Plunged

by

Sam French

I plunged awake and took a moment to reacquaint myself with my surroundings which, I realized with time, added up to Bus 79 traveling due North at approximately 73 miles per hour. The seats of which smelled like new tennis balls. But under that artificial canned freshness was something rotten, like globs of meat or like pools of standing water. My seat couldn't recline back far enough and it really was hurting my neck. My daughter was sitting next to me and most of the bus was empty except for a few scattered souls and a man driving the bus, his prosthetic right arm draped like a marionette limb on a massive grey peeling wheel, who said his name was simply Hank. I looked outside of the window but I couldn’t make out much because it was dark, but every once in a while a rustic street lamp would illuminate a hillside thick with rotting twisted woods where you could expect wolves to live or ankles to be wrecked.

My daughter sat next to me with her bracelets making noise as she scratched her fingers on the seat in front of her, clawing or pressing. She tilted her head toward me and then toward Hank and I shushed her to stop her from staring. Her fingernails were sloppily painted red, with flecks of the color reaching up her index finger wildly. She smiled at me in such a way that my heart felt full and my neck briefly stopped hurting. In her eyes she pleaded for my comfort for me to go to sleep. Alright, I thought, maybe I’ll try again, though I don’t think it will work. I sleep best by simply staring out the window at nothing. I sleep best when I can actually forget there’s such a thing as self. So I shut my mind off and made it blank then.

It seemed like eons were passing on Bus 79 traveling due North at approximately 73 miles per hour. It seemed like maybe winter was passing cyclically and if there had been more light I would have seen life, death, rebirth, and life again and again. Time is strange like that, because it seemed to me in that exact moment as I tried to fall asleep like it had been years, and not days, since I had received the call from the state trooper, asking me to come out 6 miles down to see something. When I got there I could smell metal on fire and sparks were still floating down from where my wife had crashed the car. The trooper pulled me aside and prepared me (as best he could) for what I was about to see. I looked in, repressing a heaving howl that tried to bludgeon its way out my lungs and throat, to see what I feared the most: my wife, dead, broken, and next to her, dead, broken, my daughter. My daughter? My daughter was dead in that crushed car with steel protruding from her left shoulder. I looked to my left and there she sat next to me, clawing at the seat in front of her. She smiled at me as her shoulder’s flesh melted away and blood and bone poured forth and I screamed and I

 

plunged awake and took a moment to shake off the dream I had just had. What had I eaten earlier that day? A daughter, crushed in a car accident, returning to haunt me on this bus of all places? I had never had a daughter (alive or dead) and I was traveling on Bus 79 due North at approximately 73 miles per hour completely on my own. That is, unless you counted the old racist bus driver, Hank, whose prosthetic arm gestured wildly into the night as Hank rallied to himself about nothing in particular. Hank was, every now and then, shouting at me to prepare for the entrance of someone or something that he expected to arrive on the bus a little while down the road, other passengers or something. But as far as I could tell, Hank was insane and I would be the only soul to travel this path with him. Still, from time to time I humored him by asking “When are we picking up the other passengers?” And he would turn and smile— just long enough for me to fear the course of our bus’ path— and say You will know it when they’re here. Okay, fair enough, I’ll know it when they’re here. I stretched my legs under the chair, angling them into an unnatural shape to fit the empty space, sighing with relief as it felt good and it hurt at the same time. I asked Hank to turn the radio up and he just looked back at me, pointing that arm, and warned The passengers that are coming don’t like music much. Fucker. Fine.

Instead I started to imagine how it was that Hank might have lost that arm. Most of my visions involved angry bus passengers who had finally hit their limit in that cramped bus that smelled like chicken broth. I felt bad for laughing at what must have been an inconvenient or even tragic thing in his life, but everything about this bus ride was starting to feel inconvenient or tragic. It’s almost impossible to sleep for more than five minutes on this bus. Every time I nearly settled, Hank would swing wildly to the right, or slam on the breaks because he thought he “smelled a deer up the way”, or just shout out something about those who are on their way. I realized I’d been slowly banging my head on the window of the glass over and over, lightly, for several moments— long enough to induce a slight headache. Of course Hank doesn’t have any advil. Maybe these mysterious future passengers will have advil. Or a ham sandwich. Or a filet mignon. Or fascinating stories to pass the time with. Suddenly, the landscape was very dark and what few shapes I could make out looked like rock and bone. The lights cut out. Hank said they’ll probably be back on soon. And then the bus screeched to a halt. Hank said it’s time to pick up the other passengers. I started to get pissed, now, because this joke had gone far enough and I didn’t want to spend any minute on this bus that I didn’t have to and even stopping for a second to make a point seemed intolerable but then the bus went cold. I heard footsteps on the stairs. I couldn’t see anything, anything at all, because my eyes just wouldn’t adjust, but I could smell something soft, like a cheap perfume. It drifted toward me, faint at first, and it moved at the rate of the soft footsteps. The lights flickered on for a moment and I saw the faint trace of a woman, soaking in water, smiling at me with red ghostly eyes. Hank laughed in the now-returned darkness and announced the other passengers’ arrival. Her fingers wrapped around my throat and I couldn’t breath and all I could hear was Hank laughing and all I could smell was my own blood in my throat and her perfume and suddenly there were more pairs of hands ripping at my arms and legs and stomach and they were clawing at me and Hank was laughing and I

