The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
                   But I have promises to keep,
                   And miles to go before I sleep,
                   And miles to go before I sleep.
                                    --Robert Frost,
                                      
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, 1923
                                                                                                                  



                   And the earth becomes my throne.
                   I adapt to the unknown.
                   Under wandering stars I've grown.
                   By myself but not alone.
                   I ask no one.
                                   --Metallica,
                                     
Wherever I may Roam
                           
                                                                                   
Out of all of his years of roaming the alien highways and strange roads of America, Billy Hurton knew he was on
the oddest bus he’d ever seen. And it wasn’t just the crushed velvet carpeting the color of drained blood, the
sparkly
neon tubes that snaked around every curvature, or the nine sleeping people on board (he being in the tenth
and last empty seat). It was just one of those tremors of the mind. Like when he first stepped on board ten
minutes ago, something twitched inside his skull, something that all reporters have on one level or another. That
little guy (or girl) that seems to strum every nerve within the brain, telling the owner that something just wasn’t
right!

But a free ride’s a free ride, he thought, as he sat in his seat; he was penciling in his battered old notebook the
names of the few towns he had just passed: El Reno, Weatherford, Clinton. He was walking west on Interstate
40 in Oklahoma when he came across the bus. It was the sole vehicle in front of the desolate place called
Chuck’s Mess And Rest. The first such place he had found for almost fourteen hours. He was hungry, thirsty,
and just wanted a nice little cot to sleep in for the night. He didn’t have many reprehensions about snoozing
under the stars, but a soft bed was always the sweeter slice of pie.

He hitched up his Army-green backpack his father had left him (William Sr. died in Vietnam) and went to the
bus. Everything about it just struck him odd, but in a whimsical sort of way. The white tinted windows, the gold
trim  
everywhere, no dust or dirt to be seen. Tires with no pebbles in the tread. Of course, the spokes on the rims
were a little weird considering they looked like solid silver. And the rims’ shapes matched the ten-pointed star
that jutted from the roof like an antenna. But the rooftop one had a pale blue light glowing at nine of the tips.
As soon as Billy noticed there was no sign above the windshield telling the destination of the bus, he saw the
driver’s seat was empty. He found it all peculiar, but he thought he might as well try his hand at that free ride.
The doors opened on their own with a hiss...but Billy thought it more a sigh.

He passed people of all different sorts as he walked to the rear: an elderly black woman, a boy who looked
about seven or eight, a middle-aged business man with his shiny Rolex and bulging veins in his head, a Catholic
schoolgirl, an infant in the front seat of his row, a lovely woman in a red dress, her fingers intertwined with a
guy’s hand across the back of the seat, and an Asian chef. But what gave him a sense of maliciousness (he had
no idea why at the time) while he walked down the aisle he saw, in the last seat on the right side, a single
faded black work boot, resting at a ten o’clock angle; it was covered in a reddish mud-type substance. He felt
there was something wicked about the owner of that boot.

Billy thought what the people back at his old job would think of this bus, especially Roy, his ex-boss. Billy retired
from the newspaper he had worked for-- The Bowkley Breeze  in New Jersey--at the age of thirty-two, deciding
that there had to be more in life than just writing who led the league in home runs,
touchdowns, and goals. His father had left him enough money to take some years off, anyway. He sought
reckless adventure, and where best to find such things than traveling along the open road with both feet
kicking up whispers of dust?

He would never have those thoughts again.

After writing in his notebook, he slid into a lower position (he was grateful that this bus had no mirrors aboard).
Then the smell of the place started getting to him. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, and he didn’t feel ill. It was a
hospital scent, but something underlying, as well. Something chemical. He shrugged before getting as
comfortable as possible.

He propped his pack between his forearm and head, and laid down the best he could.

Just before closing his eyes, he saw whoever was under the black trench coat across from him stir. The coat
was lying on the person like a casket veil. The boot fell to the floor with an audible thump. Dried chunks of that
scarlet mud plopped off. The bottom of the pant leg was faded; there was a silver buckle on the side of the
boot. The figure rose (Billy witnessed this through half-closed eyelids), and Billy fought down that sense of
black fear again. .                                                                                
The guy’s hair emerged first, all straggly and sticking up in wild directions.

