My life as I knew it would end in less than ten minutes.
Well, that's how I felt anyway.
Perched on the edge of a vinyl seat in a smelly, rattletrap of a bus, surrounded by obnoxious sophomores and juniors who delighted in tormenting us lowly freshmen, I mentally prepared for my Waterloo. Hard to concentrate, however, because piles of elementary and middle school kids crammed the seats, making so much noise you couldn't hear yourself think.
We're a small town with limited resources, and since the elementary, middle, and high schools are in a row on the same piece of property, we all ride the same bus even though our starting times vary. Far from ideal but that's the way it is. Totally senseless.
But even more senseless was the nightmare waiting just around the corner--all because my best friend, Nancy, had a stupid head cold. When she'd called late last night to ask if I'd pick up her assignments, which would've been okay under different circumstances, I nearly broke out into hives right there in my own living room. The teeniest thought of what it would mean if her seat was available, and the prospect of who might fill it in her absence, had sent bile snaking up my throat. I'd let go with a loud wail, making my dad lower his newspaper and frown.
To Nancy's credit, she apologized over and over. I, of course, offered inane platitudes and said I understood and was only over-reacting, blah, blah, blah, then we hung up--her to nurse her sniffles, me to wallow in anticipated misery.
Nothing I could do about it, short of faking my own head cold, which wouldn't fool my parents one bit.
Now I sat alone in the fifth row from the front on the right side by the window, arms crossed, stomach tied up in one big knot, chanting my mental mantra, Please, someone. Anyone. Please, sit down, please, please, in hopes that somebody--anybody--would miraculously appear and occupy the seat beside me. Anyone would do--even Buddy Bigelow. I didn't care. Just as long as that space was occupied before the bus reached The Coughlin Place.
Desperation oozed from every pore, making me look up and down the aisle, praying someone needed a seat. But of course everybody else already had his or her designated space and couldn't have cared less whether I had a whole entire seat to myself or not. I was even tempted to pull the little girl sitting across from me over to Nancy's seat. I smiled--probably came out more a grimace--and patted the empty place beside me. She just stared at me with big solemn eyes for an eternity then shook her head and resumed chattering with her little companion. No use, so I stared out the window, trying to keep from throwing up. Wouldn't that be lovely?
Straight down the road and around two bends was The Coughlin Place. Only one more stop before it where the loathsome Buddy Bigelow lived. I didn't like Buddy Bigelow at all. Loud and crude, the jerk had been in my class since third grade and was as obnoxious as they come. A favorite hobby was snapping girls' bras, and the one time he'd tried it on me, I'd whirled around and slapped him good and hard. He'd steered clear of me ever since and made up for his humiliation by coughing out, "Whore," whenever he saw me--just garbled enough so no adult who happened to be nearby ever digested exactly what he was saying. All that didn't matter. What was important was now he became a potential knight in shining armor. As much as it killed me to say it, I wanted Buddy to sit next to me. My life and reputation depended on it.
When the bus squealed to a shuddering stop in front of his house, I straightened and grinned stupidly out the window, hoping to snare his attention. He loped out of the house like Quasimoto--late as usual--scooped up handfuls of snow and threw a few snowballs at the bus, while I held my breath. He didn't look up at my window once.
Staring at the door, I willed Buddy Bigelow to notice me. He was my last hope. If Buddy didn't sit next to me, I'd be doomed to sit with a Coughlin. Me. The girl who'd worked on weight machines two hours every day last summer to transform a scrawny, under developed figure; the girl who wanted badly to be a part of the 'in' crowd and have a steady boyfriend. Me! And after a miserable three years in middle school, I'd finally found my niche and was gaining recognition and respect from participation in the drama club. To be forced to sit next to a Coughlin? Unthinkable. Too cruel. Everybody would hear about it. I'd never live it down. I'd lose every precious inch I'd broken my back to gain.
Buddy Bigelow stomped onto the bus, grinning at nobody and everybody and shouting out greetings as though he were an admired teen idol. The idiot marched down the narrow aisle, snapping his fingers in a few girls' faces as though bestowing gifts to lowly peasants. As he made his way to the back of the bus, I shed the last vestiges of distaste, swallowed my pride, and gave him my best smile, which because my father is a dentist, isn't too shabby, but the imbecile looked right through me. He'd spotted his moronic pals and was already yelling insults to them as though I didn't exist.
My heart sank to my knees. A large aching lump was growing in my throat, and I couldn't swallow, couldn't breathe. I tried hard to blink back the tears that were coming. I would not--could not--let the others see me crying like a first grader. Absolutely nothing I could do--that was sane, I mean. I suppose I could've stood up and screamed for Mr. Benedict to stop the bus and let me off. In my dreams. Doing that would only label me even worse. Everybody would think I'd gone crazy. No, all I could do was keep my face turned toward the window so no one would think I was a friend of a Coughlin if, by cruel fate, one did sit next to me, which seemed inevitable now.
The Coughlins were the last to be picked up on the route and usually had to sit on the inside steps near Mr. Benedict because of lack of space. I don't know how they got around the authorities concerning safety issues and all that, but so far the situation hadn't changed. Perhaps because no busybody had gotten in an uproar or sent a complaint to the school superintendent. A cinch Mr. Benedict didn't care one way or another. As long as his route was reasonably calm, and everybody respected his right to drive without having to scream over his shoulder every other minute, he was content to leave things as they were.
