I sat on the bus, wishing that I didn’t have to go home. Over the past several months, things had gone from bad to worse, then from worse to unbearable. After Ella’s parents split up, my parents’ relationship seemed to have gotten much worse. The part that I struggled with the most was the need to convince myself that everything really was normal. In order for the part of me that dealt with the public to function, I really must believe that. Another part of me faced (and attempted to deal with) what was happening at home, and somehow the two parts did not… COULD NOT… interact.
Charlie stepped onto the school bus, smiled at me, then headed up the aisle. I scooted over to the window, giving him room and he slid in next to me.
“Why didn’t you tell me Mrs. Campbell gives homework every night? I’m afraid my hand is going to fall off,” he complained.
“Are you kidding? If I had to suffer, so do you,” I said.
Charlie suddenly stiffened, and I glanced up to see why. Jason and Marty had just come through the door of the bus. The pair had at some point decided to make it their life’s work to torture Charlie as much as possible. I would have to say, their plan was so far a smashing success.
Charlie tried to ignore their laughing as they took the seat in front of us, but I could see sweat forming on his brow.
“She gives us at least two hours of work ever night,” Charlie said.
Jason turned to Charlie and snarled, “Shut up dork!”
Charlie clamped his jaw shut. Marty chuckled. A cold fist twisted around my intestines.
“What’s your problem, Shaddock? He wasn’t talking to you,” I said.
Charlie’s eyes became saucers. I could feel the fear come off him in waves.
Jason looked at me coldly. I met his gaze. “Why don’t you mind your own business, and leave my friend alone. We were having a private conversation.”
From a far distant universe I somehow registered that the bus was moving, but I did not look away from Jason’s eyes. I had locked stares with a cobra, and was not about to look away. The cold inside me began to spread toward my heart. It had a strange calming effect.
He broke first. He looked at Charlie and barely above a whisper commanded, “Move.”
With lightening speed my best friend, the one I had known since preschool, the one with whom I had shared every summer and every trip to and from school since, the one I had just committed to protect with my bold public defiance of the school bus bully, abandoned me. He shot to the seat across the aisle, surprising Margaret into barking a quick protest.
When Jason took Charlie’s place beside me, Margaret, and the entire bus, it seemed, fell silent.
“What did you say, Fag?” Jason bellowed.
I held his eyes with my own. While my torso was now a block of ice, my arms began to shake in anger. That was how I felt physically, but at the same time, I felt oddly calm and detached. Like this was happening to someone else. In fact, I began to feel like I was about two feet behind and above myself. Not like I thought I was, but it felt that way.
“Why do you have to mess with people?” I asked.
“Shut up,” he said, somewhat quieter.
“No, Shaddock. Charlie was just talking to his friends, and you had to start trouble.”
I became acutely aware of the attention we were drawing. Other than the kids who were getting off at our first stop, no one else seemed to be making a sound. I felt the breeze from the open window on the crown of my head, and could smell Jason’s bad breath. Charlie seemed to be holding his breath, while Marty nearly panted with anticipation.
“Bust his head,” Marty said.
Jason’s mouth curled up in a smile that did not even attempt to reach his eyes. With his left hand, he brushed his raven hair back from over his cobra eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m going to bust your head.”
I felt myself tilt my head, as if trying to puzzle out an evasive mystery. “What’s wrong, Jason? Can you not think for yourself?”
The question surprised me, but seemed to answer a larger question I had long had about Jason Shaddock. I had long thought that he had seemed to be offended by kids that didn’t conform to his idea of normal and responded with intimidation and violence, but now I was starting to suspect that it was deeper than that. Could he be so offended because HE wasn’t capable of NOT conforming?
“I. Said. Sut. UP.” He bit off each word. His eyes blazed with hate. “I will hurt you.”
I sat up straighter. “No,” I said calmly.
The bully struck me so quickly that I didn’t know I had been hit until my head snapped back against the double panes of the window. The resulting sound was loud that everyone, including Jason and Marty, gasped. I think they were convinced my brains were about to leak out of the back of my head.
I was aware of three things. Firstly, the back of my head was not injured because there was no pain there. Secondly, my left eye was burning from the unexpected contact with my seat mate’s fist and was almost certainly going to make a nice shiner. The third thing was that Jason Shaddock was a coward.
His face was pale, and he looked sick. He hastily whispered, “I’m sorry.”
All my tension broke as from a dam. I laughed.
“What…” Jason began, confusion attacking his face. I laughed harder. A girl behind me began to laugh.
Jason looked around him as other voices joined ours.
“Shut up!” Jason demanded.
The entire bus, including Charlie and Marty, was laughing as Jason stormed off.
Charlie slid into the seat next to me and lowered his head slightly. “Thanks.”
“Dork,” I answered, punching him lightly on the arm.
We were both grinning.