Deke's Note: I wrote this short story in March, just as COVID-19 was making its ugly head visible. Standing at Powell and Milwaukie waiting for my bus, the intersection was eerily silent; it shook me to the core of my being. Just then, this story rolled through me. I had no idea how prophetic it might be, but it had to be written. So I wrote it. Then, it went through countless edits before I surrendered the art to its final form. I'm submitting it to short story contests in hope it's worth a damn. Hope you enjoy it, even though it might evoke fears borne over the past nine months or so.
* * * * *
Anne didn’t know what led her to the bus stop that Monday morning. Habit, or desperation. The start of a new work week which would never be. Not like a few weeks before, anyway.
Her hose was torn, but the rest of her ensemble was semi-fresh, even though the electricity had shut off two nights earlier during the washer’s rinse cycle. In the span of five days, life had died. Anne didn’t know if her firm was still operating. Death and doom bloomed in the darkness of crepe and grey, but her soul implored her to continue.
But everything had. There was no debate, the facts frozen within her. She just could not accept it.
A week earlier, a rare Silver Thaw blizzard greeted her morning roll. To work. That daily trek to do another’s bidding. For beans, not quite cooked. Anne flashed her pass, pivoting her eyes from the bus driver. No contact desired; no notice of that annoying smile “Gene the too-happy bus driver” beamed her way.
He’s just a bus driver, she thought. Just drive. It’s too damn early to be smiling. She sat next to a curdled Bud Light, having no other choice. Anne had been fondled many times by people who used the roll of a turn to assault her.
Just inches away, Bud’s poster boy was snoozing it off. His week-old stubble poked holes in last decade’s Aerosmith T-shirt, half-pulled over his head so his ample belly assaulted her vision. He snored as the perfectly-dressed legal secretary sat next to him, wearing expensive lavender perfume.
Good thing he’s out of it, she thought, one less pig I’ll have to brush off. Good grief how he reeks!
There was an abnormal amount of coughing and sneezing, but Anne didn’t hear over headphones blasting her favorite Tedeschi Trucks tune. Sweet and Low helped prep her for the onslaught of attorneys demanding perfection. She dreamed of a masculine lover when she needed it most, but was resigned this was but another moist dream.
Anne raised her nose in a condescending snort. Perhaps her father was right, a law degree would elevate her from bottom-feeder hell to the greatness he affirmed she could attain.
“With just a bit of work,” he told her, “you’ll be on top of that heap of nobodies.” Like Gene, the bus driver. She snorted. God help her if he was the definition of “success”.
Gene was annoyingly chipper. Anne considered him unskilled labor, yet his repartee was superb. He always extended her warm greetings each morning, which she routinely ignored but secretly enjoyed. Few mentioned her mahogany hair, pulled into a chignon or ribbon-tied classic pull back. Without being smarmy, he mentioned her immaculate and stylish attire. Curiously, he smiled at her half-moon jewelry. Her side of the moon was left; Daddy wore the right.
To Anne, this was a ploy bent upon catching her attention. Why would a 60-something believe he had any chance with a 23-year-old legal professional? Ha! The very thought of it. Even so, she secretly admired Gene while grooving to her iPhone.
Gene smiled and complimented every passenger who boarded. He knew many. They responded warmly. He acknowledged everyone who boarded, regardless of response. A grandmotherly-type kissed him on his cheek as he spread his arms in greeting. Her husband followed, handing Gene his favorite daily brew.
Disgusting; unbecoming a gentleman. Anne scoffed at each display of affection. She marveled at how Gene had a kind word for everyone who boarded. Jealous of his ability to relate? She sniffed in disgust, angry at this likely truth. Still, after years witnessing these encounters, she grudgingly began to accept his kindness.
Finally one morning at 6th Avenue and Alder, she exited via the front door.
“Thank you,” she said with a half-smile. Gene was startled, but his grin was true. It was the first time she had spoken to him, and he had been driving this route for two years.
“No,” he replied, “thank you! And don’t forget to sing. Hope you accomplish something memorable today!” He winked at her and flashed his trademark smile.
Anne stopped in her tracks, astounded. She had planned to disarm his supposed fake charm. Catching it open, her mouth clamped into a tight grimace. She nodded curtly and stepped onto the awaiting bricks.
How could he know she loved to sing? Since childhood, she had cultivated a her alto-soprano voice over thousands of hours of practice. Diligently working her way up through the St. Paul’s Youth Choir to become lead soprano at 15, she had hoped to solo instead of suffering underneath the Great Teresa Armas of the Portland Opera. Anne didn’t realize she sang along to her iTunes on the bus, or that anyone may have heard her.
