Quiet surrounded the station. The man leaned against a column half concealed by shadow, expressionless, deep in thought. He wore a grey double-breasted woollen jacket, black leather shoes and a black homburg hat, his eyes hidden under the tilted brim. The cold night-time air was speckled with moisture. Fog from the river crawled out from the darkness and made a diaphanous blanket across the road. Above him there was an old lamp shining down a cone of yellow, stuttering light. He drew on a cigarette and briefly regarded it before flicking it into the bin. It was almost time.
The hoarse rumble of a diesel engine in the distance. The man raised his head. Headlights approached from far down the empty street. He stepped forward to the curb, his face solemn, a mask of despair or resignation, or both — and he waited.
The hiss of hydraulic breaks pierced the night, and the bus came to a stop. The door folded open. Unmoving, the driver sat faceless in shadow. The man sighed and glanced at the township one last time, and stepped through the door. The bus clanked and rattled and drove away, swallowed by the night-time haze. He was never seen again.
Another Campfire Tale
Betsy first heard the story the year before, the same as everyone. But she wasn’t superstitious like the rest. She didn’t believe in ghosts. The idea of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, spectres in the night; it was all just a made-up fantasy. Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy for adults. An easy means to scare people into belief so the business of religion stayed profitable.
She had to admit it though, this 12th Bus caper made for a good campfire story. The number of people gone missing the past few years certainly helped. Over ten now, it was. Funny how unsolved mysteries tended to find convenient explanations in the supernatural.
But, of all vessels to purgatory, or hell—or wherever it went—why a bus? She never understood that part. Not to mention, why would anyone board the damn thing in the first place? It didn’t make sense. And yet, 1am the first Saturday of each month, the streets were empty. No-one left their home. In fact, aside from Betsy, very few residents were able to sleep.
Enough was enough, she decided. The town was terrified of a made-up ghost bus, for Christ’s sake. Which is why, on that particular night, she’d earlier had a double espresso to stay awake, and now wore two jumpers beneath her coat. January nights in northern New Hampshire were hypothermically cold, and in this town, unbelievably dark. She grabbed the flashlight, put her gloves and beanie on, and headed out the door.
Boy it was cold.
Smokey breath floated and vanished in front of her; the lamp overhead buzzed and flickered. She raised and lowered herself on her heals and rubbed her hands together, doing her best to keep warm.
She checked her watch. Right on 1am. No sign of anything. She took the phone from her pocket, turned the timestamp on, and started filming. Already she was writing the story in her head: what she’d send off to the newspaper the next day. Who knows, maybe they’d be so impressed they’d take her on as a columnist, she thought with a smile.
Suddenly, she heard it. An engine. She looked at her wrist, which read 1:02am. And it was then that she remembered. Her watch was two minutes fast. The bus, if indeed that’s what the sound was, was right on time. The engine soon grew more distinct, and, for the first time, Betsy started to wonder. What if the story really was real. She felt a shiver, and a subtle current shot up her back. The noise was getting louder.
Finally, she saw the headlights.
Whatever happened, she knew it would be a good story. Besides, it was probably just a prank, right? Someone trying to freak her out. Scare the local sceptic for a laugh. Thinking about it, though, had she told anyone? She struggled to remember. But, figured it wasn’t impossible, having had a half dozen gin and tonics at the pub the night before.
She turned to face down the road… And there it was. An old, blue, rust-spotted bus, looking like it belonged in the backyard graveyard of a retired diesel mechanic. The interior, including the driver cabin, was pitch black. Betsy gasped—never had she seen anything like it on the road before—and she resisted an urge to back away.
The bus clanked and hissed and pulled to an abrupt stop in front of her, and the shutter doors creaked open. It remained dark inside. She found herself overcome by terror — the bus driver, nothing more than a black silhouette in front the dim light behind, remained motionless, not acknowledging her, staring forward. With hands shaking she raised the phone as it filmed, and glanced at the screen. There was nothing there. Only the empty road, and the fading light from the lamp across the grass.
The phone fell from her hand. Shaking, body a shudder, she slowly looked up, and nearly screamed. The driver’s head had turned towards her, bright opal whites of two ghostly eyes staring back from out the black shadow. Unable to move, unable to blink, she stood there frozen, the moment so pregnant with fear it curdled the very air she was breathing.
Looking back on that night, she could never be sure how long the silence lasted. All she knew was, eventually, she heard a deep and sonorous voice, from the driver, or from inside her own head, she couldn’t tell.
It said, “Go home, Betsy Francis. This, is not your bus. Go home.”
The eyes then faded to black as the driver faced forward, and the door closed. Betsy watched as the bus drove off into the dark inclement of night, her fear subsiding, still bewildered, and forever changed; never to pass judgement on a believer again.
“Time for a gin and tonic,” she said.