There’s been this rumor in our town of the black night bus, I remember hearing it as a kid, though no one took it seriously. We’d stay up at night, looking out the window, but it never came. One night I woke with my face plastered to the window as the sun began to rise. It was said that the black night bus would pick up the naughty children and take them away, never to be seen again. When my friend Justin did disappear, we all thought he got on the black night bus. That was until his beaten remains were found in his uncle’s basement.
After being thrown out of college and driven home in an Uber, I was nervous. I hadn’t told my parents. The amount of money they had spent on me was astronomical – they told me on several occasions. I was drunk. They weren’t going to like that either. So, when I saw a bus fly past the car as we entered my street, it barely registered. I suppose I should have waited until morning to make my unceremonious entrance, but the drink gave me the courage sober me didn’t have.
Mom and dad were in bed. I crept up to my room and fell asleep almost instantly. In the morning, I was awoken by a scream.
“What the hell are you doing here?” my mom shouted.
I explained. My head thumped with every syllable that left my parent’s mouths. We sat in silence as we ate breakfast. They’d asked me what I was going to do with myself now my life was over. That was a hell of a lot to take in with a migraine. I didn’t reply, instead, I gazed out the window and into the road. I saw the children across the street wait for the school bus. And with that I remembered.
That night, with nothing better to do, I stayed up, sitting in front of my window, just waiting. Around 3:50am a few people left their houses. I thought I knew some of them. One of them was my childhood friend Aaron. I barely recognized him in the low light. It was his house. My parents didn’t tell me he moved. When he settled under the street light, I was sure it was him, although much taller. I think the last time I spoke to him was when we were twelve. We’d just drifted apart.
4am and the bus entered the street. Holy shit I didn’t dream it. I don’t know why, but I was excited. It was only a god damn bus, though it was something of legend. I remember giggling when I saw Aaron and the others get on. I didn’t sleep much that night. It was like finding out ghosts were real or some shit.
The next few nights I stayed up and watched. Every night, Aaron waited under the street lamp and got on the bus. My heart raced when I realized what I was going to do. I was going to wait there myself and see what happened.
Saturday morning, I crept out of the house. I don’t know why I did that, I was nineteen. I’d lived away from home for almost two years, though still felt under the rule of my parents. And after the astronomical amount of money they had wasted on me, I wasn’t trying to upset them.
3:50am and I stood under the street lamp opposite Aaron’s house. He didn’t appear. Nor did the bus. I wondered what was wrong. Was it me? Was this some sort of ritual with rules? Then it hit me. It was a bus picking up workers for a job. It was Saturday, they don’t work Saturday.
I was tired when I went downstairs. On the breakfast table were around ten job application forms for me to sign. My dad said if I wanted to stay at home, I had to pay rent, and therefore needed a job. I wondered if this was some sort of ploy to get me to go back to college. That couldn’t happen, not after what I did. That’s a story for another day.
Gas station attendant, grocery store clerk, insurance salesman, delivery driver, janitor… The list went on. The last one was for the army. My heart literally skipped a beat when I saw that one. It had always been a fear of mine. It was like I had PTSD without even joining. I filled them all out except that one. I promised to take whatever job I was offered, as long as I didn’t have to join the army. My dad grinned at that. Asshole.
Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I sweated on the bed, tossing and turning, staring at the digital clock I’d stared at for years as a child. When 3am rolled round, I thought about Aaron. I thought about the bus. The sweat ran cold. I knew I couldn’t sleep then. By 3:45am, I was outside, shivering in the cold.
I gasped when Aaron left his house. I thought about waving to him. I didn’t know if he’d recognize me. I didn’t know if I should. If this was some sort of ritual, I could break it if I did. I felt stupid even thinking that.
