Suzanne looked out the bus window and saw the same highway exit sign pass by for the fifth time.
3 mi - HAVEN - A HOME FOR ALL POPULATION 0
Cheerfully painted flowers and butterflies adorned the sign below the lettering. It was a warm, pleasant early summer day outside, bordering on hot. The sun shone in the sky, with only occasional fluffy clouds breaking up the expanse of blue. She could have sworn the bus was driving in a mostly straight line and they hadn’t taken any exits, but she recognized this sign. There was a light but visible smudge on the lower right corner, and she swore it was the exact same one she’d seen each time they’d driven past.
She stood up and squeezed past the older man sleeping on the aisle seat beside her. The bus was silent apart from the deep rumble of the engine and the vibration of the tires on the asphalt. A couple of passengers were reading or listening to headphones, but most were dozing in the heat, oblivious. She walked towards the front where the driver sat, a balding black man who looked to be in his early fifties, she guessed.
"Hey," she said.
"Yeah, hi," the driver replied. A light frown drew down the corners of his mouth.
"Are we on the right road? I think I saw the same exit sign a couple of times now," she said, trying to sound calm but unable to keep an edge of nervousness out of her voice. The driver licked his lips.
"Yeah, I saw it too," he said. He took his eyes off the road for a brief moment, and they looked at each other. His brow was furrowed. "The weird one. Population 0?" Suzanne nodded.
"What’s that mean? Some kind of joke?" she asked. The driver shook his head.
"No idea. I’ve been driving this route for eight years now, but I swear I’ve never been on this stretch of road. Don’t recognize it at all," he replied. Suzanne was silent for a moment as she took this in. There was a name tag pinned to his lapel. ‘Marvin’ was written on it with a black marker, in neat longhand. She tried to think of a reason that could make sense of their situation.
"Are we driving in a circle? I mean, how can we keep coming back to the same place," she said, uncertain. She couldn’t think of anything else that could be happening.
"The road’s got a slight right curve. And there’s been no exits, just the one to that Haven place," he said.
"So yes? Sounds like we’re driving in a circle to me?" she asked.
"I guess, yeah, but how does that make sense? How’d we get on this stretch of highway if there’s no way on or off, apart from that one exit, and I’m damn sure we didn’t come out of that one," he said with an edge of frustration in his voice. Suzanne looked behind her. A couple of people had noticed them and were listening to the conversation. Some were starting to talk amongst themselves. The driver grumbled something that sounded like a swear word. He pressed a button on the console and pulled a little microphone mounted on a stalk-like thin boom closer to his mouth. "Folks, we've got to make an unplanned detour. I think I took the wrong exit somewhere, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to our usual route soon. We apologize for the inconvenience," he announced over the public announcement system. He turned the microphone off. "I can see the exit coming up again. "Gotta lead somewhere, right?" he said to Suzanne.
"Yeah," she replied, uncertainly. "Marvin, right?". He nodded. "My name’s Suzanne," she told him.
"Pleased to meet you," he replied. The bus decelerated as they neared the exit, and they drove towards Haven.
Soon they saw the first houses. The highway led into a very regular grid of wide streets, with a single building erected on each equal-sized rectangle of land. The houses themselves were not regular at all. To Suzanne’s right was an expensive looking, all white mansion with a shimmering swimming pool in the back. She looked out the other side and there stood a cottage with a thatched roof that looked like it belonged in the middle ages. The bus drove on and she saw that the next house to her right was a gray high rise of ten stories.
"What is this, a movie set?" Marvin said.
"Yeah, this is weird all right. You think this is a film studio’s lot?" Suzanne said. The older man scratched the gray, three-day-old stubble on his chin.
"Some old village house, and next door, a million dollar mansion? Gotta be for films." Suzanne glanced at a Japanese pagoda outside.
"Maybe. So where’s the crew?" she asked. Marvin shrugged.
"I don’t see any workers." If there was anyone living here, they hadn’t shown their faces yet. There was no sign of other vehicles either. The road looked pristine, as if it had just been built and nobody had ever driven on it. A few small birds were fluttering around in hedges dotted here and there, but there was no sign of people. Street signs were mounted on poles at each corner of the rectangular plots of land. The streets weren’t named, but numbered. They were driving along 5th Avenue, passing 7th street. Eventually, they reached the end of the avenue, though not of the strange city. The road reached a T junction. Behind it, four of the grid rectangles had been combined to form a larger plot of land, but no building stood on it. Instead, it seemed to be paved in gleaming, spotless white stone: a huge, empty, and completely flat space, beyond which they could see more buildings. "Okay, I’m going to stop here." Marvin pulled over on the right side of the road and parked. The bus door opened with a hiss.
"Maybe there’s someone in the buildings?" Suzanne wondered aloud. Marvin looked at her and shrugged. In the back, people were talking, and some had stood up. She exited the bus.