|Im thinking how Ive got friends. They just dont take my bus. And the bus is a branch of Hell. Think about all these bricks of Kraft Cheddar at the Publix. Yellow. They all look alike. Inflate them. Put wheels on them. A whole network of Hell on wheels tooling around the entire country. Torturemobiles. Around here they call any school bus The Big Cheese. When you get to high school its way easier to get around taking them. Everyone knows someone with a license by then. Most of us would do anything to avoid stepping up onto these things, all lined up, idling. Waiting.
If I keep the earphones on then maybe theyll leave me alone. Its risky. I could miss something they say and then theyll jab me on the shoulder and sneer, "Whaddaya think youre doin, ignorin us?" I could miss something they say and wont know that Josh just told Nate, "Go around to the front of him and Ill shove him into yah and you can catchim. Hell have to thank you, but hell know. Hell know." I have bruises. If I were in second grade or something my mother would have noticed them and gone nuts. She used to crash in on me in the bathroom back then. Looking for Q-tips or checking to see if I had potatoes growing out my ears.
But its middle school now, like a Triple A club before the majors. No one can help me. Im on my own. She asks me how its going. I tell her its going. I shrug. I say fine. Or Ill tell her something about a project Im working on for some class. She likes to hear stuff like that. With her, if the grades are fine then everythings fine.
What I do is stand sort of close to kids about my size waiting for the number 38 bus. I keep the earphones on so I wont get into any conversations with any of the guys who get nailed on a regular basis. I cant be connected with them or itll be my ass too. I figure with Josh and Nate hassling me in the halls, I take my share. Luckily, they take a different bus. The one I have to watch out for after school is Roper. I try to know where he is at all times. Theres a bunch of others hes got wrapped up. I think about those weird singing groups my dad used to listen to before he died. And I think hed make a joke out of it. Call these guys Roper and the Five Strands. Or King Roper and The Twines. Anyway, N Sync. Theyd back him up if anyone complained. My dad wouldve backed me up. He was always on my side. But now its better not to have any side at all. Here I am. I got no sides. If I got no sides, do I even exist?
Its Friday, finally. All this week its been this kid Belly thats gotten knocked around. Once its clear who The Bus Jerk of the Week is everyone else just seems to slide out of the way. Glad its not them. Hey. Im glad its not me. When the bus comes most of the kids my size and me, we try to get to the seats as close to the front as possible. The bad stuff goes on in back. This way weve got our backs to it. We can only imagine. And we can deny we know anything about it. I used to try to practice telepathy to the bus driver. "Look in the mirror, look in the mirror you old geezer. Dont you see whats going on back there? Do something. Do something." Id will him to stop the bus, pick up that crackling mic of his and call the principal. Call the police. Call Ropers crappy mother to come haul him away in front of everybody. Then we could all just go home in peace. But it never happens that way.
Bellys hanging back, trying to look invisible and standing between two girls. I know the girls. Theyre nice. Verona and Maple. We talk sometimes in Social Studies. But they ignore Belly. They wouldnt dare say, "Hey, Belly. Well squeeze you in with us and Roper wont dare do anything." Maple lives two doors down from Roper. She thinks he looks in her window. I know he does. Some night soon hes going to do more. And I believe him. But I dont want to scare Maple, so I never say anything when it comes up. Belly sticks up a head taller than those girls do. Hes called Belly because he doesnt have one. Hes so skinny; hes got a sinkhole where his stomach should be. Plus his last name is Bellini.
Number 38 comes last almost every day. Packs of kids have already clumped themselves up in their big cheese slices and pulled away. Friday. Too warm for jackets. Lots of kids have them tied around their waists. Octobers drive us crazy around here. Cold in the morning, sweaty on the way home. I cant hear anything but the music in my ears. I try not to look around as the bus pulls up, but one of Ropers crew has knelt down to readjust the Velcro tape on his cast and pulled the lace on my shoe. I re-tie it and when I look up I see Maple and Verona are close to the front. By the time I get on board Belly is standing half way down the bus staring at danger. Also, theres no place up front for me. Im the last one on. The bus driver yells, "Take a seat, Bellini! Come on! I see three empties back there." He grabs one of my earphones and says to me, "Just push him along on your way down, kid, will ya? We gotta get going."
I move down the aisle until Im thump up against Bellys back. I give him a shove and he tips into a seat next to one of the henchmen. Roper sits in the far back, on the aisle. He likes to be able to get up and move around, talk to his buddies, flick some heads with his fingers. He sees the results of me giving Belly the shove and gives me the approving eye. Its never been aimed in my direction before. I take a window seat in the only empty pair left.
"Okay!" yells the bus driver. "Lets do this the easy way. Its Friday. I want alla ya stayin in yer seats. No wanderin around or Ill stop the bus and kick you off. Got it?" Sure. Hed try this every once in a while and nothing ever changed. Everyone could always come up with a good reason for not doing what that kind of guy asked. We had teachers like that too. "The next person who talks out of turn will get to have a nice visit with the principal."
That would always be followed by, "But I was just asking for a pencil." "I thought you told us to speak up if we had a question." "I was reminding Nomi about the test you said we were having tomorrow." If no one got sent to the principal, wed know the teacher was toast for the rest of the year.
On the bus it would be like, "He borrowed my book and I wanted it back to get a start on my homework." "Lowry just cut one and I couldnt stand the smell, sir." "Im reminding the guys of when practice is." No one would ever get kicked off. No ones parents would be called. Most parents went after the bus drivers instead of backing them up. It wasnt worth it to the drivers to cause a fuss. Our bus route was supposed to be the good one. We all live in these big subdivision houses. Our parents are always at the school about something, to complain or to volunteer. Facing our parents who run companies or are lawyers and tech whizzes isnt worth it to our driver up there. My moms a lawyer. She says she always plays by the rules.
