CW: Child abuse/neglect, sexual abuse, bullying
[FICTION] Kids Board the Bus
Kids board the bus, kids board the bus. Kids wake up early, early for kids, and leave their houses to sit in their father’s air-conditioned car, or bike a couple of blocks, or walk half a mile to stand at the stop sign at the end of the road to wait and board the bus with the other kids, sweat dribbling from the backs of their knees. Kids board the bus, pile in, some skip steps and others dredge up them slowly, watching the muscles in their legs contract and expand like lifts and levers. Kids board the bus, some bright-eyed and chirping good mornings and hellos to the bus driver, others rushing to find a coveted empty seat in the back, past the humps the tires make, but two kids board the bus, a brother and sister, doe-eyed and detached.
Kids board the bus, stylishly dressed in new clothes from the Old Navy or TJ Maxx in the nearby city where their mothers took them on tax-free weekend, or they board the bus swallowed by hand-me-downs and clothes bought at the Salvation Army; two kids walk down the aisle to the back of the bus, to the last empty half-bucket seat intended for only one, stains forming under their arms, averting their eyes from the rows of cupped hands covering mouth-to-ear whispers. Kids board the bus in the late August heat with sun-kissed noses and blank notebooks inside plastic bedazzled and holographic backpacks.
Kids board the bus with pigtails, or curled hair, or with their hair clean and nicely trimmed, but two kids board the bus with tangled and greasy white speckled hair. The next day, two kids board the bus with shaved heads. Other kids stare at their bald, alien heads, their mouths agape. Kids board the bus wearing tank tops or t-shirts, shorts, and sandals, one kid reveals his dirty toenails and insect-bitten legs, and the other tries to hide her purple-blue bruise-covered legs and arms, bruises like handprints. Kids board the bus with their Cinderella or Transformers plastic lunchboxes; others with paper sacks, notes from their mother, eat your carrots before the fruit snacks, sweetly tucked inside. Two kids board the bus with no lunch at all. Kids board the bus in light jackets on top of short sleeve shirts and long jeans.
Kids board the bus wearing fancy dresses with tulle underneath the skirt and tiaras, or in skirts just above their knees with psychedelic patterns and white pseudo Gogo boots covering the tops of their ballet flats, or red capes and blue jumpsuits sporting a giant hand painted red and yellow “S” in the center, or a black jumpsuit and black cape and a black mask covering everything from the nose up but their eyes. Two kids board the bus without costumes, wearing instead the same worn through to the knee jeans and hole-ridden t-shirts they had worn for over two weeks. Kids board the bus excited and chattering about the school-wide costume parade, whispering about the kids who weren’t wearing any. I didn’t know you could be ‘homeless’ for Halloween, their whispers just loud enough to be heard by the kids in the bucket seats around them. Snickers break out and one kid’s sister glares at the kids around her while he sinks down in his seat.
Kids board the bus with heavy sweaters or light coats, sometimes a couple sizes too small or a size too big, with leaves falling from the walnut trees behind them on the sides of the road, leaves overfilling drainage ditches and spilling onto the street and blowing onto the bus. Wearing homemade Pilgrim hats and bonnets, white stockings or black pants and yellow construction paper buckles on their black tennis shoes, kids board the bus in late November. Kids board the bus on a Tuesday, the last day of class before the long weekend. Kids board the bus talking about their mother’s green bean casserole or helping their dad carve the turkey, but two kids board the bus silently, wondering what they’ll eat for the holidays, already sick of ravioli, baked beans, and hot dogs.
Kids board the bus wearing bright pink or black feather-stuffed coats with store emblems donned on the front breast, but two kids share one faded red wool coat. One kid wears it on the walk to the bus stop and she lets her little brother wear it while they wait for the bus. They huddle together in their moth-eaten sweaters and fingerless gloves, winter on their breath. Kids wait to board the bus in their mother’s heated cars, wearing matching sets of mittens, scarves, and stocking caps. Their hot breath fogs up the car windows so they don’t see the two kids waiting at the glittering, ice-covered stop sign. Kids board the bus with shrieks of Santa, snow, reindeer, presents and candy canes. Kids board the bus on the last day before Winter Break, singing Christmas carols and practicing for their piano recitals, choir concerts, and children’s plays.
Kids board the bus with excitement, recounting the new special edition Barbie doll Santa brought them two weeks before, or recalling how many Christmas cookies they made and consumed, or how long the drive took to get to Florida for their family vacation, or the button-smiled, carrot-nosed snowman their dad helped them build, or showing off the new comic books they already read. Two kids board the bus, with two coats instead of one; the hole in the knee of the boy’s jeans is patched, but the girl’s remains bare to the new year’s air. Kids board the bus in early January with runny noses and rosy cheeks, eyes stinging from the cold.
