Like every other day in his entire life, Tom woke up three minutes before sunrise, made coffee, urinated, brushed his teeth, showered, ate breakfast and groomed. Forty-seven minutes after sunrise, Tom dressed in his blue mechanics overhauls with his name emblazoned in a white oval over his left breast, walked out his front door, down the hill to his local bus stop.
Today would be different kind of day.
Today, unlike every other day, the sun was just a bit late, the above was pregnant with threatening clouds and below, a dense fog carried a smell of dead and rotting fish.
Through this horrid start of a most distasteful morning, Tom managed to smile as he waited for his bus at the corner of Lake and River, for no other reason than he liked to smile.
Tom looked to the East and he saw the dim morning running lights approach from under the bridge. Despite the fog, the bus was still running on the best of time. Watching his bus approach, Tom began to organize his day at the office. Mr. McCracken’s harmonic balancer, Goldie’s bushing on her shifting column and what he knew would be a long, agonizing search for an electrical short in an old one-ton flatbed.
The double doors folded like an accordion, Tom flashed Gerry the driver his pass with a quick morning nod and preceded down the aisle to the middle of the bus, sitting in an empty row, half way to the rear. Tom paid his usual quick interest in the few others who populated this morning bus. He knew them all. Old Mrs. Thinner who was the first stop and always sat in the first row, right behind the doors, her small and antiquated purse held securely in her lap. Behind her, a businessman, tall, dark but not handsome. Well-dressed but lost in his own thoughts as he stared nowhere, ever, but out his window. Large Mrs. Wells always sat on the outer seat for obvious reasons and every day, she wore a different hat, of a different sort, of a different color. Tom had heard stories about her youthful days and he believed, she was once very young, thin and beautiful. Mrs. Wells would often talk with Mary, who was walking up the aisle now, taking a seat across from Mrs. Wells. Tom heard Mary’s stuttered hello, and still felt sorry for her. Mary stuttered as she spoke because Mary was slow. Mary had a multitude of deficiencies, a hobble, a slow mind, stuttered speech but one deficiency she did not possess was one of a wrongful soul. Mary was, for all her deficiencies, a beautiful person. As she waved at him, Tom remembered her father. Long ago, in another time and place, Tom and Mary’s father had been friends.
In about 90 seconds, the bus would turn in a Cul-de-sac and head back toward the bridge. It would stop first just in front of a small, yellow cape cod with tended hedges and Alice would board. Beautiful, beautiful Alice. In all the days of his life he had never seen anyone as beautiful as Alice. Tom was enthralled, smitten and forever and a day, including this day, speechless.
Just before the stop, a small curl, a wisp really, of a thought crossed his mind. The fog was thicker.
Mary boarded, the thought went the way of spent smoke and his heart was warm as he watched Alice take her seat two rows before him. Close enough so that he could smell her sweet perfume and he often thought, it was not perfume, that Alice just smelled sweet. That would not have surprised him.
Gerry’s voice boomed over the intercom, waking everyone from their thoughts, they were running a minute late because of the fog and Tom couldn’t remember ever hearing Gerry use the intercom before. A whole minute late. That had never happened before but on a day that was soon to be unlike any other day ever before, being a minute late would be about the most normal thing you could ask for.
Tom took in a deep breath of sweetness and turned to watch the river along which the route ran. He was not worried but was somewhat mystified by the darkness of the day and the thickness of the fog. Perhaps they were working together, Tom thought, to ruin what would otherwise be a naturally fine day. Not that it was dark as night, but it was dark as gray and the fog was getting worse, so much worse, that the condensation on the bus windows was in rivulets.
For a moment, Tom imagined he heard the slapping of waves. Not the crashing of waves upon a beach but the slapping of water against the hull of a small boat. Tom did not like the water, rather, did not like the open water.
Tom knew that soon they would pass under the bridge, take the left ramp and then travel up the old sledding hill and merge with the traffic passing over the river. Tom had traveled this route all his life.
