[Belated Halloween story because of animation festival and urethral surgery. You've heard this plot before, of course, but it's a new telling, anyway.]
The rain was coming down in big sticky globs and the tour bus's back wheels spun for a fraction of a second, sending up a big fan-tail of muddy water, before they caught and the bus lurched out of its illegal parking space behind the shopping mall, onto what passed for a main highway in the little backwater town of Wheaton, Manitoba. It was a bus full of desires and Screaming Avocados.
The specifics of those desires were different for each Avocado or hanger-on in the little bus. Rodrigo, strapped grimly into the drivers seat, would have liked a cigar and about a pint of decent Scotch, but just at that moment, to be honest, he'd have been even more pleased if the fucking rain would just let up for a few minutes so he could see the road. In the seat right behind him, Stan was wishing he could go back in time to a few hours before, in the middle of their last gig, when the bouncers were dragging out a belligerent drunk who'd called him a faggot, among other things. Stan had thought of the perfect retort - much too late, of course. He had other things in his mind, including the first glimmers of a period of soul searching that might eventually lead to the realization that the drunk hadn't been so far off after all.
Jonathon stared out the window at the utter blackness. He was theoretically supposed to be writing a song, but at the moment he was thinking about ways to add sulfur-containing groups to phenylethylamine derivatives. Right at that moment he wasn't happy to be a rock'n'roll star at all; he wanted to be back in school, in the lab. Stretched out flat on the bench seat at the very back of the bus, a Gothic groupie who had sampled Jon's wares may have had desires of her own, but she wasn't in much condition to tell anybody about them. "Trees," she said vaguely, "and the light inside a robin's egg just before it hatches. Universal flowers and the caterpillars of doom." Nobody was listening to her, even if they could have heard her over the storm and the guitar.
The guitar was in Ellen's hands. She was picking it like a scab, loudly enough to be annoying. She wanted a bubble bath, a glass of port, and to get into the panties of the blonde groupie snuggled against her left side in the narrow seat. The groupie, innocent as they are, wanted to be Ellen when she grew up. In her backpack, piled with some coats in the seat immediately behind, she had zipped up a little black kitten. The kitten was scared and hungry and wanted to be with his mother and littermates again, but he was finding some comfort in saturating the bag, and those items it was piled on top of, with urine. Mike was in the seat across the aisle, half-asleep. His desire was to make a sandwich with Ellen and the blonde groupie, naked, but that would never happen.
Earl, the roadie, was fully asleep, with his head pillowed on a coat, mouth open, snoring loudly. He was dreaming about winning a few grand at the craps table, putting the money towards a new motorcycle, and heading for the hills. Back in Wheaton he'd encountered his old friend Ray, from community college, and it didn't take too much talking to convince the band to let Ray string along with them for a stop or two. Ray said he was on his way North, prospecting for gold, but he was always talking big like that. Actually he was just bumming around. Good drinking companion, though. Ray's desire was to do something real, and really get it right, just for once.
That made five Screaming Avocados, two groupies, a kitten, a roadie, and a random guy, eighteen lives all together counting the kitten as nine even though he was very small, each with their own hopes and desires as the bus rattled down the road to the next gig, in Thebes. The wind howled, and the rain was giving Rod plenty of grief up there in the driver's seat, but as they crossed the river on the outskirts of town, getting onto the open road again, most of the souls on board were pretty much in a state of peace.
There was a flash of light and a horrible noise that screamed up into the ultrasonic within milliseconds but seemed to reverberate inside everyone's heads for an endless moment afterwards. The bus jolted forward, and the groupie lying down at the back fell to the floor and picked herself up, rubbing her addled head. Mike looked out the back window and yelled, "Jesus fuck!" and Rod reproached him in Spanish for taking the name of the Lord in vain, that being pretty much the only Commandment Rodrigo took seriously, but Mike had a good excuse for it.
Through the back window Mike had seen the bridge they had just crossed folding up like a damn origami crane and plummeting into the ravine below, parts of it apparently on fire even though it was made of metal. Some kind of freak accident, he thought, in an oddly detached way. Lightning must have struck it and that somehow caused it to collapse. Either that or God Himself had sent down six hundred and seventy-three angels in a pillar of fire and vengeance wearing diamond sandals, lime-green silk tank tops, and cloth-of-gold miniskirts, even the male ones. With flaming swords, too. Mike wasn't even on anything and he still almost thought he'd seen that. "Purple death," commented the Goth chick morosely, "Navier-Stokes equations in a causality violation semiring." Those pills Jon gave her had been some serious shit, man, a designer psilocybin analog, and angels of vengeance were about the least of what she was seeing.
