This story was written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge round 2; I was set the genre scifi, I had to work in Halloween, and needed to feature a bus driver as a character.
By Lauren McMenemy
Written March 2012
Tonight. Tonight is Hal’s least-favourite night of the year. Hands down, no doubt about it. This night blows.
Tonight. Hallo-frickin’-ween. Crazy kids in stupid costumes, running round town drunk as skunks. Gettin’ in the way. Girls usin’ it as an excuse to dress in nothing (that bit ain’t so bad; ain’t nothin’ wrong with lookin’). Dudes thinkin’ they’re super soldiers or super aliens or Super-frickin’-man, sticking cucumbers down their pants and getting’ their frickin’ capes stuck in Hal’s doors.
Yes, Hal’s doors. This is Hal’s route. Hal runs this show. Hal is king of this castle, and what Hal says goes round here.
You got that?
Grab the stick, foot off the brake, jolt it into second. The tatty grey (Hal says it’s silver) bus, long past its glory days, shudders away from the bright lights of the depot, headed for the orange glow of the night beyond; work has begun.
Hal’s route. Doin’ the rounds between First and Albertson. Back and forth, forth and back. Pickin’ them all up, roundin’ them up. Sendin’ them back to where they came from.
For 20-odd years now. Driving round town and getting’ them darn critters inside. Gotta get them to the transporter back at the depot. Them critters can’t be about after curfew, see. They gotta be headin’ home well before 13 o’clock. Get ‘em in the bus, stick ‘em in that transporter thing with its blue glow and shininess. Boom! They disappear. Hal don’t understand it, but when the boom comes, Hal is pleased. Hal can go home and have a beer and watch the game.
It’s a tough job. Important, too. But he can’t slip up. Nosirree. If even just one of them critters sneaks past Hal’s bus, is found in Hal’s patch after curfew, the Powers that Be will have Hal’s guts for garters. Ain’t that a truth. Hal saw it just last week. Poor Bob. RIP, pal. You were one dumb sonofabitch, but you were a good’un. That’s a sight Hal won’t forget in a while.
Faded glory on four wheels; that’s Hal’s bus. Easin’ down Williams; big empty houses on either side. Broken windows. Painted slogans as warnings. Burnt-out husks that once were trees. This is our city now. Ain’t nothin’ like it used to be.
Grinding halt at the first bus stop: no critters. Of course not. It’s Halloween; the worst day for them. There ain’t gonna be no critters hitchin’ an early ride home. Hal hates Halloween because it makes Hal’s life hard. Difficult. Gotta go round and round a lot more than usual. Them critters don’t wanna go home tonight.
Critters love wanderin’ tonight. They get to blend in, see? It’s the one night of the year when they can interact with humanoids and have some fun and learn about us (“research”, the visas say) without scaring nobody and gettin’ banned. Getting’ their passes revoked. Human folklore has the critters so embedded these days that on Halloween you can’t tell who’s a critter and who’s just a kid in a costume trying to scare his girl. Makes Hal’s life hard.
Hal sighs. Shakes Hal’s head. Foot off break, stick into second, back out on the road.
Round and round Hal goes. Past the parties and the crosses and the fires. Hal knows they’re out there; they’re showing up on the radar. That thing the Powers That Be installed on top o’ the bus. Cross between an old-style washing line and a lacrosse stick. Apparently it makes the Rounders’ lives easier, removes the guesswork. It just makes Hal feel like those old train drivers his grandpa told him about, who suddenly were just pushing buttons instead of driving trains. Hal liked it better in his old days, back when the Rounders first started, and they walked the streets with nets. None of this new-fangled equipment.
Rounders. That’s what Hal is. Round and round, rounding up critters. Not many want this job. Them critters, they’re damn ugly things. Scary, too. All big pointy teeth and ears. Too many limbs. And the smell? Dang. Hal gotta shower three times every day when he’s workin’. But it pays good. Someday Hal will be able to send the grandkids to college. Someday, providin’ we as a race survive this thing. And that’s debatable.
