Steven Clapham was always on time. He pulled into the bus depot parking lot at exactly 4:55 in the morning. There was a slight chill in the darker than usual air as he pulled into his spot. It was his spot. He had picked it because it saw the least amount of direct sunlight throughout the day. Besides, at this time of morning, with only the really early route drivers’ cars present, he pretty much had his pick in the dirt lot.
Whistling, he got out of his compact domestic and walked briskly to the Pit Stop. He was comfortable in the short sleeved driver uniform. It had been hot recently and the cool air felt refreshing on his arms. The pale fluorescent lights of the Pit Stop greeted him as he opened the door and entered. The Pit Stop, as he wittily referred to it, was a modest affair with a refrigerator, coffee and juice machine, sink and several tables covered with old issues of Reader’s Digest and hunting magazines. The chairs were as varied and worn in as the magazines were, haphazardly situated around the tables.
Steven looked at his wrist watch and placed his brown bag lunch in the refrigerator, second shelf, left side. The time book consisted of a three ring binder stuffed with a time sheet for each employee. The clear pocket cover, brown and cracked along the corners, was empty. A dingy white string was taped to the spine of the book on one end and tied to a ring fastened to the faux wood-paneled wall on the other. Another string taped to the other end of the book spine was attached to a blue pen which was missing the lid.
It was advantageous to write your time into the book with it pressed up against the wall. The string was just long enough and just short enough to make any other attempt a clinic on balance. Steven wrote the time, 5:00, neatly below the existing column of 5:00s and closed the book. He skipped the coffee machine and went straight for the juice. Steven considered himself a morning person and didn’t feel he needed any artificial stimulants to wake him up. He downed the contents of the paper cup in one long draw and looked at his wristwatch again. Time to get down to business. He grabbed the keys from the key board on his way out the door.
His was third in the long line of busses parked on the eastern edge of the lot, number 44. He did a thorough inspection of the exterior of the bus. The dry heat wave of the preceding week had made the dirt lot dusty and it showed. Steven looked at his wristwatch and decided that he would have time to at least spray down the bus if not do a quick wash. Inside the bus, he did a methodical check under and around each seat despite the fact that he had done the same at the end of his shift the previous day. The broom came out next. It was surprising how much dirt and dust he could collect no matter how many times he swept up, but he liked to have a clean bus.
Releasing the hood mechanism, he did a quick engine inspection and check of the fluids. No loose hoses or cables and everything topped off, just as expected. By the time he had driven the bus over to the diesel pumps and wash station, he could tell that it was going to be a foggy morning. That was great as far as it being a break in the weather, but it added a little more stress to his job. Fog in the morning slowed down the traffic a bit. The bigger danger was in driver’s perception. Although cars would have no problem seeing him, they often assumed that the bus could see them. Often the bus was seen as an obstacle to get around. The thought of cars zipping around him in low visibility always made him a little nervous.
Glancing at his watch again, he pulled the trip report out of the cubby below the dash and began filling out the maintenance portion and prepping the schedule portion. He automatically flipped through the route maps and stop times to make sure the information was fresh in his mind. Finally, he thumbed through the transfer slips. Plenty left. After turning the key and waiting for the glow plugs a moment, he fired up the engine and started his route.
The first stop was Union and 6th, only a couple blocks from the bus depot. He could see Mrs. Hutchinson waiting at the stop, bundled up against the chill morning. She was an older woman with white hair sticking out around the fringes of her knit hat. Her perpetual smile matched her upbeat ambling that featured a cane always hovering several inches above the ground. The cane swung with her step, finding airy purchase on an invisible layer that covered the ground in front of her. She hung the cane on her right wrist in order to use both hands to pull herself up the bus steps. Steven matched her welcoming smile with one of his own as she fished her discount fare card out of her handbag and waved it under the card scanner. He waited until she had situated herself at the front of the bus and then started on toward the next stop.
