Bus J. – The Lost Road

Bus J
March 12, 2022

The ride home on Bus J is always an adventure. It shuttles the rowdiest kids on the longest ride — a 45-minute trek down Old Bridge Road, through one of the state’s densest forests. It always looked like it was on the verge of nighttime, even on the sunniest of days.

The man responsible for getting the kids home is Portis Tucker. He hasn’t smiled in decades, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy. He saved the Robotics team from certain death at the hands of the haunted robot, but heroes have flaws, and poor Portis has a shopping cart full of them. 

Have you ever seen a living, breathing dinosaur? Well, Portis might be the closest thing to one. His antiquated ideas and beliefs feel as ancient as a T-Rex, and with his towering height and teeth that could match, he might as well be one. He tunes into TV shows with hosts who spout the wildest claims, like blaming hurricanes on loud music and bad behaviors on video games. Portis also has an odd habit of judging people by their appearance—especially their hair and skin color—unless they wear the red and gold jersey of his beloved Chiefs, his favorite football team. 

For what seems like forever, he’s claimed his throne in the driver’s seat of his big Blue Bird bus. This isn’t your average bus, though. He’s turned his driver’s area into a weird mix of football stickers, a key chain with the flag of the Civil War losers, and an old, faded photo. The picture shows a younger, cheerier Portis standing next to his daughter, who was just six years old at the time. The photo has been taped there for thirty years and it seems like the only proof that Portis was ever anything other than a living dinosaur

Three decades whizzed by and April, now all grown up, fell head over heels for a man who was different from everyone in Portis’s world. The man was a person of color and for only that, Portis didn’t like him. To show how strongly he felt, Portis did something unthinkable—he stopped talking to April. This wasn’t just a tiny silent treatment: we’re talking about a forever-and-a-day kind of silence. Over a misguided belief, Portis let go of the thing he cherished most. And that’s the recipe for a grumpy, dinosaur of a man.

When the school bell rings, signaling the end of a long day the kids scramble onto Portis’s bus. But don’t expect any cheerful ‘hellos’ from our dinosaur driver. No, his favorite phrases are more along the lines of ‘Sit down!’ and ‘Quiet down!’ The regular riders? They’ve become pros at tuning out his grumpy growls.

On this particular afternoon, after the bus hits the road. Two boys climb on top of the seats and race back to front, crawling over the entire length of the bus, entertaining a cheering crowd.

“Y’all better hustle them behinds into them seats ‘fore I gotta go tell your principal, the sheriff, and sign y’all up for boot camp,” hollers Portis as them boys mosey up to the front.

One of the boys stops and shouts back, “You need to go to anger management, Portis.”

“I wouldn’t need to manage my anger if you could manage your stupidity,” Portis responds.

“You called me stupid,” the boy answers. “I’m reporting you to the Navy and the King of Atlantis.”

The boys’ friends laugh.

“Just watch how slow I can drive,” Portis says, glancing back at the kids away from the road. When his eyes return to the road, a large deer is standing firmly in the middle of it.

Suddenly, with a jolt, Portis pulls the wheel to the side. The bus lurches, teetering briefly on two wheels. The kids scream tumbling onto the narrow aisle. For a heartbeat, Portis’s eyes snap shut. His knuckles whiten as he channels every ounce of his strength into pulling the bus back onto all four wheels.

As his eyes are closed, a bizarre streak of light flashes across his face. It’s as if a comet had chosen that very moment to blaze past the window. As Portis’s eyes snap open, he sees that the bus—against all odds—is back on its wheels, humming along the road as if nothing had happened.

“Keep your eyes on the road why don’t ya, Portis,” the same boy calls out this time from the floor.

Portis does keep his eyes on the road and stays tight-lipped. He can barely catch his breath or calm his beating heart as they continue down the road, thankful they’re alive. 

They might have survived, but something has changed — the ride goes on longer than he expects. Much longer, in fact. Mile after mile, tree after tree, nothing changes. They don’t reach the following drop-off location no matter how far they go,  Not only that there are no crossing streets, driveways, or turnoffs of any kind.

The kids complain, and Portis yells, but the ride continues. The sky darkens, and Portis is bewildered. They have been driving for nearly two hours and haven’t passed a car. The formerly full gas tank is now empty. The road is too narrow to do a U-turn, so they travel in the only direction they can.

