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 The Very Long Bus Ride

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Stacy444
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Posts : 17
Join date : 2013-02-21

PostSubject: The Very Long Bus Ride   Tue Jun 25, 2013 8:20 am

It is not like just any other bus ride.

The brown upholstered seats are worn and sagging – some are stained by spillages of coffee and grape juice – the exhaust pipe spits out a writhing plume of black smoke, and the brakes wheeze and hiss like the braying of a sick donkey. Ordinary enough, you say, but where it is going must be very special. This is to be a bus ride like none other.

You shuffle to the very back, and you find yourself with a collection of strange characters – men, women, and children. The Commander is there, dressed in an ugly brown sweater that zips down the front, the Grieving Widow, still in mourning and swathed in folds of black, clutching the sticky hands of the Tall Boy, who is grimacing, and the Girl With the Thick Braids, who happens to be crying (you aren’t sure why). Each holds a piece of paper … the Commander is flapping his in his crusty fingers – it is an invitation of some sort – as he looks out the window dispassionately, turning to you only the cheek of his patchy beard that looks like the hair of an unshorn mottled goat that is mangy and missing in some places. The Girl With the Thick Braids is holding a picture of her father, a wrinkled one that has been pressed on by greasy little fingers and shows his smiling face and his brown clothes. The Grieving Widow sits her down in the seat next to her and straightens her wrinkled pink dress.

“Why, where are we all going?” you ask, surprised.

The Bus Driver tells you it is to be a very long bus ride. It will be over on Easter Sunday. You must be going some place very special, you conclude.
The Commander looks anxious. He keeps peering out the window and straining his gaze like he is looking for someone. He tells you yes, he is waiting for his New Wife. He lost track of her somewhere at the bus station and is afraid she is going to be late. She finally shuffles onto the bus, carrying two big paper bags. You look inside to see that they are full of books, quite an assortment of volumes with torn covers and crispy, yellowed pages. You suppose the Book With the Golden Pages is buried somewhere in there. Another woman trails after her, the Doctor, who, of course, is very tired. They are late because they were shopping together (the Doctor, as you remember, is very fond of shopping for Meaningless Things). After her, bounces the Boy With No Voice. He has a big smile on his slimy face, and is trying to tell you that it is almost his birthday, that his birthday is at Easter time. He is gesturing happily with his hands. He will be thirteen, he is trying to say. Somehow you understand, counting the slimy fingers, soaked in his own drool, that somehow add up to thirteen. At last, the Regent and his Wife and the Very Old Man sit down, and they are late because they must guide the Very Old Blind Man who is shuffling about in his shoes, very slowly. He can walk only like a tortoise, putting one toenail in front of the other.

“Why, this is going to be a very strange bus ride!” you say to yourself as you watch all the characters sit down in the very back rows. The Grieving Widow is crying. The Tall Boy is hitting his sister. And the Doctor feels sorry for the Boy With No Voice, who seems to have lost his parents, so she lets him sit next to her and holds his slimy hand, puts her arm around him and tussles his short-chopped brown hair.

“Don’t worry because your parents aren’t here. I’ll look after you.”
He smiles.

The Bus Driver comes to the back, holding a clipboard. He has a pencil behind his ear. He speaks into an intercom, which is fastened to his shoulder.

“An old man with a shaggy beard and plastic spectacles,” he says to whoever he is speaking to, making a note on his clipboard. “Yes, he’s here.”

The Commander glares at him. He is offended. He does not like being referred to in such unflattering terms, and for a moment thinks longingly of his Glamour Shots.

“Three women wearing black,” the Bus Driver says next. “One is Grieving, one has glasses, and the other looks very especially Hostile. Yes, they are all here.”

At the same moment, the Grieving Widow, the Regent’s Wife, and the Commander’s New Wife look up.

“A little Regent. A Very Old Man who has turned as white as paper, even his eyes, which were stolen from him and no longer work,” he nods. “A Doctor with brown hair and a tired face. Three children: a Tall Boy with angry eyes, a little Girl with Thick Braids, a skinny, slimy boy who looks like a worm, writhing in his own slime. Yes, I think everyone is here. Can we go now? Ok, very good.”

“But where are we going?” you ask.

The Commander looks annoyed, as though he would like to get this whole thing over with, the Grieving Widow and the Doctor are together struggling to control the children. The Tall Boy is pushing the Boy With No Voice, who pushes him back with a mischievous smile and two slimy hands of ten slimy fingers flat against the Tall Boy’s shoulders.

“You’ll see,” the Bus Driver says with a twinkle in his eye.

So the engine thunders, a great train of smog is spat from the exhaust pipe, and the bus wobbles down the pavement. The children amuse themselves by fighting and playing schoolyard clapping games. They are rowdy and push each other out of their seats, then giggle when they go tumbling on the floor. The Doctor tss’es the Boy With No Voice. Stop pushing, she keeps telling him. The Commander glances at them through his oversized spectacles down his long nose in irritation. His New Wife takes a book out of one of her paper bags and shows it to him, trying to interest him in reading, but all he wants to do is stare out the window. Their eyes widen when suddenly the world has darkened outside. The sun turns as red as blood, and sinks suddenly beneath the trees, which have turned black. Everything is black now, as though the bus has just driven through a tunnel. The Commander pokes his New Wife to motions for her to look. The Regent and his Wife are craning their necks as well. Something black is falling from the sky. It is raining the powdery slough of charcoal and embers. It patters from the sky … inside the bus …!