 

plunged awake, my breathing fast but labored. The bus was actually quite well lit and full of life (and people) and I wondered what it was deep inside my conscious that shifted this reality into such a dark universe in my dreams. Another thing to add to the list of things to speak with Dr. Wattrus about when I make it North later this week, I suppose. I can see his face now as I tell him about Hank (real person) and that wicked ghostly woman (fake, of course). I look at Hank now and he's chatting amicably with a few college-aged kids at the front of the bus about some movie or other that they had all seen. While I obviously wouldn't wish for any of that dream to seep into my reality, I could do with a bit more space on this bus. The person who sat next to mewas a bit older and maybe a bit less aware of space and time and she drifted onto my shoulder now and then unapologetically. The news trickled in via a radio and I could tell it was going to be another hot night through the cracked window to my left. To pass the time I made up stories about the people around me, the other sardines who were either happy enough (as I was) or simply not. I wondered about their lives, their professions, the kind of sex they were having, or whether or not they also dreamed while riding this bus. Were there dreams like mine? That would be a horrid thought, to know we might share nightmares, and it might give those nightmares more credibility than I liked. The woman in the row in front of me looked a little queasy, maybe due to motion sickness, but I don’t think she looked particularly tortured. But what did I look like? I caught a glimpse of myself reflecting in my window and confirmed that I needed more sleep. But how could I sleep on this bus, with these people, with all of my thoughts and the noise? No one would be happier than me to see those dark circles slowly disappear over a period of time. Hank was still talking about the movie, he gave it two thumbs up, one thumb real, the other fake, and he had to swerve at the last minute to avoid a small collision. I suppose that just is the life of a bus driver, though, to always barely avoid calamity. The woman in front of me actually looked like she was going to hurl. At this moment, I was very grateful to be behind her and not in front. As her body began to shake, though, I wondered if something more was wrong. A few people stood up in their seats as she fell into the aisle and puked everywhere. I laughed and cringed at the smell. After a moment, she rose from all fours, panting, and her eyes looked wild. Green bile crept down her neck, filling in stressed wrinkles and creases in what once may have been lovely. Suddenly, she grabbed the shoulders of one of the onlookers and threw up straight on him. As she did so, she fell again to the floor, and moved no more. People started to scream. She was dead, it would appear, and I had hardly registered that thought, hardly paused to think about what had just happened, when the young man she had thrown up on began to seize on the floor, spraying other onlookers with scalding hot bile. It felt like madness and Hank was really beginning to swerve. Someone joked about zombies but it wasn’t funny because the young man was no longer moving and several more people had begun to vomit. There was a mad scramble away from them and I felt someone’s wrist crack underneath the volume of feet. We huddled in the back of the bus, thirty or forty of us, as we watched twelve more, already infected, twitch and then die, covered in their own sick. We were truly sardines in a can, now, horrified to go forward toward the infected puddles and bodies. One last person on the contaminated side of the bus fell to their knees with terror in their eyes. They had the sense and the respect to turn their head to the side while they emptied their stomach. The contaminated area was directly between the rest of us and Hank who, God bless him, had managed to keep his foot on the pedal and avoided all of the contagious bile. It seemed a little got on him and for a minute I feared for his life, but I realized it had landed on his right arm and he simply took the prosthetic off, letting it fall to the ground. We were silent then for a few minutes as we considered what we had witnessed and what it had meant and what we should do then. My left shoulder was pressed into the body of a child, my right up against a man in uniform. I was surrounded by other scared passengers. I looked down at the child to offer a kind word, and I could tell she was about to cry. I asked her name and she shook her head, refusing to even utter a word. I asked if she had parents on the bus and she shook her head, holding her mouth shut in case a word even tried to escape. I asked her how old she was and when she began to shake her head I kneeled down to be eye level with her. I said, “It’s okay, you can speak to me, everything is going to be okay.” She opened her mouth and out of it poured gallons of bile straight onto my face, filling my own mouth, and pouring down my shirt. It puddled on the floor and worked its way up others’ legs. I looked at her in horror as the life left her eyes. I began to feel it rising in my chest, my throat, and I

 

plunged awake. That was the grossest dream I had ever had, definitely. Assuredly. And what a strange place to have it, on Bus 79 traveling due North at approximately 73 miles per hour. The bullet trains on our left moved much faster and I wondered if their wealthier passengers had the same kind of dreams that I had. I wouldn’t wish that nastiness upon anyone. Hank was keeping the beat with his good arm, the one on the left, to some California beach song. He whistled joyfully and I knew everything was okay. All around me on the bus were people who knew it was going to be okay, though they didn’t have much money and though they were in cramped and uncomfortable seats and though the ride was long. I always find comfort in fellow travelers and I was glad, waking from this dream, to neither be completely alone or inextricably linked to some conversation maker. I loved them for their silent companionship and for any unspoken solidarity they shared with me in my poverty and inability to sleep without dreaming horrors. Everything was going to be okay I thought and I think the song in fact echoed that sentiment to Hank’s tapping arm. We turned a corner and the setting sun gave just enough light for me to see that we were beginning the upward climb to a gargantuan bridge that stretched over a beautiful but foreboding bay. Hank said something about a fishing village on the bay’s shores that had resisted time passing in every single way. I had once been afraid of water (and of time passing) but my mother had submerged me completely in the bathtub over and over again one night, when I was maybe 13 or, at any point, too old to be afraid of water, until I saw that it was just molecules that could pass through my nose uncomfortably but ultimately do no harm to me as long as I wore a lifejacket when out on a boat. Hank was laughing now, still in beat to the music, when suddenly he sneezed and everything changed. The bus lurched to the left as he scrambled to right it but the tires skid and we slammed into the side of the bridge, breaking through and tumbling over. I had had many nightmares about moments like this and the cold water would surely wake me up. As we slammed into it I felt some bones break but still I did not wake up. I wanted to plunge awake but my lungs filled with water. I wanted to wake up. Wasn’t I dreaming? Maybe I wasn’t. I plunged

I plunged

 

I plunged 

 

and I did not wake up.

The water is very, very cold.