One Quiet Desert Night

By Cameron Neilson

Florescent lights.

I'm so tired of the sickly, pallid hue of the florescent lights. All day long I lay here in my room, trying to sleep, trying to hide in the comfort of my dreams, but the lights never turn off.

If I cry long enough, or if I start to bang my head against the thickly padded walls, a nurse will eventually come to my rescue. She saves me with the little blue pills...the pills that charter my consciousness on a round-trip cruise to oblivion; that sweet, black nothingness of brain-dead slumber; the Elysian fields of my mind.

The first few weeks I spent here, they placed me on suicide watch. Carefully they observed my every movement, watching me sleep, watching me eat; even watching me shit. Now I'm just one of the many, a certified lunatic. Wearing the official uniform of the insane: a white hospital gown that exposes my bare buttocks, I waste the days away in my padded kingdom. Here, every waking minute of every waking hour is like hell...a florescent hell. For when I'm awake I remember the chain of events that brought me to this padded-room; to the pretentious doctors with their notepads and clipboards; to the nurses with their secretive whispers and gazes of mixed curiosity and pity.

It seems like only yesterday it all happened, although I know it has been months, possibly years. The colors are still fresh on the pallet of my mind, and the sounds still echo in my ears. If I let myself get lost in the memories, my imagination begins to play out like a movie projector. I forget the constant glare of the florescent lights, and my consciousness narrows down onto the screen of my mind.

Suddenly it has all started over again, and I can see myself sitting there on a hot, dry evening in April, in a bus terminal somewhere between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. I sit quietly with a melancholy look in my eyes, gazing at the empty highway outside and the still desert beyond it. If only I had known what that highway led to...if only I had known.

* * *

"Why the gloomy face?" Wendy asks, sitting down on the bench next to me, her golden hair as magnificent as always, long and straight, hanging almost to the small of her back. She had taken her backpack into the bathroom to change, and came out in amazingly short cut-offs and a pink tanktop, two sizes too small. Some people would sneer at Wendy's clothes and call her trashy, call her a slut. I thought she was beautiful, a goddess incarnate. The shorts gave me, a mere mortal, a glimpse of heaven in her long, tan legs; the tank-top blessed me with her athletic, lean curves.

Slowly I turn my gaze from what she's wearing to her face. Her lips are painted a dark cherry. Her green eyes are a deep, emerald pool I could drown myself in.

"What? What do you mean?"

"When I came out you were staring out into the desert. You looked sad."

"I dunno. I guess I was sad for a moment. The desert looks so solitary. I guess I felt alone just looking at it."

"Well, your not alone, silly." She reaches over and hugs me, drawing me close to her, pressing me against her warm body. I can smell the faint scent of strawberry, or maybe raspberry drifting from her hair.

"I know. It's just that I've never seen such a god-forsaken hole in the ground. What did you say the name of this place is?"

"Clearwater. The sign on the highway said Clearwater: population 200."

"Well, it looks more like population of twenty. Did the bus driver say how long he would be?" Drawing her arms back from my shoulders she looks down at her wristwatch, a dainty, leather-strapped thing, the tiny hands pointing to little golden stars and silver moons instead of numbers.

"He said four or five hours at the most, and that was forty-five minutes ago. He said if the local mechanic didn't have the part, then he would have to get a ride back to Braxton to get it."

"Braxton? That's four hours one way!" I look about the weather-beaten bus station. I can't imagine having to spend eight more hours in this dusty, downtrodden shack. Rising up to stretch I decide to get something from the snack machine in the back of the room. Walking past the benches I wonder if the other passengers are as ready to leave as we are.

I stride slowly down the aisle, taking my time; God knows I have plenty of time. Speaking of God, I pass the bible salesman, his cheap toupee hanging precariously off of his fat, speckled head. Sweat runs down his face in continuous drivets, drenching the collar of his green and orange polyester suit. I wonder if he got the hideous excuse for clothing at the salvation army, or if it was merely a relic of his youth; a reminder of the days long past when he had a full head of hair, a golden medallion, and a closet full of polyester suits.

