THE BUS by STEVE CARR
ISSUE ONE: March, 2019
by STEVE CARR
Carl awoke gasping for breath. He clutched his chest but quickly realized the pain that had radiated from his heart to down his left arm was gone. He slowed his breathing, purposely inhaling and exhaling at a normal rate until he was doing it without thinking about it. Then he became aware of the large fans with bamboo blades whirring softly and rhythmically on the ceiling above him. At that moment he felt the coolness of the cement floor under his body. Carl sat up and looked around. He was in a busy bus station. The signs on the walls were all printed in Vietnamese. He glanced down at his naked body to his feet and saw Bao standing there.
“Am I dead?” Carl said.
Bao gave an enigmatic smile and adjusted the chin strap on his conical hat.
“Your wife sent you a birthday cake,” Bao said, and Carl reached into a brown paper bag that suddenly appeared sitting on the floor at his side and pulled out a cake smothered in chocolate frosting with twenty-two burning candles. “Make a wish.”
Carl closed his eyes but before he made a wish he opened his eyes and saw that he was standing in a rice paddy. The water was up to the top of his Army boots. In the heat and humidity, rivulets of sweat ran down his spine and his uniform stuck to his skin. The M-16 in his arms was so heavy he had a hard time holding it up.
In formation, the men of Company D who he had gone through boot camp with were marching by, sloshing through the bright green rice grass.
“Ain't no sense in going home,” they sang in cadence.
Perkins, Mott, Lawson and Adams turned their heads and looked at Carl.
“Jody's got your girl and gone,” they sang.
They faced forward and marched on, singing, “Your left, your right, now pick up your step.”
Watching Company D disappear into the jungle, Carl dropped his rifle in the water and took off his helmet. He took a fork from his shirt pocket and dipped it into the helmet and lifted out a forkful of chocolate cake. He closed his eyes as he put the cake in his mouth.
He opened his eyes to find himself standing beside a hospital bed that Bao was lying in. Bao was asleep. There was a large bandage on his upper right chest.
On the other side of the bed, a young Vietnamese nurse in a crisp, white nurse's uniform and wearing a white nurse's cap was taking Bao's blood pressure. When she removed the cuff from his arm, she looked up at Carl and said, “Are you the American soldier who saved his life?”
Avoiding the nurse's admiring gaze, Carl said, “Is he going to be okay?”
She nodded. “He'll recover from the bullet wound and should live to an old age,” She brushed Bao’s hair back from his forehead. “We'll always be grateful for what you did but visiting hours are over.”
“I didn’t get your name,” he said to the nurse.
Carl turned and stepped into the dark jungle. Ahead he heard Company D singing, “And it won't be long 'til I get back home.”
Carrying a chocolate cake sitting on a glass platter with thirty candles stuck in the frosting, Chloe waded through the meadow of waving, sunburnt, yellow prairie grass. In the distance the light pink and purple layers of the rock formations of the Badlands glowed in the intense sunlight.
Surrounded by prairie grass and sitting in a beach chair in dark blue swim trunks and holding a mai tai, Carl watched Chloe coming toward him. With his index finger he pushed at the maraschino cherry that floated on the top of the drink beneath a small, red, paper umbrella. The cherry sunk to the bottom of the glass and exploded, sending fragments of cherry and pieces of umbrella into the air as the mai tai vanished.
“Get down!” a voice yelled from somewhere behind where Carl sat.
Carl turned to see Perkins, Mott, Lawson and Adams running out of a grove of quaking aspens with M-16s in their arms. Their uniforms were torn and splattered with mud and blood. They vanished as they ran into a cloud of smoke.
Carl turned back to see Chloe was now seated at the other end of an oak dining room table in front of him and smiling at him in a beguiling way. Her long blonde hair was being tousled by the breeze.
On the table in front of him was the cake and a small, square, gift wrapped package with a red ribbon tied around it. He picked it up and turned it over several times.
“Open it, darling,” Chloe said.
He untied the ribbon and then tied it around his left wrist. He then removed the wrapping. The gift was a framed photograph of Bao and Duyen sitting on a white wicker sofa. Bao had his arm around Duyen. Both were smiling.
“Thank you for the gift, sweetheart,” he said.
“You're welcome. Now close your eyes and make a wish before you blow out the candles.”
He closed his eyes.
Instantly a voice said, “The bus is ready for boarding.”
