Every time the school bus lurched to a stop in front of him, Dominic felt his car skid an extra foot or two as he stepped on his brakes. The driving conditions were getting worse as the temperature dropped, the wet roads getting icy, the sleet turning to snow.
Dominic supposed it was time to go home. He knew it was going to be bad, though. His son Ollie had been causing problems at school recently. He’d been displaying a shocking lack of respect for authority, mouthing off, flagrantly ignoring instructions. The Dean of Students had called the house to discuss the problem with Dominic, and Ollie’s JV basketball coach had benched him indefinitely for getting ejected from a game for lining up as if he was going to shoot a free throw and then whipping the ball at the head of the kid who’d fouled him. Dominic and his wife had been trying to work with Ollie and it was not going to help when he found out that his dad had been sent home early from work for insubordinate activity.
But it was so stupid. On his way to the bathroom, Dominic had overheard his boss laughing with another coworker in the break room about a few minor typographical errors in Dominic’s most recent analysis report. Dominic had stopped there in the hallway, listening to them mock him as if stupid typos in his reports were a running office joke, which he knew was not the case, or hoped was not the case, and as he had stood there, he’d felt a throbbing at the base of his skull that he correctly diagnosed as the feeling of his temper slipping away from him, but this diagnosis did nothing to prevent him from turning on his heel, charging into the break room, and giving his boss a two-handed shove to the chest, knocking him backwards onto the flimsy plastic table which collapsed under his weight and sent him and a tray full of Holiday Cupcakes someone had brought from home to share with the staff sprawling on the floor. Dominic had stood over his boss panting for a few seconds as the other coworker, at whom Dominic hadn’t gotten a good look, darted out the door behind him. Then Dominic had turned and walked back into the hallway, continuing on his way to the bathroom.
Dominic had been surprised at how long it had taken his boss’s boss to come find him at his desk and tell him to go home. He imagined there must have been a lot of circular discussion about what to do with him with no one really wanting to make a final decision. Hence the decision to send him home and delay the real decision until after the Holidays.
Dominic was embarrassed by his behavior, but as he sat in his car and recalled the feeling of standing in the hall and overhearing his boss’s smug, witless insults, his blood began to boil again. The bus, having just dropped off a little girl in a purple pea-coat, closed its doors. The flashing stop-arm swung back against its side and the bus crept forward. As Dominic accelerated to follow, his cell phone vibrated in his coat pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the screen. His wife was calling. He wondered if it was an innocent call or if she was on to him. He didn’t want to find out. He threw the phone on the front passenger’s seat where it buzzed a few more times and stopped.
The bus began to slow again as it approached a gated driveway that led down to one of Glasseye Lake’s truly impressive homes. Dominic looked down at his phone when it beeped to indicate that he had a voicemail message, and when he looked back up, two grinning boys in the back seat of the bus, one on either side of the aisle, were flipping him off with both hands, four skinny middle fingers bobbing up and down as the boys laughed at Dominic’s startled expression.
This time Dominic didn’t even notice his temper leaving. It was just gone. Lost. As the bus came to a complete stop on the road in front of him, Dominic stomped on his brakes, slammed the car into park, jabbed the button to release his seatbelt, and yanked the door handle. He sprang out of the car, leaving the engine running and the door standing open, and ran between his car and the bus, his dress shoes sliding on the icy asphalt. He arrived panting and furious at the front of the bus just as the driver, an older woman in a vintage snowmobile suit and a hunter’s orange stocking cap, pulled the lever and the door swung open.
The driver gaped at Dominic as he stomped up the steps, squeezed past the bleary-eyed boy who was getting off the bus, and marched down the aisle holding his hands up at chest level so he could fit more easily between the two rows of dark green, fake leather seats. The bus was still close to two thirds full of kids and they melted back from the aisle as Dominic passed by, their eyes wide with shock and fright. They clutched their backpacks to their chests and pressed back against each other and the windows, but Dominic’s gaze was fixed on the two boys in the back who were watching his approach with stupefied amazement as if he were an ancient statue that had suddenly come to life.
The driver had finally found her voice and Dominic heard her shouting, “Sir! Sir! You mustn’t get on the bus!”
Somewhere in the blaze of anger inside Dominic, he noted that he hadn’t heard someone use the word “mustn’t” in a long time. This thought jolted him and he felt his sense of purpose waver, but it was too late to retreat. He had to do something.
Dominic stopped in front of the two boys who had flipped him off and loomed over them, looking back and forth between them. He wasn’t going to hit them, but he hoped they were afraid that he would. The boy on the left side of the aisle was chunky and wearing a ski mask pulled up off of his face with tufts of curly black hair sticking through the eye and mouth holes. The boy on the right was clearly in the throes of puberty, gangly and blotchy and underdressed for the weather in a light jacket and a baseball cap. Both of them stared up at Dominic with their mouths hanging open.
“You’re breaking the law!” shouted the bus driver from the front of the bus. Dominic glanced over his shoulder and saw that she had risen to her feet but wasn’t coming after him. He turned back to the boys and, in his most authoritative, menacing voice said, “What’s wrong with you? Huh? Both of you! What’s wrong with you?”
The boys said nothing. The bus was quiet.
