“Have a good night now.”
All the passengers loved him. The driver said the exact same thing to everyone leaving the bus on Dark Wood Road, no matter who they were: young high school students; older women with shopping strollers; surly men looking for something they could not find; endless parents and their children trying to get through the day. They all heard the same thing. He would look up at the rear-view mirror or look over to his right and smile if they left out the front. And he did it for all of them, every single one. He noticed this from the first stop the driver made. And he did not want to do anything about it. He did not need to be here.
The man behind the wheel was a nice guy. That was what bothered him the most. The driver was white-haired and had a wonderful mustache, like something from the Civil War textbook he was reading at home. He read about those leaders who only fought because they felt that they had no choice, not because they wanted to kill or hurt anyone. He was thinking about that now. It was a Friday. Those guys from school told him that he’d have to do it tonight or he’d get his face kicked in at school on Monday. He knew they meant to keep their promise; they had already done enough to him over the last two years to be a serious threat (kicking and tripping in the hallways; thrown food in the cafeteria; shoving and punches in the changing room; the threatening phone calls filled with laughing voices he recognized too well). Then, after one long day of dodging them as much as he could, they finally caught him after school, just outside of the crush of kids escaping into the afternoon.
They were not beating him up this time. They did not kick him down or say anything about his mother, his clothes, his weight, or anything else personal, either. They did not even hold him down. He just waited for whatever they were going to do to him as he stood on the grass. There was a ring of them around him and he did not recognize all of them this time.
This was different.
“You gotta do something.”
This kid talking was one he had tried to ignore the most. Was he the leader? He knew the kid who kept scratching his next as he talked. He was dirty, fat, almost unibrowed and always late for the most recent math class they shared. Did they pick him or did he pick himself to talk...?
“You gotta do something. For all of us.”
He looked at the group of kids around him. They were smiling and silent.
“I have to do what?”
And that was when he got the story.
He had taken a bus all the way downtown to catch another one as soon as he left the school and left a note for his mom at home over his growing lateness. It was still warm outside and the ride was nice enough, even with the extra weight in his backpack. There was no reason for him to start down there, but he did not want to just get on a bus near his school, home, or any stop where he could run into a friend or family. Also, he was not sure that the same driver would be on the bus. But the man they told him about was there. He knew him too well not to recognize him. The doors flew open with a hiss and the bus idled for a few minutes. Same moustache and look and all the other things they told him to expect when they found him, right down to the correct route. Everything seemed planned out for him.
They also said someone would be waiting at the end of the line, the terminus. He did not believe it, but still, here he was, waiting at a stop for one bus with one driver that everyone seemed to love and he did not really have any feelings about personally. He knew the spray can in his bag was going to be hard to use. They gave it to him in the school yard and there was electrical tape covering the brand name and part of the green cap. No fingerprints, they said. Right. Like they would not find out about who did this if he was right there...
“Hop on, kid.”
He was the first one in line, ahead of two uniformed girls from a different school – not sure which one it was; definitely Catholic - and an older man who leaned on a metal cane and would not accept a place at the front of the line.
“Don’t mind him, son. Just take a seat.”
So, the first big problem: he liked this man. This was a very unusual feeling for him. Most of the bus drivers he met or knew were people who should not be allowed on the street let alone riding or driving a group of total strangers. A big problem...
He sat in the middle of the bus. The two girls ran past him into the back seats. The old man, not saying a word, sat right up behind the driver, staring at all of the people entering at each stop. There was something compelling about him; something familiar when he looked him over during the ride. Had they me before? Did they know each other or...?
And then it was clear. He had seen this man. Sometimes he was at the library downtown or in his neighbourhood. There were not many older people near their home, but he recognized the man. This was the first time he had seen him on the bus and he hoped that he would not be on all the way to the end of the line. That would have been too much for what he had to do.
The bus travelled deeper into the suburbs after about twenty minutes manoeuvring through the growing rush-hour traffic. It was a very long ride to the end of that route. He had never been to end of this bus line by himself. He had told his mother that he was going to the library to study (an easy lie to have her believe; he would go there often after school, even during regular school days). But still, he wondered about getting back home at a reasonable time; a believable time. The terminus was many blocks away near a highway that crossed the edge of the city limits. The only time he had been there had been in passing in the back of a school bus heading to day camp during his summers. There was no real reason for him to go there; no good reason at all (he could hear the can jostling with his papers).
No, he could not do this. He looked out the window at a building under construction. The outer structure was left intact, but the inside portion was being redone and designed for condo housing. It had once been a bank but now it was being used for something very different, something very lucrative for the new owners (he did not read the sign posted in front as he passed, but he knew that it was a very well-known construction company in the city). It was no longer what it once was. It was all different.
