Science Fiction: As Evening Descends

 

At the edge of the tree line, where an abandoned logging road cut through the northeast section of Colorado’s Gunnison forest, a silvery Greyhound bus swerved left then right. A moment later, the tires clawed at the dirt but couldn’t stop. Then the thunderous crash of metal. The groan and snap of a Douglas fir. The widening echoes of wreckage. Then stillness. Quiet.

I stood there. Astounded. Then sprinted toward it.

Yellow leaves from the copse of aspens swam through the wet and earthen air around me. My bolt-action Remington rifle slapped against my back; bushes of shriveled currants blurred beside me; the damp soil shifted beneath my boots. I had never seen any kind of vehicle use this road. Jeep, bundle truck, those new ATV’s. After the state had prohibited logging in this section two years ago (March 13th, 1972, my grandfather’s birthday coincidentally) they had closed almost every road past the Snowmass turnoff. I, though, had been hiking to my grandfather’s cabin for years now, and even then, far before the legal mandate, the closest thing to another person out here was an inquisitive deer or wary grizzly. The national forest’s advertised hiking trails and camping grounds were thirty-five miles south, and yet, here, now, in this place so eschewed by civilization, an inner-city Greyhound bus had just crashed.

The chilled evening air burned in the back of my throat and nose as I labored forward, finally breaking from the forest and onto the dirt road, the panoply of trees resuming after fifteen feet. The hulking bus lay on its side: a newer model with the rust-resistant underbelly and composite rubber tires. Just three weeks ago, one of these behemoths had come into the auto shop where I worked, so I knew all about them, particularly that they belonged in the city, not out in the middle of nowhere.

The front windshield was splintered, not broken, the grill below it dented and covered with blood. Inside, the driver was in his seat, eyes closed, the skin of his face meshed with the window that lay against the ground. While the surreal shock of it all kept me composed, I had been hunting since I was twelve, shooting birds, coyotes, gutting deer, elk. Blood and death didn’t stagger me thanks to my grandpa, an avid outdoorsman. To this day, I missed his pensive smile. They used to call him Ol’ Dog because of it. Looked like an old golden retriever seated on the porch as he watched the neighborhood. His calming presence would have been a godsend right now.

Slinging my rifle from my shoulder, I slammed its butt against the cracked glass. It bit but bounced off. On the second strike, however, it stuttered through, and I was able to use it as a lever to peel a large section of the window off. A gust of warmth poured out. Along with the hysterical wails of a woman.

Jesus Christ…

I tentatively stepped forward and removed a wool glove to check the driver’s pulse. Nothing. What the hell was he doing out here?

In the auto shop where I worked, “Rich’s Fixes” (a stupid name I always thought), we often received totaled cars Rich wanted us to salvage for parts. I’d tell him that if he let me pull out the bent frame, reset the transmission, he could flip the car for a profit, but he never wanted me to do it until a brand new 1971 BMW S-Class came in—I think he intended to give it to his son. The car was pretty mangled from a drunk driving accident, and when we got it, there was blood all over the interior; none of the other mechanics would touch it. Looking at this side-ways bus, now, the resemblance was almost dreamlike.

The Greyhound was mostly empty—a small blessing—but still the first passengers I found, an elderly couple in the nearest row, were clearly dead, blood drooling from their mouths. Farther back in the middle of the bus was a man in a sienna suit, his black hair slicked to the side. Although he bled above the eyebrow, he was blinking and stirring. He mumbled something, dazed, and slowly pushed himself from the side of the bus.

“You’ve been in a crash,” I said. “You’re alive. Stay put.” My boots crunched glass as I moved past him oddly calm.

A pretty woman in her late-twenties, maybe close to a decade younger than me, lay atop the broken windows. Her chestnut hair was pulled in a loose ponytail, and she wore a teal sweater. Her face looked so peaceful. Sleeping. I felt for her pulse, but the moment I touched her neck, she gasped awake, her russet eyes darting wildly.

“It’s all right,” I said, pulling back. “You’ve been in an accident.”

She didn’t even see me.

Toward the back, another two men lay slumped in separate seats—a larger, balding man in a khaki suit and a younger, athletic guy in a flannel long-sleeve and jeans. Both were covered in blood. Both remained motionless. Behind them, a crying woman held a lifeless girl in her arms, and from a seat near me, a boy in his late teens crawled out, his hair shaved in a Mohawk, silver rings in his lip and nose.

Wooziness tugged at my head and forced me to focus on my breath. How? Why? After checking for any other passengers, I began with the slick-haired man and in turn helped each of the other three survivors outside and away from the carnage. I waited for the cool, autumn air to wake them a little before I spoke. “Is…everyone all right?”