Dominic slapped the top of the seat in front of the chunky boy’s face and focused on him for the moment. “Why did you flip me off? Why? You think it’s funny to be disrespectful and rude? I’m an adult and you’re a kid! That means you show respect! And even if I was a kid, you don’t just flip me off! You don’t flip anyone off!”
The boy finally tore his eyes away from Dominic and looked down at a wet, orange candy bar wrapper on the muddy floor by his feet. He said nothing. Dominic heard the bus driver talking on her radio in a panicky voice, almost certainly about him.
Dominic turned to the other boy. “What about you? Do you think it’s fine to just do and say whatever you want to strangers? To adults you don’t even know? You’re parents didn’t teach you to flip other people off for no reason, did they? Some day you’re going to flip off the wrong guy and he’s going to break your face! You’re lucky I’m not that guy!”
The boy looked worried, but as Dominic continued to chew him out, his eyes drifted away from Dominic’s and out the back window.
“Look at me!” screamed Dominic, trying to reclaim some of his initial energy. “I’m talking to you, you little brat!”
The boy turned back to Dominic and said something too quietly for Dominic to hear.
“What’d you say? You got something smart to say to me?”
“I said someone’s stealing your car,” said the boy.
Standing with his head almost touching the ceiling, Dominic hadn’t been able to see out the back window on the bus’s emergency exit door, but at the boy’s words, he ducked down just in time to see his car, driven by a shadowy figure he couldn’t make out through the grime-streaked glass, pull around the bus and take off. Dominic hurried halfway back up the aisle before stopping and watching through the windshield of the bus as his car disappeared around a curve in the road and was gone.
“How?” he asked, almost begging. “How?”
He looked around at the silent kids, all of them staring at him with unblinking eyes. He realized what an incredible phenomenon he was to them. The way he’d swept into their lives, totally unexpected, stomping and shouting, and now, in a matter of just a few minutes, here he was defeated and pleading to them for explanations.
A girl in the third seat from the back on left side of the bus raised her hand. Her hair was frizzy and yellow and her braces didn’t allow her to close her mouth all the way.
Dominic stared at her with sad eyes for a long moment before he realized she was waiting for him to call on her. “Yes?” he said. “You there?”
“Another car,” said the girl, “Pulled up behind yours. Well, kinda beside yours. And your door was just wide open and a guy got out of the other car and got in yours and the first car drove away and then you looked right when your car drove away.”
“What was the other car?” asked Dominic. “Did you recognize the make and model?”
“Just a car,” said the girl. “Not a van, I know that.”
“Color?” asked Dominic. “Do you even remember the color?”
“Mmm,” said the girl, cocking her head to one side as she tried to remember. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe yellow, maybe maroon.”
Dominic didn’t trust either of those guesses, especially considering the girl’s hat was yellow and het coat was maroon. “Why didn’t you speak up sooner?” he asked.
“I was scared of you,” said the girl. “You looked mad and you were yelling a lot.”
Dominic had no rebuttal. He looked down at a small, long-haired boy seated next to where he stood in the aisle and said, “Scoot over. Please.”
The kid scooted over and Dominic dropped down into the seat next to him. Dominic’s chest ached. Too much excitement in one day. Too much exertion, too much adrenaline. He sighed and leaned forward, resting his head on the back of the seat in front of him. He looked down and saw a broken black pen leaking ink and a penny that had turned almost completely green from riding around in puddles of melted snow on the bus floor for days on end.
Dominic looked up. The driver was yelling at him from the front of the bus.
“The police are on their way!”
“Thank you,” said Dominic. “And I’m sorry for disrupting your route.”
“Don’t thank me,” said the driver with her fists on her hips. “They’re coming to arrest you. You need to get off the bus and wait for them.”
A low buzz of excitement ran through the kids at word that they’d get to see the police arrest Dominic.
“You’re just going to leave me in the snow?” asked Dominic.
“We have to wait for them too so I can tell them what happened,” said the driver. “But you can’t stay on the bus. You’re not supposed to be on here at all. That’s why you’re getting arrested.”
Dominic got wearily to his feet and closed his eyes, standing with one hand resting on the top of a seat on each side of the aisle. “Please,” he said. “I’m not going to cause any more trouble. I’m calm now. Can’t I just wait on the bus until the police get here? It’s really cold and wet out there and wind’s picking up.” He looked around at the kids and saw their sympathy, their pity. It wasn’t respect, but it was probably better than he deserved.
The driver seemed to feel it too. “All right,” she said, her face softening. “But wait up here at the front.” She sounded to Dominic like an exasperated grandmother conceding him an extra ten minutes before bedtime.
Having gained permission to stay on the bus, Dominic had one more request. “I need to call my wife and tell her what happened, but I left my phone in my car. Does anyone have a phone I can borrow while we wait for the police?”
There was a rustling of coats, an unzipping of zippers, a rummaging through bags, and then the phones began to appear, the kids holding them up, the frizzy-haired girl, the long-haired boy, everyone, even the disrespectful boys in the back seats, all holding their phones out to Dominic and saying, “You can use mine. You can use mine. No, use mine. Use mine.”
Filled with gratitude and humbled by this unearned grace, Dominic wanted to use them all.