Behind the bible salesman sits an elderly lady with a young boy by her side. She is fanning herself with a newspaper as the boy plays with plastic toy soldiers...the kind you can buy in most any store, twenty for a dollar. Lost in some fantastic war in his imagination the young boy enacts valiant campaigns along the peeling planks of the wooden bench; the tan infantry charging to their deaths against the greens, who have entrenched themselves in the deep cracks between the boards.

At the end of the small waiting room, next to the ancient vending machine, sits the cowboy. His feet are propped up on the bench in front of him, proudly displaying his red snakeskin boots. With his broad-brimmed white hat pulled down over his unshaven face, he snores gently, seemingly without a care in the world. Next to him all his earthly belongings lay neatly tucked inside a weather-beaten sea-bag. Here is a man that seems at ease in his element, born to sleep carelessly on the uncomfortable waiting room benches of bus stations across the nation. A rambling man. A man born to ride...the bus that is.

Approaching the vending machine, I browse methodically over the selection of hard candies and chocolate-covered goodies. Spying a row of Twinkies on the top right of the machine, I breathe a sigh of relief. No matter how old the machine, the Twinkies will always be good. Urban legend perpetuates that the moist, sugary bread and creamy filling has a half-life somewhere close to that of uranium.

Sliding fifty cents into the coin slot, I pull the lever in front of the Twinkies, and then I grimace as the sound of rusty metal grating on metal reverberates throughout the machine. Down the Twinkies drop, and in my hand goes, up under some type of chrome crossbar and down a dark hole, groping for the undying pastries.

Reaching deep into the bowels of the vending machine, my fingertips brush across the upturned shells of dead insects, grains of sand and dust, and something sticky and wet. Finally I feel the Twinkie wrapper under my hand and I pull it out cautiously, careful not to damage or dent the treat inside. Walking back towards Wendy, past the cowboy, past the old lady and the boy, and past the bible salesman, I hold the Twinkie gently in my hands, caressing it lovingly. When I sit down next to Wendy, I start to open the pastry wrapper, but then realize I wasn't really hungry at all, just bored, and I toss the package over to her.

"Thanks, Matt, but you know I'm on a diet."

She's always on a diet.

Propping my feet up on the bench in front of us, like the cowboy, I settle back and start staring out the dirty windows of the bus station into the desert again. What a crap-hole. The town behind the bus station consists of a few run-down mobile homes, a church, and what used to be a gas station. In front of me, facing away from the town is nothing but desert. Desert and rock...rock and desert. The yellowish brown sand merges with the scattered red rocks until the entire horizon looks like one long shit stain. A great river of refuse spreading as far as my eyes can see across the land. What a pathetic spot to be stranded.

Wendy nestles up to my side as I gaze outside. Slowly, the evening sun seems to be melting away below the horizon; the sky above taking on a pink and orange hue. As it sinks, the sun casts one last look over the miserable desert, throwing long shadows wherever a lone boulder stands or wherever a cactus breaks out of the cracked earth reaching with spiny arms up towards the fresh air.

Watching the sun set makes me feel relaxed, and I forget about this miserable place we are stranded in. As the great ball of fire slowly drops down below distant mountains my eyelids close down with it, and soon I have descended with the sun into the darkness of slumber.

"Wake up, Matt! There's a bus here!" Wendy nudges me with her elbow, pointing excitedly outside. Forcing my eyes open, I gaze with sleep-blurred vision towards her pointing. It is a bus...but damn, it's an old one; a rusty looking antique from the forties, something you would expect to see in a junkyard, not stopped by the side of the highway.

Rubbing my eyes I rise up. The bus is farther away than I thought. Oddly enough, whoever was driving didn't park in front of the station, under the flickering, yellow light of the overhang. Instead they had stopped ten feet or so off of the highway, as if wishing to remain unnoticed.

