Joe lifted the mug to his lips. However the mystery of the phone alarm still bothered him. He slammed the mug back onto the counter.
“No, no!” Joe grabbed his head, “I’m sure there’s a bus outside, if it hasn’t left already! Let me go look.”
He tried to walk past the thick one, but he pushed Joe back onto his stool with a meaty hand.
“Drink the coffee, pal,” the thin one slid over a mug of coffee to him. “The waitress just poured it for ya. Are ya really goin’ to be that rude?”
“What’s going on here?” Asked a new voice.
Joe looked up. The middle-aged man in the rumpled suit from the bus was standing in front of the two men.
“The bus!” Was all Joe could gasp.
The man’s eyes grew wide. He slapped a hand to his forehead, “How could we forget! We have to go!”
Heads turned all through the diner.
The thick man started toward him, hands outstretched, “Hey now, don’t go yellin’ like that now!”
The middle-aged man spun around, his fist crashing into the man’s nose. The thick one stumbled into an occupied booth, crushing its occupant under his bulk.
“Let’s go!” The middle-aged man roared at Joe as he sprinted toward the door.
Joe grabbed Rosie’s arm and hauled her from her seat. The three of them ran out of the diner and across the parking lot. The bus’s engine was already roaring. It hissed as it raised up from the ground.
“Faster!” The man yelled.
He was the first in, covering the last yard by a leap that landed him on the steps inside the bus. Joe, feet slamming the asphalt, was seconds behind. He dragged Rosie behind him. The three of them collapsed in the seats nearest the front. Joe in the window seat with Rosie beside him, the other man by himself in the opposite row.
The other passengers came tumbling up the stairs moments later. The doors closed and the bus rolled away from the diner. Joe looked back. They had all made it except the young kid in the hoodie. He must still be in the diner, most likely where he’d be for the rest of his life, drinking coffee.
As the bus passed the diner, Joe saw two silhouettes—one thin, one thick—standing in the doorway. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly very dry. It took him a moment to realize the middle-aged man was talking to him.
“Hey you, jackass, what’s your name?”
“Hm, Ah! Oh, it’s Joe. What’s yours?”
“Andrew,” he said, then gripped the armrest of his chair with long, white fingers and stared straight ahead.
Joe then heard someone chuckling softly behind him. He craned his neck back to see who it was. The man with the buzz cut who had stayed on the bus was looking directly at Joe and chuckling to himself as if the two of them shared some private joke. Joe turned back around and sank low in his seat.
Joe tried to rest. He knew it was going to be a long ride to Denver. But when he closed his eyes, all he saw were the fathomless eyes of the two men from the diner. He glanced over: Rosie was curled up in her seat next to him. Her eyes were closed but he knew she wasn’t asleep because she kept fidgeting with her hands.
“Hey, Rosie?” Joe said softly.
Rosie opened her eyes and looked at him, “Yeah?”
“Where are you from?”
Rosie close her eyes and sighed. She sat up straighter.
“You really want to know about me?”
“Yes. Why not? We may not get a chance to talk soon, depends where you’re headed.”
Rosie looked at him for a long time. She stroked her hair thoughtfully. Finally she said, “I’m from LA originally. You?”
“Oh, uh let’s see. I was born in Texas, but we moved when I was pretty young to Denver. I went to college at Berkley. After graduating, I lived in Las Vegas for a while, but recently I decided to leave town. Now I’m headed back to Denver.”
“That’s nice,” Rosie said, sinking back down in her seat.
Andrew, who had been eavesdropping, butted in, “Denver? What the hell is in Denver for you? Work or are you just going their to smoke weed?”
Joe chuckled weakly. He scratched the back of his head. Now that he was thinking about it more, he wasn’t really sure why Denver. It had just been the first place to come to mind when the bus driver asked. No matter, it’s not like Joe had to stay in Denver once he go there. He could always try living out on the east coast.
“I’ll figure it out when I get there. I’m just glad to be out of Vegas. Where are you going, Andrew?”
Andrew shrugged, “Don’t matter where. Anywhere is fine by me. Hell, maybe I’ll spend the rest of my days wandering the open road.” Andrew went back to staring straight ahead.
