Miss Wendy does not give the children pencils. At best, they would lose them, and at worst, they would snap them in half and leave them scattered on the bus floor like cigarette butts. She knows plenty of bus drivers, especially the young ones, who will give the children pencils or even worse, little bags of candy, on the first day of school. It’s a stupid idea, to give children candy then send them to school to sit for eight hours.
She begins to memorize next year’s bus route the same day the bus drivers receive an email outlining the stops and addresses. She calls her son, who is thirty-three and divorced, no kids, and he sighs. “I’ve walked you through this a thousand times.” Each year, usually around the middle of July, he guides her on how to log in to her email. Her face scrunched, she searches the hundreds of unread emails that litter her inbox and finally finds it: Bus Routes 2018/2019 School Year. She opens the attachment, scrolls through the children’s names and addresses, making mental notes about which kids she will be pleased to have on her bus and which she knows are trouble.
She works for Monterey Middle School. It is a strange place, an old building surrounded by farm fields and twenty minutes away from the highway, but close enough to downtown that it is still considered urban. The kids who attend the school mirror its strange location—some very rich, most poor, half the population white, and the other half a mixture of Hispanic and African-American. She pities the poor kids. So many of them enter the bus in the same clothes as the day before, reeking of smoke and the animal smell of body odor and soiled underwear. She always remembers to keep her face neutral as she bids these kids good morning.
When she first started working for Monterey Middle, her heart had soared as she pulled up to the sprawling old building. She signed her hiring papers in July twelve years ago, and she still remembers the sugar-scent of the cornfields that surrounded the school that day. The stifled, unairconditioned hallways of the empty school reminded her of growing up on a farm and trying to fall asleep on breezeless nights, sheets sticking to her skinny, sweaty legs.
School starts tomorrow, and she spends that evening looking over the list of addresses like one might read Bible verses before bed. She has already physically driven the route ten times. In twelve years, she has never missed a stop, not even her first year of driving. She doesn’t think many bus drivers can say the same. She sleeps soundly that night.
The next morning, she rises before the sun has a chance to lighten the gray street. She drinks coffee, reads the newspaper, and looks over her list. When it is quarter after six, she locks the front door, backs out of the driveway, tires crunching in the gravel, and takes one last peek at her house in the rearview mirror. Using the rearview mirror has become second-nature though she prefers the three-foot-wide mirror of a school bus.
Arriving to the depot, she pries open the doors to Bus 55. It rumbles to life, a throaty sound that has always pleased Miss Wendy. She usually pats the bus’s dashboard the same way she used to rub the sides of dairy cows. When she eases the bus onto the road, Miss Wendy becomes all business. First up, she thinks, is Shady Acres Trailer Park. She has a gaggle of kids to pick up, most of them usually stinky, but today they will be dressed in their new school clothes. She will make comments to them like, “Nice shoes, Peter,” or “Nifty backpack, there, Nevaeh.” And the kids will smile at Miss Wendy but whisper to each other about how ugly Miss Wendy looks in her high-water jeans and her plain white tennis shoes.
Today goes smoothly, and she is one of the first buses to pull into the school that morning. “Goodbye, Peter,” she says. “Goodbye, Jamie. Have a nice day, Marcus.” When the children are gone, she pulls the brake and does an immediate sweep, looking for wads of gum, wrappers, and broken pencils. Sometimes a kid leaves a backpack, which she will take firmly in her hand and march to the front office. She always insists on staying until the kid arrives. “You need to be more responsible. Anybody could have taken this. Take some pride in yourself,” she lectures them before handing the backpack over.
When the morning drop-off and the sweep are complete, she drives the bus straight back to her house and eats lunch. She has a few hours to herself, when she might read a book, or pull a few weeds in the garden, or finish a Sudoku puzzle. Around two, she drives the bus to Monterey Middle School and repeats the process in reverse order. “Good afternoon,” she says to the kids, or, “Don’t forget to do your homework.”
The teachers refer to the first month of the school year as the “honeymoon,” and the bus drivers feel the same. The children behave because they are afraid or because they just don’t know any better. After those first few weeks, though, the children pick up bad habits like birds pick up breadcrumbs. “If I see anyone chewing gum, they are sitting in the front with me for a week,” Miss Wendy says on the loudspeaker, making eye contact randomly with kids through the rearview mirror. When she asks Marcus to pick up a Pop-Tart wrapper, he says: “You ain’t my mama.” She finds the wrapper crumpled at the back of the bus on her morning sweep. By the sixth week of school, she has taken to screaming over her shoulder, “Quiet down or else ten minutes of silence!”
