The day before Valentine’s Day, Lisa Rock drove the old school bus just below the posted speed limit. There were seven bus routes; as the youngest driver, she had the one no other driver wanted. People liked to say that times had changed, but not in Emery. The middle school kids were just as bad as their parents had been when she was a girl. Lisa’s eyes left the road to check the rearview mirror. Kids hollered, swore, and shrieked. As long as the volume didn’t get too bad, Lisa wouldn’t pull over. She still needed to pick up the elementary school kids after she finished the middle school route.
She had pulled over the bus once already. Doreen Rogan, an eighth-grader who looked nineteen, had been launching spitballs at the back of Ellie Heron’s head. Doreen had a habit of picking on the friendless kids and getting others to laugh with her. Ellie, a thin girl with long, matted dark hair, hadn’t said a word; she leaned her head against the window, her textbooks clutched to her chest. Lisa felt sorry for Ellie. She tried hard to keep an eye on Doreen, but the bigger girl was quick, and the other kids, half of them afraid of being her next victim, covered for Doreen. Lisa wished Ellie would speak up or do something so Doreen would stop.
The snow banks along the route were splattered with sand and mud. Lisa passed over a bridge on the town line. The elementary school was a few miles down the road. Her shoulders relaxed as she thought about the younger kids she had to pick up in half an hour. Lisa had a Valentine’s Day surprise for them in the denim fanny pack she wore—cherry blow pops.
The radio stopped playing country music. The DJ, sounding serious for once, said there was a shooting on a bus. Lisa leaned closer, but some kids started hollering and standing up in the back, so she had to shout at them. When the noise died down, Willie Nelson was singing about someone on his mind.
Checking the rearview mirror, she did a quick scan of the rows of kids. No one was getting kicked or punched or making out. There were sixty children, two or three to a seat, trying to keep warm because some of the heaters were broken.
Lisa’s knuckles were white as she held the steering wheel. She wished someone would retire or quit, so she could drive a better route. She pressed her battered snowmobile boot more firmly against the gas pedal, wishing she were home making cookies with her daughter, Lily.
At a stop sign at the bottom of Old Hunt Road, a familiar black car flew by. Lisa turned the bus right and followed the vehicle in the direction of Emery. She recognized her husband’s white-blond hair behind the steering wheel; a tall woman sat beside him. Lisa’s heart squeezed in her chest as she gripped the steering wheel. Her mind flipped like a Rolodex through all the reasons she shouldn’t care.
Biting her chapped lower lip, she determinedly glanced into the rearview mirror and then back to the road. The divorce papers had come last week and were sitting in an envelope for her to sign.
Lisa had been with Billy since her senior year of high school. She’d begged him not to leave her and Lily, but he’d left anyway and moved in with Carm. He’d been gone a year.
After about five miles, Billy’s battered car turned down Middle Street without signaling. Lisa told herself not to care, but her head turned anyway. Billy used to take her to the same spot when they were seniors and wanted to make out.
As the bus neared town, a girl’s shriek rose above the afterschool chatter. Lisa’s shoulders tensed. Her eyes searched the rearview mirror for Doreen’s powder pink jacket.
“What’s going on?” Lisa shouted, frantically checking the road, then the mirror.
She wished again that Mr. Markham would hire a bus monitor. The girl screamed a second time, but Lisa couldn’t pull over—the road had too many curves. She tapped the brakes, and the large engine chugged to a crawl.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice even louder.
No one answered.
Some of the middle schoolers were standing up. They blocked Lisa’s view. “Sit down, everyone.” Lisa checked the dashboard’s clock. It was nearly quarter to three.
“It’s Ellie Heron,” one of the kids said.
Lisa’s brown eyebrows shot up. She hoped Ellie was okay.
Spotting a place big enough to pull over, she hit the brakes hard. The tires squealed as the bus came to a stop near a pig farm. The stench made her stomach churn. Several kids coughed. Girls held the sleeves of their jackets over their noses. The boys were gagging and making pig sounds.
