Back of the Bus

Jimmy Mullen waited at the bus stop, fingering the frayed sleeve of his over-sized t-shirt. The bus rumbled in the distance, his heart pounding as it got closer. He bent down and re-tied the frayed shoelace that refused to stay tied. A sharp pain flared up in his stomach, like it did every morning. He shouldered his backpack, set his jaw, and stepped up to the curb as the bus lumbered to a stop in front of him.

Jimmy was small for his age, and hopelessly skinny. He wasn’t particularly strong or athletic, although he wasn’t horrible at sports. He could run faster than any other kid in school. Faster, by far, than any of Eddie Martin’s friends, that was for certain.

Eddie and his friends sat in the back of the bus, away from the eyes and ears of the bus driver. Jimmy always sat at the front, where it was safer. At the front of the bus, people noticed things. The further back you went, though, the more the rules changed. Jimmy’s stop was the first on the road, so it was easy to get a good seat right by the door. He tugged down the brim of his dad’s baseball cap, and leaned against the window, watching his breath fog the glass.

A few other kids got on the bus, but none of them sat with Jimmy. Nobody wanted to invite that kind of trouble into their lives. Eddie Martin was incredibly persuasive. A few of the younger kids used to sit with Jimmy, thinking that Eddie would leave them alone. They learned the error of this thinking fast enough.

He never knew what he had done to deserve this. Maybe it was the hand-me-downs from his brother, or the way that his mother cut his hair. He looked at the backpack that he was sure weighed almost as much as he did and sighed. Maybe it was because he brought his lunch to school, or because he carefully folded the paper bag to bring back home at the end of the school day.

Charlie Davis, Eddie’s best friend, got on at the next stop. Jimmy hunched down in his seat, hoping that Charlie would ignore him. He felt the slap on the back of his head as Charlie walked past, though, and knew that today wasn’t going to be any different. Tears stung his eyes as he looked up at the bus driver, hoping she had seen something, but she was too busy, yelling at a dawdler who was taking too long to get on the bus.

Several more stops went by, and Jimmy watched as more kids got on the bus. They laughed and joked and made certain to avoid sitting next to him. Every so often, Jimmy would catch the eye of someone who had been a friend the year before. He had grown to hate the occasional look of guilt that would cross the face of his former friends as they turned away.

The bus continued down the street, turning past the wide driveway that signaled Eddie’s stop. Jimmy felt the bile rise in his throat as the bus stop door opened, and Eddie stepped on. He was a tall boy, with a mop of shaggy black hair that he often had to brush from his eyes. Eddie smiled with a crooked grin as he surveyed the bus, and his eyes narrowed as he focused on Jimmy alone in the front.

It was that exact moment that a car ran the bus’s stop sign. The bus driver swore and yelled at the man right as Eddie passed Jimmy. Jimmy had braced for the usual slap to the back of his head, and instead felt a sudden yank as Eddie pulled his dad’s red baseball cap from the top of his head, and calmly walked to the back of the bus.

It took a second for Jimmy to realize what had happened. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment. It wasn’t fair. The cap was all that he had left of his dad. He felt the flush spread to the back of his neck, as tears slid down his face. Some of the other kids noticed, and the ones closest to him at least had the decency to look ashamed. Word spread back through the bus, though, and he heard laughter that he was certain was directed at him.

Jimmy’s father was a distant memory, at best. A large man, although he couldn’t exactly remember his face. His father smelled of cigarette smoke and Old Spice, and had one of the best laughs Jimmy had ever heard. It always came out as a loud boom that couldn’t help but make you smile. He remembered his father wearing the baseball cap as he worked on the family car in the garage.

He found the cap, a year ago, in a battered box in the attic. Most nights he slept with it firmly on his head. His father had long since passed away. The heart attack had been sudden, and now the man was nothing more than a picture held in dusty frames in the hallway at home.

And yet, when he held the red, oil-stained cap in his hands, he still smelled his father on it. He felt that the man was still with him in some way. He had taken the box that he found it in up to his room, and hidden it in his closet. Aside from the cap, the box had a pack of cigarettes, some dirty magazines and a few pens that had no ink. Jimmy had worn that cap every day since.