The first big problem of the school year doesn’t come until nearly Thanksgiving. She looks in her rearview mirror where she sees a smaller boy, Kennedy, headlocked by Marcus. Kennedy is swinging his arms wildly, narrowly missing Marcus’s face. Miss Wendy is surprised. Fighting is instinctive in boyhood: one boy puffs his chest out, the other steps forward and aligns his body, both begin to circle and spit until the dance falls to pieces with a punch. She hasn’t noticed them out of their seats or even speaking until she looks up, and suddenly they are.
She pulls to the side of the road and puts on the hazards. The kids who are half-asleep begin to poke their heads up to follow Miss Wendy’s big body to the back of the bus. “Boys, let go of each other now,” she says sternly. Marcus holds Kennedy tighter, who begins swinging his arms again. “Marcus,” she says calmly. “Marcus, let go of Kennedy’s head. Now.” He looks at her. Kennedy stops swinging his arms, and his body begins to sag a little. Miss Wendy takes a step forward, squares her shoulders, tries to make herself big. “Marcus, so help me God, if you do not let go of that boy.” She steps closer and reaches to pull Marcus’s arms away.
“Don’t fucking touch me, you old bitch,” Marcus spits, taking a step back and releasing Kennedy. The bus becomes still and silent.
Miss Wendy feels, for just a moment, oddly detached from the scene. In that moment of silence, her mind jumps back to when her son was in elementary school, how he had been smacked across the face by another boy, how he was hit so hard that his teeth had cut through his bottom lip, and he had to receive two stitches. When Miss Wendy approached the principal about it, he had shrugged. “A troubled boy,” he had said, and, “Single mother, no father figure,” as if that meant anything.
She feels her heart pick up speed, and the only thing she trusts herself to say is, “You’re riding in the front with me.” Her eyes are wide as she looks at Marcus. Without a word, he pushes past Miss Wendy and throws his body in a seat at the front.
After checking on Kennedy, Miss Wendy begins the route again. Each time she looks in the rearview mirror, she finds Marcus glaring at her.
When she gets off work, she calls her son immediately. “Son,” she says, “you will never believe what happened. You will never guess how a kid treated me today.” Her son has the phone propped up to his ear. He plays a video game, lets her speak. “He called me an old bitch. And he said fucking. Can you imagine?”
He snorts. “They’re in middle school, Mom. That’s normal. Wait, did he say fucking as in sex?” He sounds amused.
“No, he didn’t use it like that. He said, ‘Don’t you fucking touch me.’ And it is not normal or polite to call people those sorts of names. I never raised my son to use those words. It’s a reflection on the parents, is what it is, when kids behave this way.”
Her son loses the video game and realizes it is almost dinner time. “Mom, I have to go,” he says. After they say goodbye, he orders a pizza.
Weeks pass without incident, though Marcus has found little ways to get back at Miss Wendy. He holds gum under his tongue when he enters the bus and sticks it in the window locks. He pokes a hole in the back of a bus seat and has a letter sent home with a bill for repairs. His favorite way to annoy her is to yell “balls” as loudly as he can before scrambling off the bus.
Christmas time is quickly approaching, and Miss Wendy takes note of the kids who are shivering and coatless when she pulls up to their stop in the morning. She drops their names to the front office, and within a week, Kayla, Kennedy, Jamie, and Marcus are all wrapped in brand new coats as she pulls into Shady Acres.
The day before winter break, the kids enter the school bus with little gifts for Miss Wendy: bags of cookies, a gift certificate to Tim Hortons, hand lotion, and homemade Christmas ornaments. “Merry Christmas,” they tell Miss Wendy, and she returns the greeting. She writes little notes of thanks on her lunch break. On her afternoon route, she makes sure to say a kind word to each child. “Your coat looks snazzy, Kennedy,” she says. “You get some rest and relaxation,” and, “Eat lots of treats!” She even wishes Marcus “Merry Christmas” as he descends the stairs, though he pretends he doesn’t hear her.
Her son comes over for Christmas and brings his girlfriend, a skinny girl in a gray shapeless coat. Her blonde hair hangs below her collarbones and she is twirling a piece of it under her nose. “Shit,” she says. “I smell like pot.” Her son laughs and knocks on the door. Miss Wendy answers.
“Well, it took you long enough.” She stands aside to let them in. She has cooked ham and mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and a pecan pie for dessert. They eat lunch and retire to the living room. The girlfriend begins flipping through television channels, never pausing long enough for Miss Wendy to know what show is on. She looks over at her son and realizes he is asleep. “I’m going to the kitchen,” she says, to the girl who continues to flip through channels. Miss Wendy spends the rest of the afternoon playing Sudoku puzzles.