This would not happen this morning.
Just before reaching the bridge, Tom grimaced, noticing the fog had grown thicker, the grey darker, raindrops starting to splatter heavily against the bus window. Suddenly, nothing was to be seen outside except the water which pounded his window. Suddenly, one half second after it had become wet and totally dark, the back of the bus fishtailed. Tom, like everyone else reached out in instinct, to brace their bodies. Tom also closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
The bus continued to swerve as it started to pass under the bridge, doing a complete three sixty as its forward momentum carried the bus under and through the bridge.
Everything was wrong!
Tom darted his eyes wide open, wider than ever before. Everything was in disarray. The sun was out, high and hot and as far and as wide as Tom could see, water! In all directions, water!
Tom turned to gauge the reactions of his fellow passengers, and like he, were most engulfed in silence. Unable to articulate what had just happened. Sweet Alice simply had placed fingers over open mouth in disbelief. Mrs. Wells stared evenly out her window, the suited businessman’s head was hung, his suit coat removed. Mary was engaged in a stuttered conversation with Gerry, the driver and Mrs. Thinner sat still clutching her purse in her lap.
There were no screams. Tom thought this odd, the lack of hysterics, of confusion. Then Tom understood, he had not screamed because there was simply no reason to scream. The disbelief was so strong that the sense of fear had been overwhelmed. No one had time to scream.
Tom understood they were in a bus, floating in the middle of an ocean on what was a very hot and bright day.
And they were sinking!
Working the gentle swaying and bobbing of the bus, Tom managed to find his sea legs, a memory from years past. From his standing position, he figured the water was up past the wheel wells, and rising. The strong rhythmic sound of waves slapping the bus were reminiscent of old memories as well, but memory and ocean waves were interrupted by the businessman who was in the wretched throes of sea sickness, making a mess over his seat.
Making his way down the aisle, he paused by Alice, who turned to look up to him.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
“Do you know where we are, sir?”
Mrs. Wells answered, her voice raspy, deep, “We’re all dead and if we’re not, we’re going to be, soon ‘nuff.”
The stench of vomit struck Tom full force. The business man had made his way to stand behind him.
“How much time do you think we have?” he asked Tom.
Tom was quiet in his answer, “A half hour, maybe a bit more.” And then thought to place a hand on Alice’s shoulder, and a bit louder, managed a “We’ll be Okay, we’ll figure this out.”
The business man murmured “half hour, what I figured, as well.”
Tom left Alice with a slight turned smile and made his way to Mrs. Wells. Behind him, he heard the agitated business man’s voice lift loud, asking if anyone had any ides, if anyone had seen anything.
There were, of course, no replies to the dark business man’s questions.
Tom made eye contact with Mary as he was inquiring to Mrs. Wells well-being. Tom saw the concern written in her eyes and moved forward toward the front of their bobbing little bus.
Tom saw that the water had begun to flood the short, narrow stair well, seeping in easily under the accordion door.
“Gerry, is there anything on this bus that floats, anything we can hold onto?” Tom was already scanning the interior. Metal poles, metal seat frames, hard plastic seats bolted to the floor. All said and done, the interior was barren.
“It’s a fine thing I’m old and skinny” Mrs. Thinner said out of the blue. “No meat for the sharks and what meat there is, I’m too tough.” Tom saw she was smiling. Tom liked that, that she was smiling.
“We don’t know that there are any sharks in the water, ma’am” Tom replied.
Behind him, Mrs. Wells quickly wailed something about being a feast for fish.
“We are sinking, and fast” said Alice, “Look, the water is up over the stairwell.” Her voiced, as pitched and yawing as the bus was.
Tom noticed that Gerry, the driver had positioned himself standing on one of the back seats and then it dawned on him, there was an emergency roof hatch. The business man, who had now tossed his suit jacket aside and lost his tie had moved to help Gerry, and in a matter of seconds, a stream of sunlight flooded a small interior space, and Tom hoped it was Gods fishing line, but he did know better.
