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In 1975, my best friend disappeared. I’m going to tell you what happened. It won’t take long because the story is a short one, but that’s a necessity of the facts. Quite simply, there aren’t many.
Here they are:
His name was James Wade. He was thirteen years old. One night, he went to bed and the next morning, he wasn’t there. The front door was open and James was gone. The house – as far as anyone could tell – hadn’t been broken into and there were no signs of a disturbance. James wasn’t a troubled child and his parents were decent, loving and hardworking. They all lived together in a nice middle-class neighbourhood in the suburbs.
No one ever saw him again. The police had no leads, no clues and no suspects. The story pretty much starts and ends there.
But not quite.
James disappeared on Wednesday night. I saw him in school earlier that day and he told me that, the previous night, something had woken him up in the early of hours of the morning. Exactly what, he couldn’t say. It was late November and when he’d gone to bed the wind had been shrieking with a vengeance but when he woke up, everything was deathly still. Maybe the sudden quiet woke him. Sleep is strange like that. Whatever, when he did wake, he woke with a crawling sense of dread, like he’d just surfaced from a nightmare and, as he lay there with his heart pounding in his chest and the silence pounding in his ears, he heard something.
Faint at first.
The low, heavy growl of big diesel engine. Somewhere close and getting closer. Then, as it approached his house, he heard a second noise. It took him a moment to realise it was a horn. Beeping gently like someone taking care not to wake the whole street, tapping out a friendly rhythm, a kind of toot-toot toot-toot but it was a horrible noise, James said, tortured and unnatural, like the honking of a dying goose.
He crept to the window and looked outside. Crawling down the empty street at the unhurried pace of an ice-cream van was an old school bus, a battered yellow GMC – one of those things that looks like a cross between a tractor and a horse box.
It looked like it had driven through a swamp. There were mud splatters radiating out from rusted wheel arches and dead leaves rotting in the windscreen grill. The windows were streaked with grime. At least one of them was cracked. Some of the body panels had been replaced and the bodywork was a patchwork of yellow shades, adorned with black lettering that was peeling away, hanging off the sides of the bus like shreds of torn skin.
James didn’t switch on the bedroom light and he didn’t open the curtains, he just kind of peered through a crack between the drapes. But when he did, the bus rolled to a stop. It stood there for a few moments, idling in the centre of the road.
Then, its headlights flashed.
By now, James’ skin was crawling in terror. Seeing an old school bus on a quiet residential backstreet in the early hours of the morning was a strange sight but it shouldn’t have been one that inspired blind terror. But it did. James could sense that something was very wrong. He dived back into bed and pulled the sheets over his head. He lay there for a while with his heart beating and sometime later, not long, maybe five minutes, he crept back to the window. The bus was outside his house. When he inched the curtains open, the horn went, beep-beep. A friendly beep. A come on, it’s time to go beep.
James went back to bed and this time he stayed there. The horn honked a few more times. A few minutes later, he heard the bus pull away.
On Wednesday morning, when I saw him in school, James had black bags under bloodshot eyes. He claimed he hadn’t slept a wink. He was clearly distressed.
I made a mistake, he kept telling me. I shouldn’t have looked, he kept saying.
It doesn’t mean anything, I told him. It’s just a bus.
But nothing I said seemed to reassure him.
I shouldn’t have looked, he kept saying.
And that’s where my story ends. Me and James went our separate ways at the end of the school day and I never saw him again. That’s it – no big reveal, no explanation, no twist, no climax, nothing. Unfortunately, life is like that – loose ends and unanswered questions.
I’m in my fifties now. Sometimes I get nightmares. Sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re different but even when they’re different they’re just variations on a theme. Here’s one: It’s late at night. My car has blown a tyre. I’m fixing it by the side road. I hear an engine. It gets closer and closer until I’m shielding my eyes from the glare of oncoming headlights.
A school bus rolls by.
As it passes me, I see a kid in the back window, banging the glass and screaming something that’s lost in the roar of the GMC’s huge diesel engine.
He hasn’t aged a day.
I’m not a superstitious man. There’s nothing in this story that can’t be explained rationally. Maybe the bus had nothing to do with James’ disappearance. Hell, maybe there was no bus – maybe he dreamt the whole thing. Even so, I’ve got two children of my own and when they were young, I told them an embellished version of this story – a story about an old school bus that cruises the streets at night. It moves slowly, like a stalking cat, its horn honking gently – a siren song to curious children and if any children get out of bed, go over to the window and look outside, the bus will roll to a stop. The next time they look out of the window, it will be parked outside their house. Soon after that, maybe even the same night, that child will disappear without a trace.
I told them that sometimes you can see the bus during the day. But during the day, it can’t hurt you. During the day it just travels from town to town. Sometimes adults see it too. It can’t hurt adults. Or maybe it can – it just doesn’t want them. Mostly, adults don’t even notice it but even when they do, they certainly don’t notice anything strange about it.
Because, although you can see through the windows, you can’t see inside the bus. You can’t see the children banging on the glass, crying and screaming and wondering why the hell you’re just standing there looking at them and why the hell you don’t do something. You can’t see the children who gave up hope long ago and now just sit there, staring into space or sobbing into their laps.
The children never get old. The bus never stops.
My children cried and wouldn’t sleep for a week. My wife was livid. I didn’t care. I’m not saying that what I told my children is true – it’s a bastardised version of what James told me with gaps filled in by my nightmares. Nevertheless, it seemed important to me that my children know that if they are ever lying in bed and if they ever hear the sound of an engine and a honking horn, they ignore it. Failing that, they should run out their rooms and come and climb into bed with me and their mother.
Just don’t go to the window.