The School Bus

I grew up in a one-hairstyle-town. In Santa Barbara, California, you’re nothing if your hair doesn’t flow down to the middle of your back in lustrous, straight, sun-kissed tresses. The messier, the stringier, the more it looks as if you’ve just emerged from the glistening sea, the better. Because of this, every girl on the street looks as if she’s auditioning for the Brook Shields role in Blue Lagoon.

Coffee House Readings

You never forget the smell of a school bus. The processed scent of plastic seats, textured to look like real leather but held together with spit and duct tape, mixed with the thick, sugary stench of contraband candy. The heat in a school bus is always suffocating— stemming from close quarters where over seventy kids are telling seventy different stories, each complete with complicated hand gestures and occasional sound effects. The morning rays of the sun struggled to pierce through cracked windows streaked with grease and dirt. Had I known in third grade what sensory bombardment was, I would have complained to my mother how I suffered from it.

My elementary school was one of the more dangerous in the city. I loved it and wanted to stay, but it was not easy. People openly stared at me because I was white, and spoke of me in hushed tones, as though I was on my deathbed.

Then there were fusilinos. Fusilinos is a slang Spanish term, which translates, roughly, into “little guns.” Fusilinos were starter gangs comprised of elementary students, usually around fourth or fifth grade. When the young members proved their merit, they “graduated” into more recognizable gangs: the Crips, the Bloods, or the Latin Kings. I was safe from the fusilinos, for the most part. They almost never messed around with white girls; more people would notice.

The older girls in the back rows of the bus sang shrilly along with a portable boom box, snapping me out of my reverie. They fussed with their shiny, gelled hair and applied dark lip liner as thick as landing strips. The fusilinos sat toward the back, as well. That day on the bus was unusual; the boys, customarily spread amongst the back rows, huddled instead, around one seat.

I recognized the boy sitting in that central seat who was busy contemplating his surroundings like a king surveying his court. His name was Wayne. He was a fourth grader: a year older than I was. The two girls beside me, deep in their own conversation, took no notice of the fusilinos. Things were easier if you tried not to see them. I tried not to see them.

I heard a ripping sound—the screeching protest of the bus seat as it tore apart. Curious, I glanced back at Wayne, who was gleefully whispering to the other boys. I heard fragments of what he said. “…get him kicked out for sure… no one will believe it ain't his… I’ll do it in homeroom… show ‘em how we do.” Then I saw it: the steely flash of a knife blade, almost five inches long, imbedded in the bus seat. Wayne returned to his vigorous hacking. The white bandana, identical to the ones the others wore, slipped further down his wrist.

Oh my God, I thought, they are going to plant that knife on someone. What if it goes bad? What if someone gets hurt? My breathing was labored; my stomach burned. I had a decision to make. As the bus pulled into the school, Wayne and his friends shoved their way to the front and got off. I knew Wayne's homeroom. I had to tell. This resolution did nothing to ease my raw stomach.

I stepped into my classroom, squinting. It seemed overly bright. Students fussed about their desks, oblivious to my situation. My teacher, Mrs. Kelliher, sat at her desk, wearing her favorite white-and-red checked dress. The colors blended when she moved, making the squares seem alive. We called it the “Hypnotizing Dress.” I tried not to stare at it as I walked up to her desk. “Kaylan, what’s the matter?” she asked, concern in her voice. I could not look her in the face. I studied the faded carpet instead, counting the colors and naming the shapes as I struggled to put voice to what I had seen.

Red, blue, green, I thought. Square, circle… back out now. Don’t tell. You KNOW what they can do to you! I breathed deeply. I had to tell. What if someone got hurt?

“I have to tell you something,” I said to Mrs. Kelliher. She nodded. The story came pouring out, raging like a river—my words tripping over one another. I told her everything, even Wayne’s homeroom number.

When I was finished, I was shaking. The story, drawn out of me like poison, left me weak and aching. I promised myself I would never have to think about it again. I breathed deeply again and finally looked into my teacher’s face. Her fingers were layed out in front of her mouth, her gaze sharp. I turned to go sit down.

“Don’t sit,” she said to me. I whirled around, facing her. She rose and moved toward the classroom door, speaking again, “follow me, Kaylan.”

