The desert wind made katana slashes against the sides of the bus. The bus looked dead, or dying. Mechanical juices, long ago flowed from cracks in the metal, had coagulated into tough nubbins in the soil. The underside was a dark, twisted warzone, a battlefield riddled with trenches made of metal piping and sandbags represented in the rust peeling off.
The red ground sparkled bloody in the sun and the windows were coated thickly with dust. A skeleton sat crumpled in the driver’s seat, clothes deteriorated to tatters hung from the bone structure that once supported organs and veins and a brain that thought and reasoned.
Somehow the structure hung together, immobile, the sockets staring across a deteriorating desolation. Of leaning buildings, their interiors poking through shreds of wall, jagged windows, the same sightlessness staring in both directions, devoid of healing.
A vulture swooped from the sky and flapped to rest on the hood of the bus. The stench of diesel gasoline exploded like a fragmentary grenade in his nostrils.
“How do you stand it?” the vulture squawked.
“I don’t have a nose,” the skeleton said.
The vulture popped into the air like a smoothie shooting from an uncovered blender before settling back on the hood and eyeing the skeleton through the broken windshield.
“Come again?” the vulture said.
“Please what?” asked the vulture.
“Please stay with me. My friends left me behind.”
The skeleton stretched a creaky arm backward, inviting the vulture to scan the barren seats, torn from the crash, tumbling over each other like panda bears trying to use the same bamboo tree for lunch. No other skeletons occupied the seats behind him. His passengers deserted him, left him to die in the hot sun with a leaking fuselage and a broken windshield. How long had it been? He wasn’t sure. Not anymore, not when the view stopped changing, stopping dissolving into more unusable bits of metal, glass, and advertising.
“Skeletons don’t have friends. Look at me, I’m alive, and I don’t have any friends,” the vulture said. He crooked a yellow, fading eye at the skeleton and wondered which socket stared back, if either of them saw anything from the invisible depths of the afterlife.
“Where are you headed?” the skeleton asked.
“Why does it matter where I’m headed? You won’t be coming with me.”
“I’m interested,” the skeleton said.
“No,” the vulture shook his head, “you’re dead. That’s what you are. Dead. And that is not interesting.”
He launched himself into the violent sky as the sun set, shards of deathly light glancing off the jagged edges of the windshield where a body had been ejected. Small shreds of clothing clung to the glass, some of it stained red or tinged pink from the violence of the expulsion. The deepness of the colors gone rusty, flayed by the passage of too many suns, endless moons, not enough stars.
“Bastard,” the skeleton said.
He stared lifelessly into the atmosphere and waited for something new to rise.
A butterfly jounced past the bus windshield, roving about in the windless air. The skeleton saw nothing moving beyond, the butterfly losing focus as he tried to corral the city, its foundations awash in sands blown there centuries ago by the rumbling geological shifts that had predated his current predicament.
Tiny, shrill voices began chirruping, growing slightly louder, sounding the approach of a caterpillar brigade.
“Follow the queen!” the lead one shouted. They hupped and strutted in perfect formation, obviously pursuing the butterfly.
When the lead caterpillar noticed the looming curved edge of the bus hood he scooted to a halt, the pack accordioning behind him, forming a mess of legs and wriggling torsos.
“She’s out of reach,” one cooed. A voice of longing. Snuffed hope.
“We must away. About face,” the lead caterpillar said. They adjusted and began crawling back where they had come from, down a stretch of nasty looking metal. The skeleton watched the scooting green bodies until they were out of sight.
Memories. Did he have any? No. Only the empty present. An occasional breeze that brought dust to his sockets, the bowl of his pelvis, the crook of his clavicle. Until he was barely more than a weather receptacle.
Something moved in an upper window. No. Just a beam collapsing. Another thing sighing under the weight of years without an oasis. The slump of the upper story blew a cloud of dust, a ghostly exhalation. Like a top hat forcefully scrunched down on a weathered, vagabond head.
