Sometimes when I'm on the bus, it's been an uneventful ride and I'm absorbed by the scenery, I blink and the landscape changes. It's not the same Pacific Northwest scenery that I've grown accustomed to. The mossy pines get replaced by cacti or centuries-old oaks, the rolling hills morph into dusty plains or icy tundra. I watch and try to figure out where "here" is.
Highway signs are a dead giveaway, as are the billboards or the ads on the sides of buses, so I try to ignore those. I look for the birds, the foreign deer, lions, carts full of wares being pulled by bored-looking camels. These make the whole ordeal somewhat sporting.
But it's gotten too easy. Which is another way of saying that I've seen every single country on the planet. The ones that have buses, which is most, save for the Vatican or Monaco.
It started when I moved far enough from home to make holiday driving annoying and holiday flying unreasonably expensive. So like the good ol' duty-bound son I started taking the six-hour bus back home during the lonely vacations. And this is when I first noticed the sudden, but not jarring, shift in my surroundings.
One minute the bus was winding down the forested highway, dozens of tiny waterfalls appearing and disappearing on the side of the road, the next I was staring at a snow-covered landscape around us. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sunshine lit up the mountains and the valley below.
This wasn't Washington. I blinked and wondered if I'd fallen asleep. Were we in California? Did the driver take a wrong turn in Albuquerque?
It took a few minutes for me to notice the unfamiliar road markings. When a car passed us I saw that it wasn't a common make, and its bright yellow paint job wasn't like the subdued gray-on-gray of your typical car back home. Its license plate was a strange shape, the digits organize into weird blocks.
I think that first time we were driving through the Italian Alps, but I wasn't paying enough attention. Damn fool.
Then I blinked and we were back in Washington.
The first time it happened, I wasn't even sure what happened. Or that anything happened at all. Thought it was a dream. Forgot about it quickly and didn't tell anyone.
It happened again six days later, on the trip back.
This time I watched for a while. I thought it was a lucid dream, one of those rare occurrences when you're aware that you're dreaming. I knew that what I was seeing - deserted plains that stretched out from horizon to horizon - wasn't real and I was imagining things. Tried to fly away, but that didn't work and I decided that this was a particularly boring lucid dream. So I relaxed and watched the sun pound rocks for a good long while.
It snapped back when the Washington bus hit a pothole and I realized that we were back to the shitty roads, that we were back home. The warm desert was whisked away, to be replaced by an evening rain. The dusty window instantly turned into a continent of rivers, all running in the same direction, angled by the wind and fed by a misty drizzle.
I was wide awake that time. Knew it was no dream.
Knew that something weird was happening to me.
A couple of doctor's visits later we determined it wasn't brain cancer, so hooray for that. Had no idea what it was, but hey, "not cancer" was a start.
Work picked up and suddenly I had less time to investigate the strange waking dreams. It also hadn't happened again, even when I succumbed to life circumstances and with trepidation took a bus for the first time in weeks.
That was a terrifying ride. Other riders probably cast me wary glances, the ones who could tear their eyes from their phones. I just stared down at my feet, accepted the inevitable motion sickness, probably turned a paler shade of white, but remained HERE. Threw up right as I got off the bus, but small price to pay.
After that terrible ride I sat down and thought long and hard about what was going on. What was it that I was facing here?
The short of it is that I had nothing to be afraid of. At least that's what I told myself. I played back the previous episodes in my head and remembered that these visions, no matter how realistic or strange they were, they were merely visions. I remembered feeling the bumps that took me back.
I thought of the possible explanations and came up with dozens of theories. And the point I kept coming back to was that I was safe. Whatever was going on, whether it was an out of body experience, hallucination, dream, acid trip, etc., it appeared that it was a safe enough process. I remained aware of myself, saw the strange situation as the unreal and impossible thing, and was easily shocked back to reality.
So about two months after that fateful trip, I started to take the bus. First it was baby steps. Bus to and from work. Some days I even looked up. Did that for a while, then moved on to stealing glances out the window.
Remembering the pothole and how it had brought me back, I reasoned that the episodes couldn't survive too much back and forth, too much vibration or jostling. I started to look outside while the bus was still, at the stops and at lights. That was alright, the outside didn't shift on me.
