl seat, shifting my weight a bit. A strange idea occurred to me; I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, flipping it open and turning it on. I waited patiently as it went through its startup routine, wondering crazily if this could possibly work…
No signal detected, said the notice on the menu.
“Crap,” I said, shutting it off and closing it in defeat. “I suppose my coverage area doesn’t include metaphysical planes.”
Jones closed his eyes and leaned back. “It was worth a try. Pardon me, son, but I’m gonna rest for a little while. Wake me up when we get there, okay?”
“Sure. G’night, Jones.”
I sat there in silence, truly alone for the first time since my bus ride had started. Thoughts drifted idly though my mind as the bus rocked back and forth. I wonder if Mom’s on one of those other buses, was one. When we get there, will it be something like Heaven, or will we be reincarnated, like in Buddhism? was another. I’m hungry, was a third, though that one didn’t seem as important as the previous two.
We rode on. Jones had been quiet for a long time; I looked over at him and noticed with a sudden concern that I couldn’t hear him breathing. Rising from my seat, I leaned over and shook his shoulder.
“Jones? Are you okay? Jones?” Great, said a nasty little voice in my head. He smells bad enough alive; If I have to sit next to him when he’s dead…
Then he snored. Loudly.
Well, that was anticlimactic. I sat back down, looking out the window again. The fleet of buses had turned their headlights on. It was weird, because there was still nothing to see but that endless road… I wondered who was driving them, anyway. Angels? Departed souls? Or were they just driving themselves?
I decided that I didn’t want to know. I leaned on the window, cool glass against my cheek. After a while, Bill wandered back down the aisle and jumped up next to me, folding his paws in front of himself. He was purring; I couldn’t remember the last time he had done that. I patted him gently on the head, my mind wandering…
Eventually the black sky began to lighten, turning grey, and then white. I looked out and saw the road and the buses begin to crumple away like paper and disappear. All that was left was a void of white space, yet we kept driving onward… Concerned, I shook Jones again until he woke up.
“What’s goin’ on, kid?” he muttered drowsily.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Something’s happening. I don’t think-“
My words were interrupted by a familiar sound, a sound I had heard countless times growing up: the squealing of a school bus’s brakes. We shuddered to a halt, heard a gentle ding from the bell as the doors far ahead of us swung open.
An unearthly voice floated through the bus. It wasn’t male or female, yet it was deep and comforting all the same. Maybe it was the voice of God? I don’t know. All I know is that the two words it said chilled me to the bone: