She'd left the note tucked beneath the salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table. Danny liked salt, but not pepper, which made him sneeze. Ten days had gone by-Danny knew this from the marks he put on the calendar every morning-and the note was still there. He didn't know what to do with it. The whole place smelled something awful, the way a raccoon or possum did when it had been run over again and again for days.
The milk was no good, too. With the electricity off, it had gone sour, warm and unpleasant in his mouth. He tried the Lucky Charms with water from the tap, but it wasn't the same, nothing was the same, everything was different because Momma was in the bedroom. At night he sat in the dark in his room with the door closed. He knew where Momma kept the candles, they were in the cupboard over the sink where she kept her bottle of Popov for when her nerves got to her, but matches were nothing for him. They were on the list. It wasn't an actual list, it was just the things he couldn't do or touch. The toaster, because he kept pushing the button back down and burning the toast. The pistol in Momma's nightstand, because it wasn't a toy, it could shoot you. The girls on his bus, because they wouldn't like it, and he wouldn't get to drive the No. 12 anymore, which would be bad. That would be the worst thing in the world to Danny Chayes.
No electricity meant no TV, so he couldn't watch Thomas, either. Thomas was for little boys, Momma had told him so a million times, but the therapist, Dr. Francis, said it was okay to watch it as long as Danny tried other things, too. His favorite was James. Danny liked his red color and matching tender, and the sound of his voice the way the narrator did it, so soothing it made his throat tickle at the top. Faces were hard for Danny, but the expressions on the Thomas trains were always precise and easy to follow, and it was funny, the things they did to each other, the pranks they liked to play. Switching the tracks so Percy would run into a coal loader. Pouring chocolate all over Gordon, who pulled the express, because he was such a haughty engine. The kids on his bus sometimes made fun of Danny, calling him Topham Hatt, singing the song with not-nice words in place of the real ones, but for the most part Danny tuned this out. There was one kid, though. His name was Billy Nice, and nice was not what he was. He was a sixth grader, but Danny thought he'd probably been held back a few times, on account of he had a body like a full-grown man's. He boarded each morning without so much as a book in his hands, sneering at Danny as he mounted the steps, high-fiving and what-upping the other boys as he sauntered down the alley between the seats, dragging a smell of cigarettes.
Hey, Topham Hatt, how are things going on the Island of Sodor today? Is it true that Lady Hatt likes to take it in the caboose?
Har-har-har, Billy laughed. Har-har-har. Danny never said anything back, because it would only make things worse; he'd never told Mr. Purvis anything, because he knew what the man would say. Goddamnit, Danny, whatcha let the little shit treat you like that for? Lord knows you're one weird duck, but you've got to stand up for yourself. You're the captain of that ship. You allow a mutiny and the next thing you know everything goes in the dumper.
Danny liked Mr. Purvis, the dispatcher. Mr. Purvis had always been a friend to Danny, and Momma, too. Momma was one of the cafeteria ladies, so that was how they knew each other, and Mr. Purvis was always coming around the house, fixing things, like the disposal or a loose board on the porch, even though he had a wife of his own, Mrs. Purvis. He was a big bald man who liked to whistle through his teeth and was always hitching up his pants. Sometimes he visited at night, after Danny was in bed; Danny would hear the TV going in the living room, and the pair of them laughing and talking. Danny liked those nights. They gave him a good feeling in his mind, like the happy-click. When anybody asked, Momma always said that Danny's father "wasn't in the picture," which was precisely true. There were pictures of Momma in the house, and pictures of Danny, and pictures of the two of them together. But he'd never seen one with his father in it. Danny didn't even know the man's name.
The bus had been Mr. Purvis's idea. He'd taught Danny to drive in the parking lot at the depot, and went with him to get his Class B license, and helped him fill out the application. Momma hadn't been so sure at first, on account of her needing Danny to help around the house, being a useful engine, and the Social Security, which was money from the government. But Danny knew the real reason, which was the different and special way he was. The thing with a job, Momma had explained, using her careful voice, was that a person needed to be "adaptable." Things would happen, different things. Take the cafeteria. Some days they would serve hot dogs, and some days lasagna, and other days chicken cutlets. The menu might say one thing, but it turned out to be another; you couldn't always know. Wouldn't that upset him?
But a bus wasn't a cafeteria. A bus was a bus, and it ran on a schedule, precisely. When Danny got behind the wheel, he felt the happy-click bigger and deeper than he'd ever felt in his life. Driving a bus! A big yellow one, all the seats in their orderly rows, the gearshift with its six speeds and reverse, everything laid out nice and neat before him. It wasn't a train but it was close, and each morning as he pulled away from the depot, he always imagined he was Gordon or Henry or Percy or even Thomas himself.
He was always on time. Forty-two minutes from depot to drop-off, 8.2 miles, nineteen stops, twenty-nine passengers, precisely. Robert-Shelly-Brittany-Maybeth-Joey-Darla/Denise (the twins)-Pedro-Damien-Jordan-Charlie-Oliver (O-Man)-Sasha-Billy-Molly-Lyle-Dick (Dickhead)-Richard-Lisa-Mckenna-Anna-Lily-Matthew-Charlie-Emily-JohnJohn-Kayla-Sean-Timothy. Sometimes a parent would wait with them on the corner, a mother in a housecoat or a father in a jacket and tie, holding a mug of coffee. How's it going today, Danny, they might say, wearing a good-morning smile on their faces. You know, a person could set their watch by you.
Be my useful engine, Momma always said, and that's what Danny was.
But now the children were gone. Not just the children: everyone. Momma and Mr. Purvis and maybe all the people in the world. The nights were dark and still, no lights burning anywhere. For a while there had been a lot of noise-people yelling, sirens wailing, Army trucks roaring down the street. He'd heard the pop of guns. Pop! went the guns. Pop-pop-pop-pop! What are they shooting at, Danny wanted to know, but Momma wouldn't say. She told him to stay inside, using her strong voice, and not to watch TV, and to keep away from the windows. What about the bus, Danny asked, and Momma only said, Damnit, Danny, don't worry about the bus now. School's out today. What about tomorrow, Danny asked. And Momma said, It's out tomorrow, too.
Without the bus, he didn't know what to do with himself. His brain felt as jumpy as corn in a hot pan. He wished Mr. Purvis could come over and watch TV with Momma, it always made her feel better about things, but the man never did. The world went quiet, the way it was now. There were monsters out there. Danny had figured that out. As a for instance, there was the woman across the street, Mrs. Kim. Mrs. Kim taught the violin, kids coming over to her house for their lessons, and on summer days when the windows were open Danny could hear them playing, twinkle-twinkle and Mary-had-a-little-lamb and other things he didn't know the names of. Now there was no violin and Mrs. Kim was hanging over the porch railing.
And then one night Danny heard Momma crying in the bedroom. Once in a while she cried like this, all alone, it was normal and natural and nothing for Danny to worry about, but this felt different. For a long time he lay in his bed listening, wondering what that must be like, to feel something so sad it made you cry, but the idea was like something on a shelf he couldn't reach. Sometime later he awoke in the dark to the feel of someone touching his hair and he opened his eyes to see her sitting there. Danny didn't like to be touched, it gave him the jangly feeling something awful, but it was okay when Momma did it, mostly, on account of he was used to it. What is it, Momma? Danny said. What's wrong? But all she said was Hush now, hush now, Danny. Something was resting in her lap, folded in a towel. I love you, Danny. Do you know how much I love you? I love you, too, Momma, he said, because that was the right answer when someone said I-love-you, and to the feel of her hand caressing him he fell asleep, and in the morning her bedroom door was closed and never opened and Danny knew. He didn't even have to look.
He decided to drive the bus after all.
Because maybe he wasn't the only person still living. Because it gave him the happy-click, driving the bus. Because he didn't know what else to do with himself, with Momma in the bedroom and the milk spoiled and all the days gone by.
He'd laid out his clothes the night before the way Momma always did, a pair of khakis and a white collared shirt and brown tie shoes, and packed a lunch. There wasn't much left to eat except for peanut butter and some graham crackers and a bag of stale marshmallows, but he'd saved a bottle of Mountain Dew, and he put it all in his backpack with his pocket knife and his lucky penny, then went to his closet to get his hat, the blue-striped engineer's cap that Momma had bought him at Traintown. Traintown was a park where kids could ride the trains, just like Thomas. Danny had gone there since he was little, it was his favorite place in the world, but the cars were too tight for Danny to fit in with his big legs and long arms, so he liked to watch the trains go round and round with their little puffs of smoke chuffing from their stacks. Except for trips to Traintown, Momma didn't let him wear the hat outside the house, on account of she said people would make fun of him, but Danny figured it would be okay to wear it now.