Well, at least it hadn't happened until after they'd safely crossed over. More than a bummer for anyone else on the road behind them, but that'd be someone else's problem. As Rodrigo was wrestling the bus back under control, Jon, looking out the window, saw a hitchhiker standing dangerously near the side of the road, getting drenched. He almost considered telling Rod, hey, man, we ought to pick that guy up. It was so fucking nasty out there, nobody should have to be outside in that. But the bus was moving so fast that by the time Jon had thought that through, it was pretty much too late to do anything about it.
The rain picked up a little as the bus rocked along the highway outside of town. The streetlights were so far apart and so high up in the air that they didn't really illuminate much of anything. At ground level all Rod could see was the twin sticky pools of light from the bus's headlights. He was pretty much on instrument flight rules, trusting to the Virgin Mary to keep them from running into anything. Mike had woken up a bit and was watching out the front window, worrying.
Suddenly something loomed up in front of them and Rod swerved wildly to avoid it, right into what would be oncoming traffic if anyone else were stupid enough to be out here. He yelled something in Spanish that sounded to Mike a whole lot like it must have meant "Jesus fuck!" possibly with some creative suggestions about the Virgin Mary thrown in, but Mike didn't bother to object. What they'd nearly run into was some nutball hitchhiker who'd been standing right in the middle of the lane with his thumb hanging out. Asking for trouble doing that, even if it was about what it would take to be seen at all.
Jon piped up, "Hey, Rod, man? Maybe we oughta pick up one of those guys. It isn't fucking right, anyone having to be out there in the rain, and we've got plenty of space, eh?" Rodrigo just snarled. But he was a kind man at heart, and a couple minutes later when they passed another one and Jon yelled, "Hey, man, let's pick that guy up!" he stomped the brake, gave half a glance out the back window, didn't see anything and hoped that mean nobody was behind them, and backed the bus right up a couple hundred metres to pick up the hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker was approximately nine feet tall. Actually he was only six-four, but that's how he looked to Stan as he hoisted himself up into the bus, guitar case on his back, words streaming out of his mouth: "Hey, man, thanks, man, much obliged..." He was a thin, pale man, maybe fifty years old or so, wearing a heavy and soggy white parka. Probably if he took it off, there wouldn't be much of him left at all. A floppy felt hat shaded a lined face; when he removed it, the hair beneath was surprisingly dark and luxuriant. He shuffled nearly to the back of the bus, passing each Screaming Avocado in turn, and settled into an empty seat near the back. He shoved his luggage into the seat across from himself; Stan noted with approval that it included a guitar case.
As he passed the sleeping Earl, the roadie stirred in his sleep as if having a bad dream. When Will passed Jon on his way to the back, Jon had the strange impression that he'd seen the man before. Thinking it over, it occurred to him that this hitchhiker looked just like the first hitchhiker he'd seen, right after they crossed the bridge. How many hitchhikers could be out here tonight anyway? But of course that couldn't be unless Ray had been driving them in circles.
"I'm Will," the hitchhiker declaimed to everyone who was listening. "Will McCarthy. Much obliged, as I said." The Goth girl seemed to have caught his attention. "You practicing for a grave, kid?" he asked her.
"I'm just riding the reincarnation tricycle," she informed him solemnly.
Will McCarthy laughed. "Aren't we all."
Ray gestured to Will's guitar case. "You a musician, Will? Small world, so are we."
Ellen laughed. "Well, some of us, anyway. I haven't heard a note out of you in particular, Ray, barring that drunken serenade last night." The groupie at her side giggled.
Will said, "Yes, well, no, not professionally. But I lead sing-alongs and hymns sometimes. Kum bai yah is probably the only song I do that you would know."
"Sort of. I work with troubled teens. I go wherever kids need answers to life's questions."
"You a preacher, Will?"
"Something like that."
The Avocados didn't press the point. Will seemed cool enough, but they none of them were all that big on religion. He didn't seem eager to prosyletize, though, and he was good to talk to, so pretty soon everyone who was awake and not driving was into a deep discussion of this damn weather, life in general, and their hopes and desires. Afterward Will couldn't remember exactly what they had talked about; he just remembered the bus barreling along with Rod grim at the wheel and nothing at all to see out the windows, like the bus had become its own little Universe for a while.