The suited man, rolling his head, turned up at me with venomous eyes. “Obviously not,” he spat. “Our bus just crashed in the middle of nowhere.”

“You’re in Gunnison National forest,” I said, trying to emphasize a tranquility I didn’t feel. “And I’ve got a cabin. Not too far from here.”

“Where did you even come from?” asked the man, boring into me. “Ranger Joe wandering the forest?” The man muttered something to himself. “Why aren’t you on your radio calling for help?” To the side of him, the other three just stared off into the woods, the mother whimpering quietly.

“I do have a ham radio back at my cabin, but it hasn’t worked for a couple of years now; however, about fifteen miles—”

“What the hell good is a radio if it doesn’t work?”

At the auto shop, you can always tell which guys caused the wreck and which ones just got hit. The ones that screwed up themselves were always angry. Yelling at you for your estimate, for how long it would take, for anything that might prove they weren’t the only ones who made mistakes. But I imagined this guy was just a prick regardless of the situation. “There is a ranger station about fifteen miles from here with a working radio. I can call for help there. Until then, I’ve got a cabin—” the suited man started ranting again, but I just redirected my voice at the others “—about a mile from here. It’s getting too late to hike to the station today, so we can stay at my place for the night.” The suited man continued jabbering at me, while the remaining three stared off mutely.

“It’ll be a cold walk, though, so I’m going to check the bus for any kind of jacket. Stay right here, all right?” None of them even looked at me.

I made my way back into the bus, searching for anything that wasn’t too bloody. Those poor folk had to be in terrible shock—hell, I was in shock—and without more clothing, the cold would be dangerous. I took a coworker, Chucky, out with me one winter to go quail hunting. My grandfather had passed a couple weeks before, and I figured it’d be nice to have someone to hunt with again. I taught him the basics of firearm safety: how to aim a gun, how to hold one when walking, where the safety is. And after I felt he wouldn’t accidentally shoot me in the back, we hiked off. However, when we jumped a flock of quail not five minutes into the hunt, he became so excited he accidentally shot himself in the foot. Now, it was nothing mortal, he just peppered his shoe with a handful of BBs, but still, Chucky went into such shock, that in conjunction with the cold, he almost caught hypothermia. These people had experienced trauma far worse than Chucky’s, and they would need all the warmth I could find for the walk back.

At first, I tried my best to avoid taking clothes from the dead and found a sweater hanging on one of the seats along with a travel bag, a rain slicker and long-sleeve inside. Not much, but better than—

A hand grabbed my ankle.

I shouted and staggered away. A passenger from the back, the heavyset man, bald with a thick mustache, weakly extended his hand to me, his fingers clutching something.

“Please…” he mumbled, blood running down his face like tributaries into a river, before his eyes closed and his fingers opened. What appeared to be a tape recorder, smaller than I even knew they made (about the size of his whole hand) rested in his upturned palm. I checked his pulse again, this time certain he wasn’t alive, then inspected the device. Its edge was lined with thick buttons—Play, Rec., Stop, FF, RW—and a panel of clear plastic on top revealed a tape inside. I studied it another moment, curious, then hesitantly crammed it in the large pocket on my hunting vest. It was hard to deny a dying man his last wish.

I returned to the survivors and distributed the meager clothing, again instructing them of our plans. With the evening descending like a black hood over all of us, I set a quick pace over the damp leaves and pine needles, only the sniffles of the mother and the mutterings of the suited man commenting on our passage. As soon as we got to the antique log cabin, I ushered everyone inside. My grandfather had built the place in an opportune spot near an intersection of logging roads. That way, if you ever got lost, all you had to do was stumble on a road to find your way back. He himself had worked as a logger, and with his coworkers’ help, they had built this place back in 1914. As far as I knew, though, sixty years later I was the only person who still used it. Inside, there was an old sofa in the middle of the room, an oval dining table off to the side, and a simple kitchen with an old wood stove. At the back were two bedrooms, a full-size bed in each.

I quickly built a fire in the hearth, distributed blankets from the nearby chest, and then started up the stove. Hot coffee would do these people some good. Or at least it would do me some good.

“Er, how’s everyone feeling?” I asked, approaching them. “I got more blankets if you’d like.” The pretty woman had her arm around the mother, their blankets shared. “And I’m making coffee if anyone wants some.”

There was a moment of silence, before the pretty woman spoke. “Coffee would be nice. Thank you.”

The suited man echoed her, though not as politely, and I decided I would just make five cups worth. The fire crackled and popped as I waited for the water to heat, countless questions badgering me, but I forced myself to remain quiet. There would be time soon enough.

I set the four cups of steaming coffee on the table, and everyone but the young man with the piercings came over to grab a mug.