I continued in this vein, overcoming my fear slowly, one step at a time. Eventually I was able to spend an entire trip staring out the window, all the while remaining squarely HERE, not once seeing THERE.
Baby steps they were.
One night I needed to work late. We were in crunch-mode, trying to hit some arbitrary deadline that marketing promised to our customers without consulting any of the "worker drones" who made the damn things happen.
I was justifiably upset. Left the office tired and in a foul mood. Caught my usual bus, slumped somewhere in the back and stared daggers at the office, the traffic, the damn city, brooded for the dozenth time that day about quitting and moving anywhere else-
The city shifted and instead of the concrete jungle, we were now driving through old cobblestone streets, plazas, buildings that were made of the same dark stones, wet with rain and ice, snow slowly drifting down from a gray, cloud-filled sky.
I stared and failed to believe my eyes. It had happened again.
I watched the quiet but slowly-waking city. Signs in not-English told me that this wasn't the US. So did the strange small cars that were on the wrong side of the road. On further analysis, so did the fact that it was clearly morning, and I'd left the office a bit after 10pm.
I heard a siren and looked around, but did not see it. Right before I "returned" to Washington I noticed that for the first time I saw the INSIDE of a bus, not just the scenery that moved by outside.
Didn't get much sleep that night. Was up until 2am pondering the possibilities. Called in sick the next day.
To hell with their deadlines, I'm figuring out this nonsense!
The first thing I needed to confirm was whether I was imagining these things, or if it was real, in some way.
I searched online for longest bus rides around and made a list. In the morning I would go for a ride. The office provided us with bus passes, so the plan was to ride around all day and experiment, on the company dime.
Experimentation started after breakfast. This was the first time in weeks that I'd been able to sit down and have coffee at home, unrushed, with a side of bacon - stupid work prevented this before - so I decided to take my time.
Packed a thermos of more coffee, tossed a few sticks of jerky and some chips into my non-work backpack and headed out. I drove past the usual park-and-ride and headed east, to a Walmart parking lot I'd looked up earlier. This was going to be my base-camp of sorts.
The next bus came right on schedule and I found a seat toward the back, by the window and on the left side of the bus. We set off on a drive that would take us further east, a long-haul stretch compared to my usual commute. I picked this route for the long distance between the stops, figuring that I'd need as much time as possible to figure this thing out.
Slipped a pair of headphones over my ears, but didn't play anything. I brought them along to be antisocial shields, a way to avoid being hassled. Shouldn't have bothered, probably, the chances of a stranger attempting to strike up conversation were slim to nil.
I watched Walmart disappear as we hopped onto the highway, then said a quick prayer - not sure to whom - and began the arduous task of staring out the window.
It took a while to happen. Nerves, maybe. I couldn't sit still, anticipating and fearing the sudden change. Or maybe I was just trying too hard to force it, like trying very hard to fall asleep. Then the sunny forests were replaced with a long stretch of desert.
I watched as a bright-red Corvette passed us, followed it and noted the Arizona license plates. Should have noted the license plate number, but forgot to in the excitement of it all.
Watched the scenery go by for a while, then started looking for clues.
The highway markers told me that we were traveling on I40, and that this was mile 274. I spent a few moments memorizing this.
It was 9:45 am when I got on the bus, and maybe it was 11 am now. The sun's position matched my expectation. At least it wasn't night. Not sure I was prepared to believe that I was having out of body experiences AND time-traveling at the same time. One strange occurrence was enough for now.
"Where are you from?", a voice spoke to me and I startled. Arizona disappeared and I was back in the evergreen state. A man was seating next to me. I looked around and noted that the bus was full. That was a bit of a surprise.
"Monroe," I replied as calmly as possible, but seethed on the inside. I had finally figured out where I was, but before I could collect any real evidence about this phenomenon, this lout disturbed me.
"The view never disappoints," the man drawled out, "does it?" He pointed a finger at the window, in the direction of Mt Ranier. His finger came a bit too close to my nose, definitely "personal space" territory.
"Yeah. Was just thinking that myself." I replied. Then, maybe it was the caffeine or the adrenaline playing with me, so I added, "But then someone interrupted me. Thanks."
The man looked annoyed more than anything. In his left hand was a book, a finger placed between its pages, holding a spot about a quarter of the way in. He opened the book to that location and started reading. He may have muttered "asshole", but I wasn't paying attention.
