The oversized rearview mirror had become unavoidable, an insistent, relentless draw that Craig could not go thirty-seconds without checking. Each time the boy appeared younger, somehow smaller and more innocent, but the bus driver knew this was a trick of the mind, a mental adjustment to help his conscience.
The boy stayed quiet, with no sign of confusion or understanding, completely unconcerned with being the only child on the bus. He must have been lonely, and definitely unorthodox, and the urge to say something reassuring kept jumping into Craig’s throat, but each time he managed to look back at the road, determined the mirror would not tempt him again.
Little children should not be left alone on the side of the road, no matter how rural the area tended to be. There were too many factors, too many things that could go wrong, the worst of which ran through Craig’s mind on a reassuring loop. If it were just another excessively cautious order from the people who seem to love that sort of thing he might have ignored it, let the boy out with no one being the wiser, but Craig truly believed this was a good rule and had no idea why the mirror disagreed so adamantly.
The schoolyard was dormant as he pulled the bus into the narrow lane, a strange inactivity that changed the entire property. Craig had been driving a bus to the same door for most of his adult life, but never had occasion to arrive at this particular time of day. It was almost a nostalgic feeling, like he was returning after being away for many years, the same distant familiarity that comes with visiting a childhood home. The sensation heightened his apprehension.
After the brake clicked into position he stood up and turned to the boy. “All right Cole.” A gesture seemed necessary, a practiced sweep of the arm or special twist of the wrist, something meaningless that would make it seem like he had done this before, that it was common, but he could think of nothing. “Make sure you got all your stuff. You won’t be back on the bus today.”
The boy slid out of his seat, pulling his backpack over his shoulders. He was growing smaller by the minute, every aspect of his youth magnified to a ridiculous effect.
“You sure you got everything? Didn’t leave nothing in the seat?”
There was no response, something that would have bothered Craig on a normal day, but he moved to the side as the boy pushed past then followed him down the steps.
“It’s hot for September, don’t you think?”
The boy said nothing.
“I suppose you don’t have as many Septembers to compare as I do. I got lots and lots. Too many, really.” Craig stepped ahead to open the heavy door and motioned with his arm for the boy to enter. “We gotta go to the office. I imagine you’ll wait there for your mom.”
He took off his cap when he saw the receptionist through the window, her face obviously concerned as she gave an absent wave. Craig followed the boy around the corner and stepped into the office.
“One return to sender. Postage unpaid.” The smile faded when the receptionist went straight to the boy without acknowledging his attempt at humor. She went down on her haunches, so her face was level with the child. “I called your mother Cole, but there was no answer. You don’t know where she might be?”
Even with their faces so close he didn’t meet her eyes.
“You don’t know if she had an appointment today? Maybe the doctor or dentist?”
“I’m going to get going,” Craig interrupted. He was tired of being uncomfortable. “See ya tomorrow, Cole,” he added.
There were twenty-three minutes before the work day would end. If the mother hadn’t been found by then it would be the principal that stayed with the boy, the receptionist was certain of that. “You have a seat and I’ll try your mother again.”
She had been unable to picture Cole when the bus driver radioed earlier, and he only looked somewhat familiar now. This was not uncommon for a primary student this early in the year, but still suggested he was a middle-of-the-pack kind of kid. Not good enough to be praised, not bad enough to be reprimanded. Just an ordinary, quiet boy.
The tone in her voice was deliberate with the second message. Indignation seemed acceptable, even necessary, and the receptionist decided her demeanor would reflect this displeasure if the mother arrived before the next seventeen minutes were spent. Not rude, but off-putting, making it clear that actions like these would not be tolerated. Parents had to learn, just like children, and in her experience a good amount of hostile indifference worked well with both.
The bold thirst for discipline was short lived however, abandoned before the phone was back on the base. The mother was a large woman, not obese, but big in stature with broad shoulders and a thick waist, the build of someone with physical power. Her dark hair was free, with wild, unkempt curls framing the hard face, and the top of a tattoo showed just below the back corner of her jawbone while the rest disappeared behind the collar of her camouflage jacket. She didn’t look at the receptionist through the window the way everyone did when they entered the school, but it was plain by her set profile and rigid movements that an apology was not on her lips.