The boys who were racing now sit behind Portis.

“Did you take a wrong turn?” one boy asks. “I need to pee real bad.”

“Me too,” someone in the back yells. 

Then a chorus of shouts erupts from other kids in desperate need of a bathroom. Portis is at a loss. He looks down at the photo of him and his daughter as he often does in times of stress but finds it’s not helping.

With a whimper, the diesel engine runs out of gas—the bus putters for a moment before gliding to a stop.

“Okay,” Portis calls out. “Everyone can go to the bathroom.”

“I don’t see a bathroom,” one girl says.

“If you got a tree, you got a bathroom,” Portis answers.

“Nearly every kid on the bus jumps up and heads to the front.

“Whoa, not all at once,” Portis orders. “Two girls. Two boys. Into the woods. Girls go on this side of the street, and boys cross the way. Got it?”

They agree and do as directed.

“Watch for cars,” he warns them wishing there were some cars.

Portis notices a young girl with a nervously bouncing leg in the seat diagonal from the driver’s seat. She looks to be one of the Middletown Little School kids, first or second grade. 

“You need to go to the bathroom, kid?” Portis asks. “I can get an older kid to go with you.”

She shakes her head. “I’m worried about that deer.”

“The one back there?” Portis thumbs the air. “The deer was too stupid to know what’s good for him. Don’t worry about him.”

The girl nods. “Why was it on the road?”

“They’re dumb animals, kid,” Portis says. He doesn’t look back. His words fade away while he considers how to get out of their current predicament.

Once everyone has gone into the woods. Portis orders them all to stay on the bus. 

“I’m gonna walk for gas,” Portis yells. “None of you nerds leave. Got it? Eighth Graders are in charge.”

Portis hops off the bus. 

 The girl in the first row leans her head out the window. “Bring back snacks.”

Portis nods and walks down the lonely highway, occasionally looking back at the bus and its dark, looming shadow in the low light of dusk. Once the chatty kids are out of earshot, he hears only eerie silence.

  He’s surprised to find a filling station no more than twenty minutes up the road. There’s never been a gas station on Old Bridge Road. 

“I must have turned off the road and got lost,” Portis mutters.

He sees a tall, bald man working on the front end of a long black limo at the gas station.

“Hey, bud,” Portis says. “I need some gas for my bus.”

The man cleans his hands.

“The name’s not bud, it Virgil,” the man says in a deep, booming voice.

“Okay, Virgil,” Portis repeats. “I need gas for my bus.”

Virgil slowly looks down the road in both directions. “I don’t see a bus.”

“It’s down the road a ways and full of kids. This road is playing tricks on me. It’s going endlessly, and I can’t turn around,” Portis explains. “I had a full tank when we started. What street is this?”

“Old Bridge,” Virgil says, grabbing a big gas container, “You didn’t fill the tank on your bus full of kids? That’s a problem.”

“Didn’t you hear what I just said? The dang thing was filled to the brim when I left the school, but the road wouldn’t stop. I’ve been driving for hours.”

Virgil fills the big, portable tank. “While I do this, go in and use the phone. It would help if you told someone. I’m sure some folks are pretty worried.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” Portis replies. “You don’t got any snacks, do ya? Something I can bring back to the bus.”

Virgil shakes his head.

Inside, paper and grease stains cover tables and floors. Portis sees a pot of coffee warming in the corner. He could use some, but it looks to be a few weeks old under inspection.

A phone hangs on the wall by a desk; names and numbers are written in pencil next to the telephone.

He calls the school. As he waits and listens to the phone ring, his eyes survey the names and numbers written in pencil next to the telephone on the wall. They are mostly auto supply stores and other repair shops, but one of the names causes his mouth to drop: April Tucker. His eyes widen as he reads his daughter’s name – his only daughter, the one he hasn’t spoken to in 15 years. Portis felt his heart skip a beat as a wave of regret and longing washed over him at seeing her name unexpectedly.

No one at the school answers his phone. At a loss for options, Portis hangs up and dials the number belonging to April Tucker, wondering.

“Hello?” the woman on the phone says impatiently. He hears kids in the background.  


There’s a pause, but she quickly recognizes the voice. “Dad?” 