No, he would not do this. Not for anyone or any threat.
They passed near his usual stop for home. The school came a few blocks later. When the driver stopped to let some other passengers off, he looked over at its main entrance and parking lot. No one around in the late afternoon; one or two cars (cleaning staff?), and nothing else to show that it was a building that was often full of bullies, dreamers, nerds, jocks and teachers and staff who had to balance it all out.
All those kids…
Were they somehow watching him to see if he had taken this bus with the right driver? Did they even bother to leave someone behind to check on him? No one on the bus was his age; they were all adults, including the one old man at the front that he kept thinking about and looking over.
He had not thought clearly about why they wanted him to get the driver. They said he had gotten them in trouble over an incident with some other passengers on a bus trip (only verbal threats, they said, “with no one killed” – he had made sure not to laugh at that). The big one with the single eyebrow took the blame and could not ride the bus anymore. So, they wanted “the moustache” (again, their quote) to get a message (even sounded like a bad line from a movie with him in an unrewarding lead role). And no one would suspect the perfect student, right? He didn’t smile at that, either. He looked at his watch, felt his stomach rumble, and just waited.
At the front of the bus, the old man was still staring straight ahead, his eyes hard and open. The school girls from earlier were gone (they left near his home; strange that he had never seen them before). One old lady rang the bell a few stops before the route ended (she had several shopping bags; he thought about helping her walk them home, but soon caught himself). And he could see the terminus now. His stomach was now beginning to hurt. And he remembered something important.
There was a ring of dim street lights around a bus shelter. A dirt and gravel semicircular road was next to it and he guessed that the driver would idle here for a while and then head back downtown on the same route. And that would be the rest of his shift. They could be watching him from the long grass, but he thought that this was too silly even for them. As the bus stopped, he looked past the grass at the homes that were beginning to light up for the night. A few of them were still dark and he could see curtains and blinds closed. Could one of them...? No one was waiting for him. No one was watching. His stomach felt a little better.
“Have a good night now.”
He almost galloped to the front of the bus. For some reason, he did not want to leave with just his reflection in the driver’s memory. They could do what they wanted to do to him on Monday. The can of spray paint was light next to his school books and papers. He would toss it as soon as he stepped outside. He could hear the traffic from the highway and knew that he had a long walk to get back home.
He was almost off the bus. He almost made it. The old man, standing now, blocked his way. He wondered why he had not noticed the man standing up and moving to face the driver when he approached the front.
“What? Sir, I just…”
The driver did not expect this, either.
“Sir, I need to...”
“You just stay where you are, son.”
The old man had hard black eyes set deep in his taut face. It reminded him of an eagle or a skull with dark marbles set in its sockets. There was a depth of command in the voice that he was shocked by and also more energy than he had imagined. He would have been listening anyway, no matter where they had stopped.
The old man stood still for a moment, leaning on his cane, but clearly not needing it for support.
“I just want you to know that kids do stupid things all the time...BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU GET TO PUT THEM IN TROUBLE! WRONG! WRONG!”
They both stood still and dealing with the shock of the man’s shout, so shocked that they just stared at his back as he stepped slowly off the bus and walked quickly out past the halo of light into the long grass and disappeared into the new darkness. He had the same amount of strength in his walk as in his words. The kid almost admired this.
And then he turned to look at the driver.
He had seen anger in an adult’s face many times in many different places (the school, the home, part-time jobs, libraries, etc). He knew disgust. But this was a face that combined elements that almost terrified him. The eyes bulged; the lips curled; the forehead was in danger of cracking under the stress of the moment. As he slowly walked up to face the front entrance, he could feel the heat pouring out of that face, that body, even with the cool evening air coming through the open door. It was the ugliest hate he had ever seen in his life.
Later, when he had finally walked all the way home, he was surprised at how quickly he confessed everything to his mother. She stood in the kitchen with a cup of tea in her hand, stared hard at her son as he spoke, and then she had to sit down. And she never got upset. She knew about the bullying and how he never really wanted to talk about it. She had talked about the need for a “resolution of the problem” (he would never forgot how she used those words). And it was a Friday, after all. Later that night, in his room, he looked at some of his homework and books that he wanted to finish, but he did not want to do anything that night. When he emptied the bag, he noted that the spray paint was gone. He did not remember dropping it anywhere and he did not care. He knew that they would be waiting for him on Monday. He also knew that he wanted to enjoy this moment.