He saw them twice a day.
Cedric lived right across from a bus stop. He didn’t mind it too much as he was far enough away that the noise wasn’t a bother. City buses stopped there several times a day. The one thing that did intrigue him were the other buses.
They were painted black, even the windows, and there was no way to see inside. Odder still was that the buses had no numbers, nothing indicating where they were going. One crowd got on the bus in the morning and a different one got off in the afternoon.
Cedric wondered where the bus went, who the people were and what its purpose was. After watching the buses for more than a month, always picking up one group of people in the morning and dropping another group off at night, Cedric decided that there was only one thing for it. He went down on morning and tried to ask one of the people in the group getting on the bus.
The morning was bright and filled with glorious sunshine. It was so bright that, looking at the crowd gathered for the bus, they seemed to shimmer in the light. As he neared them, he heard their soft chatter and pieces of their conversation reached his ears.
“I do hope they have nice backyards. I do so want to garden.”
“I told Daniel that he was driving too fast. He said that it was the only way to drive, the reprobate.”
“I wonder if I remembered to turn off the oven. I don’t want to come back home with the house smelling of smoke.”
“When Felicity said yes, I thought I’d die of happiness right there! It was the most glorious day of my life.”
Cedric approached a woman with flaming red hair that shone in the bright sunlight of the morning. She heard his approach and turned to face him and Cedric was struck by the green of her eyes, so green they looked like emeralds. She had a kind smile that curved her lips upward and he found himself smiling in return.
“Well, sugar, unless you did something rude, there is nothing to excuse yourself from!”
She spoke in a sweet southern accent that made Cedric think of pulled taffy and wildflowers. He found himself blushing. “Um, okay. I was just wondering where this bus goes? Why does everyone get on it?”
“Oh honey, don’t you worry. It’s always like this in the beginning. You just have to be brave enough to take the first step and get on the bus. You can sit with me, I’ll show you the ropes. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Should I be afraid?”
“Why sugar, didn’t you just hear me say there was nothing to be afraid of? You stay with mama Becca, I’ll take care of you.”
“That’s Becca. My name is Cedric.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance Cedric. I like that name. That’s a good strong name.”
They stood there in amongst the crowd listening to the conversations swimming around them. Finally, Becca said: “So where do you come from? Around here?”
“My house is just over there.” He pointed at the small two bedroom house. “I’ve lived there for a long time.”
“Won’t your wife or boyfriend miss you while you’re gone?”
Cedric shook his head. “I don’t have anyone in my life. Haven’t for a long time.”
Becca looked at him with eyes that were suddenly sad. “Oh, honey! Well, now you got me. I’m with you now, okay? So you don’t have to be alone.”
She took his hand in both of hers and squeezed his hand tightly. “Being alone is just the most horrible thing. Works for some, but not for me. I’ve always been more of a social butterfly myself. My mama used to call me a whirling dervish of a lady.”
Smiling, Cedric said “I can see that.”
“I was always more comfortable with other people rather than being on my own. What happened to the one you loved, honey? Why do you carry those shadows in your eyes?”
Cedric shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
Becca gave him a warm smile and patted his hand. “It’s okay, honey. You just tell me when you’re ready.”
Nodding, Cedric was oddly touched. Everyone he had known kept pushing him to talk about his feelings until he was all talked out, until he had no more words to even describe what he was feeling. Everyone kept pressuring him to deal with his feelings, to talk about his emotions when all he wanted to do was sit inside his house and hide. It was an ill-fitting tribute, but he couldn’t do any more than that.
They heard birdsong and Cedric looked up to see blue jays circling in the air above them. They called out to each other again and Cedric followed them through the sky. When they had flown farther then his eyes could see, he turned back to Becca and was surprised to see her crying, the tears shining in her eyelashes like jewels.
“Becca, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing is wrong, Cedric. I’m just so easily move by beautiful things. Birds in flight, the cooing of a child, flowers that grow in the bleakest of places. My mama used to say that I had a sensitive heart, that it would be the end of me if I didn’t harden up quickly.”
It was his turn to squeeze her hand. “Becca, why does the bus stop here? Where does it go?”
“You’ve seen the bus then?” She looked confused for a moment. “Well, it’s a pretty special bus.”
“I gathered that, but there are always crowds of people getting on and off.”
“Why sure there are. That’s what a bus does, takes people from point A to point B and picks others up again to go from point B to point A. Surely, you’ve taken a bus before, Cedric?” She gave him a wry smile.
“I know how a bus works.”
“Then you’ve answered your own question!” She said, laughing. She gave him a playful shove. “Don’t look so serious. All will be answered in time. Look there now!”
