They were all guilty.
Their heads were slightly lowered in their attempt to avoid eye contact with me. When their gazes found mine, they looked down at the floor of the bus or out their window, their reflections overlapping the smudged scenery.
They marinated in years of guilt. A feeling of forgiveness emanated from them. It was a stagnant odor of damp leaves mixed with the salty smell of sweat. It was a powerful stench that overcame my nostrils.
I drove Bus 761 in route to pick up my first round of passengers for the day. Tardiness was unacceptable in my line of work. Never have I been late in the unaccountable trips I’ve made. I always made sure my passengers arrived on time.
The bus sped down the Acheron highway, asphalt baked under the relentless rays of the sun peeking out from the clouds in the hazy sky. The bus was an eye sore. The bottom was painted black and the roof was painted a bright red. There were no advertisements on the outside or the inside. The chipped paint broke off as I stepped down on the gas pedal to increase speed. The white fluorescent lights illuminated the inside of the bus, flickering with each pot hole the tires ran over. I looked at my speedometer. The faster we went, the more Bus 761 rocked from side to side.
Mr. Worley sat behind me, rigid in his seat. I glanced back and forth at this cretin from the road to my rear-view mirror, watching his dry cracked lips move erratically while he talked to himself. Little droplets of sweat collected on his brow and ran down the side of his plumped face to his noticeably inflamed neck. He adjusted his sweat soaked collar of his blue overalls, continually scratching the inflamed area. Pieces of flaky, dead skin collected on his shoulders and he picked at the hardened crust in his eyes, wiping the greenish matter on his forearm.
He was once a respectable business man, but like many of my passengers he succumbed to the voices in his head. His wife left him years ago and he drowned her loss in heroin. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide and graduated to the murder of a local cop. That was when I began to notice the old man’s sins. Due to his insanity he was taken to the local asylum for the mentally insane.
He gripped the top section of the seat with such force that I thought he was going to rip the fabric loose. Our eyes met again in the mirror and he slowly released his grip, tapping his fidgety fingers on the upholstery.
“Are we there yet?” Each word escaped his mouth in a slow, hoarse voice.
“Keep quiet.” I kept my attention on the road in front of me. He cursed at himself under his breath. I enjoyed watching him in his sad attempt at repentance; like anyone was listening. No one listened to the damned down here. He was seated next to an older lady, Mrs. Beckert, who nudged him slightly with her elbow. He looked at her and smiled nervously.
“Did I tell you that you remind me of my grandson?” She smiled and slowly rocked front to back in her seat, her arms wrapped tightly around her wicker picnic basket. She hummed a tune she learned in church as a little girl and her eyes jumped from passenger to passenger. She greeted everyone that boarded after her, revealing a simple, quick smile that sometimes stretched from ear to ear. She was especially friendly to every male who looked like or reminded her of her deceased grandson. The dark wrinkles lining her face told her age and her eyes revealed the guilt she carried after her husband’s murder. She greeted me when she’d boarded, placing her polished coin into the coin box. She attempted to start a conversation with me about her deceased husband, asking me if all could be forgiven. I commanded her to sit down. I had a job to do. I was here to make sure that my bus arrived on time.
I did remember Mr. Beckert. I remember him extremely well. Just like his wife, he smiled and greeted me as he boarded my bus a year ago. After he placed his coin into the coin box, he began explaining to me his unstable marriage and his wife of forty years. I also told the old man that I didn’t care. He responded by pulling a “Peter Lorre.” His eyes ballooned and his body convulsed. He placed his hand over his heart and fell to his knees, pleading with me to not take him. He squeezed my hand, repeatedly begging that he didn’t deserve this. I told him to get up from the floor and take a seat. He sobbed uncontrollably for the entire extent of the ride.
Bus 761 approached the next stop. I eased on the break to slow down. A man and a woman stood on the corner, grasping one another. I chuckled and noticed the woman overlooking my bus. Her mouth trembled and she bit her lower lip. She blinked constantly. It was an expression that I enjoyed viewing. Their fear placed an almost permanent snicker on my face.
