Unlike me, Trip never keeps his mouth shut. “Nervous, Tullin?” he asks, tilting the rearview mirror as he drives so he can see me in the backseat.
“Pay attention to the road,” says Dad, putting the mirror back in place.
Trip knows I won’t answer, so he goes ahead with our conversation. “Don’t worry,” he tells me with his hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the steering wheel. He accelerates around a curve and Dad nods with approval in the passenger’s seat. “Just stay away from the whistling.”
Who’s going to be whistling at me? I look down at the front of my tee shirt. It’s blue, baggy, new. Blending-in clothes, not whistling-at clothes.
Trip is driving us to the freshman open house at Davis High, logging hours with his driver’s permit. He’s already seventeen, the last of his friends to drive, but everybody understands why he wasn’t eager to get on the road. Anyway, he’s not driving today for experience. He’s driving because he never misses a social opportunity. Incoming freshmen are a total social opportunity. As the quarterback of the Davis Raiders, Trip likes to meet his public.
Dad settles back in the seat, almost approving of Trip’s driving skills. “What whistling?” he asks.
“You know, the principals. They walk around looking for people breaking rules so they can blow their whistles at them.”
I rub my palms on my knees and check my lip-gloss in the reflection of the window. The road twists and turns around brown pastures turned scraggly in the August heat. The faded sign at the county line says: “Davis County, North Carolina, Where Progress Never Forgets.” We’re so close to the boundaries that we’re barely legal for this school district. Fine by me. Nobody much to carpool with.
“The only people that blew whistles when I went to school there were the coaches. All the other adults just yelled,” says Dad. He grasps the dashboard as we reach a stop sign. We’re flung slightly forward as Trip stomps the brake. “Leave yourself more space to stop next time,” says Dad. His mouth is stretched into a grim line.
I look at Dad’s graying hair parted on the side, his white starched shirt, his silver wristwatch. Dad wouldn’t break a rule, even in high school. I’m almost sure no one’s ever yelled at Dad.
“They also hate fighting, but they especially hate PDA’s,” says Trip. “That gets you the loudest whistle of all.”
Dad raises an eyebrow and I think fast. Pee-Dee- Aye. What does that mean? Trip knows he’s got our attention, so he makes it last as we wait for a line of cars to cruise past. He raises an arm to sniff his armpit, then checks his wavy hair in the mirrored visor to make sure it’s flopping appropriately over his left eye. “Public Displays of Affection,” he finally says.
I still don’t get it, but Dad makes a noise between a cough and a grunt. Trip glances at me in the rearview mirror. I must look confused, so he says, “Like, slipping someone the tongue between the lockers. Don’t be doing that.” He grins to let me know he’s teasing.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” snaps Dad, even though we’re still sitting at the stop sign.
My face burns and I hope neither of them is picturing me French kissing someone during class change. Like that would ever happen. Dad’s eyes meet mine in the mirror. Yep. He’s picturing it.
Trip takes a right and the number of cars on the road increases. The entrance to the high school is only a half-mile away. There’s a knot of dread in my stomach but most of these people won’t know me. Maybe they’ll all think I’m just silent and mysterious. Artistic and moody. I look down at my plain clothes. Or shy and uninteresting. That could work, too.
We ease to a stoplight beside Ron’s Gas n’ Go. There’s a small white church beside the gas station. The sign out front always offers helpful advice. JESUS IS THE GREAT COUNSELOR. GUIDANCE IS ALL YOU NEED, it says.
Trip flips on the turn signal. “You can always go to the guidance counselor’s office if you get lost. You might have to ask for directions for the first couple of days, but then you should get the hang of it.”
Ask for directions? Ask for directions? What’s the matter with him? shouts my brain.
There’s silence, except for the whooshing of the pulse in my ears keeping time with the green turn signal blinking on the dashboard.
Dad turns and fixes a stare at the side of Trip’s head that ought to be making my brother’s hair product smolder. Trip looks left and right, oblivious to the heat of Dad’s expression or the sudden crushing change of air density in the car. In fact, one of us in here is no longer able to breathe.
“Maybe you can help her?” Dad savors each word, tasting all the consonants and vowels.
“Uh…yeah,” agrees Trip. “Sure.” He pushes the knob on the radio and turns the volume up, then plays a drum solo in the air with his fingers. “Hey, can I go with some of the guys to the lake on Labor Day?”
“Both hands on the wheel,” says Dad, turning the music back down. There’s a new crease between his eyebrows. “And no. The lake is too crowded on holiday weekends.”
Trip frowns and grasps the wheel the way Dad asks. “But Jay’s Dad will drive the boat. We’d be totally safe.”
“I said no,” says Dad, putting a period on the end of the conversation.
We drive through the crowded parking lot for several minutes before we find a spot, and it takes another three minutes of backing in and out before Dad is satisfied. No door dings allowed.
School is a sprawling campus, building after building connected with metal covered breezeways. I can’t tell where the front door is. Dad and Trip walk side by side through the parking lot towards a flagpole. They’re both sunburned on the backs of their necks. Dad’s arms have a farmer’s tan under his long-sleeved starched shirt from cutting hay on the weekends. Their arms and backs are hard with muscle. I flab along behind, then scurry to catch up so I don’t look like a tag-along loser.
A girl’s voice squeals to my left. “Triiiippp!” A streak of hot pink followed by a stream of long blonde hair shoots in front of us. I get a whiff of flowers and hairspray and then Trip picks her up in a hug.
Dad and I stop and glance at each other. Trip and the girl are still hugging. I suddenly feel like I should be doing something with my arms. Why are they just dangling around? I fold them in front of my chest and watch the shadow of a bird drift up the pavement past the flagpole. Dad jangles some change in his pockets.