The receptionist quickly reached for the phone and pressed the button that went straight to the principal’s office.
“Yes, Miss Handley?”
“Cole’s mother’s here.” She set the phone down before the principal could respond.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“You better have a damn good reason why my son wasn’t dropped off at my house.”
“Please.” The receptionist tilted her head toward Cole. “Your language.”
“My language? You all but kidnapped my kid and you’re worried about my friggin’ language. You’re lucky I haven’t called the god damn cops. Now what the hell is going on here?”
“Mrs. Nessman, I think we need to have a little talk.” The principal stood half behind the door to her office. She was calm, professional, as though she didn’t notice the agitated state of the screaming woman.
“Who the hell are you? The principal or something?”
“Good. You can tell me what the hell is going on then.”
The principal looked at the receptionist, just a glance that conveyed she should be ready if he was needed. “Mrs. Nessm —”
“It’s Miss Nessman, thank you very much.”
“My apologizes Miss Nessman. As it said in the newsletter sent home last week, any child in grade two or lower must have an adult meet them at their bus stop. Your son was not dropped off because there was no adult waiting for him.”
“No adult waiting for him? God damn it, the kid knows how to get to the house from the end of the driveway. What kind of moron do you think he is?”
“Our policy is very clear on this. Any children in grade two or lower will not be dropped off unless an adult is there to meet him or her. Surely you can see where our concerns lie.”
“So, what is this? You got a couple of kids who are too stupid to stay outta traffic, so you go and punish rest of us? This is horse shit, that’s what this is.”
“Please nothing. I’m not wandering down to the damn road to wait half an hour for the friggin’ bus when Cole knows how to walk up the damn driveway all by himself. He’s not an idiot.”
“No one is suggesting he is. But the policy is —”
“The policy is a load of crap. From now on you drop off my son whether I’m there or not or I’m gonna sue the god damn pant suit right off you, lady.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Nessman, but if you fail to meet the bus on any given day the result will be the same. We cannot leave children in grade two or lower at a stop without a responsible adult to meet them. It’s a province wide mandate. There’s nothing more I can do.”
“You bring my kid back here one more time, and I swear …” Both hands formed into a fist, the knuckles growing white.
“Miss Nessman, I’m sorry, but if you have an issue with this you’re going to have to take it up with someone above me. If no one is there to meet Cole, I have no other option but to repeat what we did here today. Now, there is an after-school program if your schedule keeps you from meeting the bus, but I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.”
The principal watched the mother closely. She was young, still in her early twenties, and would have been in her teens when Cole was born. A quick thought about poor decisions and loose morals slipped through her discipline, but she realized such prejudice gave credence to the mother’s anger and forced herself to avoid the easy conclusions. “Miss Nessman, I’m sorry, but there really is no other option.”
There was a pause, a moment where the atmosphere shifted. “All right,” the woman said. The steel was still in her eyes, her determination obvious, but hostility had given way to some form of purpose. “You just go right along humping your stupid policies and screwing over the rest of us, that’s just fine. There’s a whole separate spot in hell for the likes of you, you know that? Your pompous rules and holier-than-thou-attitudes are gonna make you burn, lady, and I’m gonna sit there and laugh while it happens. Come on Cole, we gotta go.”
She was sweet with the boy, placing a gentle hand on his head as she took his back pack from his shoulder. “You have a good day at school?”
The receptionist heard the boy answer, talking casually despite the events leading up to their meeting.
Principal Weaton watched them through the window that separated the offices from the hallway. She watched them leave the building and watched them pass the window that showed the parking lot. “That’s a piece of work, huh?” she said, without looking over at the receptionist.
The oversized mirror was demanding again, insisting on attention. Cole was closer to the front, his back pack waiting beside him. The bus hummed with the chatter of children, mostly boys trying their best to be obnoxious, but none of the noises affected the small boy. Craig checked on him constantly, the anxiety building with every look.