“Thank you,” said the pretty woman. “For helping us.”

“Uh, of course.”

“My name’s Alice.”

“David,” I responded, then looked expectantly at the suited man.

“Bernard,” he sighed. “Attorney at law.”

“I…I’m…” The mother’s sobbing returned, and Alice put her arm around the woman. “She wanted to sit next to the window, you know? She just wanted to look outside. I had a bad feeling, the glass, the road. God, if I had just…if I had just…”

I stared distantly into my coffee as Alice held her. After a minute, she mumbled her name was Colleen. I glanced over at the young man still beside the fire but figured he would come over on his own time.

“Where were you all headed?” I asked. “I mean I’ve never seen a car, let alone a city bus, use that road. Didn’t really even consider it a road.”

“Montrose to Canon City,” said Alice. That was about a four-hour drive east.

“That damn bus driver,” cursed the lawyer. “One minute I’m flipping through briefs for clients, the next minute we’re in the shade of the forest.” The lawyer cursed aloud. “I left my damn briefcase on the bus.”

“They’ll be time to get it tomorrow,” I assured him.

“This is all unbelievable,” he grieved. “Unbelievable!”

I snorted, unable to agree more.

“The driver said we were taking a shortcut when I marched up to the front,” continued Bernard. “Would save us almost an hour.” He shook his head. “Damn moron.”

A shortcut? US-50 east ran nearly a straight line between Montrose and Canon City. Any detour through Gunnison would have only slowed them. Maybe the driver just got lost. How he ended up on a logging road, though, was beyond me.

“And the…you know…how did that…?”

There was a moment of confusion, before Alice understood my babbling. “I don’t know. It felt like we hit something maybe. A deer?” I flashed back on the bus. There was blood spattered along the grill. I didn’t look close enough to see the type of hair nor did I notice an animal in the road. Still, it made sense.

The lawyer, however, just shrugged. The mother clenched her eyes.

“How far away is the ranger station?” asked Alice.

“Too far to walk tonight. Tomorrow morning, I’ll leave you with water and such then I’ll make the hike over there.” I nodded toward the youth still sitting at the fire. “Any of you know him?”

Alice shook her head. “I was traveling alone. Making my way to a dentist convention in Denver.” Bernard peered at her. “I don’t like flying,” she said defensively.

He snorted. “Maybe you’ll reconsider.”

“Well why were you taking the bus?”

The lawyer fidgeted. “Business.” When he didn’t say more, the mother tried to speak, but instead her voice flooded with tears.

“Come tomorrow, I’ll get us some help,” I said. “Until then, there’s two rooms made up in the back if you ladies want to lie down.”

Alice offered to share a bed with the grieving mother and she nodded, the two taking their coffee into the back. I offered the other bed to the lawyer who took it without reserve.

Leaving me and the kid. Great.

I brought him the coffee he never collected, but he didn’t seem to want it. At least when I spoke to him, he never even turned from the fire. Sighing, I made him a mattress of quilts, which he took to instantly, before I sat on the sofa and stared at the flames.

The bus driver taking a shortcut through the forest. Made zero sense.

I finally made to remove my hunting vest, and I felt the tape recorder in there. Almost cautiously, I slid my fingers in and wrapped them around it. Nothing made sense. But come tomorrow, it wouldn’t have to. Hike to the ranger station, deliver these people, move on with my life.

Finishing the coffee and laying down on the couch, I tried my best to clear the questions from my mind and let the swaying fire lull me to sleep.

 

The morning greeted me with light in my eyes and a crick in my neck. I sat up slowly, rolling my head and sighing. That old couch was less comfortable than the ground.

The kid wasn’t on the floor, the blankets folded and put back in the open chest. I didn’t agree with his piercings, but at least he had manners. I stood up, stretching, not looking forward to the fifteen-mile hike ahead of me. A thermos of coffee would certainly be necessary.

The kid wasn’t anywhere in the room so I figured he must be outside. Yawning, I headed to wake up the lawyer, secretly looking forward to disturbing his sleep. My grandfather had always preached that if you didn’t have the courtesy to be thankful, then you didn’t deserve the favor in the first place. But when I opened Bernard’s door, the room was empty, the quilts and sheets made, the pillow fluffed. I frowned. The man hadn’t seemed like the bed-making type. I turned to the women’s door and knocked gently, but there was no response. After a second, I cautiously opened it.

This room, too, was empty, the bed made.

A hollow spike of unease jabbed my stomach, and for some reason, I closed the door before heading back into the living room and stepping outside.

But the forest of golden leafed aspens concealed no one.

I inhaled deeply and held it. Maybe they went back to the bus?

“Hello?” I shouted, waiting a moment before I repeated the call.