“Oh My God!” says Blondie, pulling away and looking into Trip’s face. “I saw you at the scrimmage game last week! You were so awesome!
Trip smiles and shrugs. She keeps her hand on his arm.
“Uncle Chuck says you’re going to be the next Mike Collins!” she continues.
I feel Dad tune into the conversation. He’s no longer looking at the ground, but watching the girl like he hopes she’ll say some more. Mike Collins got a football scholarship to Clemson three years ago.
“Annalese, this is my Dad and my sister, Tullin,” says Trip, gesturing at us.
I look into the girl’s face. It’s open and smiling. Her frosted pink lips are parted. It’s possible that she may burst into song.
“This is Annalese Hampton,” he says. “Coach Hampton’s niece. She’s been helping out at practices.”
Dad’s face morphs into his insurance salesman’s smile. “Nice to meet you, Annalese,” he says. He’s the king of good eye contact. I should take notes. He leans forward to grasp her hand in a warm handshake. “You tell your uncle our boy’s going to make him proud.” Trip ducks his head and shuffles his feet.
“Are you a freshman?” she asks me, all southern charm in a sundress. I don’t answer because I’m southern silence in a tee shirt. I nod. “Me too!” she chirps. “Who do you have for homeroom?”
I haven’t even gotten inside to get my schedule yet, so I shrug and flap my hands against the sides of my legs.
She laughs. “Oh! Sorry! I guess you should go inside and find out.” She moves out of our way. “Nice to meet y’all. Bye, Trip.” She slings her fluffy hair over her shoulder and it floats back into position. Trip watches every inch of her walk away until Dad clears his throat.
We continue in a threesome up the sidewalk. I keep my eyes on the ground. For some reason, there are dried-up earthworms littering the concrete. Too many to count. Even Trip, whose chin is always at a ninety-degree angle from his neck, sees the worm genocide.
“Gross,” he says. “What’s up with all these dead worms?”
“Probably because it rained yesterday,” says Dad. “They tend to crawl out into the puddles. When the water dries up, they’re stranded.”
“Ugh,” says Trip. “They look like old spaghetti.”
I sidestep one after another. There are so many that it doesn’t even look natural. I imagine them squirming, silently dying under the hot sun.
And then, I look up at the four stories of windows staring down at me, probably full of nameless people waiting for me to come out from under my rock and introduce myself.
Stupid worms should’ve stayed underground.
We wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus. The hot, bright day I’d imagined as my first day of school looks more like a swamp at dawn. Thick fog chokes out sound and light and even the edge of the paved road in front of us. The worst fog I’ve seen in years, Dad had said at breakfast. Glad you’re not driving in it.
Trip reaches to poke at my straightened hair under the umbrella. “I like the new look,” he says. I swat his hand away. “Don’t be so touchy,” he says. “It’s the first day of the best years of your life.”
Says the quarterback of the football team.
Fat, scattered drops of leftover rain fall from the pine trees over our heads. My hair is curling back up so fast it feels like bugs on my scalp. Trip runs his hand through his own hair and it stands straight up over his temple. Makes him look even cooler. I want to kick him.
He gives me a soft punch in the shoulder. “It’s only high school, Tullin. Try not to look so scared.”
I swallow. “R-r-right,” I say out loud, just to prove I’m tougher than I look.
The rumbling of the bus engine reaches us before we can see headlights shining through the gloom. It comes around the bend in the road and the bright orange stays invisible until the bus groans to a stop in front of our unpaved driveway. The doors swoosh open. Fog stirs around the huge tires, beckoning us to enter. The gates of hell probably wish they could look this sinister.
Trip trails his fingers through the tiny cyclones of white and heads for the bus. I follow him, concentrating on the beads of wet that cling to his dark backpack.
“Mornin’,” says Mrs. Little as we climb the steps. She smiles a gap-toothed smile from behind the steering wheel and adjusts the waistband of her Tuesday pants. Brown polyester is always on Tuesday. Tomorrow, it’ll be blue polyester. I try and smile at her, glad to have the same bus driver from last year. We live so far out in the county that Mrs. Little picks up for both the middle school and high school.
I drop into a seat near the front, but Trip nudges me with his knee. “Keep going,” he says so quietly that I have to read his lips. “Don’t sit up here with the middle schoolers.” I stand and follow him, staring at the floor. Halfway down the aisle, he calls to the guys in the back of the bus and deserts me. I slip into a seat and slide to the window, staring at the wall of white pressing against the glass. The engine clanks as the bus changes gears and I hear Trip and his friends cursing in cheerful voices, shouting happy insults at each other the way boys can get away with. Nice job, says my brain. Your brother’s ashamed and you haven’t even opened your mouth yet.
Shut up, I tell it, but it shows me pictures of myself wandering lost through the halls because I won’t ask directions to the bathroom. You might have to go outside…pee in the bushes, it says.
In front of me, a head rises to peer over the seat. The eyes watch my brother without blinking, then look down at me. “That your brother?” the head asks. I can’t see the mouth. I can’t tell if the speaker is male or female. Friend or enemy. Animal or mineral.
I nod and look out the window even though I can’t see out because of the fog. I feel the eyes still on me. I can’t make myself look back. Whoever it is might want to have a whole conversation.
“He’s hot,” says the set of eyes attached to a forehead and scalp.
I figure there’s no answer required since it would be weird to agree on the hotness of my brother.
The eyes sink back down behind the brown, vinyl seat and remind me of something from early evolution sliding back into the mud that birthed it.
Mrs. Little shifts gears and I hold as still as possible. If the rabbit doesn’t move, the predators might not see it. Good plan. Maybe you can stay frozen all four years of high school, says my brain. I lean against the window and resort to an old method of escape I used in elementary school; I pretend to be asleep.