The bus doors flap shut with that rubbery foosh sound as I reset my headphones, putting in a new tape. Everyone on the bus is oddly quiet. Sometimes there's almost like a low-pressure system before something happens. Like the weather is in on the plan, or maybe setting one up. But kids are just adjusting book bags and whispering. I get my music going and stare out the window. Id stare the whole nine miles home if I could. Fridays, you just never know.
Maybe fifteen minutes into the trip, after four kids are dropped off, theres a natural shift. Kids reshuffle themselves. Theres a party this weekend. Whos going. Some of them are figuring out how to hook up at the mall on Saturday. It doesnt change much. Im starting to breath a little less shallow when I see one of the Strings stretching and yawning real big which makes Belly have to move over to the edge of his seat. Hes been keeping his head down, trying the invisible act. Earlier this week hed tried, "Hi, guys. Hows it going." That got him some rope burns around his neck from a book bag, his sneaker taken, and a bash on the back of his head from every one of Ropers guys who pushed by him on the way out. Roper just shoved a finger in his ear, every day this week and pressed his thumb down on his hand like he was shooting a pistol. It looked almost gentle, the way he did it. By now, the kid next to Belly had claimed so much space that Belly was flat on his butt in the aisle. A few kids turned around and laughed. But they quickly faced front. Something was starting.
Belly looked around to see if there was somewhere to go. My seat was empty. So were a couple of others. I felt sick at the thought he might walk back up to me because Id have to look him right in the eye and say, "This one? Oh, sorry. This ones taken." But since that would have brought him deeper into enemy territory, he took an empty one near the safety zone. Soon as he sat down the two guys in back of him took turns getting him annoyed. Little things anyone would feel like a baby for complaining about. "Hey! Mister! Hes poking my neck with a pencil. Hey! Hes flicking boogers at me and wiping his fingers on my new shirt." Nothing can be done about moments like these. Nothing. Roper gets up and starts whispering in kids ears. Someone goes to sit by Belly. I cant see what was going on. But I bet most of them didnt do anything. It was just crazy-making, having someone sit down next to you, wondering what he might do, then watching one leave while another one takes the same spot.
Roper snaps his fingers and makes a hurry-up gesture at the two guys behind Belly. They get up and start pestering the girls that were left up front. Distracting the bus driver, I guess. Roper sticks one finger in Bellys left ear, snaps a thumb down, and then sticks his finger in the other ear. Back and forth. Nothing painful. He was laughing. He would use the opposite hand to push him a little on the shoulder. The way guys do when they are kidding around.
I take my headphones off. My ears are tired of music. Even though I dont want to hear or see anything on this bus, I have to watch. Its all happening right in front of me. One of the distracters picks up an ugly girls notebook and drops it so her papers fly all around and she starts to cry. Maple reaches down to help and the distracters pretend they are helping too. They are looking down Maples jersey. Belly turns around so fast I can see his eyes look poppy. He is in a rage. He says, "Quit it. Cut it out. Im warning you," to Roper who sits back and folds his arms. I cant see his face. Then after a few quiet minutes he leans over and whispers something to Belly. While hes whispering he puts his big hammy hands around Bellys neck and closes and closes them in. I can hear a kind of choking noise come from Belly and it seems as though time has slowed down. Were never going to get to our stop. Roper, Belly, two of Ropers guys and me all are heading to the same stop. No girls. Just us five, every day. Maple always rides on to hang out at Veronas. Roper takes his fingers away and I can hear Belly coughing and gagging. I hate it when someone pukes on the bus, especially on a warm day like this one. But he doesnt. His shoulders are shaking though, as if he might be crying. Now its our stop. We made it. Belly will be off the hook. He made it through Hell Week. I need to figure out ways to avoid the bus. Theres got to be some way to not have it be my turn.Im all packed up but Im not moving until all those guys are off. So I get up, and stand around, looking as if Im checking my seat instead of stalling. Finally, after I hear, "Come on, come on. Whats the hold up back there?" I go down the steps and the bus pulls away.
The smoke from it covers me and I get one of my coughing fits. When it stops and I look up, I can see Roper and the other two smacking Belly around. No one on the street is in their front yard. I dont think anyone is home on this street at this time of day. Belly isnt making any sound. Hes just standing there with his arms all up around his head. One guy socks him in the gut. Another one is just shoving him around. Roper is behind Belly and he suddenly comes up with one of these Jackie Chan moves or like what a kick boxer does. He lands one on Bellys neck and head. Then another one. And another one. Belly goes down. The guys are laughing. Roper kicks him in the head a couple more times and it looks like Belly is out, except his eyes are open. Roper is standing over him saying that line from some movie that people think theyve seen because they know the line so well. "You lookin at me? Are you lookin at me?" Belly doesnt answer. The other two guys just stand there waiting for Roper to tell them what to do. Roper kicks Belly in the head again. One of the guys says, "Rope. He looks pretty bad. Maybe we should get out of here."
Roper looks like he is coming out of a fog. "Yeah. Okay. Were outta here. Lets get our stories straight." They start running to Ropers house it looks like. I look down at Belly who isnt moving. I pick up his hand, but it flops back down on its own. Some kind of thick drool is coming out of Bellys mouth and I cant see him breathing. No one is around, still. I look around one more time. Then I look back at Belly and give him a good hard kick to the ribs. I dont know why I did that. But I did.
My house is in the other direction and I start walking home. Ill wait and see what the newspapers say happened.