“On The Red-Eye Express,” Patrick O’Duffy
It’s about an hour or two into the ride when Nick realises that people are vanishing from the bus.
Not, you know, visibly or anything. Not in front of him. But every time he drifts off for a couple of minutes, his head plopping onto Anna’s shoulder (or occasionally her right boob) for a quick snatch of NREM sleep only to slop back to grubby wakefulness a little later, there’s another empty seat, another gap missing a passenger and overnight bag.
There’s like five or six people gone now. And no-one else seems to be noticing anything.
‘Did someone get off when I was asleep?’ he asks, and Anna looks at him like he’s a retard, still pissy from their fight. ‘There was a guy sitting near the door who’s not there now.’
‘It’s an express bus, idiot. It doesn’t stop until we get to Georgetown. And I don’t remember any guy near the door.’ Nor does she remember the fat woman near the toilet, the pair of hicks making out, or the old man with the dirty hat.
But Nick does, and they’re all gone, and every time he nods out for a bit someone else is gone too.
Maybe he is an idiot. Maybe it’s the comedown from the gear they scored in the bar last night that kept them dancing and screwing all night and running around all day today, up and peaking and distracted until it ran out and wore off. But fuck her, she’s the one who got distracted and ran late so they missed the flight, she’s the one being a princess like it’s his fault, so no, fuck it, Nick chooses to believe that something… something…
Damnit, he greyed out for a minute there. And now the guy with the Bible in his lap is gone. He was just in the seat ahead of them. Surely Anna saw that?
‘You’re dreaming. Okay? And damnit, Nick, I wouldn’t mind getting some sleep myself, but you keep waking me up with this bullshit before I can rest. Get a grip.’ And she turns away to face the window and turns her iPod up louder and drowns him out with Eurobeat.
Whatever. Nick gets up, shuffles around his backpack and the bag of cold burger bits they grabbed as a last-minute dinner at the bus depot while still arguing about what the fuck are we gonna do now we’re supposed to be there tomorrow, heads down the aisle to ask the driver what’s happening.
‘Hey, man, listen –‘ and then the driver cuts him off with a gesture, points a finger at the grimy sign under the clock that’s been stuck on 11:23 since they got on the bus. DO NOT SPEAK TO DRIVER. Not at all, apparently.
‘Yeah, sorry, but I gotta –‘ DO NOT SPEAK TO DRIVER. ‘Fine.’ Bullshit offbrand bus service. Can’t be a Greyhound, not this rust-heap with the broken clock and rust-coloured plastic seats and light the colour and odour of piss. Driver isn’t even wearing a uniform.
Maybe they caught the wrong bus? They were too busy fighting to pay full attention. But Jesus, how many buses run this time of night? Nothing’s lining up in Nick’s head the way it’s mean to, too tired to be scared or smart, brain saggy like tinned spaghetti . He gets back to the seat, ignores Anna ignoring him, takes a swig from the scotch and cola in his bottle and zones out for a minute and when he tunes back in and swipes the drool from his chin the backpacker who tried to buy weed from them in the depot is gone. Nothing but a faint patchouli stink left.
‘Hey, that guy –‘
‘Shut up, Nicky.’ Cranks the doof doof doof louder.
The pisslight blocks all vision through the window. Are there lights out there? Houses? Shapes? Is that grinding sound coming from the bus, or his teeth, or something chewing the air beside his ear? Nick gets up to take a piss and lick up the last few grains he had hidden in his sock, and when he gets back it’s just him and Anna and the driver and a guy in a denim shirt and his own little personal fartcloud hiding him, and after a long slow blink Anna is gone, her bags too, her smell and heat, not even the lingering shape of her butt in the plastic seat, and maybe she never was there, maybe he got on the bus alone after all. That’d be a relief.
The Eurobeat still hangs in the air, though, tinny and faint, coming over the bus’ radio. The clock still says 11:23. Everything happens at 11:23.
He comes up to sit next to Fart Guy, just for the company, just so it’s not just him at the back dozing and bleeding from the brain, but then snore snore he’s gone too, and it’s Nick and the driver.
‘This is a long drive, man.’
Finger. Sign. DO NOT SPEAK TO DRIVER.
‘Okay. Okay.’ Too tired to argue. Maybe a quick rest. Sleep off the headache. It’s 11:23; surely there’s time for a nap before the Devil came to take his soul or whatever.
Nick sleeps a bit, and when he wakes up the driver is gone, seat empty, cruise control doing all the work, but that’s fucking dangerous, so he steps up and sits down and take the wheel and tries his best to avoid all the outlandish shit the weak headlights pick out from the darkness, the road that keeps going, the doof doof doof bleeping in his ear. It’s tiring stuff.
Blink. Blink. One last little rest of the eyes. Then Nick shakes his head, looks in the cracked mirror at his bus full of passengers, checks the clock – 11:23 – and shifts it up to third. Can’t fall behind schedule. No matter how tired he gets.
After all, his stop’s got to come up soon.