“C’MON, MOM. PLEASE?”
Michael slouched at the kitchen table, hunched over his Pop Tart. He ignored the crumbs and goo that fell on the table. His attention was focused on the woman at the opposite end of the table, the one pecking away at her keyboard, frowning at a checkbook that refused to cooperate.
His mom replied without looking up.
“You’re riding the bus, Michael.”
Michael wanted to tell her about the jerks who snicker when he boards the bus each morning. He wanted to tell her that no matter where he sits, the jerks always change seats so they’re sitting in front of him, or beside him, or worst of all, behind him. He wanted to tell her about the language they use, the way they talk to each other, the way they talk to him.
He wanted to tell her so much.
“$27.50 for lunch? What’s he eating?”
She was talking to herself, but Michael knew who she was talking about. Since Dad got his new job, he wasn’t home as much as he used to be. Now he was “on the road” a lot. Dad would never admit it, but Michael knew that Dad was unhappy at his old job. He would walk in the door at the end of a long day, wearing a pretend smile that Michael’s little brother and even littler sister never seemed to notice.
But Michael noticed.
Michael wanted to tell his mom about that, too, but not now. She might hear the words, but she wouldn’t hear what was behind the words, not when she was busy refereeing a fight between their budget and their bank account.
Michael glanced up at the wall clock. 6:55 AM.
“Better get moving, buddy.” She was still heads down, lost in her numbers.
Michael crammed the rest of the Pop Tart in his mouth and washed it down with the last of his milk. He stood, tossed the empty cup in the sink, and snagged his backpack from its resting place on the floor.
“Ahem.” His mom, soft but insistent, tapped on her cheek with her ink pen.
Michael trudged back to the table, bent down, and gave her a peck on the cheek. She finally looked up at him, tousled his sandy blonde curls, and smiled.
“Love you, buddy.” Her words were honest, sincere.
“Love you too, Mom.” His reply had the tone of a pre-teen up way too early on a Thursday morning, but he meant them just the same.
Michael’s mom returned to her balancing act. Michael returned to his backpack.
Without another word, Michael left the house, closing the door behind him.
Michael stood at the end of his driveway, frowning at the empty sidewalk in the pre-dawn darkness. He pulled his hoodie tight in an attempt to warm himself against the drizzly October morning.
His house sat at the entrance to their neighborhood, right there on the corner, but for some stupid reason he had to walk all the way down to where the sidewalk started to curve to wait for the bus. Why didn’t the bus driver just stop in front of his house on the way out of the neighborhood and pick Michael up? That would have made so much more sense.
Truth be told, though, Michael didn’t mind waiting with the other kids at the bus stop. None of those kids were jerks. The quiet girl with the red hair who never said anything would sometimes sneak him a shy smile. Michael would occasionally discuss music with the Indian boy who carried a violin case, although Michael was too embarrassed to tell the boy that he could never remember his name. They were both strings players, though, and that was enough.
Michael didn’t even mind his bus driver, a craggy old guy with a patchy beard who sometimes muttered to himself in Russian. Sure, the bus driver’s face was set in a permanent scowl, but he had to spend even more time on the bus with the jerks than Michael did. That would put a scowl on anyone’s face. The bus driver scowled a little less when he picked up Michael and his bus stop friends, and Michael took that as a good sign.
No matter how many nice thoughts ran through Michael’s mind each morning, one thought overruled them all: the thought of the long walk to the bus stop.
Michael had been up and down that sidewalk hundreds, maybe thousands of times. He’d lived in the same house his entire life, and the sidewalk had always been the same. He knew every crack, every uneven discolored square. It was the same sidewalk in the dark as it was in the light.
That’s what he told himself, anyway.
Standing at the edge of his driveway, up before the sun, Michael thought the sidewalk felt… different. The daytime sounds of cars and kids and dogs were replaced with an unsettling quiet, like the entire world had decided to hit the snooze button and sleep in just a bit longer. Even the trees felt wrong. Michael never paid much attention to them during the daytime, but now they seemed too close to the sidewalk. In this light, the branches looked like skeletal arms just waiting to grab the next kid who dared to walk beneath them.
Michael might be able to tell his mom about the jerks someday. Maybe he’d even be able to tell her about Dad’s pretend smile, but he would never, NEVER be able to tell her that the number one reason he didn’t want to ride the bus was because he was scared of the walk to the bus stop.