Gene heard everything on his bus. He politely asked people to silence their cellphones several times a shift. Harmoniously attuned to the mechanical sounds of his rolling office, he needed to hear street noises, passenger dilemmas or any other sounds related to safe operation of his vehicle. He marveled hearing the winsome lass singing along to her music. Gene’s father had been a gifted tenor; he knew vocal excellence. Anne’s ability to effortlessly shift octaves tickled his auditory ecstasy.
His aloof young passenger was actually the niece of someone he had known for years. Anne’s Uncle Dan was Gene's drinking partner at Kell's Pub who also regularly rode his route.
“She’s always been a cute lil’ songbird,” Dan told him. “Since she was about three or so.’Lil Annie (that’s what I call her even she hates it now), has sung her way along. It’s always been hard for her to have conversations because she’d rather sing to herself. I don’t know how she suffers those lawyer assholes. Must drive her absolutely ratshit. Only person she actually talks to is her papa. They’re inseparable, those two.”
Gene immediately made the connection. Dan’s description of his early-morning passenger confirmed it was the lovely lass who softly sang her tunes into his daily routine.
From that point, Gene was determined to crack Anne’s hard shell. This day, a cruel moment in time intervened.
* * * * *
Gene walked into a mostly-silent garage. The Station Agent was surprised to see him.
“Gene!” Alvin shouted in joy at seeing the veteran operator. “You’re a welcome sight! Wassup?”
“Alvin, you young stud pup,” he said, gratefully shaking his friend’s hand. He and Alvin were classmates, rising together through years of the gradual corporate takeover of transit. “God, it’s good to see you, lad. How’s the family?”
Alvin bowed his head, but immediately looked back up. “Better than most. Lost Mom and Dad a few weeks back, but the wife and kids are still healthy, thank God.”
“That’s wonderful news, in spite of your folks’ passing,” Gene said. He bowed his head to hide the tears which came in remembrance to everyone who had died amongst them in such a short few weeks.
“Your parents were very dear to me,” he said in reverence. “They were both my Line Trainers." He paused respectfully. "Their lessons will remain with me. My condolences to you, brother.”
Alvin smiled, a tear sliding down his cheek. Neither wanted to see the other’s pain.
“Seems we fared better than most,” Gene said, searching for anything good in a tearful river of terror.
Alvin sniffed, wiping his eyes with his fingers. “Yeah, but we’re not alone. Al Beneloga was in a while ago to drive his Dirty 3, and a few Extra Board ops are out there too. Other than that, I’ve had 257 call-ins and the other garages are about the same. Forty-three operators died over the past 36 hours. We might salvage a few hundred ops out of all this. But the calls… they’re so damn sad. Wives, children... calling in to report...”
At this, Alvin choked. Tears poured from his eyes. He was unable to speak. He turned away and walked back to snatch a tissue from a hidden alcove behind the counter. Too many lives lost, those he dealt with daily, many of them well known and cherished. He was overwhelmed with grief.
Both silently contemplated their shared reality. Almost 1,250 of their co-workers had perished. The grief was too heavy for either to comprehend. Of the Portland metropolitan area encompassing 2.5 million souls, only 142,552 remained. Stores had been ransacked, food supplies were virtually exhausted. Trash remained uncollected, the wind flitting it about amongst the few vehicles venturing out into a world punctuated with automatic rifle fire between groups of militia wannabes. Survivors locked themselves in their homes. Neighborhoods consolidated whatever stores they had to form collectives.
Still, transit survived. Buses rolled along empty streets. Through this devastating pandemic, a few dedicated souls rolled wheels. Every department was down to just a few souls, but they remained dedicated to what was "normal". They didn’t know if they would be paid, or how. Banks were closed; there was no longer an economy. Still, a few people felt it necessary to go places, even if there was nobody to serve them at whatever destinations they sought.
“You have Bus 4055 for your 902,” Alvin told him, handing Gene a trip sheet and a roll of ticket paper. Gene shoved it back across the counter.
“Nobody needs to pay now,” Gene said. “I haven’t accepted fare for two months.”
“Yeah,” Alvin said, “I get it. But Norm insists we give it out anyway.” They both laughed at the absurdity of the lone upper-management guru.
“Fuck him,” Gene said, laughing. “What’s he gonna do, fire me?”
Alvin chuckled. “He might try, but I say we both kick his ass.”
Gene smiled, and slapped Alvin’s five.
“Hey bud, you all set for food?” Gene asked. “I just shot a deer on my street a few days ago, so my freezer’s stocked. Until the electricity goes away.”
Alvin sighed. “We may have to take you up on that. Thanks. Where you holed up?”
“I just took possession of an old Victorian three blocks away,” he replied. “Had to bury the former occupants in the schoolyard, but I don’t think they mind. 1420 Center Street. Come over later, I’ll throw some steaks on the barbie. Got some potatoes and veggies from their garden too. It’ll be good to have some sense of normalcy. Say, around 6?”