“Sit down, everyone.” As Lisa walked down the narrow aisle, bodies moved to the side. Two girls remained in the aisle. One on the floor, the other straddled across her chest.
Lisa’s mouth opened slightly at the sight of Doreen’s bleeding nose. She lay on her back, blood on her face and jacket. A skinny girl sat on her chest. Ellie clutched the collar of Doreen’s pink jacket with one hand, ready to slam her again with the other.
Doreen’s eyes met Lisa’s. She stopped crying and tried to shove Ellie. “Get off me.”
Ellie didn’t move, her plain face trancelike. Little balls of yellow paper stuck to her brown hair.
Lisa was frozen with shock for a moment; then, she placed a hand on Ellie’s shoulder. She felt the bones beneath the girl’s thin jacket. “Get up, Ellie.”
The girl made a guttural noise in her throat and then let go of Doreen’s jacket.
“Go to the front of the bus,” Lisa said as she stepped to the side to let her pass. Kids whispered as Ellie grabbed her books and papers. “Sit in the first seat behind mine.”
Doreen’s friends crowded around her. Lisa handed Doreen a package of tissues to clean her nose. The voices of the kids grew louder and louder.
When Ellie approached, the two girls who had been sitting behind the driver’s seat jumped up and moved to sit elsewhere. Ellie sat down and scooted over to the window so that she was pressing her face against the glass. Lisa turned the key in the bus’s ignition and pulled back onto the road. The smell of the pig farm made her head throb.
Doreen’s friends whispered in the back and threw angry looks towards the front of the bus. Lisa was the only one who saw the tears that ran down Ellie’s face as she cradled her fist against her chest.
An hour later, when the last elementary schoolers had been dropped off at their homes, Lisa turned the bus around and headed back to the bus garage. She knew that Doreen’s mother had probably called the bus garage about the fight. Mr. Markham would likely tell her, “Kids will be kids.”
In front of Carm’s Diner, she saw Billy’s car. Lisa’s lips twisted at the sight of the paper hearts taped to the window. The bus engine whined as Lisa passed the hair salon. They were busy: three cars parked out front. In her senior year, Lisa worked five nights a week serving burgers, trying to earn enough money to go to cosmetology school, but her father made her give every penny to her older brother. Ray had lost his job because he hit his boss. He promised to pay her back, but he never did.
At the top of the hill, the bus garage came into view. Lisa pumped the brakes to make sure the wheels didn’t lock up. A dirty white car sped by. Exhaust poured from the tailpipe. She read the car’s rusted back end with its splattered bumper sticker Live Free or Die.
Lisa wondered if it was worth her time to write up a report about the fight. She wanted to get home. Mr. Markham, the bus supervisor, usually laughed when she told him about the kids. He didn’t take anything she said seriously.
Her lips twitched as she remembered skinny little Ellie sitting on top of Doreen’s chest.
The parking lot in front of the squat gray building was full. Fourteen dirty yellow buses in a row. Lisa set the parking brake and grabbed a white plastic trash bag. Her steps echoed heavily in the empty bus. Pink bubblegum wrappers and crumpled yellow balls of paper littered the floor. Shaking her head, she reached down to pick up someone’s lost science test. The name written in blue ink was “Ellie Heron.” A teacher had written a “97” in the right-hand corner and the words “Great job!” Lisa admired the girl’s carefully written letters. She folded the paper in half, then quarters, and stuffed it into her coat pocket. As a girl, Lisa hadn’t paid attention to her school work and no one helped her at home. She hoped Lily would go further than either she or Billy had ever gone.
Stopping at the seat where Doreen Rogan had been sitting, Lisa thought of Ellie’s messy hair and wondered why Ellie’s mother didn’t teach her to comb it. Maybe the other kids wouldn’t pick on Ellie if she were less dirty.
Whenever Lisa stopped the bus in front of Ellie’s house, an old pit bull, chained to the steps on even the coldest days, barked and strained at his collar. Ellie, hunched against the wind in a jacket two sizes too small, without a hat or gloves, would stand beside him, petting his head. No one ever came out of the worn house to greet Ellie. Only the dog, who wagged his tail when the bus’s doors swung open at the end of each day.