Stepping outside, into the warm, dusty night air, I hesitate before walking towards the bus. Behind me the others are watching and waiting. Even the cowboy has his hat pulled back and is standing by the vending machine, sea-bag in hand. The sun is long gone, and the desert night is unnaturally quiet. There is no insectoid droning from the warm shadows; no chirping songs of the cricket. Just quiet.

Something doesn't feel right. Something isn't quite...normal. There are no lights turned on inside the bus, and the passenger doors are ajar, silent and waiting. I can't even see if there is a driver inside. There are no apparent markings of any kind on the bus, no brand name, no symbols. Just a decaying old bus with patches of red-rust eating through in random patterns across the chrome paneling; caked with dust and bird droppings.

I decide to approach.

Once I'm close enough to peer inside, I notice there is a driver. Sitting silently in the shadows of the interior, he faces forward in his chair, both hands on the wheel. I begin to feel a little spooked. Even as I step up to the door, the driver makes no attempt to look in my direction.

He is an elderly man; bald, with a very pallid pallid he almost looks blue. Then I notice the purple veins tracing across his cheeks. This man hasn't seen the sunlight in a very long time. The clothes he wears look as if they've never been cleaned; covered in grime and filth, splotched with black and brown patches. And he smells of a pungent, earthy, rotten smell. This guy needs a bath.

Building up my nerve to speak, I step through the open double doors and onto the bottom step of the bus.

"So, old timer, where are ya routed to?" No answer. He just keeps looking forward. From the side of his profile facing me I see a hollow look in his dark eye as he stares blankly down the highway. Maybe he's deaf.

"HELLO, GRAMPS? WHERE ARE YOU HEADED?" He doesn't turn his head but raises a bony, ivory-white finger and points to a wrinkled and faded map on the dashboard. I lean over and inspect the map. It has a single route highlighted in red, following Route 66 southwest across the country. Assuming the antique bus doesn't break down on the way, I decide this would be much better than spending another four hours stuck in Clearwater.

"SO, HOW MUCH? HOW MUCH TO CALIFORNIA, GRAMPS?" Again he doesn't answer. Maybe he's mute as well as being deaf. Raising the same, skeletal finger he points to a moneybox by the door. It is a plain wooden box with a slot for coin or cash. The small sign above it indicates ten dollars one-way.

Backing out of the bus and heading back towards the small, one-room way-station, I have my doubts. Something is definitely wrong with the driver of the bus. The guy gives me the creeps.

One time I watched an interview on television with this psychopathic killer on death row. This guy looked like any other guy...your neighbor next door; neatly groomed, glasses, and an intelligent look about his face. Then he explained to the reporter in horrific detail how he liked to rape and then cannibalize his victims. I remembered the queasy knots I got in my stomach as I watched the interview. That's how I feel now. Something is just not right.

As I near the door of the station, I can see everyone looking at me expectantly through the dirty glass. They are all clutching their bags, even Wendy, waiting for me to give them some sort of sign. Waiting for the signal that they are saved from the dismal boredom of Clearwater, U.S.A.

What the hell, I decide, anything's better than this place. I give Wendy a thumbs up and she hurriedly rushes out to greet me.

"Is it heading towards California?" She asks, the excitement obvious in her face.


She drops her bags and throws her arms about me. "Thank God!" You don't know how sick I am of this place!"

Stepping up, the cowboy readjusts his wide brimmed hat, and opens his mouth to speak. I feel slightly repulsed as I notice the greenish-black stains between his teeth from years of chewing tobacco.

"So, what's the charge to ride this here stagecoach, pardner?" His thick, southern drawl spills the words out slowly. I grimace with each opening of his mouth, as the appearance of his teeth begins to nauseate me.