It was very close to being the color of the mud that dropped off his foot. His eyes came next, and the gaze
was right on Billy as he slowly lowered the trench coat. Billy saw laughter flash in those cold eyes like sunlight
blistering a butcher’s knife. The face that was uncovered was as frozen as the eyes; the smile was murderous.
The odd man folded his coat and placed it on his side.

Billy wanted off the bus. He felt things shriveling up on him, and he was as scared as he ever was. That little
fella in his mind plucked those nerve endings like harp strings. His bowels and bladder almost loosed. He crushed
his eyelids together.

"Oh, that ain’t gonna do much good, soldier," the man across from Billy stated. He added a chuckle on the end.
It was coarse.

"I see you; you see me." Billy heard noise and he assumed the guy was turning in his seat to face him. He
opened his eyes. He wasn’t wrong.

"Look at me, soldier, but keep the others in mind as you do." Billy heard the grin in that tone.

Billy couldn’t believe it, but he felt movement. The bus was on its way! Did he fall asleep for a minute? He didn’t
think so. He didn’t even remember hearing the driver come back on. But, there it was, wheels rolling silently as
he looked across the aisle at a figure out of a lunatic’s daydream. The guy’s skin was sallow and stretched tight
across his thin bones. The eyes were sunken in pits of deep gray. As Billy watched the guy stroke his fingers
upward through his hair, he saw bits of dried flesh sprinkling down onto the guy’s lap like corpse-dandruff. His
voice had a screechy quality to it that Billy found even more disturbing. He didn’t like the guy’s jean vest,
either, with all sorts of strange patches and buttons on it.

Billy squirmed back, pulling his pack to his chest.

The guy barked a laugh. It was like a hell hound braying. "Look straight at me, soldier, and pay attention to
your right." The guy leaned back, and crossed his denimed legs. "It’s very educational."

Billy did it...and he definitely almost lost everything inside him then. He saw the Catholic schoolgirl’s head out of
the corner of his vision. But then he thought, No, now I’m really seeing her.

Shimmering around the crown of her head, over her exquisitely platinum hair, Billy could see something black and
pulsing, like it was alive and devouring her brain. It was about the size of a baseball, and Billy instantly thought
tumor.
His eyes widened and he looked back at the odd guy with one brow raised.

"Wow, for a reporter you’re not that smart," he said. He laid an arm across his knee. He used his other to point
his hand to the front of the bus. "Check em all out, but remember: just let em hang on the outside of your
vision."

"But if I stand up, the driver will see me." He lowered his head slightly.

"I didn’t exactly pay for the ride..."

"Shit, you’re paid in full, soldier!" The freak looked up at the ceiling, then talked to himself. "I hate these
newbies. Worst of all, I hate the dumb-ass Breathers. Mistakes, mistakes..."

Billy still didn’t know what was transpiring around him, but it seemed that his little nerve-guy was playing some
speed metal on those endings now.

"Just walk down the aisle looking right at that ten-pointed star, and maybe then you might get something
straight in the ol’ head."

Crazy Fuck kept staring at Billy as he rose to his feet. He stared at that symbol as he crept, keeping the
slumbering passengers on the sides of his vision like he was told. All points of the star burned ghostly blue now.
The Asian chef was near the window so Billy couldn’t quite see anything with him. The business man came up
on his left and Billy stopped. He could see a blurry, bloody tear right above the guy’s heart; it wavered like it
was being guided by a soft wind. And all at once Billy knew what had happened to the guy and who he was. His
name was Stephan Willingham, from London. He was a partner in a big money-making law firm. His partner had
hired a hooker to kill him. Knife through the heart. No more cocaine worries for Stephan.
                                                           

Over and over he saw and heard what had happened to these people, and he was so disgusted by it all.
Especially the little boy in the front who never had a chance: he was strangled by his own umbilical cord.

His head was down as he slumped back into his seat. He almost had it all figured out in his mind. That’s if
everything wasn’t a dream, he thought.

As if reading Billy’s mind like newsprint, Crazy Fuck said in an inside-a-sealed-coffin-type voice: "Oh, it’s no
dream, soldier. I can tell ya that." Then he leaned closer to the aisle; Billy could smell damp rot floating off him.
"And you’re stuck here."

Then, of course, the laughter came. Billy thought that this must surely be a weird dream because things like
this just don’t happen in real life. He felt like weeping but he didn’t want to give Crazy Fuck the satisfaction of
seeing him break down.