Only the birds and rush of wind responded.

I closed the front door and went to retrieve my gloves, jacket, and hat, my heart beating a little too fast, my fingers fumbling with the clothes. At the front door I hesitated, and uncertain why, I grabbed my rifle. Surely, they hadn’t gone after the ranger station on their own. They would have no idea which way to head. I stepped outside, zipping my brown canvas and wool-lined jacket up to my chin, and headed for the bus. But within seconds, I froze.

A deer, gutted and strung up by his back legs, was hung from the plank between two trees I used to drain the blood. But I hadn’t shot a deer. And I sure as hell hadn’t cleaned one.

The lawyer maybe? But why on earth—when on earth—could the man have done such a thing? I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that Bernard would be capable of that. But then again, I hadn’t thought he’d make his bed either. Without an answer, I oriented myself toward the bus and started to walk, patting the bullets in my pocket but not loading them.

There was something eerie about the forest today: the way the leaves fell, the way the wind blew. Something…familiar. My grandfather used to tell me stories as a child about the Indian spirits believed to watch over this forest. Supposedly, when Ol’ Dog and his friends were just beginning to build the cabin, they used to spend the night in tents and sleeping bags where the porch now is. One night, however, as the five men sat around their campfire, an owl appeared and began hooting. Apaches believed the owl was an evil spirit, a messenger of bad news, and its repeated cries unsettled the men. They tried to shoo it away, but no matter what they did, the bird wouldn’t leave them. Frustrated, one of the men picked up his shotgun and fired at it. The bird, not fifteen yards away, fell instantly. But when the man went to retrieve it, the bird was nowhere to be found. Vanished. And not ten minutes later, some embers from the campfire blew toward the partially constructed cabin and started a fire, the men helpless to stop the thorough scorching. Maybe everything this morning was some trick from a spirit—half-heartedly, I recalled if I’d done anything sacrilegious to the forest. But when I reached the logging road, I replaced this unrealistic concern with an actual one.

I had made an error in navigation.

No bus lay along the dirt here. Empty down the straight shot to the right and empty down the curve around the hill to the left.

My teeth found my lip. Every one of my instincts told me this was the spot, this was where I had seen it crash, but clearly my senses told me otherwise. The bus wasn’t there, was it? And what better evidence could—

I looked up in the sky, spun a circle, looked up again. But how could that…

It wasn’t morning. The sun was in the west. Falling not rising. I had slept the whole day? Impossible. They would have woken me if nothing else. But maybe that’s why they left; they thought I was dead or something.

The cold air warmed nauseatingly around my neck and face. This shouldn’t be—

Then an engine sounded.

My heart picked up speed along with my breath, and I stepped back into the cover of the tree line. Listened as some kind of machinery approached.

When it flashed around the bend, my stomach felt like it filled with wrenches.

The silver Greyhound bus, moving at an alarming speed, whipped around the corner, lost control coming out of the turn, and began to slide. The nose swerved left then right, before it dove off the road and smashed head on into a Douglas fir. Except this time it remained upright. Motionless, wheezing, but still upright.

Another bus? Could another bus have…No. A dream. That’s what it had to be. Some kind of wild dream. Maybe some kind of Indian vision, a communion with the otherworldly. That I could believe. A vision. But after a minute of reality remaining undistorted, I did the only thing I could think of: I approached the bus. Not sure what other nightmare might stir as I neared, I tiptoed forward, trying to peer into the windows. Seeing nothing, I pried apart the doors.

The knifelike cries made me wonder what kind of dream or vision this could really be.

Again, the driver was dead, his head bashed against the steering wheel. The elderly woman’s body was mangled over the rail, her husband halfway through the windshield. In the other aisle, the lawyer, Bernard, sat up, blinking sluggishly. A few rows farther back, in the middle of the aisle, the hysterical Colleen clutched her daughter, the child’s head twisted in a sickening angle. In the row beside them, Alice moaned, her head slumped against the window. And again in the back were the two dead men. The punkish kid the last survivor.

Drawn forward, I went straight for the fat European that had given me the recorder. I checked his pulse, more scrupulously this time, shook him, shouted at him. He didn’t move.

“What’s happened?” groaned the lawyer. “What are you doing?”

I patted down the man’s chest, stuck my fingers in his pockets. I almost cursed in resignation, before I felt a lump in the upper part of his coat, the damn tape recorder tucked inside. I shoved it in my pocket.

“Who are you? What happened?” repeated Bernard.

Maybe I had dreamed up last night, a premonition of sorts, because this, this bus, this crash was real. I could feel it. I could feel the reality. Like the weight of a river stone in your hand versus pumice. Last night must have been the dream. It had to be. There was no other explanation.