My heart thumped so hard, as the bus rounded the corner, I was worried Aaron could hear it. He glanced at me. I tried to smile and offered a small wave. He didn’t seem to recognize me. The bus stopped in front of him. I didn’t see him get on, it was so dark within, but when it pulled away, he was no longer on the street. I watched as it disappeared around the corner. My shoulders deflated. If this was for a job, they’d know I wasn’t supposed to be on it. I was about to return to the house when I saw it appear again, this time on my side of the road. It took an eternity to arrive. My blood surged with adrenaline. My hands shook. The hydraulic brakes hissed as it stopped in front of me. The concertina doors automatically opened.
Without hesitation, I got on.
The driver didn’t say a word. He closed the doors and drove off. I stumbled from side to side before grabbing the back of a seat for balance. The bus was quite full, every window space occupied. I saw Aaron towards the back. I carefully made my way towards him.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked.
He studied me for a moment, ignoring me and returning his gaze forward. I sat anyway. I stayed silent, waiting for the best time to speak.
“Aaron, do you remember me? Tom, from school? We live opposite each other. Well I did before I went off to college.” I was rambling.
He’d turned by this time, looking me up and down.
“You like Muse?” I said, pointing to his T-Shirt, “I used to listen to them.”
He continued to ignore me. I pulled up my sleeve to itch. Aaron gasped. I looked down to see my tattoos showing.
“Tattoos your thing?” I asked, “I have loads of them.”
“You have such nice skin,” he said.
“Thanks, the one on my back is better.”
He reached out and grabbed my hand.
“Easy there,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
He pulled my arm over with his left hand and began stroking my skin with the other.
“So smooth,” he replied.
I heard a smacking sound come from his lips.
“Can I wear it?” he asked.
“So smooth, can I wear your skin?”
I pulled my hand back and stood up.
He was gazing at me, like how you’d gaze at a winning lottery ticket. He clicked his teeth. I reeled back in horror. Then one by one, the other passengers joined in, craning their necks to look at me, clicking their teeth. Their jaws opened and closed in staccato rhythm.
I fell as the bus screeched to a halt. The occupants got up and calmly filed out, until it was only me left. I pushed myself to my feet, seeing the driver eye me in the rearview mirror.
When I got off, I saw we were at a farm. A large barn sat in front of us. Panicked, I ran and hid behind some machinery. I watched the single-file line as they entered the building. Next to our bus was another one, a yellow school bus. Several unkempt people disembarked and followed a man into the barn. The yellow bus left, the black one didn’t.
I was in the middle of no-where. The country lanes stretched out in both directions. I had a bar of phone signal, I thought about calling my dad, but it was only 4:30am, he’d shit a brick and off to the army it would be for me. I tried Uber, but there was none in the area, of course there wasn’t. So, I hid, scared.
Around 5:30am I started to hear sounds coming from within the barn. Cows. They sounded in some distress. Then I heard something that made me jump. A hydraulic hiss, like that from the bus, though it came from inside the barn. I realized what was happening. Every hiss signaled another dead cow. I’d never been so close to it before. I understood why Aaron was so odd this morning. I’d have gone fucking insane if I spent my day killing cows. I understood who were on the other bus – homeless people, probably paid a pittance, off the record, to help slaughter the defenseless animals. Enough money to get drunk another night. Not enough to get off the streets.
2pm rolled around and Aaron and the others left the barn. This was my chance. I left my hiding spot, casually walked over to the others, and got on the bus, busting for a piss. Thankfully I found a seat on my own. I didn’t look anywhere except out of the window. This whole black night bus legend suddenly began to feel silly. I was on the black night bus and it was daytime. We could have seen it in the day if we hadn’t been at school. It’s amazing how rumors start.
On Wednesday morning my dad was happy.
“Good news son. You’ve got a job!”
He was holding a letter in his hand.
“Did you open my mail?” I asked, “Wait, I didn’t even have an interview.”
“I pulled some strings. You start tomorrow morning. It’s going to be early.”
“Dad, I’m not going to enlist. We spoke about this.”
“It’s not that. 4am sharp. The bus will pick you up outside the house.”
It’s ironic isn’t it. You spend all your life waiting for a bus, and two come along straight after each other.
