Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Yellow Bus
or the past several months Tommy Difford had earnestly contemplated the idea of running away from home. Not because he came from a broken home or because his parents were unusually cruel or overly severe with him and his younger brother Sammy -- which they weren't -- but because he knew the only path to the life he wanted to lead was the one that led to the wide open road and all the promise of a new life it portended.
For whatever reason, Tommy had never been content to simply be himself. In his thirteen years on the planet, he had already tried on many alternate personalities searching for the perfect fit. Although he was of average height, weight, and looks -- neither unusually short or tall, heavy or skinny, handsome or repellant -- Tommy had become obsessed with the idea of escaping the confines of his own life and the dull promise of a sensible future it forebode. Although his father was a successful CPA and his mother was a reasonably happy homemaker, there was no way Tommy could see himself accepting that narrow a slice of the American pie for himself. Secretly, he aspired to more.
Over the years, born of whatever misguided urge toward self-improvement, or battle with inchoate feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness that spurred him on, Tommy had tried on and cast aside alter egos with the capriciousness and charged fervor of suburban housewives trying on clothing at a factory outlet dress sale. For a period between the ages of six and seven, he had seriously considered slipping into the skin of a professional baseball player; after that, it was pursuing the stoic and disciplined life of a ninja warrior that captivated him. From there, he tried to embody a long succession of odd and colorful vocations. There was outer space explorer, African safari guide, professional stunt man, Formula One race car driver, and even, most recently, for inexplicable reasons, bible-thumping evangelical preacher.
Then, last summer, his parents had taken him to see the movie Spiderman on the big screen at the strip mall multiplex theater, and ever since he had been lost in a fog, as if put under a spell, left floating ever so slightly just above the earth's surface. He became convinced that his true calling in life, the very reason that God put him on this earth, was to be the protector of the meek and the avenger of Evil in this world.
To Tommy, the movie was like a revelation, no less miraculous, or preordained, than God giving the two tablets to Moses. It was as if the movie screen were a secret portal into the larger universe through which he alone could view the inner workings that kept the machinery of time advancing. In this, he found his true calling, sporadic and fleeting as it might be, to rise above the trappings of his ordinary humdrum middle-American life and ascend to some greater renown. Somewhere out there was a voice calling him, urging him on to fulfill his destiny. The Spiderman movie was merely the first calling card.
Since that fateful trip to the movies, Tommy spent hours and hours, and every cent of his allowance and the money he earned as a paperboy, buying and studying the annals of action hero comics; searching desperately inside their covers for confirmation of his unarticulated hopes. Like an acolyte poring over sacred texts in search of enlightenment, he devoted nearly all of his free time scouring comic books for every inkling of the esoteric doctrines and mysterious lessons he needed to absorb, the paranormal actions and Herculean deeds he'd need to emulate, if he was ever going to make it on his own. It didn't matter whether the manifestos were dog-eared vintage issues or crisp, newly minted stories. All that concerned Tommy was that he gathered as much knowledge as possible about the duties and secret ways of the world's superhuman protectors and that he gave himself over to the task with an almost religious devotion. For he knew that while, on the surface, each magazine appeared to be nothing more than waggish entertainment, in truth each was an integral chapter of a larger codex, each revealing a portion of the ancient arcanum know only to the covert federation of superheroes (of which he was now convinced he was an aspiring member).
Now at long last, after a few wrong turns and detours, he had finally jumped onto the right track. His true calling was known to him. And of late, he finally realized that -- by God -- he was up to the challenge; that he, indeed, had the right stuff. His destiny was sealed, the only question that now remained was how to put the plan into action and how to explain it to his parents.
But Mason Munford had solved both dilemmas for him. What had started as just another ordinary day had been miraculously transmorphed into a colossal opportunity for greatness. When it became clear to Tommy that he was no longer embroiled in an ordinary bus ride or school-sanctioned field trip, Tommy felt the heretofore nascent rumblings of heroism begin to stir in earnest inside him. It was as if some internal alarm clock had gone off. His insides were buzzing and his head was ringing with an unexpected and potent urgency. Could it be that his number had finally been called, that his moment to shine had been dropped right into his lap?
Tommy was convinced it was no less than a sign from on high. And go get 'em was its command.
In the aftermath of Munford locking Mikey and the other seven kids into the cabin, and the confusion surrounding the transfer of the remaining children to the van, Tommy seized the opportunity to make his big break. While the other twenty-three kids were piling into the van, Tommy fell back to the end of the line, and, while no one was looking, dropped to the gravel parking lot, commando style. Holding his breath to make sure no one had noticed his move, Tommy waited, alert and ready for any contingency. A couple of thumping heartbeats later, he rolled under the van and held his breath, watching as Munford's white socks and black work boots circled around the back of the van on his way to the driver's side door; no doubt to make sure none of the children were left behind. After he heard the van door slam, and before the ignition had cranked to life, Tommy rolled back out from under the van and lay pressed flat to the ground, hoping to remain out of the sightline of Munford's side mirror. How pleased he was to be wearing his trademark uniform of plain gray T-shirt and blue jeans. All the better to blend into the ground. It was the first cardinal rule of superheroism: never stand out, never be suspicious, never give 'em a clue as to your true identity.
