They tell the story like they tell so many other stories. I guess it’s its own kind of urban legend now.
“You know what I heard?”
“It happened to my cousin’s best friend.”
“This is why you never want to fall asleep on the bus.”
Of course I heard the story, but it was like the stories about Bloody Mary or the Sandman or the Old House on the Hill. You tune them out because Things Like That just don’t happen. They’re kids’ stories. You hear them over and over again, but they’re not real.
Except this didn’t happen to my cousin’s best friend. This was not something I heard somewhere. I should have listened. I fell asleep on the bus.
Us bus riders all wondered at some point where the school buses came from, where they went at the end of the day after the last stop. Some of the braver of us even asked the bus driver.
“Just goes back to the garage,” the swarthy woman grunted.
This was a much more mundane answer than any of us expected, but then I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect. But no matter how mysteriously the bus appeared and went away again, this was a reasonable explanation. In the end the bus was just a really big car and cars go in garages. I had a little trouble imagining a garage so big, but that seemed to be all the bus driver was going to say on the matter.
I really didn’t think about it again after that. Why would I? The bus driver, the final fearsome authority on the bus, had spoken and dispelled all the wild possibilities we’d concocted. She disrupted and destroyed the one big mystery surrounding that novel transport with a single short off hand sentence. Our tiny worlds were boring again. The long ride home was boring again.
My little sister and I got off at the second to last stop, so we didn’t have the longest wait until the bus dropped us three houses down from ours, but for a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old respectively, an hour after a long school day was an eternity. Without meaning to we made it a rule that we would take turns napping on the bus. One of us had to stay awake so we wouldn’t miss our stop. No one else got off the bus in our neighborhood, so if we both fell asleep, we were in real trouble.
That day was supposed to be my turn. That day I was alone on the bus except for the Last-Stop-Kids because my sister stayed home sick.
“Don’t fall asleep on the bus,” my mom said that morning, “I’m working late today, so I can’t help you if you miss your stop.”
I gave her my best eye roll. “I’m not a baby, Mom”
Except when the bus came to my stop I was out cold on a seat in the back of the bus. No one saw me. No one bothered to check for me. I missed my stop.
Our teachers and parents all warned us not to leave our things on the bus. We probably wouldn’t get them back if we did.
“It might not be the same bus tomorrow, you know.” I was pretty sure it usually was the same bus. I’d scratched my initials in a chair because another kid dared me. They were there every time we got on. But things did go missing when they got left behind, so whatever the reason, it made sense not to forget stuff. My sister lost a lunch box one year.
I was about to find out where all the missing stuff went.
At first I only felt the bus roll to a stop. I’d felt it before, I knew, when the last stop came around and the other kids got off. I’d had a foggy idea that them getting off before me wasn’t right, but I was so tired. And then the bus was stopping again and the engine cut off. There was more rumbling outside the bus, I thought maybe from other buses since it sounded much the same. The bus doors opened.
“Dolores, you look awful. Little hooligans too much today?” A gruff voice outside.
The whole bus rocked and creaked as the bus driver got off the bus. She grunted, “Kids weren’t so bad. Just a long day.”
“Need the broom?” asked the voice outside.
“Nah, I’ll clean up in the morning,” the bus driver said, her voice fading with her footsteps. “‘Sides, it’s almost time.”
The last engine cut off outside and I should have said something. I should have told them I was still there and asked to call my mom, but I wasn’t supposed to be on the bus. I was scared to get in trouble. I would have jumped and yelled and taken whatever punishment if I’d known what was coming.
The light outside faded to a dark grey that swallowed the shadows in the bus. I heard heavy chain rattling on chain link fence a long way away and then nothing. The bus driver left the door open. It occurred to me I had no idea if you could even close the door from the outside. The handle the driver pushed and pulled only appeared inside. I listened a little longer hoping to hear if anyone else was still around. I heard nothing.
