Friday night, Victor’s dad told him he wasn’t giving him a lift home from school anymore, so he took the 75 line that ran past his school. That was how he met the bus god.
There wasn’t anybody on the bus but the two of them, not even the late shift crowd: janitors and mall cops, women in hoodies with sleeping toddlers. In the disabled seating area sat a man that wore layers of clothes worn to the point of brownness. It was impossible to tell what color his skin was, and he wore a knit cap to cover his hair and UFO-catcher sunglasses that swallowed half his face. From the time Victor boarded the bus stop to the very end, he never stopped grinning.
Victor, obeying the natural laws of public transit, took a seat all the way in the back. Around the stop for the light rail, the man pulled the cord and shuffled off, grinning back at Victor. That was all.
Next week dad chuckled at his reluctance and told him public transit built character.
“Or maybe it’ll teach you initiative to get off your ass and get a job, so you can buy your own car,” he grunted.
Victor said nothing. Once dad was in one of his moods, there was no talking him out of it.
The bus was crowded that night, and the only empty seat was near the man. He seemed to recognize Victor, his grin only got wider and he patted the seat. Victor opted to stand, but the next stop lurched so badly he fell down. The driver hollered at him to sit, and Victor obeyed drivers.
The man’s stench was almost solid. “Howdy,” he said.
Victor pretended to read.
The man nodded at the driver’s seat. “I did that.”
Victor nodded politely, avoiding eye contact.
“I kin do what I want,” the man continued, as if they had been having a conversation for hours, “I’m the god of buses.” He laughed like a drain, shoulders shaking with mirth. Victor moved slightly to avoid being touched.
The man leaned forward suddenly, laughter gone. “I made the bus crowded,“ he whispered, “so you would have to sit. I can do that too.”
Victor considered pulling the cord, but the landscape passing by was sketchy and unfamiliar.
The man watched him triumphantly. “I’m telling you son. I can do what I want. You ‘n me? We’re gonna be good friends.”
Someone vacated the seat behind them, and left a load of fast-food wrappers. In the blink of an eye, the man pounced on it, scarfing half-eating fries, sucking at the dregs of ice in the cup. He smacked his lips obscenely and looked and Victor.
“Good,” he said, “gooooood.”
Victor’s stop took too long to arrive. The doors seemed like they didn’t want to wait for him, scraping closed almost before he left. His dad laughed at how he smelled like a cough syrup cocktail.
Victor came to dread Fridays. He couldn’t concentrate in class anymore, but if he dropped it his father would take it as further proof that he had no academic future. He was also beginning to think the man on the bus was invisible to anyone else. Any response besides irritated silence to the man’s rambling was quickly jeered down by the other passengers, as if Victor had been the one pontificating on where the choicest poontang was in old town.
One night he boarded the bus and didn’t see the bus god. Breathing a sigh of relief, he found himself a seat in the back and opened a book. The bus rocked and the lights dimmed and Victor decided to close his eyes, for just a minute.
The smell woke him. He jolted awake, disoriented. For a minute it seemed like nothing had changed, the same passengers were on, looking out the window or at their phones, the same landscape hurrying by. Then he looked at his watch and found it was 4:32 am.
“I did that.” Crusty breath was in his ear.
Victor flinched, and looked everywhere but behind him.
“You gon’ look at me. We gonna talk. Talk a good long time. You’n me.”
Victor pulled the cord and nothing happened. No ding, no “stop requested” light in the front.
It was past midnight. His dad was probably furious, though that was the least of his problems at the moment. Victor was angry suddenly. At his dad, at the bus god, at everything.
“You gon’ look at me.”
Victor resolutely opened the book in his lap and started to read.
He could hear the dirty man rustle around the seat, could practically feel his stench, but he didn’t look behind him, or even at their reflections in the window. The bus man belched, sang random off-key snatches that were almost songs, and once or twice even laid a hand on Victor.
Victor waited for six a.m. The sun would rise, and turn this all real again. The landscape only looked the same because the dark hid it.
Six came and went. Darkness still. No one got on, no one got off. They never stopped.
The man was making a rhythmic whistling noise, as if snoring. Victor didn’t want to chance that he was only pretending to sleep, and fake-stretched. With one eye on the driver, he snapped his hand behind him and found a throat.
Suddenly he was on the bus god, hands around his throat, thumbs digging into his windpipe. The bus god’s glasses mirrored Victor back at himself, he made a choking sound like a laugh. Victor tried to trap him with his weight, avoid movement that might attract attention. He hated the little man with his whole body, and hated him until he went limp.
The bus slowed to a crawl.
“End of the line,” the driver called out. Victor collected his things and left the body on the seat, not caring if anyone found it. It took three hours to walk home.
His dad opened the door.
“No,” was the first thing out of his mouth.
“No,” his father said firmly, and shut the door. Victor heard the deadbolt slide into place.
None of their neighbors would let him in. He tried calling friends until his battery died, but they wouldn’t pick up. The door at school was locked now.
Sitting on the bus stop bench, Victor stared at his feet. He couldn’t walk anymore. As if it read his mind, a bus pulled up to the stop. It stood with the door open while he stared at his feet.
“Well,” the driver called, “ain’t you getting on?”
It was the first time someone had acknowledged him in days. Victor almost ran into the bus.
The driver wrinkled his nose and gestured to the back. Victor fitted his body into the very back corner seat and rode the bus. Sometimes it stopped and people got on, sometimes they got off. He wasn’t asked to leave. Right when his hunger pains became unbearable, someone abandoned half a tray of chicken nuggets and a can of Rockstar with an inch of liquid in the bottom. Victor approached it slowly, looking for anyone to tell him to stop. No one even looked up.
Victor smuggled it back to his seat and ate.