"Ten dollars." I reply, loud enough for everyone to hear. The cowboy reaches behind his skin-tight wranglers and struggles to free his wallet from the vise-grip of the back pocket. As he finally pulls it out, I'm not surprised that it is a scarlet, snakeskin pattern, matching his boots. Slinging his sea-bag over his shoulder he heads out to the bus and disappears up the steps and into the shadowy interior.

I watch as everyone follows him into the ancient bus, the vehicle shifting down slightly from the added weight. Wendy walks ahead of me, then turns around, wondering why I'm not following her.

"What are you doing standing there, Matt? Haven't you had enough of this place?"

"I don't know. Something about that bus and the driver spooks me out, Wendy. Have you ever seen a model of bus that old on the road before?" The queasy knot in my stomach has grown now and something is tugging at my mind from the depths of my subconscious. There is a little red siren going off in the back of my brain; a warning of some type.

"You're spooked out? Over an old bus? Come on, Matt, give me break!" She drops her backpack in the dust, and puts her hands on her hips. She gives me the same look she's given me a hundred times before; the look of consternation mixed with impatience.

"It's not just that! It's something...something else, but I'm not really sure what it is!" I can't seem to grasp the right words for what I am feeling. She lets out a sigh and rolls her eyes at me.

"Matt, this is getting ridiculous. Can we please just get out of here?" Looking into her green eyes, I see she is giving me her look; that longing, pleading look that promises soft love and warm caresses if only I give in. The secret look that all women instinctively use to make the men in their lives say yes. Tensing my jaw, I resolve not to give in, as I have done so many times before. I will make a stand for men everywhere.

Then she flutters her long, dark resolve shatters apart like glass to a wayward baseball.

"Okay, let's go." My short-lived stand against her now broken, I grab up my suitcase and her bag, and defeated I follow her into the bus's interior.

* * *

The highway stretches on forever, a continuous river of tar winding silently through the black desert night. The dim, yellow headlamps on the bus occasionally startle some red-eyed possum or skunk, but other than that, the desert seems lifeless and barren. Wendy sleeps quietly, her head slumped over on my shoulder, and I stare out watching the night pass by. Once in awhile I glance over at the strange bus driver, but he continues to stare forward as he drives. His eerie silence is unnerving

Looking over my shoulder I see the other passengers have all drifted off to sleep. The cowboy has his red boots propped up on the seat in front of him, the bible salesman is using his huge suitcase for a pillow, and the little boy is sleeping in his grandmother's lap. Reaching down and turning Wendy's wrist over, I see from her watch that it is two in the morning. We have been on the road for over an hour since we left Clearwater.

The bus is getting stuffy, so I open my window slightly, letting in a warm, fresh breeze. The wind plays with Wendy's soft, golden hair, blowing strands of it across my face. It's times like this that I feel lucky to have a girl like Wendy with me. Not many guys get a chance to go through life with such a lovely woman by their side. Looking at her as she sleeps, I wonder if we will always be this happy. I wonder if things will be the same when we make it to California.

Turning to look out the window again, I notice the view outside has suddenly been clouded over by brown dust that billows up alongside the bus in great clouds. Coughing, I realized the dirt was steadily seeping in through the cracked window, so I quickly shut it and looked towards the front to see what is happening. We were no longer on the highway. Sometime in the past few minutes the driver has slowed down and turned off onto a small one-lane dirt road. From what I can see, the little road leads off into the depths of the black desert, apparently towards a group of hills that rise up against the night sky on the distant horizon.

Pushing Wendy gently aside, I rise and make my way up a few booths and to the side of the driver. He is unmoving and quiet, speeding along into the desert as if he didn't even realize we had left the main highway. Squatting down beside him I nearly gag at the stench that rises from his body.

"Hey, old man, where are you headed?" No response, as usual, he merely continues to gaze forward. The bus hits a pothole and his head lolls from side to side before steadying straight again. There is something discomforting about how his head moves, but I can't quite place it in my mind.