When it is time for them to leave, her son enters the kitchen and kisses his mother on the head. “You’ve been cooped up here all afternoon.”
“Would’ve liked to watch tv,” she replies. The girlfriend has already left to sit in the car, its exhaust spilling white clouds onto the driveway.
Her son kisses the top of her head again. “Call me if you need anything. Merry Christmas.”
Miss Wendy says, “Merry Christmas.” She can’t wait for break to be over.
The winter season is Miss Wendy’s least favorite time to be a bus driver. People turn into idiots in the winter. One day, a car pulls to the side of the bus when Miss Wendy stops to pick up Eddie. The car nearly hits him as it speeds by. “Moron,” she mumbles under her breath, squinting to see if she can catch the license plate number. Another day in late March, it is spitting snow, and there is black ice on the roads. She takes her time slowing down before turning into the school. An angry mom lays on her horn and makes obscene gestures at Miss Wendy. The kids snicker. “She flicked Miss Wendy off,” they say, craning their necks to see whose mom it is.
Slowly, though, each year the world turns from gray to green. The children begin to climb the bus in shorts and tank tops. They peel their sweaty legs from the green leather of the bus seats. They crack the windows and weave their fingers in the wind. Each year, Miss Wendy says over the loudspeaker, “Put those windows up when you’re the last to leave your seat.” Undoubtedly, Miss Wendy has five or six windows still open when she pulls into the bus depot each afternoon.
It is on a Tuesday morning in May that it happens. Miss Wendy wakes up at the same time, drinks her coffee, and watches the news. She remembers to fill the bird feeder in the backyard before she locks the door behind her and leaves for work.
“Hello, Kayla,” she says, and, “Hello Dakota. Good morning, Eddie.” She pulls into Shady Acres where a small group of kids is kicking pebbles and dirt at one another. When the kids climb the steps and she says hello to the last one, she looks out the door again. “Is Marcus not joining us today?” Then she sees him in the distance, about six trailers away, sprinting toward the bus. Figures, she thinks, he’s running late. She begins to swing the door shut, trying to make him sweat a little.
When Marcus is closer to the bus, though, Miss Wendy does a double take and opens the door wider. He is running to the bus in bare feet, without a shirt on. He scurries up the steps like a furry animal, the skin of his stomach thin and showing his rib cage as he tries to breathe. “Miss Wendy,” he says, “Miss Wendy, oh God, I need your help. Miss Wendy, please.” He grabs her arm to pull her off the bus.
“Son, slow down, slow down.” Her stomach sours with worry. “Marcus, what is going on?”
“I--,” he says and begins to cry. “It’s my mom. I can’t wake her up. I need help.”
Miss Wendy feels her heart pick up speed, feels her focus narrow. “Marcus, do you have a phone in your house?” He nods. “Good. Go call 911 and tell them your mom won’t wake up.” Marcus takes off like a bird, flying through the trailer park.
Miss Wendy turns to Kayla who sits in the front seat. “Kayla, you’re in charge. You make sure everyone sits in their seat and tell me if anyone disobeys. Kids,” she says, addressing the rest of the bus, “there is an emergency. I need to help Marcus. Please, do not leave your seats, no matter what.” They stare at her with wide eyes, and she takes their silence for obedience.
Next, she pulls the bus radio to her mouth. “Bus 55 to Dispatch. We have an emergency. A little boy can’t seem to wake his mom up, and I’m going in to help. We’re at the entrance of Shady Acres. Over.”
The line is fuzzy, then: “Dispatch to Bus 55. Bus 47 is in the area and will swing by to pick up your kids. Have you contacted emergency services? Over.”
“Bus 55 to Dispatch. Copy that. The boy has called 911. I’m going to wait with him. Over.”
Miss Wendy hurries off the bus, partially closing the door behind her. She looks at the faces peering anxiously out of the bus windows. “Oh Lord,” she says to herself, “Lord, Lord, Lord,” and takes off in the direction that Marcus ran. She half-jogs down the row of trailers until she thinks she is at the correct one. “Marcus!” she yells and sees his head poke out of the front door.
“Over here!” He throws the door wide open.
She ascends the steps and is immediately knocked back by the smell of the place. She tries to keep her face neutral as she looks around. The trailer is tiny. A makeshift kitchen sits to the left, with moldy dishes stacked in the sink. Glasses and coffee cups litter the kitchen table and counters. Old pizza boxes are shoved behind and beside the overstuffed trash can. The smell of smoke saturates the air.
