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 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 days.
The man responsible for getting the kids home is Portis Tucker. No one left at the school remembers when he was a nice guy. He did save the Robotics team from certain death at the hands of Brad, but heroes have flaws, and poor Portis has a shopping cart full of them. Portis is mainly 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 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 of their hair but more so by their skin unless they play football for his beloved Chiefs. TV makes Portis angry.
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 football decals, a key chain depicting the losers of the Civil War, and a 30-year-old photo of a happier Portis standing next to his then six-year-old daughter.
Twenty years later, April fell in love with a man Portis disapproved 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 of 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 older man.
Portis offers no greetings to the kids when they hop on the bus after a long day of studies. Mostly, he tells them to sit down and shut up. He has his regulars, which are used to his mood and generally ignore it.
On this particular afternoon, after the bus hits the road. Two boys climb on top of the seats. They race back to front, crawling 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 as the boys reach 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 stands firmly in the middle of it.
Portis swerves, and the bus tips up on two wheels. The kids scream and fall to the floor. Portis closes his eyes for a split second and pulls the bus back to the road, mustering all the strength he has. At the same time, his eyes were closed a light flashed by his face. When Portis quickly opens them, the bus is back on track.
“Keep your eyes on the road, 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.
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 on E. 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 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, whoa, 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 Littleschool 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. 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 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 won’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 on the wall. They are mostly auto supply stores and other repair shops, but one of the 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, 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? 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 tow truck with a rag. “I’m sorry for turning my back on you. I’ve always loved you.”
“I know, Dad, it hurt so much.”
“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. “Everything alright? You look happier than a dead pig in the sunshine.”
“Yeah, everything’s 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.
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.
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 stand across the street, huddled close together.
“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. “Everyone is okay, except you. You’re heart stopped.”
“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 into the darkness. “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.