"Listen, fellow, I know you can hear me. You pointed to the map and you pointed to the moneybox when I asked you. Where the hell are you taking us? Is this some sort of short-cut or something?" He doesn't answer, but slows the bus down to take a sharp turn at the foot of a small desert hill. As the bus turns his head lolls again, this time facing me. I gasp in surprise at the site of the left side of his face. The skin is apparently rotted and peeling back, and the left eye is milky and white. Gazing in horror at the small lines of yellow pus that run down from the patches of open flesh, I suddenly get a stronger whiff of the putrid stench that permeates from this man. Realizing the smell of rot is coming from his face, I start coughing and back away from him, biting down on my tongue to stay the gag reflex rising up in my throat.

The road straightens out and the driver's head turns facing forward again. I stumble back to my place by Wendy, who is now awake and looking outside the window. Still coughing, I cover my mouth and try desperately not to remember what his face looked like.

"What's wrong, Matt?" Wendy clutches my hand as I sit back down beside her; she can see I'm shaken up. Her eyebrows are furrowed together in concern. "Did you ask him why we're not on the highway anymore?"

"His should have seen his face, Wendy!" Visions of decaying lepers I'd seen on the public broadcasting channel were playing across my mind. I wondered briefly if there was a chance of his infection spreading.

"I don't care about his face! Where the hell is he taking us, Matt? Did he tell you why he's heading out into the middle of the desert?"

"I don't know, he wouldn't answer me. Then I saw his face and for some reason I couldn't stay by him any more. It just freaked me out!" Wendy clutches my hand with an iron grip. My reaction to the driver has gotten to her. Fear is starting to show in her eyes. Just as I consider approaching the bus driver again the bus is slowing down and rounding another small, desert hill. As we round the bend I'm surprised to see the road leads into a group of run-down houses and decrepit wooden buildings.

The other passengers on the bus are taking notice to where we are now. I can hear the cowboy grumbling out loud as he comes up from the back of the bus. The little boy asks his grandmother if we are in California yet.

As the bus rolls slowly down the road, the town that passes by our windows is something from a B movie; a forgotten town in the middle of nowhere; the town that time forgot. The windows of dilapidated houses are boarded up, and desert weeds overrun long untended gardens. Here and there we pass tireless, rusted out cars; here a 1938 Ford pickup, there a 1941 Studabaker. I hardly notice as the bus comes to a stop in front of a dimly lit storefront. It's apparently a small diner or coffee shop, and I'm surprised that electricity lines out here are still active. The classic depiction of Uncle Sam points at us from a tattered, ancient poster on the diner's window front. It advertises War Bonds for the year 1942.

The bible salesman picks up his suitcase and adjusts his toupee. He either doesn't notice, or just doesn't care that we have somehow ended up in a ghost town ten miles off our route. As he brushes past us and steps out the bus door I notice the driver is gone. A shiver runs down my spine when I realize I never even saw the old man leave. The grandmother leads her boy out while he tugs on her coat, asking where the bathroom is. Then the cowboy steps out, lights a thick, hand-wrapped cigarette and follows the others.

Wendy hesitates, and then slowly starts to rise to follow the others. I grab her arm and pull her back down beside me.

"Something is wrong here, Wendy. I don't want you going out there."

"I don't know, Matt. So the old bus driver decided to stop here for a little detour? He probably lives in one of these little old houses with his little old wife. I'm just going to take a quick look inside the cafe, ok?" I consider Wendy's rationalization and I struggle to push down the doubt that stabs at my mind. Hesitantly I let go of her arm and tell her to hurry back, she says she will get me something to drink. I watch her as she leaves the bus and steps out into the dark, heading towards the diner. The others have all disappeared behind the dirty glass front, but I can make out their silhouettes moving inside.