Looking to where she was pointing, Cedric saw the black bus coming ever closer. The chatter of the crowd around the bus began to grow in excitement and anticipation. Cedric heard the voices around them glow louder with glee.
“Oh, I hope he’s there when we arrive. I’ve missed him so much, you know.” One person said.
“I can’t wait to see if it’s exactly like I picture it. I’ve been seeing this place in my dreams for so long!” said another.
Cedric looked at Becca for some sort of explanation, but she merely smiled.
The bus pulled up in front of them and Cedric immediately spotted a problem. There were too many people. The bus didn’t look big enough to hold all of them. He voiced this to Becca and her smile widened.
“Sometimes, things are not as we see them. You worry too much, you have to let that go, Cedric honey. Too much worry is bad for the soul.”
The bus door opened and people began to move on, climbing the steps and disappearing within the darkness of the bus. Cedric had one moment of trepidation, but Becca took his hand and said “Come on, honey. We’re going for a ride. It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
Cedric nodded and they got behind a bunch of people to board the bus. When they entered, there was a moment of darkness as his eyes took time to adjust. What he saw amazed him. It was as if he had stepped into a sea of people, thousands of them, all sitting comfortably and talking amongst each other.
“How can this many people fit on this bus?”
“Well, you didn’t think ours was the only stop, did you? The bus travels great distances and picks up anyone who wants a ride. There are bus stops all over the world. The bus picks them all up, not a soul is left behind.”
Still marvelling at the amount of people that were in the bus, Becca pulled him along until they found two empty seats. They sat down across the isle from two older woman, each with a different colour of hair. One had purple hair and one had pink. Cedric thought they looked like two Easter eggs, dyed different colours. They were having an argument.
“I tell you, we have to go see mother first, she’ll be very mad if we don’t.” Pink said.
“Well, I want to see Edgar first, I’ve waited so long to see him again.” Purple said.
“You do what you want, but I want to see mother.”
Becca gave them a smile. “Your mother must be a lucky woman to have such devoted daughters.”
“Huh.” Pink said. “Well apparently, I’m the only devoted one as Anastacia just wants to see her husband.”
“Abigail, she’s over one hundred years old. Seeing her a little later than we had planned won’t make a lick of difference.” Anastacia said.
“You try telling her that.” Abigail said.
Becca let out a soft laugh and sat back in the seat as the bus began to move. She squeezed Cedric’s hand again. “Oh, we’re on the way, Cedric! It won’t be long now!”
“But you haven’t told me where we’re going.”
“Does it matter? You’ll find out in a little bit. But we have a while yet, why don’t you tell me what makes your eyes so sad? It’ll do you good to talk it out.”
“Not you, too.”
“Not me what?”
“Always asking me to talk about how I feel. My mother, shrinks, friends, grief councillors. I’ve done enough talking.”
“Well, then don’t talk about what makes you sad. Tell me what you loved most about him.”
Cedric was shocked. “How did you know I’m upset over a man?”
“Honey, isn’t everyone? I can feel it in your heart.” She placed a hand on his chest where the heart lay beneath. “You must have loved him very much.”
“I did. I do.” Cedric’s heart still ached when he thought of him.
Cedric didn’t say anything more. Becca rubbed his chest where his heart was. “Honey, everyone has a story. I’m just asking you to share yours, to let it out. It doesn’t do any good to keep it inside where it makes the shadows in your eyes darker. You have to let it out into the light, so it can set you free.”
As the bus started to move, Cedric started to speak. “He passed on five years ago. It was sudden. Cancer. Came out of nowhere. He had never smoked a day in his life. Then he got a cold and it held on a little too long. Went to the doctors and his lungs were riddled with tumours. He only lived for another month or so.”
He took in a deep breath and continued. “We had all these plans. We were going to travel, see the world. He was going to put on an art show and I was going to be a bestselling novelist.”
“What happened to that dream?” Becca said softly.
“It died with Alex. Everything died with him.”
“Not you, though. You didn’t die.”
“There were some days where I wished I had. I would lay in our bed that still smelled of him and I could see him everywhere. At first, I hated that, hated that he was everywhere when he wasn’t really here, you know? Then he started to fade. I began to forget what his voice sounded like, what his eyes looked like when the sun hit them, the kind of music that his laughter reminded me of.”
Becca said nothing. She just wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. Cedric leaned into her and let himself be comforted.
“He was my everything. He was everything that was good in my world. Everything.”
Cedric wiped away the tears which had sprung to his eyes and noticed something. The entire bus was silent and all the chatter of voices had fallen quiet. From across the isle, Abagail reached across and took Cedric’s hand.
