Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Yellow Bus
t was a school bus to everyone else, but to Mason Munford it was his office. It was where he worked a split shift, morning and afternoons, five days a week, except for the usual school holidays and the long summer vacations, and even then, for youth excursions, he drove the bus to places like Jim Thorpe and Valley Forge. On the floor by his side, Mr. Munford stashed a cheap briefcase. In it was his usual egg salad sandwich, a thermos of milk, an apple, and a Colt .45, loaded.
The bus was one of twelve owned by the district operating the Arcadia Middle School, so it wasn't actually Mr. Munford's although he considered it his. In fact, Mr. Munford was allowed to take it home with him on weekdays, which precluded his having to go to and from the district garage to pick up the bus and return it. His neighbors despised the sight of the huge jaundiced vehicle parked in Mr. Munford's driveway, which they felt blighted the neighborhood like a dumpster, but he'd given up on his neighbors long ago, so to hell with them.
The bus carried up to forty-two passengers. It had been built three years before in Bluffton, Ohio, by a manufacturer that utilized a GM chassis, eight-point-one liter gasoline engine, forty gallon fuel tank, five-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, and four-wheel antilock power breaks. The interior was ninety inches wide, one-hundred-fifteen inches high, three-hundred-sixteen inches long, and the entrance step twelve inches from the ground. Those were the specs, but so what? The important thing was the bus was chrome yellow.
Aside from driving the bus, Mr. Munford had one hobby. He collected replicas of antique firearms, which, courtesy of the NRA's Congressional admirers, were exempt from laws requiring background checks. Mr. Munford wouldn't have survived a background investigation because of a manslaughter conviction, for which he served eight years in prison forty years before. While his guns were replicas they were no less deadly.
As far as anyone but his family knew, Mr. Munford got into no further trouble after his release from prison, and labored quietly for a machine tool manufacturer until his retirement. After his wife died of ovarian cancer, however, Mr. Munford's behavior became increasingly bizarre, a source of concern for his daughter and only child, Gloria Munford Needham. He was prone to irritability, was sometimes seen talking to himself, and he frequently clashed with his neighbors, who were outraged by the floodlights he'd installed on the parameter of his lot. Burning through the night, the floodlights gave his house the appearance of a circus carnival.
Gloria's husband, Charles, was the assistant superintendent of the Arcadia School District, and coincidentally it was his responsibility to supervise the school bus fleet and its drivers, most of whom were retirees like Mr. Munford or housewives who had time to kill. It was through Charles and his official position that Mr. Munford had gotten his job, and it was also why his checkered past had been overlooked. Charles dismissed Gloria's worries about her father, and pointed out that Mr. Munford's driving record was faultless, not even a fine for an expired parking meter.
For a man of his not-all-that-advanced years Mr. Munford was in superb physical condition. He'd kept busy and in shape, and since his retirement had taken a number of geezer jobs. He'd worked at a 7-Eleven making sandwiches, bagged groceries at the Acme, took orders at McDonald's, but the job he liked best was driving the yellow bus.
Operating it gave him even more power than when he'd shot what's-his-name outside that bar so many years before. Not only was he able to dominate the normally unruly seventh and eighth graders who rode his bus, but on the highway Mr. Munford was firmly in command. When he stopped the bus, its warning lights flashing, traffic in each direction instantly came to a halt. Mr. Munford was never in a hurry after he paused to admit or discharge his passengers. If traffic was impatient for the bus to start up again, let 'em wait, the bastards.
Mr. Munford cared little for kids, although he once liked his only child, Gloria, but not so much now, after her mother's death, with Gloria always trying to pry into his personal affairs, none of her damned business. On the school bus he'd occasionally stalk the center aisle demanding absolute quiet and order from his young passengers. Several times he'd threaten particularly noisy children with immediate expulsion from the bus, which wasn't permitted, but he'd never had to carry out his threat. Mr. Munford was a two-hundred pounder with biceps to match. The kids were afraid of him, and did what they were told. Since he'd lost most of his hair by the time he turned thirty, his custom was to shave what was left, so his dome, almost perfectly round, often reflected the light like a crystal.
On this particular morning, Mr. Munford completed his pickups, but with his bus filled with kids he had another destination in mind, and it wasn't school. It was a fine autumn day, warm enough for a sweater, but with a tang of crispness in the air. Summer was dying but that was all right, because the coming of fall was a form of purification.