“Ew! What’s that?” the Girl With the Thick Braids cups her hands. “It’s black!”

Everyone is brushing it off of their clothes … the Commander and the Regent’s Wife have to clean their glasses on the tails of their garments. The Tall Boy smears it across the face of the Boy With No Voice and cackles. “Ha, ha!” Because the Grieving Widow is crying, the Black Stuff turns to something that looks like rivers of tar running down her face. But she does not seem to care. She does not wipe her tears. Whyever would she do that if there is no Consolation? (Or is there?)

The Bus Driver calls back on his intercom. “Ashes.”

“Oh, that’s terrible!” the Girl With the Thick Braids begins to cry. “Who died?”

“No one died, stupid!” her brother sneers at her. His eyes turn red.

“You sit in them when you feel sorry for your sins,” the Bus Driver explains.

“I feel sorry for my sins,” the Girl With the Thick Braids is quick to say, nodding her head up and down seriously.

The Commander shifts uncomfortably in his seat, uncrossing and re-crossing his feet, which are in sleek leather shoes, the kind that slip on and have no laces. This … “sin” … it is a very uncomfortable subject for him. He does not like it.

“Do you sin?” the Girl With the Thick Braids turns to him suddenly and asks, gripping the seat in front of her in ten grimy little fingers.

He shakes his head and answers instantly, “No.”

A clownish smile is plastered over the Regent’s face, which does not seem to fade in the least, not even at the mention of sin. A frown covers his Wife’s face; she has a gloomy countenance that looks like it is covered in clouds.
The Commander’s New Wife jabs her husband with an elbow. She casts him a gaze with heavy black eyes that wordlessly remind him of what they have read in their books – namely, the Book With the Golden Pages. At this, the Commander’s heart begins to thud loudly with Panic. The Doctor raises her eyebrows and gives you a look. Will he be alright? She is a Doctor, if he needs medical attention she is there, she seems to be saying.

“It’s ok,” says the Doctor, peering at the Commander’s eyes as though he were one of her patients and she is giving him an examination. They are hazy and dead, turned to metal, a dismal color like a freight train. “You can’t be guilty of sin. You have something wrong with your eyes. You can’t see very well, so you no one could fault you for sinning.”

The Commander bristles. “There is nothing wrong with my eyes!” he insists, imaging the healthy, glowing brown they appear in his Glamour Shots, in which he wears no glasses and has a vibrant complexion, swelling with health.

“Oh,” the Doctor is taken aback. “So you claim that you can see?” She pauses, startled. “Well, that’s not good, then …” She sounds concerned. “In that case, I suppose, your sin remains …”

The Old Man – who is paralyzed, as you remember – has flopped onto the back row of seats, motionless. Smoke rises slowly from his nostrils with his heavy, even breathing and he is lulling himself into a trance:

I claim that I can see …

“All these Ashes, they must mean Death,” the Grieving Widow sniffs. She begins to shake violently, as all her memories come back to her. “Whatever this Easter is we are going to, it must have to do with … Death!” she bursts into tears once more.

You glance back at her to be sure that she is ok. She isn’t. An odd thing has happened to her. Her face has turned completely black. It is so gloomy and covered in Sorrow it has become as black as coal.

The Bus Driver looks back suddenly through the rearview mirror. “It does,” he nods soberly. “Yes, you’re right, it has to do with death.”

At this the Grieving Widow throws up her hands.

The darkness clears, just slightly, so it appears that you have arrived in a clearing of Dead Trees. Their bark is charred black and flaking with embers. Some have knives in their trunks. The moon has risen, and it is as red as blood. For miles nothing can be seen in the barren landscape, nothing but a carpet of sooty gravel and black stones. It is a wasteland. Everything is dried and burned up, as dry as a pile of stones.

“What is this place?” the Regent’s Wife whispers.

Her husband shrugs (the clownish smile has still not faded from his face, not in the least).

“This was just the time of year …” the Grieving Widow whispers through her tears. The Girl With the Thick Braids begins to shudder, remembering. She begins to cry, too, and hides her face in the baggy folds of her mother’s widow’s black that she is wading in. Her garments seem so heavy she cannot even carry herself, she is bagged down with sorrow.

“Well, here we are,” the Bus Driver lurches the bus to a halt.

“What do you mean?” the Regent’s Wife shakes her head. “We’ve arrived at that … ‘Easter’ you call it?”

“No, not yet. Just get out and stretch your legs.”

Most of the passengers look unhappy. There is no sense in getting out and stretching their legs when they could simply keep going and get the whole thing over with. But they have no choice in the matter, and one by one file off of the bus. They are standing in that terrible wilderness that encroaches on a jagged cliff that is like bald, black rock under a sky that blazes a searing red, veiled in black clouds. There is no sun, only that pulsing, feral light. They come to splintery poles of wood and crossbeams – where people are executed, put to death. Nails dripping with blood are scattered on the ground. Blood is spilled on the ground in puddles. One by one they stare down at their shoes.

