Lord Of The Eyes

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The bus jostled Robin. He cursed under his breath and clenched his teeth. The interstate highway had been so perfectly smooth. So smooth, in fact, that he had even taken a short nap. As soon as they took the exit, the road became rough and full of holes. His seatmate, a chubby kid with his beady eyes glued to the newest handheld gaming device, wasn’t a huge conversationalist. Other than a polite nod as Robin sat down, the boy was unresponsive, which was perfectly fine with Robin. As the boy’s screen lit up with a low battery warning, without so much as blinking, the kid removed the battery cartridge and inserted a new one from his bag. Robin yawned and stretched his arms awkwardly straight up as to not disturb his seatmate. He was tired. He missed the gentle hum of the road before this one. At least, being seated in the middle of the bus, he didn’t feel the full blast of every bounce, unlike the stupid kids in the back. They didn’t seem to mind though. They would cheer and holler every time they were thrown off their seats.

Robin’s eyes swept the bus from front to rear. He realized quite suddenly that he didn’t recognize a single person on the bus. It made enough sense; no one being shipped off to the “Glendale Weekend Retreat for Troubled Teens” was exactly popular at school. The entire trip was stupid, in Robin’s opinion. It was stupid for countless reasons, but mostly because there were absolutely zero guidelines as to what constituted a “troubled child.” From kleptomaniacs and drug addicts, to the kids whose parents just wished they had more friends, the kids had nothing in common and similarly got nothing out of the experience. It wasn’t intended to help the kids; it was more of a daycare, a break for the parents. In his case, his stupid fat mother thought that a weekend away would cure his anger management issues. He was determined to not let that happen. The entire trip was a big flaming pile of pointlessness.

His eyes swept the bus again, guessing, just based on appearance, what each kid was shipped here for. The girl with sunken eyes probably got her stash taken away. The kid taking up an entire seat by himself was probably a binge eater. The kid next to Robin? Probably just an antisocial kid, nothing wrong with that. Robin’s phone buzzed with a notification that the last bitter text he had sent to his mother hadn’t gone through. He tried to send it again. This time it failed immediately. No connection? Where on earth were they? He looked across out the window to see a crumbling wall of shale rock—the side of amountain. Then he half-stood to see over his seatmate and found that, beyond the white line of the road, there was only a short divider and a few feet of earth in between them and a steep drop. After the cliff began a dense forest that stretched as far as Robin could see. Strange that there would be no service on a mountain. He closed his eyes and rested his head back just in time to have another great pothole shake his head forward. His seatmate steadied himself with a hand, seamlessly continuing his game. The kids in the back cheered yet again.

“Sorry kids,” the bus driver coughed from the front. The kids in the back applauded. Robin realized sleep wouldn’t come and took out his earbuds.

“No way.”

“It’s real, I swear, my grandpa used to hunt in these mountains.”

“That doesn’t make it real.”

“He saw it himself, even took a shot at it before it ran up a tree and got away.” Robin couldn’t help himself, he had to ask.

“What are you guys talking about?”

As the kid began his story, a strange chill fell over the bus. Many kids took off headphones and broke away from other conversations to listen to this kid’s fable. As his raspy voice began to speak, it appeared that everyone has paying full attention.

“The Mandrosity.”

“The heck is that?” chimed a girl from further back in the bus.

“A horrible monster, home in these here mountains. It has scales as black as night. Its eyes are somehow even blacker. It has dozens of rows of needle-sharp teeth and claws sharp enough to slit throats. It bolts through the trees hunched over and has the shrillest screech you could imagine. And it lives in those forests down there.” He pointed down the cliff into the dense evergreens.

A hush remained over the group as a pitter of rain began to fall onto the bus’s roof. Two of the taller kids stood and pulled the roof hatch completely closed.

“I call bull. No way this is real.”

“Oh, it’s real, but hardly anyone sees it like that. The Mandrosity, see, it shapeshifts, it can morph into a familiar face to gain the trust of its victims. It can look like a friendly deer, a stray dog, or even a human. As soon as your guard is down, it gets you, keeping you alive as it chews you to ribbons.”

“You’re gross.”

“No way.”

“Stop trying to scare us like that.”