“So,” Joe said to Rosie, “where are you headed?”
Rosie rolled her eyes, but a smile played on her mouth, “You like asking questions, Joe.” She rubbed her eyes and let out a sleepy groan, “Maybe I’ll tell you later. Right now, I really need to sleep.”
“Alright, alright, I don’t want to keep you from your beauty sleep. Sorry I asked,” Joe folded his arms.
He rested his head against his headrest and watched the desert shrubs on the side of the road whip by. In the distance he saw the occasional shadow of a butte against the velvety sky.
Joe tried to doze like Rosie but he soon found that he hadn’t completely emptied his bladder at the diner. He squeezed past Rosie, who sleepily turned to the side to let him step out into the aisle. Joe walked in between the seats toward the back of the bus. He swayed gently from side-to-side with the rocking of the bus.
He kept walking. His eyes were locked on the back wall; he didn’t want to make eye contact with the other passengers. After a moment, Joe realized he had gotten no closer to the bathroom. He looked back over his shoulder. To his shock, the front of the bus was much farther away than should have been possible. The entire length of the bus separated him from his seat: he could just see the top of Rosie’s head.
Joe wondered if he had simply lost track of things because of how tired he was. He reached out his right hand and touched each seat as he walked past to make extra sure he was, in fact, moving forward.
Yet still the end of the bus refused to come any closer while the front faded until Joe could barely see the windshield: a dark square at the end of a long tunnel. The size of the bus was now well beyond the realm of possibility. An impossible number of seats stretched on in complete uniformity. Not all the seats, however, were empty.
Joe had noticed that the man with the crew cut seemed to be jumping from seat to seat. He always appeared ahead of Joe in the blink of an eye. The man stared a little past Joe with a deeply amused smile. The further Joe walked, the more and more people—men and women of all ages—filled the seats. They all had the same blank stare.
Joe began to despair, believing he had gone insane and that he would be stuck in this bizarre limbo forever. The front end of the bus was now long gone from sight. The back was still—as it had been for the last eternity—only a dozen paces or so in front of him.
Joe tried running. He moved forward at a headlong sprint, thinking maybe he could break free of whatever was holding him back. But running proved as fruitless as walking. The silent passengers filled every seat.
Heart hammering and sweat running down into his eyes, Joe finally collapsed onto the floor. When he lifted his head, he saw all eyes had now focused directly on him. Sitting immediately to his left was the crew cut man, who was holding back laughter.
“What the hell is going on?” Joe sobbed.
The man chuckled, “Welcome to the Night Bus. It has room enough for everyone. Here, take a seat.”
He scooted over and patted the empty seat. Joe pushed himself to his feet. He didn’t feel safe sitting next to that man. He took a step forward.
“We’re all prisoners,” the man said with a giggle, “while we’re on the bus. All that matters to you know is where you’re headed.”
Joe set off once more for the bathroom, the stranger’s words echoing in his head. Joe walked for what might have been hours. His already tired mind entered such a delusional state that he could no longer tell if he was sleeping or awake, alive or dead. Joe gave up ever being free of this hell. He finally accepted that this was his life from now on.
Joe nearly walked into the back row of seats.
“What the hell?” he gasped.
Looking back, the front of the bus was clearly visible, only a dozen or so paces away. There was the top of Rosie’s head and there was the shaved man, smiling at him. Joe opened the bathroom door and went in.
After relieving himself, Joe sat back down in his seat beside Rosie. She was waking up slowly.
When she saw his face, she said, “Man, you look spooked. What happened in the bathroom?”
“Nothing. Just tired,” Joe couldn’t help glancing back over his shoulder as he spoke.
The driver’s voice came crackling over the speaker, “We’re arriving at our last stop before you folks get off. I’ll stop and you folks go on inside and get your tickets. I can’t take you anywhere without those tickets. I’ll give you folks a half hour, then we hit the road for one last time.”
Joe looked out the window. A city of black high-rises lit from behind by an orange glow, like a huge fire, loomed ahead. All around the city was barren desert. Joe had no idea what city it was but he prepared himself for whatever was there waiting for him.