by Pamela Rentz
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Something strange darted into the road. Estelle drew a big breath and slammed on the brakes. The cries rang out all the way to the back of the casino bus, or “luxury motor coach”, as the Tribe’s advertisements referred to it. The creature scuttled into the dark. The coach skidded sideways on the two-lane mountain highway. Estelle couldn’t remember what the bus driver training video had said about controlling skids. She stood on the brakes and held the wheel firm and sent out a prayer to the Creator to keep her safe as she was the only provider for two small Karuk Indian children and a Karuk elder mother with health issues.
The bus slid to a stop almost perpendicular to the road. It blocked traffic in both directions. Estelle checked for oncoming headlights, but the road was deserted at this late hour. The smell of burned rubber floated through the coach.
“I thought we was gonna take off into the river.” An elder named Charlie Beck sat up front behind the driver’s seat. He slid one hand off the other. “Just like that.”
“You’re in good hands, Charlie,” Estelle said in a wavering voice. She cleared her throat. “Everyone okay?”
Estelle put the bus in park and got up from her seat. A mix of tribal members and locals, most of them elders, stared back at her.
“They train you to drive this thing?” Someone called.
“Of course,” Estelle said with feigned confidence. The bus company had given her twelve hours of video tapes. She’d watched them all twice. She wasn’t the best choice for this job, but she was going to make herself the best choice.
“Let’s go,” someone else said. “We got gambling to do.”
“Nothing like a busload of folks with slots on the brain,” Charlie said with a laugh. “Your first run?”
Estelle wiped the sweat off her neck and sat back down. The giant steering wheel was slick under her hands. She took her time, easing the bus back and forth, until she was facing the right direction again.
“You Louise’s daughter, right?” Charlie scooted forward so he could speak right into her ear.
“I am,” Estelle said. “You should probably sit back. I’d hate for you to bump out.” She braked hard at the next curve to illustrate her concern.
Charlie barely shifted in his seat. “Why you going for this job?”
“What do you mean?” Estelle said. “Because I’m a woman?”
The bus headed into a light fog. Estelle double-checked the headlights. They seemed too weak to do their job. She squinted into the darkness, carefully following the curve of the road.
Charlie laughed and shook his head. “Just like your Mom. Prickly.”
“Yeah?” Estelle said, smiling. “This job was her idea. She said they needed a night driver and that I could pass the drug test.” Estelle loosened her hands. She’d been squeezing so tight the wheel ridges were imprinted on her palms.
“Why not you?” Charlie said. “Indian preference.”
“And they pay fifty bucks each way. That’s a hundred bucks for about four hours of driving. I can’t make that kind of money doing anything legal.” Estelle gave him a quick smile in the rearview mirror above her head. “Plus, I can gamble while I’m there. Mom thought I could double my money.”
“I know, right?” Charlie said.
“So,” she said, keeping her voice casual. “Did you see that thing?”
“Not really,” Charlie said. “Lots of critters in these mountains. I got a bear getting into my watermelon patch. I pay the grandkids a dollar each to sleep out there with a shotgun.”
“I don’t think it was a bear,” Estelle said.
“No,” Charlie agreed. “But it was something.”
Estelle settled into the rhythm of the road. The bus felt solid in her hands. She pushed the gas until they were moving at a good clip. The image of the thing flashed in her mind and she pushed the bus a bit faster. The driver’s seat vibrated under her and a worrisome clinking sound came from beneath the bus. She slowed down again.
Charlie relaxed back into his seat. The other passengers settled, too. There was the quiet rustle of food wrappers and a few muted voices. The gray mist thickened. Nothing but the lights from the bus illuminated the mountain road. Estelle wondered if she’d just imagined it.
The night had started uneventfully. She’d picked up the bus from the Tribe’s storage shed and collected the passengers in front of the Tribal Health Center. The casino was two hours from town, out on the Interstate. She would deliver the group to the casino for a free midnight buffet and fistful of playing coupons. She would bring them back after a continental breakfast.
