Coming of Age Contemporary Kids

“Is she dead?” 

“She sure is, poor thing. I hate to see that. She shoulda listened to her momma.” 

The older girl standing with the bus driver was waiting to get off.

The girl's purple backpack had bright chains of beads hanging from it. They made a swishing noise as the bus passed over the bumps along Cherry Street. 

It was the first day, so everyone’s clothes, their shoes, their bags, all looked new and uncrumpled. And there was a certain smell in the air inside the classrooms and even now in the old bus. Like a fresh coat of rubber and cleaning supplies. 

Little Pearl Paulson was nestled in the very back of the bus, where none of the other children seemed to want to sit. They were all eager to get home. And so was Pearl, but she was also frightened. She didn’t like the bus. She didn’t like the way it jolted back and forth. She didn’t like how she slid around on the slippery seat. She didn’t like listening to the boys from the middle school pick on each other. She also didn’t like watching them pick their noses. They stuck the contents to the windows and under seats like it was normal. 

Pearl Paulson, a very sheltered and slightly spoiled only child. A child who had no older children in her life to warn her about the bus. It was unforeseen, she already knew that school would be hard enough. But this whole bus business almost seemed too much to ask. She had assumed it would be easy. The safety class about it had been.

No matter how scared she was, she would do anything for Mommy. She was always perfect. Mommy loved to brag to people about Pearl’s angelic behavior. Pearl wasn’t like other kids always whining and crying. Pearl was polite, good natured, and quiet. So quiet, sometimes you’d forget she was even there. 

So quiet, that when the bus driver passed her street and kept driving on, she hadn’t gone up or spoken a single word. After all, she didn’t know where the bus was going to end up. It might do loops, and come back eventually to Lincoln Street. 

The older girl with the purple backpack thanked the bus driver and started to get off. She turned back around and spoke to the bus driver one more time. 

“That dead baby, do you think I should tell my mom about it?” 

The bus driver looked in the rearview mirror, checking on the remaining brood in her bus before answering.

“No need for that honey, they have someone who comes to deal with them. You be safe yourself, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

Pearl didn’t know what they were talking about. A girl? A baby? What, run over? No one had told her about that. They had told her to look left and right before boarding the bus, to hold on to the hand rail when exiting. But no one had told her that little girls, and even babies could be run over and then left like that. It couldn’t be true. She closed her eyes as the bus drove on. She was afraid to see whatever, or whoever it was the bus driver and the older girl had been talking about. 

With her eyes clenched shut and her lips pressed together, she sat there shaking. She was suddenly noticed by a pair of fifth graders sitting up and diagonally from her. 

One of them, the uglier of the two boys, jumped into the seat in front of her. He poked his grimy finger hard on the top of her head, where her hair had been parted so her mother could do proper braids. She opened her eyes, quite startled. The boy had a huge gap between his two front teeth. And despite his shirt being new, a sweat stain had already permanently damaged his collar. And he smelled like sweat too. His eyes, narrow and sly, his hair, buzzed at home by his mother. 

“Why you sittin’ back here? What’s wrong with you? You stupid?” 

Pearl stared at him, her eyes as wide as saucers now. She hadn’t been spoken to like that before. On the morning bus she had a seat buddy, and everyone was quiet. This was so different, and she didn’t know what to do besides answer the questions honestly. 

“I like sitting here. And I’m not stupid, I was just scared of something they said up there.” 

She pointed to the front.  He smirked and looked out the window. 

“Oh yeah, the roadkill? You’re scared of roadkill? Why? Because you look like roadkill? I bet you are stupid. You are really stupid.” 

“I’m not stupid.” 

Pearl said this quietly and looked at her hands, pretending to pick some dirt from under her nails. 

“Yes you are too stupid. I know you are. And one day you’ll be roadkill. You’ll get run over by a car, because you’re so stupid.” 

Being called stupid wasn’t the thing upsetting Pearl the most. It was the thought that maybe she had understood the driver correctly. Maybe there had been a dead girl right now on Cherry Street. She was roadkill. It was a part of growing up Mommy might have forgotten to tell her about. That little girls get run over and left on the roads to be picked up. It was too awful. 

The ugly fifth grade boy was supremely annoyed that she wasn’t speaking or crying. He started to jab that same finger of his on the same part of her scalp and it hurt worse each time, making her sensitive. She didn’t know what to do, she started to cry because of how much it hurt which made the ugly boy satisfied and start to laugh. And then a clap of thunder exploded through the bus. 

“Cody Springer, I told you to stay in a seat with your butt on the seat! And ya know what, you almost missed your stop. Get up here, right now!” 

Cody snapped around and forgot all about Pearl. He snatched his clunky black backpack off the seat he had been previously. 

“See ya tomorrow Tony!” 

He said in a loud and dopey voice before sprinting from the bus. He disappeared into the awaiting gates of Sunnyside Trailer Park. Several more children filed out behind him.

The driver, who had been all attention earlier that morning, was tired. She had slipped up by missing Cody’s antics, but she didn’t beat herself up about it. She unwrapped the second half of her tuna sandwich. 

 The park was not something Pearl recognized. It was the first stop she didn’t recognize at all. They must be in a different part of town, or it could be that they weren’t even in town at all anymore. Because the next stop was as equally as unfamiliar. She didn’t know the red barn next to the house, she didn’t know the restaurant they passed called Chuck’s. 

She didn’t know what to do. And the bus driver, who seemed very nice in the morning, rather intimidated her now. The bus driver might have run girls over before. The way she had yelled at Cody made her sound like she could have. 

Two more girls were dropped off at a house a few blocks from Chuck’s. They had been on the road a long time now. Pearl figured it might even start to get dark soon. The bus driver dropped the last bite of her sandwich on the bus floor. 

