The Changeling – Chapter 1, Part 2

Charlie’s excitement lasted only seconds. The inside of the bus reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, which wafted like a noxious cloud from the bus driver. As he passed, she growled in his direction, but he didn’t stop to listen. He was too busy trying to find a seat while avoiding making eye contact with anyone on the bus. It was fortunate he was looking down, as a shard of clipped toenail grazed his face, just missing his eye.

Charlie looked up to see a swing set in the aisle of the bus. Fat Mrs. Martinez was sitting on the swing, humming a tune, kicking dust from the dirt floor with one foot, and trimming the crusty toenails of the other. As he squeezed past the swings, all the while ducking toenail shrapnel, he found a seat in the very back, next to, of all people, the guy from The Twilight Zone. It wasn’t the old chain-smoking guy with the creepy black shoe polish hair that his dad loved, but the newer, cooler one. Charlie found this not at all surprising.

The bus navigated an unfamiliar highway, past ramshackle houses and barren neighborhoods. At the distant end of the highway stood a set of high mountains. They sat in two rows, the first reflecting a pinkish hue in the morning sunlight. Behind them, rising ominously until they disappeared into the clouds were mountains of black rock. Gray clouds slumped down the mountain slopes obscuring the highway ahead in a blanket dense fog. A faraway part of Charlie’s brain began to cry out that he had never seen mountains like these in eastern Virginia.

Still, that is not what drew his immediate attention. Instead, he wondered why there was only one other kid on his bus. He could not make out the shadowy figure near the front, except that it was obviously a girl, with long, dark hair. She sat with her back to him, dressed head-to-toe in black. She never turned around, which Charlie decided was probably a good thing. From his position, she too-closely resembled a few Japanese horror movies he had covertly downloaded onto his computer. Initially, he wondered why he’d not noticed her before, but as he continued looking, he realized there was something familiar about her. He squinted, trying to focus in the dim light of the old bus.

It’s that girl again.

He was certain of it. He had been dreaming her all summer. She never spoke to him, though lately she had begun to smile on the rare occasions when he made eye contact. When that happened, Charlie always woke himself up, or, if that did not work, he would look down and hurry away. The girl never did anything out of the ordinary. In fact, most of the time, she watched him, silently, as though his dreams were created solely for her amusement. He guessed serial killers smiled too, just before doing their foul work. He wondered if the girl had killed Mrs. Martinez, since she was no longer anywhere to be seen.