“The dead don’t leave us, you know. They remain with us in our most sacred of places.”
“Where?” Cedric was desperate to know where to find Alex.
“Why inside you of course!” Abagail said. “You think that someone that touches your heart so much ever truly dies? He’s alive within you, dear boy.”
Cedric leaned back in his seat and felt a moment of sadness. Though it was silly to admit it, he had hoped that somehow, Alex would show up again, alive and well and not the wasted scarecrow he had become.
Becca hugged Cedric closer and said, “It’s almost time now.”
“To get where we’re going.”
He looked around the bus. There was no light coming into the bus, but it was bright enough to see. He turned back to Becca. “Why is everything blacked out on the bus? Why cover the windows?”
“Because sometimes, the journey is in not knowing how we get there. Sometimes, its better not to know the way. “
“Oh phooey, Becca Chambers.” Anastacia said. “Don’t you listen to her hogwash dear boy. It’s because when we cross over, the light is so bright, it would blind your body, mind and spirit. The windows are for our safety. See, look now, you can see the light through the cracks.”
Cedric turned to look through the cracks left by the black paint that had peeled away. What he saw took his breath away. He saw not just white light but colours of every hue and shade. It filled with buses interior and made it look as it the bus were riding through a rainbow. Cedric turned to look at Becca and she said “It’s okay, Cedric. We’re almost there.”
“What’s the final destination?”
She shook her head slightly and just smiled at him. The light flowing into the bus brightened until it was an almost blinding white. Cedric did in fact block his eyes with his hand and turned away from the crack in the window letting the light in.
Then the bus stopped moving and the light dimmed. Cedric could see only sky blue. Becca went to stand. “Come on Cedric, you’re here.”
“Where is here, exactly? You still haven’t told me.”
She smiled and took his hand, pulling him up. “Come on, Cedric. You don’t want to keep him waiting now, do you?”
Letting out a laugh that sounded like music, Cedric let himself be pulled up and along. They passed thousands of others as they made their way to the front of the bus, each of them gathering their things and moving, like Cedric and Becca, to the front of the bus.
They moved towards the door and Cedric saw more of the blue sky. It seemed to fill up the bus with brightness. It seemed like his whole body was waking up when he stepped into the blue of the sky. His foot came down on concrete and he could see the glitter of glass and steel and white stone walls.
The crowd began to move on to wherever their feet took them but Cedric couldn’t, wouldn’t move. Standing in front of him, wearing his beautiful smile, was Alex.
His eyes were still the colour he remembered, still green like emeralds. His hair still a soft yellow, like spun gold. His smile still melted Cedric’s heart that even now was thudding rapidly in his chest.
“I’m dreaming, I have to be dreaming, I fell asleep on the bus, I’m still asleep in bed, I haven’t woken. You’re not real.”
Alex walked towards him. “I’m real. I’m right here in front of you, Cedric.” He looked behind him and spoke. “Thanks for making sure he got here all right.”
“My pleasure honey. I’ll be back in a bit. I’m going to go say hello to a few people I know.” Becca said. “Take all the time you need.”
“We won’t be long.” Alex said. Then he turned back to Cedric. “Let’s walk for a bit.”
Cedric took Alex’s hand in his and squeezed it. “You’re real. You’re so real you even smell the same, like sandalwood and musk. How can you be here if I put you in the ground five years ago?”
“Come on. Let’s go for a walk along the water.”
“Think about the time we walked along the coast of Hawaii. Will you picture that in your mind?”
“How can I forget? It’s when you first told me you loved me.”
Cedric heard the sound of waves. Turning, he saw a coastline not too far from them where before there had only been concrete, glass and steel. “What is this place?”
“Come on, handsome. Let’s walk.”
They walked towards the surf and the sounds of water became louder. Cedric saw starfish scattered along the sand. They weren’t like any starfish that Cedric had ever seen; they shone like emeralds, like the green of Alex’s eyes.
Alex’s hand felt so real in his that Cedric was sure that he was dreaming. They walked along the sand for a while before Alex spoke. “I never wanted to leave you. I wanted to spend eternity with you, Cedric. It broke my heart to see yours breaking.”
Cedric could only nod. He still carried the picture of what Alex had become inside his mind and this is what came to the forefront now: his handsome face pale and hollow, his body wasted away to nothing.
“I died when you died, Alex. My heart stopped beating when yours did.”
Alex didn’t speak for a moment and there was only the sound of the waves. “Do you remember what I asked you to do, Cedric?”
“You told me to live, to find love again.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I haven’t stopped mourning you.”
“Cedric, it’s been five years. Five long years for you where you have been honouring a mere memory.”