Slowly, I stood and looked out the windows. My bus sat parked with others in rows facing an old portable building. The door had the word “Office” printed on the front in large, bold letters. A big red brick garage sat next to the office. It looked like the one my mom took the car to when things broke sometimes, but bigger. It didn’t look at all like I’d tried to imagine before when I wondered where buses went. I’d have to tell my sister all about it later. She’d never believe me. But first I had to get home.
It was almost too dark too see when I finally worked up the nerve to get off the bus. Maybe they left the office unlocked or kept a pay phone around. I had to call my mom. Even if she couldn’t come get me right away, she would at least like to know where I was. She’d probably know what to do. I’d never used a pay phone before, but people in books did it all the time, so it couldn’t be too hard. I’d have to remember to tell my mom that it was times like then that cell phones were an absolute necessity. She didn’t think a nine-year-old ought to have one. I would have eaten a whole bowl of worms for a cell phone right then.
I stepped off the bus just as a breeze blew past between the buses. I shivered and wished I hadn’t refused to take my jacket that morning. I marched for the office first. Both buildings and all the buses were dark, but off the bus the thumbnail moon gave just enough light that I could see that the chain link fence looked like it went all the way around the lot where the drivers parked in neat, close lines. And I could see the bus sized gate was padlocked with a heavy chain. I tried not panic as I wondered how I was going to get out. I pulled my backpack tighter to my back, hunched in on myself against the chill, and marched onward to the office building.
I started to imagine I was lost in the mountains, the soul survivor from an exploration expedition. If only I could get to a phone, I could let someone know I was alive. I could get back to civilization. I could-
The lights in the office building flicked on. I froze. I was torn between running the rest of the way to pound on the door, begging to use the phone, and running back to the bus to hide and avoid getting in trouble. Then the lot got even brighter as flood lights I hadn’t noticed before kicked on high overhead. I suddenly understood what it felt like when people said they felt like a deer in headlights. My heart pounded so loud, I knew they would catch me. They would catch me. Mom would ground me for life if I ever got out of detention again. What if they thought I broke in? Would they send me to jail? My uncle said they had a jail just for kids. I was convinced I was going to jail.
Far away behind me I heard a noise like the bus driver jumping in and out of the bus; steel groaning and rubber squeaking. In front of me the office door opened and a kid sized shape called out in a kid voice.
“Hey, kid, what are you doing out there? You got a death wish? Get in here!”
Off in another direction the same groaning, squeaking sounds echoed the first, but the second set were louder, closer. I didn’t need to be told twice. More shapes appeared in the door and someone wheeled their arms wildly waving me in.
“Come on, kid, hurry!” cried another voice.
Someone screamed as the bus closest to me began to shiver and rock, the glass rattled and steel screeched as it bent in ways it wasn’t originally meant to. I cleared the end of the bus and tried to run fast, but the ground shook beneath me so that I didn’t so much dive through the office door, everyone backing up to make room, as tumble through and across the floor. I only managed to catch a glimpse of some of the buses twisting or arching like animals stretching into waking before one of the kids slammed the door shut. I dropped my head and shut my eyes, too, and lied there, panting, feeling the portable tremble under and around me. Any minute now, the bus was going to stop three houses down from mine and I was going to wake up, go home, and tell my sister all about the crazy dream I’d just had.
“Hey, you’re new!”
I opened my eyes to find a handful of kids standing around me. “What was that?” I asked.
They looked around at each other and back down at me. “Boy, you are really new.”
I looked around at all of them. “What do you mean?” Some of them fidgeted and looked away.
One of them said, “Cripes, you got eyes, don’t ya?”
“They’re the Buses.”
I’d only heard the school bus horn once and it had been loud and blasted only for a minute when the bus got cut off by a pick-up truck one morning. Most of the kids cheered, because our bus driver almost never used the horn, but it had scared the heck out of me and I almost cried. (I’d only been in kindergarten then.) All at once it sounded like all the horns in the lot outside were going off. If I thought the portable was shaking before, it was nothing like what that amount of noise was doing. Things on the big desk jumped so much a cup of pencils fell off the side. It sounded like mechanical whales made by giants wailing back and forth to each other; long and deafening and almost sad like whales. I put my hands to my ears.