The bus continues on its route, stopping to pick up passengers from the ocean of nothingness outside. I wonder how Mrs. Little can see to drive.
As more people climb into the bus, the inevitable happens; a person sits beside me, jostling my arm.
“Hey. You asleep, or somethin’?” It’s the voice from the seat in front of me, but now it’s beside me, demanding an answer. My eyes are closed. I wonder if I can nod yes and still pretend to be asleep. I crack one eyelid without moving and take a peek. A skinny girl with stringy blonde hair is beside me. She’s peering into my face. Her eyes seem too close together.
I close my eyelid again. She seems to think I’ve fallen back to sleep. “I’m Lola. I’m new,” she says into my ear in a loud voice, like sleeping is a condition that also makes you deaf. Her breath hits my cheek in a quick rhythm as she waits for a reply.
I open my eyes and move my head back an inch to escape, but no luck. Lola slides closer. Her plaid shirt is missing the top button. I wonder if she would have buttoned her shirt all the way to the top if that button had been available. Probably.
“I used to live here, but my Mama’s boyfriend took all our money and run off with our dog, so we had to go live with my aunt down in Florida. That was when I was in fifth grade. It took us four years to get our dog back.” She holds up four fingers in front of my eyes and I try to focus on them without going cross-eyed.
“He’s still a good dog and all, even though he bit my cousin Ronald. Now he has cancer. Not Ronald. Charlie-the-dog, and anyway Ronald asked for it. Not the cancer, ‘cause he don’t have that. He asked for the bite ‘cause he was trying to steal Charlie’s hotdog. It ain’t a real hotdog. Just one of them plastic ones.”
She waits. Her breath is hot. I have to do something. Finally, I nod. She settles back into the seat seeming satisfied that she got a response from me.
“Are you in ninth grade? I am. I wanted to come to that orientation thing the other night but Jimmy had to work and me and Mama didn’t have anyone to bring us. She don’t like to come out to stuff like that, anyhow. Jimmy, he works down at Kylon. Sometimes he brings home some of that foam they make down there and me and Ronald and Charlie-the-dog tear it up in little pieces and jump in it, like it’s a pile of leaves or something.”
I stare at her. I can’t help it.
“You ever been down to the Kylon plant?” she asks.
I shake my head no.
“You oughta go sometime. They got this little cafeteria and this Mexican woman makes all their food. They had a family picnic down there in July and me and Mama went, even though we ain’t really Jimmy’s family, but he lives with us so that’s close enough. That Mexican woman made these things called fra-tee-toes…or maybe it was fa-hee-toes, I don’t know. But we brought some home because they were so good and we were gonna have ‘em for dinner except Charlie-the-dog found the bag ‘cause Jimmy forgot to put ‘em in the fridge and he ate all of them. Charlie-the-dog, not Jimmy. He almost exploded with farts after that.”
She cracks herself up with the fart comment. Her shoulders shake with laughter. “Oh God,” she says, wiping her eyes. “You should’ve seen Mama. She had to smoke eight Marlboros to calm down. Then she tried to read Charlie-the-dog’s fortune for punishment. Man, he hates that. He won’t ever hold still long enough to choose a tarot card.”
I stare at my hands lying on my lap. Lola’s a total head case. She laughs long and hard beside me.
“Mama says I talk too much. She says I could carry on a conversation with a brick wall if it had lips.”
The brick wall would only have to have ears, not lips, to be in a conversation with Lola. She yammers away which is fine by me, moving on in her monologue to tell me about her Mama’s fortune telling business. After a few minutes I give up trying to follow her story. I can’t keep the names of the people she’s talking about straight anymore. I realize she doesn’t expect anything from me except an occasional nod, anyway. I finally begin to relax.
And that’s when it starts to get weird.
Whoever’s eating breakfast on the bus is doing it right. There’s a sweet, buttery smell drifting between the seats that makes me wish I’d eaten breakfast, but I’d been too nervous. It smells like hot apple pie. Wait, no, it’s got to be peach cobbler. The smell is so intense that I can close my eyes and picture the warm juice seeping through the cracks in the flakey crust. It’s like walking into the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning, where delicious smells are so thick they bog down the air.
Lola hasn’t stopped talking, but that doesn’t mean I have to look interested. I check around me to see who the lucky person is. No one seems to be eating anything, not even chewing gum. The girl across the aisle picks up her backpack and starts digging inside. I lean past Lola to see if she’s going to pull out a dish of cobbler. Maybe it’s a back-to-school surprise for the teacher’s lounge. She drops her bag back onto the floor with a clunk. Obviously, no peach cobbler in there.
The smell gets stronger, so strong that I actually stand and look at the people sitting behind and in front of us.
“What are you doing?” asks Lola.
I sniff deep. “Th-th-that smell…” I say. That’s how intense it is. It causes me to actually speak. Out loud.
Lola stands beside me and sucks air in hard through her nose. Then she makes a face. “Smells like feet,” she says. “Or maybe it’s like how the rubber part of the bottom of your shoe smells. I’ve never actually smelled that part of my shoes, but I think it would smell like the bus does. Ronald, he used to have rubber sheets on his bed ‘cause he always peed at night. Still does after he drinks tea. Man, rubber sheets stink like…”
“N-n-no! P-p-peach cobbler!”
She looks at me like I’m crazy. “You smell peach cobbler? Right now?”
I’m starting to feel wrapped in it, hugged by cobbler-scented molecules. It might be the most wonderful thing I’ve ever smelled in my life.
Then it gets stronger. Almost too sweet. I sit back down, confused. Lola sits too and keeps talking.
