A woman who’d just gotten on the bus said to Manuel, “Wait, there’s a geezer through that open doorway who wants to get on.”
From his driver’s seat, Manuel looked where she pointed as she dropped her fare in the box next to him and headed down the aisle. The apartment she’d indicated was on the ground floor directly across the sidewalk and fifteen or so feet away from the idling bus.Through the large front window and open doorway, it appeared to be completely empty. But a moment later, Manuel watched an old man shuffle out pulling a rolling suitcase, shut the door behind him, and jiggleits handle to be sure it had locked. The old man was short and slight, stooped over in a rumpled suit and tie with a long overcoat even though the spring morning was a warm one. He fumbled with the suitcase andbegan shuffling towards the bus. Manuel blew out a breath and glanced at his watch; he was already three minutes behind schedule. He shook his head, set the gear and emergency brake, and clamored down to meet the old man on the sidewalk.
“Here,” Manuel said. “Let me take that for you.”
The old man looked at him with watery eyes through rimless spectacles. His lips made a tiny chewing motion, and the veins on his skull showed through his few wisps of snowy hair. He said, “Thank you. My name is Frank.”
“Okay, Frank, let’s get moving.”
Manuel carried the suitcase up the steps and set it on the floor in front of the open bench seat just across and behind him, then resumed his spot behind the wheel as Frank climbed up to the fare box and began rummaging through his pants pockets.
“Listen, Frank,” Manuel told him. “You can pay when you get off. Sit down now because we have to go.”
Frank nodded once and lowered himself onto the bench seat turning the suitcase sideways so he could keep it between his legs. As Manuelfinally pulled awayfrom the curb, someone from the back clapped in a slow, mocking fashion, and he heard a few sniggers in reply. He glanced over at Frank. The old man hadn’t seemed to notice; instead, he’d turned to watch his apartment disappear with a small, sad smile creasing his lips.
It was nine o’clock and after the busy morning commute, the bus only half-full. Traffic on the city’s streets had also lessened, so Manuel could glance over at Frank on occasion.Each time he did, the old man wore the same small smile on hislips and seemed to be studying things through the wide windshield. The outside edges of his eyes were hooded and downturned, giving them a kind of gentleness, and they danced from side to side as if he were watching an intricate performance on stage. They reminded Manuel of his grandfather who he only saw once each year when his family went down from Los Angeles to San Diego for the annual greeting day at the specified area along the Tijuana border fence.
The bus stopped outside a train station, and agroup of passengers got on. A mother holding the hand of her toddler son sat down next to Frank. Manuel pulled the lever to shut the doors and saw Frank smile at the boy and say, “Hi, there.” The boy returned a grin, then cowered into his mother’s side, putting an index finger in his mouth. Frank made the same gesture, and the boy laughed and kicked his feet. Frank and the boy’s mother exchanged smiles; Manuel felt himself smiling, too.
The mother and son got off a few stops later, and then the bus passed through a block where a high rise was being built. From the corner of his eye, Manuel saw Frank crane his neck to look up at the construction. Frank gazed back and forth as they drove through a business district full of stores, restaurants, bars, and people, and did the same when they passed the long, narrow park bordering a culvert of flowing brown water that wasfilled with joggers, walkers, and small children running on the grass. White light streamedthrough the trees full of new buds and reflected off the water.
Frank was blocked from Manuel’s view when he stopped take on more passengers at a sprawling medical complex. One was a young man with a ball cap on backwardscarrying a skateboard who sat directly behind Manuel’s driver’s seat. When the bus pulled away from the curb, Manuel heard the young man say, “Going somewhere, gramps?”
Frank said, “Yes, I am.”
“Well, have a nice trip. Traveling alone?”
“Afraid so. No family left. Friends are all gone, too.”
“Riding solo, then.”
“Off on an adventure alone and dressed to impress.”
Frank chuckled and said, “Suppose so.”
They were silent then as the bus passed a church with an adjacent cemetery, and afterwards drove under a freeway and by an industrial park. They entered an old neighborhood of stucco apartment buildings and boxy houses behind chain link fences. The young man got off at the entrance to a housing project where Manuel took on more passengers and which marked the farthest point on his circular route. He entered traffic and began his long loop back in the direction he’d started from.
For the next half hour, they drove along a busy boulevard flanked by strip malls, auto dealerships, and office buildings intersecting streets of drab houses and bare lawns. At one point, a plane flew low overhead, and Manuel watched Frank follow it with his eyes. While they were idling next to an elementary school playground, he saw Frank wave to two girls skipping rope. When they stopped at a traffic light where a hot dog vendor had a cart on the corner, Manuelwatched Frank close his eyes and inhale deeply the aroma from it. A woman was selling bouquets of flowers on another corner, and Manuel heard Frank whisper, “Beautiful” as they passed her.
It was the time of the morning when most people had gotten where they were going, and gradually, the passengers on the bus dwindled to only a handful. Manuel found himself frowning as they turned onto the street again where he’d picked up Frank. The old man sat very still and continued to gaze out the windshield. When they came to the stop in front of Frank’s apartment, Manuel pulled to the curband turned to him.
“You need to go back inside, Frank?” he asked. “Youforget something?”
“You just taking a ride?”
“Pretty much.” The same small smile remained on hislips. “Wanted to look around. You know, see the sights.”
Manuel cocked his head. “So, you want to keep going?”
The old man nodded.
Manuel saw Frank look back at his apartment after they’d passed it like he’d done the first time. They retraced their route along the same streets and took on more passengers at the train station. Afterwards, they passed the high-rise construction, the business district, and the park along the culvert. Only two passengers got on at the medical complex, and as Manuel began to pull away, Frank said, “Could you pull up to that next building? It would save me the walk from here. I don’t move so great anymore.”
Manuel nodded, but felt his eyebrows knit when he stopped in front of the building and saw the words “Hospice Center” above its front doors. A flush spread through him like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Then Frank was at his side with his suitcase at his feet and his wallet in his hand. The old man asked, “How much?”
Manuel reached over and covered the hand with the wallet. “Forget it,” he said. “Nothing.”
Their eyes held until Manuelset the gear and brake, took the handle of Frank’s suitcase, and said, “Let me help you with this again.”
Frank put his wallet back into his pocketand followed Manuelcarefully down the steps. When he was on the sidewalk, he let Manuel pull the suitcase with one hand and use the other on his elbow to steady him while they made their slow way up to the hospice’s entrance. Manuel
held the door open for Frank and set his suitcase inside. They looked at each other again while a siren wound away nearby. Finally, Frank said, “Thank you.”
Manuel nodded. “You take care.”
The old man gave his small smile and shrugged. “My last stop.”
Manuel pursed his lips and nodded again. Soft music played in the lobby. Frank gripped the handle of the suitcase, and Manuel watched him shuffle with it towards the reception desk.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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