Chapter 1: The Red Charter Bus
CW: The following story is indented for mature audiences. It contains sexual content, violence, drug use, language and many other materials that some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.
On a particular red and rusty double-decker charter bus traveling with it’s daily load of refugees sat a dark skinned slender woman in a black faux leather jacket staring out an ajar window as the rain pittered and pattered outside. Her bright auburn hair was taught, tied in a tight ponytail that flopped and bounced about to the rickety ride. Underneath her jacket she wore a dingy gray shirt that bore a worn down logo of a beach town she visited once. Her dark blue jeans were in even worse shape as the discolored repairs stuck out whenever a stray gust of rain landed between them. She tried to hide the loose patchwork with her oversized jacket which itself was adorned with minor scuffs and scratches from a time long gone. Her clothes bore the marks and scratches of a woman with a past trying desperately to leave it behind.
She bundled herself up trying to forget what she had left behind before her departure. She kept her legs crossed, bouncing her boot in the air as she faced away from an older man who had unfortunately dozed off in the seat next to her. He snored heavily in a deep slumber. She sighed pushing her heavy dark sunglasses back up the bridge of her nose obscuring anyone from knowing the direction of her ire. She pressed a cigarette up to her glossy lips and inhaled, exhaling out the ajar window into the dark world around her. The air smelled like a mix of cigarette smoke, body odor, and rainwater as the bus was their charon and their ferry-master, guiding them into their new lives in the city.
The older man’s shirt was centered with a dark greasy stain as drool from his open mouth began to pool onto the shoulder of his thick cotton shirt. He snored heavily as the woman glanced over, watching the hefty beer-belly of his inflate and deflate over and over before returning her gaze across the glossy ocean that now covered the former “land of the free”. She took a final long drag of her cigarette before tossing the bud out the window as it disappeared over the railing into the water below. The bus rumbled down the stainless steel road as church steeples and hilled homes dotted the water like boney fingers of a man at his watery grave. Off the sides of the bridge lay nothing but ocean as the water splashed and lapped onto the edges with each thunderous wave. Little islands with makeshift homes or refueling stations for water crafts dotted the water as well with the flickering fires and twinkling lights from them working almost as makeshift lighthouses to guide fishermen and anglers back home.
The bus rattled with each bump as cracked windows trickled in rain cooling the heads of window passengers in the packed humid interior. Most passengers sat in near silence apart from the occasional cough from a sick person or the mutterings of a family amongst themselves. A staticky radio station came in and out over the loudspeakers as each bump of the road knocked it in and out of tune.
The torn up and graffitied backsides of the seats distracted the woman for a moment as she read words, messages, and phrases in all sorts of strange and unusual languages in her head. A message that caught her eye read, “Does the rain ever end?” in bright green paint in flowery text clearly made with a paintbrush or utensil of some kind. Below it, a response replied back to it scratched in with a sharp object, “Only when we’re dead.”
The rain beat down in cycles of a torrential downpour and a light drizzle, never giving the bus nor it’s passengers a moment away from it’s claustrophobic embrace. A baby screamed in the back of the bus which diverted attention briefly towards it. A woman towards the front of the bus hushed it in annoyance before the supposed mother of the infant followed suit. A few looked on with disinterest as the mother latched it onto her nipple, and nursed it quietly into silence. It was clear that the woman in the faux leather jacket was not the only person with lots of things on their mind.
The older man next to her grumbled slowly waking up from his heavy hibernative sleep. He wiped the drool from his face as his five o’clock shadow scratched his burly and hairy fist before he scooted himself back up in his seat. He scratched his hairy arm with his fingers before checking his watch for the time.
“Say, just to be sure… this isn’t the bus back from Gehenna right? We ain’t reached Gehenna yet, have we? Darn thing can’t keep time apparently.” said the man in a gruff voice tapping his watch and turning towards the woman.
“No, not yet.” answered the woman shortly with the man, not diverting her gaze from the mirror-like ocean.