“I’ve never had peach cobbler, but I love them little apple pies from McDonald’s,” she says. “My aunt down in Florida tried to make some apple dumplings with canned biscuits and chopped-up apples. Someone told her to put a can of Mountain Dew in it so she did but…”
I can’t listen to her anymore.
The sweetness is clogging my throat and the peachiness is getting more agitating. Now, it reminds me of a peach-scented candle, the cheap kind that makes you want to open a window after you light it. I frown and rub my nose.
“…And if me and Mama went through the drive-thru at midnight, Curtis, who worked there, would always give us all the apple pies that had been sitting there for a while. Curtis was almost her boyfriend, but then he decided not to be, but he gave us all the apple pies anyways, ‘cause the crusts was all wrinkly and dried-out…”
I know it’s not my imagination. The smell is changing into something bad. It starts to remind me of that pink, thick antibiotic I took for ear infections when I was small. I want it to go away.
I bend down and put my forehead on my knees. I hold my nose, then try to only breathe through my mouth. It doesn’t make any difference; I can still smell it, hot and nasty now, like burning peach syrup and rotten garbage. It seeps into my head and attaches itself. I can’t get away. I’m going to gag.
Then it congeals inside me and I have a sense of acceptance, like I knew this was going to happen. The voice in my brain finally chimes in. You couldn’t have known this was going to happen. Something’s wrong with you!
My head is still on my knees and I reach blindly for something to hold on to. I end up with Lola’s wrist. I squeeze it, hard enough to make her yelp.
“Hey, are you sick or something? What’s the matter with you? Hey!” she hollers. “I think this girl’s sick!”
People around us are murmuring, but I can’t be bothered. I have to pay attention; in another part of my head I’ve gone hollow. The part that was Tullin is gone, replaced with the image of…a mailbox?
A woman’s voice calls from far away. “Zoey? Where are you?” A small hand reaches high, trying to get the mail. The owner of the hand is too short to reach the metal door on the front of the box. “Zoey?” calls the woman, more frantic this time.
I feel the presence of Zoey give up playing mailman and begin hopping across the double yellow lines in the center of the road. My eyes seem to watch through hers as her tiny feet navigate the lines in white bedroom slippers. The bus engine roars in the distance, then surges to sudden fullness in my own ears. Zoey’s gone. I’m on the bus. The bus shifts and clanks with numbing loudness as it heads towards Zoey’s hopscotch game.
I jump up and Lola falls back against the seat with her eyes wide. I seem to have scared her momentarily mute. I put my hand on her shoulder to steady myself and try to step over her knees. My foot gets caught in the strap of her backpack and I fall into the aisle. “Stop the bus!” I scream.
Necks stretch as people watch me untangle myself, sloppy with panic. My hair slings across my face and sticks in my lip-gloss. “Stop the bus,” I screech again from the floor and there’s nervous laughter around me, but I don’t care if people think I’m crazy, because I’m not. I know I’m not. Confidence surges through me and in that second I know I’m wonderful and I’ve got to save somebody and they can think whatever they want.
I stand up from the floor. Mrs. Little’s eyes dart to the rearview mirror. For the eternity of a second, we look at each other.
“There’s a little girl!” I point out the windshield. The words I yell are a surprise to me; I can’t understand how the feeling turned into words. I can’t understand how the words are perfect. Why aren’t they stuck in my throat like usual? Why aren’t they forming a big wad of sound that can’t squeeze past the starting gate?
Mrs. Little pumps the brakes. The bus lurches and slows just a tiny bit.
I manage to stumble forward. “You gotta stop! You’re gonna hit her!”
Mrs. Little leans over the steering wheel and peers through the fog. “I don’t see anything,” she calls. The bus slows some more, but it’s not enough.
I can’t see out the window either, but I know. And the bus seems unstoppable as it rolls downhill.
I make it to the front. “Now! Stop now!” I scream. I brace myself against the pole beside Mrs. Little.
“What are you talking about?” Her voice is angry now, losing patience. She presses the brake harder and everyone shrieks and falls forward when the bus jerks.
Then there’s a streak of red and a flurry of motion in the road. We’re almost on top of it. Mrs. Little makes a gurgling sound and stands on the brakes. She turns the wheel in a hard left. The rear of the bus slings into a screeching right slide.
People are screaming, book bags flying, and I’m thrown onto the metal handle that opens the door. Just as we come to a rocking stop across both lanes in the road, there’s a thump.
I want to throw-up.
My nose and forehead mash into the ridges on the floor. The talking inside the bus has shut off like we’ve suddenly plunged under water. I lift my head and try to focus.
Mrs. Little is so still it’s like seeing a photo. Her hands are double-clapped over her mouth, her eyes unmoving. Her foot in its comfortable shoe still holds the brake in a locked position against the floor. Like a robot, she moves the gearshift to keep the bus from rolling, then slowly lifts her foot off the pedal.
The grumbling noise of the bus engine is the only thing left that’s connecting us to normal. But then Mrs. Little turns the engine off. We’re in an eerie, quiet bubble of disbelief. Nobody seems to breathe.
What’s outside? Blood and brains and dead kid? My stomach thrusts digestive juices into my throat. I fight them down and push myself to my knees.
A high-pitched noise has started coming from Mrs. Little. She rocks forward and backwards in her seat and makes the sound of a hurt baby rabbit, a wailing screech that comes from her chest. Her mouth isn’t open to let it out and the hand remaining on her mouth helps hold it inside. Her unblinking eyes are gigantic behind her glasses.
I stand and turn to look towards the seats. Everyone is frozen. Everyone looks at me. Someone has to do something.
“Call 9-1-1,” I whisper.
