March 12, 2020
The ride home on Bus J is always an adventure. It ships the rowdiest kids on the longest ride — a 45-minute ride down Old Bridge Road through one of the state’s thickest forests.
The man responsible for getting the kids home is Portis Tucker. No one left at the school remembers when he was a nice guy. Despite his heroics at the Robot Olympics, all heroes have flaws. Portis is mostly known as a grump nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case.
His way of thinking is prehistoric, and with his long neck and big teeth, he kind of 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.
Portis loves watching the rantings on cable news, and for as long as anyone can remember, he has had his place in the cockpit of his Blue Bird bus. He decorated his control center with Chiefs decals, a Dukes of Hazzard key chain, and a 40-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 one of Portis’s daily passengers 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. To prove his point, Portis stopped talking to April, and not just for a couple days — more like forever and a day. He lost 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 to the kids when they hop on the bus after a long day of studies. Mostly, he just tells them to sit down and shut up. He has his regulars, who are used to his mood and generally ignore it.
Soon after the bus hits the road on one particular day, the shenanigans start. Two boys climb on top of the seats. They crawl over the entire length of the bus, entertaining a cheering crowd.
“Boys, get your butts in your seat before I report you to your principal and the sheriff and enlist you in 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, glancing back at the kids and away from the road. When his eyes return to the road, a large deer is standing firmly in the middle of it.
Portis swerves and the bus tips up on two wheels. The kids scream. Portis closes his eyes and pulls the bus back to the road, mustering all the strength he has. A light flashes, and when Portis opens his eyes, the bus is back on track.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Portis,” the same boy calls out.
Portis does and stays tight-lipped. He can barely catch his breath as they continue down the road; he’s just 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. 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. The sky darkens and Portis is bewildered. They have been driving for nearly two hours and haven’t seen a car that whole time. The formerly full gas tank is on E. The road is much too narrow to do a U-turn. They can travel in only 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 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, but it offers no help.
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 calls 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 hasn’t been on the bus before. The girl looks worried. Her leg bounces nervously.
“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 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 are out of earshot, he hears no further sound — 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 looks 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 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 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 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.
Portis goes into the station. The office is covered with paper and grease stains. Portis sees a pot of coffee on. He could use some, but it’s ice cold.
A phone hangs on the wall by a desk. Next to the phone, a bunch of names and numbers are written in pencil.
He calls 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 15 years.
No one at the school picks up. At a loss for options, he 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. His eyes fill with tears. “I’ve missed you, darling,”
“What the heck, Dad? It’s been fifteen years. I’ve missed you, too.”
A long moment of silence follows. 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 hurt 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, 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. “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’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.
It isn’t long before Virgil and Portis see 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 lies on its side. The kids stand across the street, huddled close together with blankets over them for warmth.
“Hey, what’s the deal?” Portis asks. 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 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’s still dark, but finally and for the first time, he doesn’t fear what’s coming.