Pippippippip goes the radar, telling Hal there’s critters closeby. But all Hal can see is kids. Kids in costumes. Boozing it up. They don’t know what they got. That generation, they don’t know what Hal went through just so they could still be here. The sights Hal has seen, both during AND after. And the critters? They love to party. Hedonists. And the one thing they definitely do not want to do is get violently shot through the skies and end up back where they came from. The truce said they could be here for certain hours, doin’ their “research”, trying to buy Earth more time before, y’know… So, curfew says it’s gotta be done. And the Powers That Be say Hal’s the one who’s gotta do it.
Now it’s one hour til the critters gotta be gone. Hal’s bus, in back, behind the chicken wire, he’s only got 32 critters. He knows there’s 47 in this patch. According to the day’s stats, Hal is short 15 critters. Hal suspects there’s a family somewhere, sightseeing. Halloween is the critters’ favourite day for sightseeing. The daddy critters, they like their kiddy critters to see humanoids in all their faded glory. They like to tell their kids that the once-great human race has become mad, dressing up with their pants on the outside and wearing wigs and gathering round silver barrels full of amber fluid. They like to say this is why the critters are winning. That soon this land will be theirs.
When Hal comes across one of those daddy critters, Hal don’t care if Hal’s a little more forceful than normal. For Norma. In her memory.
Lost in a reverie of old times, Hal doesn’t notice things changing. The mood shifts. The night gets darker.
When Hal pulls up at the next stop, over on Fitzpatrick, Hal sees them 15 missing critters. They’re comin’ at Hal, charging out of a wrecked warehouse, all carrying N-GAGE 360s – them guns that look like six-packs but will kill you way quicker than liver disease.
Hal’s mind reaches for remnants of previous battles, trying to remember how he did it all those years ago. But all Hal can think is: Hallo-frickin’-ween.
Hal reaches for that big red button – the one that will call for reinforcements, the kind that blow things to smithereens. But then he sees not just critters surrounding his bus. There’s 15 critters and a bunch of kids in superhero costumes. Damn rebels. Hal really can’t deal with this tonight. This makes life real difficult. Can’t touch a human, even if they’ve switched sides.
Hal sighs, hands up in the air. Wonders what Marvel would think if they knew their characters were used like this.
“Rounder 2424, remove yourself from this vehicle and face your fears!”
Those damn rebels kids are so melodramatic. If the critters’ ways of communicating weren’t so high-pitched and unbearable to human ears, Hal wouldn’t have to deal with kids dressed as Wolverine.
Hal removes himself from his vehicle and slowly takes the steps. Man, his legs ain’t what they used to be; this’ll be tough. Shuts the door behind him, locks it, so those critters that are now peering out the windows at what’s going on can’t escape or be rescued. Laser-proof glass, dontchaknow. Hal’s pride and joy, this old thing.
The kids titter amongst themselves, catching sight of Hal’s has-been-ness.
“You alright, old man? Looks like you shoulda retired round the time of Memphis 404.”
“I still got it, dontcha worry ‘bout that kid.” Hal’s defiance has always served him well.
The lead kid smirks. “Right-o. Well what you got here, old man, is an old-fashioned stick-up. Let them critters go and we’ll be kind enough to let you die of natural causes.”
“And if I don’t?”
The lead kid strokes his 360; the critters all laugh that maniacal way that only critters can. It hurts.
“See, here’s the thing. Hal don’t surrender to nobody. And Hal definitely don’t let no critters go.”
“Well, old man. I think we’ve got ourselves a problem.”
Hal steps forward, eyeball-to-eyeball with the lead kid.
“Kid, you don’t seem to know who you’re dealing with. I said HAL don’t surrender to nobody.”
To Hal’s right, one of the kids balks. He knows the stories: “Erm, Dave, we…”
“Too late, kid. Too late.”
The night breeze picks up, swirling round the face-off. A crack opens up in the night sky, showing the inner workings of time and space, all of history at once, shining down on this motley crew.
And as Hal lifts his eyes to the night sky, that familiar green glow around him, he has just one thought: Fuck, Hal REALLY hates Halloween.