Floored, I stared at Mrs. Kelliher in dismay. What was happening? Did she think I was lying? I followed her obediently down the hallway. Did she think I was making it up? Our destination dawned on me as we walked farther down the hall, our steps echoing in the otherwise smothering silence. She was taking me to Wayne’s homeroom. She was taking me to face him.

NO! I thought as we reached his classroom door. He can’t know it was me. He can’t find out! Why is she making me do this?

Mrs. Kelliher held a quiet conference with Wayne’s teacher, and waited while he approached the door where I stood. I was too stunned: too distraught to muster even tears of anger and shame. I studied the floor again while my teacher questioned Wayne, not daring to look at his face.

Blue tile… white tile. Three scratch marks and a chip in the lower right hand corner.

I heard my teacher ask about the knife and felt the faint rush of air as she gestured at me, calling me as a witness. Didn’t she realize the repercussions that befall a ‘witness’?

Wayne’s denial was swift and firm. Mrs. Kelliher, seemingly satisfied with Wayne’s response, ended her questioning and guided me back to the room. “Thank you for telling me,” she said with authority. “Just be more careful next time. You were obviously mistaken.”

The day passed; I moved as though in a trance. How could I stay at Rebecca Johnson’s now? I was not safe. Wayne and the rest of the fusilinos would not stand for this kind of interference, especially from a gringa. Not even my gender could protect me now.

The day was a blur of disbelief and anxiety. I longed for home… for sanctuary. The end of the school day brought one last challenge: to get back on that school bus and go home. I barely acknowledged my friends’ goodbyes as we parted ways on the school patio.

Get to the bus, get moving! Someone shouted at the back of my head. Did they shout for me? It’s ok; pretend you didn’t hear and keep going…you’re almost there! More shouting. I started to panic.

Quickly now, keep moving…made it! Standing in front of the neatly folded doors, I sighed with relief as I moved to step up into safety.

Suddenly, a hand flashed out of nowhere, grabbed me by my right arm, and pulled me purposefully out of the bus. Oh God, I thought, and spun around to see who my aggressor was. I recognized the boy from Wayne’s homeroom class. He calmly eyed me up and down and asked if I knew who he was. “I don’t know anything,” I told him, desperately. “I didn’t see anything.”

“I’m Seneca,” he said. “I didn’t think I was gonna catch you today.”

Catch me? Oh, God. He narrowed his eyes at the line of students behind me and raised an eyebrow. The adultness of the gesture startled me. The students stopped listening to our conversation and boarded the bus with downcast gazes.

Seneca focused back on me. “I know about Wayne and the knife,” he said. I was ready to deny it—to plead with him—but Seneca raised a hand. I noticed the blue and white bandana on his wrist. My mind flashed to the bandana on Wayne’s wrist…white and black. “You’re not in Wayne’s…” I began.

Seneca scoffed at the suggestion. “No, I’m not. I’m the lucky guy that son-of-a-bitch tried to plant his knife on.” I stared at him, my mouth open.

“Tried?” I said, almost inaudibly.

He cocked his head “Yeah, 'tried.' He got spooked after seeing you come into homeroom. Didn’t have the balls to plant the piece in my bag. Now he figures he’s gotta dump it somewhere, just in case someone else gets all up in his business. So, he goes to throw the knife out with his lunch tray. Janitor catches him… big loud scene. His ass is off to juvie by now. Didn’t you hear?” Shocked, I shook my head mechanically.

Seneca gave me a half smile. “Look, you got nothing to worry about from them,” he said, referring to the fusilinos who would want to avenge Wayne’s incarceration. “I wouldn’t have expected what you did from a gringa, but it was good of you. We got you, me and my boys.” Seneca’s voice was arrogant and light, but his eyes told me that I could believe him—that I could trust him. “They won’t ever touch you. My boys and me… we got your back.” He thrust his chin in my direction to dismiss me.

Head swimming, I stepped onto the bus at last. I sat gingerly on an available seat, suddenly wishing I had babbled out something resembling a “thank you.” Watching Seneca board a bus further down the curb, a sudden thought hit me: I had changed. Everything had changed.

But the school bus still smelled the same.