Previously published in What Lies in Wait, ed. David Allan Hamilton. DeeBee Publishing, 2017.
Mason Reed has already attended three different schools, but never has he taken the bus. Everything he knows about them are from the library books his parents read to him. They’re normally yellow with wheels that go round-and-round. And the kids on board always look happy.
But Mason Reed is not happy. He clutches his mom’s hand harder.
“There’s nothing to be worried about, Pop-Tart.”
“Why couldn’t you find a house closer to school?”
“I already told you. It just didn’t work out this time.”
“But last time we moved—”
“Everything will be fine, champ,” his dad says, taking a knee to adjust his son’s ratty baseball cap.
Mason harrumphs and continues to wait in silence for the school bus to turn onto their street. Isn’t attending another new school bad enough without having to take the bus?
His palms are slick with sweat around the handle of his Captain Zippy lunch box. He smacks his dry lips and retrieves a juice box from within, sipping loudly. Across the street, the branches of the willow trees weep for him.
His mom squeezes his hand. “I think I hear it coming!”
The sudden crunch of gravel grows louder as the bus drives into view. Mason squints at the brightness of the yellow paint and the sun glinting off its many windows. The front two headlights scowl angrily, threatening to devour him in its grilled maw. And the wheels, he notes, do indeed go round-and-round.
With a harsh squeal and a lurch, the bus stops directly in front of his house. The door opens with a smack of suction. Sitting up high in the driver’s seat is a middle-aged man wearing a cracked leather jacket and glasses with lenses from the ends of telescopes. His toothy grin is as yellow as the bus.
“All aboard!” His voice is like a knife scraping against dry toast.
Mason looks up at his parents and coughs. “I feel sick. Maybe I can stay home and help look after Sofia?”
His dad holds up the baby monitor. “If you’re sick, we want you to stay as far away from her as possible. Nice try.”
“Don’t worry, Pop-Tart. We’ll meet you here at the end of the day. And who knows, maybe you’ll have so much fun you won’t want to come home!”
Mason faces the driver. “I don’t know about this.”
“Go on, champ.” His dad gives him a friendly push.
Heart racing as fast as one of his wind-up Hot Wheels, he mounts the first of three monstrous steps.
“First day?” the driver asks in the same dry toast sort of voice.
“Well, come on in! Don’t be shy. Head on back and say hello to your new friends.”
The door closes behind Mason. He climbs the last two steps and peeks around the corner to meet his new classmates. A horrifying gasp escapes his tiny body. His right hand squeezes into a fist, crumpling the juice box and squirting golden liquid from the tip of the gnawed straw. He throws himself down the three stairs and rams his shoulder against the door, once, twice, three times. Tears stain his red cheeks.
“Don’t leave me!” he screeches.
Through the narrow window, his parents just smile and wave, their free arms clasped around each other’s waists.
Another lurch and the bus is in motion.
“I don’t want to go to school. I want to stay home. I want to be with my mommy.” He paws at the door, but it stays firmly shut.
The bus driver doesn’t take his eyes from the road. “Your mommy doesn’t want to be with you. Now stop crying. No kid wants to go to school. But you don’t have a choice.”
“You’re being very rude. You still haven’t said hello to your new friends. They’ve been eager to meet you.”
A hot stream of urine dampens his new corduroys as Mason remounts the stairs and stands at the head of the aisle. Twenty kids turn to face him, their neck joints popping in unison like lids off unopened glass jars. Thin filaments of ghostly cobwebs detach from their heads and hang limply from the roof and sides of the bus. Their faces are sunken, almost skeletal, and their eyeballs are set in deep sockets with purpling lids. Starting in the front row, like dominos, their thin lips break into innocent smiles.
The nearest boy waves, not blinking as much as he should. “You’ll be so happy with us.”
“Head on back, Pop-Tart!” the driver hollers.
Mason flinches, shrinking into himself. He shuffles his way to the back where an empty seat waits just for him.
His new classmates crane their necks to keep him in view. They’re all dressed in clothes from different time periods. He recognizes the neon clothing from pictures of his parents as children, the crisp suits his grandfather used to wear to school when he was his age, and other much older styles he can’t quite place.
Mason sits and clutches his tin lunch box to his chest like a shield.
Captain Zippy protect me…
The girl in the seat directly in front turns and waves, her pigtails like clumps of wet hair pulled from the drain of a bathtub.
“How long until we get to school?”
“School?” The girl mulls over the question. “We’re not going to school, silly.”
Mason feels sick to his stomach. He crosses his legs as if to fight against the bladder that has already betrayed him. “Where are we going then?”
The girl extends a bony hand. “You’ll be so happy with us.”