Kids board the bus with shoebox Valentine’s Day card depositories made with red and pink glitter, magazine clippings, warm-toned pipe cleaners and construction paper hearts. Kids carry folded and signed cards with their classmates’ names on them, heart shaped suckers, and stale “BE MINE” candy hearts. Two kids don’t have one because they don’t have glitter, glue, construction paper, or shoeboxes at home. Kids board the bus at the end of February, looking forward to the warmer spring weather, ready to shed their winter coats.
Kids board the bus wearing red raincoats with matching red boots covered in tiny white polka dots, others with bright yellow ponchos, but two kids board the bus drenched from their wait at the stop sign, dripping backpacks in hand. One kid’s sister’s white shirt is soaked through and it clings to her training bra; the other kids tease and taunt her. Kids board the bus, chattering about the field trip to the zoo and the elephants, giraffes, and lions they saw there, but two kids are silent, they couldn’t get their permission slips signed. Kids board the bus on the last day before Spring Break, but two kids are absent.
Kids board the bus after Spring Break and talk about their camping trips in the mountains, or the movie they saw in the theaters or TV shows they watched. Two kids board the bus, one with a black eye and the other with raw red sores on his arms beginning to scab over, like chicken pox, but wider, and deeper. Kids board the bus in late March.
Kids board the bus, frenzied by end of school projects and book reports. Their backpacks are full of reports over The Magic Tree House books and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH written in #2 pencil on wide-ruled notebook paper, filled out addition sheets and multiplication tables, and Shurley English worksheets marking adjectives and adverbs in simple sentences. Kids board the bus and talk about summer little leagues and tubing at the lake, sleepovers and riding bikes. Kids board the bus in early May, the last day of school nearing, yearbooks passing back and forth between the rows on the bus, markers in hand. Two kids don’t board the bus, the driver is later told they were withdrawn from Jefferson Elementary School and wouldn’t be back.
Kids board the bus in groups of threes or fours, some wearing new clothes and others wearing the same from the year before. Some grin at the bus driver or each other while others chat about the past summer, even more kids are curious about the new school year, new teacher, and new pen pal they will write to. One kid boards the new bus with a new driver in new clothes and shoes, sister gone and boarding a different new bus. The new social worker, the same one his sister has, checks in on him at his new home, with his new temporary parents and new temporary sister.
One kid boards the bus and watches and listens to his classmates, always observing, always internalizing. One kid sits alone on the bus and wonders about his sister and her new school, her new clothes and shoes, her new family and new siblings. He watches as the girls on the bus grow up and change.
They develop breasts, wear tighter shirts and shorter bottoms, flirt and fall in love. He notices when they break up with their boyfriends and when they gossip about it to their best friends. Their lunchboxes turn to expensive purses and instead of Barbies, they show each other their new lip gloss or cell phones.
He listens to the boys and how they talk to the girls, trying to charm them like their fathers charm other women when their mothers aren’t around. He watches their acne sores spread from their foreheads to their chins to their backs. The boys grow up and grow beards, their voices drop; they mature slower than the girls, despite the testosterone flowing through them. The kids on the bus grow older and get driver’s licenses, cars, and part-time jobs. They ride the bus less or stop riding it altogether. But one kid still walks to the bus stop every morning, the routes changing as his homes do.
One kid stands alone at the bus stop, waiting to board the bus and thinks about his sister, about the old stop sign at the end of their road, the cold and the heat they stood through together, waiting to board the bus. She’s nineteen now, an adult, gone to he doesn’t know where, but the hell away from here. The bus arrives on schedule and kids board the bus, kids board the bus, kids board the bus.
Here’s the door the driver swings open, releasing the cool air from inside. Here are the stairs, sometimes too hard to climb, different and also the same on every new bus. Here’s the bus driver, usually smiling. Here’s the aisle, dotted by back straps and purse strings reaching out to trip clumsy feet. Here’s the first empty seat, hot from the tires revolving beneath it. Here’s where one kid is sitting alone, thinking about running away; thinking about each of his foster families, the aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters that weren’t his; thinking about the houses he’s lived in, never a home without his sister; thinking about his biological father who left, abandoned their crazy mess of a mother; thinking about his sister’s boyfriend and hoping he was nicer than their mother’s; thinking about his mother’s boyfriends and their buddies, how they hit him and touched his sister, how he was forced to watch and endure the awful things they did; thinking about the debilitating rage dammed up inside him, filled nearly to the brim; thinking about how afraid he is that he will become like the men he’s known in life, terrified of intimacy or what he might do, knowing better but not different, self-aware but afraid. One kid, no longer a kid, exits.
Genevieve Richards is a Nonfiction MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington. She received her BA in Creative Writing and Linguistics at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri in May of 2017.