They all do it. Every single kid with a phone pulls it out and starts dialing. Most of them probably didn’t hear me yelling about the kid outside but they’re all freaked out. Somewhere towards the back of the bus I can hear a choking sound. Someone’s crying. Someone’s hurt? Another joins in. I can’t locate the criers. Their tears are camouflaged by the look of horror on everyone’s faces.
I turn back to Mrs. Little. The big hand pressed over her mouth looks sunburned against the white of her cheeks. “Are you okay?” I ask. She doesn’t seem to hear me. My voice is coming from a tunnel inside my head. Did I actually speak?
Someone needs to go outside. I’m the closest person to the door. I wait for my brain to point out that I’d be the worst possible first responder, but it stays silent and I’m still invincible. I push at the handle that opens the doors and the rubber flaps give up their seal and suck apart. Fingers of white mist follow the motion of the doors as they open. All I can think about is the color red that was in the road. I need to find it, wherever it lies.
And then someone is coming towards me from the back of the bus. Trip. He catches my elbow as if to hold me steady and looks down at our driver. “Mrs. Little?”
She’s still unreachable.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for Trip. Too much emotion suddenly swims below the surface. I can’t speak or it’ll come up for air. I have to stay steady.
I turn and go down the stairs, stepping off the bus into a mound of flowers–pink, white, and coral around a mailbox. The mailbox tilts to the right, away from the front corner of the bumper. Was this the thump? We mowed down the mailbox? A statue of a cement frog is lying on its side in the flowers. Its cheeks are creased in a permanent, gruesome smile. Joke’s on you, it seems to say. You only killed the mailbox.
“That must’ve been what we hit,” says Trip, from the steps behind me. “Better that than a dog or something, I guess.”
He doesn’t know. He was too far back to hear what I said to Mrs. Little.
“What was wrong with you?” he asks. “Why were you yelling?”
Might as well tell him. He’ll probably hear about it soon, anyway. “I saw somebody,” I say.
He follows me through the flowers. “You saw someone in the road?”
“Yeah.” I circle around the flowers, checking for a crumpled body. Then I cross through the beam of the headlights, scanning the weeds on the side of the pavement. Nothing.
Trip’s still confused. “You could see out the windshield from where you were sitting?”
I don’t bother to answer. Where’s the red? It has to be here somewhere. I take a deep breath, squeeze my eyes shut and lower myself to the ground beside the wheel. I force myself to look underneath.
And there’s an empty little girl’s white bedroom slipper, turned on its side, just behind the front tire.
A screaming starts. It blends together with the sound of sirens from all directions. I squat onto my heels and curl into a ball. Trip crouches beside me and I wonder if I’m a basket case, but the screaming isn’t me at all.
Beside the mailbox, there’s a driveway. The scream comes from beyond the fog on the other end. As it comes closer, I see it’s a woman in her pajamas. Hysteria makes her into a banshee. Her robe flies out behind her as she runs towards the bus. Her hair stands in points. Her mouth is a hole of dark in the white air.
Police cars arrive. Cops swarm the scene. Two hold the woman back at the end of her driveway, while three drop to their knees in front of the bus. Just before I close my eyes again, I see Trip’s panic. He reaches to cover his ears with his hands and draws his shoulders up, finally realizing what’s happening.
The invincibility is still with me. I’m okay, I’m okay, I tell myself. I stand and back away from the bus, letting the policemen crowd around the tires, so intent in their search that they don’t ask us why we’re not on the bus. I watch them knock their hats off and scrape their gun holsters to push themselves underneath.
A movement inside the bus makes me glance up. Faces in the windows above me. Fingers pointing. The latches on the windows click and slide and the glass is lowered. People yell out, their hands waving in the direction of the trees behind me. “There’s a little kid over there! Back there!”
I turn in time to catch sight of a snatch of red. It moves behind a bush. I run towards it with the shouts from the bus following me, crashing through briars that grab and snap at my ankles. I twist away from limbs until I reach a thick area of undergrowth.
A tiny girl in a red nightgown crouches behind the bushes. Her thumb is in her mouth. Her red nightgown has ripped and a bloody knee pokes through the tear. She sees me with wide eyes and jerks her thumb from her mouth, startled into crying.
I walk carefully towards her and hold out my hand.
“I want Mommy,” she sobs.
I kneel beside her and she slides her small hand into mine. All the air leaves my lungs and I’m heavy, then I’m weightless.
Then in relief, I soar.
You’d think it was all about Lola.
“…And then, after you grabbed my arm, I was like, what’s the matter with this girl? And then I said, ‘Hey, I think this girl might be sick,’ ‘cause I thought you were gonna heave all over the floor ‘cause you were bending down, and I was like, ‘Hey, something’s the matter with her!”
Lola twitches in her seat. We’re back on the bus, waiting for a new driver. Mrs. Little is in no condition to take us the rest of the way to school. I haven’t figured out what kind of condition I’m in, yet. I scratch my arm to make sure I can feel it.
Lola bites her thumbnail with nervous excitement. I’m the newest topic in her never-ending conversation. I should feel flattered. Ha! Take that, Ronald, Jimmy, and Charlie-the-dog. She’ll be telling you all about me. Except she doesn’t know my name.
“Hey. What’s your name, anyways?”
I sigh and relax my shoulders. “Tullin,” I say, perfectly. Still no bumps, no stumbles. The blue lights keep flashing in the fog. The police asked me a few questions and wrote down my answers, which were either yes or no, even though I could speak normally. Mrs. Little was crying too much to give many details.