He opened his eyes. The bus station boarding platform was bustling with travelers. Four buses were lined up in a row, their doors open. Drivers stood in the doorway on the bottom step of each bus. The bus driver on the step in front of him had a handlebar mustache and ruddy cheeks.
“That's a nasty scar on your cheek,” the driver said. “Where'd you get it?”
“A bar fight,” Carl said.
The driver shook his head sympathetically. “You getting on the bus or not?”
“Where's the bus going?” Carl said. He shifted the duffel bag he held on his shoulder.
“Hard to say.”
Carl sat the duffel bag down at his feet. He saw he was wearing brown leather cowboy boots.
“This is all a dream, right?” Carl said.
The driver twisted the end of one side of his mustache. “That depends on how you look at it, but you're going to miss this bus if you don't get on now.”
“What do I do with my duffel bag?” Carl said.
“Just leave it there. It'll get sent along.” The driver went up the bus steps and got behind the wheel.
Carl stepped over the bag and onto the bus steps. He was enveloped in darkness as the door closed behind him.
Riding atop a chestnut horse as it leapt out of a wall of dense smoke into a small, circular patch of muddy ground encircled by dipterocarp trees, Carl held onto the horse's reins with one hand and held his white Stetson from falling off his head with his other hand. When the horse's front hooves landed in the mud it splashed onto Carl's cowboy boots and brown leather chaps. Carl pulled back on the reins, stopping the horse in the middle of the mud patch. He patted the horse's neck.
“Good boy, Thunder,” he said.
Echoing from the surrounding jungle was Company D singing, “They say that in the Army, the chow is mighty fine. A biscuit fell off a table and killed a friend of mine. Oh Lord, I wanna go home.”
Carl looped the reins around the saddle's horn and climbed down, stepping ankle deep in the soup-like mud.
Perkins, Mott, Lawson and Adams ran out of the jungle. They stopped in a semi-circle around Carl.
Adams, the youngest of them, freckled with bright red hair hidden beneath his helmet, said, “You shouldn't be here.”
“I had no choice. I was drafted,” Carl said.
“Incoming!” Mott, a sergeant and the highest ranking among them, yelled.
Carl remained standing as the other men laid face down in the mud. A hand grenade landed at his feet and sunk in the mud. Expecting the grenade to explode, he closed his eyes.
Carl opened his eyes. Standing in front of him on a porch that overlooked an open stretch of prairie was his teenage daughter. She was holding a cake with the number 40 written in white icing across the chocolate icing. There was a red ribbon tied around her wrist.
“Lisa, where's Thunder?” Carl said.
Lisa looked at him with confusion and concern. “Thunder died years ago, Dad, before I was born, while you were in Vietnam. Don't you remember?”
He felt a lump in his throat. “I loved that horse,” he said.
The screen door squeaked as it opened. Carl turned and watched Bao walk out. There was a large, wet blood stain on his upper right chest. Bao took a couple of steps, then collapsed on what was now bare dirt.
Carl looked around at the burning huts that surrounded him. The men of Company D had gathered together the remaining villagers and were ushering them away from the fire.
“Tôi là một nông dân,” Bao said.
“Medic, this man's just a farmer,” Carl yelled as he bent down by Bao's side.
A cloud of smoke blinded him as he put his hands on Bao's wound to stop the bleeding.
Sitting in a beach chair, Carl wiped his eyes, and then opened them. In front of him the vastness of the ocean stretched out beneath bright sunlight. He lifted the sunglasses from his lap and put them on. Tides washed up onto the beach, pushing clumps of foam towards where Carl sat. He picked up his Army boots from the sand and placed them between his legs, and then brushed sand from his blue swim trunks.
In a chair next to him, Chloe sipped on a mai tai through a red plastic straw. A maraschino cherry floated on the top of the drink beneath a red paper umbrella.
Screeching seagulls circled and swooped in the sky above the beach.
Looking up at the gulls, Chloe said, “I saw an eagle flying over the Badlands yesterday.”
Carl glanced at the red, white and blue eagle tattoo on his forearm. His skin glistened with beads of sweat. “Am I dead?” .
She took a sip of the mai tai. “Not to me, you aren't. Why do you ask?”
