Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Yellow Bus
ynthia and Sophie were inseparable since first grade. They could almost pass for Siamese Twins since they seemed uncannily joined at the mind. Often, they thought a lot alike. In some cases, they even finished each other's sentences.
A chance meeting in the schoolyard at the tender age of six was the beginning of a beautiful as well as loyal friendship. It happened when Sophie was busy fighting Bobby Grossman just as Cynthia's hopscotch stone ricocheted off the blacktop schoolyard and hit Bobby squarely in the back of the head. The wiry little runt was wrestling with Sophie trying to snatch her lunch time snack away from her. It was a bitter struggle that she was on the verge of losing even though she far outweighed him. He jerked his hand loose from Sophie's wrist to grab the back of his head and she was home free. Bobby was left holding his bloody brown hair and crying like a big baby from the wound inflicted by the sharp edge of the stone which Cynthia had slammed down on block number five in a fit of temper. She wasn't used to losing at anything, but her long thin legs often got in the way when playing hopscotch, forcing her to land on the lines.
"Oh, thank you ..." said Sophie.
"... very much," finished Cynthia. "Even if it was an accident ..."
"... he really deserved it."
Sophie was upset by the fighting that had been forced upon her, and Cynthia was too, by the fact that she'd accidentally hurt someone. Both girls were off and running at the mouth and chattering nervously at each other like two squirrels on an electric wire. Cynthia grabbed Sophie by the arm propelling her toward Miss McGovern who had schoolyard lunch duty that day.
"C'mon ..." said Cynthia.
"... we've got to tell her," said Sophie.
"Even if he is ..."
"... a little brat."
"He might need stitches ..."
"... cuz he bled a lot."
The two girls chattered their way over to the teacher to spill their guts, praying that they wouldn't get into trouble.
It ended with Bobby being sent to the hospital to stitch up his scalp. Cynthia and Sophie shared the winning trophy -- the Hershey bar -- and sealed their new found friendship on the school steps. The two girls also formed a bond with Miss McGovern that day, which continued when all three moved along to Arcadia Middle School, and for all of them, including Miss McGovern, it was a promotion.
The girls grew even closer over the next few years, always sharing a seat on the bus and sitting next to each other at lunch every day. They traded and shared their food, more so on Cynthia's part than on Sophie's. Cynthia's mother packed huge lunches hoping to fatten up her daughter, who was bordering on anorexia; Sophie's mom, on the other hand, packed rabbit food in hopes of slimming down her daughter. Most of the time Sophie's food ended up in Cynthia's mouth and vice versa. For that reason Cynthia remained thin and Sophie shopped for clothes in the "chubbette department."
They not only shared lunches but also their innermost secrets, shortcomings, and little idiosyncrasies, such as when Sophie continuously tugged at the hips of her jeans, and Cynthia lifting her chin higher into the air and tossing her long dark hair whenever she gave a wrong answer in class. Cynthia helped Sophie with her homework and whispered answers to her in class. Sophie in turn was her faithful friend and gopher. At least ten times a night they emailed one another on the computer now that, for kids, monopolizing the phone, except for the cell phone, had become all but obsolete. And that's how homework got done. If Cynthia wrote, "Go get a pencil," her friend with the short blond pageboy grinned easily and emailed right back, "I was just thinking the same thing."
Therefore, it was quite natural that the two girls were seated adjacent to each other as they discussed plans to escape from the white van and Mason Munford's clutches, just as Tommy Difford had done.* * *
There was no way to get rid of the acrid smell in the "vomit van." No amount of detergent or hosing would ever do it, so all the kids were glad when they were loaded in still another van, this one looking like a big brown UPS vehicle. With Munford at the wheel, the new van pulled away, leaving behind creepy Blind Marvin, his scar-faced friend, and the smelly old white van. What was it with the hairless man -- Blind Marvin had called him Mr. Hoerth -- with all those unhealed burns on his face, anyway? He'd walked up to the van like some sort of cop, but he never did anything, just stood there. No one minded sitting on the floor or on the boxes in the clean new vehicle because the air felt sanitized in comparison to the old one. They were happy for the leisure time they had to freshen up at Blind Marvin's cozy little rest stop and just as happy to leave, although Mason Munford had never let them out of his sight. But they still didn't know where they were being taken and why.