According to the mile counter, they were about halfway, but according to the clock, it seemed they should be closer. A shadow flashed at the edge of the headlights. It looked like a person in a frog costume loped alongside the bus. Suddenly, it sprang sideways and plastered itself against the glass. Its head split apart to reveal a bright red mouth and tiny sharp teeth. It squealed at a pitch so high it hurt Estelle’s ears.
She started to hit the brakes, but after the earlier almost-disaster, changed her mind. She fumbled among the buttons and controls until she found the windshield wipers. The thing look surprised, if that were possible, before it was scraped off into the darkness with an unhappy shriek.
A young man hurried to the front of the bus and knelt down beside the driver’s seat.
“What was that?” he asked. “My girlfriend is freaking out.”
“A big branch,” Estelle said, confidently. “You are?”
“Kevin,” he said. “A big branch with teeth?” He leaned so close Estelle could smell booze on his breath.
“Or an owl,” Estelle said. “What’s your point?”
“Have you seen a thing like that before?” His need for reassurance made Estelle even more jumpy.
“Many times,” Estelle said. “Looks scary, but won’t bother us. Get back to your seat. And maybe knock off the sauce?” She pointed to a sign above her head to indicate the list of forbidden activities, which included swearing, loud music and alcoholic beverages.
He muttered something under his breath and returned to his seat.
The monotone voice from the training video filled Estelle’s head. She hadn’t made much of it at the time, but it had offered a vague reference to roadside distractions and warned that drivers should keep driving no matter what. Never let the bus stop. Don’t let anything or anyone on or off. Keep the windows shut.
Her back was damp and stuck to the seat. “Charlie? Is it hot in here?”
“It’s okay, I guess.” He patted a tissue to his forehead and Estelle took that to mean he was warm. She clicked the heat down a notch.
There was a thump from the top of the bus. Two small square portholes were built-in for emergency escape. The one above the driver’s side creaked as if someone were prying it open from the outside.
“Shit. Is someone up there?” Kevin called from his seat. “Stop the bus.”
“Don’t,” Charlie said, softly, so that only she could hear.
“I don’t think so,” Estelle said. Kevin’s alarmed face was clear in the rearview mirror. “Stopping isn’t going to do nothing but make it worse and turning back just gets us back where we started.”
“Who said anything about turning back?” one of the elders said. “Just get there, already.”
“Something’s out there,” Kevin said.
“You watch too many movies,” Estelle said. Kevin was stressing her out. “Emergency exits are sealed shut from the outside, so relax.” She wondered if that were true.
There was movement at the edges of the headlights again. Shapes moving alongside the bus barely visible in the fog.
“If there’s anything out there, it’s more afraid of you than you are of it,” she said repeating one of her mother’s phrases. “And it can’t get in here. Keep your windows sealed shut. Are the windows sealed shut?”
Kevin had successfully freaked out everyone. The passengers whimpered a quiet assent and Estelle nudged the speed up a notch. The rattle under the bus started again. “Crap,” she said, easing off the gas. There were no other lights on the highway. She hadn’t seen another car since they’d left town.
Estelle clicked the high beams on and gasped. The highway ahead was packed with creatures. They squatted along the side of the road and leapt back and forth with wicked-looking barbs on their bodies. She clicked the lights to regular view.
“I saw that,” Kevin gasped from behind her.
Estelle jumped. “Get back to your seat or I’ll open this door and kick your ass right into it.”
Kevin crept back to his seat. “There is something out there,” he told the passengers.
“Stay calm,” Estelle said, swallowing back her own dread. “Nothing bad has happened on this run. It won’t start tonight.” She glanced back at Charlie for reassurance, but he had his eyes closed. She wondered if this was why the Tribe had such a tough time keeping a driver.
Estelle checked the mileage. They were only a half hour out. Twenty-five minutes if she kept the speed up.
THWAP! The bus shifted side-to-side.
“It’s on the window,” Kevin said. “Right here on the window.”
Kevin’s girlfriend sobbed and then gagged. Several others joined her. Then the smell hit the front of the bus. Like a thick vapor of rotting green garbage.
