On the last day of third grade, the street light over the bus stop flickered. Even if I could have climbed up two stories to tap it, that old wooden light pole would have riddled my hands and thighs with splinters. A pack of Sweet Tarts later, the light turned on in full force, but I could have counted to ten before it turned off. Then, it resumed flickering with a buzz and a crackle, a sizzle and hum. The morning air began to smell like it does after it rains, but more electric, tasting like when you put your mouth on an iron bar on the playground, just before your mom pops you upside the head for doing so.
The light flickered because it wanted to turn on. In few minutes, Mr. Jerry would be pumping the brakes and bringing the hulking, rusty bus to a grinding halt. The light lit the dark mornings all year, but it was almost summer and mostly daylight now. I wanted to tell the light, “You’ve worked hard enough. It’s OK to stop now."
Mr. Jerry arrived a few minutes later than usual that morning. For any other bus driver, being tardy was a part of the job description, but for Mr. Jerry, running behind schedule was unheard of. Mr. Jerry drove his route with atomic precision. The military could set its clocks by Mr. Jerry's route. One time, he wore a baseball hat that said, "No Guts, No Glory," but I'm pretty sure the principal told him he couldn't wear that while driving. Mr. Jerry served in Nam. I think that was a war, or a place, I'm not sure. And so, he rolled up and screeched the bus brakes at 7:03 am, not 7:00 am. That was a first.
The flashing lights and protective crossing arm welcomed my arrival. I crossed the suburban street, rounded the corner of the bus, and climbed aboard. "Good morning, Mr. Jerry!" I said. On every other morning, Mr. Jerry would reply with a aged smile and an old-timey quip like, "Are you ready for a fun and exciting day?" Then, we'd give each other a thumbs up. But that morning, Mr. Jerry looked straight ahead with a smile. "Mr. Jerry, you OK?" I said. He turned his head slowly to the right. Only half of his face was grinning. As he turned his head, I saw that the left side was drooping. His right eye looked at me but his left was unfocused. He gave me a slow thumbs up but pointed it to the back of the bus.
In the left back seat, Dave was reading Cycle of the Werewolf, a Stephen King graphic novel. I threw my book bag in the right back seat and plopped down.
"What's up, D?" I said. Dave didn't reply. "D?"
"Something's wrong with Mr. Jerry," Dave said.
"Yeah, his face looks funny."
"Do you think he's a shapeshifter?"
"What, like a werewolf?"
"No, like a mystic or something." I must have really trusted Mr. Jerry. I don't know why I was OK with half of his face looking like jelly when I got on the bus, but this idea of him being a shapeshifter kind of freaked me out.
Dave and I were always the first on the bus. We had a few stops in the neighborhood before getting to school: Sarah Jane, the Robertson Twins, Booger, Monica, and then the Casper family. Most of the kids just sat up at the front, except Booger. Sarah Jane just ignored everybody. The Robertson Twins were remarkably uninteresting. Monica was cool, though.
"What's up with Mr. Jerry?" Booger asked.
"Dave says he's a shapeshifter," I said.
"He looks possessed," Booger said.
Most of the bus was about to be filled by the Casper family children. Mrs. Casper, the over-functioning matriarch, was supposed to be on one of those reality shows where there are too many kids and the parents try to figure out how to make ends meet. I think Mr. Casper made too much money or something because the show never happened. That was two years before this all happened and every morning since, by the way she bossed those kids around, it seemed like she was still sore about it. We approached the Casper house and all twelve kids were out in her yard. Mrs. Casper ran out of the house to give Tommy Casper his lunch, which he forgot everyday. Nelson Community School was a K through 5 school, and six of the Caspers usually got on.
Mr. Jerry didn't slow at all as he approached the Casper stop. In fact, he accelerated. He flew right past all 13 of them. Mrs. Casper tried to run after the bus, waiving her arms, as if that would have any affect at all.
"He's speeding up!" Booger said. Dave ducked his head down into his seat. The Robertson Twins squealed, stinging my ears. Then, Mr. Jerry fell out of the driver's seat and into the bus stairwell. He broke his seat belt, but his feet remained in position, depressing the pedals even harder.
I moved up into the same seat as Booger. Booger just sat there with a blank stare. He just pissed himself, the wet ring filling in the front of his pants, smelling like my grandpa. I looked ahead. We were almost out of the subdivision where the Caspers lived, and we were not slowing down. I didn't know what to do. I ran as fast as I could to the front of the bus.
"Mr. Jerry!" He didn't move. I kicked him. He didn't move at all.
I looked up and through the windshield and the world zoomed by. We blew through an intersection and into another neighborhood. A dead end approached. I pulled Mr. Jerry's feet away from the gas pedals and pushed the pedal in the middle with my hand as hard as I could. We skipped and hopped to a jarring stop.
"Mr. Jerry!" I said, standing over the bus stairwell.
"Use the door! Open the door!" Dave said from the back of the bus, shouting over the tears and screams of the younger children. I pulled the door crank hard to the left and the door slid open. Mr. Jerry fell out of the stairwell and onto the asphalt street. I jumped over his feet, which lay in the stair well still, and onto the road. "Mr. Jerry!"
Signs of life flickered in his eyes, but then turned off. There was neither buzz nor crackle, neither sizzle nor hum. I tasted iron in my mouth, which my mom would tell me later, was the taste of death. But then Mr. Jerry's eyes, both the droopy one and the normal one, connected with mine. He was alive for a moment, but his light was flickering. I said, “You’ve worked hard enough. It’s OK to stop now."