Like jamming an ax into our necks, Mrs. Gallager shoved her foot on the brakes of the school bus. Our heads crashed against the backs of the gray metal seats in front of us. Our silence was spewing out of our gaping mouths. Then with a look that could sever flesh from bone, Mrs. Gallager spun around to face us, her passengers. “Who threw the apple?!!!” she screamed. No one said a word.
“Next time, I’ll slam the brakes harder!” she shrilled, her words gouging us. Mrs. Gallager’s dark red lipstick was retreating along the deep lines etched in her face. Then she whirled around again to continue driving the bus, and everyone stared at the back of her head with its short, greasy hair.
The rest of the bus ride home from Hannerly Elementary School was quieter than usual. After a few minutes, though, I heard Sean Everly snicker to himself. Sean was seated way in the back. And in front of me and my seatmate, Natalie, Mark Withers nudged Jeff Connors, “I hate her,” he whispered.
“Me, too,” Jeff agreed.
One of Natalie’s school papers had dropped on the floor of the bus. It was some coloring book picture. All I could see was the thick black outline.
The following year, our driver was a woman named Mrs. McArdel. Mrs. McArdel wore a beige cardigan with pills that smelled like the bottom of someone’s purse. Mrs. McArdel would cluck to herself and nod her head back and forth whenever we were loud and then beg us to keep quiet. We never did, though. Then one day, I saw Sean throw an apple core, and it hit the windshield lightly while the bus was moving. Mrs.
McArdel pulled the bus over, put her head in her hands, and started crying. The bus was quiet for a minute; then we started screaming again.
Two days later, the principal of our school came on our bus as we were leaving school, and warned us to behave. The principal was wearing a gray suit. While he was talking I heard the sound of someone biting into a McIntosh. Then the principal turned to walk down the steps of the bus, and Sean and some other boys snorted.
For my last year of elementary school, our bus driver was a guy named Ed. Ed wore a T-shirt and shorts year-round. Whenever Ed stopped the bus, he would always stare out his window at the tall pine trees that lined the streets. I often wondered what Ed was thinking.
“Maybe his dog died,” Natalie suggested; “That’s what happened to Scruffy.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I replied, but I knew it was something we’d never figure out.
Every morning Ed was waiting for me and my next-door neighbors, Pauly and Tim, at the top of our street. Ed would open the door with a wide swing of the lever, and we climbed up the stairs, which smelled like rubber. Then Ed would stop the bus at the Griffin house.
“Hey, Griffin,” someone from the back yelled; “Did you bring your miffin?” Natalie handed me some gum. Jacob and Sarah Griffin stepped on the bus as their collie dog stayed in their driveway.
“Hi, kiddos,” said Ed. Ed said that to everyone but seldom got a reply.
Then someone from the back of the bus threw a notebook at the kid who was across the aisle from me and called the kid a name. Ed glanced through his rearview mirror and saw that the fight wasn’t ending. So Ed got up and walked down the aisle, “Is this your notebook?” Ed asked, addressing the kid who threw it.
“Keep it to yourself.”
“Okay.” We all looked at each other, and soon the bus started moving again.
Then we passed the Sullivan house. The mother of the house had eight children and no husband. We used to stare at the house, trying to figure what on earth was going on there. A minute later, we passed a house where the couple had been to Africa. They had no children, so we knew we’d never get the inside scoop on their adventure. So, we strained our necks to get a glimpse through their windows.
Then we turned right at Stetson corner. There was a white church so small that it only fit fifteen people, and next to the church was Doreen Donner and her brother Donny’s house. Doreen heaved herself down beside me. I sat with Doreen in the morning and Natalie on the way home. Doreen’s smile stretched from one side of her face to the other. Doreen opened her lunch box with a snap to reveal chocolate chip cookies.
“My nana made them for me,” Doreen gushed. The smell of buttery chocolate burst into the air.
“Hey, Donny!” Sean yelled from the back of the bus. “Are you and Rene getting married?”
Everyone’s head spun around to see that Donny couldn’t find a seat and had sat with a girl. Upon being noticed, Donny immediately jumped up and squished in with Mark and Jeff.
Then the bus started up the highest hill in town. On the way up, we passed Mrs. Layson’s farm with its green pasture dotted with sheep. “BAAA…,” someone yelled. Then every-one inhaled as we reached the top of the hill.
We paused. After what seemed a long time, the bus started barreling down the hill, and we all screamed, “We’re all gonna die! Help!! AHHHHHH!” We all pressed our arms against the seat-back in front of us to prevent from being thrown forward. Across the aisle from Doreen and me, Wilbur Stanley’s caged hamster had his tiny pink arms forward, too. It had been Wilbur’s turn to care for the animal for the month, and now he was returning it.
As the bus reached the bottom of the hill, we approached a store that had a bay window in front and inside, glass jars filled with sweets in all shapes and fanciful colors, “Candy!!” we all shouted; “Candy!! Stop! Stop, let us out!”
On the last day of school, the weather was sunny. We had visions of days spent at the beach and plenty of time to play with friends. If this wasn’t good enough, there was a big cooler by Ed’s seat when we got on the bus that afternoon. Ed reached down from his seat and opened the cover. In-side there were chocolate-covered ice creams that Ed had paid for with his bus driver money.
Ed looked at me with his liquid brown eyes, “Take one,” he instructed; “There’s enough for every-one.” Like discovering treasure, I reached in and took an ice-cream treat wrapped in paper. It was cold and glistened with frost. I walked down the aisle and sat down with Natalie and began to peel off the paper, which made a playful ripping sound.
I bit into the hard chocolate covering the creamy vanilla ice cream inside. I looked at the other kids who were all doing the same. Then, when the bus was full, Ed slowly got out of his seat and stood facing us. We all looked up. Ed shifted from side to side and blinked.
“I want you all to know,” Ed began. Ed looked up and down the rows of seats, at Wilbur, Natalie and me, and Mark and Jeff, Tom who’s tooth fell out by itself on the bus three weeks ago, and Bonnie who wore clothes from The Salvation Army, Doreen, Donny, the Griffins, Pauly and Tim, and all the others. And even Sean with his group of ruffians seated in the back; “That I love every one of you.”
We stopped eating. Ed looked at each of us again and then sat back down in his seat and proceeded to drive us, with the purr of the bus’s engine in the background, home for the summer. Later, when the bus came to my stop, another vehicle passed us with a swishing sound. I said goodbye to Na-talie and walked down the aisle of the bus. I wouldn’t see Natalie until the fall because her family went to the grandmother’s house up north. Ed looked up as I approached. I saw the brown bag for trash and carefully put my wooden ice cream stick and paper in it. “Thank you,” I said, though words didn’t seem to be enough. “You’re welcome,” he replied.
I noticed the soft brown hairs on Ed’s right arm, the frosty mist coming from his cooler, and the smell of the engine. Pauly and Tim were behind me, so I stepped off the bus. I walked in front of the bus and stood on the top of my street. I could see Ed from inside the yellow bus making sure that we had safely crossed the road.
Then, with a squeaky thud, Ed pulled the lever to close the door and bus C of the Hannerly Elementary School drove away.
Cyndi Cresswell Cook is a writer and photographer