“We’re there, bro,” Alvin replied. “Hey I found a whole shelf of Scotch at a liquor store. Want me to bring a bottle?”
“Bring three,” Gene chuckled. “We’ll put them to good use. We can always call in sick tomorrow.”
They both laughed.
“I don’t want a 4000-series bus,” Gene said, glancing at the run sheet. “Can I have a 3500? They’re a lot easier to drive and my back hurts like fuck.”
“Hey bro,” Alvin sighed, “but there’s only fuel in a few and Norm dictates we drive the newest ones. A 3500 would likely leave you on the side of the road with nobody to rescue you. Sorry, man.”
“Oh well,” Gene said, “this may be the last week I have to do this anyway. Guess I can suffer through another shift in those new shit buckets.”
“Be safe out there man,” Alvin said. “Lots of gunshots out on Powell lately. We’re on 135th and I can’t sleep well at night because of the mayhem out there. Even my 11-year-old sleeps with a loaded 12-gauge by his bed.”
“I hear ya, bud. Why don’t you move closer in? There’s a whole shitload of empty homes in the Brooklyn ’hood you could take over. Safety in numbers, eh? It would be a lot closer commute anyway.”
“Good idea, bud. But you’d better get out to your bus,” Alvin said with mock severity. It’s way past 902’s pull out time and you know how Norm wants to see On-Time Performance stats at optimum levels.”
Gene laughed. “Fuck Norm and the bus he don’t know how to drive. But yeah, I’m outta here after I make the bladder gladder and grab a cup o’ joe from that pot I smell back in your domain.”
“Have a full Thermos to go,” Alvin said, swinging open the door separating the bullpen from his previously restricted area. “Just be sure to brew another pot for me.”
“Gotcha brother,” Gene said, pausing to give his friend a bear hug when the door opened. Alvin hugged back, holding on just a moment longer than heterosexual norms allowed. They separated without looking at each other. Their love for one another thusly stated, nothing more was necessary.
Gene poured the entire pot’s content into his Thermos, then set another pot brewing. Sliding the steaming cauldron of caffeine into his backpack, he strode out the door.
Ten minutes later, he guided his bus out of the yard, onto 17th Avenue and the Center Garage stop, where he paused to steel himself. Then, he eased the bus northbound. He didn't even look for traffic; there was none.
Waiting for Gene’s bus, Anne dreamily re-living a moment with her parents from just a few months earlier. It seemed years ago. Now, today, Gene was the only person she desperately wanted to see. Everyone else was dead.
Daddy! No, no no no no! Please let this be a nightmare! I want to WAKE UP!!! PLEASE GOD LET ME WAKE UP! DADDY!?! Why aren’t you answering me? FUCK FUCK FUCK!!! PLEASE… make it ALL… just… go away.
The too-fresh set of facts sent her into spasms of grief. She collapsed onto the sidewalk. Grunting sobs, fist-clenching cries exploded out of one recently believed devoid of emotion. With nobody else to notice, she was free to mourn. For once, she needed someone to lean on. Gone was her self-sustaining snobbery. Also absent, her only support staff, Daddy.
Never having a boyfriend, Anne depended solely upon her father for love and support. No boys in high school had his charm, his good looks or impeccable character. All they wanted was sex. No thanks, she told them. It wasn’t some old-fashioned need to save her virginity. It was simple disinterest. None of the males she knew had the ability to excite her. They lacked true compassion or interest in her reality. She found them all boorish and unworthy of her tempestuous artist’s soul.
Now Anne wished one of those foolish boys had hit the mark, having survived to find her again during this awful week. She was horrifyingly, completely… alone. In the span of five days, she lost everyone, except one she had never accepted into that horribly-lonely circle.
Not only Dad, but Mom, Sis and her two brothers. Uncle Pete and Aunt Evelyn. Uncle Andy, Aunt Josie and their 10-year-old twins. Dead. Two of her only three friends also gone, the third she could not contact. It was one paralytic short week in which numbness became her constant companion.
The flu. A tiny virus had decimated the world’s population in less than two months. The bug hit Portland like a sledge-hammer in the form of a convention of holy-rollers. Not only did they light up the Convention Center with their devoted gyrations upon the promise of redemption, but had sent missionaries out to infect hundreds of unsuspecting Portlanders with the hyper-deadly King virus. Those infected returned home, and the bug’s unprecedented infection rate quickly became a worldwide and deadly mission. They dutifully knocked on doors, afresh with the holiness bestowed upon them, and infected everyone they met. Their dedication spread the virus so widely nobody knew the danger until the damage was already done. It spread across the globe like a wildfire consuming a midsummer desert. Only the strongest withstood its deadly grip. Most perished within a few days of contracting the King.