Tom watched as the businessman worked his slim, masculine frame up into the hatch, his legs dangling momentarily, then disappearing up into the sunlight. Tom turned, quietly surprised to find Mary at his side, poised, she asked, “Uncle Tom, Mrs. Wells isn…, isn’t going to, to fit through that, that door, is.., is she?”
“She’ll fit Mary, she’ll fit.”
Mrs. Wells and Mrs. Thinner brushed patiently but brutishly past Tom and Mary in the aisle making their way to the back of the bus where Gerry waited to give a helping hand. Mrs. Thinner clutching her purse. Tom noticed Alice, was lost in a defiant stare, watching the water rise, up into the aisle, toward where she remained seated.
A hand shot back through the hatch, and then the man’s head, who simply with a raised voice, said, “next.”
Tom stepped in the opposite direction as Mary moved to the shaft of light.
“Are you Okay, Alice?”
“I’m… fine Tom. It is Tom, right?”
He nodded the answer, “We’re going to be okay, all of us.”
Alice turned to Tom and stared. Directly into his eyes, into his deep brown eyes and brushed his soul, “Tom, we are on a bus in the middle of an ocean and buses are not boats. Buses are heavy things and heavy things drown in the ocean.”
Tom smiled with the fact that her words were as direct as her stare, and he felt comfortable clasping a hand over one of hers as he kneeled next to her where she sat. “Alice, how is it one moment we are on a bus going about our lives and in an instant, a proverbial blink of an eye, we are adrift in a vast abyss of water. “ Reaching down, Tom dipped two fingers into the water rising in the aisle, then placed his fingers in his mouth, tasting the water, “Alice, it’s not an ocean, there’s no salt to the water.”
She stared at him for an eternity.
“Are you saying that we are, all of us, are dead and this is…”
“No… No Alice, I don’t know. Just don’t be so quick to give up, that’s all I’m saying.”
Beautiful Alice smiled, Tom’s heart warmed a degree, “Thank You Tom, I needed to hear that. Now let’s go tan on the roof.”
He helped her up and walked her toward the back of the bus, noticing Mrs. Thinner was gone and Mary’s legs disappearing up into the light. He wondered what that passage would bring him, but first, there was heavy and rotund Mrs. Wells.
Tom pretended not to notice the concern in Gerry’s look or the worry written over Mrs. Wells face as they helped Alice up through the hatch. All three of them knew it was going to be an impossible struggle.
Gerry was the first, “C’mon Mom.”
Tom’s soul dropped a million miles into the abyss of despair.
Mrs. Wells looked at her son and whispered, “I can’t… but you can and you will, do you understand me?”
Mary’s voice interrupted, “C… Come on, T… Tiffany.” her head hanging upside down in the bus, her arm extended and beckoning. Tom motioned up toward the hatch, “We’ll get you through”.
“Just watch where you boys put your hands, then again, it’s been awhile since I’ve had a man’s hand on me.” As she raised one wet leg to place a foot on a seat, to climb toward the hatch. Tom worked his way to one side, her son to the other. Mary, from above, reached out for her. Together they worked, struggled, rearranging Mrs. Wells in painful configurations.
She was bruised, scraped, and sore and perhaps even had been violated, but her legs finally disappeared up through the hatch, into the bright clean sky and open sun.
Gerry whispered a thank you, then breached the hatch. Tom took one last look, the bus was filled with clear, warm water just below his knees, and there was a straightforward awareness that it wouldn’t be much longer that they would all be floating in the ocean.
Crawling out, Tom felt the heat of the sun reflected on the roof and saw that everyone was setting centered, quietly.
