Maggie Calhoun came out to L.A. to drive a city bus. To pilot ten tons of steel and glass far enough and fast enough to leave death behind. After a decade of driving Number 10, she thought she had.
But as it always does, death caught up.
* * *
Things first got strange with the death of a cranky old woman named Agnes Muncie (As in Indiana, she told Maggie when they first met). She always caught Number 10 at 11:12 a.m. at Beverly and Windsor. She had yellow hair like a whipped egg and stank of cigarettes. Sometimes Maggie knelt the bus so she could climb in; other times, Agnes barked for her not to: I can handle one goddamn step! She could’ve been the twin to Maggie’s mother, with her stooped gate, smoker’s cough, and the American Spirit always ready in one hand. Sometimes Maggie feared she might end up asking her what she never got to ask her own mother in those last hazy days of her life, in the hot bedroom of a dirty apartment: Why didn’t you fight harder? It was unfair to blame her mother, she knew, but no more unfair than the baseball-sized tumor that had become lodged in her mother’s left lung and ate her alive.
Agnes liked to sit up front, just behind the driver’s seat, rambling in a voice that sounded like wet pennies in a tin can. Oh, how she loved to complain about the morons who couldn’t seem to understand Number 10 wasn’t going to go sixty on city streets, even if they pushed her from behind. Or she’d rant about the assholes who had the guts to cut off the bus just to get wherever they were going three seconds sooner.
The wheels of the karma bus will run those bastards down, Maggie, trust me, Agnes would say, as if the whole bus angle would make Maggie understand her better.
On October 13, the air was cold when Maggie blew by Beverly and Windsor without stopping. Agnes waited there, as always, bundled in a long coat that wasn’t quite the same yellow as her hair. Maggie had certainly wanted to pick Agnes up—a pungent homeless man had planted himself in Agnes’s regular seat and kept muttering to himself about the end of it all. But dispatch had come on the radio the moment she approached the bus stop and told her she was running three minutes late. Distracted, Maggie missed the stop.
She glanced in the side mirror and saw Agnes giving her a one-fingered wave. She pulled Number 10 to a screeching halt halfway down the next block, the bus narrowly avoiding being sodomized by a tailgating Mercedes. She waited as Agnes trundled toward the door, her lips moving in what was probably a string of curses only old people and truckers seemed to know.
Maggie’s view of the old woman was limited to the six-inch-by-twelve-inch swath of Number 10’s side mirror. Agnes shuffled along the sidewalk carrying a canvas bag that scraped the concrete. Her hair blew back from her sunken face in the lingering air currents churned up in Number 10’s wake. She took her last few hunched steps and clutched her chest. Surprise slapped her across the face as she pitched forward, hitting the pavement face-first.
A thin black tentacle pulled itself out of Agnes’s back and slithered behind the bus and beyond the side mirror’s field of vision. Dumbstruck, Maggie looked at the driver’s side mirror. Nothing.
The few passengers on the bus crowded the windows to look at the poor old woman who had just face-planted on the sidewalk. The homeless man sitting behind Maggie didn’t get up to look. He muttered, “We all go out,” making an odd kind of sense.
Maggie radioed for an ambulance, then got out of the bus. She cautiously approached the still body. “Mrs. Muncie?” she said, hoping maybe Agnes had just fallen. No response. Maggie searched Agnes’s back for some gory hole where the…the…whatever the hell the thing was…impaled her. There was nothing there but Agnes’s sallow coat.
Maggie gently grasped Agnes’s shoulder to turn her over. “I called the ambulance, Mrs. Muncie. They’ll be here any min—” She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to. Agnes didn’t care. The days of Agnes Muncie caring about anything were over. Her face was frozen in a twist of pain, her glazing eyes wide and shot through with red from burst blood vessels. From the fall her forehead was flattened in a red spot and the tip of her nose was scraped. Blood seeped from every visible orifice—nose, eyes, mouth, ears.
A man walking his dog stopped and asked, “Is she okay?” Maggie almost laughed. The woman was leaking blood like a stuck water balloon. No, she was not okay.
Other people had begun to congregate. Maggie heard sirens in the distance. She walked around Number 10 in a daze, remembering the…tentacle. The ugly, shiny, black tentacle that shouldn’t exist…but did.
Maggie turned the corner of the bus, sure the tentacle would be there, rearing up, taking her out next. But all she found was an advertisement telling her in Spanish that she had a future as a Vet Technician or Legal Secretary. She bent down and looked under the bus. Nothing. She peeked into the single tailpipe, and felt immediately stupid. What am I doing? she thought. Whatever she saw must have been a trick of the October air in Los Angeles—a heady mix of smog, leaves, and apathy.