After a couple hours it was time for refreshments. Backpacks were opened. Will shared a bag of those pretzel chunk things, and there was a Thermos containing Ovaltine spiked with Jack, which Mike had cautiously kept out of Jonathon's hands until this time because he didn't want it to end up spiked with anything stronger. Ellen had a tub of hummous she'd bought from a pimply-faced girl at the deli counter of the only supermarket in Wheaton, and it wasn't very good and the men didn't even like hummous much at the best of times, but hey, whatever, it got passed around with the other stuff and people at it. Earl was shaken awake and the others kind of regretted that because he dug into the food like he thought it would be his last.
The blonde groupie wiggled out of Ellen's clutches long enough to pull her slightly-crushed and urine-soaked bag out from the pile and retrieve one unhappy black kitten. He sank his claws into the front of her shirt and had to be petted and told how beautiful he was until he calmed down enough to be passed around. The humans were all at least trying to be friendly, and they had plenty of good vibes, which he appreciated. As Stan tried to pass the kitten to Will, though, the small creature seemed to take fright. Emitting a yowl, he bounced out of Stan's hands on a higher arc than should have been possible, running lightly across the backs of the seats to snuggle into the lap of the Goth girl, where he was so well-camouflaged that only his eyes were visible. The black-clad Goth girl and the black-furred kitten crooned to each other in a midnight language only they could understand.
"Funny," said Will, "Normally cats love me."
The bus just kept rolling down the highway. There was no way to know how far they'd gone or how far they still had to go. Rod would just laugh if you asked him "Are we there yet" like some little kid. After a while most people seemed to want to sleep, so they did, with coats thrown over themselves and heads awkwardly cradled against the windows. Just before dropping off Stan looked back and saw Will talking with Mike in a low voice, serious looks on both their faces, no way to know what they were talking about.
Some time later Will made his way to the front of the bus and negotiated with Rod about where he wanted to be dropped off. A little before Thebes, he said. There'd be a crossroads, and a fenced off native burial ground a little ways off. The place he was going was off the crossing road a few klicks up, a sort of youth hostel where he was expected, but he didn't ask or expect the Screaming Avocados to go out of their way for him. Just let him get off at the crossroads, and that would be fine.
No landmarks had been visible for God knows how long. The night was mostly past and the sky was starting to lighten, but the rain had been replaced by fog so it was still pretty much impossible to see anything. Nonetheless, almost immediately after Rod had agreed to drop off Will at the crossroads, that same crossroads became visible up ahead, sure enough with the fenced-off area off to the left.
"Hey, man, this is it right here!" said Will, and Rodrigo pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped the bus. Will picked up his bags and carefully climbed down the stairs, exchanging goodbyes and thanks with the Screaming Avocados, then the door closed and Rod spun the tires and the bus lurched off again. Will watched it disappear into the mist.
"Nevermore," said the Gothic groupie, watching him out the back window. "Never here, never there, never born, ever forlorn, nevermore."
Will swung his guitar up to his shoulders and walked off along the crossing road.
"Y'know," said Jon to nobody in particular, back on the bus, "I got kind of a weird vibe from that guy." But nobody saw fit to comment. "Like, was he really there at all or did we just dream him? And why did he want to be dropped at a graveyard in the middle of nowhere." But still, there were no answers. The bus just kept going.
Dawn had long since come, and the fog mostly burned away, by the time Will made it to the lonely little building in the middle of nowhere that was his destination. The rain had stayed away for most of his walk, but just in the last few minutes, the clouds came right back and drenched him again, like they didn't want him to think they'd forgotten that he was outside and vulnerable. Will peered through the rain at the house. A soggy man was standing on the porch, smoking a soggy cigarette.
"You Will McCarthy?" asked the soggy man.
"Well, get the Hell in here, man. You must be just about dissolved, in all this rain."
"You got that about fucking right."
The man kicked open the door and Will followed him inside.
"Yes, but not enough."
"Okay, breakfast will be in just an hour or so, and you can meet the kids then, too. Must say I'm glad to see you're here and in one piece. Thought that collapsing bridge might have given you some grief."
"Oh, didn't you know? Well, guess you wouldn't have any reason to know if you weren't in it. Hell of a thing, bunch of people lost their lives. Some kind of freak lightning thing."
"I did not know about this."
"Well, it was right on your route and about the time I'd think you would have been leaving Wheaton. I've got the paper around here somewhere if you want to see it, they've got some pretty horrible pictures of this wrecked bus," he said, but Will had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror that was hanging there in the hall.
"No, that's okay, man," he said, staring at the weathered face that stared back at him. "I think I get the idea." The pure white hair made him look mature and distinguished.