Standing to stretch, I let out a massive yawn and then casually turn around towards the back of the bus. I let out a sudden cry of surprise when I see someone sitting silently in the farthest back seat. My heart has jumped to my mouth and I take a step back, realizing that the dark figure sitting unmoving in the back shadows is the old man. The bus driver.

I'm still stepping back when he slowly stands and his face contorts into a manic grin. As he smiles his face stretches. I think I hear the putrid skin on his left face rip open. I see that he has no natural teeth, but jagged shards of glass and rusted nails stick out from bleeding and torn gums, protruding out at uneven angles.

I don't wait for him as he starts to shuffle towards me, I turn, my fear full-blown into a nightmarish fever and bolt out the bus door. I hit the dirt of the road outside at full velocity and I dash towards the diner with a speed I've never known. As I near the glass door, I hear hideous screams echo from inside. It looks like someone has splashed red paint upon the inside of the glass, and the light inside shines through the storefront in a sanguine hue. I start to turn away from the door, but then I remember...Wendy is inside.

Swallowing my fear I turn and look towards the bus, the driver is shambling with an unsteady gait slowly down the steps. He's still a good fifteen feet from me. In one motion I turn and kick the diner door open. The door slams inward with unexpected force and I stop in my tracks, stunned by the goulish scene before me.

The old grandmother and her boy lie dead, their necks savagely ripped open, their faces contorted into silent screams of agony. Hovering above them, feasting on the blood, are two cadaverous bleached faces splotched with branching, purple spider-veins. Shining, albino eyes glare up at me, and when I see the aching hunger in those eyes I realize what the creatures are.

Time seems to stand still when this realization hits me. I see Wendy near the door, her mouth open in an unending scream. I see the cowboy, in slow motion grabbing a wooden chair and moving towards the creatures. The bible salesman is fumbling with his suitcase, which has spilled open, King James Versions falling everywhere.

The creatures before me are vampires. Not the porcelain-perfect vampires of modern pop-culture that sport long, silky hair and a model's smile. These things before me are abominations of nature: hideous, malformed teeth branching out in jagged edges from ripped and torn lips; skin, decayed and frayed is spotted with maggots and worms; patches of ancient hair and green moss cling to bare bone and cankerous, sore-ridden flesh. Looking into those piercing, luminescent eyes, I feel the primordial fears of my subconscious break forth in waves of terror. I know in that very second why mankind is instinctively afraid of the dark...nosferatu, the unclean, the living dead.

I break my gaze from the creature's eyes and it is as if I have awakened from a spell. Suddenly everything is moving in full speed again. The cowboy shatters a wooden chair against the back of a demon's head. The creature rises, unphased, and with one skeletal hand tosses the cowboy a good ten feet over a table and against the back wall of the diner. The cowboy's neck snaps with the impact and he crumples lifeless to the floor.

Wendy is still screaming as I grab her arm while keeping the door open. The bible salesman has an arm full of bibles and he holds one in front of him towards the creatures. They are afraid and stand back, hissing in consternation, covering their eyes as if blinded by an invisible light that emanates from the holy book.

His toupee falling off of his head, the salesman yells at us to back out through the front door. I tell him the bus driver is between us and the bus, and when I look I see the creature is only five feet away, slowly shambling, his arms outstretched towards us. The bible salesman yells at me to stand aside and keep the door open. Still holding his King James Version to keep the two beasts in the diner at bay, he drops the rest of the books, save one, and this he hurls with all his strength through the open door towards the bus driver.

The bible pages flutter like a multi-winged bird, and the book hits the creature square in the chest. Upon impact the bible seems to evaporate, and as if the book were made of napalm, a writhing, burning fire covers the bus driver from head to toe. Contorting and screaming in fury he falls to the ground, the flames consuming his rotted flesh and unnatural body. He convulses slightly and then lies unmoving. The fire that dances over the blackened corpse burns a fierce blue and white.