“You’re kidding,” says Lola. “That’s the weirdest name I ever heard. One time, we had a cat named Tennessee, but it got stuck in a drainpipe under the neighbor’s driveway and we didn’t know, so it starved to death, even though it was really fat to start with. Mama named it Tennessee because we found it at this truck stop in Tennessee where the bathrooms were painted to look like…”
“Tullin was my mother’s maiden name,” I say.
“Huh?” says Lola. “What’s that mean?”
“H-her last name before she g-got married.” No. Please, no. The smooth speech is sliding away like an egg yolk down a drain. The place where I scratched my arm begins to tingle.
“Why’d she change her name after she got married? I’m not doing that. I’m gonna just be Lola, always and forever. I don’t even care if my first husband hates it.”
Disappointment is crushing me, but I still wonder how many husbands Lola plans on having. The scratch is burning. I look at it and see I’ve made a swollen whelp on my skin.
“It w-was h-her last n-n-name,” I say. My throat tightens with tears. Why is it going away?
Lola scratches her head and frowns. “You sound kinda shaken-up,” she points out.
“You want them ambulance workers to check you out?” She springs from her seat as if to run for help, but I grab her arm and snatch her back.
“Nuh-uh, you’re not. You’re talkin’ funny, now. I’m getting you some help.”
The ambulance crew had already escorted everyone with cuts or bruises off the bus and given them Band-Aids and cold packs. They seem to have finished their duties, then packed up and left, so there’s no danger of Lola hauling me anywhere. Still, no need to call attention to my situation.
Someone opens the door of the bus and climbs in.
Lola elbows me and asks loudly, “Who’s that?” The talking dies down just in time for her to exclaim, “She looks like Oprah!”
It takes me a minute to place the woman who’s facing us. Then I realize it’s Ms. Kelly, the new assistant principal. She’s the one who gave the speech during the orientation about making good choices, and she assured us she wasn’t talking about choosing green beans over french fries in the cafeteria.
Ms. Kelly inspects us from behind her steel-rimmed glasses. Her brown eyes seem kind but authority overrides any warmth in her face. A silver whistle hangs around her neck. “Students!” she calls. “I know this is upsetting. Thank you for waiting patiently while we sort things out.”
People start raising their hands and waving them. One hand is waving a phone.
“My Mom wants to speak to an administrator.”
“How much longer? I gotta go to the bathroom!”
“Are we going back home?”
Ms. Kelly blows her whistle and everyone shuts up, but they don’t stop waving. “We’re heading to school now,” she says. “There will be a recorded phone message going out to all your parents. Everything’s fine. Everyone remain calm.”
Lola waves her hand along with the others, jabbing it towards the ceiling like her news is extra important. Ms. Kelly ignores them and sits in the driver’s seat. She cranks the engine and inches the bus away from the accident scene. We bump back into the road and gain speed so that it almost feels like a normal first day of school again.
And just like the way things were before the accident, if I even think about speaking, the muscles bunch and work in my throat. I drop my chin onto my chest and take deep breaths so I won’t cry. It was like giving one bite of delicious food to a starving person.
“Hey,” says Lola, after a few minutes of riding. “Remember how you went running up there before we slid all over the place? How come you did that? Seems like you said something about that little girl. I guess you could see her in the road after you stood up. Hey, wait. Why’d you stand up and start yelling in the first place?”
“You were gonna puke, right? I knew it. It was so weird that you smelled that peach cobbler. I couldn’t smell it. I think it must’ve been your breakfast already trying to puke itself back out. Maybe your nose could like, smell it from your throat. Did you eat peach cobbler for breakfast?”
I stare at the back of the seat in front of me and fold my hands in my lap, concentrating on not clenching them. Or wrapping them around her neck. I don’t want to think about the stupid peach cobbler.
“Hey, did you maybe eat peach jelly on your toast? Or drink some peach juice? That’s where the smell came from, right? From your own stomach!”
I might have to slap her. Who drinks peach juice, for God’s sake?
I’m starting to notice a tremor in my midsection. Probably, it’s waves of Lola-directed anger flowing from the core of my body.
Someone shouts Ms. Kelly’s name from the back of the bus. We turn to see. “Something’s wrong with David,” call some of Trip’s friends. They stand against the windows, their focus on a bent, unmoving head.
Another guy says, “We told him his arm was probably broken, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Ms. Kelly pulls the bus onto the shoulder of the road. She leaves the motor running and moves down the aisle towards David Turner, a football player and hot-guy-that-everyone-knows that I remember from Trip’s class in middle school.
When she touches him on the arm he yells out and jerks away. His face is pale and his lips are drawn back over his teeth. This was only supposed to happen to him on the football field, not on the bus. He must’ve tried to pretend everything was fine.
I know about pretending. It only works for a while, then the problem’s still there.
Ms. Kelly looks worried as she tries to make him comfortable. She rearranges the guys around him so he won’t get bumped. I’m sorry for him, but selfishly, I’m glad it wasn’t Trip.
By the time we make it to school, the bus is a shook-up can of soda, building pressure, ready for the doors to pop open so it can spew the story on everyone. The tremors in my midsection have spread into my arms. They shake like I’ve been pulling weeds in Dad’s garden for two hours without a break.
Lola’s close to bursting. She talks nonstop and fidgets with the zippers on her backpack, but I can’t take in her words. They’re fluttering in the air around me, a flock of annoying birds. I close my eyes and wish I could close my ears. Lola finally bounds away into the parking lot, probably on the lookout for potential listeners.
I jostle along with the crowd, focused on my shoes as they slap the pavement. The tremors have made their way into my legs, my shoulders, my fingers.
Everything’s fine though. The tremors will go away.
Yeah, right, says my brain. David Turner isn’t the only one pretending.
The next thing I notice is that I’m breathing in…and out…and in…and out. How random. How surprisingly interesting.
