This Story Won Third Prize in Our Contest
The bus had appeared out of nowhere. They didn’t have to go looking for it, or stumble upon it like those boxcar kids. The bus had just shown up, in the woods outside of town, and they all somehow knew it was there. There were no tire tracks, and the bus itself was missing tires. No hurricanes or twisters had been reported in the news, no airports nearby. It had simply appeared.
It was a pale baby blue, not like a bus should be. It had been painted recently—there were still thick drip globs near the wheel wells, and they discovered if you pressed hard enough, the globs would pick up fingerprints. And so there grew a collection of tiny mazes, each of them taking turns pressing their thumbs into the paint, then ahh-ing with a small satisfaction at their ability to make an impression on such an impressive beast.
The truth is, they had never seen anything like it. Not only was it not the right color, but it didn’t have any other attributes of a school bus, or any bus, for that matter. On the second day, when they’d managed to pry the doors open, they’d found the bus completely devoid of seats, save a narrow bench that lined the starboard wall. Posters and programs were pasted to the ceiling like wallpaper, and boxes marked “Brother Benjamin’s Cirque Bus” were filled with strange costumes and vermin bones.
A box marked “Kettlebell Kate” was filled with pictures of a muscular woman. In each she had her legs pretzeled beneath her, her arms ballerina-like above her head, and was shown in various stages of flight. An elephant swinging her skywards; a man-giant holding her one-handed above his head. Her face was like that Mona Lisa painting: a small smile, with eyes that looked through you.
They rummaged through the boxes, groping for any sign that would tell them where the bus had come from, how it had landed here in their woods, and what they were meant to do with it. Some of them thought it was a sign from God, though they admitted they hadn’t prayed for it. Others whispered it was Satan’s work, what with the strange drawings and photographs inside. Plus, something just felt “off” about it, they said.
On the third day, they tried to turn it on. One of them had found a set of keys jammed beneath a loose board near the driver’s seat, and they stuck each cautiously into the ignition. Not one of them fit. A bus without wheels, without keys… How on earth had it come to them?
It was Handsome Jake who had the idea to fix it up, to make it a bus again. To take whatever parts of it had ceased to remember their purpose and remind them. He scavenged yard sales and church donation piles for weeks, gathering supplies. Old chairs and loveseats and rugs. He gutted the insides, filled them up with his vision. It still didn’t look quite like a bus by the time he was done, but it functioned like one again. Or it would, if he could only figure out the engine. None among them knew the mechanics of it. Like every other bit of the bus, it wasn’t like a normal engine. Handsome Jake didn’t let that deter him. He scrunched up his face like a rug caught on a cupboard door, desperate to get things straightened out. A bus should be a bus, he thought. Each of us should be what we’re meant to be. But the weeks went by, and the bus ceased to start.
It was the Sunday before All Saint’s Day that it happened. Like magic. Handsome Jake had just about given up, and they were all hoping he would. They had grown tired of the bus, after a while, and wished he would, too. “Leave it for the birds,” they’d said, eyeing the nests that had started to form on its roof.
But that Sunday it started. Jake was ten paces away when he heard the low rumble. He thought his ears were deceiving him, but knew better than to doubt his own eyes after he turned and saw the headlights on. He’d done it, but he didn’t know how.
Behind the steering wheel, Jake felt like he imagined a king must feel after leading his troops back from a hard battle won. He touched his fingers to his lips and transferred a kiss to the portrait of Kettlebell Kate he’d glued to the dash, for luck, and pressed his foot on the gas.
The woods were thicker than he’d remembered. You don’t realize the width of the negative space in the woods when you’re walking, but behind the wheel of a bus, things close in. He hunched himself over the wheel, delirious, desperate to get the bus out of the woods and into the sunlight. They have to see this, he thought. They have to see me.
When they talked about it later, they recalled the way he’d seemed to float, hands above his head, legs pretzeled beneath him, when the bus hit a root at the edge of the wood and threw him through the windshield. His face, they said, reminded them of a painting. Maybe the Mona Lisa, even, his mouth twisted into a small smile, his eyes like they were looking through you, just before he hit the ground.