Looked out the window and willed Arizona back. But of course it didn't come. I had no idea how this thing worked, but I certainly didn't control it. Reminded me of every cat I've ever owned.
I thought about that for a little while, my mind doing circles around various ideas, like cats and my rude neighbor, while my eyes flitted from tree to tree, followed the shadow of the bus on the road. I was still upset when the landscape changed.
This was how I learned that this power seemed to exist in the space between ideas, in the distraction zone as the mind hops around, under-stimulated and hyper-sensitive. Daydreaming seemed to unlock the world on the other side of the glass.
I popped onto a bus in Pittsburgh. It was on the highway and for a while I watched the unfamiliar traffic, the strange horizons, different silhouettes on display.
There was a scream from the front of the bus, the Pittsburgh one, and my vision snapped forward. My eyes landed on a man with a gun.
I cried out and the rude man next to me yelled back in surprise.
"What?! Are you OK, buddy?" He looked concerned, but at the same time was angled away from me as far as his seat would allow.
"Sorry, yeah, yeah. Uh, bad dream," I lamely replied. The whole bus was looking back at me. It was emptier now, thankfully, but I still felt my face flush. "Sorry."
People stopped staring, but I decided to pause my adventures for now. Got off twenty minutes later, at the next stop. No one else got off. I sat down and ate my snacks, had some more coffee.
What the hell did I just see? A man with a gun, in Pittsburgh.
I sat there and breathed for a while, ate my lunch and pondered what was going on. Not the first time that day.
Looked down at my watch and it was forty-five minutes later, a full hour since the gun incident. I pulled out my phone and located the first Pittsburgh news site.
There was a story, posted just twenty minutes ago, about a possible terrorism situation in Pittsburgh. A gunman took thirty-nine people hostage aboard a bus.
The lunch came up rather quickly. I missed the garbage can and spewed chunks all over the grass.
What the hell was going on?
Sat there for a while and thought about the strange visions. Also checked on the story every other minute. So didn't get much thinking done.
After a half hour stand-off the gunman gave himself up. Some of the stations managed to get some good photos of him. It was the same face I saw.
Caught the next bus back to the city and drank the rest of the day.
So that confirmed that these weren't just hallucinations or dreams. I was seeing something real, something in a different part of the world from me. Had no idea how, but I started to imagine I knew the what.
It took two days before I felt safe to leave my house. Another day before I got back to the experimentation. I took a different bus route up north.
That trip was uneventful. I watched the Kenyan countryside for a while. There were no hostage-takers on this one.
That trip reassured and awed me. I was actually seeing Kenya! And I didn't even need a passport for this kind of ride. One trip and I was hooked.
I started taking the bus to work, and back home. Started taking buses to go shopping and commuting pretty much anywhere. I'd find a nook in the back, put on my sunglasses and very visible, very large headphones, and within minutes would be ELSEWHERE.
The rules where these: if I was aboard a bus and bored or in the state of blissful daydreaming, I could see what another such individual saw aboard another bus. It's as if our minds swapped. I saw what he saw.
If I tried to move the person on the other side, shift his legs, pick her nose, anything, the connection we had would be broken and I would find myself back in the Pacific Northwest. So I stopped trying to move and just took in the views. Very few people stare into the inside of the bus, and if they do it's at their phones. Or perhaps I've somehow been attracted to the ones that look outside.
I rode around and watched the world out the window of a bus. I've seen something like 80% of the world's countries in less than a month. Some of the bus-straggler countries - places where buses were few - were notoriously tough to get to.
This ability I had - shudder to think of myself as a super-anything - worked with the statistics of our world. A noon bus ride in Washington state meant: a 5pm ride in Brazil, so statistically I caught people leaving work; the 10pm bus in Athens meant a rowdy crowd; at 6am in Perth I saw the sun amid sleepy office workers. Any of these were possible, but the office workers outnumbered most night crowds, so this is where I usually ended up if riding at noon in Washington.
So I tried to roll the dice to get me to places I wanted to see. Took buses at every time of day, plenty of solo night rides. If I didn't like where I ended up, it was easy to break the connection and try again.
Then on one trip there was a man sitting next to me. He started to speak quietly. I don't know how many other people there were on the bus, but don't imagine that anyone noticed or cared. I continued to look at the passing beauty of the Atlantic, but his words kept digging themselves into my head.
