“They put a new engine in her along with a new fuel tank after they dried her out. Even put in new seats, but none of the schools would keep her around too long because the drivers would refuse to take her out, usually after a week,” Hunter says. He had rehearsed this speech dozens of times, but that was when buying the bus seemed like a great idea.
Max pats the front yellow fender. “Why was that?”
“They’d see and hear things.”
“Like what, exactly?”
“You know, the kids, the kids who died inside.”
“How did you end up with this thing?”
“I bought it. I thought maybe I could make money letting people go inside and sit for a while. Maybe rent it out to local haunted houses or corn mazes during Halloween.”
Max walks to the open door and looked in. “Why didn’t you?”
“It felt wrong, especially after I started to see the kids too.”
A breeze comes and the smell of the salvage yard’s rusting metal, oil, gasoline, engine fluids, and old tires wafted over them. “Hunter’s Wreckers” was a few miles south of Carbona, California, and a two-hour drive from Hillsborough where Max is spending Christmas this year. He and Hunter are old Army buddies and he jumped at the chance to get out of the house that holds many bittersweet memories.
Max says, “Why haven’t you just crushed this into a big, yellow paperweight already?”
“I’m afraid the kids will be trapped in the metal forever, you know, like the ghost of that airplane guy who got attached to the parts they salvaged from his L-1011. I read that kinda stuff can happen if you’re not careful,” Hunter says, referring to the ghost of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.
“Where did you read that?”
“You know, National Enquirer.”
“So you need me to get the ghosts to leave?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Can you do that?”
Max leans against the side of the bus and folds his arms. “Ghosts aren’t really my thing, but what the hell, right?”
“Thanks man, I didn’t know who else to call, you know.”
“I need to get some stuff out of my truck.”
They walk from the bus to the other side of Hunter’s mobile home where his Pitbull, Bone, leaps up barking until the chain snaps him back. Hunter shouts and the dog sits and growls.
Hunter pats him on the head. “Don’t worry about Bone, he won’t go near that bus. Never seen him afraid of anything until I brought that thing here, do you have a dog?”
“No, I’m never home.”
“So what do rich people do for Christmas?”
“My Uncle Ted and I celebrate on the Twentieth, partially because of Panama, but mostly because neither of us are big on Christmas day, and I like to be alone…usually drunk.”
“Sorry man, I didn’t know.”
“No big deal, I’m happy to help. Anyway, we spend a few days giving big checks to charities, you know, soup kitchens, shelters, S.P.C.A., toy drives, and then I take Uncle Ted and his boyfriend out on the town in S.F. which includes Beach Blanket Babylon.”
“Oh shit, that’s right, I forgot about your Uncle. That’s cool though.”
“And I would have been on my way back home to Bixby if you hadn’t called. But that’s cool though.”
“I really appreciate you coming, man. Hey, at least it ain’t no werewolf this time.”
Max pulled his Go-Bag from the rear of the cab of his Nissan truck. “See, it’s already a Christmas miracle. I need to work alone on this one; if I need something I’ll call you on your phone. You’ll be in the house, right?”
“Yeah, it’s getting cold. Just give me a buzz.”
Max walks past the growling Bone and back to the bus. The sun has dropped below the horizon making the sky orange and purple. Climbing into the bus he sets his bag on the driver’s seat, and pulls the lever that closes the door. The seats still smell new. Opening his bag he takes out his sage-green fleece pullover jacket, and puts it on. He pulls out a pair of small tactical flashlights, and his NVAG-9 aviator night vision goggles.
Max doesn’t have a normal job. Most recent holidays have been spent overseas working as a private security contractor.
Hunter knows this, and knows that Max’s work isn’t always about guns. Sometimes his old Army buddy is hired to deal with weird things. Back at Fort Ord in 1989 there was a werewolf. The Army denied this, but everyone knew about it. Max was the one who figured out who the werewolf was, a sergeant recently transferred in from Germany, and dealt with him.
The sergeant disappeared while the company was in South Korea, and the Army pretended like nothing happened.
Max walks to the rear of the bus and stretches out on the back bench. He was out of the country when the accident happened so he only knows the basic story about the bus. The year before during the wettest winter in a decade the #78 bus made a turn and drove down a road before the Sheriffs could block it off. The Russian River had jumped the banks on both sides and the rain was so thick that the driver never saw the water sweeping over the road. The river lifted the bus off its tires, and deposited it six miles downstream in some fallen trees. Twenty-eight kids on the bus, Kindergarten through Fifth Grade, and only twelve survived. The local news was full of harrowing stories of survival and loss, but Max never read them.
The last of the daylight is gone.
He looks toward Hunter’s double-wide mobile home and sees a small Christmas tree through the sliding glass doors. The blinking lights hypnotize him for a few minutes.
He smells wet, rotting vegetation.
Sitting up he inhales deeply to confirm the odor. He walks slow up the aisle, the scent is strongest in the back, so he turns around to stand where it is strongest.
A little girl in a dress cowers on the floor between the bench and the seat in front of her. She is wet and shivering, her eyes are wide from fear.
In the next second she is gone.
