"Hey! What do you think you are doing?" Mr. Brown yelled as he stomped down the aisle. Even with the bus skipping over loose gravel, Rebecca still felt the seat shudder as he thundered past. His voice boomed over the combined voices of thirty screaming children.
Two boys rolled around in the damp aisle between Mr. Brown’s legs. He picked the taller of the two boys up by his collar. The smaller boy underneath saw his chance for one last strike. He kicked his leg out, aiming for the other boy, but he missed.
Mr. Brown swore loudly, doubling over and clutching his leg. After half a school year in Mr. Brown’s class, the language didn't shock the children into silence anymore. If anything, it intensified the noise. The boys continued trying to swing and kick at each other as if their burly teacher wasn't holding them several feet apart.
"Do you need me to pull over, Frank?" Mrs. White asked. She glanced in the rear-view mirror as she spoke and the bus veered sickeningly close to the edge of the road. Only a few inches of loose dirt and gravel separated the road from open sky on either side. The ledges fell away in vertical drops to the forest floor one hundred feet below.
Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut and breathed deeply. She hated heights. She clamped her hands around a brown paper bag sitting in her lap, trying to stay calm despite her pulse hammering in her throat.
"Nah, Myrtle, I got this," Mr. Brown said. He returned to the front, shoving the taller boy ahead of him and dragging the other boy behind him. The one that kicked Mr. Brown landed in the seat behind Rebecca with a thump. The look on Mr. Brown’s face dared the boy to say he was pushed too hard. The taller boy managed to sit in the seat in front of her with less force.
Mrs. White shrugged. The gray beehive on her head bobbed up and down with her shoulders. Rebecca wondered how Mrs. White managed to make her hair stand up so high all the time. She imagined the old woman’s garage filled to the roof with empty cans of hairspray and the aftermath once the door popped open. That image changed and she found Mrs. White’s black Mary Janes and nude hose extending from beneath the pile of cans. It reminded her of the Wicked Witch of the East. She tried to cover her giggle with a yawn but it didn't work.
"What are you laughing at Runt?" the taller boy, James, asked. He leaned over the back of his seat as soon as Mr. Brown turned back to his magazine. James spoke softly but she recoiled at the name anyway. She hated being called names, even if that one was close to her actual name.
"Runt," John taunted from behind her with a snort. He couldn't let James have something that he didn't have, even if that was a target for harassment.
"That’s not my name," Rebecca muttered. She knew she shouldn't have said it as soon as it came out. She just couldn't help it.
James cupped his ear like Mrs. White. "I can’t hear you. What did you say?" he asked. He grinned, exposing crooked teeth in dire need of a toothbrush. He must have had spinach for breakfast.
John snuck his head up over the seat and stared down at the top of Rebecca’s head. "What’s wrong Runt? You gonna cry for your Mommy?"
Rebecca frowned, her lips pressing into a thin line across her face. That was a low blow, one that John frequently went for when he teased her. She pulled the patchwork jacket tighter over her shoulders and leaned her head against the window. She tried to ignore the boys. Telling Mr. Brown that they were calling her names again would do no good. If they were both taunting her, then at least they were not fighting with each other. That was a moment of respite Mr. Brown did not give up easily.
John reached over Rebecca’s shoulder and snatched the brown paper bag out of her hands. "Got anything good for lunch?" She tried to grab it back but he held it just out of her reach.
James shook his head. "She never has anything good to eat dummy." It was times like these that Rebecca wished she could disappear.
"I'm not dumb, dummy," John hissed.
While the boys argued over who was the dumbest, Rebecca yanked the brown bag out of John’s hand. He didn't notice until she curled herself around the bag, smashing it to her stomach and pressing her forehead to her knees. She curled her arms under her legs and held on as tight as possible. John tried to take the bag again. He leaned over the seat and jabbed her in the ribs. When that didn't work, he pinched the underside of her arm. She bit her tongue so hard while trying not to cry that she tasted blood.
Mr. Brown finally intervened when Mrs. White yelled at John. "Quit hanging over my seat!" she screeched from the front. The bus swerved wildly and Mrs. White had to slam the breaks to keep the bus on the road. John tumbled head first over the seat and landed next to her with another thump. He slid out of the seat to the floor, clutching his shoulder and his head.