“Now what?’ was on everyone’s mind. He saw it written in different ways, in varied expressions but it was the same question they all had as he joined them, sitting in the center of the bus, under a clear sky and bright sun, the bus tilted slightly toward the back, and rolling with the gentle waves. A strange, unique scene, of quietness and solitude, and Tom couldn’t help but wonder if they, including him, had already surrendered to what was their eventual fate. He knew the larger truth, there was nothing else simply to do except set there, and wait.
Mary’s question broke the deep thoughts, “Doe, does th, th, that look li, like a storm co, coming?
Tom followed the length of her pointed arm and looked behind him. He stood, carefully aware of the bobbing bus and uttered aloud, ‘Christ almighty’. Off on the horizon, the sky had turned to a deep purple and clouds had started forming and churning with streaks of lightning threading their way through the threatening skyscape.
“I don’t believe this crap.” the quiet businessman was now standing next to him and he wasn’t speaking to Tom as much as just making a statement. “Within the next thirty minutes we’re all going to be sleeping at the bottom of whatever this ocean is.” and he sat back down, let out a deep sigh, than laid out in a prone position, staring up at the darkening sky.
A raindrop fell against Tom’s forehead. And then another. A thunderclap followed and the sky overhead started to darken. The bus angled steeper, the front end was higher in the water, and everyone was starting to fight the pull of gravity that would lead them to their conclusions. The water around bus was noticeably more agitated, the wave crescents higher, more forceful, and the pitching, rolling and awing matched those of the waves in a strange foreboding symphony of nature.
Tom sat down and took off his shoes, his socks, and yelled to whoever would listen to take off anything that might weigh them down. Carefully he made his way back to Mary, and took her hand. Silently Alice joined them and the three noticed that mother and son were embraced. Tom looked over to the business man and couldn’t find him. The rain was driving harder, but it was clear, the man was gone.
The once bright sun was gone, replaced with strong winds, driving rain and streaks of horrific lightening threaded through the darkness backed by ear deafening thunder. The bus rolled to and from, and suddenly, violently, the front end was pitched near vertical and the remaining five passengers were tossed quietly, without human sound, without mercy into a dark and unforgiving place.
Tom had lost Alice’s hand before he hit the water, Mary’s soon afterward, and as he fought toward the surface, he wondered why he was doing so. Breaking the surface, he knew he was alone, knew he didn’t have, couldn’t waste the strength to call out to Mary, to Alice. Silently though, deep in his heart, he called out to God and in a strange turn of fate, God answered.
A loud, unforgiving bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and Tom saw the face of God written in the shadows of the clouds. For that split second, there lived an eternity, all held solid, honest and good, and Tom took his last breath and slipped into the comfort of the waves.
For that eternity, Tom floated free; of gravity, of all things human, of all things alive and then his mind grew heavy, his sight immersed in the few feet of water, his lungs filled with water, his thoughts were being pulled down…
An abrupt, sharp pain jolted his lungs and he hunched over on all fours and vomited in a coarse, hard and painful manner all the water that had filled his lungs. His eyes wide open in disbelief as he once more regurgitated the last of the ocean from his lungs and rolled over on the hard pavement, staring at the morning sky.
“You’re going to be alright, just try to stay calm.” Was a reassuring voice, and Tom wondered where the hell it was coming from. Glancing over, there was a person, a fireman, holding his hand, another checking his pulse. Managing to look around, the scene was organized chaos. The bus on its side, fire engines, ambulances and people carrying and cloaked in the bright yellows and oranges of medical and rescue gear. He worked to a half sit up, saw Mary with a blanket thrown about her, and she returned his look, with a broad smile.
A gentle hand on his shoulder turned his attention, and he looked into Alice’s deep, big eyes and wondered when she placed a slender forefinger to her lips, with a ‘shhhhhh…’
The Sun had come out to part the fog filled morning. Off in the near distant, Tom heard a man raise his voice in, asking some unseen other, “How the hell did the bus fill up with water?”
Alice smiled at him, not sure he understood, than he asked Alice if he knew where his shoes and socks were.