Lisa took the trash bag and the clipboard with the log sheet with her into the bus garage. It was already after four o’clock, and she had to pick Lily up from the afterschool program. The only heated rooms in the building were Mr. Markham’s office and the employee break room. Stepping into the supervisor’s empty office, she noticed a “Help Wanted” flyer. Mr. Markham was looking for two people to clean the buses on Saturday mornings. The job paid two dollars more than minimum wage. Lisa imagined starting a savings account to go back to school so she could get a better paying job. Grabbing several suspension slips, she decided to speak to Mr. Markham about the cleaning job and headed in the direction of the breakroom. The older man stood with several of the other bus drivers around the television set.
Lisa edged her way in to stand beside an older woman. “What’s going on?”
Mildred shook her steel-gray head as she stared at the television. “There’s been a shooting,” she whispered, her voice hoarse and dry. “On a school bus.”
Lisa’s heart thumped in her chest. She remembered the DJ on the radio. “Where?”
“In Connecticut,” Mildred said. Her skin was green under the fluorescent lighting. “A high schooler.”
Lisa squeezed her body between Mildred and Mr. Markham. The TV screen showed a yellow school bus on its side, the front windshield blown out. The reporter said a fifteen-year-old boy, a student, shot four people on the bus. Two kids had died so far, including the gunman.
“What’s this world coming to?” Mildred cried. “Time to retire.”
Lisa glanced at the older woman. The kids from Worthington lived in big houses, and no one gave old Mildred any grief.
“Crazy world–kids killing people,” one of the other drivers said.
The other drivers didn’t answer; they just nodded their heads. On the screen, kids were running into the arms of their parents while ambulance sirens wailed in the background. Lisa moaned, along with most of the drivers, when the reporter announced that the bus driver was in critical condition. The driver had been shot in the chest trying to wrestle the gun out of the shooter’s hands.
Lisa calculated what she’d been doing an hour ago. She had just pulled the bus over next to the pig farm to deal with the fight.
Mr. Markham put an arm around old Mildred’s thick waist. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down several times as he patted Mildred’s side. More than once Mildred had bragged she’d been Mr. Markham’s bus driver when he’d been a boy. A few of the other drivers sniffed and wiped tears away with tissues or their hands. The Connecticut town where the shooting had taken place was only fifty miles away. Far enough to make some feel safe, but for Lisa, it was too close for comfort.
When the station switched to a commercial, the drivers dispersed. In the parking lot, Lisa twisted the ignition key in her Chevy and pumped the gas pedal. She rolled down the driver’s window to release the exhaust fumes that leaked through the rusted floorboards. The car was fifteen years old, and she knew it wouldn’t pass inspection.
Backing out of the employee parking lot, she saw a spot of blood on her coat. She’d forgotten to talk to Mr. Markham. Just then, the side door to the bus garage opened. Mr. Markham walked out holding Mildred’s arm. Lisa waved, but neither of them noticed.
Lisa held a mixing bowl tight against her waist as she watched the 6:30 news. They’d just finished eating. The sound of the shower and Lily’s singing carried through the open bathroom door and into the kitchen. Lisa set the oven to 350 degrees and continued creaming the butter for the chocolate chip cookies that Lily would hand out at her Valentine’s Day party.
Young faces flashed across the TV screen. They seemed like regular kids. Normal. Even the shooter seemed like an everyday kid. Lisa’s fingers gripped the wooden spoon hard.
The news flashed another photo of the killer as she put the cookies into the oven. He was wearing a baseball uniform, holding a bat as he smiled at the camera. The television reporter said the boy found the weapon, a pistol, in his mother’s gun cabinet.
There was no gun in her apartment, but Lisa knew she could drive two miles and find a loaded gun in her father’s bedside table. Most kids who had grown up in the Hilltowns had access to firearms.