Instructions were clear. If no adults were present he was to come to a complete stop with lights flashing, sound the horn three times consecutively, wait fifteen seconds, then radio back to the office to let them know he was bringing the boy back to the school.
Principal Weaton didn’t tell him about the altercation the day before. He heard from one of the other bus drivers that the mother had come to the school with a row of obscenities. Craig checked the mirror again.
The boy had been standing by himself that morning, the same way he had every morning of the young school year. There was no policy about picking up unattended children, only dropping them off, so Craig had taken him to school without worry. Now his stomach was tightening.
From a distance he could tell there was no one waiting at the end of Cole’s driveway. He swallowed hard against the anxiousness and checked the mirror again. “Just stay right there for a minute, okay, buddy?”
Cole looked away as a response.
The lights flashed as the stop sign unfolded from the side of the bus. Craig would have let him go if someone had been waiting at the door. He would have let him go had someone been at the window. If he had seen anyone anywhere it would have been enough. He was not a slave to the letter of the law. But the yard was empty and he could feel a strange flutter in his chest.
The three even honks seemed loud and rude. He was counting backwards from fifteen when the front door opened. The moment of overwhelming relief was extremely brief, hardly enough to register, then he saw the large, young woman step onto the deck.
“Oh, good god.”
The words slipped out quietly just before the noise behind him became ecstatic. Children crowded the windows on the right side of the bus, squealing and hollering at once. There was a part of him that knew he should say something, reprimand them for leaving their seats, but the surprise had taken full control of him as well.
The young woman walked up the driveway, her smile broad and satisfied. Outside of the sandals on her feet, she was wearing absolutely nothing, bright white nude in the afternoon sun.
It was a confident stride, a hard, proud pace that caused her breasts to swing from side to side, the large, protruding nipples floating back and forth like a metronome. Her happiness could not have been more obvious or more complete.
“Open up.” She pounded on the glass door with the side of her fist.
Craig’s hand found the lever to the door without prompting. It seemed to slip open by itself, leaving him an unobstructed view of the naked woman.
“You better have my son.” Her smile was deep and suggestive, making the back of Craig’s neck feel hot. He tried to look at her face, only her face, but it was impossible not to see the rest of her body and he had to look away.
“Ma’am, you shouldn’t …” He tried to look again but couldn’t find the nerve. “The children.” It was almost a whisper.
The young woman took a step closer before she stopped. She pulled in her lower lip and held it with her front two teeth. It was only a flash of consciousness, a short touch of considering before certainty reinforced itself, but the hesitation managed to soften her resolve. “Just give me my kid,” she told him.
Craig turned his head without looking at the woman. “You can go now, Cole.”
The boy slipped his backpack over his shoulder as he made his way to the front. His expression remained neutral when he saw the naked woman, and he took her hand without comment.
“How was school today?” She took the backpack while he answered, and they started down the driveway hand in hand, a casual pace so unusual for the situation. They paid no attention to the bus as it drifted down the road and out of sight.
“You wanted to see me, Mrs. Weaton?”
The principal looked up from her desk. “Yes, close the door.”
Craig held his cap in his hand, held it so the curve of the bill sat perfectly in his palm. He closed the door behind him. “Should I take a seat?” The hat tapped against the chair in front of him.
“No, this won’t take long.” She placed her glasses on her forehead as she looked out the window. “We have made special arrangements concerning Cole Nessman’s drop off.”
Craig fought against the color coming into his cheeks.
“From now on you will drop the boy off whether there is an adult to meet him or not. When no adult is present, and I suspect that will be the case most of the time, you will wait until the boy is inside his house before you drive away. Do you understand?”
It was obviously a reprimand, but that was okay. He knew he should have done more, should have enjoyed less, and the subtle chastisement brought justification to the guilt he was carrying. “Yes ma’am.” He offered a dip of his chin as apology.
Principal Weaton brought her glasses back to her face. The look of disgust was not hidden. “I’m sure you’ll agree this is best for everyone concerned.”
Craig brought both hands to his hat, curving the bill too hard. The image flashed across his mind again, the way it had done so many times since the day before. He chased it away immediately. “Of course,” he said, and felt his face flush.