Wendy has stopped screaming now and stares, dull-eyed towards the burning body. Looking back in the diner I see that the creatures that feasted upon the old lady and her grandson have gone. A back door bangs open from the desert wind.

"Get moving, young man!" The bible salesman picks up a few more bibles and then grabs my arm, pulling Wendy and I toward the bus. "Do you know how to drive one of these?" I don't answer but force Wendy into a chair and shut the bus door. I tell the salesman to hold on and I jam the clutch and crank the starter. The old engine roars to life. Dust kicks up as I spin the tires out and turn away from the town back towards the highway.

As I push down on the accelerator as hard as I can, the ancient engine whining as the pistons pump at their limit, I can only think of the strange, iridescent eyes of the creatures in the diner. Driving away from the town, I feel as if those unnatural eyes still look upon me from the darkness outside. Now I guide the bus, careening dangerously around the base of the small hill and back towards the highway. Looking back, I see Wendy stares silently out the window, and there is an empty look of shocked disbelief in her eyes. Her mind is still processing the bizarre and horrific happenings it just witnessed.

Checking the rear view mirror on my side, I see the giant clouds of dust filling the air behind us. I start to turn my head forward again to watch the road, but from the corner of my eye I see a dark, fluttering shape gliding in the night sky above the dust clouds. I concentrate on the road ahead of me, hoping the shadow was merely a large bird in the desert night.

A loud thunk reverberates throughout the bus; it's the sound of something heavy landing on the roof. Wendy and the bible salesman are looking up towards the sound, and I start to weave back and forth on the dirt road, trying to dislodge what I fear is above us. Then there is another thunk, the sound of something else landing above us.

The speedometer on the bus reads fifty miles an hour. I can't imagine how something could keep positioned on the top of the bus at this speed, and then I hear the unmistakable sound of multiple footsteps upon the bus's metallic roofing. Wendy is screaming again. I yell at her and the salesman to brace themselves against the seat in front of them, and when they do so, I slam on the brakes, sending the bus sliding a good twenty feet on the dirt road before settling to a stop. Nothing could hang on during that, I tell myself, looking out the front window, but unable to see anything save the dim headlamps reflecting off of the thick billowing clouds of dust.

Wendy has stopped screaming now, and there is complete silence except for the sputtering of the ancient diesel engine of the bus. As we sit there, waiting for the dust clouds to settle down so we can see outside, the engine slowly dies, like an old man breathing his last breath. I try to crank it again, but it won't start. The only sound I hear now is the labored breathing of the bible salesman as he peers outside into the darkness with us.

A minute or so goes by and now the dust is starting to dissipate enough so we can see the road ahead of us. There are no bodies lying broken in the dirt as we hoped. No creatures stand waiting for us. There is only the vast, naked wasteland and this road, a construction of man marking the desert like a scar.

I look at Wendy and her hands are covering her mouth, as if to hold in the screaming, and she is looking up at the roof of the bus. We are all looking up at the roof of the bus now, listening and waiting. We hear nothing.

The bible salesman drops the bible he was still clutching in his hands upon the bus seat and starts to take his jacket off.

"Well kids, it looks like we lost our visitors. I used to tinker around with engines back in the day, let me..." he is abruptly cut off by the inward shattering of glass. Long, bony fingers reach in behind him and dig into his shoulders. He is yanked out of the window like a rag-doll, leaving strips of bloody polyester dangling from the shards of broken glass. I think I hear his screaming fading away into the night air as I crank frantically on the ignition.

To my surprise and relief the old diesel roars to life, sputtering out black exhaust with a shotgun bang. The bus lurches forward as I throw it in gear, and then I hear the shattering of glass again. I turn to yell at Wendy to back away from the windows but it is too late. All I see are her legs as she is dragged up and out into the darkness.

Something in me tells me to stop the bus and turn around...go back to the town, for that is probably where they will take her. Then something else in my mind tells me it is too late...keep on driving and save yourself. Fight or flight is the choice; that instinctive drive deep in the reptilian recesses of the brain of every living creature, and in that instant, against the tearing of my heart as I thought about Wendy, I chose flight.