Within the span of three weeks, humanity lost 90 percent of itself. Those who survived wished they had not been spared. Now, they quickly devolved to prehistoric existence. Hunting game, learning to field dress it like their long-distant ancestors, finding wild tubers, vegetables and herbs to help them fend off starvation.
Engineered in hidden laboratories, King escaped upon the simple accident of a broken test tube. Immediately infected, lab techs dismissed the unmarked vial as insignificant. They instructed it be cleaned up by those ill-suited to do so. Ten people took the virus home, long before anyone realized the pending devastation. While one-tenth of the world’s human population survived, the animals began to flourish. Humanity’s death-grip of pollution subsided. The Earth began to heal itself after 200 years of abuse. With money losing all value humans became violently equal. Those who could, survived. Others were murdered for as little as a stash of Lays Potato Chips or month-old hamburger. Gunfire became a signal to find shelter.
Governments were caught unaware and downplayed the virus. Within three days, their leaders became violently ill and died. Only those who unknowingly harbored a simple variation in human DNA were immune. These survivors simply began searching for food and water. They found the best shelter and buried those who had died.
There was no news. No internet activity, no radio, or any other normal means of communication. In some areas, a few had been able to raise voices through the Citizens Band. Sometimes people united only to find each other retaining bitter political divides. Many of these encounters resulted in murder. America decreased its numbers by another 40 million in two weeks of civil war. In Portlandia, it fell to a point where either side gave up any hope of superiority and just... stopped. Meanwhile, people across the globe concentrated upon their collective survival.
Anne found it impossible to accept reality. She believed it was just a lucid nightmare. Her normally-dismissive behavior toward others was typical amongst her generation, but now everything she knew had become horribly obsolete. She wasn’t ready to be someone her brain hadn’t yet wired itself to achieve: responsible for those weaker than she.
Children roamed the streets in search of someone to mother them. Anne was so consumed by her own grief she felt guilt in her lack of consolation for even the tiniest survivor. These starving cherubs cried from one stunned adult to the next, begging to be picked up, comforted and fed. Only the eldest among them, having already suffered numerous tragedies of their own, had the empathy to care for those comprising the species’ future.
On Monday morning, Anne arrived at her bus stop. It was comforting in its ritual. She rose at 6:00 as her cell phone chime dinged. Allowing herself one blissful snooze setting, Anne’s dream continued. Dad tugging at her hand, urging her forward as she marveled the scent of spring blooms at Washington Park’s International Rose Test Garden. Mom laughing at Daddy’s corny jokes, the sun shining brightly off the Tilikum Crossing’s glaringly-white cable stays, puffy Tyrannosaurus-Rex clouds chasing Bugs Bunny into Mr. Rogers’ cardigan sweater. Her skin felt the warmth of the sun’s glow, turning pink in a precursor of her evolving into the bronze beauty she became.
Bleepity-ring-a-doom-bitty-do, her phone blared. The snooze alarm slashed through the clouds, imploring Anne to rise into the depths of today’s fresh despair. Hands moved to eyes, which immediately filled with tears as reality arose. She sobbed a full two minutes, mourning in agony. Those lost filled her mind with eyes squeezed shut against tears. Anne wasn't sure which to be more afraid of: her nightmares of a days-old comforting past, or the horrors of the now.
Grabbing a tissue off the bedside table, she blew her nose and sat up. Senses clearing, she decided this nightmare required a brave face. Daddy would have insisted.
Anne rose and showered. Applied light makeup. She chose a bright-yellow blouse to accent a sky-blue skirt, with a light-green tartan Scottish cashmere scarf (purchased on her 18th birthday trip to Edinburgh with her father). To complete her ensemble, perhaps it was hysteria-induced eccentricity which led her to pick the red Converse high-tops with bright-orange laces.
So endowed, Anne exited, eyes glued to the sidewalk. Her normal quarter-mile trek to the bus stop began as it normally would, save that in her grief-induced haze, she realized her headphones still hung upon the bedside lamp. It didn’t matter. The silence was deafening enough without music to interrupt.
Each step echoing between the mostly-empty homes along Rhine Street, she trudged toward Milwaukie Avenue and turned right. Instead of her normally-lazy catching Line 19 to the Line 9 stop at Powell/Milwaukie, she walked the few extra blocks. She didn’t know if the 9 was even running, but the early-morning sunshine felt good. All she could hear amidst the nightmare was birds chirping; a weird departure from the normal din of motorists honking at each other as they raced to the next red light, restaurant workers hauling trash to the street, or a freight train obnoxiously slowing and stopping across the Clinton crossing.
Silence assailed her senses as she arrived at Powell and Milwaukie’s bus stop. No conversations from hordes of coffee-sipping bus awaiting folks dreading another workday. Nothing. But. Birds. Every variety. Happily, annoyingly announcing the demise of humanity’s domination.