Another pause. Portis’ eyes fill with tears. “I’ve missed you, darling,” 

“What the heck, Dad?  I’ve missed you, too.”

A long moment of silence follows. Portis looks out the window. He sees Virgil cleaning a spot on his tow truck with a rag. “I’m sorry for turning my back on you. I’ve never stopped loving you.”

“That only makes it hurt more you know?” 

“I was dumb.”

“I know, Dad.”

“Can you forgive me?” 

Outside, Virgil puts the filled gas container in the back of his tow truck. He waits for Portis in the vehicle. After a few minutes, Portis comes out, wearing a hint of a smile. His face looks different — less prehistoric.

“Hurry, bub. I’ll give you a ride back to the bus,” Virgil yells at him through the open window.

“It’s Portis, not bub.”

“Touche’,” Virgil smiles. Portis moves around the vehicle and climbs into the passenger seat.  “You good?  You look happier than a dead pig in the sunshine.”

“Yeah,  good,” Portis answers. 

Before Portis can ask the tow truck driver how his daughter’s number got on his wall, Virgil turns on the music loudly and starts driving. The road is now pitch black. Portis hopes the kids are all right, but for the first time in years, his mind is at ease – the weight of his estrangement from April finally lifted.  He hasn’t spoken to his daughter for too long. He’d been ashamed of his feelings and thought she would be disappointed in him, and she was. But the last thing April said on the phone was, “I love you.” The last thing he said was the same.

His thoughts don’t wander long as Virgil and Portis see flashing blue and red lights from a police car down the road. Virgil quiets the music and slows the truck.

“Oh good,” Portis says. “They’re protected.”

“Yes, they are,” Virgil agrees.

But as they near, nothing is as Portis left it. The bus lies on its side. The kids huddle close together across the street beside an ambulance. They wear sad expressions on their faces, it looks to Portis like they may be crying.  

“They’re crying over a deer,” Portis tells Virgil noticing a sheet in the road covering a body.  The tow truck cruises slowly but doesn’t stop. “Hey, what’s the deal, Virgil?  Why ain’t you stopping?” 

A police officer waves the tow truck through. Virgil slowly passes the scene.

“Hey, let me out, man,” Portis shouts, working the door but it’s locked and won’t open.  The truck continues moving beyond the scene. “What’s happening? That’s my bus.  My kids.”

Virgil looks over to Portis who is no longer smiling.  He’s confused and panicked.  “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but that was your last ride, my friend.”

As the truck picks up speed hurdling away from the crumpled bus and into the enveloping darkness,  Portis watches the scene shrink in the side mirror, “My last ride?” His gaze flicks to Virgil, seeing reassurance in the driver’s warm, steady energy.

Virgil explains calmly, “You missed the deer, but you crashed the bus. But don’t worry, everyone is fine.” A pause. “Except you of course. Your ticker quit tickin’.”

Portis shakes his head adamantly,  “That’s gotta be wrong. I don’t feel dead.”

“You feel no pain,” Virgil responds. Virgil continues moving into the deepening blackness. “Well, except for the pain of knowing you wasted all those years with hate festering in your heart.”

“But I fixed it,” Portis bluts. despertely. “Right? I talked to her. Please tell me I made amends and I didn’t just dream it?”

Virgil’s nod is slight, noncommittal.

Portis is quiet as he retreats to reflection. At last, he asks, “Who are you then, Virgil? Some kind of angel?”

“Nah,” Virgil answers with the faintest smile. “Just a tow truck driver.”

Portis knows that isn’t the truth. He leans back, his gaze drifting to the stars visible through the window. He thinks about his daughter, the reconciliation, and the unspoken words still lingering between them. A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth as he realizes that, despite everything, he’s found a peace he never thought possible. “Then let’s see what’s next.”

Virgil laughs a deep booming laugh. “You know what’s next Portis.”

The road ahead darkens rather than brightens, enveloping them in a thick, eerie mist. As it clears, the unmistakable outline of Middletown Middle looms ahead, its windows dark and foreboding, like eyes watching their approach. “

“You weren’t expecting palm trees, were you,”  Virgil jokes smiling boldly.  

Portis’s heart sinks as he stares at the growing silhouette of the school wishing he could escape its grasp, but knowing deep down, he was always bound to return.

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