Munford was not only glad he had arranged with Cousin Marvin to have the UPS van waiting, but he was also relieved to be wearing a change of clothes, a brown uniform which came with the van.
"I think Mr. Munford forgot to ..." said Cynthia.
Said Sophie ... "lock the back door. It's loose, all right."
"The next time the van stops, we'll ..."
"... head out the back."
"Do you think we should ..."
"Of course we should take the others."
"Then pass the word along," said Cynthia. "But silently as the lambs."
Munford's mood quickly soured when he noticed the gas tank hovering near empty. The damned tank should have been full. Blind Cousin Marvin would pay for that. He shifted continuously in his seat looking for a gas station ahead. Fifteen minutes later he turned the van into a Coastal station and hopped out to fill up the tank, hoping not to attract too much attention.
"Don't anybody make a move till I get back or I'll slap ya upside the head," he yelled over his shoulder. He made a production of locking the door behind him.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Sophie and Cynthia shoved open the unlocked back door and nudged out Darlene and Robert, who'd been sitting beside them. They expected all the others to follow, but Robert tripped over a black cardboard box and fell to his knees as he got out. The fact he'd graduated from "Bobby" to "Robert" over the years, hadn't made him any less of a klutz. The box landed unnoticed under the van as Darlene yanked him up and pulled him along, trying to catch up with Sophie and Cynthia, who were already half way to the safety of a next door Dairy Queen store.
At the pump a furious Munford saw the escape, and ran to the van's back door to secure it before anyone else could get out. Damned careless that back door had been left unlocked, something else Blind Marvin would pay for. He decided to cut his losses after he saw the number of cars, including a big white stretch limo, parked at the Dairy Queen. Too many people there to risk going after the escapees. He finished filling the tank, and not bothering to pay the fuel bill, hopped back into the van and took off down the highway.
Sophia and Cynthia ran into the ice cream store, while Darlene dragged Robert into a different hiding place, the limo, the fancy kind that took high rollers to the casinos. Suddenly, the limo's driver, licking an ice cream cone, climbed behind the wheel and leisurely drove off, not knowing he had stowaways in the back, two kids crouched down on their knees, nose to nose on the floor. The driver, a well-meaning high school dropout from Baltimore, was to pick up some well-heeled gamblers and take them to Atlantic City until they lost enought to want to return home.
In the Dairy Queen, Sophie and Cynthia saw through the window the UPS van with Munford at the wheel picking up speed as it moved down the highway. But at the same time they spotted another vehicle, a more familiar one.
"Look, there's our bus," Sophie yelled.
"It's Bus 132, all right," said Cynthia. "I know it by the angel picture in the front."
Sure enough, the yellow bus with the ethereal manufacturer's logo came rattling, clanking, and jolting down the highway. The driver looked mighty young, maybe a kid. In fact, the driver looked a lot like Tommy Difford.
Back at the gas station the indignant clerk dialed the local cops to report a UPS van that had taken off without paying for its gas. And near the pump where the van had been was the black cardboard box that had tumbled from the van as the four kids made their escape.* * *
Mason Munford was visibly upset. He was down to nineteen hostages now that four kids had escaped from the van at the gas station, and a deep funk settled over him like a soupy London fog. He was way past anger, however. His mood was more like a dark storm looming over the horizon as he listlessly stared through the windshield. It had begun to rain and this drove him even deeper into his brooding frame of mind. The rhythm of the windshield wipers methodically beating out a tune --- thwack thwack, thwack thwack, thwack thwack --- began to hypnotize him. It reminded him of a metronome keeping the tempo of a piano melody. Night driving was bad enough, but with the added stress of the rain, he became morose. His outlook was as bleak as the weather.