After checking all the passengers for life, I gathered the same four survivors and led them back to my cabin. Bernard didn’t rant this time, but maybe that’s because I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t speak to any of them. Introduced myself and led the way. When we arrived back at the cabin, I did a similar routine: fire, blankets, coffee. And alone by the wood stove, I poked at the recorder—this had to be involved somehow, somehow—but the battery was dead. Cursing, I put it back in my pocket and waited for the water to heat.

“Thank you,” said Alice as I handed her a mug. “We’re lucky you were out there.”

I didn’t say anything. They were all wearing the same damn clothes. They all stood in the same damn order. Alice on the far right. Colleen and Bernard to her left. The kid hunched by the fire.

I had to know. Had it just been a similar dream? Or had it—could it have been the same?

“Is your name—” I hesitated, prayed that I would be wrong “—is your name Alice?”

The pretty woman’s forehead wrinkled. She looked at the others. “…Yes.”

“And is yours Bernard?” I turned to the lawyer, my heart quickening.

The man held the mug just below his lips. “How do you know that?”

“And you’re Colleen,” I mumbled, shaking my head. “Jesus Christ…” I turned away from them, trembling.

My name was David Lynstrom. I was born in Boulder, Colorado. I worked as a mechanic. I was not crazy. I was not making this up.

“What is this?” asked Bernard, setting his mug on the table. “How do you know my name?”

I shook my head, snorted. How did I know his name?

“Seriously, how do you know us?” asked Alice.

“I—I don’t know,” I stuttered. “It’s like déjà vu or something. A dream.”

Déjà vu?” said the lawyer. “Saved from the bus crash to be murdered by crazy Ranger Joe in his cabin.”

“What do you mean déjà vu?” asked Alice.

“Maybe it was a dream, I don’t know. I just woke up on the couch and…and…” I could see the disbelief in their eyes, the wariness forming. “Look, you’re headed to a dentist convention or something, right? Afraid of flying. And you—” I turned to Bernard“—you’re a lawyer, traveling on business.”

“How do you know that?” demanded Bernard. “Are you stalking me? Are you part of the opposing counsel?” The man glanced at the rifle leaning by the door.

“It—I—A dream. I don’t know. I had a dream just like this. Same thing. Bus crash. Evening. You three.”

They stared at me in a silence before the mother spoke. “In your…dream, did my…did my…” Tears eroded her voice. “Oh, I knew I should have never let her sit by the aisle. It’s too dangerous there. I told her she’d like the window. I told her she would like the view…” Colleen started crying again, but Alice didn’t put an arm around her.

I stared off at the blazing hearth opposite the couch. “And he, he just sits there, won’t talk to any of us.”

Alice paused a moment, waiting for the kid to turn. He didn’t. “What else happened…in your dream?” Her light brown eyes scrutinized me.

I sighed. “Nothing. Some guy on the bus gave me a recorder.” I pulled the device from my pocket. “This time, though, I took it myself.”

“You stole from a dead man?” said Bernard.

“Does it work?” asked Alice.

I shook my head.

“Then…maybe we go back in the morning and search the man.”

“What?” said Bernard. “You believe this crackpot?”

“I believe he somehow knows my name and where I was headed.” She paused and fingered the handle on her mug. Looked up. Ran her tongue beneath her lip. “And that later tonight…later tonight, David here, will offer us his two bedrooms in the back.”

“You know my name…”

Alice hesitated, stared into her coffee. “I had the same…dream,” she said slowly. “Earlier, when I woke up on the bus, I didn’t believe it of course. Then…” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Perfect. Just perfect,” muttered the lawyer. “You’re all nuts, you know that. Nuts.”

Alice’s eyes met mine and I knew, thank God, that at least I wasn’t the only one.

I led the women to the same bedroom again, let the lawyer have the other, then took up my spot on the couch. I tried talking to the youth, but all I got was his back; he didn’t even turn once to acknowledge my voice.

I laid him another mattress of quilts, grabbed myself my own covering, and then sat down on the couch. Sleep was a distant idea tonight, and I returned to the memory of that deer gutted and hung outside the cabin. Yesterday, the bus had hit a deer and crashed. Today, another deer (the same deer?) had somehow been shot, and the bus still crashed. There had to be a connection, right? I needed my grandfather’s counsel, just his reassuring, deliberate smile. But thinking of how I needed him, only made me regret when he needed me. Rich had paid me time and a half to work that weekend. How was I supposed to know my grandfather would try to come up to the cabin on his own? Thoughts and memoires stewed inside of me as I studied the flames—trying to divine some sense out of all this madness—when a floorboard creaked to the right.

Alice, a blanket draped around her shoulders. “Mind if I…?”

