I never had a driver’s license, you see. Instead I was born blessed with epilepsy. The doctors said it was bad form to put a two-ton vehicle into the hands of a young man who could seize at any time, medication be damned. Grand mal, tonic-clonic—whatever you wanted to call it, it was the big one, and I grew up afraid to be responsible for running off the road and killing someone because of it. I tell you this simply to explain that I was completely at the mercy of the bus line when we stopped at the small town in Kansas where all the houses faced west and I met the whispery old crone who sat at the intersection of two worlds.
At the time I was suffering through a crisis of identity and ennui. It was more than just the listless, relentless boredom of youth. The side effects of the Dilantin I popped to keep the seizures at bay made me irritable, anxious, and dark—sometimes at different times, sometimes all at once. I came from a good family in Kansas City, with two parents who loved me and supported me and a sister who put up with me. I was holding down a 3.88 grade point average at the University of Kansas, and I’d just met a guy.
James was from Pueblo, Colorado. We met at school and were looking into whether or not we wanted to pursue a relationship. He brought a beautiful pair of stark blue eyes, a lingering echo of the English R.P. accent he’d developed during the first 10 years of his life, and a tolerance for my nervous flutters. We weren’t exactly dating, but there was something between us. He wasn’t the first guy I fell for, or the first that I’d had sex with, but he was the first I really started to love. When you’re already pharmaceutically primed for nervousness, anxiety, and agitation, worrying about falling in love really adds to the stress.
James tolerated the stupid things I did, even if it meant he stopped talking to me for weeks at a time and didn’t make it easy to see him. The summer after we’d started peeking into the odd parts of each other’s lives, he told me that he was going to have to spend the rest of his vacation at home, with his family. If I wanted to see him, I’d need to come to Pueblo. I’d also need to find a place to stay while I was there, because even though they knew he was gay, they wouldn’t have any of that going on in their house.
I decided he was worth it and I found a way.
One of my friends dropped me at the bus station in Wichita. Wearing my backpack and leather-and-bead epilepsy bracelet, I boarded the bus and pushed toward the back. To get an aisle seat, I wedged myself in next to a large woman who smelled like cats and baby powder. Before we’d even left the station, she was telling me about her aches, pains, and grandkids. Not wanting to offend, I nodded along, muttering things like, “really,” “no kidding,” and “kids these days.” At most I could only be eight or ten years older than those kids, but she seemed to enjoy what I had to say.
After we’d put a few miles behind us, she grew quieter and started to mumble. Near Cheney, her mouth fell open and the snoring escaped. I slipped on headphones to listen to Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” instead.
A bus in the summer is hot and noisy, and reeks of body odor, passed gas, pets and baby powder. My hard-won aisle seat meant I couldn’t see the unchanging wheat fields outside the windows. From my perch on the right side of the bus, I tuned out the world and turned up the trip-hop. The last thing I remember seeing was construction in Greensburg, Kansas before I feel asleep.
The bus swung around a corner and started to slow. I woke with that fuzzy, disoriented feeling waking from a sudden midday nap invariably causes. I didn’t know where we were, but most west Kansas towns all looked the same—railroad, grain elevator, grocery store, diner, and farmhouses. If it was big enough, it would have a school and a post office. None were big enough for a train station; the lines carried freight only. People without cars of their own—a rarity in this part of the country—came and went by bus only.
I leaned over the sleeping woman beside me to try and see the town. The front doors of the houses on this side all were no more than a few yards from the curb. Each had a small porch and patches of grass. Some had an oak or dogwood tree.
An American flag flew above one small stone building. I guessed the town was big enough for a post office, but I couldn’t reach close enough to the window to see the name over the door.
A couple blocks later, past a small hardware store and a Rosie’s Café, the bus stopped in front of a small grocery. Hydraulics hissed. The bus settled in place and the driver opened the door.
“Ten minutes, folks!” he said. “Don’t be late. Bathrooms are around the side, sandwiches and sodas in the store.” He stepped down and hurried around the side of the building.
About half of us got off. Most just went to the bathroom. A few went inside. I just wanted to stretch. Pulling off the headphones, I stepped into the middle of the street and let the sun warm my face. After a few moments, I opened my eyes. Across the street something was not quite right.
All the houses faced away. On the west side of the road beyond the double yellow line, there were no front doors or porches. Instead, there were fences, patios, swing sets, and barbecue grills. Not one house across the road faced me. Each faced west, away.
A few houses down, a little girl swung on a squeaky swing set. She sang the ABC song again and again, slightly louder than the metal squeaked. An unseen dog barked and I heard one of my fellow passengers ask how much longer we had.