He raised an arm and realized he had never attempted such a thing before. He had never presumed movement. He ungripped the steering wheel with his other hand, mentally tested his lower half. His legs creaked but seemed willing to hold. How long had it been? Since what? Since he’d been this awake to risk.
His foot made a noise on the steps leading to the busted-out doors, both leaning crooked off their hinges as if pried outward by some atmospheric squid. The noise stopped him. What journey might this entail? The sand slid from its basins as he took another step down. It made a brief shushing noise as it struck the steps. Then all was quiet again.
He didn’t bother to look back, his bone structure leaving imprints in the untouched dust. No destination in mind. No arrival hoped for. Something brown and gangly floated in the sky. Wheeled. Flapped. The vulture. A flash of burnished knuckling, another directional shift. Gone somewhere else.
He moved through the city’s absence methodically. Never letting his gaze rest too long on any specific monument or gaping doorway half-blocked with debris and wreckage. Somehow he knew what he sought. Somewhere amidst that taller crumble of construction, where all those jagged mouths glinted during late sun.
Highways curved about his trajectory. Dried-up arteries. Clogged with rusted-out hulks, abandoned trailers. Cargo bursting like stuffing from ragged taxidermy.
His footsteps grew in confidence if not noise. Thought he saw a pair of hollow eyes peeking through some disheveled brickwork. Gone before he could verify. No scuffle to indicate a presence. Whatever tatters of clothing he’d carried had long since fallen away in the years since he’d left the bus. And how many had it been before that?
His only memory: something had gone through the windshield. A known shape. Unlike those shatterings high along the metal fingers that scraped the undersides of those transparent clouds. Where nothing distinct had done its work. Just the random passage. The ebb and further recede of time. The trickle of a clock running down.
A piece of rubble lodged itself between his toes and he realized he had been walking for a long time. Never sitting since he’d left the bus. He planted himself in a wavering patch of shade, just sitting, finally prying the hunk of stone loose. Setting it near him. Something else he might recall.
“What are you looking for?”
The vulture had returned. The skeleton creaked in the vulture’s direction. It had taken up a position atop a signpost that had been bent in half, the words scraped out, deep gouges scored across its surface. He balanced atop the angle, where the sign struck upward before bending in a nonsensical direction.
“Where are you headed?”
For answer, the skeleton rose, set off again, confident in his direction.
“Have it your way,” the vulture growled. Then he lifted off. Landed somewhere higher, paused briefly, and launched himself away from the towers.
There. Inside. Tucked among the massive obelisks. A smaller house. Dwarfed. Windows still shattered and one side of the roof caved in. The door, though striped with wounds, was somehow intact. He approached, put his hand on the knob, turned and pushed as if it was the most natural thing, as if he were coming home.
The first floor was empty. He tried not to be disappointed. His hips ground into his pelvis as he climbed the stairs, careful not to stick a foot through any of the major gaps, one hand always on the rail. He entered the single room that wasn’t obliterated by the roof’s half-collapse, hoping to see what had drawn him this far.
The room contained a spare, metal bed frame, a wardrobe dashed against its side, one door flapped open like a gutted fish. No other skeleton. No ragged body to match what had flown from the bus. How many years had it been? Could he be the only one left?
He noticed the butterfly on the bedpost nearest the window. Then saw a neat troop of caterpillars scooting across the floor, winding through the debris as though they were soldiers in no-man-land’s dodging barbed wire and other obstructions. He heard a puny voice shout, “The queen!” Ecstatic, blooming from the small creature like the first breath of spring.
The butterfly flapped once, twice, soared to the window, fluttered about the space the world had left behind, before disappearing. Up. Outward.
# # #
Michael Prihoda is a poet, editor, and teacher living in central Indiana. He is the editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. In addition, he is the author of six poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Festival of Guns (A Wanton Text Production, 2017).