An empty Line 66 bus roared past as Anne awaited a clearing to cross Powell. It was the only vehicle in either direction, and she walked across the street against the light. Just one block ahead, the rail crossing blared a MAX train’s approach. A few moments later, she reached her stop, only to find that normally-busy intersection silent. Glancing up, she saw no traffic except a Coca-Cola delivery truck lumbering past, its driver lost in his own haze of grief with little to deliver, nowhere.
For three years, she had made the same trek each workday, leaving her flat punctually at 7:11 and arriving at the stop three minutes before Smiley Gene arrived. The soda truck was the only semblance of normalcy.
Where the hell was it going? Its very presence was disturbing, given the glaring absence of thousands who had recently depended on its service. She wondered if she asked the driver would he gladly hand over his entire stock of Diet Coke, given the futility of his delivery route? Instead, she just nodded at him as he drove by, and he returned the gesture in solemn solidarity.
Anne stood at the bus stop, hands clenched tightly at her waist. Hoping to hear the familiar hum of rush hour traffic. Instead, all she heard were seemingly thousands of birds. Chirping more annoyingly-happy than normal. Perhaps celebrating the final hurrah of humanity’s self-destruction, leaving them to peacefully flit about in their daily search for sustenance.
A light breeze ruffled the branches of the trees whose blossoms were busy blooming in the May sunshine. The beep of the pedestrian timers were painful reminders that most of humanity was gone.
Portland was dead, like most cities on the planet. The past week had claimed 250 million lives. Most of the bodies lay awaiting a burial many would never have.
Anne collapsed to her knees and began to laugh. Then just as suddenly, tears flowed down her cheeks as she spiraled into hysterics.
Where’s Gene? She cried, praying out loud he was still alive, driving the bus as usual, even as this moment was as unusual as it could be. It was now 7:28:35, almost a full minute past his normal arrival time. Was he dead, like most of the city? She sobbed, begging God to deliver her last sense of normalcy to that unnaturally-abandoned street corner.
In serendipitous answer, she heard the hum of a diesel engine accelerating up the incline from the rail underpass at 17th Avenue. It was entirely too loud to be true. Anne glanced eastward to make sure her ears and eyes connected. Sure enough, a bus labored toward her, devoid of any accompanying traffic. Its overhead sign read “9 to Portland”. As it drew closer, she saw the small sign in the front window declaring it was indeed “902”.
Anne stared intently, trying to see if Gene was behind the wheel. She couldn’t tell… the operator was obscured by shadow. Anne waved frantically. Shading her eyes, she squinted in desperation. Was it Gene? If you're really there Lord, PLEASE let it be him!
The light turned green, and Anne darted into the street. She was intent upon ensuring the bus stopped. It didn’t matter if anyone occupied her office, or even if she could get in the door. She had to ride this bus at least one more time. Whatever human drove the bus, she needed to greet him or her. To thank them for being there, for their service in the reality they had also lost someone dear to them. To have another human to talk to after the weekend from hell, watching everyone she had ever loved fall into oblivion.
The morning’s early silence was dominated by the diesel engine’s slowing, air brakes hissing, as the 20-ton Gillig eased into the stop.
Bus No. 3505 landed smoothly, but the doors didn’t open. Anne peeked through the windows, but the operator was looking down, facing left, his back to her. Finally, the bus door opened with an bracing hiss. To Anne’s ecstatic glee, Gene swung his barrier open and walked out, enveloping Anne in a deep, fatherly hug.
Tears dripped from his eyes. Neither having had any meaningful conversation, operator and passenger were equally comforted to see one another. A full minute ensued as they poured out their collective grief.
Gene had lost his beloved wife, two sons and daughter, an infant grandson, brother, sister and his sole nephew and three nieces, one great nephew and scores of cousins and friends, coworkers and passengers. He had run empty from Gresham Transit Center, only boarding two passengers along the way. Only one of them remained.
Gene’s grief was etched into that once-happy, smile-constant face. His sobs enveloped Anne’s slight frame. Her own grief seemed to pale in comparison to this man’s generous soul. He didn’t deserve such pain. Neither did she, but Anne felt genuinely sorry for him despite her own grief.
Enveloped by this bear of a man, Anne began to feel empathy for the first time in her life. At first, his hug had been a great shock. No other male other than her father or a rare uncle had bestowed her such affection. Gene’s sobs echoed off the piano store walls across Powell Boulevard. He murmured into her ear how happy he was to see her. Alive.
They held each other close, sobbing in tandem. Each heave brought them closer. Time stood still as their tears formed a deepening pool below. Anne patted Gene’s back, soothing him, as he did her. Finally. For two days, she had hidden within a shroud of denial, stubbornly-clinging to her tough-girl charade. She was no longer alone; her rescuer reigned from the operator’s seat of a 20-ton bus.