The timer buzzed. Lisa opened the oven. She smelled warm chocolate and remembered how she loved baking with her mom—especially after a bad day. Kids picking on kids was nothing new. Kids had teased Lisa because she lived on a farm and sometimes had pig dung stuck to her boots. The worst bully had been Bethany Wilke. In middle school, she’d pulled Lisa’s hair and tripped her whenever she could get away with it. Sliding the cookies onto a wire rack to cool, Lisa wondered what would have happened if she had hit Bethany.
The door to the bathroom slammed against the wall as six-year-old Lily, smelling like soap, burst through the doorway holding a doll that wore a matching purple bathrobe and slippers. Lisa grinned proudly at her daughter. She’d saved two months, buying generic groceries and dropping cable television, so she could give her daughter a nice Christmas.
Lisa picked up a still-warm cookie and gave it to Lily. She poured her a glass of milk. Lisa turned off the television set and watched her daughter enjoy her cookie.
Later, when it was Lily’s bedtime, her daughter asked, “When’s Daddy coming to see me, Momma?”
“We’ll have to see,” Lisa said, keeping her voice light. She kissed her daughter’s rosy cheek and whispered in a singsong voice, “Momma loves you very much—and so does Daddy.”
Lisa closed the bedroom door, leaving a crack so she could hear Lily’s voice if she called out. She thought about Billy, who sometimes read Lily fairytale stories before bed. He had seemed to like spending time at home, but that was before he met Carm and told Lisa they had married too young.
Lisa locked the kitchen door and closed the curtains in the apartment to keep out the cold air.
The next morning, still tired, Lisa turned on the TV. All the newscasters were wearing pink and red sweaters. She fingered the fabric of the faded blue flannel shirt she wore and remembered how Billy said more than once that she dressed like a man. She thought of the paper hearts in Carm’s windows.
Grabbing the stack of Valentine’s Day cards, Lisa sorted the cards, putting them in alphabetical order. She checked the list of names the teacher had handed out to make sure there was a card for each child. The one for a boy named Roger was missing from the stack.
Slowly stirring creamer into her coffee, she watched the television screen as they gave updates on the bus shooting. The image of the killer flashed over and over across the screen. They didn’t mention the bus driver.
The clock on the stove said nearly 5:30. Lisa dialed Billy’s number. He would be just getting home from working the night shift at the paper mill.
“It’s me,” she said.
“What’s up?” Billy said, yawning.
Lisa checked the hallway to make sure Lily wasn’t up. “We haven’t seen you lately,” she said, clearing her throat. “When will you be by…to see Lily?”
“I’ve been hunting,” he said, his voice taking on the annoying tone of an adult explaining something to a child.
“Lily’s been asking when you’re going to see her.”
“Yeah?” Billy yawned again. “Tell her I miss her, too.”
Lisa heard a woman’s voice in the background.
Tightening her fingers around the receiver, she glanced down the hallway then asked, “When are you bringing over the child support check?” Billy was two months behind.
“Hang on.” Billy’s voice cut out as if he was holding his hand over the mouthpiece. Her cheeks burned as she imagined him talking to Carm about the child support he owes her. When he came back on, all he said was, “I’ll be over later.”
“When?” Lisa thought of the new boots she had on layaway for Lily. Her old ones were too tight. “Tonight?”
“Can’t…it’s V-D day,” Billy said. A woman laughed in the background. Lisa remembered how Billy used to make toast and press a heart-shaped cookie cutter into each one. She wondered if that’s what he’d do for Carm. “I can come by Saturday. I’ll take Lily off your hands for an hour or two.”
Lisa blinked. She knew it would do no good to tell him he wasn’t doing her a favor.
“Billy?” She wanted to ask if he was watching the news, but he’d already hung up. She replaced the phone and covered her face. It was hard giving up on something familiar. Even pain.
The scraping sound of a broken muffler echoed in the quiet morning air. A beat-up white truck came around the corner and pulled up at the end of the driveway. Lisa stopped shoveling. Her older brother, Ray, sat behind the wheel. Lisa wondered why he had driven the two miles to her house. She hadn’t seen him in six months.