Michael considered looking over his shoulder. He imagined that he would see his mom standing in the front window, watching him. She would be nursing a cup of coffee, keeping an eye on him to make sure nothing bad happened. In his mind, he saw her open the door, heard her call out, “Come on, Michael. Hop in the car. Today, I’m driving you to school.”
But he didn’t look back. Ever. Something inside told him that if he looked back and she wasn’t there, that would give the bad things permission to happen. It was the thought of her watching after him that kept him safe, so he hiked his backpack over his shoulder, took a deep breath, and started walking.
Michael kept his eyes down as he walked. As long as he didn’t look up at the trees, they wouldn’t try to grab him. They would let him pass by untouched. So he stared at his feet instead, listening to the birds.
That is, until the birds stopped singing.
Michael stopped mid-step. He cocked his head to one side, listening intently, but the morning air was entirely void of birdsong. When his ears adjusted, searching for other sounds, he realized that the car sounds had vanished as well. That didn’t make any sense. Cars were always driving up and down the road outside of his neighborhood, even at this hour.
No birds. No cars. Nothing except for a low, hollow wind.
Michael’s heart started beating faster. He was overcome by a sudden urge to throw down his backpack and run screaming all the way back to his house. He wanted… no, he NEEDED to fill the air with some sound, any sound, until he was safe inside his house.
What he didn’t want to do, though, was look stupid.
What if the bus drove by while he was running and screaming? What would the jerks say then? What would the kids at the bus stop say? He’d never be able to climb on the bus again without everyone laughing and pointing.
Another deep breath, another hike of the backpack, another step forward. Michael forced himself to keep walking, head down, until he reached the bus stop. His racing heart started to slow down, just a bit. When he was safe with the other kids, everything would be okay.
Michael arrived at his destination and raised his eyes to greet his friends. To his surprise, he was the first one there.
He was the only one there.
He looked up and down the sidewalk. Not a soul in sight. Where was the quiet girl? Where was the Indian boy? Where was anybody?
That urge to run away screaming was back. His heart started pounding against his ribs so hard that he was afraid it might burst from his rib cage and run screaming down the sidewalk without him.
Go, his mind whispered. Run home, no matter who sees you or what they might say tomorrow.
That’s when he saw the headlights of the school bus.
Too late, Michael thought. It’s too late.
As the bus drew closer, Michael glanced all around, suddenly very worried. His first thought was that his bus stop friends were going to miss their ride. The more he considered this thought, the more he realized he wasn’t really worried about his friends missing their ride to school.
He was worried that he was going to have to ride the bus without them.
The bus rolled to stop, the squeal of its brakes shattering the silence. The door opened with a familiar whoosh, and Michael looked up at his bus driver.
The bus driver didn’t look back. He just stared straight ahead, scowling his familiar scowl.
Michael glanced around one last time. The drizzle had become a mist, and it was heavy enough to block Michael’s view of his house from the bus stop. The only vehicle in sight was the school bus, the only person in sight the bus driver.
With one last calming breath, Michael climbed aboard.
He knew something was wrong as soon as his foot touched that first step, but his legs kept moving until he reached the top. His eyes found the same thing in every seat they settled on.
Michael was the only passenger.
Michael hesitated when he noticed the smell. It reminded him of the time he and his dad had been hiking at his great grandma’s farm, the day they found the decaying corpse of a baby deer. Michael had a sudden, vivid memory of the maggots crawling across the deer’s skin, in its nose, out of its mouth.
Most of all, he remembered that smell.
Michael’s throat was suddenly dry. He tried to speak, but his voice came out as more of a croak. He forced himself to swallow before trying again.
“Excuse me, sir, but… where is everybody?”
The bus driver replied by closing the door and shifting the bus into gear. The bus lurched forward, and Michael lost his balance. Instead of repeating the question, Michael stumbled down the aisle and settled into one of the empty seats.
Michael stared out the window as the bus drifted by his house. He found himself hoping again to see his mother in the front window, holding her coffee, keeping an eye on her boy. He thought everything would be okay if he saw her waving to him, wishing him a good day at school.
The house his bus rolled by was anything but reassuring. All the lights were off, all the curtains closed. The house was dark and unwelcoming and deathly silent.