“I can't seem to wake up.” He looked over and saw that Chloe and her chair were gone. The mai tai was sitting in the sand. Next to the drink was a cake covered with chocolate frosting. A wax candle in the shape of the number 50 stood on the top of the cake.
He turned back to the ocean. A white bus drove out of the water and onto the beach. It came to stop a few feet away from him. Its door opened. The driver with the handlebar mustache walked down the bus steps and stopped on the bottom step.
After twisting the ends of his mustache, he said, “So, this is where you went to.”
“I had to get off the bus. I didn't know where it was going.”
“Few people ever do with any certainty,” the driver said. “Are you ready now?”
Carl looked down the beach and saw two people in the distance walking toward him. He put his hand over his eyes to block the glare from the sunlight. “That's Bao and Duyen.”
He turned and saw that the bus was gone. He put on the glasses and his boots, and then ran to the couple. “Have you seen Chloe?”
“She was sitting at the bar at the hotel having mai tais,” Bao said. “Are you enjoying your return to my country?”
“It's changed since the last time I was here.” He looked toward a tall hotel that suddenly appeared at the end of the beach. Blinding sunlight reflected from its white paint and blue tinted windows. The sunglasses did nothing to block the intense light. He closed his eyes.
With Lisa leaning against him, Carl opened his eyes and saw that he stood at the head of the long picnic table. Seated around it were Lisa's husband, Frank, his twin cousins and their wives, Tom, the bartender from the saloon in Scenic, the mailman, Earl, his two ranch hands, Glenn and Sean, Bao and Duyen, Perkins, Mott, Lawson and Adams and their wives, and at the other end of the table, Chloe.
He raised his mai tai and said, “Cheers.”
Everyone else did the same thing. Each person had a red ribbon tied around their wrist. Following Carl's lead, they pushed aside their red paper umbrellas and took a sip.
Carl lowered his mai tai and looked out at the prairie that surrounded the rock formation that they were on the top of. A small herd of buffalo was moving slowly through a dry stream bed. An eagle soared in the sky above the formation.
“We made you fifty-five chocolate birthday cupcakes, Dad,” Lisa said.
Carl glanced at the cupcakes, each one with a burning candle stuck in it, following the lined rows of cupcakes on the picnic table to where Chloe was sitting. Ben Mason, his best friend from high school, was standing behind her, his arms around her and kissing her neck. She was laughing.
Instantly, Carl found himself in an open field and carrying Bao on his back. His uniform was stained with Bao's blood. A chopper was ahead, its blades whirling noisily.
Bloodied and muddied, Company D was marching at a double step around the chopper singing, “Jody's got your girl and gone. One, two, three, four.”
The chopper and Company D disappeared, replaced by Thunder who had wings, like Pegasus.
Carl placed Bao on Thunder's back, put his cowboy boot in a stirrup, and then climbed on behind him. Thunder lifted from the ground and flew through the sky. Carl looked down at the prairie bathed in sunlight. His ranch sat amidst a sea of grass. A herd of buffalo were crossing the northern border of the ranch, headed toward the Badlands.
“That land is heaven on Earth,” he said. As the gentle wind bathed his face, he closed his eyes.
He opened them.
The bamboo blades of the ceiling fans churned the cigarette smoke-filled air. The bar was crowded with Vietnamese locals, American ex-pats, tourists, and American military veterans. Their combined voices created a cacophonous din.
Carl, Bao, Perkins, Mott, Lawson and Adams sat around a square, rickety table. In the middle of the table was a chocolate sheet cake with “Happy Sixtieth” written on it with blue icing.
“You would have been left to die if it weren't for Carl,” Perkins, gray bearded with a large stomach, said as he raised a mai tai to his lips.
“I know,” Bao said.
Lawson, bald and thin, said, “Carl, do you remember the first time we were here? It was right after we returned from the jungle and you just found out that Chloe had cheated on you. You drank so many mai tais we had to carry you out of here.”
Carl turned to see Thunder coming through the door. The horse stopped, whinnied, and then turned and walked out. Carl ached with longing.
“That was the greatest horse I ever had,” he said. He closed his eyes as they filled with tears.
He felt the burning, white sand sink beneath the weight of his Army boots and opened his eyes.
Company D was marching down the beach, singing, “Tiny bubbles in my wine, make me feel happy, make feel fine. Your left, your right, your left, right, left.”