The fog hadn’t quite set in yet, but he knew as his route took him closer to the river, that would change. He turned off of Union onto 10th and headed east. In the slowly brightening morning he could see the next fare waiting at the corner of 10th and Locust. Steven didn’t know this man’s name, but he was a regular. The man boarding his bus wore camo pants and a light blue, sleeveless work shirt despite the slight bite to the air. The barbed wire tattoo wrapped around his left bicep and crew cut rounded out his visage of toughness.
Steven pressed on, turning the wide corner that sent him down the hill toward the Potsdam Creek bridge. There were two men standing at the end of a cul-de-sac just before the bridge. He could see the fog bank just beyond them. It stood there like a wall obscuring the bridge. In fact, he had never seen such a uniform fog bank in all his life. It was as if the two young men were standing before a backdrop of blank white canvas. They seemed oblivious to the spectral wall looming behind them as they chatted amiably together.
He stopped the bus a mere ten feet before the ominous barrier, air currents nipping and swirling through the periphery of the fog. The men climbed up into the bus, absorbed in their morning conversation topic as always. He had picked up on the fact that one of the young professionals was named John and the other was either Tim or Tom. John had pointed features that made Steven think of an elf from those Lord of the Rings movies. His eyes would dart around almost impatiently while he waited for his companion to finish injecting whatever it was he had to say before he dove back in with his own soliloquy. The other man had darker features and eyes in which the pupils were always outlined with white. On the afternoon route he often wore sunglasses as if he was aware that his wide-eyed look was hypnotizing to others.
The bus shuddered a bit as Steven drove into the fog bank as if it was hesitant to enter. He glanced as his watch. He was currently running on time, but this fog was sure to have an effect on his schedule. He slowed down accordingly, able to see just five to ten feet in front of his bus. It felt as if he were inching forward across the bridge. Within a quarter-mile of the other side of the bridge he was supposed to turn down Van Alden Boulevard. Steven watched intently so that he would not overshoot the turn, but when he saw the unmistakable form of the defunct foundry on the right side of the road, he knew that he had. He squinted into the fog at the parking lot in front of the foundry. Something seemed out of place, but he couldn’t register what it was. At that moment the fog cleared a bit and he was able to see what had caught his attention. The foundry had been shut down for he didn’t know how many years; it was well before they had built the Van Alden cut-off, he knew that for sure. But the parking lot was full of cars and it looked as if the dilapidated walls had been freshly whitewashed. He had not long to ruminate before the fog had swallowed them up again.
Steven considered for a moment turning around in the foundry lot, but dismissed it what with all the cars parked there. It would be a risky venture even without the fog. Instead he started thinking ahead to the next turnoff that he could use to get back on route. Highway 56 was coming up; he could take that to Kitchner Drive and catch the other end of Van Alden. There weren’t any regular riders along that stretch in the summer anyway. It would certainly mean much less risk than attempting a turnaround on the road he was on.
He pulled up to the stop sign at Highway 56 and peered to the left for oncoming traffic. There was usually none at this time of morning, but he could take no chances. As he started pulling out he caught the impression of movement to his left and jammed on the brakes. “Sorry folks,” he spoke out of habit to the riders as he saw the mid-sixties mustang convertible whip past. The car appeared to be in mint condition and the young, black leather-clad man driving didn’t even acknowledge him. There was something odd about the young man, but he brushed the feeling away.
“Number 44 to dispatch,” he spoke into his radio. “Dispatch, do you copy?” He waited for a response, but got nothing but static in answer. Something must be wrong with the radio today, he thought. He flipped his flashing yellow lights and his roof mounted strobe on and attempted the corner again. He considered finding a place to pull over until the fog lifted, but he was convinced that he would still be able to keep his schedule by pressing on. The flashers and strobe would hopefully be enough to make him visible to other motorists. The fog wasn’t quite as heavy on the highway and he found himself increasing his speed slightly to make time. He found Kitchner and turned onto it, checking his watch in the process. He still had a chance to make up his time especially since he didn’t have any early students to drop off at the high school in the summer.
