Where on earth is the bus?
I step out into the street and squint into the sun. I check my phone. 7:33. It’s supposed to be here.
Behind me two older girls with straight, black hair, one with purple nail polish and the other with blue, ignore me completely as they argue about whether somebody named Rex is hot.
Where’s the bus? You’d think they’d make sure it was on time on the first day of middle school. I’ve already got enough to worry about with lockers, schedules, and the awful things eighth graders are dreaming up to do to us.
I check my phone again. 7:33. How can that be? It feels like ten minutes have passed. I smooth down my new gold Nike T-shirt. Dad tried to get me to wear the new jeans we bought last week, but I told him you don’t want to overdo it on the first day of middle school. You can’t look like you’re trying too hard.
7:34. The bus is late. The first day is pressure enough without showing up after the bell. The bus driver should be fired. I hear a low rumbling. Coming around the corner is the orange box on wheels that means summer is officially over.
I shove my phone in my backpack and listen to the two girls. They’ve finally found a subject they can agree on: Logan. “Stay away from him. He’ll pretend to be nice but will stab you in the back.”
As the bus pulls up, I wish my best friend Gig was on it. We rode the same bus for six years to elementary school, but now we’re on different routes. I never thought I’d admit it, but I could use some of his stupid jokes right now.
The bus door opens and I freeze. All of a sudden I don’t want to get on. My feet feel superglued to the sidewalk.
“Move it.” One of the girls pushes me in the back.
As I climb the steps I’m shocked to see that the bus is already jam packed. Kids are squished together three to a seat, talking and laughing.
“Find a seat.” The bus driver, who’s got bushy hair popping out of a baseball hat, points over his shoulder. He’s playing country music that sounds like it’s about a hundred years old.
I move farther back and feel the eyes of every seventh and eighth grader sizing me up. The competing perfumes, colognes, and deodorant mingle together. Other kids must have been like me and kept putting it on.
Halfway back my friend Isaac is mashed up against a window. “I didn’t know you were on this bus.”
“Jackson?” He’s squeezed in by two boys who take up the rest of the seat.
“Save me a place tomorrow.”
“Sixers can’t save seats.” The boy on the aisle has peanut butter breath. He pushes me and I fall against a girl with glasses and try to regain my balance.
Two girls with eye shadow so heavy they look like raccoons check their phones. I don’t want to sit with girls, but I don’t want to keep going back either.
“Can I sit here?” I try to sound friendly.
“No!” The girls don’t even look up.
“That’s my seat.” The girl with purple nail polish pushes past me.
“We need everybody sitting down,” the bus driver hollers.
With every step back I feel like I’m being sucked into the eighth-grade black hole. The boys back here are bigger and tougher and some of them are swearing every other word.
“Here’s a seat,” a boy wearing wraparound sunglasses calls from the rear. A blond kid with spiked hair sitting next to him laughs.
In the last seat of the bus on the left side, a gigantic guy is sitting all by himself. He’s so big he must play football. He’s so big he could be the entire left side of an offensive line.
“Can I sit down?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Have a seat.” The sunglasses kid shoves me against the huge guy who pushes me away. I get shoved back and forth between them like a Ping-Pong ball. Finally I turn my legs to the side and hold my hands out in front of me.
“Sixer?” Sunglasses asks.
“What?” I look to the bus driver, but he’s not paying any attention.
“Are you in sixth grade?”
“The back is reserved for eighth graders.” His voice is raspy and he looks a lot older, like maybe he flunked a couple of grades. “What do you have for rent?”
“Sixers pay rent back here. What do you have for money?”
“I don’t have any money.” I hold out my hands.
“That’s baaaaaaad.” The way he stretches it out sounds worse.
“What do you have for food?” The spike-haired kid leans over.
“Just my lunch.”
“Hand it over,” Sunglasses says.
I take off my backpack and unzip it as the bus driver turns a corner and the big guy falls into me and almost knocks me off the seat. We’re not picking anybody else up, so my stop must be the last one.
“Hurry up,” Spike Head commands. “I’m starving.”
I take out my lunch and Sunglasses swipes it out of my hands. He pulls out potato chips, Oreo cookies, and cheese and crackers.
“What’s this?” He makes a face as he pulls open my sandwich.
“Tur … tur … turkey and sun-dried tomato.”
“Nasty.” He throws it on the floor and stomps on it with his boot. “Bring better food tomorrow … or else.” He holds up the plastic bag of carrot and celery sticks. “Do I look like a rabbit?”
He tosses the bag at me as he and Spike Head shove cheese and crackers into their mouths. My stomach rumbles as the crackers crunch.
“We want brownies, Rice Krispie bars, and Twinkies tomorrow,” Spike Head says with food falling out of his mouth.
“And rent money,” Sunglasses adds. “Don’t forget the money.”
* * *
When the bus pulls up in front of the school, Isaac is waiting for me. “How bad was it back there?” He’s wearing new black-and-red Nikes and an Under Armour shirt.
“Terrible.” The entrance to Longview Middle School towers over us.
“Where you two losers been?” Gig rushes up and bumps into me.
“Our bus was late.”
“Mine was right on time.”
“Where’s Diego?” Isaac asks.
“No clue,” Gig says. “He doesn’t ride the bus so I don’t know how he’s getting here.”
Some of the students can’t wait to get in, but others like us stand around outside soaking up the final seconds of freedom.
“I’m glad to have different teachers in middle school,” Isaac says.
I remember Mrs. Spanier from last year. “We’re not going to get stuck with one boring teacher.”
“No, now we’re going to have lots of boring teachers,” Gig says. “I wish we could skip school and go straight to Echo Park for football.”
“Me, too.” I twirl the strap on my backpack. I’d love to smash into somebody on the football field right now.
“We’re going to have a good team,” Isaac says. “Diego’s going to help us out.”
“Wait and see,” Gig says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He hasn’t done anything yet in football,” Gig says. “He needs to prove himself.”
When the bell rings, people push toward the entrance. I look around for Diego but can’t find him. We’re funneled to the door like cattle forced into a slaughterhouse.
A spitball whizzes past my head. A sweaty kid elbows me and shoves me aside. I’m not even in the building yet, and I’ve got a bad feeling about middle school.
Copyright © 2011 by John Coy