The Cantalino Bus Ride
by Judson Blake
Part 1 appears in this issue.
“Where are you taking us?” Cici asked. She went forward and leaned next to Johnny Sockett and made her presence so persistent that he could not ignore her as he had the others. His face was smooth with sweat and the collar of his uniform was perfectly pressed to a sharp point. He looked around and smiled as if she was a piece of window glass he had not seen before. He made no answer and turned back to his driving. The circles around his eyes spread, hungry to press forward.
Cici noticed he didn’t stop to pick up passengers any more. It began to get dark, and the trip felt like it was going on longer than before. The orange of evening shown through paper-seeming trees cast now in silhouette. The bus passed up stops that Cici watched trailing away, looking forlorn under each pale cone of light.
“Are you taking us on a new route?”
Still Johnny didn’t answer. He only pressed on.
The bus passed Finnoaken Enclave and Willibas Street. From there they turned up Simulant Way and the florid stretch of Demise Boulevard.
“I know this part,” said Kid Soffer. “That’s Gallows Hill. It’s been in a lot of movies.”
Slowed by rude bumps, progress down the broad street turned onto a country road that led through hilly woods. The bus wound up a steep incline and came at last to a ridge of ragged sedge. From this high point the passengers could look out over a quiet village where the lights of nighttime were just going out. The downy fleece of lost light stretched out over the town.
“My,” said Ms. Gollifol looking down. “It looks so peaceful.”
“Bed early,” said Ames Ames.
In the front of the bus there was a loud yelp of the hydraulic brake. The door wheezed open to the loud trample of the driver’s feet.
“Everybody out,” Johnny Sockett called.
“Well, I guess we should,” said Ms. Gollifol with some diffidence. She gathered her shawl and pushed it into her purse.
“Yeah, must be a good reason,” said Ames.
“Rest stop,” said Will Click, quickly collecting his things.
Down the aisle and overhead blue lights came on to guide their way out. Soon all the party stood out beside the bus near the top of the bluff. Mary Toombs wondered up at the stars, which glowed like dust beyond furtive clouds.
“It’s all so calm,” she breathed in a voice like a song. With a hopeful smile upwards, her eyes grew dewy and she wiped them with a little embroidered handkerchief. “I wonder why we’re here.”
“Must be a reason,” said Ames again. “Johnny wouldn’t lead us on a side track.”
Now Cici saw they were waiting around in a state of mild disorientation with no particular complaint or aim. Their mild wonderment had become a mode of seeing all that was around them, even themselves.
The driver strode easily to a lever on the baggage compartment and snapped open the lid. Out poured a gaggle of half-open crates, which shown in the automatic light of the door. Johnny kicked the crates, and their contents broke out on the ground: shiny assault weapons, grenades and grenade launchers, long snakes of belted ammunition and ammunition in compact clips lined in opulent rows.
“My, that’s strange!” said Mary Toombs. “I didn’t know they carried all that on a bus.”
“Oh, you need it,” said Kid Soffer. “Never know what you’re gonna come up against.” With a greedy eye of new-found treasure, he pawed the shining metal. Cici could see that for him these machines glowed with a sense of power held in steel to the point of bursting. His hands played over the milled surfaces and armored casings with reverent envy.
“Something you wouldn’t expect,” said a ponderous man who had not spoken till now. With idle curiosity he hefted an assault rifle and jammed in the clip. Johnny Sockett cut the bus lights and the faces of everyone arose in shadow, illumined by unreal light from below where the cavern of the luggage compartment spilt forth its strange wares.
Mary Toombs cast a look of sad longing on the rounded forms of the hamlet below.
“My. They’re all asleep.”
With a loud clatter Johnny threw a gaggle of weapons out on the grass.
“They’ll wake up soon enough,” said the bus driver.
Kid Soffer picked up an assault rifle with a telescopic scope, admiring the intricate complexity that bespoke so much facility. He snapped off the safety.
“That’s it,” said Johnny. He passed out flyers with the company logo which some could barely see: a smiling bus with wry headlights and the name “Cantalino” at the top. In the half light some made out the word “God” repeated several places in bold letters.
Ames struck a match and showed the others how below were careful paragraphs confirming some legal order. Cici backed away, seeing in their faces a meaning she did not want to read. Each piece of paper was signed by Johnny and other important men in the company, signatures that looked quite official.
“Burn ’em,” Johnny said gesturing down at the little town. “Waste ’em. God told us, clear enough.”
“Yeah, getcha metal down,” said Will Click. He hefted up his own, a grenade launcher with a satchel of RPGs.
“Set the town on fire?” called Ms. Gollifol. “You really think we should?”
“He’s the bus driver,” said Ames. “He oughta know.”
Down the line spotty fire began.
“No. No. No. No!” Cici backed away screaming. The shooting rose up and they might have shot her but, in the din, they could not hear.