“Where are we?” the Girl With the Thick Braids cowers, holding her mother’s hand tight. “This place looks familiar … I feel like I’ve been here before.”
The Bus Driver looks at each set of eyes … each is wary. “You have,” he nods. “They call this it … Good Friday. The place where people are put to death for their crimes.”

At this the Grieving Widow weeps bitterly. “Oh, I knew it looked familiar! I have been to this place before. On a spring night when murderers are … executed,” she wails, wringing her hands. “It was a day just like this that my husband was … executed! His blood was spilled on the ground!” Then she goes on bawling inconsolably. “His blood was spilled on the ground!”

Everyone stares uncomfortably and watches the Grieving Widow’s tirade.
The Bus Driver clears his throat and looks squarely into the Grieving Widow’s Grieving black eyes. “Do you want to know a secret? But I must warn you that this has never been uttered aloud before, ever. Are you sure you want to hear it?”

She nods her head, sobbing.

“There was one Good Friday … not too many Good Fridays ago. Your … husband’s last Good Friday.”

She nods more vigorously, remembering the day exactly. That time was driven into her heart as sharply as a nail. There is no way she can forget it.

“Anyway, someone was fasting and praying for him that day.”

She jerks her head up, startled. Her eyes widen. “Really?” She proceeds cautiously. “I have never heard of that before. What do you call that?”
“We call it ‘mercy’.”

Everyone looks at each other, stunned.

“Wow,” the Girl With the Thick Braids cups her hand over her mouth, then tries the word out for herself. “‘Mercy’. I like the sound of it.” Tears begin to flood her eyes as she says it. Saying it makes her cry. She says it again, “Mercy”, and more tears dribble down her fat little cheeks, the color of coffee with cream in it.

“There’s another secret,” the Bus Driver says. “Not too long before that happened, on one of those spring nights, someone had a dream.”

They all perk up (this is because they all believe in dreams and take dreams very seriously, even though you and I know well enough that this is quite silly and dreams are just, well, dreams).

“What was it?” the Girl With the Thick Braids whispers.

“Ok, but before I go on, you must promise not to utter a word of this to anyone. Understand? What I am about to tell you may have serious implications.”

They all nod vigorously.

“In the dream he climbed to the heights … to make a name for himself. But those heights were covered in waves – as if the flood had come and the waters covered the mountains as in the days of Noah, the days of God’s judgment. Someone was chasing him, to grab him and haul him off to be executed. His head disappeared under the water at one point, and everyone thought he drowned, but he got back up again. Then he got tired and tripped. And he fell on the ground. They caught up with him … he was within reach.”
The Bus Driver pauses. Everyone looks up at him in suspense.

“But then they were afraid for him, that if they took him off to be executed ... well, that would not be good. And so at the last minute they just stopped and let him go.”

Everyone exchanges glances.

“Why?” the Doctor spits the word out, appalled. “Her husband,” she points a finger accusingly at the Grieving Widow, “was a Highwayman. He was a murderer. Why else would he have been executed?” she scoffs.

The Grieving Widow looks at her a little angrily. But she ignores the Doctor and asks, “What …” she is almost afraid, “does the dream mean? Surely it doesn’t mean …”

The Bus Driver shrugs. “It might. Of course dreams are all silliness, but just for you, because you believe in them, because you take them seriously … I don’t know. It means Mercy. Maybe all it means is that there is such a thing as Mercy, and Mercy is good.”

They nod, but the Grieving Widow does not look satisfied.

Suddenly the Boy With No Voice is beckoning vigorously. He tugs on the Doctor’s arm. She sees why. Rivers of blood are beginning to gush through the crevices of black, the canyons that have been worn into the charred, gravelly ground. It splatters their black shoes. The Commander and his New Wife look down at theirs in disgust. The rivers of blood have washed up silt and gravel. It has stained their clothes.

“Blood had to be shed,” the Bus Driver nods up and down soberly.

“What do you mean?” the Commander asks angrily, upset about his light dusty-brown pants, now splotched in red. His New Wife is not so concerned, since her clothes are all black, as you remember.

“Didn’t you hear that, Commander? Didn’t your ancestors ever tell you that? Didn’t you learn anything from what happened to them?”

He shakes his head. “Didn’t my ancestors ever tell me what?”

“That that’s the only way the Destroyer was ever turned away, Commander, by painting your doors with blood. Look what happened to your ancestors! And the Destroyer is at your door, Commander, the Destroyer is lying in wait to Destroy you and God has held it back on a leash! It is only because of Mercy that you have not been Destroyed yet. You have been so close to being Destroyed, so many times … and yet here you are. Every day that you are still alive is a brazen testimony of God’s Mercy! Every day of your life is Mercy!”

You swallow. Suddenly everyone begins to tremble and shake at the thought of that terrible, terrible Mercy. It is too awful. The Commander, for his part, jerks back his head, and his eyes widen behind his oversized spectacles. His lower lip trembles and a few granules of gravel fall from his lips where they were stuck to them with his saliva. They are jammed in between his yellowed, tea-stained teeth. You shoot a look at him, wondering why he has been chewing gravel. But the Girl With the Thick Braids asks before you can wonder much more.