“I’m just saying, I don’t doubt that he can climb that cliff. Don’t pick up any hitchhikers on these roads. Not if you wanna keep all your skin where it is.” All the kids listening reprimanded him and tried to forget all about it.

“Cut it out.”

“Stop it.”

The fabulist shrugged and returned to his book. More conversations sprang up, but felt quite forced; apparently Robin wasn’t the only one that didn’t know everyone. Robin resented his mother for signing him up for this stupid thing in the first place. He cursed her in his head. He wished he had brought a book or something to pass the time. There was a shout from one of the chaperones up front to cool it with the profanity. The kids in the very back laughed.

Robin noticed a hierarchy to the bus from front to back. First the driver, in charge of all their lives and all goings-on of the bus. Then the teachers, mostly making small talk amongst themselves and the occasional yell towards the back of the bus. Then a slow range from good rule-following kids to the future firestarters in the back. Robin wished he’d sat further back with the cooler kids. They at least were having fun. His eyes fell back to the forest beyond the cliff. Surely that thing couldn’t be real. Could it?

The raindrops fell fat and heavy from the sky. They hit the tin roof, and Robin could swear they sounded like something was walking atop the bus. Any second, the roof hatch would creak open and the horrible shadow monster would slither in. He suddenly felt very alone. He was on a bus full of strangers. He’d hardly said a word since boarding and hardly a soul had spoken to him. What was he doing? His breathing quickened. He needed to get off this bus.

He would be soon enough.

The front wheels hit the largest pothole yet, and resounded with a large pop. When the back wheels hit the hole, the backseat cheerers instead screamed as they were launched out of their seats and into the ceiling. The bus tore through the guard rail and skidded to a teetering stop on the edge of the cliff. The driver geared the bus into reverse and slammed on the gas, the front tires spinning uselessly in the air. The kids in the back screamed as they tried uselessly to open the bus’ emergency back door. It was jammed shut. Robin clicked two loose seatbelt ends and pulled it as tight as he could. He screamed over the chaos for others to do the same. The pudgy kid next to Robin was screaming right in his ear, trying to figure out what was going on. He was still clutching his game tight. The driver unbuckled, hoping to run to the back of the bus and counterbalance the weight. As he stood, the back wheels left the road. The rusty handle of the emergency door finally gave way as the bottom of the bus scraped across the edge of the cliff and began to fall. The screams of his classmates tore into Robin’s eardrums. The bus rotated slowly as it speared towards the ground. The kids scrambled for anything they could hold onto to keep from floating out of their seats. The screams were overpowered by the horn as the bus driver had fallen onto the controls.

Outside the bus, light-years away, the stop sign flaps silently deployed and began blinking. Robin’s seatmate was clutched onto his arm sobbing. The bus collided all at once with the earth, nose first, collapsing the engine and the first few rows, and shattering every window. The brash horn stopped when the driver slipped off the wheel, while in the back, glass shards fell melodiously. All the students were thrown forward into the seat in front of them, besides the few who were wearing seatbelts, and one girl that had been thrown all the way to the front row. Robin’s head slammed into the seat before him and his vision went fuzzy. After what seemed like an eternity of hanging in the balance of the ten-point-perfect nosedive, the bus began to fall again, this time flat, and on its side.

Sitting in the right row of the seats, the passengers in the opposite side fell on top of him and his seatmate, who was a mess of sloppy sobs. Soon, they pulled themselves off. Robin’s fuzzy mind couldn’t figure out why he was suspended, stuck to his seat. A distant part of his brain raised his hand to his waist and clicked the button on his seatbelt. He fell onto the side of the bus, which was now the ground? What direction was up? Where was he? Robin proceeded to empty his stomach contents all over himself. He pulled a jagged window shard out of his palm and pulled himself towards the roof hatch, leaving bloody handprints along the way. He lifted himself up through the hatch and slid down into the cool mud. The gritty taste slid into his mouth. Cool waters rained down from the heavens and onto his face. He vomited again. On one half of his vision was the cliff they had so expertly traversed. The other half was nothing but pines hanging over him; they beckoned him, calling him to the forest. On shaky legs he stood, letting the downpour cleanse him. The word “concussion” slid into his mind, but his head was far too fuzzy to quite remember what it meant. A second, more pertinent thought grasped his conscious mind. How many? They were in the woods. Its woods. No. He couldn’t let some myth scare him. He had to take a head count just for safety reasons. A simple precaution so none would be lost. Right? At least someone had to. Where was everyone? A few were still slithering out of the bus, some were huddled under trees away from the rain. Some were crying. Most were bleeding. Robin looked at his bloody hands, torn to ribbons from the shattered glass, and in the pouring rain looked up to the clouded heavens and unleashed a scream of rage. He fell to his knees, the rain poured down cold with the weight of the entire sky. Robin stood. He couldn’t just shut down like this.