I gestured to the couch and she sat beside me. Amazing, even in this tempest of delirium, I could notice how pretty she was. Chestnut hair, soft features, russet eyes. She sat on the cushion next to me, and we both just stared at the guttering fire. Silent.

After a moment, I cleared my throat. “You know, the natives have a story about fire. About why we’re so entranced with it.” She didn’t respond, continued to watch the flames. “They say that in the beginning, when the gods created man, the fire spirit agreed to live on earth to protect us and give us warmth. Give us a friend. But as man grew stronger and larger, he stopped speaking with fire and instead only used him for his own benefit. Over time, the language of fire and man was all but forgotten. Today, when we look at the fire, we catch words from the spirit still trying to speak to us, but like a whisper, we can only hear bits and pieces of it. And so we continue to stare and watch, hoping to once again understand.” My grandfather told it much better, but having gone through what I had these past two…days?…I was just glad to have something comforting to share.

I peeked over at her, unable to discern if she had appreciated the anecdote or been annoyed by it. After another moment of silence, though, she leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, “I don’t get it. Why?”

I almost further explained the myth, but I quickly—thankfully—realized that’s not what she was talking about. “I don’t know,” I muttered. “Don’t know.” And sometime between then and eternity, I fell asleep.

 

Right when I woke, I felt it.

Alice wasn’t curled beside me. The young man didn’t lay on the floor. The lawyer wasn’t in his room. Colleen was gone. This time I grabbed only my gloves and coat. My rifle would just slow me.

The front door banged open as I dashed into the forest, raced against the evening sun to reach that bend in the road. It hadn’t been a dream. Time, for whatever reason, was repeating itself. Weaving in and out of the same handful of hours like some eternal punishment. Had I died? Was I in Hell enduring my karmic sentence?

My boots slapped against the wet ground, turning up mucky leaves and rotted branches. Faster than ever before, I reached the logging road, my breath fogging the air as I bent over panting, listening.

There. The distant gunning of the engine.

I sprinted up the road, along the curve to the left. I would wave the bus down. Tell it to slow. Make sure—

The bus came around the side of the hill sooner than I expected, and I had to dive out of the way to avoid getting slammed with fifteen tons of metal. Dirt scraped my face. The bus swerved, tipped, slid and slammed into a cluster of aspens, their white trunks splintering under the force.

I crawled to my feet and ran to the bus. On its side, the front windshield spider-webbed, I kicked at it with my foot. Of course, this time I didn’t bring the rifle. Another bash from my boot and the window broke open. With my thick gloves, I peeled away the fragmented glass and stepped inside.

As before, the driver and elderly couple were dead; the lawyer slowly unfurled from the seats; the mother, this time however, held her daughter in her arms—groggy-looking but alive. Alice tentatively stood up in a seat she hadn’t been in before, recognition coloring her eyes when she saw me.

I moved straight for the European man, reached into his upper pocket, and retrieved the recorder. Again, its battery was dead. Again, the man himself was dead.

Again. Again. Again. That’s what kept happening. The same thing. Over and over and over. Why? Why me? When would it end?

As I led them back to the cabin, I studied Bernard and Colleen, neither of them seeming to remember me. Alice, however, regarded me as if this whole thing was somehow my fault. I kept trying to turn on the recorder, but I couldn’t even get a crackle of noise.

Once inside the cabin, I started the fire. Everyone but Alice gathered around it; she watched me with the oval dining table between us as I prepared the coffee. “I know you remember,” I said, starting the stove. There was assurance in the commonplace. Start the stove, make the coffee.

She didn’t respond.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s happening?”

She hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“You do!”

“I told you I don’t!”

Colleen and Bernard glanced back at us.

“Every time I go to sleep,” I said, quieter, “I wake up and find that damn bus crashing over and over again.”

“The same thing happens to me, too. At least you’re not riding on it.”

I reached for the kettle without an oven mitt and burned my fingers, cursing.

Alice stepped tentatively closer. “You…you said something about a recorder?”

I took the device from my pocket and tossed it to her without looking. I focused on pouring the water. The burning in my fingers. The everyday things. Those were the same. I could focus on that. This was just some dream within a dream.

The mother spoke up. “Do you have any more blankets? My daughter’s still cold.”

I walked over to the chest and brought her another.

“Do any of you know anything about a recorder?” asked Alice. “This recorder?” Colleen and Bernard turned, both confused, so Alice directed her voice at the teenager. “What about you? Led Zeppelin? Do you know anything about this?” The high schooler didn’t move, just stared at the fire.

Maybe she was on to something. Every time I brought them here, that crazy looking teenager didn’t say a word. “Hey, kid! Hey!” The kid didn’t turn. He knew something. He had to.