The man looked out at the same glossy sea, “No need to be grumpy, miss. We all are in the same boat you could say.” he chuckled for a moment at his attempt at breaking the tension. “No need for the doom and gloom miss?-” he said, looking for her to finish his statement with her name.
“Allison, you can call me Allison.” said the woman back to him.
“Ms. Allison, no need for ye to bring all the doom and gloom, there’s enough of it outside already. Gehenna is a fresh new start for all of us. Best greet it with your best foot forward.” said the man digging around in his backpack placed firmly on the floor. “Chew?” he said, handing a peelable artificial meat stick towards the woman.
“Sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.” she said, accepting his offer with a hand gesture. She placed it in her pocket for later not breaking her concentration on the ocean.
“Aye, don’t we all.” Silence filled the space between the two of them before he tried again to instigate a leisure conversation, “Whatcha looking forward to the most in the city?”
The woman didn’t respond. “I’ll tell you what I’m looking most forward to.” he said, closing his bag as he took bites from his snack, “I’m looking forward to some good old fashion sunlight. You young folk ain’t never seen it in the flesh but apparently Gehenna has a full artificial sun and moon inside the dome. People say it’s just as good as what the real thing used to be, ain’t that something?” the old man said, chuckling to himself.
“I don’t see the point of it honestly. Do the people inside just want to pretend the outside world doesn’t exist?” said the woman, breaking her gaze from out the window glancing her dark glasses towards the man.
“I- you young folk might not believe me but the world didn’t always used to be this way. Didn’t always rain like this, used to have sunny days with blue skies and golden sunshine. Nowadays, almost the whole country is under a dark cloudy sky. Out of curiosity, where are you from Ms. Allison?” he said inquisitively before taking a bite from his snack.
“I’m from the Appalachian Province.” she said as she took off her sunglasses nuzzling them in the collar of her jacket. Her crimson red eyes were illuminated in the dim light of the bus and stuck out immediately. They were far too red to be naturally occurring which the old man took notice of immediately.
His eyes lit up in recognition pointing towards her, “Ah, you’re one of them backcountry mountain folks aren’t you? Then you’ll be right at home at Gehenna now won’t ya. Elevation should be no issue for ya.” he then paused for a moment before giving an impression of a redneck sounding man, “I ain’t need no government assistance I got me old shotty and mi gin and dats all I need.” he said giving a hearty chuckle not realizing how similar he already sounded to his impression. A few people turned their heads as he drew heavy attention towards himself.
Allison let out a pity laugh towards the man, not verbally acknowledging just how rude the gesture was. She watched as people returned to their thoughts, “I guess so, but back in my city there wasn’t a dome.”
“I’m guessing whatever your province did to you gave you them pretty eyes now didn’t they? At least you didn’t get what them folks have, count yourself lucky.” he said gesturing to the other passengers’ ailments on the bus with them.
“I’ve heard stories but seeing them in person is something else.” Allison said diverting her attention to a frogman with his family huddled up.
“Hopefully you ain’t be gawking at them, they be people too.” snapped back the old man towards Allison with his snack sticking out of his mouth like a mafia boss with a cigar.
“Oh no, of course not. We’re all mutated in some way or another thanks to the so-called oversight of the old government.” said Allison casually.
He laughed, “Now you’re speaking my language Ms. Allison. Thanks to them I’ve been shrinking in height ever since I got that injection! Doctor said I might be two feet tall by my 70th birthday.”
Allison chuckled as her brain stopped for a moment realizing he was much younger than she thought he was, “That’s just the way it is nowadays. Experimental treatments, drugs, whatever they could do to try and make the world a little more hospitable for us.”
“Cursed ye could say. For some of us at least.” said the man stuffing the rest of his snack in his mouth.
“Aren’t we all though? Those who aren’t don’t have to live in the world that we do.” said Allison as Randy chewed the last bit of his snack.