Gene calmed as Anne felt relief in his embrace. He allowed her tears to drench his immaculately-pressed uniform. He caressed her shoulders with one hand, held her head and massaged her scalp with the other, imploring her emotions to spill onto him as he unleashed his own.
The bus was empty save for an 82-year-old man who used a walker. Seated across from the operator's perch, Al watched Gene cradle the young lady who craved solace. Then the balance shifted and the young lass became the elder’s comforter. Their embrace transcended romance. It gave the old man relief that humanity remained amidst this horrid pandemic.
Al chose the back door to exit. He had nowhere else to go, and feared the unbridled violence Downtown Portland offered. Preferring the serenity of strolling through a peaceful yet ghostly neighborhood to the unknown terrors ahead, Al eased his walker to the sidewalk. He paused, watching Gene and the lass. He smiled wistfully at the sight.
The morning sun shone brightly upon only those three. Looking down at the sidewalk, Al felt lucky to have nobody left to grieve. He was 92, childless, an only son of parents gone decades ago. He had long since come to grips with loneliness. Surprised the pandemic had spared him, he was sad for those left behind. He believed his survival throughout this tragedy must have some purpose. Not knowing what it was, he knew only to allow events unfold as they must. He knew he could not guess their reality, but knew to simply accept what happened and freely offer himself to that cause.
Al shuffled up to Gene and Anne. He murmured soft words of consolation, placing his hands upon them. Both wrapped their free arm around him. Their sobbing stopped as he drew them close.
Two full minutes passed. Not a word spoken, each absorbed the love felt, remembered and lost. They embraced their shared humanity. Deep sighs ensued. At this point, they were one. Time stopped on that street corner. No cars or pedestrians passed. Only the birds sounded, and their song echoed off the deserted streets.
Anne broke the group hug to reach into her purse. She offered the two men a pack of tissues before taking one for herself. Each wiped their eyes and blew their noses, backs turned to one another in unnecessary embarrassment. As they turned back toward each other, each chuckled.
“Ah, now. We need not feel shame for shedding tears,” Al said. “Nobody but us here to see them.”
“At least we can share our grief,” Anne replied. “I’ve been so alone the past three days, I just showed up here hoping Gene would bring some normalcy to it all.”
Gene sighed. After a moment, he smiled.
“There you are, lass” Al said softly. “I’m so glad to see you again.”
“Me too,” Anne said. Her voice brightened Gene’s face. His smile broadened.
“Oh,” Gene sighed, “how I have longed to hear your voice, Annie girl.”
Anne was shocked. “What did you say? That’s what Uncle Dan called me!” She looked up at Gene in awe, not understanding how he could possibly know…
Gene squatted down and gently cupped Anne’s chin in his left hand, lifting it until her eyes met his.
“Dan was my good friend for 22 years,” he said. “He bragged about your voice and determination. When I first saw you, I knew you to be the niece he so lovingly described. I’m truly grateful we connected, especially now. Annie, my dear, I now offer myself where Dan left off.”
Forgetting the agony of the moment, they both smiled. Gene wrapped a fatherly arm around her. Anne’s tears fell anew.
“I’m overjoyed to finally make your acquaintance,” he said. “But do you realize you’re forever stuck with me? Once bonded, I’m hopelessly devoted to my child-… er, I mean, friends. Yeah, you are young enough to be my own child. Still,” he stopped and brushed away a tear in remembrance of love departed. “I hope we can find solace in each other, given all we have lost.”
Anne rose and walked a few steps off, lighting a cigarette. She had tried to quit several times, but walking into a deserted Plaid Pantry a day earlier, she grabbed every carton and color of American Spirits she could cram into her backpack. What the fuck? I have no reason to quit now.
Puffing furiously while sobbing and coughing simultaneously, she absorbed Gene’s revelation. No wonder he had reached out to me! He already knew who I was!
She confronted Gene. “How long have you known who I am and failed to call me by name?”
Gene felt accosted, pained. He shrugged. He realized his lack of recognition was because she refused to acknowledge his existence. Stalling for an answer, he boarded the bus and killed the motor. “Transit can wait,” he thought aloud.
He pulled a paper towel out of the dispensary behind the driver's seat and blew his nose, wiping his eyes with the dry corner. Regaining his composure, he stepped off the bus.
“I tried to connect,” he said softly, “but you wouldn’t even look at me. I didn’t call you by name simply because I hoped to see your soul without using my sleeved ace. But you treated me with disdain, like many others I greeted cheerfully every morning.” He gestured aimlessly, emotions rendering him speechless. He shrugged, turning his back to her.
Anne listened, arms crossed at the waist. Her left hand dangled, smoke drifting upward, right index finger crooked against her mouth.
“I wasn’t going to push you, knowing my position required tact,” Gene said. “Years ago I decided my one goal in this job was to inspire people with simple acts of acknowledgement.