“Seven minutes,” the bus driver answered.
A soda and sandwich would be nice, I decided, and turned to go inside. As I reached the door, someone reached out and tapped me on the arm.
“You’ll want to know this,” she said. I stepped back. A faded crone sat on a bench next to the door, smiling slightly.
“You will want to know this,” she repeated.
“I need to go inside,” I said, beginning to walk away.
“Buy a lottery ticket and go out the back door,” she said.
“What?” I stopped.
“Buy a lottery ticket from the man at the counter and then walk out the back door,”
“Because on the far side of the door, things are different.” Her slight smile became a crinkled grin. “Over there life is both great and dear. Outside that door is a world of monsters, a world of heroes. A place of great risks and greater rewards. No longer will you suffer mundane plagues of this world. No more seizures—”
I stepped back.
“No more school,” she said, continuing. “There you’ll learn if you can find someone to teach you. You’ll worship the gods of your choosing in your own place, in your own way. No more travel by bus. You’ll find other ways to travel from city to village to shire.” Her grin melted. “You’ll not have to worry about things you ought not worry about.”
I stared at her a moment.
“What do you know about my seizures?”
“Five minutes,” the driver announced as he walked past and boarded the bus.
“I know nothing,” she said. “Except that if you buy a lottery ticket and walk out that back door, you’ll step into a world where all the houses face east. And may never want to come back to this place.”
I backed away from her completely and stepped into the store. At the far end, the back door stood open, with only a battered screen door blocking the gap. Dim, gray light seemed to ooze through the aged, east-facing screen. It was not a tableau to inspire. I glanced back over my shoulder. Outside, the old crone was probably having a chuckle at my expense. Mentioning seizures was a good trick, but she could easily see the bracelet on my wrist and read the E word stitched into it.
I grabbed a bottle of Coke from a cooler and waited on a guy to buy beer and Copenhagen. The ticking clock in my head told me I had two and a half, maybe three minutes left. The guy behind the counter glanced at it and entered the price on an antique cash register.
“Buck and a quarter.”
I gave him a five and glanced around the counter—no lottery display anywhere. No tickets; no signs.
“Anything else?” He held the five.
The bus blew its horn.
“A lottery ticket,” I said. Why not? The ticket itself would make a decent conversation piece.
The cashier nodded and produced a ticket from under the counter. He didn’t push a button on a computer or tear it from a roll of tickets. He nodded and smiled. I glanced around, but nobody was watching us.
“Three and a quarter,” he said.
I took the ticket while he counted change. I thanked him and turned to face the back door.
Warm, rosy light now shone through the doorway. I slowly moved toward it until I could touch the wood frame. My fingers caressed the door. Eastern afternoon sun shone through the exhausted, dirty screen, warming my fingers. The smell of roses and jasmine tickled my nose. And when I concentrated, I could just barely hear something like a fiddle playing something happily mournful. A few seconds later the melody evaporated as the bus horn sounded again.
Fact to her fantasy. My breath fell still as my gaze finally reached the horizon and the vast mountain at its center, blued by distance. I stared at the creature in flight above the horizon and leaned into the door. It swung ajar just a few inches. Rose and jasmine grew bolder, joined by the odors of pine and something peppery. I pressed another inch or so. Tingling moisture condensed around my fingers, turning to haze.
On the other side, things are different, she had said. Life both great and dear, a world of heroes and monsters, with great risks and greater rewards. It could be the storybook life, a life in Middle-Earth… or maybe it was life somewhere darker.
What if there was no coming back, if this was a one-way trip? My folks, my sister would never know what had happened to me. I had a few good friends who would stay up at night and try to figure out what had happened, but no one would ever guess that I got off the bus somewhere in western Kansas and left this world for another.
Unless this was some sort of weird local custom or way to trick the occasional tourist, there was another world outside this door. I held up my hands to see fog drifting out from them. I felt like I should hear the slight hissing of steam.
If I couldn’t come back, I’d never see James again or speak to him. But if I could, I’d have a great story to tell everyone…. Oh. Maybe she hadn’t seen my bracelet and known. Maybe she did. But maybe there was no epilepsy and no tonic-clonic seizures on the other side.
The rosy-hued horizon beckoned through the screen door. I wanted to see it. I wanted to see that now…
…But not enough to leave everything and everyone behind.
I looked through the door once more. The misty haze threatening to pull me away from my world drifted away as I pulled the door closed and walked away. The bus horn blew one last time and the hydraulic brakes hissed. I was about to be left behind.
