For Three Word Wednesday. The words are: Grasp, dread, pacify.
The Baumgartner girls climbed onto the bus at 42nd and Spencer, the two eldest chattering while the littlest, Ellie, pressed against them and laughed loudly, trying to be in the conversation.
Mark swung the lever to close the door and pulled back onto the road.
That morning, their ride was full of spring: Nothing blossoms brighter in April than elementary children. The old Bluebird bus bounced over fresh potholes.
The mirror caught a child jumping seats across the aisle. “K-keep your butts in the chairs, please!” Mark called back.
“Sorry!” the boy dropped immediately, and the seat springs sent him smack into a window.
Mark downshifted and ground the gears as he turned the corner onto Lake. They topped the hill on the way to the next stop.
Suddenly, to Mark, the bright jabbering and sunshine faded.
49th and Lake. He dreaded this stop.
At the corner, he pulled over, set the brake, extended the stop sign, and opened the door.
“Watch out;” Jake Palmer bulled through a second-grader and cleared the stairs with a leap.
The left seat all the way to the back was sacred, open each day for Jake. “Hey Mr. Mark,” he said as he strode by.
“Jake,” Mark nodded.
Jake was lean, well-dressed and universally worshipped. His “friends” were more like attendants: They laughed on cue and waited for approval.
Jake was on top of the heap thanks to a wicked, bloody tongue. The boy could peel you down to your deepest weakness: the mole on Elizabeth Pewter’s chin, Michael Robby’s only pair of pants, Chase Menkin’s mother. But you didn’t have to probe to find Mark’s weakness. Even the densest bullies in his life had figured that out pretty quick.
“F-feet on floor!” Mark suddenly snapped at some kids draped over the backrests.
“Yeah! F-f-f-f-f-feet on the f-f-f-f-floor you f-f-f-f-fools!” Jake slouched low in his seat, out of sight.
It was the same every day. It had been the same every day for his whole life: different aggressors, but the same joke. The authority of adulthood had given him no reprieve.
Mark was hot, but he knew if he responded, the stuttering would only be worse.
He pulled over at Lake and 57th. Five kids boarded.
“G-g-g-good morning, Tommy!” Jake shouted.
Laughter shook the bus. Mark’s fingernails bit his palms around the steering wheel as he pulled out.
“Keep your f-f-f-f-feet on the f-f-f-floor, Tommy!” Jake said. He was on a roll.
Tommy laughed and raised both feet in the air.
Jake feigned shock. “Tommy! I’m the f-f-f-freakin’ bus driver! You better listen!”
“Quiet!” Mark screamed. The bus fell silent.
Then, “OK. I’m done. … B’dee b’dee b’dee That’s all folks!”
The kids couldn’t hold it in; their laughter spit from between clenched lips, their heads between their knees. It was out of control, and Mark was powerless.
He pulled up to the last stop and set the brake. The kids boarded.
“Watch your f-f-f-f-feet!” Tommy had decided to get in on the act now.
Mark’s pulse pounded. He seethed. A lifetime of “ignoring” taunts had done nothing to pacify his anger and insecurity. He decided to act, damn the consequences.
“This is your s-stop, Jake.” He stood and faced the children.
No one laughed. No one moved. Jake acted like he hadn’t heard.
“Jake! This is your stop! Get off the bus!”
“What? But I didn’t say it; Tommy said it!”
“Get off the bus Jake.”
Mark walked to the back, and Jake slid against the window. Mark grabbed his arm and pulled him into a bear hug that pinned his arms against his side. He backed down the aisle while Jake kicked. “Let go of me! Stop it! I’m going to tell!”
His foot connected with a backpack and dragged it into the aisle. He kicked someone’s lunchbox, then a leg.
He grasped the pole as they passed the front seats. Mark braced his feet, then yanked hard. Jake lost his grip, and they both tumbled out the door onto the curb.
“You can’t do this,” Jake said as Mark got back in his seat and closed the door.
He pulled away from the curb with Jake running alongside the bus, pounding its sides.
The kids heard “STOP! STOP!” until they were out of earshot.
But Mark never looked in the rearview mirror. He just rolled down the last joyful mile to school.