“Shit! Oh, sorry.” 

She looked in the rearview mirror again. She did not see Pearl in the last seat. The backs were very tall, and Pearl was quite small, even for a five year old. The driver saw that Tony was the last one. 

“You’re my last stop again this year Tony?” 

“Yes, ma’am. But my little sister was supposed to be on today. She got sick, so she probably won’t come until next week.”

“That’s good you’ll have someone to talk to besides me.” 

Tony laughed politely. He had a kind voice. 

The bus took a big sweeping left turn and started to go faster and faster. They were on a big road now. While the ride got smoother, the rate at which the scenery was passing made Pearl more afraid and desperate. She sat up a little straighter, hoping the driver would at least see the top of her head. And then the went over something big, a pothole or divot, and Pearl slid almost fully off her seat. She steadied herself, but the tears were coming. She sniffled only a little at first, and then she couldn’t help it, she was crying and crying. 

She shut her eyes and tried to make it stop. What would Mommy think? She’d be embarrassed of Pearl. But then again at this rate, Pearl might not ever see her mother again. Such are the thoughts of a distressed and fantastically minded little girl. 

Pearl felt something soft touch the top of her head. She opened her eyes as some snot fell from her nose onto her floral printed dress. 

Tony was staring at her, he was perched in the seat in front of her. He was right where his evil friend Cody had been. But he didn't look or sound scary like Cody.

She reached up and grabbed at the fabric on her head. It was a blue t-shirt. 

“Don’t worry, it’s clean. We didn’t need it in gym class today.” 

Pearl blew her nose in the shirt. She looked at the ruined shirt, not sure where to look now. She put the shirt in her lap. 

Tony had a lot of big freckles on his face and on his arms. He was in fifth grade, but like Pearl, he was rather small for his age. He had dark hair that stuck up in all directions no matter how much he tried to lay it flat. 

“Is your stop supposed to be last?” 

When she hiccupped instead of answered, he came around the seat and picked up her bag. He took the shirt from her lap and took her hand and led her to the front of the bus. Her hand was sticky with tears and snot, but he held her hand the same way he always did his sister's. Pearl kind of looked like her, except for the braids, and the button nose. 

The driver was all at once completely taken over by the egregious error. She blamed the situation entirely on herself. 

“Oh sweetie, how did I forget you?” 

The driver pulled the bus over and began to fuss over Pearl, wiping her face with a wet wipe. The driver’s hands still kind of smelled like tuna. 

Pearl stood still and let herself be picked up by the driver and put in the very first seat. She asked Tony if it was alright to swing Pearl by Lincoln Street before taking him home. Tony, who’s protective feelings for Pearl had been all the more heightened by the driver’s dramatic reaction nodded firmly. He took his new seat next to Pearl with her backpack still in his hand. 

It was a five minute drive back to town, and another three to Pearl’s house. 

Pearl saw Mommy standing in the front yard waving to the bus. The driver opened the door and took the time to explain to Pearl’s mother about the mix up. Pearl’s mother laughed with the driver, and said she thought the bus had just been running a little behind. The driver and the mother both at the same time assured each other the mix up would never happen again. 

Pearl clutched her mother’s legs as the bus drove away. But she did at least wave to Tony, who waved wildly back at her from the front window. He was grinning, and feeling the glow of having completed his good deed of the day.

Pearl melted once the bus was gone. She told her mother all about the terrible adventure from beginning to end. When she reached the part about the little girl who had become roadkill, her mother could not help but chuckle. She put a stop to her silly little daughter's notions. Pearl had not understood. It was most likely a squirrel or bird, little girls aren't roadkill. 

The whole thing was cleared up. And while Pearl trusted Mommy of course, she held on to a small trickle of doubt. That doubt stayed with her for longer than she ever cared to admit.

May 12, 2024 00:20

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


David Winfield
18:42 May 15, 2024

Well done. You captured, quite vividly, the 'wild west' nature of school buses. It brings back memories. I loved it.


Diamond Keener
21:51 May 15, 2024

Thank you for taking the time David! Certainly, 'wild west' is a good descriptor.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Douglas W. Carr
15:56 Jun 19, 2024

Nice setup of the Pearl character and I liked the use of a school bus ride to aid in the stress.


Show 0 replies
Zack Herman
21:52 May 23, 2024

One of the things that I enjoy most about this site is seeing the diverse takes on the prompts. You and I chose the same prompt and also both chose to focus a story on an sweet little girl who misunderstands what the "big people" are talking about. I related to this and I'm sure that anybody who ever rode a school bus would, too. A very nice nostalgic piece.


Diamond Keener
03:06 May 24, 2024

Thank you so much for reading! Loved your take as well, totally agree. That’s why I love the prompts, getting to read how others respond.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
19:36 May 20, 2024

Scary yet charming trip into school days. Thanks for liking my Secret Secret Agent Man and the follow.😊


Diamond Keener
23:26 May 20, 2024

Thank you for taking the time! I look forward to reading more of your work too, excellent work!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Milly Orie
14:45 May 19, 2024

You made me remember the smell of school buses, haha. Great job! At first I was almost as shocked as Pearl (it took me a little too long to realize they were talking about animals 😂)


Diamond Keener
21:20 May 19, 2024

Thank you for taking the time to read! Yes school buses had such a particular energy/smell/feel. It was fun to think back on that haha


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
L. D.
18:40 May 15, 2024

I could almost hear this unfolding. How like grown-ups to anthropomorphize, thinking they're helping kids understand, making things more relevant. How like small children to take words to heart for what they are.


Diamond Keener
21:52 May 15, 2024

Thank you so much for reading. We forget sometimes how children see and hear the world, things can become dramatic quickly!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.