I blink and I’m in the hall beside the bathroom. Time is slowing down. Or I’m not keeping up. Something is. Strange.
To the left is a restroom. Women. That’s me, isn’t it? I push through the door and stand in the middle of the room. Why did I come in here? I go into a stall, close the door, lock it.
There’s rattling. Skeleton teeth clacking on Halloween. The tip of my nose vibrates and I realize the clacking is my own teeth. The tremors are out of control. I grasp my chin and try to push my lower face towards my cheekbones so my mouth will hold still, but my arms shake so hard that I can’t lift them. I sink to the edge of the toilet and clench every muscle.
Water runs from the faucets. Girls’ voices float through the room; “Did you hear about the bus accident this morning? I heard somebody broke both legs.”
Then another voice: “No, it was just his arm. I heard it was that guy David Turner that Cassie Winecoff went out with last year.”
Paper towels are wrenched from the holder and a metal trashcan lid snaps closed. “What’s that chattering noise?” someone asks.
I clamp my lips together to hold my teeth still, which makes the shivering intensity in my stomach. There’s a tap on the door. “Are you okay in there?”
“I’m okay,” I try to say with my mouth pressed tight, but it sounds like, “M’m mmm…mmm.”
“Freaky,” someone whispers. Then there’s giggling and the sound of running feet echoing from the walls.
I stare at my knees and concentrate on keeping my mouth from making a racket while other people come in and out. Toilets flush and the bell rings. Can’t move. Can’t care.
The room finally seems to be empty and then there’s the sound of high heels walking across the floor. Someone peeks under the door, followed by a gentle knock. “Tullin?”
I picture myself standing, lifting my hand, unlocking the door. Nothing happens.
“Come on, Tullin. Open up.” The voice floats over my head and I look up. Ms. Kelly looks down at me over the stall divider. Her glasses are slowly sliding down her nose. How is she that tall?
“Stand up and open the door, Sweetie,” she commands.
I hiccup. Then I’m laughing and my teeth are chattering at the same time because I realize she’s standing on the toilet in the next stall. Hiccup. That’s funny.
Her heels walk out and back in and I don’t know how long I’ve been on the edge of the toilet anymore. I watch a credit card slide between the door and the lock of my stall. Visa. It’s Everywhere You Want to Be. Well, that’s the truth. Hiccup. The card pushes at the latch as it lifts and rotates down. The door swings open.
Ms. Kelly squats beside me and puts her hand on my cheek, looking at me with concern. It seems like something a mother would do and I don’t know how to feel about it. “It’s all right, Tullin. It’s going to be okay.” She puts a hand on my shoulder and pulls me towards her. I lean against her with a shudder of relief while she presses a wad of toilet paper to the tears on the side of my face.
So much snot.
I want to go home.
I’m lying in the nurse’s office with David Turner. We’re stretched out on matching paper-covered cots. David’s face is tan against the white paper, but there’s a gray edge around his lips. The way his hurt arm is draped across his stomach and his eyes are closed reminds me of a soldier in a casket.
Ms. Kelly half-dragged me down the hall and stuck me in here beside him, a shivering blob, alternately freezing and sweating. “I’m calling your Dad,” she says, then backs away, watching us with worried eyes. How does she know to call Dad instead of Mom? She must’ve spent the summer reading people’s records.
After she leaves, David opens his eyes and turns his head slow to look at me. The paper on his table crinkles.
I’m on my side facing him, trying to get everything under control, only I can’t. Clamping down on one body part just transfers the shivering to another. I raise a shaking hand to scrub my face with a soggy scrap of toilet paper.
“You’re that girl,” he croaks. “You found that kid.”
My teeth chatter at him.
“What happened to you?” he asks.
I chatter some more, like I’m trying to speak in dolphin.
He turns his head away and closes his eyes with a groan. “Oh God,” he says. “…shouldn’t have moved.”
Even in my current state, I realize David Turner is cute on some level that feels personal, like I’m the only girl in the world who can fully understand and appreciate what a nice shape his head is and how perfectly his arms are attached to his wrists. He has really strong-looking arm tendons. I’ve never realized how attractive arm tendons are.
His body lurches a tiny bit, then he rolls towards me on his side and barfs onto the floor between us. It hits the beige linoleum in a disgusting three-part smack. His eyes meet mine and we stare at each other in disbelief. Then he flops onto his back, cradling his hurt arm. “Sorry,” he whispers.
“S-s-s-s-okay,” I whisper back, but I cover my face with my hands.
Someone bursts in. I peek through my fingers. It’s a woman in a white medical jacket. She’s short and round and reminds me of a teapot. “Call a custodian, Gina!” she shouts into the hall. “Tell them to bring the body fluid neutralizer!”
David moans. The gray color from his lips has moved in under his tan. His eyelids twitch but stay closed. She hands him a small cup of water, which he doesn’t take, probably because his eyes are shut, so she sits it on his chest. It rises up and down as he breathes.
Teapot steps to the to the other side of my cot and pulls a blood-pressure cuff from around her neck, then attaches it around my arm with Velcro.
“Wh-wh-wh-what’s wrong w-w-w-with mm-m-me?”
She ignores my question. She’s too busy trying to watch the little dial as she listens to my pulse.
Ms. Kelly leans in the doorway. “The paramedics are on the way,” she says.
“Good,” says the teapot. “Tell them this one’s probably in shock.”
“In-in sh-shock? Wh-wh-what’s that mean?”
She finishes timing my pulse and rips the Velcro from my arm. “I think you’re just having some emotional shock,” she says. “Your blood pressure’s only slightly elevated, but your body’s telling you it didn’t like what you experienced.” She looks into my face and breathes coffee-breath on me. “Usually people who react like this have been in some similar situation. Have you ever been in a car accident, honey?”
