“Last Bus to What’s Left of Albuquerque” by Carrie Cuinn

“Last Bus to What’s Left of Albuquerque” by Carrie Cuinn

The bus station man walked outside and immediately blinked, hard, against the too-bright sun. Above him, the sky stretched out until it was only the ghost of blue and emptiness, without even a smear of greasy cloud; in the distance, he saw a dusty updraft that could be the approaching bus, or another of the desert’s restless sand augers, spinning furiously but amounting to nothing. Though he was only a few steps from the door, he was unwilling to go further into the heat if there was any way of avoiding it.

“Daymon Blue?” he called out.

The man who owned the name sat on a grubby wooden bench, clutching the straps of his potato sack in one sweaty palm. He raised the other hand immediately but made no move to stand. Already, his dark brown skin was redder than he’d been inside the station, and a steady glow of sweat formed on his bald head as fast as it evaporated away.

With a small cough, the station agent pushed himself forward until he’d crossed the twenty or so feet that separated them. “You know there’s no stop in the city proper now?” the older man asked. “Closest is Las Cruces. You’ll have to walk, over 200 miles.”

“Yes, sir,” Blue answered softly. “You let me know when you processed my papers.” Though the squat adobe building behind him seemed to radiate heat away from its interior, Blue didn’t seem in a hurry to get out of the heat, but he at least had the decency to shade his eyes when he looked up.

“Ain’t no home for you, since the attack that took out Albuquerque,” the agent insisted. “I been saying, for three hours. I don’ know how the warden even let you go with a one-way stamped like that.” Still, he handed over the ticket.

Blue took it with a small bow of his head. “I asked him politely, sir.”

The agent snorted, and slowly—like it came as something of a surprise—grinned, revealing more than a few missing teeth in a face that was as baked dry as the desert roads, and the same dusty beige. “I bet you did.” He turned around and headed into the building, boots clacking against the stone-hard dirt. “Come on,” he yelled back over his shoulder. “I got more for ya and I ain’t coming back out.” He disappeared inside and the door closed behind him.

Silence settled over the empty street. In the distance, the dust cloud was growing larger.

Blue stood slowly, as if he had molasses for blood, or suffered from an excess of gravity, shaking out his sturdy limbs one at a time before walking after the other man. He got to the door just as it opened from the inside, with the station agent right behind it.

He handed Blue a faded cap, and a chipped mug of something warm that smelled of chicory and cinnamon. Blue opened his mouth to protest but the agent waved his words away.

“We got a box o’ things these church people down in Corsicana bring. Your bald head’ll be blistered ‘fore you walk a whole day.” He shrugged. “Mostly, we get the clothes back, when you boys get brought in again. Some five, six times. Don’t take long. I’m thinking you won’t: Going back there will change you.”

“Prison changed me, sir. Going back is setting me free,” Blue said before taking a sip. “I knew the prison had a chicory field, but I was never much of a grower.”

“Well, you ain’t a killer, neither. Now, don’t look surprised, son, I get a list o’ all you boys when you make the walk outta those gates. You did fifteen?”

“All together. Six at New Mexico State, before they moved us away from the radiation. The rest was here.”

“Said you was in for debt.”

Blue shrugged a little. “Technically, Theft of Corporate Resources by Non-Repayment.

“That’s a long time just for owing to a hospital. You ain’t mad?”

Blue sat with the question for a while before answering, simply, “It was a big debt.” He didn’t elaborate.

“I figure that’s the Express,” the agent said by way of changing the subject, waving in the direction of the plume of red dust moving toward them. “That, or a tornado.” He laughed, a hoarse cackle as dry as the weather, and continued without waiting for a response. “Nah. Takes rain to make a tornado, and we ain’t a place that gets rain. It’s your ride. You’ll want to come inside now.” He left without elaborating.

Blue followed the other man all of the way into the station this time, but stopped just inside the door. There was a knot of inmates—parolees, now—waiting there too. They murmured occasionally, about the heat, the crisp dead air, the stillness of the sky… soft exchanges between men who were used to being watched. The prison had sent a guard with them when they walked down to the station: a big white man who answered to “yes, sir, sorry, sir” or “Bud,” depending on who was talking.

“All right, you, gather ’round,” the guard said loudly, and the men automatically complied. “You made it this far. You made it to today, when what you owed society has been paid, and you have the opportunity to be redeemed. You can go out there, see the shape of the world, and tremble. You can fall to pieces, fall back into your bad habits, and I will be seeing you marched right back through the Barn’s gates. Is that what you want?”