Estelle’s eyes watered. She pressed her sleeve to her nose to inhale. “Charlie, what do I do?”
Charlie slowly opened his eyes. “Just drive the bus.”
Estelle didn’t feel any less panicked.
“Don’t look at it,” she told the passengers. She resisted the urge to punch the gas. Something thumped under the wheels and she and the passengers collectively shuddered.
“It’s looking at me,” Kevin’s trembling voice said.
“Then shut your eyes, dammit,” Estelle said. This bus drive couldn’t be over fast enough. No one needed a job that bad.
Another THWAP! A big one clung to the bus door and used its long skinny fingers to pry at the opening.
“Stay back!” she yelled. Her purse held about seventy bucks in change she hoped to convert to rent money while she was at the casino. She unhooked it from her seat and flung it at the door. It WHOMPED! against the glass with a satisfying thunk and the thing dropped away with a squeal.
They rode like that the last twenty miles to the casino. It felt like a hundred and twenty miles. One after the other, the creatures threw themselves against the windows and glared at the passengers through wide, yellow eyes. They licked the glass with their pointy tongues. They screeched and their webby hands sucked against the glass. The passengers shook and huddled together, some shrinking under their coats. Estelle snapped the heat off, but the bus grew hot and the fetid scent choked the air. She avoided inhaling until she got light-headed.
Charlie remained calm. He could have just as easily been enjoying a leisure tour. Every few minutes, he’d lean forward and say something like, “You’re doing great. Just drive the bus.”
At last, the mountain road straightened out and forest gave way. The sight of a distant red glow made Estelle’s stomach flop until she realized those were the lights of the casino.
“We’re almost there,” she said.
The creatures were smaller, now. One stuck against the windshield. Then another. Estelle kept the bus moving as they piled on. She had to crane to see between their webbed wings, clawed feet and hungry red mouths.
About a mile from the casino, they began dropping off, some with a bone-chilling wail of disappointment. The last one, barely the size of her hand, flew off as she pulled into the half-empty parking lot. She drove the bus to the circular drive and hugged the curb, stopping right in front of the giant double doors.
Warm yellow light glowed from inside the casino and, when she opened the bus door, a rich savory smell, like prime rib and baked potatoes, wiped away the lingering foul scent.
A handsome and vaguely familiar-looking man with a long black ponytail stepped onto the bus.
“Welcome,” he said to the passengers with a friendly smile. “I hope you’re hungry.” Even his voice was mesmerizing. “The midnight buffet awaits. We’ve got over five hundred dollars in free play we’re giving away at the raffle.”
Excited voices filled the coach. The passengers scrambled for their bags and sweaters and exited quickly, barely stepping on the paved walk in their hurry to get inside.
“Good driving,” Kevin said, as he helped his girlfriend climb down the stairs. “Sorry if I acted weird.”
Estelle waved. “No problem.”
The man turned to Estelle. “I’m the night manager, Grayson,” he said shaking her damp hand in his cool one. “You the trial driver?”
“Estelle,” she said.
“Any problems on the road?” He looked as if he were sharing a joke with her.
“Estelle’s a steady one,” Charlie said. “Give me a hand?”
Grayson helped him off the bus. Charlie hobbled into the casino.
“You’re planning to come in, too, aren’t you?” He handed her a coupon for a hundred dollars of free play.
“For the driver, too?” Estelle took it, surprised. The slip of paper tingled in her hands. She’d start with the quarter slots. She liked the Lucky Seven machine and the Five Draw Poker. She forgot why her heart was beating so fast. She grabbed her heavy purse.
“I can park this thing for you,” Grayson said. He took the key from her hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll find you when it’s time to go.”
Estelle hurried from the bus. She had every cent she could spare on her and she couldn’t wait to get to those machines.
Pamela Rentz is an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe of California and works as a paralegal specializing in Indian Affairs. She is a graduate of Clarion West 2008 and was published in Asimov’s in April 2010. She can be found online at: www.pamrentz.com.