The bus fumes were thick in the yard as Lawrence stepped outside, sipping the last of his coffee. In Seattle the sunset moved the air toward the ocean, but tonight it wasn't moving it much. The acrid taste of vending machine coffee nicely balanced the flavor of the air.
He crumpled the cardboard cup in his hand as he stepped up into his bus, and tossed it in the waste bin just before swinging his body into the driver's seat. He settled into the cushioned leather pocket in satisfaction and turned the ignition. The motor started with its healthy rumble, and he swung the bus out of the yard.
The tension of the wheel in his hands and the sway of the big bus around him gave him the familiar sensual feeling that he was swinging the body of metal by himself, by touch. He tacked around to the beginning of his route, in the University District, and started across to Capitol Hill. A man and a woman, both with binoculars slung around their necks and carrying several bags, were waiting at the third stop. When he pulled up, though, they were positioned by the back door. He could hear the hollow banging for a moment, then he saw the tops of two gray heads bob along the bottom of the windows until they reached the front. The back doors never opened on this route. His stomach churned a bit as the two worked their way up the bus steps, but the only comment made to him was, "One dollar, the fare in the evening, ja?" "That's right," he nodded, and the man's soft, wrinkled hands fingered one coin at a time into the fare box, with evenly spaced "pings", as his lips moved silently. Then both passengers moved slowly to the back of the bus, murmuring softly about what stop to make next.
Lawrence was driving the bus for just a four-hour shift tonight, 9PM to 1AM. Forty-five minutes each way from University way to Capitol Hill, fifteen minute layover at each end. He was used to the route. He didn't have to go downtown during the Weird Hours. This was going to be a laid-back night.
He picked up another passenger a few stops on. There was a gap of about ten minutes, then he picked up a 7-11 clerk going home. She usually got on at that point, but she never talked much. He said hi, she nodded and went to the back.
After another twenty minutes, he realized no-one had gotten off yet. Even the 7-11 clerk. He was sure her stop was before this. He looked in his mirror to see if they were all asleep back there.
The back of the bus was empty.
His mind spun out of gear for a moment, then he shook his head sharply and reached for his chewing gum. The company should really allow drivers to drink coffee on the route.
The next passenger to get on was a middle-aged, very large woman in a dark green cloth coat, who was carrying an umbrella although it hadn't rained in two weeks. He noted every circumstantial detail, assuring himself that he did not imagine this woman heaving herself up the steps of his bus with her little gasps, the change she had been holding in her hand so long the rims of the coins had left imprints in her palm, or her smile that made him believe for awhile that everything was perfectly all right.
After 10 minutes of silence, he snuck a look in the mirror.
The back of the bus was empty, except for one dark green umbrella lying forlorn in the aisle.
Lawrence stopped the bus at the layover point, and just stared into the mirror. He didn't want to turn around. Every light in the bus was on. His face shone pale and faintly glistening in the harsh light.
He was supposed to go clean the back of the bus now.
No Metro bus drivers or passengers were harmed in the creation of this story.