At three o’clock, Stan opened bus doors to let the children in from the pouring rain. He couldn’t remember each child’s name, so he made up his own based on first impressions. Pointy-nosed kid hopped on first with blue-haired girl, the emo freaks, big glasses girl, and the athletes Stan had named Stretch Johnson and Paul Bunyan followed. His job was to make sure they got home to their families in the same condition they were in when they climbed onto his bus. Most days, this task was easy. But he knew—better than most parents—that things could go horribly wrong.
The smell of rain mixed with drug store perfume and sweat. He couldn’t keep track of them all as they entered, so he just watched in his mirror as they split into their groups. His girl brushed past him. Her curly hair—a mix of his and her white mother’s—fell to her shoulders.
He ignored her. He reminded himself of the doctor’s words: “She’s just a manifestation of your grief. She’s your brain’s way of trying to heal.” Today would have been her birthday. Stan wanted to celebrate, but he didn’t know how to celebrate without her. He turned the key in the ignition, and the bus roared.
His eyes darted back and forth between the road and the mirrors that allowed him to keep watch over the children. The skin around his eyes bunched as he squinted to see the road. He had more wrinkles now than ever. His hair, once thick and full in a medium-sized afro, had thinned and turned gray around the edges. When he got to the first stop, he pulled to the side and opened the doors. As flat-faced kid moved toward the front of the bus, he was followed by a girl Stan didn’t recognize.
“Who are you?” Stan’s frown lines deepened. She pushed her hair out of her face and looked shyly up at him. Stan’s stomach clenched. She looked just like his Amy. They had the same small button nose, oval eyes, curly hair. This girl smelled like bubble gum. Amy had always smelled like peppermint, her favorite candy.
“I’m Marie,” the girl said. “Ben and I are doing a project, so I’m going home with him today.” Stan looked into her eyes for a moment until she started to squirm.
“Be careful,” Stan warned and waved them off the bus.
Stan checked the streets for traffic before pulling away from the curb. Big glasses girl sat with her knees pressed against the back of the seat in front of her. An open textbook rested on her lap. Blue-haired girl chatted away, completely oblivious to her friend’s attempt to study.
Stan imagined Amy sitting with them as he entered traffic. He tried to forget the hospital rooms, the tubes, the doctors, and the blood. He liked to picture her older and healthier than she’d ever been.
Exactly fifteen minutes later, Stan arrived at the next stop and watched the athletes exit the bus. They spoke to each other in staccato sentences and crossed in front of the bus, a little too close. Stan had a hard time seeing them until they stepped into a wide puddle on the other side of the street. His shoulders relaxed when the boys reached the sidewalk but tensed again when he turned to find a man standing next to him.
Stan swatted at the man, who towered above him in a long black raincoat. The man’s face was Abraham Lincoln long and severe.
“Don’t be frightened, Stan. Just keep driving.” He smoothed the seat of his trench coat as he sat on the first bus bench behind the yellow line next to the driver’s seat.
“You can’t be here.” Stan nodded firmly as he tried to convince himself that he had to push the man out the door. He had to protect the children. He had to protect Amy. No, that’s not right. He shook his head. He couldn’t protect Amy anymore.
“Do they seem bothered by me?” The man waved his arm toward the kids. “I’ve come to kill you all!” he yelled.
No one responded.
“Where are you from?”
“Same place Amy is,” the man responded. “Now, drive.”
“Mr. Grier, what are you waiting for? Is the bus broken?” Pointy-nosed kid yelled from the back of the bus.
“Everything’s fine!” Stan shouted a little too loudly. He gave a lopsided smile, put the bus back in gear, and pulled off.
Silently, he began to count the multiples of three. 3, 6, 9, 12. He’d never seen anyone other than Amy before. You’re not real. 15, 18, 21.
His thoughts returned to his job just in time. He made a sharp turn. The tires skidded against the puddles in the street and let out a screech that made Stan clench his jaw. Some kids yelped as their bodies slid across the seat. Pointy-nosed kid gripped the seat in front of him until his knuckles were white. All of big glasses girl’s books fell to the floor. She and blue-haired girl scrambled to keep them out of the layer of muddy water.
Once he was satisfied that the bus was on the right track, Stan glanced over at the man sitting next to him. “What do you want?” he murmured.