“But I miss you so much, Alex. I miss you every moment of every day.”
“You’ve also stopped writing.”
“How could I write when all I could do was think of you?”
“You once told me that you were only truly happy when you were writing.”
“No, that’s no longer true. I was only happy when I was with you.”
Alex turned and took Cedric’s face in his hands. “I know that’s not true. You were happy before you met me. You’ll be happy again.”
“I won’t be happy until you come home with me. When does the next bus leave? When can we go home?”
A pained look came over Alex’s face and he let go of Cedric. He looked to Cedric as if he would break apart if a strong breeze struck him. “Let’s sit down, Ced.”
He motioned behind Cedric and benches appeared that weren’t there before. Cedric sat and Alex sat beside him. They both said nothing for a little while and just listened to the sound of the waves hitting the rocks and sliding against the sand.
“You know what this place is, don’t you?”
“I have no idea, Alex. I’m just so glad to have found you again. You can come home with me now! We can be together again!”
The pained look on Alex’s face nearly broke Cedric’s heart. “I can’t leave with you. I have to stay here. But you can go home.”
“Then I’ll stay with you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“It’s what I want. I want you more than anything.”
“No, Ced. I want you to live. You can’t want this.”
“How can I not when you’re here?”
“Because I’m dead, Cedric. I’m dead and gone. My body is still where you buried it, in the ground underneath that beautiful headstone you chose.”
Cedric felt as if he couldn’t breathe, as if the fabric of his universe was crumbling. “No, you’re here, you’re right in front of me!” Panic had started to seep into his voice.
“I’m here in spirit. That’s all there is left of me.”
“No! You’re here! You’re right here!”
“I’m not. Not all of me anyways. My spirit lives on in here.” Alex touched Cedric’s chest where his heart was.
Cedric’s world finally broke. When the tears came, he didn’t notice that the strength of the waves intensified and grew to great heights. “Why did you bring me here? Leaving without you will be like losing you all over again. I can’t live without you.”
“I brought you here because I couldn’t stand the sight of you wasting your life pining away for me. I told you to live and find love again, to let someone else into your heart. I wanted you to live a full life, not a half life, bemoaning my leaving you.”
“I can’t live without you.”
“You can and you will. Even at a half life, you’ve managed to live. Now I want you to live a full life and remember me well. Remember the love we shared and not the way it ended.”
“I can’t leave without you.”
“I’m always with you.” Alex touched Cedric’s chest where his heart lay. “The love we shared was beyond anything I could have hoped for. When two people love each other so deeply, it leaves a mark, a light that glows and others can see. I’m always with you.”
“I’m so afraid.” Cedric whispered.
“I know you are. But I also know how strong you are. Will you live your life, for me? More importantly for yourself?”
Nodding, Cedric looked at Alex with tear filled eyes. “I’ll try.”
“Good. I love you Cedric.”
“I love you too, Alex.”
Alex leaned forward and kissed Cedric softly on the lips. A light spread within Cedric from the touch of those lips and it slid down within him, into the very heart of him. It filled every crevice of his body and he felt lighter than he had in a long time.
His eyes slid closed and Cedric tried to put everything he could into that kiss, everything he hadn’t been able to say to Alex for so long. The sound of the waves faded away and the light from the sun went into shadow. All that he felt were Alex’s lips on his own.
Then he opened his eyes.
He was startled to find himself back in his apartment. His first thought was ‘Why is it so dark in here?’. His second was that it had all been a dream, that he hadn’t seen Alex, hadn’t ridden on the story bus, hadn’t walked with Alex along the shores with the sea rolling along the sand.
“It was just a dream…” Tears fell from Cedric’s eyes and he looked down at the bed, the sheets and blanket rumpled from his sleep. It was then that he saw it.
A silver pendant lay on the comforter. Cedric picked up the chain and looked at the pendant. It was a silver starfish with emeralds covering its surface, much like the ones that Cedric had seen on the beach that he had walked along with Alex.
Cedric put it on and felt a warmth spread through him. It was the same warmth that had spread through him when Alex had kissed him for the last time.
Getting out of bed, Cedric went to the windows and opened the curtains to let in the sun and opened the windows to let in the fresh air. He did not know what his future would hold and he knew that the healing would take time.
But Cedric knew that he would be okay. That he would finally be all right. And that was enough.
He held the starfish in his palm like a talisman and looked up to the sky. “Thank you.” Cedric whispered. “Thank you so much.”
Letting the pendant fall, he began to get ready for the day ahead, whatever it would bring. His fingers were itching to sit down at his computer and write. He had the strangest idea for a short story…