Joey lowered his backpack to the pavement and began to kick it along the line of junior high students waiting for the school bus home.
The backpack maneuver was a favorite trick of his. It allowed him to look down while sidling up to June without anybody noticing. All he had to do was watch for her tiny feet in their white running shoes. There was something unutterably appealing about the feet of June, a pretty blonde distraction in his enriched math class.
He heard the diesel growl as the bus pulled up in a fog of exhaust. Through judicious backpack-kicking he had wound up right next to June, who was talking to May and clutching her loose leaf binder to her chest. Joey could hardly bear to think about that chest.
Instead he concentrated on a mathematical formula. Joey knew that the number of people who could sit in a row of bus seats was three. He had already counted the number of people in front of him and that number was a multiple of three. That meant he’d be the first to drop into a new row of seats and, if May and June were right behind him, they’d drop into place right beside him, completely unaware of his clever scheme.
Joey had well developed math skills for a 13-year-old but his awakening brain, which had just begun to notice females, was oblivious to the complexities of junior high society. May and June were not pinballs falling into bus seats in the order they entered the vehicle. They were thinking, breathing, independent 14-year-olds, perfectly capable of sitting wherever they wanted, even the risque section at the back of the bus.
What really made the formula work was June. She wasn’t a member of Miss Simpson’s enriched math class for nothing. She knew that if she kept a multiple of 3 people in front of her that Joey, who couldn’t have been more obvious if his backpack had been an elephant, would wind up in front of her right where she wanted him.
As they entered the bus, she held her books at chest level and stuck her elbows out. This kept May from moving in front of her, assuring that she’d drop into place, casually, right next to Joey.
June and Joey had been in the same homeroom class for years but had never, in their entire lives, been so close to each other as they were on that fateful bus ride. They didn’t speak, but each was aware of the warmth of the other’s body; their smells and little movements. June held her books on her lap. Joey kept his backpack between his knees. June chatted with May. Joey looked out the window.
The doors closed and the engine coughed to life.
Seats on a school bus are much too small for junior high students. The hormones that had begun to infuse their bodies make them jittery and restless. It wasn’t long before the driver brought the bus to a halt, stood up and glared at his passengers. “If you guys don’t stay in your seats I’ll take you right back to school!”
Joey wished they had their old driver, Mr. Phillips. He just drove the bus no matter what happened even when students threw food at him. Once Dylan had torn off his shirt and paraded up and down the aisle threatening to take everything off. Boys egged him on and girls giggled or pretended not to notice. Mr. Phillips just kept driving.
Joey was hoping Dylan would act up again so he would get a chance to protect June from his horrid behavior, or at least join with her in mocking him, but Dylan was probably suspended as usual. The bus had grown quiet in the last few minutes. Even Craig had stopped singing dirty ditties.
The ride was making him sleepy and he felt June’s thighs pressing against his as the bus rolled over a bump. She brushed her skirt down. Her hand touched his leg. Something in her body had loosened and he could feel her sway with the movement of the bus. He risked a glance in her direction and saw that her head was nodding as if she was sleepy.
Afraid of staring, he jerked his head to the front, watching the road, trying to see where they were. There was a draft from the window and his vision was blurry. He blinked his eyes. He could see the driver in that wide rear-view mirror they used to watch their passengers. There was something wrong with his face. The image wasn’t clear because the mirror was vibrating, but his eyes looked huge and round and there seemed to be a thick hose dangling from his nose.
The driver eased off the gas as the bus approached a stop. For a second the mirror stopped vibrating and the image cleared. The driver actually had a huge thick hose dangling from his nose.
June’s books slid to the floor and her hand fell against Joey’s thigh. His pulse raced and a shock of adrenaline coursed through his body. Was that really her hand? What did he do now?
For the rest of his life Joey would remember his next move. It would have been easy to be shy and ignore June’s overture or act standoffish and turn towards the window. Instead he put his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. June leaned towards him. Her head slowly fell to his shoulder and she nestled against him.
Joey’s heart felt like it would burst. He wanted to leap up from his seat and cheer, but for fear of disturbing the slumbering angel beside him. Instead he looked straight ahead as if this sort of thing happened every day.
Weird. The driver with the bulging eyes still wore his hose. Clearly he wasn’t human, therefore he must be one of those aliens from outer space who kidnaps people and carries them off to his home planet where they become slaves, or the subjects of cruel experiments. Could he stop him? Who would help him? He looked carefully around. All the other students were slumped against each other, mouths half open, drooling and snoring.
Suddenly the truth leapt out. The driver was no alien. He was one of their slaves and he was wearing an oxygen mask like the fighter pilots wore in the movies. He had to wear it because he was gassing the students, that’s why they were all asleep! Only he was awake because of the draft from the window. No doubt they were headed to some horrible destination like a slaughter house where their bodies would be used as fertilizer to grow food for the alien invasion. He’d never see his parents and his adorable baby sister again.
He knew what he had to do: open the window. He could save the students from certain death and foil the alien invasion but that meant disturbing June. She was so cuddly and soft nesting against him and he thought he could feel a soft breast against his arm. He concentrated on the sensation without moving a muscle. Yes, that was definitely a breast. Slowly he tilted his head until it rested against hers.
They would die like that, nestled together for support and comfort while the evil driver sped on his way. Maybe the cops would intervene but it would be too late and the bus would be full of dead students. The TV news would parade down the aisle with lights and cameras. They’d focus on the lifeless bodies of Joey and June entwined together for eternity.
Dimly, Joey saw the driver reach under his seat. He was making a rapid repeating motion. Was he adding more gas? Sending a message to the flying saucer hovering above?
The driver removed the mask. Up ahead a student shook his head. June stirred slightly. Joey dropped her hand and faced straight ahead.
“Oh, that was lovely,” she said. “I had the nicest little nap. Thanks for lending me your shoulder.”
“Oh, anytime,” said Joey. “If you don’t mind sitting next to me.”
“For sure,” she said. “This is my stop. My name’s June.”
For the next hour the bus rumbled around its route. Joey kept close to the drafty window and watched his fellow students slumber and wake as the driver turned the gas on and off. At one point May slumped against him and nearly put her head in his lap, but he pushed her away. Craig fell to the floor and rolled around until the driver came back and hauled him to his feet. After that he didn’t turn the gas on anymore.
Finally it was Joey’s stop. When he reached the front of the bus he pointed under the dashboard at the cylinder of gas. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Just something to keep you guys in your seats.”
“Cool. Going to bring it tomorrow?”