One of the kids leaned down to yell into my face. “And they’re the Beasts.” And then I couldn’t take it anymore. It was all too much. I cried.
The kids left me alone for a while. Maybe they felt bad for me, or maybe they just didn’t know what to say. I don’t think I would have known what to say to me either right then. I stayed there on the floor for a long time crying, and every time one of the Bus Beasts let loose with another horn call, I cried some more. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to play video games with my sister and microwave leftover soup and wait for my mom to come home to help me with my homework and then tuck both my sister and me into bed. I wanted my mom to come get me and take me home. I had to get home. I stopped crying.
The boy who had yelled at me before to get inside came over and sat down next to me. “Hey, kid, you okay?” He had glasses like my grandpa and was dressed in a button down shirt like my mom made me wear for church. I wondered if he’d had picture day at his school that day.
I sniffled and sat up, nodding. “I want to go home.”
“Yeah,” he said, “us, too.” He looked sad.
I thought about it. I had wanted to call my mom at first when I realized I had missed my stop. There was a phone on the desk. I pointed at it and frowned. “Can’t we just call our parents?” The rest of the kids who had been quietly talking or just shuffling around on the other side of the office all stopped and looked at me. The boy looked even sadder and one of the smaller kids started to sniffle, too. The boy shook his head.
“It doesn’t work.”
I was confused. “What? Why not?”
“Knock it off, Chuck, Annabell’s gonna cry.” The oldest looking kid, whose jeans had more holes than jean, glared at me and the kid sitting next to me, who I guessed was Chuck.
“No way, not me. It’s Marcus.” A girl with long braids and crazy diamond pattern tights that reminded me of my aunt’s couch tossed her head in the direction of a smaller boy in a sweater way too big for him. Marcus rubbed his nose on his sleeve and shook his head violently.
“Cool it, Patrick, Annabell.” Chuck glared right back. I wouldn’t have ever dared talk back to an older kid like that. For a minute I was afraid the older kid, Patrick, would walk over and punch Chuck in the face. Those kids were making me nervous.
“Why doesn’t the phone work?” I asked again.
Patrick rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding?” There was obviously something I was missing and it was giving me a horrible sinking sensation in my gut.
Chuck stood up and stepped between me and Patrick. “I said lay off.”
“The kid’s gotta know sometime, Chuck! Go ahead and say it!”
“Hey, guys, come on. Marcus really is gonna cry.” Annabell went and wrapped an arm around the smaller boy who looked stunned and horrified.
“I am not,” he piped up and tried to squirm away from Annabell, but his voice quavered and he seemed to shrink farther into his sweater.
“Shut it, Annabell!” Patrick snapped. “You seriously won’t say it, Chuck? It’s not going to change! We can’t go home! We can’t ever go home!”
I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing. A thunderous crashing sound came through the walls and I watched the shadows of the Bus Beasts on the closed blinds as Beasts lumbered past the windows and apparently rammed into each other. It made me think of the nature documentary with the goats ramming their horns together trying to show who’s strongest. I’d have to look for it again when I got home. If I got home. Marcus burst into tears and heaved huffing sobs into his arms.
“What’s he talking about?” I looked to Chuck. For some reason he seemed to be the leader. Nothing was making sense around there. Chuck turned around and looked down at me still sitting on the floor. He was pale and more freckles stood out on his cheeks and across his nose than before.
“Well,” he said, “Cripes, kid. It’s just like he says. We can’t go home. It’s just what happens if you get locked in with the Beasts.” He ran one hand through his hair and he looked so much older all of a sudden.
“But-why? Why doesn’t the phone work? Why can’t we go home?”
Patrick kicked over a small trashcan and we all jumped. Then Marcus said in a small, watery voice, “Molly said it’s ‘cause we saw them. We’re not supposed to know. We’re not supposed to tell anyone.”
Annabell patted the top of Marcus’ head. “The phones zap us if we try to touch them when the Beasts are awake,” she said, “And we can’t get at the phone when the grown ups are here. They can’t see us, so they freak out if we move things around.”