He lay dead still, hands palm down on the ground next to his head, ready to spring into action. Not daring to breathe or raise his head for fear of being found out, he remained poised like a tiger stalking prey. When the engine turned over, the exhaust pelted him with a dusty cloud of acrid smoke. He slid backwards and, when he was fully concealed behind the van, gathered himself up onto all fours. He narrowed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then sprinted for the ravine behind him. A second later, he carefully sighted the edge, threw his hands out in front of him, and leapt for open air. When he hit the ground, it was like taking a sock in the gut. All the air in his lungs was punched from his chest. He tumbled sideways and rolled down the embankment like a hubcap ejected off a speeding car. When he finally came to rest at the bottom, he was left sprawled flat on his back, arms and legs akimbo, gasping for air like a drowning man rescued at the last second from the slippery clutch of death. His mouth and nostrils were clogged with dirt and grit. His head was spinning and he felt dizzy, as if he'd just disembarked from an amusement park ride.
Tommy slowly regained his equilibrium and rose up to brush himself off. He quickly scrambled up the loose dirt of the ravine, reaching the top just in time to see the white van spin its wheels and vanish into a cloud of dust as it sped off to merge into the flow of traffic. Tommy's gray eyes scanned the horizon. He combed his hand through the dense brown ringlets on his head, brushing out a small clump of loose red soil and small twigs. He turned and remembered the cabin. Ah yes, the target was once again in sight.
Tommy and Mikey were neighbors and had been casual friends off and on since kindergarten. It was due to a vague and smoldering sense of loyalty to him that Tommy's fledgling sense of bravery had now grown wings. He stood there a moment, fists placed on his hips, elbows pointed out, and took a look around him. Emboldened by the full measure of his adolescent angst-ridden enthusiasm, he felt the first flush of a jittery potency wash over him. His chest swelled with pride. He could almost envision a cape snapping in the breeze behind him as he contemplated his plan. He knew he had to do something, but what?
Frantically, he searched the comic book files in his brain for the solution to a similar adventure. But nowhere among the plans he'd catalogued -- from controlling the human race via electromagnetic radio waves to government takeover plots involving a pack of trained killer penguins -- could he find any incident similar to the highjacking of a school bus full of kids. Drawing a blank, he spun around.
Ah-ha! The first thing he had to do was pull the tarp of the covered bus. He knew police would be looking for it, and, besides, he and Mikey might need it as a getaway vehicle. He jogged over to the covered bus and grabbed an edge of the dirty canvas. With both hands firmly clutching the tarp, he leaned back and pulled. It took a couple of strong yanks before the tarp finally broke free, sending Tommy reeling backward onto the ground.
He got up and brushed off his hands, surveying his handy work. Not a bad start, he thought. In a flash, he knew the next thing he had to do: get to his classmates in the cabin. Without hesitation, he sprinted to the cabin and immediately tried the door. It was locked. He pounded his fist on the door and waited. No answer. He pounded again several times, this time much harder than the first time. "Mikey!" he yelled. "It's me, Tommy!" Still no reply.
That's strange, he thought. Why will no one open the door? He walked over to the window and pressed his face against the glass to look inside the cabin, cupping his hands to block out the ambient light. When his eyes adjusted, he cast his glance about the inside of the cabin. "Jeepers creepers!" he gasped. What he saw made his heart skip a beat.***
At police headquarters, the line went dead again. Lieutenant Deever slammed the phone receiver back in its cradle. "Damn cell phones," he muttered under his breath. He stood and came around from behind his desk and sat on its edge, kneading the tension from his forehead with his thumb and index finger. His head was throbbing. The case was going nowhere fast. He still hadn't gotten the paperwork he needed to do a thorough and legal search of Munford's house. All because he lacked credible cause for a warrant, in spite of what he knew about Munford's past. And the trace on Mikey's phone call only corroborated the fact that his son had last placed a call to him from somewhere in Delaware. But until, or unless, he called again, it would be impossible to triangulate the transmission and get an exact read on his location. Mikey might as well be on the dark side of the moon. That's about the odds they had of finding him. By now, he could be just about anywhere south of the Mason Dixon line.
He started to pace in front of his desk along the track worn into the scuffed linoleum tiles that covered his office floor, a small corner cubicle set off from the other desks on the floor by a partition of wood panel and glass. With his hands clasped behind his back, he contemplated various strategies to locate his son and the rest of the missing kids.
Just then the phone rang again. Lieutenant Deever stopped pacing, and lunged for the phone. "Mikey?" he screamed into the receiver.
"Uh, no, Lieutenant. It's me, Detective Wainwright."
"Oh," Deever replied. The cast of his expression altered from one of animated expectation to grave disappointment. He looked pale and vaguely nauseated. "What have you found out about Mikey's phone call?"
"Nothing just yet, Lieutenant." He paused. "But I just got word from Delaware State Troopers. Their helicopters have spotted an abandoned yellow school bus in a parking lot just south of the Pennsylvania border."
"Jesus. How did they find that?"
"Pure luck. They hit on it right out of the chute. Apparently they found one of the kids too."
"Just one? Where are the rest? Where's Mikey?"
"Dunno. Apparently the bus is empty. That's all they said. No report on any one other than the kid they saw waving his arms at them in a panic. He was in the parking lot next to the bus."
"Where are you now?"
"I'm over at the courthouse checking records."
"Good work, Wainwright. Don't move. I'll be right over."
"Sure thing, boss."Lieutenant Deever took the receiver from his ear. "An empty yellow school bus," he said to himself as he hung up the phone, with the tone of a schoolboy who had miraculously stumbled upon the correct answer when unexpectedly called upon in class.
click to go to the next chapter
Bucks County Writers Workshop