It had been a year and fourteen days since Josie was given over to the Hunt, and Jason was missing her. He was riding back into the country, after a few months away, when he realized that the anniversary had passed without his noticing. He felt a sudden pang of loneliness, mixed with something warmer and more uncomfortable.
To dispel it, he concentrated on the image of her face in his memories, smirking and telling him not to be a sissy. It worked for the loneliness, but the guilt stayed.
A thunderclap sounded from somewhere high above the bus, deep and urgent like it was rolling around inside his head. He craned against the window, trying to glimpse the sky. The other passengers had fallen into a tense silence.
The woman in front of him had been shyly showing her seatmate some family photos from her wallet. Now she tucked them away, tucked into herself as she heard the thunder. She put her hands inside the sleeves of her coat and looked down at her lap.
Up overhead, clouds were gathering in an angry mass that stacked and writhed upon itself. The wind was racing and it drove them into grotesque shapes. Jason stared at the sky, transfixed.
“Goddamn Hunters,” the bus driver said. The photo woman winced as the PA hissed and crackled to life. “Okay folks, the rain’s going to start any minute now. This bus was just inspected last month, I’ve got the sticker here—we’re up to standard, so no need to worry. Just stay calm and make sure to shut all the windows and vents. No electronic devices of any kind are to be turned on until it’s all over.”
The bus ground to a halt on the empty road. They had been driving through wide, dry valley lands, the earth and the hills beyond all mottled in the same shade of green-gray-brown. The valley seemed to be a split in the earth, opened wide under the vault of sky.
People were already following the driver’s directions, spurred on more by the familiar drone of his voice than the actual words, which they had all heard before. Jason folded his hands in his lap and watched the sky darken.
“Pull the damn curtain, kid.” A man in a ratty ball cap leaned over from the seat behind him. His long, anxious fingers slid along the top of the seat, his gaze skidding from side to ceiling and back. “Rain’s coming. Or are you gonna try and get a look at the Hunt?” He gave a bitter little snort at his own joke.
Jason sat quietly for a few moments more, resting his knuckles against the half-inch of reinforced glass. It was growing humid. Finally he did as the others were doing, tugged the black rubber curtain free of the overhead rack. He stretched it over the latches along the window frame, fitted it there until the seal was complete. The bus sat in darkness. The engine wound down and was silent.
“The Hunters get one of yours?” The woman across from him was wearing scrubs and a fleece jacket. She smiled tentatively at him, and he nodded. “I know the look. Just ignore him, hon. We knew you were going to cover it. Some people just don’t stop to think, is all.”
The man in the cap shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and said nothing. The woman gave him a sympathetic look. “The pull is strong sometimes.”
He wanted to tell her to shut up, not because You don’t know anything about me but because, Yeah, you know everything. It’s the same every time. So there’s no point in talking about it. Then the first drops of rain began to fall.
They came with a swift patter, and the air of the bus seemed to stand still with shock. Then a drumbeat, then a mindless staccato like an automatic rifle. Then the noise swelled and the sky burst and it was raining, truly raining. Water beat on the roof and sides of the bus, driven by screaming winds, and they were locked in a tin can tossed upon a vast sea. The sound corkscrewed into Jason’s chest until he felt the vibrations there, living in the soft parts of him where they would never come out.
The rain fell, and in the tumult there came two faint barks, that swelled deep and rich and tapered into growls. They sounded from behind, or perhaps above. Jason realized it was far too dark to try and see, so he shut his eyes. The pull is strong sometimes.
He remembered the day Josie had run barefoot into the storm, leaving the coffee on and a frozen waffle in the toaster. They had been used to taking the storm days together, covering and latching and tying down everything that might possibly be lost. They made sure the precious things were protected, and they settled in to wait.
The rain had come, and then the voices of the hounds, in full cry after whatever it was that they hunted. Josie had listened with her head cocked and a faint dreaming smile on her face, and when the echoes died away she stood and said, “I have to go now.”
“What? Sorry, what are you talking about?”
Her hair moved softly around her face as she turned to glance in his direction. She looked vaguely at him, and then beyond him, her eyes roving around the room.
“Josie? Jose, come on, you’re scaring me, don’t—”
She was wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of his pajama pants. She went towards the door and fear swallowed him whole, as he let himself see what was happening.
It happened so often the news hardly took note of it. Jason had passed shelves of grief counseling books, read Internet theories about the origins and purpose of the Hunt, and he knew. The Hunt took people, seized them by some inner grip and walked them away into the storm. Once they were gone they never came back.
Josie opened the door, and Jason’s shout was ripped from him. The wind scoured across his face as he lurched after her, missed her arm, and stopped short of the threshold. The wind tore the doorknob from her grasp and battered it against the wall, denting the plaster. She smiled beatifically as she stepped outside. She ignored Jason’s outstretched hand and open mouth. She walked forward and in a matter of moments he couldn’t see her any more.
He had shut the door and sat against it, and heard the hoofbeats that came after the hounds. Many horses, making their own thunder, spurred on by terrible riders. He imagined he heard their voices too, whooping and calling and shouting the names of the hounds. They brought the worst of the storm with them. He felt it the moment they were gone, like pressure lifting from behind his eyes.
Now, he slouched in his seat and listened to the sound of the rain. He let it pour into his skull, crowding everything out, swelling and rolling until the rhythm washed him far away. He wondered if someone was going to walk off the bus. He wondered if it was him, if this was what it felt like to be called.
He knew what he was, he was the sound of the rain and that was all. Josie had looked as though she finally understood something too.