"Watch the road! I don’t want to fill out another accident report!" Mr. Brown demanded as he pulled John to his feet. Rebecca thought she caught a glimpse of a smile in the mirror when Mrs. White slammed the breaks a second time, sending Mr. Brown toppling down onto John. They both glared at the back of her head but she didn't seem to notice.
Rebecca didn't relax her vice like grip on her bag until the bus shuddered to a halt in a parking lot. Everyone stood up and crowded the aisles, pushing to get off the bus. She tried to join the line but no one gave her a chance to step out of her seat. She climbed down last. Mr. Brown was already leading the students under the concrete archway when she finally managed to get off the bus. Mrs. White slammed the door shut behind Rebecca without a word.
The sign above the door said The Science and History Museum in block letters. A banner hanging below the sign welcomed Second Chance students to the museum. Second Chance students were called “at-risk children” by the adults at school. Rebecca wasn't sure what that meant but it sounded bad. She tried not to be a bad kid and she rarely got into trouble, so she didn't understand why she was a Second Chance student.
Inside the lobby, a dozen different groups of students milled around while they waited for their tour to start. Mr. Brown and Rebecca’s classmates were nowhere to be seen. She started to panic, afraid for one minute that they left her. A volunteer at the door pointed down a hallway after she asked where her class went.
She fell in line with her classmates, panting from racing down the hall. Mr. Brown didn't notice she was missing so she stood in the back and tried to pretend she’d been there the whole time. The tour guide pointed toward a painting hanging on the wall bearing the faces of past Presidents. The kids stared around the room, shuffled their feet, and talked amongst themselves. They paid little attention to the painting. He led the group from painting to statue to dais without getting much of a response from the students. Even Mr. Brown looked bored and History was his subject.
An hour later, the guide gladly handed the group of students off to the hostess in the dining area. The college age girl smiled brightly and bounced on her feet as she spoke. Mr. Brown smiled and winked at her. John and James shoved each other, both trying to get in place behind the girl as she led the class to their assigned lunchroom.
Most of the class joined the queue for pizza and fries. Rebecca settled in at a far table and opened the crumpled brown bag in her hands. She turned the contents out onto the table and stared sadly down at her lunch. The two packs of crackers were crushed. The ketchup packets had burst and the red sauce seemed to have smeared everywhere. She looked back in the bag. It was, of course, empty. Her father had not bothered to go grocery shopping this week again. He ate fast food a lot but almost never brought a meal home for her. Usually, he’d give her the last few fries, the lettuce and tomato off his hamburger, and a pack of crackers.
"Hey, aren't you going to eat?" the hostess asked on her way back through the tables. She sat another group of at-risk kids in the section behind Rebecca.
"Oh, I’m not really hungry," Rebecca lied. Her stomach rumbled but she knew it wasn't any more than usual. "I got carsick on the bus."
"You know, I get carsick a lot too. Food will help settle your stomach."
Just then, Rebecca’s stomach gurgled loudly. She crossed her arms over her stomach and tried to ignore it. She shrugged at the hostess. "I knew I’d be sick so I just brought crackers," she said. She motioned to the two ketchup covered packets of crackers on the table.
"Well, I just finished my lunch when your class came in. I have some leftovers. Do you think you could maybe try to eat a little more than crackers?" the hostess asked.
Rebecca blinked. She didn't know what to say. She wanted to say yes so badly and her stomach agreed. But if her classmates saw this girl giving her food, they’d make fun of her even more. Even worse, if her father found out…
"I can’t take your food," Rebecca said. She swallowed hard and dug a napkin out of the steel box on the table. She started dabbing the ketchup off the plastic wrapper. "Thank you though," she added.
The hostess shrugged and moved on. Her classmates came back and sat down at their tables. They scarfed down colas, pizzas, cheesy pretzels, bags of chips, fries loaded with chili and cheese, and ice cream bars. She nibbled slowly on her two packs of crackers, willing them to last for the whole lunch hour.
Mr. Brown sat in the booth next to Rebecca’s table where he could see all the students. His four slices of pizza swayed precariously on the edge of the table. He glanced over at Rebecca, watching her nibble on her crackers, and looked at his own lunch. He knew from Rebecca’s previous teachers that she had once been an outgoing little girl but that all changed a few years back. He thought briefly to give her some of his lunch. An eruption of noise from one of the farther tables made him forget his student. John and James were fighting, again.