"The two passengers sat on the bus through Ghana, on the way to the Ivory Coast, when the passenger in the aisle seat began to speak out loud, in English, but softly enough that only his neighbor at the window could hear."
I watched the whitecaps out at sea and wondered what the hell was going on.
"The passenger in the aisle seat is called Tomas," the man continued. He pronounced Tomas with an emphasis on the last syllable, in an accent that I'd heard while traveling through Mexico. "The passenger in the window seat is a strange tourist. One who is able to visit any one of millions of buses across the world. The tourist is probably now starting to wonder who Tomas is, what bus he is currently riding, where-"
I turned my head in the direction of the speaking man- and ended up back in Washington, in my seat at the back of the long-trip bus as we drove through yet another pine forest.
That was strange. Who was that man? What did he know? How did he know it?
I thought about that for the rest of the ride. Didn't transition anywhere.
(That's what I decided to call this gift, transitioning. It seemed to fit the bill.)
It was a long ride. For a while I just thought about what happened and reasoned that there must be more of people like me. Almost certainly this Tomas fellow. Could he do what I did? Could I do what he did? How was he able to make the passenger talk? Or did that passenger himself know something about me?
The thoughts made me worried, paranoid, but in the end I decided to continue experimentation. I reasoned, Tomas couldn't hurt me. Transitioning wasn't dangerous, I could break the connection at any time and be back aboard a Washington bus.
There was about thirty minutes left of this ride, so I transitioned again and this time ended up in Iceland. It was a good change of pace. The past few days the destination buses were dusty and hot.
I watched the craggy skyline for a while, mentally kept track of how much time I had left to my exit.
About fifteen minutes into my journey, a woman's voice from the seat next to me began to speak softly in English. Iceland has a fair bit of English speakers, so I wasn't too surprised at this. But then I heard the words and my blood ran cold.
"…called Tomas. The passenger in the window seat is a mystery guest. And this isn't the first time you've heard this. Please, don't try to turn. Not just yet."
The woman paused and I considered the situation.
The speaker sounded like she was in her forties. She sounded bored, but there was something else. The cadence of her words sounded familiar.
"You have a lot to learn about this gift of ours. But I'm happy that you passed your first test. You are able to listen and pay attention."
The woman's speaking style reminded me of Tomas. But in a woman's body now, and here right next to me on an Icelandic bus, around an hour after our first meeting.
"You no doubt have a lot of questions. Unfortunately, you are not trained in projection to be able to respond or ask questions. Not yet." She paused. I tensed, mentally. "But you do have a way to communicate with me. By ending the projection. So let's use that as your way to say NO. If you remain here in Iceland, or on any other bus we share, I will take it as your consent for me to continue." She paused again, this time for longer. "If you agree with this approach, please remain here in Iceland."
I sat and watched the sheep-speckled fields glide by. After close to a minute of this, Tomas continued.
"Your technique is sloppy, so when you move your host, it kicks them out of the daydreaming mood they are currently in. That stops the projection. Kansas goes bye-bye. But as you can see I don't have that problem. I've had enough experience that talking doesn't alter the host's mental state. The projection is stable."
As the woman was speaking these words with Tomas' Mexican accent and cadence, the woman's tone was that of boredom. I could hear that she was practically asleep, her mind no doubt away, thinking important thoughts of how to get the promotion at work or her struggling marriage, or whatever it was that she was really thinking about. But it was clear that she was not HERE, that Tomas was the driver of her body.
"Would you like to learn how to do what I can do?"
I watched the mountains some more.
My bus ride soon after that, but not before Tomas promised to find me again, next time I transitioned. Or projected, as he referred to it. I was excited at the possibilities!
The lessons started the next day. It was Monday, but I took the day off. At 10:05 in the morning I boarded a bus going north, and at 10:25 I projected and found myself on an American bus. I quickly learned that we were outside of Philadelphia. Tomas was going to join me in five minutes.
I didn't know how he was able to find me, to project into someone on the same bus, but he promised to teach me that too, eventually. My excitement may have been too much, and the connection broke and I was back in Washington. I cursed myself for such a rookie mistake. I hadn't done that in weeks, but I suppose the adrenaline rush was too much.