Max notes the time, just after six in the evening. The smell fades until only the new-seat fragrance remains. He sits back down and puts on his night vision goggles. His world turns green, but there is nothing to see. The bus is empty, the junk yard is empty, and Hunter is sitting in his recliner enjoying a beer. Turning the goggles off, he puts his feet up on the bench. Ghosts don’t show up on night-vision, contrary to what the TV paranormal experts say, but they are great for catching the living.
He is the only living thing on this bus.
Tapping jolts him awake. For a second he is angry about falling asleep until the sound overtakes his thinking. The tapping is fast and faint at first, but grows louder. He knows the sound, yet cannot place it. The tapping fills the bus accompanied by hissing. Sitting up he straightens his jacket and notices the rear windows are fogged.
He recognizes the noise – teeth chattering and shivering.
Lots of teeth.
Walking forward he doesn’t see anyone this time.
He starts to say something when he is overwhelmed by fear and sadness. This drops him to his knees and knocks the air out of him. Regaining control is a chore, but he gets to his feet, and starts breathing again. He understands that those feelings weren’t his and that they are imprinted in the bus, but it doesn’t make things easier.
“Kids, I know you’re scared, but you don’t have to stay here. You can go.”
The sound of chattering teeth and shivering is joined by tiny voices crying. Turning one of his flashlights on he sweeps the beam around the interior, but sees nothing. He runs to the front of the bus where he slams the door lever open, and jumps outside.
The noise has stopped and all he hears are his own gasps. He keeps his eyes closed until he clears his mind, and when he opens them he sees tiny hand-prints in the fogged rear windows.
Okay, Max, what do you do now? He thinks. He wasn’t kidding when he said ghosts weren’t his thing, but just like any extraordinary situation there is always a solution. He walks to the front of the bus and stands a few feet away. Bone barks a few times from inside the house until Hunter quiets him.
The golden rule of phantoms is: Ghosts were people too.
He strips the problem to the basics, there are a bunch of kids on #78, and he needs to get them out.
“How do you get kid outs off a bus that are too scared to leave?” he says aloud. He has no idea, he has no children, and he hated school busses when he was a kid. Bone barks one more time and he looks at the dog and waves. Bone’s tail is mostly straight up, its tight wagging knocks an ornament from the Christmas tree behind him.
Duh, the Christmas tree!
Pulling out his phone he calls Hunter and tells him they need to bring the tree outside into the yard by the bus. He gets up on the deck as his friend slides the glass door all the way open, and they both lift the tree out. Once it is deposited a few yards from #78 Hunter dashes back inside for an extension cord, all the time Bone is barking up a storm, but never steps out. With the tree plugged in, Max goes back into the bus.
“Guys, it’s Christmas, do you really want to stay on this stupid bus on Christmas?”
He gets off the bus and stands on the back deck next to Hunter.
Hunter says, “What now?”
“I have no idea. I’m hoping the tree lures them out.”
“And then what?”
“One thing at a time.”
Bone’s barking changes to a whimper. A blue ball of light appears inside the bus fallowed by a second, and then a third, and continued until sixteen were floating in the center aisle. One by one they drifted out of #78 and formed a circle around Hunter’s tree. Their heights were staggered, and Max assumed this was due to their different ages.
“What happens now?” Hunter’s voice is a whisper.
“I don’t know, this is my first bus-clense.”
“Whoa, check it out!”
A white-golden light forms above the tree and grows into a human shape, but is eight feet tall. The night air is instantly warm. The balls of light start to circle the tree, and the light form above them widens at its shoulders.
Hunter lightly kicks Max’s ankle. “It looks like it’s growing wings.”
“Yea it does.”
“Think it’s an angel?”
“I think so.” Max had seen angels before, this is a new one to him.
“Think it’s the angel of death?”
“No, too flashy.”
Hunter is about to ask how Max would know but decides he doesn’t want to hear the answer. The entire scrap yard is bathed in the golden light. The wings stretch thirty feet from tip to top. The circling balls of light rise until they form a blue belt around the waist of the tall light being. For a moment Max sees the balls of light change into the shapes of children, and change back. The tall being never reveals its face.
The scrap yard goes dark except for the Christmas tree.
Bone runs past them out into the yard where he runs around the tree a few times, and goes into the bus. He is back outside by the time they reach the tree. Max helps Hunter put the tree back into the house.
“Wanna beer?” Hunter says?
“No, I have to drive back to Hillsborough.” Max goes back out to the bus to get his bag. The air inside now smells like peppermint.
Hunter is waiting for him when he climbs off #78. “I owe you bigtime.”
“Tell you what, day after tomorrow how about you and I painting S.F. red. I’ll rent a limo, well hit Beach Blanket, and then take over the VIP room at Roaring 20’s for the rest of the night.”
“What’s Roaring 20’s?”
“The strip club on Broadway.”
“Like Wolfhounds of old.”
Max laughs; he hasn’t heard the nickname of his old unit in a while. “Like Wolfhounds of old. Lightfighter ‘til I die.” He starts to walk to his truck.
“Yo, Max, it’s a strip club with chicks, right?” Hunter grins.
“Fuck you, and Merry Christmas.”