“Why are you chewing gravel?”

“I think I know,” his New Wife nods sadly. “I read something about that in one of our books, a Lamentation,” she looks at her husband, holds his hand and goes on to quote the Lamentation, “God has broken our teeth with gravel and smashed our faces in the dust, he has caged us in with darkness and made us eat bitterness and gall. But it is because of his Great Mercy that we are not consumed … only because of his Mercy that we have not been completely Destroyed yet …” She dabs her eyes with her fingers. She cannot go on. The Commander’s heart is thudding loudly in his chest, so hard you are afraid it will shatter his ribcage. He is shaking as though he has swallowed an earthquake. There is an awkward silence as everyone stops to listen to the Commander’s heart thump loudly. He is embarrassed. The children are beginning to snicker.

“I think we should go on,” the Grieving Widow finally says.

“Very well.”

Suddenly everything has turned gray and foggy, veiled in the bleak colors of soot and smoke and sadness. It closes in on your lungs. You have trouble breathing. A sulfurous rain falls from the sky, washing away the blood in rivers of mourning as though the angels are crying, on one of those spring days …one of those spring days that is drenched in Sorrow .. There is a circle of angels in the heavens, which are gray, all holding hands and crying. And bones are strewn about on the ground, dry as dust.

“Oh!” the Grieving Widow stops abruptly and sucks in her breath. It hurts too much to breath. “Oh, no! I know exactly what this is! The grave! Oh, it’s too much to bear! Bury me! Let the stones fall on me!”

A cavern has appeared through the fog … deep and black, carved of harsh, cruel stone, cold as Death.

The Tall Boy runs ahead, pokes his head inside. The other children bounce after him, while the adults stand back and pace and watch.

“What is it?” the Doctor calls. She looks very concerned that the children would go off playing in a Tomb.

The Tall Boy trots back, tripping in his Shoes That Are Too Big For Him. They thud against the ground like clown’s shoes.

“It’s empty!” he announces.

“The grave? Empty?” the Grieving Widow is suspicious. “It can’t be!”

The Commander has knelt down, old knees cracking, to examine some of the dry bones that are scattered about on the ground beneath the fog. Suddenly his withered old face turns pale. He seems to recognize them. He reaches for his New Wife’s hand. “These …” he points. He begins hurriedly to gather some of the bones up and collect them in his shirttail.

“What are you doing?” the Girl With the Thick Braids is disgusted.

The Commander’s New Wife shoots him a warning look, as though she does not want him to tell.

“These are my children!” the Commander exclaims. He is gathering the bones up at maddening pace now, anxiously. His hands are trembling. He stuffs them in his New Wife’s Bags of Books.

“Your … children?” the Tall Boy is a little bit disgusted.

But no sooner does the Commander place the Bones inside the paper bags do they all turn to dust. He gasps in shock. “No!”

Everyone gathers to peer sadly inside the bags. Yes, the Bones have disappeared. They have crumbled into piles of sand.

“No!” the Commander gasps again. “My children!”

His New Wife holds his hand tight and gives him a sad glare. I am sorry about your children, she seems to be saying, but please get control of yourself and don’t make a scene in front of all these people.

The Regent’s Wife looks at her husband. “Oh, how terrible,” she says in a hushed whisper. “Oh, that’s awful.”

You hope the Commander will not cry – it would make you very uncomfortable to see a man cry, especially an old, crusty one such as the Commander. But later you notice that he has taken off his glasses and is dangling them from his fingertips as he presses his palms to his eyes. He has his back turned to you, but you draw your own conclusions.

The Girl With the Thick Braids casts him a nervous glance. Everyone is silently thinking that they are so glad that that didn’t happen to them. It would be more than they could handle. It would be more than anyone could handle.
The Bus Driver announces, “Well, I guess it’s time to get back on the bus.”
You all wade through rivers of tears – they’ve come up to about knee level. Everyone’s shoes are ruined and their clothes are waterlogged. But more than that they are incredibly exhausted from all of the Sorrow, and just want to get back on the bus so that they can take a nap.

Everyone is settling down in their seats when the bus begins to drive faster and faster. You hadn’t noticed that the Bus Driver stomped on the accelerator, but he must have. You are whirling through a tunnel, which is full of piercing light. Your insides turn warm and your heart begins to thud.

“I feel warm inside,” the Girl With the Thick Braids giggles. She bounces up and down in her seat. Then all of a sudden she squeals. “He’s here!” She points out the window.

“Who’s here?” the Grieving Widow strains to look out the window.

“I don’t see anyone,” the Regent shakes his head.

The light is bright, so bright it is blinding … but somehow … yes, there is Someone inside all that light, he is all wrapped up and hidden in it, like he is wearing it like a robe. But you can see his face. He parts the light as a curtain and looks down at everyone with a smile. Through the bus window, you can hear the muffled sound of him saying each one of your names, one by one. Everyone turns.

“He said my name,” the Girl With the Thick braids claps her hands together.