I transitioned again and found myself in Spain, outside of Madrid and heading east. It was an evening route. I usually avoided these, would break the connection and roll the dice again. There simply wasn't much interesting to see at night. But today wasn't about pretty views, it was about learning. So I stayed and watched the planes, the stars, others cars, until I heard a familiar voice next to me.
"The passenger in the aisle seat is called Tomas," an older man with a lisp spoke, in a tired voice that was all Tomas. "It is nice to see you again. Let this, our first lesson, begin."
We started with the basics. Tomas taught me how to be calm, explained the breathing exercises I need to master, the state of unfocused meditation I had to be in.
I practiced. The Spanish bus disappeared. I projected again, this time Brisbane.
Breathe-in, breathe-out, breathe-in, breathe-out. Stared out the window and ignored the early-morning landscape. Allowed my senses to be filled, let my eyes wander. Slowly, my host turned his head and I saw the inside of the bus for the first time.
Breathe-in, breathe-out, breathe-in, breathe-out.
I looked at the sleepy woman next to me. She smiled and her bright white teeth gleamed. Her skin was dark brown, almost black, and for a moment my eyes followed the pitch-black outlines of the intricate tattoo on her chin. She radiated pride and happiness.
"Well done," Tomas spoke.
The connection eventually broke, but I now knew what it took. Eventually Tomas departed, but I continued practicing.
Spent the next two hours looking at the inside of buses and their passengers, all over the world. Then the four hours back to Seattle.
That first day I started out just turning my host's head, but toward the end I was able to even move a bit. I shifted my posture, moved my leg. Tomas would have been proud.
We practiced on and off, Tomas finding and watching me when he could, offering advice. After two weeks we were able to shake hands.
That was a day of great celebration for me.
Soon, Tomas explained how he was able to find me. How he was able to pick his host.
I knew most of the lesson even before he started it. Over the past two weeks I'd noticed that I began sensing "something". It wasn't immediately clear what this was. It wasn't a second sight. I couldn't see dead people or anything. But I started to "hear" it when Tomas projected himself.
"Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength", said a very strange man. I felt the same about the hosts who were daydreaming, the ones who were very susceptible to projections. I noticed that it was easy for me to know who was and wasn't on my "wavelength".
I could sense it, even outside the bus. As I walked around town over the weekend, I could feel it radiating from some buildings and not others. Places of worship sometimes shone like a beacon, as if hordes of daydreamers jumped around and waved glowsticks in a rave-like cacophony, but at a frequency that no one else could pick up.
So when Tomas gave his lecture on the collective unconscious, I instantly understood the concepts he was talking about.
Tomas told me to imagine a great river, one that every person in the world waded into, to an extent. The projectors cannon-balled, the daydreamers were half-submerged structures that disturbed the flow. The rest stood with only their toes touching the water.
It was easy to note the daydreamers and ourselves. This is how Tomas was able to follow me. He projected towards the waves I made in the river as I transitioned/projected myself.
Tomas showed me how to look farther, how to see cities as enormous rapids in the daydreaming water-scape.
It took a few days of practice, but I was finally able to zero in on countries. We hopped around Africa for a while. Nigeria, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Morocco. Tomas suggested a country, and I tried to project to it. Wax on, wax off.
A few days of this and I learned to fine-tune my control. I looked up bus routes online and started to really plan out my outings. Tomas joined in and we continued to push my abilities.
Speech was next on the syllabus, and was the hardest to master. Tomas was as always a patient teacher, but I was having a lot of trouble here, and I could see him growing impatient.
"Perhaps, we could meet, in person," Tomas said. I watched him and tried to understand what he meant. I tilted my head to the side to indicate confusion, a gesture I'd perfected over the past weeks.
"Let's try this. Stop projecting here, and project to a passenger on your bus. Then, after a minute, project to another, and another. A few hops. I should be able to hear you splashing around," Tomas said, continuing the water metaphor. "It may work, I don't know." Tomas' host shrugged in a familiar way.
I nodded and broke the connection. Back on the Washington bus I looked around and noted a daydreamer at the front of the bus. I concentrated and my point of view shifted. I was projecting, but it was to the very same bus I was on.
I broke the connection and found another host, closer to the back this time.
Hopped around two more times, then broke the connection and watched the other passengers around me.