Nerves under control, Maggie climbed back into Number 10’s driver’s seat and waited for the ambulance. The homeless man banged on the door to exit the bus, mumbling something about being late. Maggie looked at her watch and finally gave up the ghost on her own schedule. She knew it was callous to think about her schedule with a dead woman outside, but old Agnes Muncie was only one of many passengers, and she no longer had a schedule to keep.
* * *
Victim number two fell a month later. According to the news, his name was Brandon McGinnis, city planner, earth lover, and all-around great guy. He introduced his face to the pavement during rush hour on November 15, a week before Thanksgiving, as Number 10 idled at the Beverly and La Brea stoplight. Droves of people filled the street and Number 10 carried a full load. Brandon was young, in a dress shirt and slacks, with spiky blonde hair. Maggie happened to glance into Number 10’s six-by-twelve mirror and saw him pitch forward, like he was almost pushed down to the pavement. There was that shiny black tentacle again, its end buried in the kid’s back. It pulled out and hovered in the air for a moment, tip pointed at the side mirror. Almost like it was looking at Maggie. Then it disappeared behind the bus.
People gathered around the fallen boy. Maggie put Number 10 in park and cut the engine, ignoring the symphony of car horns. By the time she got to the kid, he was as dead as Agnes Muncie.
* * *
Maggie went to Brandon’s funeral a few days later. She overheard the morbid curiosity that seeped through the crowd: You hear what happened? They said he had a heart attack, but it was more like his heart exploded.
The same day the L.A. Times ran a blurb about Agnes Muncie, apparently a very wealthy woman in life: Mrs. Muncie died of heart failure. An autopsy revealed the trauma catastrophically damaged her heart.
* * *
That night Maggie had a dream. A formless black demon chased her through the streets, stretching its shiny arms toward her almost to the point they would break. She avoided oily puddles of shadows that writhed and clawed at her legs. She stopped when she saw her mother lying in one of them, the wet darkness crawling up over her skin, into her mouth, her nose, blotting out her eyes like a living oil spill. We all go out, she said, choking up the same black gunk she choked up at the end of her days.
Maggie ran, crying and babbling. She fell into one of those black puddles and the shadows crawled up her arms, across her legs, down her throat—
She shot up in bed, sweating, weeping, shaking. Puddles of oily darkness covered the bedroom and she scrambled to turn on the lights.
She never got back to sleep.
* * *
The next day Maggie took Number 10 to the maintenance garage as soon as she had dropped her last passengers downtown. She was gassing up at the city’s pumps when one of the city’s mechanics emerged from the maintenance office.
“Girard,” said Maggie, “could you take a look at Number 10? She’s struggling a little on the hills.” She didn't dare tell him what was really wrong.
“Sure, Maggie. But she's one of the oldest in the fleet. She's gonna do that.”
“This is Number 10. She’s a good girl. Can you check her out?”
He smiled and Maggie knew she’d won him over. He said, “Sure. Pull her in.”
She did and hopped out. She walked around the back. A furtive movement in the tailpipe caught her eye. A kind of…slithering? She bent down and peered inside—
Number 10 coughed to life and she fell backward in a cloud of exhaust, choking. “Girard!” He didn’t hear her. She walked to the front of Number 10, wiping soot out of her eyes.
When he saw Maggie’s soot-covered face, he smirked. “I’m sorry. I thought you left.”
“Just call me when you’re done.” Maggie left him in the driver’s seat snickering at the black ring around her face. She felt like a moron. Still, what if there was something way back in there, watching her, waiting to come out…
* * *
Maggie didn’t wait for Girard to call before going back to the garage. It was late and she was alone as she approached the rear of Number 10. The tailpipe surveyed her curiously, its single black eye deciding if she were friend or foe. She sensed something in there. Heard it moving…
The lights flicked on. “Hello?” Girard said from the doorway.
“It’s me, Maggie,” she called back, stepping into the light. “Just checking on Number 10.”
He walked over to his desk. “I told you I’d call you. You don’t trust me?”
“Of course I do. I just…” She wasn’t sure how to finish.
“I gave her a real good once-over,” he said. “She’s running like a champ. Better than most of them.”
“Thanks for looking,” said Maggie. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if he’d checked the tailpipe, but she didn’t. She wasn’t sure what would’ve been worse—finding out he saw something, or finding out he didn’t.
He added, “You haven’t seen my cell phone, have you? My wife’s going to kill me. It’s my third one this year.”
