"The Corvallis Catastrophe"
Jonas slumped down in his seat. The others had cracked every window on the bus, but the temperature just kept climbing.
“Sorry, folks!” the driver climbed back into the bus. “As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything broken or leaking in the engine compartment, I just can’t get it to turn on. I’ve put in a call to the repair shop in Corvallis, but there is no telling how long it will take them to get a mechanic all the way out here.”
The elderly couple from Connecticut gripped each other’s hand. “We’re all going to die!” the lady yelled, quivering in her Cancun t-shirt.
Jonas crouched even lower and cranked up the volume on his headphones. He didn’t need to hear this, on top of everything else that had just happened to him. He was going to Canada, and that was that!
The driver pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his face, but it was already so saturated that the sheen of sweat remained.
“What can we do?” demanded the father of two who had been looking forward to vacationing in the Columbia Gorge with his family. “Do you expect us to walk all the way to Corvallis?”
The driver shrugged. “I’m saying we probably have enough to survive a few hours, but these buses are not typically equipped for a lengthy emergency situation—so you best prepare for that possibility.”
“Daddy? I’m hungry!” the little girl whined.
“I want water!” her younger brother chimed in. “Great,” whined the young man traveling with his girlfriend, “Now I’m thirsty, but my water bottle is already empty!”
“I’m so hot!”
“Why isn’t anybody coming? What’s taking so long?”
“Excuse me,” said a middle-aged woman to the passenger sitting next to her. “I need to use the facilities.” She stood, edged out of the row, and turned toward the tiny lavatory at the back of the bus.
The driver grimaced. “I wouldn’t, ah, do that, if I were you,” he muttered.
Her jaw tensed and she turned to him in agony, holding her legs close together. “And why not? Isn’t this exactly why buses like this even have a toilet?”
“Yeah, but,” The driver gestured to the front of the bus. “With the system outage up front, the, ah, filtration system would be non-functional, as well.”
Her face melted at the realization. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” she cried. “Can we get off this bus already?” She sat in the nearest seat, but did not dare relax.
“Great,” muttered the man sitting behind Jonas, “now I have to pee too…”
“Hey!” A man in a sweaty business suit leaned forward, “I have a friend waiting to pick me up at the bus station!”
“Any chance of that repair truck showing up?” somebody else joined in.
The driver patiently checked his phone. He prayed that the blinking battery symbol in the corner had only just begun, that he would at least have a few more hours of juice left till help arrived. “No word yet.”
“Should we be calling 9-1-1?” somebody piped up, only for those around him to start yelling objections as the young children burst into tears at the suggestion.
“Ugh, I hate this bus!” an impeccably-dressed woman with a pinched face complained. “Here I was, trying to be economical, but hey, I guess you get what you pay for!” She stood up and nailed the driver with a steel-eyed glare. “Serves me right—though if I end up surviving this hellish trip, I promise you I will demand a refund, and I am never taking the bus again!”
The driver held up his hands as the palpable agitation thickened all the more. “Now, now, everyone,” he tried to maintain an air of professionalism, “just stay calm. We will make it through—“
“Do I smell burning?” A man three rows from the back jerked up straight.
In seconds, everyone was sniffing and staring.
“I smell it too!” Cancun Lady wailed, and the driver leaped to maintain control of the situation. “All right, everyone, we’re going to evacuate the bus—“
“Evacuate?” Mr. Dad cried. “Are you kidding? I just got the kids to settle down!”
“Smoke!” Bathroom Lady shrieked, pointing to the windows on her side.
Panic set in, and every passenger rushed for the tiny steps leading to the narrow door—every passenger except one.
Jonas was focused on being as invisible as possible, making no noise and pretending with all his might that he didn’t even exist, when a shove on his arm nearly sent him through the window beside him.
“Dude, are you crazy?” the guy demanded. “The bus is on fire! We’re getting out of here!”
Jonas felt his heart catapult into his throat. Fire? How was he going to get to Canada? How was he going to survive now?
He hobbled after the guy. In the bright light of high noon, he saw the driver and about five passengers frantically unloading all of the luggage, piling it on the ground as others formed a chain to transport them to the shady side of the bus.
Bathroom Lady came around from the front of the bus, looking very relieved.
“Thank God no one saw me, but I hope I never have to do that again!” she told the harried mother who was in the middle of trying to console two very cranky, very overheated kids. Jonas saw Businessman pace by him, phone pressed to his ear.
“Yeah, hi! We are on…” he looked around, as if the name of the road would be posted somewhere obvious. “Well, the main road into Corvallis… That’s the one! Yeah, our bus broke down and then we smelled smoke, and—yeah, we called them, but there doesn’t seem to be any… Well, not exactly—I know that, ma’am, but if you cou—What? I couldn’t quite ca—“ he peeled his phone away from his ear and stared at it. “Oh you have got to be kidding me!”
