"Exact change, please-and stay behind the yellow line that used to be there before it wore away."

The Circle-Route
by Jamie D. Munro ©2019

Jan rested on the bus seat against her husband and caressed his cold hand. His scent of citrus and sweat from working their orchard carried memories of the strong man she had grown old with, yet a shadow of him was now slumped beside her. She stroked his ashen face as he stared through the window with an expression as blank as the darkness outside. Realisation chilled Jan to the bone - Frank had to go back to the hospital or he would die on the bus.

"Frank," she said, keeping her voice below the murmur of the passengers. "You shouldn't be on this bus." She brushed his grey hair and studied how he had aged in the five years since she had last seen him.

He dragged a gaze to her. "You left me, Jan."

"I died," she said. Memories of that night flashed back. The sudden pain in her heart. The darkness. And then the bus. "I didn't choose to leave you."

"Well," he said, "I choose to be with you."

She held his gaze with hers and remembered why she had been waiting for him - hoping he had changed. But it was too soon. If Frank were to die too, their son Ben would have no family. Although he was a young adult, Ben would not cope with the loss of both parents.

Frank shrugged. "I didn't picture my life ending like this, but when you died…well, the depression took hold."

Panic shot through Jan and she clenched the vinyl seat. Frank had to go back for Ben. "You're not dead."

"What?" His face wrinkled with thought.

She raised her voice. "You haven't died yet."

He snatched up her hand. "This isn't a dream, is it?"

"It's no dream. Everyone here has died." She clasped her hands around his. "But you're still alive."

"That can't be. I was rushed to hospital. And now I'm with you." He broke into a fit of coughs.

"Frank, have a look. Do you see anyone else here suffering?" Frank adjusted his glasses and turned around. Elderly passengers filled the rows of seats. They chatted amongst themselves and rested. "The pain you're experiencing is the connection to your physical body. You can still feel whatever it is your body is going through."

Frank grasped his stomach and his face tightened with pain.

"What happened to you?" she said.

"It's okay, it feels like I'm getting better."

"That's just a sign you're losing your connection, a sign you're dying." At a loss, she studied him. "You can go back, but your time's running out."

"Go back?" Frank looked through the graffiti-scratched window. "How's that even possible?"

The bus moaned to a stop. Fog crept across the headlights like clouds over a full moon. A soft voice from the driver's compartment called, "East and First Avenue."

A slow tap-tap came up the entrance. An old man entered, hunched over a cane and grasping the handrail. "Welcome back, Errol," the driver said, her melodic words resonated down the bus. "You look well. I guess you're staying then?"

Errol straightened his back, as if waiting for a pain that never came, then grinned. "Well, Good Madam, I guess I am." He brushed his tan suit, tipped his hat to the driver, and tossed his cane out the doorway. He marched down the aisle, then suddenly stopped at Frank, giving him a double-take. "And what are you doing here, Ol' Boy?"

Mouth agape, Frank said, "Well-"

"A bit confused, hey?" Errol said. "I'll help you - you're still alive! Get off this bus while you can. We're a dead boring lot." He threw his head back with laughter as he sat behind them. Errol shuddered. "You living people give me the creeps." The bus drove off with a splutter.

Jan turned to Frank. Colour was returning to his face. "Your bus stop is coming around again," she said. "You have to get off at the same stop you got on in order to find your way back to your body."

"That's right, Ol' Boy," Errol said. "It has to be the same stop." He gave an exaggerated shudder. "And be quick about it!"

"Frank," snapped Jan. "You have to return and fight this illness of yours."

Frank turned to the window; his thoughts hidden in the twilight.

"Frank," she shouted. The passengers around her quietened. "What are you even thinking about? You don't have to die yet."

"Yes, I do." Darkness flickered in his eyes from the broken light above them. "I chose this."

Jan's eyes snapped wide open. "What?"

His chin quivered. "I swallowed all my pills."

Jan sprung upright in her seat.

"I...I wanted to be with you," he said.

Her mind turned to Ben. Both parents dead. One by suicide. Her face dropped. Her family had broken further apart.

Frank wrapped a clammy arm around Jan. "Since you left...my mind's been in a dark place." He trembled. "I felt as if I was in a hole, falling further every day."

