The eighth graders from Multioak Middle school’s advanced English classes were asleep in their seats. Or, if not asleep, then on the verge, slumped down under their headphones, watching the lights of small towns and farm houses slide past, their blinks lasting longer and longer. The students had been giddy and rambunctious on the early morning three hour ride into the city, but now, after a day full of museums, first time cab rides, and scoldings on skyscraper observation decks, all capped off with expensive meals at The Beanstalk, the students had been drained down to dull, slack versions of themselves.
The teachers were asleep too. As were the parent chaperones.
And Howie, the bus driver, responsible for the safety of all of these people, was struggling against sleep with all his might, but he was slipping and he knew it. If the day had gone according to plan, Howie would have been fine, but on the way out of the city, an enormous three-car-two-semi-truck accident had halted traffic for three hours, postponing the bus’s estimated time of arrival back at the school from midnight to 3am. The teachers had contacted someone from the school who had notified the students’ parents about the delay, which was good, but it did nothing to change the fact that if Howie fell asleep at the wheel, everyone on the bus might die in a fiery explosion. And they were still two hours from home.
Knowing he had a long day ahead of him, Howie had gone to bed early the previous night, but when he turned on the TV in his bedroom – a habit he’d picked up because the sound of commercials and legal dramas soothed him to sleep – he’d seen that the movie Initial Shot was on and that it was nearing his favorite scene, the one where the detective, played by a young Don Gerswhin, frantically tries to disarm the traps along the parade route during the parade. It was an amazing scene: a young Don Gershwin pushing his way through the oblivious crowd, struggling to stay ahead of the marching band that led the parade, finding the traps and disarming them, always at the last moment, and then running ahead to find and disarm the next one. Howie didn’t see how movies could get better than the Initial Shot parade scene. So he’d stayed up to watch that, and, of course, he’d ended up watching the rest of the movie, and then Initial Shot II had come on, which he hadn’t known existed, so he’d watched that too, and that was the decision that had really doomed him.
Howie had tried to grab naps while he was killing time in the city waiting for the field trip to run its course, but no matter where he tried to sleep – on the bus, in fast food restaurants, in a library, on the grass in the park - he couldn’t. The best he could accomplish was lying still with his eyes closed and thinking about how much he wanted to sleep, how wonderful it would feel, and how infuriating it was that it wasn’t going to happen. Eventually he’d stopped trying to nap and just started drinking coffee, hoping that the caffeine would sustain him through the drive home, but it had only sustained him through the traffic jam, and now the only thing his body wanted, the only thing that would satisfy it, was sleep.
Howie shook his head every few seconds as he drove. He opened his eyes wide and held them that way for as long as he could. He shifted side to side in his seat and bit his tongue, hoping the pain would keep him conscious. He tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel with his fingers and tried to whistle a jaunty tune. He made strange faces and tried to envision how they would look and the deserted state highway streamed by.
Howie woke up and had no idea how much time had passed. The bus was still on the correct side of the yellow line dividing the four-lane highway, but it had drifted from the right lane to the left and sped up from from 50 miles per hour to 60. As Howie applied the brakes and steered back into the right lane, he looked up into the mirror mounted above the windshield to see if anyone on the bus had noticed his lapse. All he saw were the dark, motionless shapes of sleeping people. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and took a deep breath. Falling asleep had frightened him and his heart was beating rapidly now. Maybe the near miss was just what he’d needed to jolt his system with a shot of adrenaline.
When he woke up, the bus was traveling at 65 miles per hour and this time it was well onto the wrong side of the road. There were no other cars in sight. Howie managed to keep his head and, with his heart in his throat, he eased the bus back over onto the right side of the road, again glancing up in the mirror for any sign of alarm from his passengers. There was none. Howie was trembling in his seat. He felt very much awake now, but he didn’t trust himself. He’d thought he felt awake last time, and that hadn’t turned out well. Howie looked up in the mirror and saw that there was a boy sleeping in the seat directly behind the driver’s seat. The boy’s head was tilted back and his mouth was hanging open. If he was snoring softly, the sound was swallowed up by the noise of the bus’s engine.
“Hey,” said Howie, looking from the road to the mirror and back, trying to get the boy’s attention. “Hey,” he said louder. The boy was sitting near the aisle so Howie reached back with his right hand and twisted his arm so he could shake the boy’s leg. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Wake up.”
The boy stirred and opened his eyes. “Huh? Are we home?”
“No,” said Howie. “But we’re getting closer.”
“Why did you wake me up?” asked the boy.
“What did you learn today?” asked Howie. “Did you learn anything interesting?”
“What?” asked the boy. “Learn something?” Howie couldn’t see his face very well in the dark interior of the bus, but he sounded confused.
“At the museums,” said Howie. “They must have a lot of interesting stuff there.”
“I guess,” said the boy.
“Like what?” asked Howie. He needed this conversation to stimulate him. He needed something for his brain to do other than plunge straight back into sleep.
“They had some bodies,” said the boy. “Preserved bodies.”
“Cool,” said Howie. “Those must have been fascinating. Right? Right?”
When Howie woke up, the bus was bearing down on a remote intersection at 75 miles per hour. The light was red but there was no time to brake. The bus blew right through the intersection, which was mercifully empty. Had there been any cars in the way, they and their drivers would have been obliterated. With cold sweat running down his face, Howie slowed the bus and looked into the mirror over the windshield again. His passengers were still asleep, somehow. His failure had again gone unnoticed. The kid in the seat behind him was snoring loud enough to hear over the engine noise now, dreaming about preserved bodies, maybe.