Now in a league they crowded the edge of the bluff with houses in easy view. Along the rough grass Cici saw men and women who were only silent passengers moments before, stolid and indifferent to any conversation. Now these like the others took up the offered ordnance with willingness and even zeal. The more experienced showed the others how to snap in their clips and load the breach.
With the first burst, cold flashes illumined their faces. After an experimental volley, Ames aimed phosphorus grenades through the windows down below. Bright colors blossomed in the carbon black. Soon, from the sleeping houses, human figures raced in shadow. Even through the racket of fire, distant screaming could be heard.
As their homes were set afire, more villagers scrambled from their beds. Some were naked, but many were in bedclothes as they ran out the doors.
“Couldn’t even get dressed,” Ames spat as he reloaded. “Shows the kinda people they are.”
He sprayed into darkened windows, set inner walls aflame.
“That’s where they hide,” said Kid Soffer with admiration at Ames’s aim.
“Nothing better than nine-millimeter explosive round,” said Ames between bursts. He spat on the barrel and watched it sizzle. “Fire and forget. Betcha. Launch once, God’ll do the rest.”
Ms. Sedgell looked in amazement at the effect of her weapon, an especially late model. “Why this is so easy,” she said. “No recoil at all.”
“It ain’t real without ’coil,” said Will Click after a spray of incendiaries. “Recoil makes the weapon. You get a ’47, feel the kick, makes you know you accomplished something.”
He grimaced over the flashes that lit his face. After several tries he chose the heaviest of Johnny’s weapons and he aimed carefully as the targets fled out of doors and became more elusive.
Ms. Gollifol reached into the canister of ammunition. “Like you say, better load with incendiaries to make sure.”
When she aimed again, she fired with more confidence. Her eyes glowed as bedding, rugs, pictures and people burst out the walls in blossoming flame. People with their clothes on fire ran and tried to hide.
“Yah,” said Will Click as he shoved in a round of white phosphorus. “White pete, you can’t beat. Takes the oxygen, but you still see ’em trying to breathe.”
“Get the running ones first,” Ames called to make sure others knew. “Ones on their knees can wait.”
Johnny Sockett, with RPGs tucked under his arm, passed out more clips. Sagely he advised them: “Get ’em all, every one. Then no one can take revenge, see? Can’t talk about it, either. Simple enough.”
“Oh,” said Ms. Gollifol, “that makes sense, now that you explain it.”
Paroxysms of flame erupted from the ridge and fell everywhere there was a person or building standing.
Soon the town was only a blackened ruin. Smoldering humps lay shadowed by remaining fires. No survivors moved. The bus riders relaxed. They dropped their weapons and some withdrew back to where the bus was parked. Ms. Gollifol stood looking through the smoke. She surveyed with some uncertainty the dark remains of the town.
“Well,” she said, “I guess it’s all right, since God told us to do it.”
Johnny spoke over his shoulder as he was sealing a crate. “Um... did I say ‘God’? I think you misunderstood. I said, ‘Todd told you to do it.’ Todd.”
“Todd? Oh, works at the filling station down Vardaman Street. Yeah, we go way back, Todd and me. He’ll be glad to know you took care of it. Did a helluva job.”
“Oh, I’m sure the paper said God,” Ms. Gollifol called above the others.
“Hey,” Johnny corrected. “Hey. Get it straight: I didn’t pull the trigger. You did.”
Ms. Gollifol urged everyone to find the signed papers. In the confusion many had cast them aside and the wind had taken others. In the dark no one knew where they were. Will Click struck a match and searched among the weeds but not a one could be found. Cici watched from a secret distance as they circled without clear aim.
“I know it said God,” cried Ms. Gollifol. “Johnny’ll get us a new copy.”
But Johnny had disappeared.
“Where’s the bus?” called Kid Soffer.
The bus was gone. There was some consternation and indecision about what to do and if they should leave the guns just laying in the grass. Finally, since some of them started walking, the others followed in knotty groups. They walked along the rutted road till they got to the place where the paved streets began. Strange words were forgotten in the befuddlement of dark and the gloom of a profitless night. Eventually they dispersed, each ignoring the others. Some stopped in all-night cafes to eat pound cake and wait for dawn.
* * *
Cici heard later that Johnny had given up his job at the Cantalino Bus Company. He retired to his ranch. There he proclaimed that bus driving was but dreary work. He devoted himself to bass and sturgeon cultivation in especially constructed ponds for the benefit of guests when he threw parties. Grenade fishing, he granted with a twinkle, had been all his passion from boyhood.
On her long walk back, Cici felt impoverished and weakened by what she had seen. She felt she might never find Wayting Square. Her anguish came eventually to a twinge of question about the peculiar man who had guided the atrocity. She had the strange intimation that, unlike most bus drivers, Johnny had entered the field to avoid some other problem he could never define.
Copyright © 2019 by Judson Blake