I told him I didn’t want to do it. I knew what went on there. He had a puzzled look. I told him I don’t think I can kill animals. He said not to worry, all I was to do was to check the quality of the meat and grade accordingly. It’s an easy job, I’d learn it in an hour.
Thursday, I sat on the bus, again not looking at anyone. This time I got off with the others and followed them into the barn.
“Hi, my name is Josh, I’m a friend of your father’s. Tom isn’t it?”
“Come this way, Tom. We need to get you into your uniform.”
I was shown a locker and undressed, putting on my white overalls and rubber gloves.
“What’s all this for? My dad said I wouldn’t be killing anything.”
“Hygiene is of the upmost importance,” he said, pointing his finger into the air.
I sat in a room with the others as we waited for our shift to start. I heard the cows begin to moo.
“That’s our cue,” Josh said, slapping me on the back for encouragement.
The sounds were so much louder as we left the break room. Something was off about it. It sounded like it came from all around us and not from one place.
“Where’s the cows?” I asked.
“The cattle are through here,” he said, as we walked through the open-plan area and to the other side.
I heard zaps that got louder when the door opened. Hung from hooks, the cattle moved one by one mechanically to the right. I felt sick.
“You have ten seconds to confirm the grade of meat. Press this button here for prime.”
Josh pressed the button. A brand thrust out, searing the skin in front of it. Fizz. The body moved to the right.
“This one is B grade. It’s a little older, see how the belly is quite protruded.”
He pressed the button. Fizz.
“This is C grade. Look at the wrinkled skin. It’s quite old isn’t it?”
I was beginning to pass out.
“Stay with me, Tom,” he said, catching me.
“Now this is better than being in the army, trust me, I know. Your dad told me what you did in college.”
He pulled off the glove from his left hand to reveal a prosthetic.
He nodded knowingly.
“Now you try. Say your rationale out loud.”
“Male, seems to be around fifty. Protruded stomach. Grade B?”
“Good, now press the button.”
My hand shook.
“That’ll pass. It always does. Next.”
“Fe…male… Twenty years… old? Prime?”
“Very good. Twenty-two to be precise, but who’s counting. Press the button.”
“Late sixties, male. Very bruised. Grade C?”
“Nice. Now keep going. Only three hundred-odd to go. I’ll leave you to it.”
When I pressed the button for the last of the cattle, I was numb. Josh was right, it did get easier. I left the room. Normally, I would have jumped when I saw my dad standing in front of me, but I was past that now.
“How’s it going son? You look a little pale.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked weakly.
“I run this place.”
I felt a repulsion grow within my stomach, though it impotently dissipated. After what I had seen and done, it didn’t matter much. He put his arm around me, and we walked through the open-plan space. The sounds of the cows still echoed. It was then I saw the source. Speakers. All over the place.
“We’re doing a service here. States pay us to get rid of their less desirables. Schools need cheap meat. Everyone’s a winner.”
“You’re feeding this to children?”
He looked at me disgusted.
“You grew up nice and healthy didn’t you.”
I was sick on the floor. He calmly stood back.
“Maybe you were right. The army wasn’t right for you.”
He picked up his radio and called for a clean-up.
“Take a break, son. You have a couple of hours left.”
“I don’t think I can eat.”
“You’d be surprised how many people say that.”
In the break room I sat in the corner. People I recognized from the bus were eating like they hadn’t eaten in days.
The rest of the morning was a blur of button presses and fizz. A couple of the cattle woke when I branded them. They screamed, though it really didn’t bother me. I’d stepped over a line. I found it comical. You never know how you’ll react when you are put in a situation like this. It’s why police joke at a crime scene, why army personnel take photos torturing prisoners of war, you do what you have to in order to survive.
On the bus ride home, I sat next to Aaron. He asked if he could wear my skin. I understood what he meant by that now. I’m sure he’s taken home plenty of offcuts. I smiled at him and said no. He said my skin is so smooth. I thanked him. It is quite smooth after all. He clicked his teeth. So did the others. So did I.