I shake my head no. Ms. Kelly comes back into the room and overhears the last of the question. She moves behind Teapot, pokes her in the back, then leans in and whispers. I hear snatches of “…her mother…couple of years ago…” I focus on the ceiling tiles and pretend not to listen.
She definitely read my records.
An overgrown custodian slumps into the nurse’s office. He dumps some vile green powder on David’s puke as he chews gum. Then EMTs come in and work David’s arm into a plastic splint. “God, it’s too tight,” pants David. I slide the flat pillow from under my head over my face to give him some privacy as a woman in a denim skirt and tennis shoes barrels into the room. I peek from under the pillow.
David’s eyes flutter open. “Mom?”
Whoa. That’s his mother? She totally has grandma hair, frosted and curled tight.
David’s mother sucks in a lungful of air. “Dear God Above!” She reaches a finger to touch the plastic chamber on David’s arm but jerks back before making contact.
“It’s a splint, ma’am,” says the EMT. “We need to put him in the ambulance now.”
“The ambulance!” David’s mother grasps her son’s cheeks in her palms and jerks his face towards hers.
Ms. Kelly puts a calming hand on David’s mother’s elbow. “Mrs. Turner, everything’s okay,” she says. “There was a slight bus accident this morning, but no one was seriously injured.”
“How was this a slight accident? How can you say no one was seriously injured?” Mrs. Turner’s voice is rising. “They’re taking my son away in an ambulance!” She catches sight of me and turns away from David.
“And what happened to this child?” She yanks the pillow from my head, lifting it high. “Is she the one the bus hit? You people scraped her up and brought her to school?”
“No, no,” says Ms. Kelly, plucking at Mrs. Turner’s white sweatshirt. “She’s just shaken up. That’s all.”
Mrs. Turner drops the pillow back onto my head and her voice cracks. “I don’t understand.”
“Ma, it’s okay,” says David. “It’s just my arm.”
My admiration for him ratchets up a few notches. What a considerate guy, being brave for his mother even in the face of a broken arm and the remnants of his own breakfast.
“What about football?” she demands.
David closes his eyes and doesn’t answer, the way Dad does when Trip asks an impossible question.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” David’s mother says to Ms. Kelly. “If this thing that happened to my son on a Davis County school bus affects his chances at a football scholarship, you’ve got a problem on your hands.” She pulls her shoulders back causing her pointed chin and huge chest to rise several inches. “I’ll drive him to school myself from now on, even if I have to miss work.” Her cheeks are growing redder. “You tell your careless driver to forget stopping at our house!”
“Mrs. Turner, if you’d listen for a minute, I’ll explain…”
“And this poor child, too.” She looks down at me. “She looks like she’s having a nervous breakdown.”
I move the pillow back to cover the side of my face. “I-I’m f-f-fine,” I say.
“You’re not fine,” she insists. “You can’t even speak properly. Where do you live, honey?” She reaches into her purse and pulls out a small address book and a pen, which she uncaps and points at Ms. Kelly. “It’s a shame and a sin when God-fearing, tax-paying members of society have to provide safe transportation to the children at a public school.” A tiny droplet of spit arches from her tongue towards my shoulder.
David is watching me. I let my eyes meet his, see the pain drawing his eyebrows into a straight line and watch his eyes flicker from his mother, back to me. It’s an apology. It’s the same look he gave me after he puked. “Ma, leave her alone,” he says. “She doesn’t want a ride.”
I shudder with renewed force. David Turner doesn’t want to have to ride to school with me in his mother’s back seat. I’m a random freshman girl he just barfed in front of. I give in to the spasm and close my eyes.
Then I imagine getting back on the bus and a roaring begins in my head. What if the smell comes back? What if everyone points and talks about me? I bite the inside of my lip. The words pause in the back of my mouth, then get a running start and leap out. “265 H-h-h-obb’s H-hill R-ro-road,” I say. Good God, says my brain.
“Perfect,” she says, writing it down. “We’re only a few miles away.”
Please don’t let it be David.
Then there’s the sound of heavier footsteps and I know before I turn my head that it’s Dad. Relief floods through muscles I didn’t even know were clenched. He comes straight to me without acknowledging any of them, slides an arm under my shoulders and lifts me to a sitting position. “C’mon Tullin, time to go. I’m taking her home,” he says. He looks at Ms. Kelly and I’m surprised to see dislike in his face. “I got your message,” he tells her. “Fortunately, my son also texted me after his first class. You could have told me the whole situation. I would have been here sooner.”
Mrs. Turner sniffs, apparently in agreement.
“I told you there was an accident and Tullin was upset,” says Ms. Kelly defensively.
“You could have told me she was the one who got off the bus to search for the child. You could have mentioned she was the one who looked underneath to see if the child was lying there dead…”
Ms. Kelly’s eyebrows rise. “I didn’t know. I called you before…”
But Dad is half-pulling, half-carrying me out the door. He stops just before we leave and sighs. “Look, I’m sorry, but our family’s been through a lot in the last few years. Tullin is in no shape to deal with something like this.”
Wait…what? Maybe I’m a total head case and don’t even know it. Obviously, you’re more screwed up than you realize, points out my brain.
Dad shuffles me past a reporter, the secretary, and the line of students still waiting for the phone. There’s pointing and whispering. “It’s her! That’s the one I was telling you about…” Their gazes land on me and I feel myself shrink against Dad’s side.
Good job. You’ve been at this school for one hour and you’ve already crawled out into the open and started to shrivel.
It takes a deft touch indeed to pull off a believable YA voice, let alone do it with humor and style. I adored Tullin.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize judge