2nd Place – April 2018

A Long Bus Ride

by Gary Christenson

The funeral home people lowered my mother and step-father into the ground three days ago. I cried buckets of tears and clinched my fists at their funeral. I’m Janet, a fourteen-year-old orphan.
My grandmother told me I must leave my birth home in north Texas to live with her in Lubbock. It requires a long bus ride.
My Aunt Mabel handed me fifty bucks and said, “Take this. You’ll need it. I wish I could give you more, but that’s all I can spare. Your mother, God bless her soul, would want you to live with your grandmother.” She patted her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief and hugged me for a long time.
I stuffed the bill into my pink backpack and wiped my face with a tissue for the tenth time. “I don’t want to leave here, but my mother is dead and I’m all alone.”
Aunt Mabel said, “I know and I can’t help it. Now Janet, climb on the bus before I cry.”
An overcast sky made the Texas morning dreary. I trudged up the steps into the bus, ignored the driver and sat near the front where I could wave to Aunt Mabel.
I left with one suitcase and nagging questions about my parent’s violent deaths. Nobody would talk about their deaths. Why?
The overcast sky and the uninteresting land passing outside my window made me drowsy. I nodded off and dreamed about a dark evil house filled with violence and pain. A young woman in the house screamed. In my dream I covered my ears and ran away.
A loud truck horn shocked me awake. Outside the bus parched brown land extended to the horizon. A hawk swooped to the ground and nailed a rabbit in mid-stride.
The hawk killing the rabbit upset me. I’m not sure why, but I sobbed for the poor rabbit.
An hour later the bus stopped at a restaurant. We exited for food and a bathroom break. I returned to my seat and watched others board the bus. A young man, maybe 17 years old, walked down the aisle and wouldn’t stop staring at me. He stood over six feet tall, had dark eyes and a pinched face. He leered at me until I turned away, studied my feet, frowned and pretended to ignore him.
When I looked up a tall black lady herding three small girls walked toward the rear of the bus. Her clear eyes radiated determination and intelligence. I suspected she saw me squirm under the stare of the pinched-face man.
I watched her march toward empty seats in the back. She locked her eyes on the pinched-face man as she approached, stopped by his seat and frowned. He looked up with a startled expression on his hostile face. The formerly confident young man stiffened and cowered under her glare. The tall black lady raised her index finger and waved it back and forth in front of him. She reminded me of a mommy lioness protecting someone vulnerable, me.
He turned a deep shade of red, slouched in his seat and stared out the window. Pinched face exited the bus at the next stop and passed me without a glance.
I appreciated the lady with her three girls. I whispered, “Thank you,” knowing she wouldn’t hear me.
Miles later I drifted into another unsettling nap. My disturbing dreams disappeared when I shook myself awake.
***
I remembered a night at the dinner table about a year ago. Mom drove to town during the day for groceries, leaving my step-father and me doing chores on our small farm. I don’t remember what happened that day, but everyone acted tense during dinner. Mom tried to make conversation. My step-father grunted at her comments and said little. I avoided eye contact with my mom and repressed tears. My step-father ignored me. I ate quietly and glanced up only once.
She stared at me with fire in her eyes. She said nothing for the rest of the meal. It was summer in Texas, but a cold breeze blew across the dinner table.
After eating I didn’t help mom with the dishes. She told me, “Go to your room and read a book.” Later my parents yelled at each other but I didn’t hear their words.
Our lives changed. Mom seldom left me alone with my step-father. She looked more drawn and tired each day. They fought often, and I spent hours alone in my room avoiding everyone.
Several months later they had another loud argument. I covered my head with a pillow and curled into a fetal position hugging another pillow. My tears soaked the pillow. Even with my ears covered, I heard screams and several thuds.
The next day mom limped as she moved around the kitchen making breakfast. Her left eye was swollen and black, and bruises covered her face and arms.
She told me, “It’s nothing.” Her voice quivered and tears filled her eyes as she reassured me.
I didn’t believe her.
My school counselor called me into her office several weeks after school started. She asked, “Janet, are you depressed or worried about something? I can help.”
“Everything’s fine, except my parents fight too much. I ignore them and stay in my room.” I studied the floor as I answered her.
She told me, “I understand.”
I doubt she understood.
***
The bus drove me further from home and closer to Lubbock. I looked back at the tall black lady and watched her three well-behaved daughters smiling and laughing. She gave me a warm smile. For a moment I relaxed and felt safe.
At the next stop three men entered the bus and trudged toward empty seats at the rear. One man walked like my step-father. He ogled me from eyes to knees as he passed. I squirmed and frowned under his examination and turned toward the window.
Something about that man bothered me. My stomach tensed and I wanted to run to the safety of my room, but that wasn’t possible. I missed my mother’s love and her comforting hugs. Regardless, I clinched my fists knowing she died and left me alone and vulnerable.
I sobbed as the bus rolled down the highway. The realizations hurt. It’s an unfriendly world and I’m young, alone and timid. Predators will use me if they have the chance. My mother protected me, but she’s gone.
In the distance a coyote loped over the hard ground. The chickens on our farm couldn’t defend themselves from predators, and coyotes often killed them. My step-father and other farmers shot coyotes to protect their flocks.
Coyotes, chickens and farmers occupied my thoughts for a long time. As the bus rolled down that long highway I sobbed myself to sleep again.
After waking I clinched my fists and wanted farmers to kill more predators.
A few miles outside Lubbock I saw another billboard. The message shouted at me in huge red letters, “Help Stop Child Sexual Abuse.” My mouth dropped open in shock because of a sudden understanding. My step-father had used my body several times in the last year. He was strong and I couldn’t resist him. I cried each time. I had crammed those memories into a dark basement in the back of my mind.
My anger at my mother evaporated in a heartbeat when I realized she loved me so much that she made the ultimate sacrifice. Killing my step-father, the predator, and then shooting herself was her only option and her final act of love. She protected me in her own way.
The rest of the bus ride to Lubbock passed quickly. I smiled for the first time in weeks.

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