THE LAST BUS
I barely–barely–catch the last bus of the night.
It’s nine thirty, and I’m already out of breath from tuba lessons. I know I cut a pretty sad figure. Huffing and puffing, my heart hammering, cheeks flushed, wheezing: an asthmatic whippet, was my gym teacher’s description.
I plunk my tuba down on the nearest seat and search in my pockets for change.
“We ain’t got all night, now,” the bus driver says. She cracks her gum and turns back to the windshield.
I drop my money. Of course I do.
“Just sit down,” the bus driver says.
I hurry to do so, and she shifts into gear as soon as my butt hits the seat. I don’t even pick the quarters up off the floor of the bus–what would happen if I did? Would she have taken off with me bending over?
I grab the ones I can reach without leaving my seat. A dollar. I can maybe get a burger on the way home from chess club tomorrow.
I hear snickers from the back of the bus. Oh, god–that sounds like Gavin. Multiple snickers–probably Gavin and Steve.
Of course they’re out this late. Why wouldn’t they be? Probably smoking and drinking cheap beer and doing drugs, or whatever it is the kids in remedial English do. I heard Gavin knocked a girl in Mrs. Holsen’s home room up last semester. Laura Brinkley, really pretty, one of the drama club kids. Nobody’s seen her since April, and her friends won’t say where she went–Katie Levarr said she’s staying home with the baby, but Katie makes things up sometimes.
I heard the ominous creaking of leather in the seat across from mine.
“Hey, Terrence,” says Gavin. He’s got a big stupid grin on his face, and you can see the gap in his teeth from where Mark Mackey punched him in the mouth last year.
“Hey,” I mutter.
“You doin’ okay? We were hearin’ a lot of wheezing back there.” Gavin pokes out his lower lip. “Does poor baby Dickles need his inhaler?”
“It’s pronounced DickLAY,” I mutter. I can barely hear my own voice. Please, please, please, let them not be getting off at my stop.
Gavin guffaws. “DickLAY,” he says. “Holy shit. That’s even better. Terrence DickLAY. Ain’t you fancy. Fuck. Hey, Steve. How d’you think Terry here was conceived?”
Steve Arlen moves up to sit beside me. He smells of cigarettes and cheap beer and not brushing his teeth. “I dunno, Gav. How?”
“In a DICKLAY,” Gavin says.
They both laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. The bus rockets on, bumping and crashing and clashing along over cracks in the road. The bus driver keeps her eyes glued on the road.
And me? I can’t think of anything to say back. I’m not good around people. And Gavin and Steve–they block up my mouth like nobody else.
Gavin punches me in the arm, much harder than he has to. “Hey, DickLAY,” he says. “Whatcha got in that case?”
“Tuba,” I mutter, and this time I can’t even hear myself.
Gavin reaches across me for the case. He flips open the catches, peeks inside.
“Owee,” he says. “That’s worth some money. Whaddya say to me borrowin’ this, you little freak? You can tell your mama you lost it.” He punches me again, in the same spot. I can already feel the bruises forming.
“No,” I say. And it’s weird–I can hear myself. The bus must’ve hit some better pavement.
Unfortunately, if I can hear myself, so can Gavin and Steve.
“Oh, now,” Gavin says. “Don’t be like that, Terry. It would be real stupid to be like that.”
For just a moment, I catch the bus driver’s eye in the rearview mirror. It’s funny–it’s like she was looking at me already.
“That’s my tuba,” I say. “I bought it with my summer money. You guys can’t have it.”
And there it is again–the guffawing. Gavin puts a hand over his chest, like it hurts him how funny my defiance is.
“Listen, you little shit,” he says, almost kindly. “We’re taking that thing. And if you try and stop us, I’m going to hold you, and Steve here is going to break both your arms. All right?”
“No,” I say again.
“You kids settle down,” the driver calls.
I know it’s stupid. I know all the stuff they tell you in school–that bullies are cowards, that you just have to stand up to them–isn’t true. I know I’m probably about to get seriously beaten. I know the bus driver is driving. I know there isn’t a thing she can do to stop them.
But it’s my tuba. I bought it with my money. I saved up for it, and I got a Holton, and it’s mine.
Two things happen at once:
Gavin and Steve launch themselves at me.
The bus driver, scowling into the rearview, pulls a slender red cord hanging right beside the seat.
The floor in front of me opens up, two doors sliding out to reveal open space, the asphalt whizzing by beneath in a grey blur. Gavin and Steve weren’t expecting it–they didn’t see her pull the cord–and they tumble through. Their screams are a lot higher-pitched than their laughter.
The back wheels of the bus roll over something squishy, and large, and hard and soft at the same time. There are two bumps, and there is no more screaming.
I look out the back window, my mouth suddenly dry. On the asphalt, trailing behind us, are two perfectly even parallel scarlet lines.
I can’t swallow, I can’t move. I can feel my tongue in my mouth, sticky and dry.
“Thanks,” I croak out at last. “I think.”
“Don’t thank me,” the bus driver says. She shifts gears, spits her gum out into the trash can by the driver’s seat. “I was planning to use it on you.”