“What’s going on?” asked Colleen. “What’s—”

I strode right over to him and grabbed his shoulder. He startled as if surprised. “What do you know about the recorder?”

His eyes darted around the room, confused, and I walked over to Alice, snatched the recorder from her, brought it back to him. “What do you know about this?”

The teenager looked embarrassed then pointed to his ear and made a sound like “deaf.”

I almost started laughing. Deaf. Beautiful. The only possible answer to this lunacy was gone, lost, bye-bye. I wanted to chuck that recorder into the fire, shout and stomp, wait for everything to happen all over again. But suddenly the kid brightened and he took the device from my hand.

“Hey, what are…?” The boy’s fingers ran dexterously over the recorder, sliding off the back case and removing the batteries. One by one, he took them out and rolled them between his hands like he was trying to start a fire. Then, licking his thumb, he wet the ends of each before placing them back into the tape recorder. He grinned as he handed it back to me.

I looked at Alice, her light brown eyes nervous.

“What’s going on?” asked Bernard.

“My daughter’s still shaking,” said the mother. “I need another blanket.”

I wanted to tell the woman that her child was going to die—she always did, every time—but my thumb had already hit the play button, the tiny sprockets already churning the tape, the glossy filament crackling sound from the speaker: “—beautiful!” crooned the voice, a deep bass with a European accent. “Everything is so happy. And free. The bus go anywhere you wants.” I looked up at Alice, confused, then fast-forwarded, the mousy squeaks accompanying it. “—cannot wait. Three months is like forever. But I will. And when you arrive you will think greatness and wonder. And you—” I fast-forwarded it further.

“What is this?” asked Bernard suspiciously. “What are you doing?”

I ignored him, scanned the tape forward, backward, tried to find anything, anything, that might explain this insanity. Nothing. I flipped the tape over, but this side was blank. The deaf kid watched me intently, hoping maybe I would explain it to him. But I couldn’t even explain it to myself.

Alice looked at me incredulously. “That’s it? That’s all that’s on there?”

“You never answered me,” said the lawyer. “I asked—”

“I thought you said that man handed it to you,” continued Alice. “That he gave it to you.”

I stared down at the tape recorder then back up at the room. All of a sudden, I couldn’t help giggling. Then chuckling. Then watery-eyed laughing. This was supposed to be the solution? A tape recorder filled with the romantic explorations of some foreigner? Cosmic humor. That’s what this was. Straight, unadulterated comicality of the universe.

Finally checking my laughter, I noticed the horror on the faces of the others. Even Colleen looked up from her dying daughter to watch me.

“You’re mad,” muttered the lawyer, backing away. “You’re one of those crazies living up in the woods all by himself.” He glanced to the other women then back at me. “Stay away. You stay there.” He retreated toward the door, slowly, his hands up, until he spotted the rifle against the wall. Immediately, he grabbed it and pointed it at me. “Don’t take another step toward me. I swear. You come any closer…”

Unfortunately, this threat only redoubled the smile on my face, my eyes still wild. Further cosmic humor! Incredible. A sick, unsettled part of me was thrilled to stare down a rifle—how would this dream twist once I got shot?—but another part of me, an innate, survival call deep in my chest, cowered at the barrel. Didn’t want to “wake up” from whatever this was with a piece of lead in my lungs.

“Listen,” I said, raising my hands expectedly, trying to sound fearful, “how about you take that gun to the back bedroom, where you can lock yourself in there with it.” If I were shot, would it fix things? Would I wake up right before the bullet punctured my flesh? Or was this what Time was waiting for? Waiting for me to keep altering my fate until I got myself killed? Was I supposed to die on this trip?

The others all watched, breaths held, as the situation unfolded, as Bernard weighed his options, as he shifted his weight between feet, as the fire hissed and popped. Slowly, he circled around me, my hands raised the whole time, until he stood at the hallway and backed up. The bedroom door slammed and the lock clicked seconds later.

I looked to the others and shrugged, “what else can you do?”

The rest of the night, no one said a word to anyone else. The mother cradled her sleeping daughter (dead daughter, but I let her keep on believing), while Alice fiddled with the tape recorder and the deaf kid finally drank his mug of coffee.

That was the quickest of the three nights I fell asleep.

 

The next morning—or I should say evening—and the evening after that, and the evening after that, I continued to repeat a similar sequence of events. A Greyhound bus would crash. The same four people would survive. Alice would remember. None of the others would remember. I would bring them back. We would all fall asleep.