Ray rolled down his window. Cigarette smoke poured out into the crisp air. “You’re out early,” he said. A spitball landed near her boots.
“Yep.” She brushed her hair back and saw the spot where she had tried to get Doreen’s blood off her jacket. Her brother’s fingers nervously tapped against the edge of the steering wheel. She waited for him to tell her why he’d driven over. When he just kept looking at her, she pushed the shovel in the snow and asked,
“You watching the news?”
“About the bus?” Ray switched on the wipers to brush the melting snow off his windshield. “Dad would have beat us if we touched his guns.”
“Yeah.” Lisa eyed the empty rifle rack behind her brother’s head. She thought of Ray’s three boys.
“The world out there is a mess.” Ray lit a cigarette. “Better watch the boys on your bus.”
“They aren’t like that boy,” Lisa said, thinking of Ellie and Doreen.
“Yeah, I bet that’s what that kid’s family thought.”
Her brother had bags under his eyes. She wondered if he ever wanted to do something other than work at the mill like their father. “You going to work?”
Ray shook his head. “Nah, got let go.” He threw his cigarette, and it landed next to her boots. “You got fifty bucks I can borrow?”
Lisa stepped back. She watched the cigarette tip go from red to gray as she thought of the beauty school money she’d given to Ray. “No. Payday is Friday.” She bit her lip, wishing she hadn’t told him so much.
“How about five?” he asked, tapping a near empty pack of cigarettes.
“I’m broke.” She glanced at the worn duplex. She lived on the bottom floor. Lily deserved better.
“Well, gotta see dad. Keep your head down—wouldn’t want to see your face on the news.”
Lisa watched her brother drive away. Her fingers hurt from the cold. She picked up a shovelful of clean snow and dumped it on the still lit cigarette and Ray’s spit.
When she finished, she trudged back inside. The apartment felt warm and welcoming. It was still too early for Lily to get up, so Lisa sat down for a second cup of coffee and turned the news back on. On the screen, a dark-haired woman with two young boys smiled in front of a Christmas tree. A single mom. Lisa’s eyes filled when the reporter said the woman had died in surgery.
Lisa pulled open the shades in Lily’s room. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Her daughter snapped upright and jumped out of bed. “I hope I get the most Valentine’s Day cards in my class.”
Picking up a stuffed bear that her daughter must have thrown aside in her sleep, Lisa said, “You didn’t fill out a card for Roger.”
“He picks his nose.” Lily pulled her pink pajama top over her head. She struggled into a red sweatshirt with a heart on the front and grabbed a matching red bow to put in her hair.
Helping her daughter get her clothes on, Lisa remembered how the girls at school used to say she stunk like pig shit and how they’d laughed. “You still need to give him a card.”
“What if I’m the only one who gives him a card?”
“Then that card becomes the most important card that you hand out today.”
She smoothed back the sheets and adjusted the princess comforter. Lisa had never slept in a bed with new sheets until she was twenty. She felt happy that her daughter had such a cheerful, clean room.
After breakfast, her daughter went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Lisa stood at the counter, the junk drawer open, searching for a postage stamp. On the television, a reporter talked about school violence. Finding the near-empty booklet, she counted three stamps. She weighed the envelope addressed to her lawyer and guessed two stamps were needed. She peeled off the stamps and stuck them on the envelope. Holding the remaining stamp, Lisa studied the red roses in the design. She loved roses. The last flowers Billy gave her were goldenrods he’d picked from the field near his mother’s house. She peeled off the last stamp, put it on the envelope, and pounded her fist to make sure the sticky edges wouldn’t curl.
The news anchors were joking about Valentine’s Day. Lisa wondered how they could laugh when they had just finished saying that a mother was murdered. She opened the kitchen door, put the envelope for the lawyer into the mailbox, and then went back inside the apartment. She grabbed two pink suspension slips and started writing.