A college-aged woman looked away from the window and her head turned, this way and that. I rose my hand a bit and she saw me. A smile beamed back at me.
She stood up, slowly, made her way to the back of the bus, and sat in the aisle seat opposite mine.
"Tomas," she said and nodded.
"Alex," I replied, and in a silly gesture brought a hand to my chest, indicating myself. "Pleased to meet you, Tomas. Finally." I extended my hand. The stranger took it and for a while we just looked at each other.
It was a strange and magical moment.
It was the first time I was able to talk with Tomas, after months of being a mute student. I gushed with excitement and told Tomas how grateful I was to have such an opportunity. To have had this chance to study our gifts together. Tomas' eyes crinkled and tears of happiness traversed down the young woman's cheeks.
"Would you like to meet me?" Tomas asked.
"Certainly!" I responded, possibly too loudly. "But I don't know if I'm ready. If I can."
Tomas patted my hand. "I think you're ready, Alex. You're a great student, I'm sure you have it in you."
"So, you'll do the same? Project and I will watch for your splashes?"
Tomas nodded. He watched me, as he'd done these past few weeks, waiting for my thoughts to coalesce into a choice.
"OK, let's do it!" I replied, enthusiastically.
"Good. Try projecting into the last host I use, it seems easiest when coming in. I'll try to find someone close to me." Tomas said, then his host walked back to her seat a couple of rows ahead.
The young woman looked out the window, then I felt the sudden departure of Tomas, an absence of a splash, if anything.
I concentrated now on the breathing exercises, extended my reach into the collective unconscious and watched the waters. The splashes came quickly.
Tomas was projecting somewhere in Brazil. I didn't bother narrowing it down, just saw the bus he was hopping around on, watched it to see where he was going to settle down, who his last host was. He jumped, waited, jumped some more. The bus was about half full. Many people were asleep.
Sleepers didn't register the same as daydreamers. It was different, but damned if I could explain how. Perhaps Tomas would know.
I jumped into the last host that Tomas projected into, next to the sleeping passenger. The sleeper was on my left, in the window seat, and I sat in the aisle seat.
The seat across the aisle was empty, and in the window I noted an old man with a day-dreaming look. I recognized Tomas' personality instantly.
For a little while I watched him. He was wearing a dark brown t-shirt and jeans. His hair was thinning on top and he had a small, neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
"Tomas," I spoke lightly. He did not turn. "Tomas," I repeated his name, this time louder. Perhaps he was hard of hearing?
I rose up and walked across the aisle, slowly, making sure to keep breathing as we'd practiced. Someone at the front of the bus shouted something in Portuguese, but I ignored it, concentrated on simply walking.
At this stage in my education, just walking my host took all my concentration, nevermind chewing gum or anything else.
I sat down next to Tomas and tried again. "Tomas," I said, almost too loud.
Tomas still hadn't moved. But the commotion at the front of the bus continued. I looked over and finally noticed something very stange about this bus.
There were metal grates on the windows, and a metal grate that separated the bus into two sections. We were in the back section, while in the front were three men in uniforms. Two held guns, while the third was unlocking the door that separated the two sections.
"You've been a good student, Alex." Tomas finally stirred beside me. If it wasn't for his calming voice, I think I would have already broken the connection. "Too good, in fact. And I don't like competition. Project once more, and I'll burn you."
I felt Tomas transition away. The man in front of me looked confused. He spoke something in Portuguese, something that sounded like fear and disgust, and shied away from me.
I broke the connection and was instantly back on the Washington bus.
There was someone in the seat next to mine. It was the young woman Tomas projected into just a minute ago.
"Tomas?" I asked in a cautious voice.
The woman didn't respond. I looked down and saw that her bright-blue jacket had a large, dark-brown stain on it. It started at her chest and spread down. I followed the stain and saw that her torso was covered in blood.
As were my hands. As was the knife I was holding.
Someone started screaming. I don't remember much after that.
The surveillance footage showed that the young woman, Heather Hearns, walked to the back of the bus twice. The first time, we spoke and shook hands. The second time she came back, I don't remember. I was in Brazil.
She pulled a pocket knife out of her bag and for held it for a moment. The person who wasn't me took the knife, and drove it fourteen times into Heather's chest.
I saw the footage, once. In court.