“How many!” he mumbled loudly. A few looked at him. They didn’t understand.

“How many!” He couldn’t think of the word. What was . . .

Head count!

“We need a head count! Everyone get under this tree!” Soon all the kids had more or less converged under the closest pine. Robin counted every person, tapping each person on the head. Eighteen.

“Eighteen!” He shouted to the seventeen others. “We have eighteen. No more, no less.” A humid silence hung over the kids. Their faces were bruised, their hands covered in blood. Their clothes were soaked with rain and slick with mud. The only piece of them untainted were their eyes, staring hungrily at him for answers. The blood was dark. The skies were dark. Their hopes were dark. But their eyes stayed pure and bright. And every pair was on him.

“What if the monster comes?”

“What are we going to do with the teachers?”

“My phone’s not working.”

“How are we going to get back to the road?”

Robin only comprehended the last question. Yes, the road. That was their answer. If they could get back to the road they could get help. For the first time since tumbling out of the roof hatch, Robin looked in the direction of the recently snub-nosed bus and the cliff beyond it. It stood at least a hundred, maybe two hundred feet up. Up near the jagged guard rail, headlights ripped through the dark. The children roared up in a chorus of desperation, hoping a wayward car might hear their cries. They soon realized their attempts were useless. One athletic-looking kid, perhaps Latino, approached the face of the cliff and began to climb. Before he got five feet up, the brittle rocks broke beneath him and he fell. The boy picked himself up, and brushed off the defeat. He kicked the rocky cliff before going back to the tree. Climbing was a no-go. Thunder cracked above them. Somewhere in the forest, a branch snapped. The kids flocked back towards the bus for safety. The small light that shone through the storm clouds was quickly fading. Kids were getting scared. Robin, using the broken windows as footholds, climbed to the top of the overturned bus. The kids naturally gathered around him. He knew he shouldn’t alert the already scared kids of the possibility of a monster in the woods, but before his cloudy mind realized it, he was talking.

“No one knows we’re down here. There’s no way back up to the road and our phones don’t work.” He took out his own phone and threw it down into the mud for effect. “We’re stranded. And we’re hurt. And we need help. The eyes looking up at him were now gray, reflecting the mighty clouds above. “The only place we can go is there.” He pointed with a strong finger to the beastly pines. There were many retaliations, many fears meekly voiced, but in the end they all began to march, allowing the dark forest to consume them.

“What was that?” said a girl with a noticeable limp, for something had snapped a stick behind her.

“Guys, I—I think I hear something!” said a twiggish boy wearing shattered glasses. Did he hear the rain drops on the trees? Or was something in pursuit?

In the distance, an animal howled.

“I’m scared.”

“Let’s go back.”

“What was that?”

“RUN!”

That one word was all it took to spiral the group into pandemonium, trying to outrun what might be chasing. Their strength in numbers was shattered as every student bolted in a new direction. Something was in the trees. It was too dark to see but its horrible growl resounded.

“Get back to the bus!” Robin cried, too scared to look at what might be behind him. Group by group the scared kids made it back to the bus. The rain was harder now, and there was no light coming from the sky. With nowhere more secure to go they all climbed back into the bus. Within the hour, everyone was back at the bus, soaking wet and out of breath. The bus had began to settle into the soft earth; a cold puddle began to form in the back. Someone had found a pack of emergency blankets in the bus’ first aid kit and draped them over the broken windows above them so they might stay dry. Other than the occasional sob, the group was silent. All of them missed their parents, their teachers, and all of them were deeply terrified of the monster in the forest. Robin looked at his classmates. Their eyes were a deep gray. The life in them was slowly being extinguished. Robin took a deep breath. They were safe now. A nagging thought tickled the back of his mind. Eighteen. His lungs froze up. Shock seeped freely through his body. With a shaky hand he counted every person inside the dilapidated bus.