“He said my name, too,” the Tall Boy whispers.

“Are we at Easter yet?” the Doctor asks.

“Almost,” the Bus Driver calls back.

But the Man is not alone. Next to him stands a girl with wiry curls, falling in tangles around her shoulders, wearing a white dress, with a glowing face, and he has his arm around her. She waves. Suddenly the Commander lurches forward in his seat. He looks as though his eyes will pop out of his head. He presses his face to the window.

“That’s my daughter!” he points. He is pounding on the window trying to get her attention. “What is she doing with that man? Stop the bus!” he pleads. “Stop the bus at once! That’s my daughter!” He squints to get a better look. “Oh, and she has gotten so big and so beautiful,” he looks out the window longingly as though he would like to kiss the top of her curly head. “Please, stop the bus at once!” he yells desperately. But the Bus Driver does not seem to hear him. He yells louder. “Driver! Stop the bus! That’s my daughter!” He beats on the glass with his fists. “And … she’s Alive! My daughter is Alive!”
Everyone looks sadly at the anxious Commander as the bus rolls on and the Commander’s Daughter is swallowed up in light.

“She looks like she’s doing ok,” his New Wife shrugs.

The bus stops. One by one you step outside, into the light and the warmth. The sun has dried up all the rivers of tears. Light shines out of the Tomb, showing that it is ok to go inside; it is empty, just as the children found. He is there … but they can’t see Him. He is all wrapped up in light so bright they must look away, and fire so hot it is blazing white. They cannot look at it. The sight would char out their eyes and burn them right out of their sockets. But they can feel Him. And the thought makes their knees turn to water and their hearts melt in terror. One by one hearts collapse onto the ground in puddles.

“What … is this place?” the Grieving Widow whispers in disbelief. “I had no idea anything like this existed.”

So it seems you are all standing in something like a corridor, filled with light, lined with doors on either side. The walls are painted white. So is everything for that matter, except the doorknobs, which are brassy and scratched. The hallway appears to be empty, but you can hear scuffling, like little feet running here and there. All of the sudden you do see a pair of bare feet – wheat-colored, with fat toes, belonging to a teenage girl – and you hear giggling. A white skirt and a splatter of tangle-y dark hair brushes past you until it disappears into the light. You see a golden locket thudding against a white dress, heart-shaped (and 24 karats), a Pure Golden Heart with all its Secret Wishes written on little scraps of paper and locked up inside.

“That was her again!” the Commander points after her suddenly. “My daughter!” He flails his hand helplessly and sighs in exasperation.

But she is gone. Everyone looks at each other. The Regent’s Wife whispers to the Doctor, scoffing, “He has a daughter with a Pure Golden Heart. How did that happen?”

The Doctor shakes her head and whispers back. “I don’t know. She obviously didn’t get it from her father. I would know. I happened to see his medical file locked away back at the clinic. I didn’t mean to pry, but the x-ray of his heart just so happened to fall out. Black,” she whispers, horrified. “Oh, well. It must not be genetic.”

The Bus Driver does a quick headcount. Everyone is accounted for. The Grieving Widow’s tears have become a puddle at her feet. The Tall Boy dips the toe of his Shoes That Are Too Big For Him into the puddle and splashes his little sister with it. She shrieks.

“Stop it!”

“Listen,” the Bus Driver says. “Before we go on, I have some cards to pass out.”

He shuffles through a stack of red envelopes, each with a name written on it. The cards are made of shiny red paper – they are in the shape of hearts, but they have nails drawn through them, like they have been impaled by nails.

“Oh, how sad, like someone has a nail in their heart …” the Girl With the Thick Braids comments.

“What? Valentines?” the Tall Boy sneers.

“In a way,” the Bus Driver says as he passes out the cards. They begin opening them interestedly, and you try to peer over whatever set of shoulders you can, but most everyone is careful to hold them close and not let anyone else see what is written on their valentine.

The Commander pries his open with crusty fingers, adjusts his glasses, and reads silently to himself: I was pierced for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities, the death penalty punishment that would bring you, Commander, peace was upon me. From the Name Before Which Your Knees Must Bow. His shaking hand pulls out a photograph – something like a Glamour Shot, but not quite. He seems to think that it is quite the opposite of a Glamour Shot, in fact. It shows him sitting in a pile of ashes in crusty bare feet wearing torn scratchy clothes like a burlap sack (and it is not as though he threw it on over his clothes like a jacket; no, he is wearing a whole suit of scratchy material from his neck to his ankles right against his bare skin, so he can feel its abrasiveness chafing his flesh). More than that, his head is bald and covered by nothing but ashes, and his face is pressed into the dust. He looks as though he has lost some weight, perhaps gone without eating, and his cheekbones are protruding and his face turned yellowish with bile.
He swallows, probably not liking this anti-Glamour Shot very much, and quickly slams it against his chest so no one can see. But everyone can see what is written on the back in runny black ink: Repentance: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

The Grieving Widow is still crying when she opens her valentine. You look over her shoulder and see what is written to her: Surely I took up your infirmities and carried your sorrows. Blessed are you, Grieving Widow, who mourn, for you will be comforted. From the Man of Sorrows.