“I watched you grow from a gangly kid into a beautiful young lady. Alone yet lovely. What was I supposed to do? Beg? Sorry kid, I stop short of sacrificing my pride for your rudeness!”
Al backed up a step, then guided his walker back to the deserted shelter and sat down. He wanted no part of this spat. Pulling out his pipe, loaded and lit it. The shelter's sign said “NO SMOKING”. Its irony birthed Al's bitter chuckle.
Anne stood a few paces from Gene, staring down at her shoes. Al thought she looked guilty. Gene realized he had allowed his grief to manifest through anger, and felt ashamed. They sighed in unison.
Meanwhile, Al pondered humanity’s abrupt downfall, until a lone Honda sped through the red light at Powell, amplified muffler briefly assaulting the solitude.
Anne and Gene faced each other, identically stubborn. Arms crossed, both dealing with internal pain, searching for common ground. It was up to her, Anne realized, to make things right. She dropped her cigarette and twisted it dead. Gene had made daily attempts to engage her, and she had ignored him until this moment, when she needed him most. She felt suddenly stupid and selfish. Embarrassed, too.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed.
Gene lit a fresh smoke. “Maybe we should step aboard and toke up a joint.” He laughed at the irony.
Anne laughed in surprise while reaching into her purse. She lit a fresh one, inhaling deeply. “These fuckin’ things gonna kill us both.”
Gene chuckled. “Let ‘em try. We beat the hell outta the virus, didn’t we? The fuck a smoke gonna do to us now?”
Anne laughed again, feeling at ease for once. It felt liberating to smoke with someone 40 years her senior without being admonished for doing so. Still, she searched for the right thing to say. Gene beat her to it.
“I’m sorry, kiddo,” he said. “I shouldn’t have come down so hard on you. I found out from your neighbor how your whole family…” He stopped abruptly, choking back a sob as he saw his words' immediate impact on her.
Anne nodded, her tears returning. “They’re… all…” Unable to finish, she leaned her forehead into Gene’s shoulder. Cigarette smoldering, she quietly sobbed. She had not allowed herself to grieve. Until now. Gene wrapped his arms around her. Both their smokes fell to the ground as they embraced.
“I’m so… very… sorry for all your loved ones leaving you behind,” Gene told her. Alternately hugging and patting her back as if he burped an infant, he continued. “But hey, Annie girl, you’re not alone. I’m here, so is Al over there, and we’re in this shit show together. For better or worse, as they say in horrid matrimony.”
Anne sniffed, and Gene handed her his clean handkerchief plucked from his back pocket.
“How fucking noble you are,” Anne snorted.
“Yeah whatever,” Gene replied. “Just make sure you wash it before I get it back.”
Anne laughed, but again buried her head into his chest. She sobbed there for several minutes. In that time, a pack of teenaged survivors raced each other through the red light, glancing at the middle-aged man embracing an exquisitely-beautiful young lady.
Gene’s clock reminded him he was now 21 minutes late. He could care less. Passenger counts were down to about 1.5 percent of a normal week. He would likely arrive downtown five minutes early. It didn’t matter. Dispatch would likely call him back to the garage after another round trip. The district might give him full pay for the shift, which normally included three hours overtime.
Already exhausted, he dreamed of a good night’s sleep. Any shuteye lately featured galloping demons through pandemic horrors.
“Hey Annie,” he said softly, turning her head up so as to look into her eyes, “you want to stay over at my place? I have spare bedrooms galore, and could sure use the company. Nothing untoward in my intentions, of course.”
Anne chuckled. She felt loved again, no longer alone. She melted closer into Gene's embrace. It was a welcome feeling, to be needed. She nodded silently into his chest, seeking a comfort she had only found in her father. Now, she felt safe in this kind bus driver’s embrace. It was more welcome than she could ever have imagined.
“Got room for another?” Al chimed in, rolling his walker up to them.
Gene smiled.”Of course, Al! I’ll even give you the ground floor master bedroom, complete with a full bath all your own. Dinner every night at six, unless I have to work over. Oh hell, who am I kidding. Work? Ba!”
“I can cook,” Anne said, feeling relieved at not having to remain alone the rest of her unmarried life. “If you don’t mind burger-mac and spaghetti.”
Gene laughed. “Um, only when I’m too lazy to cook. My buddy Alvin and a few other drivers are coming over at six tonight for a barbecue. It’s gonna be a fun party!”
“It’s a deal,” Al said, holding his hand toward the trio’s center. He was elated at the offer, as he had nowhere else to go. The thought of a bed's embrace after weeks living on the streets was more than he had prayed for.
“Deal,” Anne added, extending her hands to each. “I’ll stop by my place and bring whatever I can fit into my suitcase. I’m there. Believe me, that’s the best offer I’ve had all week!”