The first few steps back toward the counter were noiseless, not quite in touch with this world, I think, but by the time I nodded my thanks to the cashier, my shoes thumped on the wooden floor again. I handed the ticket to the beldame on the bench outside.
“I’m not sure this one’s a winner.”
“It could’ve been,” she said, and plucked it from my fingers.
I ran toward the bus, slapping at the door. It swung open resentfully and the driver swore at me to hurry up.
I glanced back and smiled, then climbed up and took my seat on the bus.
As I leaned back in my seat, I focused on my seatmate’s complaints—what she actually said about her damaged knee and ungrateful granddaughter. With the bus whining and roaring around and under us, I did more than nod alone. I listened. I needed something mundane to unravel the spell that had captured me.
She chatted as wheat fields rolled by. Only after she had fallen asleep again did I let myself remember the massive jagged mountain I’d seen through the screen door, high enough that clouds had pooled around the summit. I smiled as I remembered the winged reptilian form, soaring through those clouds.
Fourteen years I searched for the small Kansas town because I never learned its name. No one on the bus seemed to have caught it. I didn’t even know for certain that we were in Kansas until we passed the primary-colored “Welcome to Colorado” sign. I think I would have recognized Dodge or Garden City, but the woman sitting next to me told me I’d slept right through them.
I told myself that I’d ask the driver about that mysterious stop when we arrived in Pueblo, but during one of my dozy moments in Lamar, Colorado, another driver replaced him. When I reached my destination, the new one said she knew nothing about the Kansas route.
James didn’t understand either, but he tolerated my interest in it, considering it one of my foibles. A few years ago, I switched meds again to Depakene. Two years after I’d had my last seizure, he convinced me to get my driver’s license. For four years, he didn’t even mind too much when I started driving all over the plains, searching for that grocery.
For fourteen years, it hadn’t occurred to me that surrendering to the bus line was, in fact, a necessity. Not until now.
Fourteen years, one month, and eighteen days after I’d last been here, I awoke as the bus rounded a corner and began to slow. Still unable to read the name over the post office, I watched all the front yards to the right and the back yards to the left.
Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I was one of the first ones out the door. I didn’t see the beldame on the bench. Unsurprised, I turned to look up into the afternoon sun. I listened for the sound of a squeaky swing set and a young girl singing the ABC song again and again. I stood silent until the dog barked.
I turned. She was sitting on the bench, as unchanged as the song.
“I want to buy a lottery ticket,” I said.
Her face cracked and a smile broke free.
“I thought as much. It’s rare for someone to come back. Not unique, mind, but rare.”
“I would have been here earlier, but I had a hard time finding you again.”
“Of course you did. What’s easy isn’t worth having. What are you waiting for?”
“I need to know: can I buy two tickets?”
“Why—ah!” She looked past me, where James waited just outside the bus door. He wore a heavy backpack of his own.
“I see.” The crone looked back at me. “Of course you may.”
Inside, we shared a last Coke while watching the rosy sun of another world shine through the aged screen door. Only after we heard the hissing, growling sound of the bus leaving did I step back outside. The old woman was gone, as I had thought she would be.
“Let’s go,” I said. I took his hand and motioned toward the door and the mountain, rising high in the distance, staccato behind the screen. We rushed across the room, the sounds of our shoes on the floor fading as we ran, before flinging open the door and leaping out into the world where all the houses faced east, the same way children bang open a door while running outside to meet a new morning.
© 2019 by Nickolas Furr
Author’s Note: My family lived in Kansas when I was younger, and we lived in a small town southwest of Wichita for a few years, until I graduated high school. After that, we moved south, but I have always felt a connection to those small prairie towns in that part of the state, as well as similar ones in other states. We drive everywhere on vacations. I don’t fly anymore, though I used to. We have crossed the country, coast to coast, several times, and we have on several occasions gone out of our way to travel through these kinds of places. Each town is different, but there are similarities that simply can’t be ignored. In fact, that small town where I graduated high school has become a sort of defining touchpoint in my brain—this is what all the small towns I would ever write about would come from.
Nickolas Furr is a writer of dark fantasy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His recent fiction has appeared in the anthologies California Screamin’, Morbid Metamorphosis, and A Darke Phantastique. He is a former journalist and freelance writer who is working towards teaching English at the college level. He has a fondness for prairie towns where the houses all face one way and the older women know all the secrets. He is a member of Horror Writers Association and San Diego HWA. He lives with his girlfriend, Liza, and their dogs, Liam and Jack, in a small mountain town east of the city which will almost certainly show up in a story at some point in the future.