“I don’t know him,” she shakes her head, flicking the last tear from her eye (several others have clung to her eyelashes, trapped). “Who is the ‘Man of Sorrows’, and why is he sending me a valentine?”

And there is her photograph – she has seen it before, in that magazine that you brought to her from her future. It flutters from her hand. That round white face like the moon, white with the pallor of sickness and sorrow, it has turned to light. There are no more heavy bags under eyes or sadness or tears; she is smiling, and her entire countenance is alit with joy. There is glowing light coming out of her mouth and her eyes, as though her black eyes have been illuminated from the inside, like a candle has been lit behind each of them. She turns the photograph over and over again in her hand, and begins to laugh a little. Laughter bubbles up inside her as she reads the inscription on the back: Joy: When God brought us out of our captivity, he filled our mouths with laughter and songs.

“Wow …” she breathes.

“Read mine to me!” the Girl With the Thick Braids bounces up and down. The Grieving Widow leans over and lifts open the card: I brought you to my banqueting table, and my banner over you, Girl With Thick Braids, is love.

“Oh, I heard that before!” she jumps up and down. Her photograph shows the Girl With the Thick Braids at the center of a table, wearing a conical cardboard party hat and leaning greedily over a three-layer cake with pink frosting and strawberries on top, as though it is her birthday, as though a great Celebration is being held in her honor. A smile spreads across her face. She squints at the photograph, trying to tell if someone standing in the background is who she thinks it is.

“Is that Dad? Is he there with me? Is he at the Celebration, too?” she asks hopefully, smudging the photograph with ten sticky little fingertips.

The Grieving Widow takes the photo and holds it up to examine it. The Person (Whoever He Is) is wearing white clothes and a nametag, but she can’t tell for sure who it is.

“I don’t know,” she whispers doubtfully, and shakes her head. “I don’t know if it’s him or not. Maybe. But that name that’s written on his nametag, that’s not his name, so if it is him, he changed his name.”

The Tall Boy (who still has not learned how to read) is antsy with curiosity to know what his valentine says, but he does not want to ask his mother to read it to him in front of all these people. He could just imagine the Commander and his New Wife in particular scoffing at him for not knowing how to read, and going on and on about being Intellectuals, and how he should get a good education and earn all 100’s, just like them when they were children. But much to his surprise, the Boy With No Voice begins shoving his valentine at the Doctor. He can’t read, either? A smile spreads across the Tall Boy’s face. The Boy With No Voice is even older than he is – twelve years old – and he still can’t read! The thought makes him feel Better About Himself, but of course, Children With No Voices are not allowed to go to school, so it should come as no surprise.

“Let’s see,” the Doctor examines it carefully, one arm around the Boy With No Voice.

God’s spirit came upon me to bring good news to you, Boy With No Voice, to make your tongue be unstopped and your spindly little legs leap like a deer.
He is happy enough with it, and holds up his photograph for everyone to see. In it, he seems to be part of a choir where everyone is wearing blue shirts, the color of Living Water, and singing with their Voices. On the back it is written: Praise: If you keep silent, the rocks will cry out.

“What is the meaning of all the valentines?” the Doctor asks.

“Just what it seems,” the Bus Driver shrugs.

The Commander is exhaling and stiffly folding his valentine up into his shirt pocket, along with what he considers the rather unflattering picture of his Humility.

“I know,” the Girl With the Thick Braids giggles. “It’s Love.”

“Yes, basically,” the Bus Driver nods. “Though I don’t think you’d really like to see it for real.”

“What do you mean?” the Doctor creases her brown. She is folding her valentine up, and you never saw what it says. “Is Love very horrible?”

“Yes,” the Bus Driver nods. “Love is very, very horrible.” He looks at the children, squats down to the eye level of the Girl With the Thick Braids, then looks at her searing-eyed brother. “Normally I would say this isn’t for children,” he examines them again, slowly shifting his eyes from one Highwaychild to the other. He puts a hand on the Tall Boy’s shoulder, which makes him growl a bit. “But since it isn’t anything that you two haven’t seen before … Come with me.”

He beckons the crowd deeper down the hallway. The Commander’s New Wife is still musing over her valentine as she walks, but she won’t show it to her husband, no matter how he cranes his neck trying to look over her shoulder to see. The Bus Driver stops in front of one the doors and digs around in his pocket. Finally he pulls out a key … made of blackened, corroded metal. It is scratched and rusty and as heavy as a sack of rocks.

“If you’re sure you’re ready …” he sighs as unlocks the door, then kicks it in and begins pushing everyone inside, one after the other.

On the other side of the door, it looks to be a spring day, just as any other spring day. It is afternoon on a Friday when everyone is going home for the weekend. They are standing around a stone pavement with all their pairs of feet in black shoes heavy and flat against the stones. The air smells sweet with blossoms and crocuses, all the trees are abloom in explosions of pink and white, either that or they are leafing, a step away from being weighted with heavy summer fruits like tart figs - fat little pouches of pink gristle. Has it rained lately? It smells like it. The heavens smell as though they have been washed.