In the beginning, Alice and I would conspire every night after the others had gone to bed—it was easier not having to explain our paranormal connection—and discuss the different methods we had tried/would try to save the passengers on the bus. That had to be the purpose of it all, right? I would get there faster, warn them earlier. But the same six passengers still died. I would throw rocks at the window, try to make it spin out sooner. The same six still died. Alice would demand the driver stop the bus. Still died. Alice tried to pry the bus driver off the wheel and drive herself. Still died. Sometimes, too, it seemed as if the universe tried to save them. A tree randomly cracked and fell fifty feet in front of the bus. The front two tires burst on the straight road before the turn. But no matter what Fate or we attempted, everyone but Alice, Bernard, Russell (the deaf kid), and Colleen would die. Maybe not immediately, maybe not quietly, but always, always, before I or Alice fell asleep.

I can’t imagine how I would have survived mentally if Alice hadn’t been there to experience it all alongside me. To talk with me. To hold me. I learned that she was a dentist’s assistant, hoping one day to become a full-fledged dentist with her own practice. She had two older sisters and a younger brother. Coincidentally, she had grown up just a block from my childhood house in a town outside Boulder called Longmont. We even went to the same middle school, albeit I graduated seven years before her. I learned that she had been driving home one night, when, distracted, she had hit and killed her brother’s golden Labrador, since becoming a vegetarian. I learned that before any test or job interview, she wriggles her toes inside her shoes for good luck. I learned that she always tries to lay on her back to go to sleep, but ends up on her side, and wakes up on her belly. And I learned, most importantly, after countless evenings spent rolling Sisyphus’s rock up the hill (she taught me about that very fitting Greek myth), that I was in love with her.

“When do you think it will end?” she asked me for the thousandth time.

“Probably tomorrow,” I said in ritual.

The mother slept in the room on the left, the lawyer in the right. I had started offering the room to Russell first, but he declined every time. It was better that way, though. He couldn’t hear any of our conversations, which gave us, in a way, another person to talk to. Him “listening” quietly on the quilts, us chattering about our new world behind him.

Alice held my hand on the sofa and we stared into the flames. That was one thing that always changed. The fire. In the beginning, I had studied it, tried to commit to memory the larger pops or crackles, the bigger flares of light, to see if those, too, followed this patterned existence. But they didn’t, and I took a slight comfort in that.

“Every time, always the same,” she said.

“Not exactly the same.” Another of our common fireside debates.

“But close enough. Always the same for the important stuff. Who dies, who lives. The bus. Us in the cabin.” One night, before Alice had learned the path here, I just hadn’t shown up. Maybe if I never saw it, it would never happen. But somehow those three had wandered here, and Alice hadn’t even led the way.

“Yes, always the important stuff,” I said stroking her hand.

“Some things you just can’t change. Some things, no matter what you do, are bound to happen.”

“Fate,” I nodded solemnly.

“Fate,” she repeated. “You think it’s the same for our past, too? That some things, no matter how much we wish they’d been different, were always bound to turn out that way?”

I paused. I had never really considered that. “It’s possible.”

“It is.” She stroked my hand now. “Makes you feel a little better I guess.”

“How’s that?”

“Knowing you couldn’t have done things differently. Kind of…absolves you.”

I pondered that a moment, but just like when all our conversations diverged to the intricacies of fate, my thoughts would uncontrollably cut off before they even fleshed themselves out. She was the college graduate. I was just a mechanic. “In a way, yes, it clears you.”

She smiled and rested her head on my shoulder. “I love you, David.”

“I love you, too, Alice.”

And like that, we fell asleep.

 

A few evenings later, maybe three, a dozen, who knows, I woke up and everything was different. Again, the house was empty, but the light coming through the windows was off. Starker, less gray. The kind that shines from a brightening sky not a darkening one. Hesitantly, I stepped outside and found—rubbing my eyes multiple times—that it was morning.

Morning.

Not even closing the door, I dashed through the forest, tripping twice on protruding roots, until I made it to the logging road. There was nothing. No bus. No broken trees. No tracks in the dirt. I waited there all day, taking trips back and forth from my cabin to get supplies, but nothing, nobody, ever passed through. The next day, I did the same thing, and again, no bus arrived.

It was over. It was…I was…free.

I hiked out of there the following morning, confused, delighted, angry, sad, wondering what all of it had been. What it had been for. Was it really over? But when I returned to my apartment one block from my favorite restaurant, Vito’s, I knew, for certain, that it had all concluded. I knew that everything was real again. I knew that it had ended.

And I began searching the white pages to try to find Alice’s phone number.

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About Jake Teeny

Jake Teeny has a B.S. in psychology and philosophy and will be starting a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2013. Currently, he has returned to Portland, Oregon, where he convinces friends that living with your parents isn’t terrible and that “being a writer” isn’t a euphemism for unemployment. More of his writing can be found at www.jaketeeny.com.