The school bus can fit about eighty students, give or take, but there are only twenty-six that live on my route. That’s the only reason I agreed to get on this horrific hell-machine in the first place; the number twenty-six is one of the most comforting numbers. It’s a multiple of thirteen, an even number, and it’s the number of letters in the alphabet.
I wish the name of every student on this bus started with a different letter, and I could alphabetize all of us. I think my skin would feel softer and less itchy if I could, but as Mama says, that’s just not the way of the world. This morning, twenty-five of us are on. I take inventory of everyone, all of my people, in my head. We’re missing Amelia, but if I recall correctly, she’s old enough to drive now. My heart lurches, not because I’ve ever spoken to her, but because the number is down to twenty-five. After some careful consideration, I decide that number is okay. It’s a multiple of five and the same value as a quarter. I start to breathe easy again and I look down at my lap at the vibrant blue of my brand-new overalls.
Amelia, Dontarius, Enrique, Ethan, Grant, Gretchen, Heaven, Isaac, Joanne, Joelle, Leonor, Margaret, Marisol, Milo, Otto, Phillip, Presley, Ruby, Shiloh, Sydney, Toby, Tyree, Willow, Wrenley, Xander, Zella. These are the kids on bus route, and each of them has a story and a distinct way that they fall asleep. Grant falls asleep with his head pressed against the seat in front of him, and always has red marks on his forehead by the time we reach his stop. Willow sleeps with her head thrown back and her mouth slightly ajar. She and her twin sister Heaven sit side by side every day and bicker loud enough for all of us to hear.
Gretchen is fifteen and sometimes she steps onto the bus in a whirl, disheveled, and a boy is sneaking out the back door of her tin-roof house, but her mama doesn’t know. Enrique, who sometimes goes by Ricky, he always brings thick, yellowed books and reads the whole ride. Sometimes he gets to a sad part in his books and tears flow silently down his face while he reads. Phillip always has spit that gathers in the corners of his mouth when he talks. Isaac is the littlest one, in first grade but he might have been held back, and he always cries on the first day of school.
I’ve never breathed a word to my bus kids, but I call them my friends all the same. They call me Quiet Girl even though most of them know my name is Ruby. ‘R’ is the eighteenth letter of the alphabet. I like the way that Marisol rolls her Rs when she cusses out the other kids in Spanish. She is the prettiest girl on the bus and she knows it, and she always puts the misbehaving kids in their place. Sometimes she brings sandwiches for the little ones.
I could write a full novel about each of my bus kids individually, but they’d never know it; you’d be surprised how much you learn about a group of people on public transit, spending every morning and evening in close quarters. Joanne cut her bangs at the end of last school year in a fit of rage after her boyfriend broke up with her and they were much too short and choppy, but they’ve grown out nicely over the summer. Dontarius has shot up like a weed and is starting to look more like a man than a boy. Everyone looks a bit different than a few months ago, and I don’t much like change, but I suppose this isn’t a bad thing.
The bus ride is long; we live out in the boonies. There isn’t much talk in the mornings, as everyone is always bleary-eyed and silent except for Milo who never shuts up. The evening rides are always hectic and buzzing with chatter.
It’s a cool, crisp morning, perfect September weather. I’m watching the enormous lavender bow on Willow’s curly auburn head bounce with each bump we hit. I’m watching the sun peek through the trees and turn Joelle’s skin to honey. I’m watching little Leonor blow her hot breath onto the window two seats up and practice drawing her letters in the mist. She draws her Bs backwards. I wonder if the bus kids would like my voice if they heard me speak; I wonder what I would say. It’s the first day of the eighth grade for me and I anticipate sitting alone at lunch like usual and counting the number of untied shoelaces in the lunchroom, blinking once every three seconds, tapping my toe three times every time I hear a swear word, color-coding my pens at recess, taking two steps in between each sidewalk line, popping my wrist if I step on a crack. Inhale for two strides, exhale for two strides when we run in P.E. Alphabetize my assignments, color code my pens, all of the things that keep me human.
Suddenly, I do a thing that I’ve never done before. I stand up while the bus is moving and dart forward two seats. I sit next to little Leonor and clear my throat, once, twice, three times, and say, “You write your Bs, Ks, and Rs backwards and some of your letters are out of order. May I help you practice your alphabet?”
Madeira Miller lives in Springfield, Missouri.