But suddenly a drop of Something lands in front of them on the ground, casting a dark blotch against the pale cobblestone. Everyone looks down in shock.

“Blood,” the Regent’s Wife nods, knowingly.

Suddenly there is a trail of blood, drops splattering one by one against the stone. It splotches their shoes. The Tall Boy kicks his feet around in his Shoes-That-Are-Too-Big-For-Him and tries to shake the drops of blood from them. They see where it is coming from. Far off in the distance, there is Someone bleeding. His blood has become a stream … now a river.

“Someone’s heart must have gotten so full of Pain that it burst,” the Doctor explains, clinically. “Perhaps they had a nail in their heart …”

The Grieving Widow nods. She knows the feeling all too well. But the Man Who Is Bleeding … the Girl With the Thick Braids knows well enough Who He Is. She recognizes him from seeing his picture hung on the walls of her house. But the thought of his Pain and Bleeding into puddles of blood makes her burst into tears. She grabs her mother’s hand and cries,

“Why are they doing that to him? Make them stop! Make them stop! They’re hurting him! Why are they doing that to him?!”

“Oh, he’s being executed,” the Doctor holds her hand to her mouth.
The Girl With the Thick Braids is bawling inconsolably, though as the Bus Driver noted, her tiny eyes are not so innocent and untainted. It is not her first Execution, but that does not make it any less terrible. The bloody face, the stripes running down his cheeks, crusting his beard, a body with holes in it … it is more than she can bear. She is too distraught even to hide her face; she can do nothing but sob and sob. The Grieving Widow is crying, too.

“An Execution!” she wails. “Not an Execution! Stop it at once!” she throws up her hands.

The Commander stiffens. He steps backwards for a moment, as though he doesn’t want to get too close because he knows that he himself is scheduled to be executed. He finds something stuffed in his pocket, a paper so old it must have been written over thirty years ago when the Commander was a strapping young man – skinnier than he is now, with dark brown curls untouched by the frost of age, and a different pair of plastic glasses. It is wrinkled and crinkly, labeled, “The Sentence of Death”. It is some sort of memo someone wrote to someone else, and goes, simply: The Commander is fair game. He swallows. He knows what “fair game” means. It means he is fair game to be executed, that he has the sentence of death hanging over his head like a noose. He feels his neck to be sure there is no noose there already. He notices also that his palms are stained red; he has blood on his hands.

The Tall Boy watches soberly. “This … is Love?” he says into the air, at no one. “Why does it look like an Execution?”

“Make them stop!” the Girl With the Thick Braids cries once more. She stands helplessly before all this blood, all these stripes … “Oh, please, make them stop! They’re hurting him!”

But the Execution will not stop. The Girl With the Thick Braids knows well enough how Executions end.

Suddenly the trail of blood stops and it has become nothing but a pool left where a corpse lay, a Body With Holes In It. It has been taken off to the Tombs, of course, but it has left behind a dark stain like a great big splatter. They only see an arm being dragged off in its trail, scraping against the gravely path, a hand full of holes …

The Girl With the Thick Braids buries her face in her mother’s widow’s black now, unable to stop her tears.

“He’s gone,” the Commander stares down at the bloodstain, soberly. Nothing is left in the sea of red but three branches of a briar bush twisted together into a thorny loop.

“His crown …” the Girl With the Thick Braids kneels down and picks it up off of the ground. It pricks her fingers. “Ow.” She winces, shaking her hand. “It must have fallen off of his head.”

The Commander’s New Wife looks at her husband. “What do you think he must have done?” she whispers gravely. “It must have been very, very bad whatever it was. He ended up in a pool of blood, full of holes …” she shudders. “That’s how only very, very bad people end …”

This comment for some reason makes the Girl With the Thick Braids cry harder (if that is possible).

“Well, I suppose we should go now,” the Regent’s Wife says. “He’s gone. There’s nothing left to see.”

So they walk off in a somber line, through a fog of sorrow and under a muffled song that is being hummed through the shrouds of Grief, Upon the cross of Calvary, the Savior died for me…

Every heart is heavy and full of rocks. The Commander is disturbed, mind racing with concern that what he just saw it what is scheduled to happen to him. He strokes his beard slowly, imagining its snowy fibers encrusted with blood like that Man’s … his New Wife looks at him also with the same thought. The words come back to them: How will you escape? They do not like this thought at all.

“It’s dinner time,” the Bus Driver announces through the fog of Sorrow. His voice is muffled, lost in all the Sadness and tangled up in it like it is a fishing net.

“We’re not hungry,” the Doctor calls back. She looks at everyone else. They all nod with her in agreement. No one feels like eating. Their stomachs feel sick and twisted up in knots of Pain. Instead they sit down on the ground in a row, no one speaking a word to the other. The Girl With the Thick Braids is dragged behind her mother by her hand and she clutches the Crown of Thorns in the other.

For a long while, no one speaks. They hear a sound like a door slamming … it is a boulder being thrust against the mouth of that Tomb, locking away the Body With Holes In It in the blackness, forever.

“Well, that’s it then,” the Grieving Widow throws up her hands. “Death. It’s the end. We may as well die, too. Let the stones fall on all of us!” she spreads out her hands and looks aloft as though she is pleading with heaven.
“I want to die,” the Tall Boy nods eagerly. “There is no Hope.”