To the right of the trailer is a couch shoved against the wall and a television stand across from it. Miss Wendy notices an assortment of needles and spoons sitting on a small table next to the couch. One of the spoons has a syrup-brown liquid in it. A hallway leads to a bedroom in the back where she can hear Marcus’s frantic cries.
She enters the bedroom and sees his arms wrapped around an unconscious woman. She looks like she should be young, though her face is drawn even in sleep. He begins to shake her. “Mom, please wake up,” he says and shakes harder until her head flops from side to side.
Miss Wendy takes his elbow, pries his hands away. “Marcus, I need you to go get a pillow from the couch.” When he leaves, she drags the mother to the floor. “Put the pillow under her head,” she instructs when Marcus returns. “This may be difficult to watch.” Marcus nods. She begins CPR on the woman, feeling the woman’s bird-chest beneath her big hands. Miss Wendy keeps tempo in her head as she pushes. She feels sweat gather at her temples and fall across her cheek. Her arms begin to ache, and just as she thinks that she might have to quit, she hears the ambulance sirens outside.
The emergency workers burst through the door. “Don’t stop,” a man instructs Miss Wendy as he begins to feel the woman’s neck for a pulse. He pulls out a needle and is ready to inject when Miss Wendy says, “The boy.” Another worker pulls Marcus into the living room, and the man pushes the needle into the soft skin on the inside of the woman’s elbow. Miss Wendy feels sick to see the field of red pinpricks dotting the woman’s wrist and arm. The worker pauses Miss Wendy’s CPR, puts his hand to the woman’s chest, and begins pumping. Miss Wendy sits back on her heels, exhausted. She watches as the woman’s body folds in on itself with each pump like a body might fold during a car wreck.
She finds Marcus with an emergency worker and a police officer in the living room. The officer is kneeling in front of him. “Son, you need to tell us what happened. We need to get your mom some help.” Marcus looks stonily at the floor. He has his arms crossed. “If you don’t talk to us, we can’t help you or your mom.”
“If I tell you what happened, you’re just going to take me away,” he says, glaring into the officer’s eyes. He holds the anger on his tongue like a mint. “I’m not telling you shit.”
The officer stands, puts his police cap on his head. Miss Wendy moves to Marcus’s side. “Marcus, may I sit?” The anger softens in his face and he nods. She sits. “Perhaps we should get you a shirt,” she suggests. He gets up from the couch and rummages in a pile of clothes stacked in the kitchen. Miss Wendy looks at the officer. “How can I help?”
“We need to know the events leading up to the overdose,” he says, standing with his thumbs in his belt loops. A gun sits heavy on his hip, a shiny black thing hooked in a black holster. “Child Protective Services will almost certainly gain custody of him at this point, whether he tells us or not.”
“Then why make him tell you? Can’t you figure it out just looking around this place?” She gestures to the spoons and needles, the pizza boxes and coffee cups, the dirty shirt that Marcus is pulling over his head. She feels suddenly protective. “Why the hell make him tell you the story when the story is right in front of your nose?”
Marcus returns to the officer and Miss Wendy. He looks at Miss Wendy’s face, the stubborn etch of her mouth. He sits beside her. He is exhausted and leans his head onto Miss Wendy’s shoulder.
The man from the bedroom comes into the living room. “We’re taking her to the hospital. She’s revived but needs more medical attention. And to dry out.” He looks at the boy.
“Marcus, let’s go check on the bus.” He stands and follows Miss Wendy. She sits with him in the front seat, and together, they watch as the ambulance with its flashing lights pulls away. “I’m sorry,” she says to Marcus. The officer knocks on the bus door. He has a social worker with him.
It is the end of school, and summer will soon drop like a heavy stone into Miss Wendy’s life. She begins the last sweep of the year and sees Marcus fidgeting at the front of the empty bus. She stoops to pick up a few wadded pieces of notebook paper. “Seat 12 could use some work if you’re just going to stand there.” The windows are open, and a breeze carrying the scent of surrounding cornfields ripple through the bus. Children stream into the school, shouting and laughing, the taste of summer already heavy on their tongues. He drops his bookbag in a seat and finds a roll of paper towels. She sees a hint of a smile on his face as he begins to scrape gum from a window sill.
Macey Phillips lives in Columbus, Ohio and is currently completing an MFA in fiction at the Ohio State University. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch Journal and The Broadkill Review.