He set out at dawn. The bus's keys were in his pocket, flat against his thigh. The depot was 3.2 miles away, precisely. He hadn't walked a block before he saw the first bodies. Some were in their cars, others were lying on their lawns or draped over garbage cans or even hanging in the trees. Their skin had turned the same blue-gray color as Mrs. Kim's, their clothing stretched tight over limbs that had swollen in the summer heat. It was bad to look at, bad but strange and also interesting; if he'd had more time, Danny would have stopped to get a closer look. There was a lot of litter, bits of paper and plastic cups and fluttering grocery sacks, which Danny didn't like. People shouldn't litter.
By the time he got to the depot, the sun was warm on his shoulders. Most of the buses were there but not all. They were parked in rows with empty spaces, like a mouth with missing teeth. But Danny's bus, the No. 12, was waiting in its usual spot. There were many different kinds of buses in the world, shuttle buses and charter buses and city buses and coaches, and Danny knew about them all. That was something he liked to do-to learn everything there was to know about one thing. His bus was a Redbird 450, the Foresight model. Built to the most exacting engineering standards, with all-permanent frame fixtures, Easy Hood Assist™, an advanced driver's information display providing a wealth of system knowledge to both the operator and service technicians, and the purpose-built, single-scope Redbird Comfortride™ chassis, the 450 was the number one choice for safety, quality, and extended life-cycle value in the industry today.
Danny climbed aboard and wedged the key into the ignition; as the big Caterpillar diesel roared to life, a warm surge filled his belly. He checked his watch: 6:52. When the big hand hit the twelve, he put the bus in gear and pulled away.
It seemed odd at first, driving through empty streets with no one around, but by the time Danny was approaching his first stop-the May-fields', Robert and Shelly-he'd settled into the rhythms of the morning. It was easy to imagine that today was just an ordinary day. He brought the bus to a halt. Well, Robert and Shelly were sometimes late. He'd honk the horn and they'd come dashing out the door, their mother calling after them to be good, have fun, and sending them off with a wave. The house was a bungalow not much bigger than the one Danny lived in with Momma but nicer, painted the color of a pumpkin and sitting behind a wide front porch with a swing. In spring there were always baskets of flowers hanging off the rails. The baskets were still there, but the flowers had all wilted. The lawn needed mowing, too. Danny craned his neck to look up through the windshield. A window on the second floor looked like it had been ripped from its frame. The blind was still hanging in the space where the window used to be, lolling out of it like a tongue. He honked the horn and waited a minute. But still nobody came.
Seven-oh-eight. He had other stops to make. He pulled away from the corner and guided the bus around a Prius lying on its side. He came to other things in the road. An overturned police car, smashed flat. An ambulance. A dead cat. A lot of the houses had X's spray-painted on their doors, with numbers and letters in the spaces. By the time he arrived at his second stop, a townhouse complex called Castle Oaks, he was already running twelve minutes late. Brittany-Maybeth-Joey-Darla/Denise. He gave the horn a long honk, then another. But there wasn't any point. Danny was just going through the motions now. Castle Oaks was a smoking ruin. The entire complex had burned to the ground.
More stops: all were the same. He guided the bus west into Cherry Creek. The houses were bigger here, set back from the road behind wide, sloped lawns. Big leafy trees draped curtains of dappled shade over the street. There was a quiet feeling here, more peaceful. The houses looked like they always did, and there were no bodies that Danny could see. But still there were no children.
By now his bus would have had twenty-five kids in it. The silence was unnerving. The noise in the bus always built along the route, each stop adding a little more with every kid who got on, the way music rose in a movie, approaching the final scene. The final scene was the bump. A speed bump on Lindler Avenue. Do the bump, Danny! they'd all cry out. Do the bump! And though he wasn't supposed to, he'd give the bus a little extra gas, jolting them from their seats, and for that one moment he'd feel himself to be a part of them. He'd never been a kid like they were, just a kid going to school. But when the bus went over the bump, he was.