March 12, 2020
The ride home on bus J is always an adventure. It ships the rowdiest kids on the longest ride; forty-five minutes ride down Old Bridge Road through one of the state’s thickest forests.
The man responsible for getting the kids home is Portis Tucker. There is no one left at the school that remembers when he was a nice guy. Despite his heroics at the Robot Olympics, he’s mostly known as grump old man.
His way of thinking is prehistoric and with his long neck and big teeth he kinda looks like a dinosaur. He blames tornados on music and crime on video games because that’s what the talking heads on the TV tell him to believe. He judges people by the color or their hair but more so the color of their skin unless they play football for his beloved Chiefs.
He loves watching the rantings on cable news and for as long as anyone remembers, Portis has had his place in the cockpit of his Blue Bird bus. He decorated his control center with Chiefs decals, a Dukes of Hazard key chain, and a forty-year-old photo of his daughter.
The picture was taken outside the bus and a young Portis sits in the driver’s seat while his six-year-old daughter, April, sticks her head out the window behind him. She was a daily passenger for Portis back then. Back then when they were happy.
Twenty years later April fell in love with a man Portis didn’t approve of simply because the new husband was a person of color. And to prove his point, he stopped talking to April and not just for a couple days, more like forever and a day. He removed the thing he loved most in life over a stupid belief. That’s the recipe to create a grumpy, old man.
Portis offers no greetings of hello to the kids when they hop on the bus after a long day of studies. Mostly he just tells the students to sit down and shut up. He has his regulars, who are used to his mood and mostly ignore it.
Soon after the bus hits the road, the shenanigans start. Two boys climb on top of the seats. They crawl back and forth, the entire length of the bus, entertaining a cheering crowd.
“Boys, get your butts in your seat before I report you to your principal, the sheriff, and enlist you into the army,” Portis yells.
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 all laugh.
“Just watch how slow I can drive,” Portis says, giving a glance back at the kids and away from the road. When his eyes return to the road, there is a large deer standing firmly in the middle of the street.
Portis swerves and the bus goes on two wheels. The kids scream. Portis closes his eyes and pulls the bus back to the road, mustering all the strength he has. There’s a flash of light and when his eyes open, the bus is back on track.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Portis,” the same boy returns.
Portis does and stays tight-lipped. He can barely catch his breath 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 and nothing changes. No matter how far they go, they don’t reach the next drop-off location.
The kids complain and Portis yells, but the ride continues on. The sky darkens and Ports is bewildered. They have been driving for nearly two hours and haven’t seen a car that whole time. The formerly full gas take is on E. The road is much too narrow to do a U-turn. They can travel in just one direction.
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 from other kids in desperate need for a bathroom. Portis is at a loss. He looks down at the photo of him and his daughter, but it offers nothing.
Then with a whimper, the diesel engine runs out of gas. The bus glides to a stop on the side of the road.
“Okay,” Portis yells out. “Everyone can go to the bathroom.”
Nearly every kid on the bus jumps up and heads to the front.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not all at once,” he orders. “Two girls. Two boys. Into the woods. Girls go on this side of the street and boys across the way. Got it?”
They agree and do as directed.
“Watch for cars,” he warns them.
Portis notices a young girl in the seat diagonal from the driver’s seat. She looks to be in first grade but she’s not been on the bus before. The girl looks worried. Her leg bounces nervously.
“You need to go to the bathroom kid?” Portis says. “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 in 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?”
Portis hops off the bus.
The girl in the first row leans her head out the window. “Bring back snacks.”
Portis nods and hoofs it down the lonely highway. He occasionally looks back at the bus and its dark, looming shadow in the low light of dusk. Once the chatty kids our out of earshot, there are no sounds. 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.
At the gas station, he sees a tall bald man working on the front end of a long black limo.
“Hey, bud,” Portis says. “I need some gas for my bus.”
The man cleans his hands.
“The name’s Virgil,” the man says in a deep booming voice. “Not Bud.”
“Okay, Virgil,” Portis repeats. “I need gas for my bus.”
Virgil look down the road in both directions. “I don’t see a bus.”
“It’s down the road and full of kids. This road is playing tricks on me. It’s going endlessly and I can’t turn around,” Portis explains. “What street is this?”
“Old Bridge,” Virgil says, grabbing a big gas container, “You didn’t fill a tank on your bus full of kids? That’s a problem.”
“Didn’t hear what I just said. The dang thing was filled to the brim when I left the school, but the road is going endlessly. I’ve been driving for hours.”
Virgil fills the big portable tank. “While I do this, go in and use the phone. You should tell someone. I’m sure they’re some worried folks.”
“Yeah, I can do that,” Portis replies. “You don’t gotta any snacks, do ya? Something I can bring back to the bus.”
Virgil shakes his head.
Portis goes into the station. In the office, there are paper and grease stains almost everywhere. There’s a pot of coffee on, Portis could use some but it’s ice cold.
On the wall by a desk hangs a phone. Next to the phone on the wall written in pencil are a bunch of names and numbers.
He rings the school. As he waits and listens to the phone ring, his eyes survey the names on the wall. They are mostly auto supply stores and other repair shops, but one of them causes his mouth to drop: April Tucker. That is his daughter’s name: his only daughter. The one he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years.
No one at the school picks up. At a loss for options, he hangs up and then dials the number belonging to an April Tucker, wondering.
“Hello?” the woman on the phone says impatiently. There are sounds of kids in the background.
There’s a pause, but she quickly recognizes the voice. “Dad?”
There is another pause. “I’ve missed you, darling,”
“What the heck, Dad, it’s been fifteen years. I missed you too.”
There’s a long moment of silence. Portis looks out the window. He sees Virgil cleaning a spot on his truck with a rag. “I’m sorry for turning my back on you. I’ve always loved you.”
“I know, Dad, that’s why it hurts so much.”
“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. There’s 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. “Everything alright? Took you long enough.”
“Yeah, everything’s great,” Portis answers.
Before Portis can ask Virgil how his daughter’s number got on his wall, he is in the truck and the music is too loud to talk over. The road is now pitch black. He hopes the kids are all right.
On the drive back to the bus, Portis feels happy for the first time in years. He hasn’t spoken to his daughter for too long. He was 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.
It isn’t long before Virgil and Portis see the flashing blue and red lights from the 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 lays on its side. The kids stand across the street, huddled close together with a blanket over them for warmth.
“Hey, what’s the deal?” Portis says. He then notices a body in the road, covered with a blanket.
A police officer waves the tow truck through. Virgil slowly passes the scene.
“Let me out, man,” Portis shouts, but the door is locked and the truck continues moving. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but that was your last ride, my friend. You missed the deer but you crashed the bus,” Virgil explains.
“That’s wrong,” Portis argues. Going past the kids, he sees the sad expressions on their faces. “That’s gotta be wrong. I don’t feel dead.”
“You feel no pain,” Virgil responds. Now that they are beyond the scene, Virgil accelerates. “Well, except the pain of knowing you wasted all those years with hate in your heart.”
Portis is quiet. Reflective. Then he asks, “Then who are you, Virgil? Some sorta angel?”
“Nah,” Virgil answers. “Just a tow truck driver.”
Portis knows that isn’t true. He watches in the scene fade in the side mirror of the truck. The last thing he can see is BUS J printed on the back of the overturned vehicle. He moves his eyes to the road ahead; it is dark but finally and for the first time, he doesn’t fear what’s coming.