The Number Seven Bus
One day last spring, I decided to skip school. It was a warm, sunny day, one of the first nice days of the year, and the air smelled like fresh-cut grass and lilacs—much too great a day to spend at Hiram Adams Middle School, slaving away for a bunch of sadistic teachers who loved to make kids feel stupid and worthless. Besides, I hadn’t studied for my biology test or written my book report for language arts. It made sense to hang out at the lakefront, doing stunts on my skateboard, instead of sitting in a classroom.
Sometime in the afternoon, the weather changed, the way it often does in March. The sky darkened, the wind blew, and the rain came cutting through the air sideways, soaking me to the skin. I grabbed my skateboard and headed for the mall. I’d dry out playing a few rounds of Storm Blaster at the arcade and then take the bus home. If I timed it right, I’d get there before Mom came back from work. She’d never guess I hadn’t been in school.
It would probably have worked if I hadn’t lost track of time. Once I start playing a game like Storm Blaster, I totally forget the rest of the world, especially if I’m on a winning streak. I’m in the game. I’m part of it, breathing the same air as the hero, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, doing what he does. Mom often said the world could end and I’d miss it completely.
Anyway, the next thing I knew, five hours had vanished. It was nine thirty, and the mall was closing. Now I was in for it. I hadn’t called Mom, who would be a nervous wreck—and furious as well.
On my way out of the arcade, I reached into my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t where I usually keep it, so I checked every pocket twice before I remembered I’d left it at home, charging. What was I going to tell Mom? I’d gone to the library? I’d stayed after school to watch a basketball game? I’d gone to Mike’s house to play Storm Blaster on his Nintendo Switch? I was thinking so hard I bumped right into this guy who was also leaving the arcade.
“Sorry,” I said, taking a step to the side.
“Be more careful next time,” he said in a menacing voice.
I opened my mouth to come back with a smart remark but changed my mind when I realized who he was. I’d seen him in the arcade before, always alone, playing in a dead earnest way that made me seem like a goof-off. Strange-looking too—tall and gaunt and ashy pale, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, his dark hair in a long ponytail. He had sleeve tattoos on both arms. He was definitely one weird dude, the kind who belongs to a motorcycle gang, the kind who’s not quite normal—the kind you don’t want to mess with.
Gripping my skateboard a little tighter, I edged away and headed for the bus stop outside the mall’s west entrance. It was dark, not raining hard but misting just enough to blur everything. The mall and the parking lot were both emptying fast. I glanced over my shoulder. No sign of the guy from the arcade.
A normal-looking kid was sitting on the bench, obviously waiting for a bus.
“Has Number Seven come yet?” I asked him.
“You just missed it, man,” he said, looking at his watch. “There should be another one in about ten minutes though. They come pretty regularly at closing time.”
That wasn’t great news. The temperature had dropped way down since I’d left home. I was freezing to death in my stupid short-sleeved T-shirt.
The boy got on Number Eight, and I sat on the bench alone, but not for long. By the time good old Number Seven pulled into sight, I’d been joined by three or four other people. We all crowded through the door, joking about the change in the weather and stuff like that. I dropped into a seat near the back. With any luck, I’d be home in half an hour. That gave me thirty minutes to come up with a good story for Mom.
Just before the driver shut the door, the guy from the arcade got on the bus. He sat down across the aisle from me, one row up. He wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, but I kept looking at the back of his head. I can’t explain it. There was just something so strange about him.
After about five minutes, he turned and caught me looking at him. I’d never seen eyes like his. They were almost colorless, making it hard to tell where the iris ended and the white began. His pupils were black dots, smaller than a period at the end of a sentence printed in the tiniest type. Worst of all, his unblinking stare cut right through my eyes to the thoughts hidden in my head. Or at least it felt that way.
He sneered and turned back around, allowing me to look away at last. My heart pounded, my breath came in ragged little gasps, and my mouth filled with hot spit the way it does just before you throw up. Pressing my face against the window, I peered outside. We were two blocks from the corner where I always got off. Never had Pearce Street looked darker, lonelier—not a person in sight, not many streetlights, mainly because my friends and I had gone on a spree with our air rifles and used them for target practice.
I glanced at the guy. Just as I’d feared, he was half turned toward me again, watching me. Before he looked away, a smirk lifted the corner of his mouth.
What if he followed me off the bus? I had five long, dark blocks to walk before I reached my house.
When the driver stopped at Pearce Street, two or three people got off, but I decided to stay where I was. At the end of the line, the guy would make his exit—he’d have to. Once he was gone, I’d sweet-talk the driver into letting me ride back to Pearce Street. I was a kid. No adult would make me walk three or four miles in the dark. Of course, I’d get home even later, but Mom was a whole lot easier to face than this weird guy, whoever he was.
When we reached the terminus, only the guy and I were on the bus. The driver opened the door, and the guy got off. He glanced back once like he was surprised not to see me following him. I grinned and waved, pleased I’d fooled him, and he walked off into the shadows.
“Hey, kid.” The driver had gotten to his feet and was frowning at me. “This is the end of the line. Didn’t you hear me? Everybody off.”
I walked down the aisle, looking out the windows to scan the darkness. No sign of him. But then, he’d be hard to see dressed in those black clothes.
“I missed my stop,” I said, giving him my most charming smile, the one I saved for special occasions in the principal’s office. “Fell asleep or something. If it’s okay, sir, I’ll ride back with you as far as Pearce Street.”