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The Night Bus

Of all the bus drivers on duty that night, it was Angus who was taken in for questioning. He guessed it was because of his ear: a burned puff, as pitted as a peach stone, with fleecy white scars that radiated down to his neck. It was the ear of a bogeyman, a man who would kidnap a young girl in a painter’s smock as she idled beneath the palmettos.

He told them what he remembered: he’d driven the Fair Oaks route, midnight to six, a mostly empty bus but he didn’t see the girl. At least he didn’t think so—all he could remember were the usual faces: the barflies who fell asleep and lost their shoes, the insomniac who rode back and forth all night in her cellophane coat, the nurses who read ten-cent Bible digests and rubbed Vaseline into their hands. The only teenager was the one who boarded last, brass-buttoned at half past five, headed to his job as a bellboy.

The detective, drinking hot lemon water and sniffing back a cold, showed him the photographs: a girl, sixteen, still knock-knees and gapped teeth despite her willowy height. She worked at the playhouse after school, building masks in the costume shop. Last Monday she disappeared. No one remembered seeing her leave, and she never made it back to Raymond Hill, where she lived with her mother. Did she get on the bus at any point? Anything suspicious you recall? The detective leaned forward, sniffling into his handkerchief. Under the lamp he looked pink-eyed and gangly, about as brutish as a mealworm. Every time he said the word mother Angus heard butter and pictured a golden, becrumbed stick inching its way to the telephone to dial the police.

Angus said he’d returned to the depot at dawn and changed out of his uniform, then called his sister Marie, who always brewed him a pot of coffee before she left for work. He had an alibi. (Alibi, albino, binocular, oculus—all those word games he played as he drove down the wet autumn streets, past the turrets of the old Moorish hotel, the printing plant that smelled like sweetened pulp, the palms with their yellow-tipped fronds.) Call her, Angus said, call my supervisor; they’ll tell you I clocked out, came home.

The detective shuffled some papers, picked through his file. Angus Curd: employed by the city for seventeen years, age fifty-two, never married. No criminal record. One write-up from the Department of Transportation, a minor infraction (a pocket flask confiscated from his locker). You like your sauce, the man remarked, not a question. Angus explained it was just a nip, a warm-up on winter mornings when he got off work. He didn’t say that he drove the night bus so no one would stare at him. That his sister had a job at a delicatessen, working buoy-sized pimento loaves through an industrial slicer. That despite her mouthiness and bluster, she got nervous every time she was asked to chalk the specials on the board.

They asked him about the burns, of course. They were staring. He told them one truth: it was many years ago—and one lie: the war.

(Really he was just a boy. He’d been roller-skating at the exposition hall, an indoor pavilion built for the fair. Marie, a tot, was home sick with scarlet fever. Above him: the gilded rails of the mezzanine, the skylight. His mother in her silk scarf, whipping around the turns. He tried to keep up—reached for her hand—then felt the first burning drop on his ear.)

There was nothing solid to incriminate him; they let him go at noon. Two officers jostled him down the steps of the station, leaving a bruise above his elbow. He stood there in the hot wash of sun, uncertain for a moment where he was, trying to remember what awaited him at home: his coffee, now cold, a dribble of rye, some squares of Muenster cheese in the icebox. It was too far to walk, so he took the bus from the library. The driver was a lifer with a nightingale tattoo—he didn’t say anything, just waved Angus on through. Angus sat in the back with his ear to the glass, on a seat too low and too thin, his foot flexing toward an invisible brake.

That first drop—a bee-sting, he thought—and then the second. Up above, in the mezzanine—figures (two?), a blur at the rail. Then came the blistering rain, a bottle shattering in the middle of the rink. The acid spread to the skates. Wheels melted to the lacquered floor. People screamed, cooked and rooted, paddling at the air. Some unlaced their skates and tried to limp away but the puddles burned right through their stockings.

Afterwards he remembered sitting by the turnstile while the doctors made their rounds, rinsing the burns with ammonia. There was a hole in the bill of his hat, a whish-whish in his ears. His mother’s silk scarf had dissolved around her neck like a skein of cotton candy.

The acid-throwers, he later learned, escaped through the skylight.

He got off the bus by the playhouse and sat for a while by the fountain. He watched the honeybees bob in the jasmine, smelled the coffee roasting from the cantina next door. Beyond, the syncopated song of hammers and saws, the stage doors open to the alley, the dust of a half-built world turning to resin on his tongue. He wondered what the girl had seen as she huddled there at her workbench, scoring the clay and mixing the paints. A quiet life, he wanted to think: an orbit of isinglass, rabbit hide, tempera, silk. He heard a fire curtain rattle in its moorings, an actor running lines on a balcony above. (Strangers, speaking through her molded mouths, peering through the eyeless sockets.) The sun drummed on; the parrots trilled as if girls turned to vapor all the time.

He looked down at the bruise the police had given him. He imagined the girl with her grapefruit knees and shabby smock, what must have lured her out of the theater and into the night. For the clay had been left, half-formed, on the table. Her hat still waited on its peg. Maybe she’d been on the bus after all—far in the back, where the streetlight bent and rippled. Maybe he’d seen her in the mirror, laughing at him, her skin made of lace and all full of holes.

Leslie Parry is the author of the novel Church of Marvels (Ecco, 2015). Her short fiction has previously appeared in Heavy Feather Review, The Cincinnati Review, Isthmus, The Journal, The Missouri Review, Cream City Review, Indiana Review, VQR, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.  She lives in Chicago.