All three laughed, coming together once again to form a forever bond. Each was silently grateful for it.
“Great!” Gene said, clasping their hands in his own. His smile returned, bestowing a welcome happiness upon them all.
Gene left the bus there, quitting his now-nowhere job on the spot. Out of a now-misplaced formality, he called Dispatch to inform them. Juli, sounding resigned her ever-sweet manner, accepted his resignation with a note of sadness, being the only one of her team to have survived. Gene invited her to that evening’s barbecue, and she accepted. He could only offer cheer in a world devoid of happiness.
Brooklyn Neighborhood grew back to life with their combined enthusiasm. People moved into abandoned homes, adopting it as the “New Center of Portland”. Within a month, nearly every home had been claimed by survivors. Most had nobody left, and formed new friendships and loves. As months gave way to years, Brooklyn became the center for a growing nucleus of life where death could not overshadow humanit’s stubborn insistence to survive.
Anne was soon swept off her feet by Sam Green, cellist/pianist/vocalist who ambled into the neighborhood a few weeks after the trio made a home together. Anne shyly offered her voice, and their combined music filled a renewed Brooklyn neighborhood with merriment.
Al lived another five years, and was fondly remembered by the rejuvenated city.
Gene lived his remaining 37 years with great joy. A longtime writer, he documented the pandemic’s devastation and what transpired in its wake. He rambled around town, shooting deer and rabbits to sustain them. Sometimes he surprised a deer when he ventured into the western hills. Gene astounded the new community with a huge garden of vegetables and herbs he gladly shared. On his 101st birthday, he enjoyed a rowdy party with hundreds of people at least 50 years or more his junior, and drank every one of them under the table. He also enjoyed several fat joints of the weed he lovingly grew in his back yard.
Two weeks later, he lay in bed during his final moments, holding Anne's hand while tenderly consoling her, saying "I'm gonna join my beloved Stacey again and all is well, dear lass. I love you... keep... singing." With that, he passed.
At Gene’s funeral was broadcast to the world over the restored internet. Anne sang Gene's favorite tunes: James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes” and Jimmy Buffet's "Banana Republic", ending the service with his favorite Lowell George tune, "Willin' ". Each of her songs was secretly recorded by her husband, and they all became #1 Best Sellers across the world. Her voice was widely-regarded as the finest of their time, and she eventually toured the globe as New America's premier vocalist.
Gene’s hundreds of friends recalled how he cared for many who had lost their way after the “Deadly ’20”. His infectious joviality infected all he met. They mourned his ability to inspire fun, his art of distilling fine whiskey from his own barley and barrels from local distilleries, and the many yard parties he hosted. These gatherings became a new standard in the reborn kindness defining 2050’s Stumptown.
Anne’s first son was named Gene, her second Albert, and her youngest she named after her father. Three daughters later (Anna, Michelle and Sara), she and Sam enjoyed 55 years together before they both died in their sleep the same day, holding hands in bed. Victims of healthy longevity, their offspring enjoyed an immunity from the latest virus, a gift of their parents' genetics.
Portland emerged stronger than before. Its remaining population forged a spirit not previously practiced: togetherness, with nobody needing anything. This became an infection across the globe, and it spread like the planet slowly healed itself from humanity’s previous poisons.
It all stemmed from one bus operator who refused to kneel down to negativity, and treated all with respect and love, no matter their disposition toward him.
New Portland built a memorial to Gene the Friendly Bus Operator in the middle of Powell Boulevard and Milwaukie Avenue: his 12-foot sculpture with arms embracing a lovely lass named Anne.
A few thousand years later, an alien spacecraft landed upon an overgrown spot on 6th Avenue. Towering pines had sprouted through the pavement. Except for the breeze sweeping down from the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, all the visitors could hear were the thousands of birds celebrating mankind’s demise.
After testing the atmosphere, the human-like beings alighted onto the mossy open space once known as Pioneer Courthouse Square. They marveled at the surrounding ivy-encrusted towers. Birds and animals freely roamed, unafraid of the visitors who gaped at the scene before them.
They came upon a relatively-untouched monument to the south, a statue of a nude female reaching toward the sky.
“What beings dwelled here?” one of them asked, incredulous at the sight. “Surely, some other species created this monument and these structural canyons. It seems to have been inhabited by many, surely long ago.”
Another replied, not specifically to the particular query. “Some species which valued monuments other than its own survival.”
“Truly,” the original speaker replied. Just then, a bird alighted on his shoulder. The being extended his arm and the bird, fascinated, hopped down the seven feet to its hand.
“Whatever it was which dominated here,” the first said, “I hope it appreciated these winged creatures. They are magnificent! Look how they rise!”
“Apparently,” the second said, “those who built this, failed to rise.”