I opened the squeaking doors by pulling back the rusted lever. “Get on,” I demanded. They hesitated.
“Get on,” I demanded again, my voice deepening to a growl. The woman shook her head no and glanced at her husband who calmly placed his arm around her waist. With the back of her hand she wiped the trial of blood running down from her nose. He patted her on her back, assuring her that it was okay to get on the bus. The woman began to whisper in his ear and he whispered back to her. He nodded and looked at me.
“We only have one coin,” his voice trailed off. I despised being lied to, but I respected his attempt. I stared and waited for him to clear his throat, gather his thoughts, and lie again.
“We can’t get on the bus.” His eyes moved from the bus, to his wife, and to me. A brief moment of desperation showed in his eyes. He repeatedly licked his lips and steadily breathing in and out. It was the same desperation that delivered his wife and himself to my bus. Now their bond seemed broken. He wanted to sacrifice his wife by giving her the coin, but I wasn’t going to let him walk away that easily. I reached into the pocket of my tattered black jacket and pulled out one coin. I tossed it to him and he caught it, surprised.
“Get on,” I demanded for the last time. Defeated, they climbed the steps of my bus slowly. I quickly closed the doors and his wife looked back at me with pleading eyes. Mrs. Beckert stopped in the middle of humming her tune, greeting them while they walked past. She then resumed her tune that I was tired of hearing. I pressed firmly on the gas pedal. Bus 761 jerked and picked up speed, heading toward the last stop on my route.
Approaching the last stop, I decreased speed, slamming on the break. The tires screeched and white smoke billowed from underneath the bus. The last passenger, Mr. Williamson, a dark-haired man, was hesitant to enter the bus. He was dressed in a brown business suit with a black tie slightly pushed to the right. He gripped a silver suitcase in his left hand. The air was still and the sound of the bus’s engine was swallowed by the eerie silence. I gently tapped the coin box and he stopped in front of it, placing his coin in the box. He walked down the aisle, sitting in the first available seat, behind Mr. Worley. Mrs. Beckert stopped humming and greeted the young man. He placed his suitcase on his lap and laid his arms on top of it.
“You look like my grandson,” she smiled. The dark-haired male briefly smiled back. I pressed the gas pedal further down. We sped off. Everyone was quiet, except for Mrs. Beckert, who continued to hum her tune.
I chuckled, glaring through my rear-view mirror. Their uneasiness and worries about their future pleasured me. I saw Mr. Worley staring at Mr. Williamson slowly pull the sleeves of his suit forward to cover his slashed wrists. Mr. Williamson looked at the silver suitcase then back at Mr. Worley.
“What’d you do to get here?” Mr. Worley asked him. Mrs. Beckert reached into her wicker picnic basket and pulled out an unused napkin.
“You’re dripping all over the place sweetie,” she smiled. Mr. Williamson took the napkin, pulled back his right sleeve, and started to dab the dark blood slowly bubbling from the deep cuts in his wrist. He wiped a small puddle from the top of his suitcase and placed the napkin into the breast pocket of his suit. When he finished, he thanked her under his breath.
I stared at the needle of the speedometer reaching 100mph. Mr. Worley’s breathing suddenly became erratic. He reached for the yellow chord extending from the front to the back wall of the bus.
“Stop the bus!” He muscled the chord down. I smiled, enjoying the way he yanked the flimsy chord until it broke from its base. He threw it to the floor in a fit of rage. The needle on the speedometer passed 115. The bus rocked violently from side to side, throwing Mr. Worley to the floor where he stayed, sobbing in defeat. The roar of the engine disappeared underneath their terrified screams. A reddish hue lit up their surroundings. The air became more bearable for me, more phosphorous. The needle passed 130 and the outside scenery began to smear together in smudges of redness.
Even if I wanted to tell them, I couldn’t explain the wonderful future that awaited them; their own grotto filled with the smells of their brethren, screams of pleas echoing from bottomless pits, mixing into the exhaust filled air. It was the small glimpse of their own hell, their final destination. While their screams of anguish and agony distended immensely, my ears yearned for more.