Some shook their heads, others looked down at the floor, but as if it was instinct to do so, they all replied, “No, sir.”

“Then you have one path in front of you,” the guard continued. “You go home. You find your families, your people. You get plugged into your community, you work hard, and you give thanks every day to the folks who love you enough to forgive you your sins. Think you can do that?”

The others murmured their assent with varying degrees of enthusiasm. For once, Blue didn’t join them.

The guard saw this, and the station agent saw him watching Blue.

“We gone have a prayer now, Bud?” the agent asked amiably. “That rumble under my feet tells me the bus is nearly here.”

“We will, we will. But first, this ol’ boy is going to tell me why he thinks he don’t need to be a part of the group.”

“I just want to go home,” Blue said, adding, after a moment, “Please.”

“You came in here a thief, son. A taker. You leave the same way, and you won’t make it out there.”

“I didn’t steal. I just couldn’t…” Blue stopped himself. “It won’t happen again.”

“That’s all I want,” Bud declared. Looking around, he said, “That’s all we want, right boys? To be sure that we are ready to walk a righteous path?” He got the agreement he was looking for, and carried on. “We’ve all been through hard times. We inherited a world that wasn’t the Paradise of old. We all lost people. The difference between me and Amos here,” he said, gesturing toward the station agent, “and the rest of you, is the difference between making a meaningful contribution to society, and not. Pavlo over there—well, don’t jump, son. You’re out now, so best get used to people saying your name again—Pavlo’s people were from the Ukraine, before there wasn’t no Ukraine anymore. He lost an entire country, but he still did his dime without so much as a yard brawl. He learned a trade; didn’t ya, Pavlo?”

“I can strip batteries for reclamation, yes, sir,” the small man replied. He fidgeted, rubbing his scarred knuckles against the palm of his other hand, one and then the other, over and over again, but was otherwise perfectly still.

“Pavlo will have a job waiting for him when he gets back to Dallas. He will make something of himself. You, Daymon, you’re not even trying to move forward. You’re running away. And for what? To be a scavenger?”

“No, sir.”

“And what was it even worth getting yourself so deep in the hole for?” When Blue didn’t answer, Bud kept on. “You buy a fancy house? Blow your credit on easy women?”

Blue looked up at that. He looked Bud in the eye, drawing himself up to his full height, and squared his powerful shoulders. With exquisite calm, he said softly, “My baby girl needed new lungs. The air was no good for her.”

“Hell, boy,” Bud replied with a laugh. “The air’s no good for anyone, anymore. And even so, you ended up abandoning her anyway. Where’s she been, all these years without a father?”

“Albuquerque,” Blue replied.

In the quiet that came next, the vibration that had begun in the floor became sound: a massive weight being dragged along the dusty highway, the shuddering of metal, the chug of a laboring engine. Bud narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, but managed to spit out, “Time for that prayer, boys. Bow your heads.” He kept his held high until he was sure the parolees had complied, then quickly said, “Almighty, thank you for watching over these poor souls. Thank you for guiding them. Thank you for their release, which they surely did not achieve without you. Amen.”

A muttered “Amen” circled the group, and they broke apart, each drifting toward their meager belongings, their own potato sacks, and finally the door. Single file, a line formed wordlessly. When the cloud and dim outside subsided, the station agent moved to the front and released the lock.

The bus—an armored monstrosity covered in dirt, patches of welded-on metal, and rust-colored smears—creaked as it settled. Its single door opened with a loud rush of escaping air. As Blue passed, Amos handed him a small but bulging paper sack. “That ought to be lunch and dinner, if you eat light,” the man said.

“Thank you,” Blue replied with a nod. “What do I owe you for this?”

“It’s covered,” the agent said. “Get on, now.”

With a tip of his new hat, Daymon Blue boarded the Express, and was gone.

“Hey, why’s he get a free lunch?” the guard asked.

“Fifteen years, Bud,” Amos whispered. As he spoke, the bus’s doors sealed shut with a loud hiss.

“What’s that?” Bud asked.

The station agent sighed. “Nothing. He don’t owe nothing. Paid up outside.” Bud nodded, and together, they watched the bus roll away.

Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, historian, and geek. She’s passionate about the study of books as objects, food history, and social gastronomy. Her fiction often blends science fiction and fantasy with feminism, anti-colonialism, disabled and queer perspectives, myth, poetry, and whatever weirdness she’s fascinated by today. Recent publications can be found in Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Luna Station Quarterly, Apex Magazine, and Unlikely Stories. Find her online at @CarrieCuinn or at carriecuinn.com.