Nineteen. He counted nineteen. His blood went cold and his head began to swirl. His entire world stopped cold in its tracks. His nostrils were filled with the scent of soft earth and blood. Oddly, the addition of a friendly face made Robin feel so horribly alone. His skin crawled. His body shivered. One of the somber faces surrounding him was not the face of a human. Fear tore at his soul like a knife. There was someone in that leaky overturned bus that was not supposed to be there.

A girl saw him count and counted herself. She immediately burst into messy tears and screaming hysterically. One tried to comfort her and she kicked them away, backing into one of the seats. Others counted and soon everyone on the bus was terrified. No. Eighteen kids were terrified. The shapeshifting monster that would kill them all at its first chance was simply pretending. Robin tried to think back to what the kid on the bus earlier had told them. No foreseeable claws, or razor sharp teeth, but the eyes. Whoever told the story earlier said something along the line of its eyes being as black as night. But looking around the bus every pair of eyes were equally dark and equally full of fear. There had to be some way to root out the monster.

“Everyone!” Robin blurted out. “Say something that proves you’ve existed before the crash!” The entire bus erupted into noise, with everyone trying to prove they weren’t the horrible thing. It was impossible to hear who was saying what. Robin’s head throbbed. “STOP!” he shouted, the bus fell silent. “Just, just, um, ah, take turns. Everyone say one thing about themselves. Talk about school, I don’t know. Just uh—”

A kid in in the back pointed a fat finger at Robin and shouted. “How do we know you’re not the monster?”

“I don’t recognize this girl. I bet she’s the monster!”

“You — ! I sit behind you in Spanish!”

The bus erupted into noise yet again, but instead of pleading cases, it was accusations. A few, sick of being accused and scared of being in such close quarters with the monster, began crawling out of the bus. Robin spoke up.

“No! If we divide ourselves like this then it will kill us all one by one. Don’t you get it? We’re doing exactly what it wants!”

“So what are we going to do?” A voice peeped up. Robin had an idea.

“Eighteen is an even number!”

“So?”

“Everyone pair up!”

“What?”

“Everyone find someone you know is real and then we’ll know who the monster is.” Everyone began pairing up too quickly to hear a girl in the back ask what they would do when the monster was found. Robin found his seatmate from before the crash. What was probably less than an hour ago seemed like a lifetime. The kid’s nose was excessively snotty and his clothes were in rags. Soon everyone had found someone that was real. And the monster was found. It had disguised itself as a fat girl. It was smart, that was the last thing you would expect. It began pleading and blubbering. It slithered out of the bus and began to run away. The mob mentality kicked in; what runs must be chased. They poured out of the bus and pursued the shadow monster into the woods.

“Don’t lose sight of it! It could transform again and we’d lose it!”

“Please! Stop! I’m not the monster! I’m not the monster! My name is Bethany — ” A rock clapped into the side of its ugly head.

“Don’t listen to it! It’ll kill us all!”

The monster’s leg got caught in a root in the middle of a forest clearing and broke with a horrific snap. The true beast showed itself as it unleashed a truly inhuman blood curdling scream. The beast pitifully attempted crawling away to the shadows to transform. As if one collective mind told them to do so, every kid surrounding the roaring beast reached to the forest floor and picked up a stone, with gritted teeth and eyes as black as the forest around them, Robin raised the first jagged rock high to the clouded heavens. His hands shook and his voice screamed with more rage than he had ever felt. He loved it. He was the god of his red-tinted universe. As the sky opened and the full moon shone through he slammed it down into the beast. It screamed and writhed. It kept trying to lie to the children, going on and on, lie after lie. But its monstrous screams told them the horrible truth. Soon enough the monster was dead and they stood victorious surrounding the beast.

In a silent procession, a victorious funeral march, the kids walked back to the bus. There, they shared the story to those who’d stayed behind. How it howled, how it writhed. They listened dutifully, hanging onto every word. The last of the food was shared and they all curled up, their hearts full of victory.

In the morning Robin woke cramped, he sat up with something poking him in the small of his back. He arched forward and removed the lump to discover a clipboard belonging to one of the teachers. On it was a paper listing every student.

To Robin’s horror, he counted nineteen.