Mikey Deever thought it unusual when Mr. Munson turned onto the bypass heading south. Most of the kids didn't notice, but Mikey was more clever than the rest. As the miles passed and the geography became strange, Mikey started to worry, not so much about the fact the bus was headed in the wrong direction, but that he'd be late for a conference with his homeroom teacher, Miss McGovern, who'd ordered him in early to discuss a supposed infraction, a meeting that might head off a note to his father. One of the reasons Mikey Deever was more aware than his classmates was that his dad was a cop, a somewhat jaded detective who tended to speculate about the worst in everything and everyone, and it had rubbed off on his son. When he was six Mikey's mom was killed in an automobile accident, so he was always on sentry for a woman who might replace her, if that were possible, and sometimes he wondered if Miss McGovern could be the one. She and his dad were about the same age.
It took a degree of courage for an eighth-grader, but Mikey got out of his seat and approached Mr. Munford tentatively.
"What's on your mind, kid?" Mr. Munford kept his eyes on the road.
"We're going in the wrong direction. School's the other way."
"We're not going to school today, kid."
"Where are we going?"
"It's an excursion, kid. Now go back to your seat and sit down."
"Mr. Munford, sir, I don't have ... I mean, I don't think any of us have permission slips from our parents to go on an excursion."
"What's the matter, kid? You don't want to have some fun?"
"Sure I do, but ..."
"Then go back and take your seat."
"Mr. Munford, sir, the kids on the bus ... They're going to get scared."
"Hell they are. What's your name, anyway?"
"Then go sit down, Mikey Deever, and listen to this." Mr. Munford picked up the bus microphone and spoke into it. "Kids, I forgot to tell you. The principal's authorized a special fun trip for everyone today. How ya'll like to go to Baltimore? Or maybe Washington?"
All the kids, except for Mikey, shouted yea, hooray, whoopee. Mikey crept back to his seat. He wasn't satisfied with Mr. Munford's explanation. Mikey had a cell phone. His dad insisted Mikey carry it with him at all times, even if it meant turning it off while in school, which was the rule. He removed the phone from his pocket.
Mr. Munford had seen immediately Mikey Deever was a troublemaker. What other kid on the bus would have the guts to challenge him like that? In his rear view mirror he watched Mikey return to his seat, take something from his pocket, and put it to his ear. Mr. Munford was shrewd, and he'd already put Mikey Deever first on his enemies' list. He spoke into the mike. "Mikey Deever, come to the front of the bus. To the front. Now."
Mikey complied before he was able to dial his dad.
Mr. Munford, turning off the mike, said, "Give me that cell phone, you little son of a bitch. Give it to me now. Or do I have to stop this bus and kick your ass?"
Mikey was scared. Even his dad scared him sometimes. He did as he was told. Mr. Munford snatched the phone and threw it into his briefcase, cracked open at the top.
"Now go back to your seat and don't say a damned word to anyone." As Mikey returned to his seat, Mr. Munford toggled the mike switch again. "Hey, kids, let's make this trip fun. Let's do a sing-a-long. Does everyone know 'On Top of Old Smokey'?"***
At Arcadia Middle School, Mikey's teacher, Miss McGovern, was annoyed when Mikey hadn't shown up as scheduled. Then, when nearly half of her class failed to appear after the bell, she became worried. Where were they? All those empty seats. It wasn't normal. She left the class to go to the administration office to speak to the principal, but in the hall she happened to meet Charles Needham, the district's assistant superintendent.
"You seem out of breath, Miss McGovern."
"Mr. Needham, I was going to tell the principal, but I might as well tell you. Half of my homeroom class is missing."
"I don't know what you mean."
"I mean the kids haven't arrived."
Charles waved it off. "Their bus must have broken down. I'll check into it. Go back to your class, Miss McGovern. I'll take care of things."
Pompus, Miss McGovern thought. The man was insufferable. And yet there was something about him....
Charles Needham casually walked to the administration office, where he went through the motions of determining that eleven of the twelve buses assigned to the school had arrived, the drivers having signed in. But where was the twelfth, the one driven by Mason Munford, Charles' own father-in-law? Normally, the bus hauled thirty-two students, all attending the middle school. A quick computer check gave him a printout of the names of the kids usually assigned to that bus.
There was no way to reach the vehicle. The drivers had wanted a car phone installed in each bus, but that hadn't happened because the school board was balking at apportioning the funds, being preoccupied by a bitter fight with the teachers union over the board's attempt to slash teachers health benefits by a third. Charles procrastinated, telling the office staff he was sure it was a simple mechanical failure -- but when the bus failed to arrive after another hour he finally picked up the phone to dial the police, not the 911 number, but the local one, because he didn't want to make the call seem like an emergency. The officer who happened to answer was Lieutenant Robert Deever, Mikey's dad.
"I'm sure this is nothing, Lieutenant Deever, but one of our school buses seems to have vanished."
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Bucks County Writers Workshop