Hauling ass down the dirt road I reach the highway, and nearly overturning the bus, I spin out onto the pavement without slowing down. The desert rushes by me, but I only look straight ahead, my mind numbed and still processing the recent events. Clearwater, 80 miles ahead, a sign reads. As I drive, I try not to look to the left or right. I refuse to look in the rearview mirror. For if I do, I fear I will see those luminescent albino eyes glaring back at me. I fear I will see Wendy, clutched in the grip of those white, dead hands.

Eventually I reach help and like a madman I babble on about the creatures, about the slaughter, and about Wendy. People look at me strangely, but in light of the disappearance of five people they have to take me somewhat seriously. The next day, state troopers are called out and they take reports, interview me, interrogate me, and eye me suspiciously. They leave for a half of a day and when they come back they say they found the ghost town, but nothing was there. No trace of blood in the diner, no bodies, nothing. They take me into custody for a couple of weeks while a vast search is made in the surrounding desert for the rest of the bus's passengers, but not a trace is ever found.

I am later released and I make my way back to my hometown, the city where Wendy and I first met. There I find a job, get an apartment, and try to live a normal life. But constant nightmares assault me, both asleep and awake, and people keep their distance from me, wary of my disheveled appearance and the wild, horrified look in my eyes.

Then one night I hear Wendy call my name.

The night it happens I dream that a distant voice is calling out to me, but when I awake in a cold sweat, the sheets clinging to my naked body, I can still hear it. "Matt...where are you Matt?", the faint and muffled voice comes from the dark outside my window. My heart is throbbing irraticaly, strangled by fear in my chest, but I have to go look. Slowly pulling aside my curtain I peer out into the shadows.

It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness outside and when it does I slowly scan the ground below. There is nothing there and so I look upwards at the large Oak tree at the side of the building. Is that a shadowed figure perched on one of the upper branches? I try to scream, but my throat is frozen shut by sheer terror. The figure in the tree leans forward and a wayward moonbeam lights up a pallid...deathly pallid face. It is Wendy and she calls my name again. Trembling in fear I pull the curtains shut so fast I nearly rip them down. Jumping up I rush to check and make sure the front door is bolted shut. After turning on all the lights in the apartment I frantically search the drawers and boxes in the closet until I find what I am looking for, a small crucifix given to me as a child by my grandmother.

The rest of the night I sit in the living room, clenching the small wooden cross as tightly as I can, thinking of that face I saw outside. It was Wendy...but it wasn't. It was merely a mockery of her, a pale visage that had no life in its eyes...a face from the grave.

The night passes, as do a few other days, and I get no sleep. I am simply too terrified to close my eyes. Knowing I can't handle it anymore I check myself into the Parkway Mental Hospital and tell the doctors with the clipboards my story. I tell them of the ride into the desert, of the decaying undead vampires, and of Wendy who visited me in the night. They give me more than adequate medication and then place on suicide watch, for the staff fears I might hurt myself in some way. When they try and turn out the lights in my padded room I scream uncontrollably and so they decide to leave the lights on constantly.

That is the memory of how I came here in its entirety. The days slipped by into weeks and now here I sit, damning the ever-burning florescent lights that keep me safe, yet keep me awake. For it is awake, that no matter how drug-placated my mind, the surreal and horrifying events of that one quiet desert night haunt me. I doubt I will ever leave this haven-prison, whether by doctor's order or by my own doing. For here I feel safe from the shadow that bore Wendy's face and called my name from the quiet of the night. Yes, here I am safe...I hope.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Cameron Neilson

Bio:Cameron Neilson, 28, lives with his wife and two dogs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He studied psychology at the University of Oklahoma and served four years in the Marine Corps. Cameron learned German so he could read the work of Herman Hesse in the original language.



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