“Dang. Okay. Gotta be around here somewhere.” He picked up the office phone and dialed his cell number. Madonna began singing Like a Virgin behind the bus. His face dropped and Maggie had to smile. “That’s not my normal ringtone,” he pleaded, his eyes asking her not to mention it to the other guys. “Probably my daughter’s idea of a joke…”
Maggie saw his phone on the floor beyond Number 10’s back bumper. She hadn’t noticed it before. Girard walked toward it. He said, “What the hell—nuh!” The tentacle shot from the exhaust pipe and into Girard’s chest. It lifted him in the air and held him there. His face went slack. There was no blood, no guts, no gory hole in his chest. The tentacle just snuck in like a burglar, did its dirty work, and escaped. Girard fell to the floor with a fleshy thump as Madonna continued to sing about her bygone days of virginity.
Maggie scrambled away from the tentacle as it moved within inches of her face. It wasn’t soft and pliable as she had imagined, but rubbery, covered in smooth, gleaming skin composed of millions of scales packed tightly together. It came to a rounded end that was surely its head, though it had no features. It smelled vaguely like smoke. Or maybe she imagined that.
A mix of terror and fury flooded her. She felt her mind tumbling backward to the morning almost exactly ten years ago—
When she enters the room, she’s hit by the stench of stale cigarettes—a smell she’ll always associate with death. She carries a bag of saltwater taffy. It was her mother’s last request, though they both know she can’t eat it. Her mother turns her head on the pillow to look at her, and Maggie senses another coughing spasm coming. Now even that tiny movement will trigger it.
The wracking coughs come, wave after wave, gagging her mother on the dark phlegm building inside her chest. They both cry—Maggie from the seeing the frail, failing woman fighting for her life; her mother from the force of the spasms in her chest.
“Come…here…babygirl,” her mother says, each word an effort. Maggie leans close. Her mother wraps sweltering fingers around her neck. Her mother's breath still smells like smoke, even though she had her last cigarette a month ago. “We all go out, babygirl” she says. “It don’t matter when. It matters how.” Another coughing fit takes her mother as Maggie continues to cry furious tears…
Maggie snapped back to the present. The tentacle loomed over her, ready to plunge into her chest and shred whatever was left of her heart. But she realized there was something left in there, because she felt it move. She'd thought she'd left all the pain and loss behind ten years ago when her mother died. Now, though...now she realized she'd only been outrunning it for a decade. She felt stupid believing it would never catch up.
She lunged for a heavy wrench hanging on the wall above Girard’s desk. The tentacle shot out at her. She ducked, banged a knee hard on the concrete floor, but steadied herself on the desk. She grabbed the wrench and turned to face her demon.
The tentacle lashed out and she swung blindly. She nicked it, producing black gunk that might have been its blood. It knocked the wrench out of her hand and wrapped itself around her wrist. A second tentacle shot from the tailpipe and grabbed her other wrist. A third squeezed out of the pipe and touched her on the cheek. When it got close enough to her mouth, she bit it.
It tasted like stale cigarettes.
It loosened its grip and she twisted away. She barreled into Number 10’s passenger door and slammed the lever shut. In the rear-view mirror, she watched as—impossibly—tentacle after tentacle shot out of the tailpipe, slamming against the sides of the bus. One pried at the door. Another slid down the windshield, ripping the wipers out of their holders. Several pounded on the glass and smeared it with black blood. Soon the light was completely blotted out as Number 10 was encased in a writhing cocoon.
She started up Number 10’s engine. She hit the opener for the garage door, revealing the island of gas pumps outside. She reached for the gearshift…
And smelled cigarette smoke. She looked into the seat behind her, the seat once occupied by a cantankerous old woman named Agnes Muncie (as in Indiana), and now occupied by her mother. She was younger, healthier, cradling an American Spirit between her fingers. Exactly the way Maggie wanted to remember her. She gestured casually to the windshield, “Well, you waitin’ for an invitation, babygirl?”
Maggie finally understood. No one ever outruns death. It only matters how we chose to face it. Her mother went angry as a hornet, spitting black-streaked blood into a bedpan. Agnes went facedown on a filthy sidewalk. Brandon went completely unaware he’d just experienced the last moment of life. All of them…surprised. Until now, that was how death operated in Maggie’s life—as one infuriating, life-ending surprise.
Maggie slammed on the gas pedal. Tires screeching, the bus leapt from the garage and shot across the lot. She felt the heat from the fireball that erupted when Number 10 ripped the gas pumps out of the concrete. She didn't feel the flames as they gutted her good ol' girl, Number 10. But she heard the satisfying sizzle of the black tentacles, writhing and shaking and frying like bacon against the hot steel.
In her last few seconds of life, she looked out Number 10’s charred and broken windows. Her mother gazed back and smiled. She held a glowing American Spirit between her fingers. We all go out, babygirl, she seemed to say. It don’t matter when…
It matters how.