The high school should have been off to his left, but he saw fields instead. In fact, the more he looked at his environs, the more he was convinced that he was lost. He realized that he must have mistaken Kitchner for a different road. He prided himself in his knowledge of the town, but he could not for the life of himself figure out where he was. Relying on his acute sense of direction, he took the next right down a residential street and then a left through a neighborhood. All the cars parked on the side of the street were vintage models with tail fins and round headlights. Brick homes lined the street like sentinels with matching gray asphalt shingle roofs and he could almost smell the fresh cut smell of the lawns laid out immaculately before them.
Steven initially wondered if there was some kind of classic car convention going on in town, but the feeling that something was not quite right eventually pushed itself to the front of his thoughts. He tried shoving the feeling away, rationalizing that he had just stumbled into a part of town he was unfamiliar with because of the fog. He took another left back onto a through road, glancing up into his mirror at the passengers. Mrs. Hutchinson was sitting amicably in her seat, buzz-cut was dozing and John and Tom were busy chattering away. None of them seemed the least bit concerned about the route Steven had been taking them on.
The fog had thickened up again so that he could only see the road five feet in front of him. He slowed down again out of instinct, but his mind was so occupied with his predicament that he didn’t slow down as much as he might have in other circumstances. He discovered he was driving too fast for the conditions when the front of the bus dropped suddenly. The bus shuddered as the back end bucked up and then down. The pavement had run out and he found himself on a dirt road. Steven eased down on the brakes and brought the bus to a stop.
He looked up into the mirror again at his passengers and saw that he had gotten their attention for a moment. “Sorry about the bumpy ride, folks. We’ll be on our way soon.” They collectively accepted his statement and went back to their previous activities. Not much they could do about the situation; none of them had any desire to exit the bus in the thick fog when they hadn’t gotten to their destination yet.
The road had gotten narrow enough to completely quash any expectation Steven had had to turn the bus around. He figured the main road must have turned sharply and that he had driven them into some private driveway. The only solution he could think of was to get back on that road and drive more carefully. He put the bus into reverse and started backing up, the sound of the warning beeps echoed oddly through the fog. He expected to feel the bump of pavement maybe about 100 feet behind him. What he didn’t want to feel was a collision with some fog-blind driver making the same mistake he had. He hoped that the obnoxious beeping of his bus would be enough to warn off any vehicles that approached.
One hundred feet, two hundred feet, three hundred feet . . . The bus’ tires never found purchase with the paved road. It wasn’t there. Steven considered himself a rational man and knew logically that the road had to be there somewhere. However, he was getting nowhere with his current course of action. With each yard that he backed up, the odds of hitting something increased. Defeated, he slowed to a stop and began driving forward again. If he could only find a spot wide enough, a parking lot or turn-off somewhere, he could turn around and find his way back to his route.
He pressed on, into the fog, knowing that eventually it would burn off and he could get himself straightened out. The static when he tried the radio again only served to emphasize that he was alone. This was a jam he would have to get himself out of.
The fog began thinning, but only enough to reveal large, dark shapes on either side of the road. He couldn’t figure out what he was seeing. He felt his eyes being drawn to them, his mind trying to integrate what he was seeing into the reality he was used to. He was enthralled by the transitory denizens of the fog bank surrounding him, waiting like carrion-feeders to devour him if he stopped. It took an effort to focus on the road ahead of him.
Then he saw her. It was as if the blanket of fog had been lifted up by the corner, allowing him to see into the crease. This was not a part of his route, but something compelled him to stop. Panic welled up in him as he felt his foot release the accelerator and apply the brake. He feared the motley shapes that stalked him through the fog. The primitive part of his mind was telling him things that his rational mind could not comprehend, things they refused to comprehend. But he had no control over the bus as it began grinding to a stop for the waiting woman. She was an oddly shaped thing, hunch-shouldered and standing with a stoop. The flabs of flesh hanging at odd angles under a tank top didn’t seem to match the spindly legs visible under the mid-thigh shorts. Her hair was a rusty chestnut color and hung limply around her face. The face. He couldn’t make out the face. It was like one of those blind spots that you can’t see if you try to look directly at it.
