Thoughts on a Bus
On a bus, people often find themselves quiet, with not much to do. It gives them ample time to reflect, and let their thoughts smother them as the vehicle rattles along. If one wanted to know the true nature behind a person, reading their minds while they rode the morning bus to wherever they need to go is perfect. Fleeting images of happy moments and regrets flit through their mind as they stare out the frigid window, and the deepest revelations are made.
Imagine this: it is morning, and the sounds of a town waking up resounds through a street. Snatches of sleepy, irritated conversation drift through windows. The clouds are damp cotton balls, slowly beginning to drip, drop water onto the umbrellas the people pop out with. Somewhere, a bakery is the source of the scent of bread wafting between rain droplets.
A city bus splashes through the puddle that has formed by a crease in the sidewalk and street edge. The thoughts of these particular passengers are heavy upon their heads, and it sits like a permanent fog. The bus slows down with squeaks and puffs. A tall, lanky man wearing a sweater vest has his briefcase sheltering his head and a hat tucked underneath his arm as he hurries his spindly legs along the pavement. He reaches the bus, and quickly pulls himself up the black specked stairs. The coins that he has been clenching for two blocks in his hand makes a plinking sound as he pays, and he makes his way down the aisle.
He spots an open seat about halfway down the aisle, and hastily settles in before the bus is moving again. There is a blonde girl sitting next to him, gazing dreamily out the window. Her shoulders are slouched and the teacher notices her knuckles have turned bone white, they are gripping the armrest so hard. She hardly looks up as he sits down. Out of the corner of his eye, her eyelashes seem to be damp and stuck together in bunches.
The silver backpack propped against her legs probably means she’s a student. The teacher places his head back, and slowly drifts into sleep. He had a restless night.
He opens his eyes and he’s suddenly standing in a shadowy corridor. The tiles at his feet are speckled white tile, and the walls are covered in corkboards and taped up posters advertising club names and sports. The chunky doors to the classrooms are all closed and obscure, and a peek through their windows reveals nothing except for blackness. The only light source comes from the few fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling.
His steps are painfully loud, echoing accents in the silent building. Everything is asleep. Not necessarily everyone.
This is a nightmare of that fateful Thursday night. He knows it for sure, now. But that knowledge doesn’t stop his oblivious dreamself into turning the corner and walking straight to his own classroom. The teacher can see himself doing all this in a tiny bubble in his mind, but he has no control over the memory. His dreamself notices with a slight blip in his heart rate that his classroom door is actually slightly open, but quickly ignores the panic and pushes the door open to see who had managed to open it without a key.
Inside, the moonlight spills and shines through the window like pale blue silk across the desks. It illuminates the opaque silhouette of a figure sitting at his window sill at the other side of the room. A draft hits the teacher’s skin, and he realizes the window is wide open. He determines the figure is a girl, sitting on the window frame, her legs dangling in open air.
“Excuse me?” he calls, and the girl whips around. He vaguely makes out her face. “Ellen? What are you doing here?”
The girl’s mouth opens and moves, but no words come out, and her eyes are wide and glistening. She flips her legs over the sill and rushes through the desks and past him into the hallway, mumbling, “Sorry, Mr. Ianelli, it’s just a lovely evening, isn’t it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The teacher stumbles back as she surprisingly elbows him away. The teacher watches, mouth agape, as the girl begins to hurry away from his classroom without a backward glance. His dreamself stands without saying a word, although the little corner of his self-aware mind is screaming, crying out for him to go after the girl.
Ellen was always a very talented writer, the teacher thought. The dream had slowly sifted away, like grains of sand blowing from a pile. He was now staring into the backs of his eyelids, simply thinking to himself. He didn’t have to open his eyes to know that there was still a good twenty minutes left of the ride to the school.
The teacher. He had the ability and the opportunity to just ask what was wrong. But he brushed it off, like it was unimportant.
He could have stopped her.
Claire was the blonde haired girl sitting beside him. Claire did, indeed, go to the school the man beside her taught at. She hardly ever rode the bus, but this morning she made the exception. She wasn’t sure she would be able to drive with complete focus. She stares out the window, trying to drown her thoughts and shame in the rain that poured down the grimy window. Her entire body was constantly trembling even with the bus’s heating system, and she tries to freeze in place so it wouldn’t be obvious.
Her eyes are pointed at the passing cars and shops along the street, but she is only seeing the words from the letters Ellen’s sister had thrust into her arms just a few days ago. Alison’s eyes had looked so dead, and the usual smile Claire had seen her wearing was gone. Instead, the corners of her mouth were drawn back tightly, as if suppressing the rage and agony behind an expressionless mask.
Claire had read the letters that evening when she came home. She had shut herself into her room and pulled her pillow to her chest.
Please hurry up and finish your exams! I know you’re still in the same city, but you hardly ever come home, and life sucks without having an older sister. I’m the oldest in the sibling department at the moment, and I hate it. Seriously. Mom is always on my tail about everything, and I have to take care of Gary. I miss you a ton, though. Let’s play some soccer when you get back, please!
Alison had always been Miss Perfect. Glossy golden hair, always beautifully braided. She got straight A’s all through school, she was on the varsity soccer team, and was popular. You couldn’t help but like her bubbly personality and never-ending kindness. Ellen was a different story. Claire had never made the connection as them being sisters until.... Until the funeral last week.