"But...why? Why me?" he whimpered, and he knew he did sound weak. Like a lost child. "I’m not even dead, you
asshole!" He slammed his pack down onto his seat.

"You took a seat that didn’t belong to you, that’s why, asshole."

Billy didn’t know if he liked being called "asshole" or "soldier" better. He assumed it was the pack. Dad...

Billy looked over to see Crazy Fuck grinning wide, his teeth were filed and spiraled into needle points. His tongue
came out in a very juvenile gesture and waggled at him. The tongue and teeth almost made him spray the
inside of his
jeans. The tongue was bruise-purple and was forked thrice at the end. He slurped it back in and smiled.

Billy’s fingers began to tremble as he brought them to his mouth; when he got nervous or scared, he would
place the tips of his fingers on the corners of his mouth and swirl his lips around. An odd habit, be he didn’t give
a good goddamn what Crazy Fuck thought. He had to get out of this; he needed to bargain. Maybe with the
driver. He was a helluva bargainer with most of the security guards that stood sentry outside players’ locker
rooms.

As the bus rolled along, Billy stared out the window, his reflection mirroring his sea foam eyes. He mumbled to
himself. "I’m just an ex-sports column writer...never hurt anyone...always nice to people." The darkened desert
and sparse trees swept by under the moon’s frigid light. "I always loved Helen, and she sorta understood why I
had to do this. Never cheated on her. Paid my damn taxes. Tipped waiters. And this is what I get!" His fist
battered the window. "I’m not even fucking dead!"

"That window ain’t gonna break, soldier. Might as well let up." Giggling followed.

That was it. Can’t reason with Crazy Fuck; had to be the
driver.                                                                        

Billy jumped out of his seat and stomped down the aisle. No one so much as twitched. Not even the driver when
Billy reached out and clamped down on his shoulder. He didn’t turn, but Billy got a clear look off the windshield.
Squat man, black hair severely parted like his hair was made out of plastic and he used an Exacto knife to slice
it down the middle. His eyes were blank like Crazy Fuck’s, but not cold. Just...empty.

Billy wristed sweat from his forehead with his free hand and said calmly: "Pull this bus over. I’m getting off."

The driver didn’t respond. Billy exhaled and blew a strand of hair from the tip of his nose. He looked through the
windshield and saw her. She passed by like the occasional tree, but it seemed to Billy that she kind of went by
in slow motion. She was maybe in her early thirties, with short, curly hair. She had a dress on, blue with exotic
flowers printed on it. A suitcase was by her feet. But what struck Billy as strange was her hands. She had her
palms pressed together as in prayer; Rosary beads were draped over her wrists. The ceramic crucifix swung in
the breeze like a slow-moving metronome.

His mouth went half open, and his grip on the driver softened.

"Nothing can be done," the driver said, still looking straight out through the windshield. "She’ll just have to wait
for the next one...whenever it comes."

"But what about me?" he whined. Billy felt for the woman, although he didn’t know exactly why. Maybe the look
on her pretty face,  Solemn, and without hope. But there was this little thing (maybe the guy that plucked his
nerve-endings like lute strings handled that part, as well) called self-preservation.

"Nothing. Can. Be. Done." the driver reiterated in flat words. The small screen in front of him blinked, garbled out
some language Billy never heard before, fell silent. Cold. "We’re full, as you well know. Should have minded your
own two feet, sir."

This was madness. Billy whipped his hat off and grabbed at his hair, stretching out from his head. He got on his
knees.

"What’s going to happen to her...that woman I saw?"

"She has to wait for the next one to come along. Until then..." He raised his voice on the last word. "She
wanders."

"Who’ll look after her? Won’t she be lonely?" Billy also had no idea why he was so concerned about a woman
who was dead why he was still alive and on the craziest friggin ride ever, but he was. Maybe he could bargain
with the guy. Sort of a trade.

"That is not my concern, sir. After all," the driver slowly turned to look at
Billy, "it’s your fault." He turned back.

"How about I get off now, and I promise to--I don’t know--look after her or something till the next bus comes."
He was really working up a sweat now, thinking with every pulse in his brain. "Then, when my time does come, I’
ll wait around. Sound good? Does it?"