Carl stopped and laid his M-16 in the sand, and then stripped off his clothes. He looked up as an eagle crossed the sky, casting its shadow on the beach. He walked to the entrance of the hotel bar, stepped over his duffel bag that lay in the threshold, and then looked around.
Chloe was in a pale blue house dress with her hair in curlers and sitting at the bar. She had a mai tai in her hand. A naked man with greasy blonde hair was sitting on a bar stool very close to her and also holding a mai tai.
Carl rushed over and yanked the man from the stool. “Leave my wife alone,” he snarled at the man who laid on the floor with a broken mai tai glass in his hand.
“Carl, have you lost your mind?” Chloe said.
“You're not going to cheat on me again,” he said.
“That was years ago, Carl. Aren't you ever going to forgive me?”
The man leapt up from the floor and slashed Carl down his left cheek with a jagged piece of glass. Carl fell backwards and hit his head on a corner of the bar.
Before he opened his eyes the scents of the prairie, earth and grass, filled his nostrils. His eyes open, he stared up at large cotton-like balls of clouds slowly drifting across the baby blue sky. On all sides of him, prairie dogs dodged in and out of their burrows, chirping and barking excitedly. A meadowlark perched on a nearby post warbled its brief aria.
He felt the warmth of the sun warming his cheeks. He raised his forearm and wiped sweat from the eagle tattoo. He untied the red ribbon from around his wrist and held it out to let the breeze catch it, and watched as it floated away.
The chopper blades slashed the hot late afternoon air as Company D climbed into the choppers, carrying their wounded and dead with them. Smoke formed a dark cloud above the burning village.
Bao and Duyen sat on a white wicker chair in the rice paddy, his arm around her shoulders. His hair was nearly white. Her hair was streaked with gray and arranged in a bun on the top of her head.
“My husband has something he wants to tell you,” Duyen said.
Standing in front of them, his cowboy boots ankle deep in water, Carl looked at Bao, who had his head bowed. “What is it?”
Bao looked up. “I was a Vietcong. I was hiding in that village.”
“If I had even suspected it, I would have killed you,” Carl said.
“Instead, we have been friends all these years.” He took Duyen's hand in his. “Thanks to you I met my wife who I love more than anything else on Earth.”
Smoke blew into Carl's face. He closed his eyes.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you,” was being sung as he slowly opened them.
Chloe was standing in front of him on the front porch. She had a chocolate cake on a silver platter in her hands. There was one large candle in the middle of the thick frosting; its wick was burning. The blonde in her hair had faded to the color of dull yellow and it was cut short. There were small wrinkles around the corners of her lips and at the sides of her eyes. “Happy sixty-fifth birthday,” she said.
“Why did you cheat on me?” he said.
“Are you going to go to your grave not forgiving me for that?” She threw the cake over the porch railing. An eagle swooped down and caught it in its talons and carried it away.
The movement of a small herd of buffalo walking through short, brown, dead prairie grass near the Badlands formations caught his eye.
“I forgive you,” he said, still watching the buffalo. “I love you.”
He turned his head to see that Chloe was gone.
A sudden pain shot from his chest down his left arm. He clutched his chest and closed his eyes.
When he opened his eyes he was naked and lying on a cold, cement floor. Hearing many voices around him he raised his head and looked around. There were buses lined up at a boarding platform. Lines of people of all ages, races and nationalities were standing at the open doors of the buses. His duffel bag was lying at his side. He looked down at his feet.
The bus driver with the handlebar mustache stood there rubbing the ends of his mustache.
“I'm dead, aren't I?” Carl said.
“Dead seems like such a final way of saying it,” the bus driver said.
Carl sat up. “Can you tell me what has been happening to me since I got here?”
“You've been jumping around in the dreams of those who remember you and having some final memories of your own while you wait to catch the bus to take the trip to the great beyond.”
“Why a bus?”
“Everyone catches a bus in the end,” the driver said. “This is just the station where you wait until you're ready to get on one. If you are, we'd prefer you stay on. Getting on and off a bus is frowned upon.”
“What do I do with my duffel bag?” Carl said.
“It'll get sent along,” the driver said.
Carl stood up. “Will I still be in other people's dreams?”
“For as long as the memory of you lives on.”
“I wish I could do it all over again,” Carl said.
The driver twisted the ends of his mustache. “In your memories, you always will.”
“I'm ready to get on the bus.”
STEVE CARR, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 260 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.