Night falls on them, an awful darkness, but they can’t sleep. The moon is but a sliver against the blackness; it has turned upside down into an angry frown. The crows come and roost in the blossoming trees, and in a fit they rip the blossoms out in their beaks and spit them onto the ground, leaving the trees as naked, gaunt skeletons with no sign of Life. No one even lies down in the grass to try to sleep (except, of course, the Very Old Man, who is paralyzed, and lies buried in the grass the whole time). They sit up all night, trying to count the stars (but there are no stars that night. At one point, the Tall Boy thinks he sees a planet, but it is only an airplane). They sit up all night in the blackness and fidget. The children rip up grass. The adults sit with their elbows on their knees and stare at their black shoes.

They seem to pass another night this way … but it is hard to tell for sure because the sun does not seem to come up in the morning. Days and nights run into each other like ink. Blackness has spilled across the world like tar.
“Even the sun is Dead,” the Regent’s wife comments, shaking her head back and forth.

They are just beginning to lose count of the hours and the days (the Tall Boy asks the Commander if he can look at his watch, the nice silver one that hangs loose on his left wrist, but it appears as though it has stopped. It is fogged up and has said nine o’clock for as long as they’ve been sitting in the grass) when a tiny granule of light – smaller than a star – appears in the blackness, and then the whole sky erupts into the most colorful sunrise you have ever seen, a great paint spill of pinks and gold bleeding across the sky like watercolors, and the sun bursting from behind the trees.

The Bus Driver comes bounding up to you, smiling. “Here we are!” he announces. “We’ve arrived.”

“Where?” the Commander’s New Wife shakes her head.

“Easter, of course.”

“No, thanks. We don’t celebrate Easter,” the Regent’s Wife says. She looks around for support. “None of us celebrate Easter. And while we’re at it we may as well not celebrate anything ever again, because there isn’t any reason to Celebrate.”

“Well, in that case,” he sighs. “We’ll just have to get back on the bus to go home.”

You are disappointed. All that for nothing? You’ve come all this way and no one wants to celebrate Easter?

Lilies are beginning to sprout from the ground, shoot up as high as the Girl With the Thick Braids’ shoulder, as silky as milk and thick-stemmed . She giggles when she sees the flowers grow right in front of her, and throws down the Crown of Thorns for a moment to grab one of them.

“It’s ok, isn’t it?” she whispers to her mother.

She nods.

The Girl With the Thick Braids lets the smooth white run over her scarred hands that have been scratched and pricked from clutching the Crown of Thorns. The grass has grown high and salty – it is a pale green like sea grass and smells as fresh as the tears of heaven, the dew, the spring rain. The Girl With the Thick Braids runs her fingers through it. She begins to run and leap through the grass, padding in her little white shoes, not minding the stains on her pink dress, when she notices Someone wave to her in the distance. She can’t see him. He is standing in front of the sun and is obscured by curtains of light. But she can see his hand, waving against the heavens, the dark outline of his silhouette against the field of grass and lilies. She looks harder. She can see light pouring through a hole in the silhouette, he has Holes In His Hands.

“It’s him again!” she announces, pointing. She waves back.

Only the Boy With No Voice takes any notice of her, and the two children run off through the field, galloping through the grass and tripping on lilies. The Tall Boy feels angry that he is left out but he doesn’t quite want to follow them. They are being silly. They don’t know what they are talking about, he figures.

“Children,” sighs the Doctor.

“Full of False Hope,” says the Grieving Widow.

But the two children run back to report that it is just as they thought. It is Him. He came back.

The Grieving Widow’s eyes widen. “But … he was executed.”

“But he came back!” the Girl With the Thick Braids jumps up and down. “And maybe he’ll make us more valentines,” she hopes.

The Commander and his New Wife stare at each other. He was executed … The Commander’s New Wife lifts her two bursting paper bags of books onto the bus and the two of them discuss back and forth that all of that must not have really happened, it must have been their imaginations, or a ruse, or something … the Regent and his Wife agree. This is the explanation that they all come up with. It was all a trick of some sort, someone was trying to play a trick on them. The Commander takes one look back at the field as he boards the bus, scooting his New Wife in front of him and herding her in like a stray calf back into the fold. He sees the Hand With Holes In It waving at him. A girl in a white dress has joined him now and is waving also.

“That Man has my daughter,” he watches them a bit jealously, lingering in the doorway of the bus.

His New Wife tells him to hurry up, there are people waiting behind you, you are being rude … never mind about your daughter, it can’t be her anyway, she is dead, she was crushed under a pile of stones many, many years ago, you must just be seeing things, maybe you need new glasses …

And so with a spurt of exhaust the bus rolls away from the field and you all start for home: the Old Man splayed across the seats like a corpse, the children fighting and shoving each other, the Commander’s New Wife trying to arouse his intellectual curiosity with a good book, poking him like he is a pin cushion with title after title … everyone is settled in their seats as the Bus Driver does the final head count and makes sure everyone has gotten on board.

And you all go home!
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The Very Long Bus Ride
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