The word rattled around in Michael’s head. He turned his eyes away from the house, afraid of what he might see if he kept looking.
Michael’s dread deepened on the ride to school. Each time he dared to peek outside the window, he saw the same thing: more nothingness. Every street was empty, every business closed. Michael didn’t see any cars on the road, either. Not even a single pair of headlights squinting back at him through the dreary mist.
Without warning, the silence was broken by the bus driver. He started in with his usual muttering, but even that was different this morning. This morning, he wasn’t mumbling in Russian. His words sounded broken, like they didn’t contain enough vowels. Michael dug into his backpack, pulling out his cell phone and a pair of headphones. He buried the headphones in his ears, thumbed his way to the music player app, and hit play.
A familiar melody greeted his ears, but Michael wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t really want to listen to music. He wanted to not listen to the bus driver grumbling in that guttural, unnatural language.
Outside, the mist parted to reveal Michael’s school.
On any other morning, a line of minivans would stretch from the drop-off zone to the edge of the road. At the entrance to the school, a crowd of kids would be gathered outside, waiting for the first bell to ring. At least one teacher, probably Mr. J, would be waving cars forward, keeping the assembly line process running smoothly.
But this wasn’t any other morning.
Michael’s bus drifted through an empty parking lot and rolled to a stop in front of what had to be an abandoned school building. Michael pressed his face against the bus window, straining to get a better look at this building that should have been his school but somehow wasn’t.
Darkness filled each and every window.
As Michael clicked stop on his music player app, he heard the bus door open. He removed the headphones from his ears and listened more closely.
Michael frowned. The bus driver’s mumbling voice was unsettling, but its sudden absence was somehow worse. Michael leaned into the aisle and peered toward the front of the bus.
The bus driver had vanished.
Michael sat bolt upright. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, cooled by the chill in the air. Slowly, Michael turned his head to peer out of his window again. He scanned the sidewalk for the bus driver, but his one companion in this worsening nightmare was nowhere to be found.
Michael climbed into the seat across the aisle and checked the parking lot, not that it mattered. The bus driver, like everyone else, was gone.
What was Michael supposed to do now?
He was terrified at the thought of stepping outside of the bus, but he couldn’t stay in here forever. For some reason, his mind went immediately to food. He didn’t pack a lunch today, and the fear that had settled in the pit of his stomach had eaten up his measly Pop Tart breakfast. Whether the hunger was real or imagined, Michael’s stomach growled. Why was he so hungry all of the sudden?
Survive, Michael thought. He couldn’t explain why that word had popped into his mind, but there it was.
He was in danger. His body had already come to this conclusion, and a growling stomach was his body’s way of sending that message to his brain. Now that his brain had finally received the message, it sent a critical question back to his body.
A realization swept over him like a cold ocean wave. His cell phone! One call to his mom, and she would rush to school to pick him up. Forget the checkbook. She would be here in a heartbeat. Michael grabbed his phone, flipped to the call screen, and his breath caught in his throat.
He tried dialing anyway, knowing full well that it was a pointless gesture. To his amazement, the phone started to ring on the other end. His call was going through! Michael heard a click as someone answered.
The sound that came from the other end was terrifying. If Michael had been asked to describe the sound, he would have started with the word inhuman, but he would have stopped to correct himself. Inhuman didn’t do the sound justice.
Instinctively, Michael threw his phone across the bus. It crashed through a window and landed on the pavement outside with a splintering crunch. Inwardly, Michael was relieved. Better to have a broken phone than to hear that sound again.
Michael frowned. Something outside had changed, but what? He looked outside the window, and it struck him like a speeding car.
Someone had turned on a light inside the school.
Michael steeled himself. He had to move, and he had to move now. If he could get to the light, he would be safe. He couldn’t explain how or why he knew that, but he was absolutely sure that was the truth.
If he could get to the light, he would survive.
“Now,” Michael told himself, building up his courage. “Now!”
Michael was on his feet and out of the bus. He raced across the sidewalk and slammed into the front doors of the school. He yanked on a door handle so hard that he nearly dislocated his shoulder, but the door didn’t budge. He tried another door, and another, but the result was the same each time.
Locked. They were all locked.
Michael pounded on the door, frantic.
“Hey! Let me in! Let me in!”
Deep inside the school, the light went out. Michael stopped banging on the door long enough to peer into the darkness.