A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that Eddie was wearing it, his greasy hair bunched up under the hat. Eddie smiled a toothy grin as Jimmy ducked back down in his seat. He had to get that cap back. He didn’t know how, but if it took him the rest of the day, he’d find a way. The bus screeched to a stop at the school, and the doors swung open. Jimmy lifted his heavy backpack and set off into the schoolyard to come up with a plan.

As he settled down with his back against the building, Jimmy watched Eddie and his friends. He thought about his step-father, Mike. Mike was big on sticking up for yourself. “Don’t let the other kids push you around, Jim” was a regular thing in their house. But Jimmy also knew that Mike was never the small kid. Mike was never really pushed around, or chased home after school. He knew that Mike never woke up with that pit of fear in his stomach every morning that he had to go to school. He knew that Mike was full of shit.

He thought about it all through class. Mr Miller even yelled at him for being distracted in Algebra. Jimmy knew that Algebra wasn’t going to help him in this situation. Mike had told him once that if you thought your way through a problem enough, a solution would present itself. They had more people, and were bigger and stronger. The only thing Jimmy had was his speed.

Jimmy walked out of school to the bus, fingering the frayed sleeve of his over-sized t-shirt. His heart pounded as he lined up to get on board. Ahead of him, Eddie was still wearing the cap. He bent down and re-tied the shoelace that had come undone yet again. His stomach gurgled and he could feel a small trickle of sweat trace the curve of his spine. He focused on the cap, sitting loosely on Eddie’s head.

Jimmy shot like an arrow down the line, leaping and snatching the cap off of Eddie’s head. He ran hard and fast, his feet pounding on the pavement and carrying him through the parking lot. Behind him, he could hear shouts from Eddie and his friends, but he knew they couldn’t catch him. Nobody could when he was running, and today he was practically flying.

He ran for miles, until his lungs burned and his legs began to shake. He was going to be late getting home, but he didn’t care. He had the cap. He didn’t need to wear it anymore, he would keep it in his bag where nobody would touch it.

He had slowed to a walk by the time he reached the unpaved road near his house. A few more blocks, and he was free. He felt his Dad smiling down at him as he turned the corner. And there, waiting on the side of the road were Eddie and his friends.

Jimmy felt the air leave his lungs in an instant. It wasn’t fair! Not when he was so close. He looked to the right of the kids in front of him and saw the driveway leading back to his house. He turned to cut through the tall grass, but the weight of his backpack slowed him down. He could hear the bigger kids getting closer. The grass tangled around his feet, tripping him up.

Nobody was able to properly explain to Jimmy’s parents how things had gone so wrong. The school told them that Jimmy had apparently stolen something from Eddie Martin. They heard that their son was “troubled”. The Martin boy had shown the administrators where Jimmy had kicked him repeatedly when he tried to retrieve what was stolen, and his friends all agreed that Jimmy had stolen something from them, that Eddie was just defending himself.

What nobody could figure out was what precisely had been stolen. Nothing belonging to the other boys was ever found on him. When questioned separately, everyone had a different story about what he had taken.

After that, the school district washed their hands of the whole thing. The incident had happened off of their property. They weren’t legally bound to do anything. A few kids noticed Jimmy’s absence, those that had known him longest. But the others sat in the back of the bus, and smiled as they discussed the way his head bounced off the ground. Eddie couldn’t help but laugh when he described the way the kid pissed himself as they kicked him.

Some of them would not sleep well, certainly. A few of Eddie’s friends drifted away, dismayed at his actions. They had even made an attempt to walk up the long drive and apologize to Mrs. Mullen. In the end, they left flowers, picked a little further up the road. The sad bouquet remained as a memorial for several weeks, sitting a few hundred feet from the tall grass where they found his body.

But none of them slept as poorly as Jimmy’s mother, who buried her son wearing the red cap of his father’s that he loved so well. The only blessing was that they had left him that. The Medical Examiner said that the red cap was clutched so tightly in Jimmy’s small hands that it had been almost impossible to remove. The Mullens left town shortly thereafter. Nobody knows where they went, or what happened to them.

Jimmy Mullen ran through a large green meadow. The air was clean and fresh, and he could barely feel his feet touching the ground. In the distance, he saw a tall man wearing a red cap, and smoking a cigarette. A loud booming laugh echoed in his ears, as the man pulled off the cap, and pushed his hair back with his free hand. Jimmy laughed as he launched himself into the man’s arms, smelling the cigarettes and Old Spice, and knowing that nothing would ever hurt him again.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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