The bus finally came to a stop in front of her. He willed his arm not to move, but it acted of its own volition and pulled the door mechanism. She climbed the steps and began inserting coins into the fare slot. The temporary agnosia subsided and he could see her face in profile. He stared despite the terror behind the growing realization that this woman was not human. She dropped her last coin into the slot and turned to face him full on. Her orange eyes had slit pupils like a cat, there was no nose and her lips parted in an impossibly wide smile filled with dozens of pencil-thick teeth.
Steven opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. The creature turned and headed toward the back of the bus. His wide eyes tracked her movements until she had seated herself. He stared in abject horror, barely able to control the trembling of his limbs. Moving from his seat was not an option. He reasoned in a mind that had effectively detached itself from his body that it was probably safer in the bus with one seemingly benign creature than out there with her companions, the shapeless hulks loitering in the fog.
His foot, heavy though it felt, slid off of the brake and found itself to the accelerator. Fear acted as a sledge, driving his right foot down hard. The bus, as if acting as with an enthusiasm of its own, lurched forward. Steven could hear the distinctive pop and crumble of the tires tracing their way across the dirt road like a stylus over an old record as he accelerated. Sweat glistened on his temples as he imagined the eyes of the hag boring into the back of his skull. Regardless of how fast he sped up, however, his distance from those eyes remained the same. It wasn’t until he could feel himself losing control of the bus that the danger of fish-tailing brought him back to some modicum of sanity. He let up on the gas and coasted to a more reasonable speed for the conditions of the road. That is, if he could still classify it as a road.
Peering forward to the furthest extents of his fog-shrouded vision, he could no longer make out a discernible road. As soon as he was cognizant of the fact that he was no longer on a road, the bus started bucking. He applied the brakes until the bus seemed to crawl upon the ground. A scritching sound over his left shoulder caught his attention. He whipped his head around in time to see the dark shape of a tree branch scribing down the windows like a claws of a leviathan in the murky deeps. Looking ahead again, he could see that there were trees on both sides of the bus and that the passage was growing narrower by the yard. Although he knew what could happen if he continued on, the fear of what would definitely happen if he stopped, pushed him forward.
It was then that the bus emerged from the fog like a whale breaking the surface of a vertical sea. The low-lying sun was so bright that Steven involuntarily brought his hand up to shield his eyes. He stopped the bus and put the gear shift into park. He lifted his eyes to the mirror reflexively to check that the passengers were alright and even ventured a look at the deformed woman on the back seat. Purple sun-dots in his vision obscured her visage, but he looked away quickly nonetheless. Behind his bus was the wall he had just pushed his way out of, standing there waiting. He blinked his eyelids rapidly, shook his head once to clear it and began scanning his now visible environment. He found himself parked on the side of a paved road at a bus stop. Beyond the bus shelter and bench was the grocery store, his fourth regular stop of the morning in the summer. He sat dumbstruck, stirring only when he felt a light tap on his leg. Looking down, he saw Mrs. Hutchinson’s cane lightly bumping his leg.
“Well, aren’t you going to open the door?” she inquired in her signature sweet voice. He nodded woodenly and pulled the door mechanism. While she ambled slowly down the bus steps, Steven looked up to see the woman from the back making her way toward him. He gasped in panic but found that his limbs were again immobilized. All he could do was wait for the inevitable to happen. As she approached the yellow line on the floor behind his seat, he looked at her face. What he saw was human. The terror melted off of him in chunks and he felt his face growing red with shame mingled with relief. She followed Mrs. Hutchinson off the bus and he closed the door.
Steven Clapham looked at his watch. He was running on time.