"You don’t get it," Crazy Fuck yelled with glee. "You soldier-asshole! You shit-heel! You fucking newbie
Breather!" He cackled on and on. Billy could hear him smacking his hand on the back of the schoolgirl’s seat as
he laughed.

"That nuisance is right." he said in disgust. "Now, sir, if you will just take your--Oh! Look there!" He pointed
toward the blackened horizon in front of the bus. "Our highway has opened. Much too late now, sir. You
should--"
"--have just kept walking. Yeah, I know." Billy finished for him.

Billy turned and walked back to his (her) seat. He grabbed his bag, and watched as the highway--the real
highway--opened up in front of them. It was a glimmering road that seemed to harness the light of all the stars.
It wound upward, disappearing into a goldish-ringed hole that seemed to hold the universe within. Inside was a
no-color light. Bland. Terrifying.

Billy’s fear took a backseat to his anger. Anger? Hell, he was furious!

The bus drew closer to that road to anywhere. Billy ran back to his seat and threw a tantrum on his window
again. He used both fists, pounding, smashing, waiting for it to give at least a little so he knew there was hope.
                                                           
He saw Crazy Fuck in the reflection jump out of his seat, pulling his hair upward like a Frankensteinial Kramer. He
bounced from his seat to land behind Billy, all the while bellowing out taunts. Calling names. "You assface, you
shit-eater, you air-breathing monkey!"

Tears, swollen and crystal in the light, blew out of Billy’s eyes as he felt the bus actually leave ground. Crazy
Fuck jounced around so hard that Billy’s tears where being whipped around like glass marbles; they struck the
seats and trickled down. He pounded and pounded, calling out his father’s name. He felt something slimy and
wet and horrible on the back of his neck. He knew it was Crazy Fuck’s snake tongue. He shivered.

The back of the bus was about three feet off the ground now, and slowly rising. He didn’t know where people
who weren’t actually dead went when on this bus, and he didn’t want to.

He felt a tug under his ass. Crazy Fuck was trying to get at his pack. His father’s pack.

"Whatcha got in here, asshole soldier? A gun maybe? A knife? Maybe your wittle daddy’s testies?" He chuckled
as he tried to pry it loose.

Billy turned on him so fast that Crazy Fuck was taken aback a little. He reached down and gripped the worn
straps in his right hand. He said in a dry tone: "Let go."
                                                           
"Or what, soldier? You gonna make me drop down and give you twenty?"

Billy felt every string of rage inside him tie together into a rope as strong as steel. It wormed its power through
his body. Crazy Fuck saw something in Billy’s eyes that he didn’t quite like as his grin fell apart like an old toy.
Billy wrenched the pack free with him screaming "Give me my Dad’s pack!"

The pack flew from Crazy Fuck’s grasp, and he ended up on his ass in the aisle with a look of confusion on his
withered face. The pack was whipped over Billy’s right shoulder, and that’s when he heard it. The crinkling of
glass breaking. He felt the wind against his skin. The heavy sack smashed against the side of the bus. The
outside. Billy smelled desert and road and flowers. And freedom.

The driver yelled for Billy to stop, to someone stop him! But Billy had already turned around and glared down.
The road had to be about fifteen feet below, but that didn’t matter. He ignored the pain in his palms as he
gripped the window frame; blood spurted from cuts. He gained his legs and, without even turning his head,
jumped from eternity.

The wind whistled inside his head as he fell. His limbs were flailing around, but he still held the pack. The ground
came closer and faster. He had one thought of the irony of if him dying when he hit, and that he might have to
wait for that god-awful bus again. For real.

He tucked the pack against the side of his head, squinted, and let his body go loose. It hurt. Wow, hell-fuck,
did it hurt! But, Billy knew, hurt was a good thing. When the hurting stopped, that’s when you worried.

He laid there in blissful pain, watching the stars overhead blink. He never turned to watch that bus go into that
hole. No way, Jose. He laid there and breathed. That was the important thing: to breath.

After an hour or so, Billy dusted himself off. He knew what direction to go now. There was a certain someone
that might need a little watching over. Someone who might need the company. He thought at first while walking
back down the highway that maybe he wouldn’t even be able to see her without being on the bus. He banished
it.

After all, he had a promise to keep.
Highway of the Outlands
by Scott Wydra