“What happened?” asked a young woman.
The man clenched his jaw and his fists, though the hand that held the phone looked about ready to snap it. “Stupid, piece-of-crap junk phone!” the Businessman seethed. “I just upgraded last week and all of a sudden now it doesn’t hold a charge?” He stopped to kick a clod of dirt. “What else could go wrong?”
“Daddy?” the little boy whimpered, ‘I’m hungry!”
Jonas huddled at the back of the crowd, trying his best to be as inconspicuous as possible. What if Deus Maximus was behind all this bad luck they were having? What would these people do if they found out he was to blame?
A stiff wind swept through, making everyone shiver. The bus driver glanced up at the sky as clouds skated across the sun’s light. “Hey, at least it’s cooler now…” he began, but no sooner did he say this, than a young passenger cried out, and people dashed for their coats and any sort of cover as a sudden rain poured out of a once-clear sky.
All forty passengers huddled fruitlessly against the side of the bus as the downpour intensified.
“Oh God, WHY?” somebody wailed, and immediately, everybody started yelling out to whatever higher power they believed in.
Jonas felt a jab in his shoulder. Bathroom Lady squinted suspiciously at him.
“Hey, why aren’t you praying?” she hissed. “It seems about the only thing we can do. Maybe your contribution would bring good luck to the group!”
“All right, here it is!” The driver announced, backing up to where the whole crowd could see him. “There has got to be something seriously wrong with this trip, and only one person responsible for all the weird coincidences that have left us stranded.”
Businessman wagged his head. “You’re crazy! How can you just assume one person is at fault for all this?”
Thunder boomed overhead. “You have a better theory?” the bus driver yelled. He pulled a comic book out of the inner pocket of his jacket. Jonas recognized it instantly: B.Y.B.L. Issue No. 29. “I have been reading this comic since I was a little boy, and it always seemed like there was some higher power like Deus Maximus watching out for some people and dealing judgment on others in the real world, just like in these comics.”
The passengers began shifting apart, glancing suspiciously at one another.
“So how do we find out who is responsible?” somebody asked.
Jonas mouthed the words as the bus driver said them. “Cards of Fate!” He listened with a sinking stomach as the driver explained.
“The hero, Remus Hemptor, would use it when he was out in the field, cut off from Deus Maximus, and he needed to figure out which choice would be the right one.” The driver squinted at the group before him. “Anybody have a deck of cards?”
“I do!” The mother dug through her daughter’s travel pack till she found the slim box.
The driver took the deck. “All right, here’s how it works: I’ll pray to Deus Maximus, because that’s what Remus does, then I’ll shuffle, and each one of you will take the top card. The person who ends up with the Jack of clubs is guilty of bringing the wrath of God on this trip.”
“I still think you’re insane!” declared the Businessman.
The driver ignored him, clasping the deck in both hands. He bowed his head and whispered discreetly to himself for several minutes. When he finished, he shuffled four times, and moved to the far end of the crowd. Once forty-one cards had been handed out, he announced, “All right, show!”
Everyone turned over his and her card. Jonas knew exactly what his would be before anyone registered what he was holding.
“Jack of clubs!” Bathroom Lady shrieked. “It was you all along!”
As one body the whole crowd converged on him, the questions coming as thick as the raindrops.
“Who are you?”
“What do you do?”
“Who do you work for?”
“What kind of karmic being did you anger, that would invite consequences on the rest of us for it?”
The driver waved his hands. “All right! All right, let him speak!”
All voices drifted to silence as all eyes focused on the young man in the grubby tee shirt.
“Um, hi?” he stammered in the silence. “I’m Jonas Crow; I’m a blogger, and I write about the hidden messages and theories that I get from the B.Y.B.L. series.”
“Hidden messages?” the driver blinked. “Like they have on the official Remus Hemptor blog?”
Jonas could feel his face flush bright red, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Um, actually, that’s not an official blog—that’s my blog.”
The man’s eyes snapped wide. “You’re the blogger for Remus Hemptor?”
Jonas nodded. “Yeah, and I was supposed to be on a mission for Deus Maximus—“
“Deus Maximus gave you a mission?” The driver’s face was so purple Jonas wondered if he was going to pass out before the end of the conversation.
“Yeah, but I didn’t want to do it, so I ended up on this bus because I’m running away.”
The driver hauled out his comic book. “So let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “Deus Maximus himself gave you a mission, and you decided to run away instead—so now we’re getting punished with bad weather and a broken bus just because you're here instead of where you’re supposed to be?”
Jonas nodded miserably. And the Award for Idiot of The Century Goes To….
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of Suggestion Box installments)