Something slithered down the hallway. It was too dark to see it clearly, but it was big. Monstrously big.
Michael turned around, determined to head back to the bus, just in time to see the bus door close. He heard the engine roar to life and then slip into gear.
Michael took one step forward and froze.
The bus driver was back, perched in his seat, and he was staring down at Michael. The scowl was still in its usual place, but now there was something sinister behind it. Michael watched in horror as the bus driver’s eyes rolled out of their sockets and fell to the filthy bus floor. Small tentacles emerged from deep within the bus driver’s skull and wriggled out of the eye sockets. At the end of each tentacle was a tiny mouth full of razor sharp teeth.
The tiny mouths were smiling at Michael.
As the bus rolled away into the mist, Michael didn’t even try to follow. He stood paralyzed on the sidewalk in front of the school, unable to move, unable to even scream.
A screech in the sky brought Michael back to his senses. He looked up and saw the shadowy outline of a creature gliding through the mist. Michael thought of hang glider videos he had seen online, how small they seemed compared to this thing flying overhead. Michael couldn’t make it out clearly, but he thought he could see broad, leathery wings, and a long scaly tail whipping back and forth behind the creature.
Tears filled Michael’s eyes. His entire body began to tremble. Frantically, he looked all around, hoping and praying for an escape.
Unbelievably, he saw his dad’s car rolling down the road that ran by the school.
Dad was supposed to be away on a business trip in Utah or Florida or who knew where, but that was definitely his car. Michael’s mind was still reeling from the horrors he had seen, but his legs didn’t need his mind to tell them what to do.
AS Michael blinked away his tears, he realized he was sprinting toward his dad’s car.
The car stopped. The driver side window rolled down.
At the sound of his dad’s voice, his REAL voice, Michael ran even faster.
“Hurry, Michael,” his dad cried out. “Don’t look back!”
Michael suddenly knew with absolute certainty that something was chasing after him. Maybe the slithering creature had escaped from the school, or maybe the giant flying bat-lizard nightmare was swooping down from above. Or maybe, just maybe, it was something he hadn’t seen yet. Maybe it was something much, much worse.
Michael ran faster.
“Hurry, Michael! Hurry!”
The back driver side door opened. Michael couldn’t see inside, but it didn’t matter. The car was safe. His dad was safe. He had to make it to the car before the creature chasing him could catch up.
He had to survive.
He was panting now. A stitch had formed in his side. Every time he took a breath, it felt like someone was squeezing his lower ribs, trying to crack them. He closed his mouth in an attempt to to control his breathing.
That’s when he heard the thing behind him, huffing, snarling, growling.
Something was definitely chasing him, and it was getting closer.
Michael dug deep down and did the impossible. He ran even faster, fueled by fear and pure adrenaline.
The open car door before him got closer, closer, closer.
The evil behind him got louder, louder, louder.
Michael dove into the backseat. The car door slammed shut, and something rammed into the car so hard that Michael was afraid that the car would flip over.
Michael’s dad threw the car into drive and slammed on the gas. Michael didn’t even consider sitting up to look at the thing that had almost caught him, almost… what? Eaten him alive? Tore him limb from limb?
Michael took deep, gulping breaths. He waited until he was back in control of his body before he even tried to speak.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
“Relax, Michael,” his dad said. Something about his voice was different now. It sounded… wrong.
Michael’s dad adjusted the rear view mirror. Reflected in the mirror, Michael saw his dad’s smile. Only it wasn’t his real smile.
It was his pretend smile.
His dad’s mouth opened impossibly wide. Michael stared, terrified, as one tiny tentacle slithered out of his dad’s throat. It was joined by a second, a third, a fourth. Michael wanted to look away, but he couldn’t, not while the tentacles continued to appear.
Michael stared, helpless, as a wriggling, writhing mass wrapped around his father’s head and danced before Michael’s eyes. When the mouths at the end of each tentacle spoke to him in unison, Michael’s blood ran cold in his veins.
“Everything’s going to be just fine.”
Jerod Brennen is a multiplatform storyteller. A number of his horror screenplays have been produced as short films, playing at film festivals all around the world, and the first issue of his horror comic “Fragments” is available online at IndyPlanet. You can visit Jerod’s website for more information.
Story illustration by Mike Dominic.
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