He managed to separate the boys just as the loud speaker squealed. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?" a man said over the intercom. "Today, as a special treat for visiting students, we are having a drawing for lunch on the house!" Polite clapping from various tables followed. Rebecca slumped in her seat. She never won any drawings at school.
An older student sitting in the back with the latest arrivals stood up and yelled out a question. "What if we've already paid?"
The man with the microphone looked confused. "Oh, um, well your lunch cost will be refunded then, sir," he answered. The kid sat back down, apparently satisfied. The man dug around in his hat and pulled out a folded slip of paper. He opened it and looked back up into the dining room. "Would the people at table number 57 please come forward to get your free lunch?"
Rebecca didn't look up. She knew he wouldn't call her table. The students leaned over the sides of their tables, searching for the number imprinted in the molding. Murmurs went up in Rebecca’s section. Mr. Brown sent the boys to separate ends of the dining area and returned to his own. His table was number 58. "Figures," he thought to himself. He looked at the table next to him where Rebecca sat alone. "Huh. Rebecca, they called your table."
Her head flew up and her eyes grew wide. "They did?"
Mr. Brown pointed to the little white square with black numbers on the side of the table. Rebecca leaned over to look. It said 57. She didn't know what to do. Would her father approve? The man at the podium motioned for her to come to him as she sat there staring at the square. She didn't see the hostess standing by the register. The girl handed the cashier a few bills and tucked the receipt in her apron pocket. As she walked by the man with the microphone, she nodded at him. Then she stopped at Rebecca’s table.
"Well, today is your lucky day kid," she said with that bright smile. She hooked her thumb in the direction of the kitchen. "C’mon, I’ll help you pick something out."
For the first time in several years, Rebecca enjoyed her lunch. She couldn't remember eating so much since the first week after her mother’s funeral when the neighbors brought casseroles, desserts, and fruit baskets to the house. That had been three years ago. Since then, Rebecca’s father stopped working, stopped cleaning, and most importantly, stopped cooking. She loaded her plate with several slices of pizza, a basket of fries, and a handful of cookies. It took a while for her to eat it, but she was determined to finish every bite. The hostess returned to check on her, filling her drink and then later assuring Mr. Brown that Rebecca could stay in the dining room and finish her lunch while the class went on the rest of their tour.
She almost counted the day as the best day in many years until the bus ride home. John and James continued fighting. When they didn't fight with each other, they picked on her. Mr. Brown ignored them and Mrs. White nearly drove off the road twice before they even reached the pass through the mountains. The trip up the mountain was no better than the trip down. Both sides of the road fell off into steep valleys. Rebecca tried to distract herself from watching the road disappear and the valley emerge by drumming the plastic spoon and fork from her lunch over the seat.
While Rebecca didn't have much, she did have a fantastic imagination. She spent hours with her mother telling elaborate stories about fairies and princesses and magical kingdoms. Her life was less magical without her mother but it didn't stop her from trying to remember the fantastic worlds she and her mother created. She tapped the seat with the fork. "And with this, the Fork of Truth, I command you to always tell the truth!"she said to her unseen knight. She tapped the knight with her spoon. "And the Spoon of Honor commands you rescue the maiden for the-"
Outside, lightning flashed. The shining blue sky had been replaced by an angry gray cloud. It raced across the sky and covered the sun, plunging the bus into darkness. Wind rocked the bus and more lightning flashed around them. The other children were quiet. A few of the children looked scared. Mr. Brown stood at the back of the bus holding John and James by their arms. No one even seemed to breathe.
"What is that?" a girl in the back yelled. She pointed high into the clouds.
The bus shuddered as Mrs. White slammed the breaks. The eerie silence was broken by screaming as the bus fishtailed in the gravel. Mr. Brown clutched the seat, John and James’s petty fight forgotten. The back end of the bus swung wildly to the side and back as Mrs. White fought for control of the yellow beast.
It felt like Mrs. White fought the bus and the wind for hours, though it was only a few seconds. The bus twisted so much that the back end hung slightly off the road, one tire spinning in the open air and the other tire spinning without traction in the loose soil. Mrs. White glanced at Mr. Brown in the mirror. They didn't say anything but they both understood that they had just avoided a terrible accident. Slowly, Mr. Brown sent the kids in the back up to the front. He followed them at last so that only the first six seats held children. He stood by Mrs. White, one hand on her shoulder, as she tried to coax the bus back onto the road.