She pressed her face into his bony chest. "Oh, Frank. I wish I'd been there for you." The weight of years spent trying to help Frank came back to her, the struggle to find the happy man she had fallen in love with.

He hugged her tighter. "I know. That's what's been eating at me. You were always so good to me." Frank choked down a cry. "I took you for granted."

Behind the veil of sickness and age was her life-partner, yet these were the words of a stranger - someone she had longed for. "You always worked hard on the farm to provide for us." She had always wondered if he knew how hard she had tried to keep the family together. "You don't need to apologise."

"No." He pulled back. "I do. I always loved you, but I just couldn't show it."

"Frank." She squeezed his hand, pressing her wedding ring against his.

"I didn't realise how much I loved you until you were gone." He lowered his head.

A warmth stirred inside her, as though a long-forgotten part of her heart had thawed. It had been so long since he had said he loved her. Only distant memories carried joy, like when their son was little - before Frank's depression. "I love this, Frank, but you can't do this to Ben."

"I can't face things back there." He sobbed into his hands.

Jan rubbed his back. "Go back for him."

Frank shook his head. "I can't." His voice quietened. "I've barely spoken to him in five years."

Her jaw dropped. "Since I died?"

"We grew more apart." He gasped for breath. "I withdrew into myself."

"You don't know how he is? What he's up to?"

"Well, I've heard snippets. He's had...changes in his life." He coughed. "But I couldn't bring myself to contact him."

She crossed her arms, worried how much further her family had disconnected. "What do you mean?"

The air brakes hissed. The driver called, "East and Third Avenue."

Jan sprung to her feet and snatched her handbag. "This is your stop. Get off and go see our son, or I'm getting off and starting my new life."

"There's nothing for me." Frank held open his hands. "Stay with me."

Jan stormed down the aisle.

The bus screeched to a stop. The doors groaned open, sending fog swirling around a boy standing at the bus stop. Jan gasped. Enshrouded in darkness, he waited, no older than four, and alone. A fresh bruise marked his cheek.

Jan crept to the edge, taking care not to step off. She poked her head out and looked around into the void, then down at the boy. His blue eyes shone with a glow from the driver's compartment. Dressed in a Superman costume, he clutched an envelope in his hand. An unfulfilled yearning for grandchildren tugged at Jan's heart. "And what's your name, little one?"

A chilled wind passed through her and into the bus. The boy hugged himself. "Jim...my." He shivered. "Jimmy."

Jan drew her cardigan tight. "And what are you doing here, Jimmy?"

Expressionless, and as quiet as the emptiness outside, he said, "Daddy's taking me on the bus."

Jan paused, unsure whether Jimmy knew he was alone. "And where is Daddy?"

He shrugged and glanced over his shoulder. "I lost him in the dark."

Jan squatted. "Can you go back and find him?"

He stepped closer. "It's dark." He stroked his bruise and winced.

Jan took his little hand in her fingers and helped him up the step. Jimmy looked back outside. Fog slithered into the bus, covering their shoes. "Where's Daddy?" said Jimmy.

Jan embraced him, letting the scent of childhood fill the void inside her. "I know someone who can help you find Daddy." Jimmy gave the hint of a smile.

Jan led him to her seat. Sorrowful looks filled the bus. The passengers murmured amongst themselves. Some held hands to their mouths, others shook their heads. "Poor boy," said Errol, "he's so young."

Frank's beaming smile met her return. His colour was close to normal, and he now sat upright. Yet, all she could see was their son. They had always looked alike, with their broad shoulders and curly hair. She realised that just as Ben was losing a father, any future children of Ben's would also be without Frank. She would show Jimmy to Frank, so Frank could see what he was giving up.

"Don't smile at me." She thrust a finger at Frank. "I've only come back for this little one."

Frank leaned closer to Jimmy. "Hello, Superman. That was my boy's favourite superhero." He held up a hand. "Gim'me five."

Jimmy clung to Jan's fingers and gave her a questioning look. Jan smiled, and said, "Go on, he won't bite."

Jimmy slapped Frank's hand and climbed up beside him.

"Jimmy," said Jan, sitting down, "what happened to your face?"

"The bus hit me."

"You're a brave boy then." Frank patted Jimmy's leg.