“Patrick tried when he got here. We all did.” Chuck said.
I thought about this. I swallowed. “So I can’t call my mom?”
Chuck shook his head. “The phones won’t let you.”
“I can’t–” I swallowed again. My mouth was dry. I was going to cry again for sure. “I really can’t go home?” Maybe it was all a big joke. Maybe they already called the police and all our parents would come get us soon.
Chuck just shook his head again.
“Wait! We can’t be stuck here forever, right? You said there’s someone else! Molly, right? But there’s only you guys here. Did she get out?” I looked around at all of them, desperate. Patrick swore and Annabell yelled at him to watch his mouth in front of Marcus.
Marcus shoved Annabell off and wiped his nose on his oversized sleeve again. ”Molly rides the buses,” he said through a stuffed nose. I didn’t understand. Hadn’t we all ridden the buses? I mean, that was how I’d gotten into that mess. I assumed the other kids there– Chuck, Annabell, Patrick and Marcus– were all the same.
Annabell and Patrick stopped yelling at each other. Annabell said, “He means she rides the Buses when they’re awake. Molly’s kind of wild, you know?”
Patrick snorted. “You mean Molly’s kind of like a super bi–”
“Hey!” Chuck cut Patrick off and gave him a dirty look. Patrick rolled his eyes. He was way better at it than I was.
I could feel my heart pounding hard again and now my hands were shaking, too. I lied back down on the floor. How could they be so calm about all this? Molly rode the Buses for goodness sake. That was nuts! Then I realized they talked about everything like– they all talked about Molly riding the Buses and all of them being invisible to grown-ups like that’s the way it always was.
“How do you guys know so much?” I asked.
Chuck shrugged. ”We’ve all been here for a while.”
Patrick kicked the trashcan again. ”I said it, didn’t I? We can’t go home.”
Outside, the Buses seemed to be settling down. They weren’t crashing into each other so much anymore. Every now and then one would call out and one or two of the others would answer. Everyone in the office was quiet for a long time. Finally, Marcus said in a sniffly, watery voice, “Molly said the Old Man knows a way out.”
I turned my head to look up at him; he had my attention, but Annabell sighed and Chuck groaned. Patrick said, “Come on, Marcus, don’t start that again. Molly is crazy! She’s a complete whack job! Don’t be a frikin stooge.”
“Besides,” Annabell said, “none of us has ever even seen the Old Man.”
Chuck frowned, but didn’t say anything.
It didn’t matter that everyone else told Marcus to shut up. He’d said enough. I had to find Molly and the Old Man.
“Where–” I tried, but Annabell and Patrick had resumed arguing, so I tried again. “Hey!” I yelled. Annabell and Patrick stopped arguing and everyone turned to stare at me still lying on the floor. “I– I want to meet Molly. I want to ask if she’ll take me to see the Old Man.”
Annabell’s eyes got big and Patrick swore again. No one bothered to tell him to stop. Chuck looked surprised and Marcus grinned at me. He couldn’t be too much younger than my sister, but right then I thought he was probably the coolest kid in the room. He said, “She’ll come! She always comes with stuff from the Buses.”
Chuck coughed and said, “Yeah, she does. Even if she’s got a few screws loose, she’s not all bad.”
As if she heard us talking, in stepped a girl who looked like she got into a fight with a closet and lost. She seemed to be almost entirely made up of several layers of clothes. Behind her she dragged a little red wagon piled with even more stuff; backpacks, jackets, lunch boxes, toys, hats, shoes and other stranger things. Marcus lit up and dashed for the girl at the door, entirely undaunted by the Buses roaming behind her and the wagon like so much cattle. I felt ill.
“Molly! What’d you get today?” Marcus asked.
“Marcus, hang on!” Annabel cried. But even as she said it, she shuffled forward looking in the red wagon. Even Patrick went straight for the wagon.
Chuck stood up and held out a hand to help pull me to my feet. As I stood, he leaned in and muttered into my ear, “Before you start hauling, I gotta talk to you, alright?”
I nodded and he let go to go look in the wagon with the other kids.