A mile past the intersection, Howie pulled the bus into a 24-hour gas station, parked along the far edge of the parking lot, and turned the engine off. He unbuckled his seatbelt, rose from his seat, and announced, “I’m just going to use the bathroom real quick.” Silence. “If anyone else needs to use the bathroom, now’s the time.” No one stirred.
Howie pulled the lever to open the door and limped down the three steps to the pavement on stiff knees. The night air smelled like spilled gas, which had always reminded him of spring time, so tonight, at least, it worked out. He walked around to the back of the bus and bent over with his hands on his knees, inhaling and exhaling through his nose, taking stock of how he felt, trying to interpret what was going on inside his body. He knew it would be very irresponsible of him to get back behind the wheel of the bus. Beyond irresponsible. Reckless. Worse than reckless. The students’ parents were going to be waiting for them at the school, but that was a bad reason to continue endangering their kids’ lives. What he needed to do was wake up the adults on the bus and explain the situation to them. He would leave out the part about already having fallen asleep three times with increasingly horrifying results. Then they could plan from there. They could call whoever they needed to call and make whatever arrangements needed to be made. People would be irritated with him, but once their irritation wore off, they’d realize he’d made the correct choice. He’d endured the embarrassment of admitting his own shortcomings in order to save lives. They would see, in the end, that his choice had been noble.
Howie straightened up and walked back to the bus door. He climbed the steps and stood at the front of the bus, looking at the sleeping students, teachers, and chaperones. They all looked so content and oblivious. He could wake up the adults and tell them that he wasn’t going to be able to drive them the rest of the way home because he couldn’t stay awake. Because he was too weak to do his job. That was certainly an option. But maybe all he needed was a snack and a drink. Just something to occupy him while he drove, something to sip at, something to munch on. There was still a ways to go, but if he could get his second wind here soon, then they’d all be at home sleeping in their own beds in a few hours. “I’ve been falling asleep at the wheel,” said Howie to his passengers. “I’ve been endangering our lives.” No one woke up.
The man working the counter in the gas station was holding a hand mirror and brushing his blond hair back and forth with his fingers. He looked up when Howie came in and said, “You got some engine trouble there?” His nametag said, “Mac.”
“No,” said Howie, squinting in the harsh convenience store light.
“If you do, I can’t help,” said Mac. “I would, but I have to stay in here. They got me on video.” He pointed to a video camera mounted on the wall near the ceiling.
“There’s no engine trouble,” said Howie. “I just need a snack to get me the rest of the way home.” He perused the candy bars on the rack near the front counter, looking for one with bold, vibrant packaging that suggested energy and vitality.
“You getting drowsy?” asked Mac. “If that’s your problem, get some of that pink pop from the fountain. The one on the end, I forget its name.”
“Yeah?” said Howie. “Maybe I’ll give it a try.” He selected a candy bar and walked over to the soft drink fountain, filling a huge Styrofoam cup with ice and the beverage Mac had suggested, something called “Bright Bolt Blast,” which came out of the nozzle an almost luminescent pink.
“How far you going tonight?” asked Mac as he rang up Howie’s items.
“Less than two hours to go,” said Howie.
“Good luck,” said Mac. “Stay alert. There’s deer out.”
“I’m not worried about deer,” said Howie.
As he walked back to the bus, the night air and gas smell and oil-smeared pavement and buzzing white lights illuminating the pumps comforted Howie. He sipped at his drink and found it so sweet that he could almost feel his back teeth dissolving. He unwrapped his candy bar and took a bite. The two tastes did not complement each other. That flavor tension would be good, that would help too.
As Howie walked around the front of the bus, he saw that the grill was spattered with blood and that there were chunks of dark fur stuck to it. Howie had no recollection of hitting anything, which was worrisome. But he had his drink and his candy bar now and he felt good to go. He’d learned his lesson and he’d never stay up late before driving students on an all-day field trip again. On nights before all-day field trips, he would not even turn on the TV when he went to bed so as to not tempt himself. And if, for reasons beyond his control, the TV did get turned on and he happened to see that Initial Shot was on, he would watch only the parade scene. He would not watch Initial Shot II again regardless of the circumstances because it was bad.
Back in the driver’s seat, Howie took a hearty swig of his fountain drink and placed it in the cup holder, balanced his partially-eaten candy bar on his knee, buckled his seat-belt, and said, “Next stop, Multioak Middle School.” Had his passengers been awake, they might have applauded.
Howie was driving a tractor around the track at Multioak Middle School. A wagon full of students sitting on bales of hay was hitched to the back of the tractor. The sun was shining and the bleachers were filled with parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.
“The parade route isn’t ready yet,” shouted Don Gershwin, the star of Initial Shot I and II, as he ran along beside the tractor in his rumpled detective costume. “It isn’t safe!”
“Not ready?” shouted Howie. “It seems fine to me!” The tractor chugged along the blacktop, the students waving and smiling at their relatives from the trailer.
“Traps!” shouted Don Gershwin. “There are traps all along the route!”
“You’re going to have to run ahead and disarm them!” shouted Howie. “I know you can do it!”
“I’ve already disarmed dozens,” shouted Don Gershwin. “But I can’t disarm them all! There are too many! And they’re hidden! You have to stop!”
“I can’t stop now,” shouted Howie. “We’re almost home!”
Don Gershwin was fading fast, unable to keep pace with the tractor. “I’ve done all I can do!” he shouted, stopping and doubling over to catch his breath. “You’re on your own!”
“Initial Shot II sucks!” shouted Howie and he punched the accelerator on the tractor as the students cheered. He had never felt so awake.