Mom flipped out yesterday. Seriously. I showed her the goddamn paper I got a C+ on in English. Seriously, the guy can’t cut me one break? Anyways, she went off on some rant about college crap, then came back five minutes later to apologize. She kept talking about how even though my current grades are trodding on my happiness, I shouldn’t worry because the elatedness I will feel when I’m accepted into prestigious universities will compensate for this hell. Sheesh, why does she try to use poetry as inspiration? It’s not effective. If anything, it’s super pretentious and I hate it. I don’t hate Mom, but I hate her parenting sometimes. How’d you do it, Ali?
Today, this bitch looked at me and smiled, and then said, “Who dressed you this morning, the hobo in front of your house?” And then she laughed. Her laugh made me sick, Ali, it was so sugary and sappy and sweet that it was artificial. It made me nauseous.
Claire felt nauseous.
Everyone laughs at me, though. Laugh with her, and at me. I just kind of laugh along with them. What else am I supposed to do? Anyways, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. In fact, it’s been happening a lot this year. I try to let the comments slide. But it’s really hard.
Sour bile rises up in Claire’s throat, and she blinks rapidly to keep the tears from flowing. An intense feeling of hatred towards herself begins to blossom within her as she concentrates on looking at one specific spot on the back of the chair in front of her.
In your last letter, you told me that girl is a bully and I need to say something about it. Alison, I can’t say anything. I could get some teacher to stop her game, but then she would be back with war. She’s that kind of girl.
I sent some college applications out a few days ago. Ali, I’m so excited. If I can just get accepted to an out-of-state university, I can get out of this stuffy town and escape these people. I applied to Harvard, but I don’t know if I’ll get in. I’ve worked so hard towards it, though. If I get into Harvard, damn Ali, I would finally be happy. I’m so anxious.
Where was Claire going? Community college? Claire had stolen this girl’s chance of a lifetime. She had ridiculed Ellen for the most unimportant little things, and it hadn't meant shit to Claire. But to Ellen, it had clouded her own future. Claire's stupidity had thrown a wet blanket over Ellen's already waning peace of mind.
Skip a few letters. Go straight to the last two.
Harvard rejected me. Case Western rejected me. Everywhere rejected me except for the college you’re at, right in our hometown. Ali, I can’t stay here. It’s too close to home. In fact, it is home. And I hate home. What even is this place anymore? I don’t fit in. Maddie and Jess don’t talk to me ever because of that stupid girl I was talking to you about. They’re scared of getting too close to me so Claire can find something wrong with them and torment them as well. I don't blame them. They're my friends, and I don't want to drag them down with me.
I hate her because she tells the truth about myself to me. I can’t talk back because she’s perfect. Just like you.
I can’t do it anymore. It’s like my body is a prison, and unfortunately, there is no escape from a prison made of your mind.
Claire breathes in, breathes out. Trying to calm herself down. She is hardly perfect, and the illusion had destroyed another human being.
I love you so much. I love Gary and Mom, too. Please tell Mom it’s not her fault for pressuring or anything. It’s my fault for not living up to my potential, and it’s my fault that I’m about to commit the act, right? No one else is making me do this. I'm doing it.
Claire chokes out a few sobs before finally allowing herself to freely cry into her shoulder. She doesn't care who watches. She deserves to be seen in all her shame. No, Ellen. It was someone's fault. Claire's fault. Claire had driven her to do it. And what for? A few laughs. No one was laughing now.
Ellen had always been a nobody, so she was an easy target. She was quiet, always laughed right along with them. She never seemed to not be okay with it. Claire had always known, deep down, what she was doing wasn’t moral and the girl could not truly be okay with it, but she never bothered to stop. Once she had gotten started, she couldn’t stop… Bullying.
Claire had been a bully. And Ellen had paid the price.
Claire could have started being nicer.
Claire. She could have stopped before Ellen overdosed on pills last week on Thursday, technically early morning Friday. Her body had been found inside her locked bedroom. By whom, Claire wasn't sure. Most likely her mother. A shudder runs through Claire, and the purple fabric of the bus seat suddenly seems to drop in temperature.
Claire closes her puffy eyes and vows to give Alison the letters back to her. It's the least she can do. She decides to include another letter. One of profuse apology. It would mean nothing, really. But she has to do it.
There was a young boy, short and gap-toothed in the back row of the bus. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than the chocolate bar that was somewhere deep inside his mother’s purse. It was times like these he wished one of his siblings could come with his mother and him on their way to his daycare and her work office. They would distract her, he would grab the Kitkat, and they would secretly share the crunchy treat later, sharing smiles.
He fidgets in his seat, wanting desperately to be relieved of his boredom. His gaze darts about the bus, glancing at each and every passenger until finding a pretty blonde girl. She was much older than him. Actually, just around his sister’s age. She was weeping, her cheeks streaked with lines of dried, sticky tear stains. Her blonde hair caught the small amount of light streaming through the window, and it shone like a penny in the sun.
“Why are you sad?” he asks her. He smiles with all of his teeth. “I’m sad, too, but my sister says that if you smile real big and pretend you’re not sad, you won’t make anyone else sad and soon, you’ll get pretty happy again!”
Through her sniffles, the girl lets loose a tiny smile, but the tears get the best of her and quickly pull the corners of her lips to droop down her face again. She manages to speak for a moment, however.
“What's your name?"
The girl's mouth falls open, and it seems that even more tears swell to her eyes. "Why are you sad, Gary?"
The boy frowns for a moment. “Well, my sister got lonely here. Ellen went to live up in Heaven, instead. But I think she’s happier, which makes me happy!”
He regains his sweet, genuine grin, then turns and slumps away from her line of vision into his seat.