"Should we get them off the bus?" he asked quietly.
A burst of wind rocked the bus and the kids screamed. The girls clutched each other and the boys fought the urge to do the same. Mrs. White didn't wait. She opened the doors. "Everyone off! Now!" She shoved Mr. Brown out of the way and darted off the bus.
Mr. Brown ushered students off the bus, urging them to go faster and stick together. No one let Rebecca through, like usual. They were not trying to be mean, they were just scared. As John passed James, he stuck his tongue out. James swung his fist, slamming into John’s chin. They jumped at each other, swearing and yelling loudly. She jumped back into her seat to avoid a poorly aimed punch or kick. Mr. Brown fought to separate the boys as the wind shoved the back of the bus further away from the road.
Mrs. White herded the other children to the middle of the road, away from the precariously teetering bus. From the outside, the situation was worse that it had seemed. As the wind shoved the bus, the loose soil underneath it fell away. A wrecker would never get here in time to pull the bus off the shoulder. The valley floor would be the final resting place of her beloved bus. "What’s taking you so long?" she yelled to Mr. Brown. "Get off that damn bus!"
John fell out the doors, landing on his face as Mr. Brown followed him yelling. He dragged James behind him. Mr. Brown had a bloody nose and he fought to control his temper. He shoved the two fighting boys into the middle of the road. "That is the last straw boys!" he screamed. He burst into a string of profanities. He pulled a list out of his shirt pocket and started calling names where the kids had signed in that morning.
He reached the end and called the last name. "Rebecca Runtly." He looked over the heads of the students, looking for the dirty brown hair and patchwork coat that was Rebecca. Everyone looked around, one side to the other. "Rebecca?" Mr. Brown said quietly. His face went pale as he realized she wasn't with the class. He and Mrs. White turned back to the bus.
Another gale sailed through the mountain pass. The gust was so strong that it knocked the smaller children over and even the adults struggled to stay on their feet. The dirt under the bus loosened even more until a small avalanche of dirt, rock, and asphalt plunged down to the valley below. The bus shivered in the wind. Mr. Brown took off at a run toward the bus but Mrs. White grabbed him. The yellow machine rolled backward, disappearing from view.
The screaming of shredding metal, the crashing and snapping of trees, and the thundering rock slide that followed haunted Mr. Brown and his students for years after. When the emergency crew arrived and dug through the wreckage after the storm, they never found Rebecca. All they found of the little girl that everyone swore had been on the bus moments before it toppled over the edge of the cliff was a little plastic fork and spoon. Her disappearance puzzled everyone for years later, though they never would have believed the truth. Rebecca didn't go over the edge of the road with the bus. In fact, she escaped the yellow beast before Mr. Brown managed to get the boys out the doors. Her story ends much better than that. Let’s go back a few minutes before the bus met its doom.
"And with this, the Fork of Truth, I command you to always tell the truth!" Rebecca said to her unseen knight. She tapped the knight with her spoon. "And the Spoon of Honor commands you rescue the maiden for the-"
Outside, lightning flashed. It surprised her so she jumped and let out a tiny yelp of fright. She looked out the window. The shining blue sky had been replaced by an angry gray cloud. It raced across the sky and covered the sun, plunging the bus into darkness. Wind rocked the bus and more lightning flashed around them. Her classmates were quiet too, Rebecca realized. She popped up over the seat and found her classmates staring out the windows. A few of the kids looked scared. Mr. Brown held John and James by their arms. No one even seemed to breathe.
Movement caught Rebecca’s eye. She turned just in time to see a large bird dip out of the gray clouds, cut through the tiny bit of sunlight, and then disappear back into the clouds. It was too far away to see it clearly, but it looked to be fighting the wind like everything else outside. Trees in the valley were bent over and loose branches flew through the air. Clouds of dust and small stones pelted the windshield so Mrs. White turned the wipers on despite the lack of rain.
"What is that?" a girl in the back yelled. She pointed high into the clouds. Rebecca looked, expecting to see a tornado looming toward them. Instead, the bird was back. It circled out of the clouds and drifted lower to the ground over and over, coming closer with each pass.