He reached over to turn on the radio, hoping to lift his spirits and to drown out Casper's annoying hisses, his orders. Munford always tuned in to the same station, WLXR. The Night Rider played the oldies every night at nine o'clock. The soothing, low-pitched voice spoke in hushed tones close to the microphone announcing the tunes and carrying on a one way conversation with the listener. It was as if the mysterious voice was speaking directly to an audience of one. No one else mattered but Munford. The Night Rider never failed to lull Munford into a calm state of euphoria, something Casper never did.
The voice announced the nostalgic song and Munford listened as Andy Williams crooned the lyrics to "Moon River." Mason reminisced about the night that he met the love of his life, his wife, Betty. His eyes welled up as he remembered how closely they held each other swaying to the music. It was just about the same time he'd whacked that guy in the alley, but not the last. He blinked back the tears just as the oncoming headlights began to resemble twinkling stars.
Thwack thwack, thwack thwack, thwack thwack.
He was deep in thought when he realized the melody had faded and he missed the announcement of the next song. His reverie folded over like the page of a book into the middle of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly singing "True Love." His thoughts roamed to his wedding day as he and Betty danced their first dance together as man and wife. He was still floating on the strains of the music when it ended much too soon and the Night Rider broke for a commercial.
Commercials were a big waste of time. Nobody ever listened to them anyway.
Thwack thwack, thwack thwack, thwack thwack.
He turned his attention back to the road. The billboard on the side of the road advertised the Carson & Barnes Mammoth Five Ring Circus in giant red letters on a yellow background. There was a huge white clown face with a big red nose and a ring of red hair on the upper right hand side of the ad. Munford blinked again and caught the scene out of the side of his eye just as the music returned with an unexpected intensity. The soft voice of the announcer had faded away and the Righteous Brothers were belting out their old hit tune, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." It blared out so loud and clear that he was jolted out of his reverie. Munford actually loved the song, except for the fact it was playing on the radio when his wife died.
"I told ya to keep an eye on him, Harris. Now there's gonna be trouble."
"Ooooh, Casper, I did the best I could. Who expected him to see that billboard? He was so deep in thought."
"Make him turn the radio off stupid. You know we hate that song."
I never get any respect, Munford thought to himself. I like that song and I don't like being called stupid. The radio stays.
"Harris, you got things under control yet? Get that clown idea outta his mind."
"Ooooh, Casper, I'm trying, but you know how pushy he is."
It was far too late. The egression of Jake had already transpired like an eclipse of the moon.
"Move over fellas. Jake the Fake is back on the scene and we're gonna have some fun. It's time ta go ta da circus."
Jake was still another one of Munford's alters, and when Jake came out, there was always a bit of trouble and a lot of fun. He liked to gamble and when the chips were down, a little cheating never bothered him. Sometimes he got caught and when he was on the run and needed a place to hide, he always picked the circus.
Mason Munford loved the circus as a child and as far back as he could remember, he longed to be a part of it. The thrill of the lights, the animals and the acrobats gave him the chills. The call of the ringmaster, the smell of peanuts, popcorn and cotton candy -- he loved it all. He especially loved the clowns. They always had a smile on their faces, unlike his own.
Thank God for Jake the Fake, he thought. I'm finally in for some fun. He decided to put off doing what he had to do to the kids, poor things. Visions of how he'd look in his clown suit swirled around the fog in his mind. The tall pointed hat drooping forward like the letter "C" with a red fluffy ball on the end bouncing between his eyes; the red light bulb nose stuck in the middle of the stark white face and black diamond shapes painted over the eyes; the huge red smiling mouth; the big white pleated collar at the top of the shiny metallic gold; green, pink, red and blue diamonds splashed all over the suit which matched the hat; the oversized white gloves and floppy black shoes all made him smile genuinely for the first time in years. He felt a rush of adrenaline.
It was good to have Jake back, and it was about time. Casper and Harris weren't that much fun. Munford turned in his seat and faced the kids.
"Git ready gang. We're goin' ta da circus."
click to go to the next chapter
Bucks County Writers Workshop