Jimmy held up his card to Frank, and said, "I dropped it on the road."

Frank whispered to Jan, "What about him?"

Jan shook her head. "He hasn't died yet either. I tried to get him to go back, but he's too scared."

Wide-eyed, Frank whispered, "Oh God, he's still alive."

Jan nodded.

Frank pointed to the Superman 'S' on Jimmy's shirt, "Hey, you're a real Superman then?" Jimmy looked down, and Frank lifted his finger, tapping Jimmy on the chin. "Gotcha." Jimmy's giggles split the dead silence on the bus.

Jan neatened Jimmy's curls. "He reminds me of Ben when he was little. Remember you would chase him around the house pretending to be Frankenstein?"

"That was a long time ago." Frank smiled. "But, I remember."

"I've always remembered, Frank." Warmth swelled in her chest. "It's what I've clung to."

"Ben lit up my world," said Frank, "there was so much excitement when he was little." He shook his head. "The darkness pulled me away. I lost you both."

Jan clung to Frank's arm. "We didn't go anywhere."

"Well, I was lost." Frank took a long breath. "I regret not being there for him growing up."

"Jimmy got on at your stop." Jan held her breath. "You could take him back...and go to Ben."

Frank shifted away. "No, Jan. I don't even know this boy."

"You've nearly lost all signs of your overdose," she said. "The next time your stop comes around will be your last chance. You would have loved a grandson." She smiled down at Jimmy. "Look what you're going to miss."

Frank recoiled.

"What is it?" said Jan.

"I...I heard he had a son."

"Ben?"

"Hmm."

Jan trembled. "When?"

Frank wiped his eyes. "About a year after you passed away."

"And you've never seen him?"

"I couldn't."

"I wanted grandkids," shouted Jan, "and you chose to throw it all away?"

"I'm sorry, Jan."

"You need to try harder. You've apologised to me. You can reach out to Ben, too."

The windows rattled like old bones as the bus slowed. "North and Forth Avenue," the driver called.

A woman seated across the aisle embraced her partner and gave her a kiss. "See you next time 'round." She walked out the exit and vanished.

"Oh," said Frank, pressing his face to the window. "And her?"

"Rebirth," said Jan. "When the dead step off, we go to a new life. This is why I can't take Jimmy back."

Jimmy climbed across Frank and peered through the window. "Where's Daddy?" He turned to Jan. "Are we going to the hospital?"

Jan shot a look to Frank, then back to Jimmy. "Why do you ask that?"

"Daddy's taking me to see Grandad."

Jan froze.

She reached for the envelope. "Can I have a look?"

"It's for Grandad," Jimmy said.

Jan took the card out and read the inscription.

Dad,

It's been too long. My Jimmy needs a Frankenstein, too. We want you to get better. I want us to try again.

Love, Ben.

She thrust the card at Frank.

He shoved his glasses back on and read it.

Jan kissed Jimmy's forehead. "We'll get you back to Daddy, okay?"

"Oh, Jan." Frank trembled. "What's going on?"

Jan leapt up and pointed at Frank. "What's going on is you're getting off and taking our grandson back to his dad."

Frank looked Jimmy over. "This is my fault."

"East and Third Avenue," called the driver.

"Frank!" Jan looked through the windscreen at the approaching bus stop. "Get up."

Frank scurried to the aisle. "What do I do?"

"Just go back the way you came."

Frank squatted down to Jimmy. "I'll take you to Daddy, okay?"

Jimmy held up a hand, and Frank slapped him five. Frank took him by the hand and led him to the exit.

The doors creaked open. Jan gave Jimmy a hurried kiss, then Frank, and said, "I'll wait for you."

Frank stepped off, reached back, took Jimmy in his arms, and lifted him onto his shoulders.

They walked away together, with Jimmy's cape flapping in the wind.

x x x

Reminds me of some bus trips I took in my yout'-especially on the 61C. Any of you who lived in the Pittsburgh area can relate. For others, try public transportation sometime and you'll see why we retain our benighted love affair with cars in this country. Another Australian debuts on anotherealm with this clever tale. Thank you, mate! And you can thank Mr. Munroe (AKA Jamie Paterson) on our BBS. - GM



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