Rebecca fixated on the bird. As it moved closer, its shape grew and morphed until she was convinced it was a Pterodactyl like Mr. Brown had been teaching about last week in Science class. The wings were wrong for a bird, with too many points, too much skin, and no feathers. She rubbed her eyes when the lightning flashed again. For a moment, she thought she saw someone riding the bird-thing. She looked back but it banked back into some low lying clouds and she couldn't see it anymore.
She felt the bus shudder as Mrs. White slammed the breaks. The eerie silence was broken by screaming as the bus fishtailed in the gravel. Mr. Brown clutched the seat, John and James’s petty fight forgotten. The back end of the bus, where Mr. Brown stood, swung wildly to the side as Mrs. White fought for control. Rebecca hugged herself, instantly regretting the very large lunch she ate.
It felt like Mrs. White fought the bus and the wind for hours, though it was only a few seconds. The bus twisted so much that the back end of the bus hung slightly off the road, one tire spinning in the open air and the other tire spinning without traction in the loose soil. Mrs. White glanced at Mr. Brown in the mirror. Mr. Brown sent the kids in the back up to the front of the bus one by one. He followed them at last so that only the first six seats held children. He stood by Mrs. White, his hand on her shoulder, as she tried to coax the bus back onto the road.
"Should we get them off the bus?" he asked quietly.
Wind rocked the bus again and the kids screamed. The girls clutched each other and the boys fought the urge to do the same. Mrs. White didn't wait. She opened the doors. "Everyone off! Now!" She shoved Mr. Brown out of the way and darted off the bus.
Mr. Brown ushered students off the bus, urging them to go faster and stick together. As John passed James, he stuck his tongue out. James swung his fist, slamming into John’s chin. They jumped at each other, swearing and yelling loudly. Rebecca jumped back into her seat to avoid a poorly aimed punch or kick. As Mr. Brown fought to separate the boys, the wind shoved the back of the bus further away from the road.
Rebecca felt the window vibrate against her shoulder. She turned and jumped again, back toward the struggling boys and grappling teacher. She glanced over her shoulder, but they were too intent on each other to see the sight outside the window. A gray skinned man covered in tattoos sat on the back of a striking white dragon. He curled his finger and patted the dragon’s neck, inviting her to join him.
Behind her, she heard Mr. Brown grunt and more swearing followed. She pulled her coat closer over her shoulders and threw the window open to the stranger and the dragon. He pulled her through the window and sat her on the dragon in a single quick motion. Before she could say anything, the dragon rose higher into the air, swept away into the clouds.
Below, Mrs. White herded the other children to the middle of the road, away from the precariously teetering bus. From above, the bus was a toy hanging from the edge of a table. Rebecca could hear the rock falling away under the bus and the screaming protest as the tires and metal clung to the road. Everything looked so toy-like from her seat, she forgot to be afraid of heights.
"What’s taking you so long?" Mrs. White yelled. "Get off that damn bus!"
"That is the last straw boys!" Mr. Brown screamed as he exited the bus. He burst into a string of profanities. He shoved John out first and pulled James behind him. He started calling names from a wrinkled sign in sheet.
He called the last name. "Rebecca Runtly." Everyone looked around. Rebecca heard him yell her name and fought the urge to call out to him. As high as she was, she doubted he could hear her anyways. His face went pale as he and Mrs. White turned back to the bus.
Another gale sailed through the mountain pass. The dragon tipped in the wind and banked around it, angling upward to avoid the rough passage. The gust was so strong that it knocked the smaller children over on the road and even the adults struggled to stay on their feet. Mr. Brown took off at a run toward the bus but Mrs. White grabbed him. Rebecca couldn't hear anything they said. Slowly, the yellow machine rolled backward, cutting a dark scar into the trees below.
The screaming of shredding metal, the crashing and snapping of trees, and the thundering rock slide was drowned out by the flapping of the dragon’s wings. Rebecca knew the others thought she was still on the bus. But at that moment, she didn't care. She was flying on a dragon! She was so excited by that thought that it never occurred to her to ask the gray skinned man who he was or where they were going. Only when they settled down in a deserted, sandy area a while later did she finally think to ask. And by then, it was too late.
Love is love, no matter the back story. <3 DS