Dropping her daughter off at school with her box of bright red Valentine’s Day cards, Lisa felt a growing sense of panic as Lily blew kisses and ran down the hall to greet and hug her friends. Lisa wondered if other parents were also feeling on edge after the shooting in Connecticut.
At the bus garage, Lisa opened the side door and walked into the cold building. Mildred sat in the break room drinking coffee and watching the news. Lisa thought the older woman looked like she could drive another ten years before she’d finally retire.
Mr. Markham sat behind his desk in his office. Lisa told him about the fight, and he agreed that something had to be done. Before she could ask him what she should do, Mr. Markham grabbed a rag and said he needed to add more windshield washer fluid to one of the buses. Lisa stood in the office watching him walk away and felt a sense of anger.
On her way to pick up the middle school kids, she slowed the bus as she drove past the beauty salon. Lisa imagined wearing a black smock and listening to people who wanted the latest hairstyle. Pressing her lips together, she reached over and turned the radio dial to the news station. The reporters said no one could understand why such a quiet boy would snap.
The kids were quiet as they stepped onto the bus that morning. Ellie was the third kid on her route. The girl took the seat directly behind Lisa without having to be told. Lisa reached into her pocket and handed Ellie the test paper she’d found the day before just as Doreen stepped onto the bus. Doreen kept her head averted as she passed Ellie.
Nearing the pig farm, Lisa pulled the bus over and turned around in her seat to face the back. The pig stench seemed stronger in the freezing morning air. Kids complained about the smell.
She waited for them to give her their full attention.
Lisa waved a stack of pink suspension slips in the air. “No more warnings,” she said. She stared at each child’s face. She stopped at Doreen’s. Her nose was red and grotesque.
“Aren’t you going to suspend her?” Doreen yelled.
Lisa met Ellie’s pale green eyes. She saw the girl was shaking. “No, I’m not going to suspend you.”
“But she hit me.” Doreen’s voice sounded stuffy.
“Yes,” Lisa agreed. “I know.”
“You have to suspend her.”
Lisa thought of the bus driver who’d died that morning.
“I’m not saying what Ellie did was right,” Lisa said, aware that every child was finally listening to her. “But she was pushed. Not just by Doreen, but by everyone on this bus. No one helped her.”
“But,” Doreen cried. “She punched my nose!”
“Doreen, you pushed Ellie in a thousand ways,” Lisa said through stiff lips. “If I suspend Ellie, then I’m going to suspend you.” Lisa waved the pink slips high in the air.
“That’s not right,” Doreen complained.
“Shut up, Doreen,” a boy in the middle of the bus shouted.
Another boy joined in. “Yeah, shut up.”
A few kids laughed nervously.
Lisa cleared her throat instead of smiling. She had wondered if the shooting in Connecticut would change how Mr. Markham handled things, but she knew that dealing with Doreen was up to her. Lisa called Doreen’s name and gave her a pink slip. She had written a warning. She told her the next time she would be suspended at least a week. Doreen stomped to the back of the bus. Lisa folded Ellie’s slip in half and handed it to her. The girl’s fingers shook as she gripped the pink paper.
As she turned back to start the bus, she looked up and saw Doreen sitting with her face pressed against the window. Pulling back onto the road, Lisa calculated that in two hours she’d be at Lily’s school handing out juice and cookies.
The bus rose to the top of the hill. The small town looked pretty, like a postcard, with the snow soft and clean. Holding the steering wheel in one hand, she turned the radio dial in search of a station playing a love song.
Checking the rearview mirror, she caught her breath at the slight, tender curve in Ellie Heron’s parted lips. The pink slip was clutched to the girl’s chest. On it, Lisa had written information about the part-time job and Mr. Markham’s telephone number. Lisa smiled behind her sunglasses and turned up the volume so the kids in the back of the bus could hear the music.
Trish Perrault earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and works as an adjunct professor. Her stories have been published in Snowbound – Best New England Crime Stories 2017, The Lindenwood Review (May 2018) and The Writing Disorder (April 2018). Trish lives with her family just south of the Adirondacks.