No one cared whether a Coughlin had a seat or not. Wasn't enough money for the school district to buy another bus for our route--especially for only two people whose parents didn't contribute to the community--so that was that. Rose and her grimy little brother would sit on the steps and be glad to have a ride.
They didn't seem to care so why should we? Their parents hadn't complained, that I know of, so every day they rode the last few miles to school sitting on the steps. It didn't matter if the steps were wet, cold, or muddy--on winter days or not. Why was I in an uproar if this was the status quo? Because, when someone was absent, Mr. Benedict's miniscule conscience stirred a little, and he always let the Coughlins know.
He'd done it before.
He'd do it again.
I stared out the window as the bus lumbered down the road. It'd snowed again last night. After a snowfall the landscape looked neat and clean and white, like my grandmother's marshmallow frosting. Of course, it never lasted very long, soon looking like someone's dirty socks, but while it was new, it was beautiful. I loved the snow and hated the 'brown' days when the oaks became scrawny naked old men, and the ground and sky were a monochromatic series of grays. A snow day was precious and needed to be savored and enjoyed and appreciated. Besides, it was the perfect welcome for the coming holiday.
I tried to concentrate on the white world passing outside my window, but the glass had dirty pockmarks on it from rain and puddles and just made the scenery look all pimply. I couldn't even enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. All I could focus on was the excited babbling going on around me.
Thinking about winter break couldn't bring me out of the depths of despair. My neck muscles tightened, and curled my fingers into tight balls as the bus rolled to a screeching halt at the head of the driveway leading to The Coughlin Place.
The Coughlin Place. That's how everybody thought of it. As if it were an institution all in itself, all in caps--special, in a nightmarish sort of way. It'd always been called The Coughlin Place but was a miserable piece of real estate. I thought it looked like a cardboard shoebox that'd been left out all night in the rain. The yard had junk and garbage all over, reminding me of the dumpster behind the supermarket.
Mr. Benedict honked and I jumped. Two faces appeared at the curtain-less front window, then disappeared. Rose Coughlin, who'd been in my class since forever, and her creepy little brother, Jimmy-John. The hope that they'd be absent dissolved.
The sudden slamming of a door sent a shiver through me. I watched in mute horror as Rose Coughlin scuffled up the driveway, dragging Jimmy-John behind her. He didn't wear a hat or mittens, and his old man's face was glowing red by the time they reached the shelter of the bus.
Rose never looks anyone in the eye and always wears this silly, shamefaced little half-smile. I told Nancy once that it looked painted on like some goofy mannequin, and we howled. Now, I didn't feel like laughing. I couldn't even bring myself to look at the other girl's face.
As Rose clambered up the steep steps, I chewed on my thumbnail and focused on a scraggily tree outside the window. My left hand clenched my purse. I closed my eyes and prayed Rose and Jimmy-John would take their accustomed places on the inside steps. But Mr. Benedict's booming voice sliced through my prayer like a knife.
"There's an empty seat right there beside Merrick. Row three," he growled. The noisy jabbering all around me stopped. You could've heard a tissue drop. Or else I'd gone deaf. Suddenly I couldn't hear a thing and could only feel waves of embarrassing heat wash over me. I knew all eyes were on me--staring, wondering, conjecturing. Wow, look. A Coughlin is going to sit next to Kate Merrick. How gross. How could she?
Everybody on the bus waited to see how I would react to such an insult. I dredged up every last ounce of courage and acted as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wasn't about to give the gossip mill something to grind. I'd show them I couldn't care in the least whether a Coughlin sat beside me or not. I was bigger than that. I was better than that.
Rose Coughlin shuffled down the aisle, still dragging Jimmy-John. She didn't wear a coat but had on a disgusting orange and magenta sweater. Nasty. The bulky collar was too much for anybody's neck, and the sleeves were puckered at the shoulders. One side was stretched all out of shape as if Jimmy-John had swung from it when it was wet. It hung a full three inches below the other side. Hideous.
Worst of all, it smelled--a musky, woolly, nasty doggy smell that made you want to throw up.
Like a retarded bag lady whose IQ hovered around twenty, Rose sat next to me and pulled Jimmy-John in beside her. Her aura was so pungent that I held my coat sleeve away from her gross sweater. I didn't want our sleeves to touch. The thought of that horrible stench rubbing off on me was enough to make me gag.
Rose's hair, a dull matted brown, hadn't seen a brush or comb in eons. What's more, she sat all hunched forward on the edge of the seat like she was afraid to relax. She kept her frazzled head bowed, never looking at anybody directly, which, of course, I could kind of understand. I'd be totally embarrassed, too, if I were in her place.
Jimmy-John's nose was running. He didn't have a tissue so he kept making these horrible sniffing sounds, rubbing his arm across his chapped face. I couldn't help it. I had to watch from the corner of my eye, even though I was disgusted. Too gross. I'd never seen anything like him anywhere--except, maybe, in Dad's National Geographic Magazine, where they show pictures of all the pathetic kids in Third World countries. This scrawny little boy with the old man's face had red, weepy eyes and was dirty. He actually looked hungry. I wondered if he ever ate breakfast.
Too miserable myself to worry about the miseries of one little boy, I sat with lips pressing into a thin, hard line and throat aching over the humiliating injustice Fate had dealt me. Deep down, my mature self knew there was no one to blame. Nancy couldn't help being sick, and Mr. Benedict was just doing his job. All day I'd have to deal with rude stares and whispered comments from the entire student body, but that's the way it was. Call it Kismet. Fate. Destiny.