When I was in middle school, I rode Bus #9 every day. We lived “out in the country” which means my family had land just beyond the city that we paid other people to mow for us. A school bus seemed exciting and Disney-like, but it was really just an introduction to my current life of drugs and mental illness.
Our bus driver was Jake/Jack– a man who alternated between these two names, depending on whether he was in a good mood or a bad mood. I sat amongst the cool kids in the back, though I wasn’t one of them. Laura, a tall girl with hips, once offered me a cigarette. I declined, and was thus assumed to be uninterested when she graduated to selling weed out of her zippered CD case. JakeJack either didn’t notice, or he didn’t mind. Of course, he had a soft spot for all of the pretty girls and would occasionally bring them tiny iced cakes.
“A beautiful cake for a beautiful girl,” he would say.
I was far too frizzy and bespectacled to ever qualify for baked goods, but I was not immune to the paper he plastered all over the bus one afternoon. We climbed in like normal and were amazed to see every surface—including the windows—was covered in printer paper with different languages written on them. No one spoke Italian or Russian or Portuguese, but he refused to translate for us.
“It is poetry that you whisper in the bedroom,” he said with a wink.
This was the sort of behavior we expected when he was Jake, which was most of the time. When he was Jack, there was no anticipating his next move. One afternoon we hit the same curb that we always hit but instead of continuing to drive, JakeJack stopped the bus in the middle of the street. We watched the cars divert around us as he pulled a metal pipe from beneath his seat, jumped off the bus, and began beating the side of it.
I told my Mom what had happened, but she brushed me off. I was only 12 at the time, and hardly a real person with anything interesting to say.
JakeJack made up for these erratic mood swings by performing selfless works of service to random members of the community. Every Thursday morning we’d all be late to school because he’d stop to pick up a young couple with twin babies. We would then drive the kids to daycare and drop the parents off at their two different places of employment.
This became part of our routine, which is why it was particularly troubling when JakeJack suddenly deviated from the route on a day that was not Thursday. It was a blustery winter morning and we already knew he was in a bad mood because he’d shut the radio off in the middle of “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” We’d even offered him $5 bribes, which was the going rate to pick the music station. But he’d ignored us.
JakeJack drove in silence. The bus weaved to the opposite side of town and pulled down a long and sinister road. It was a road we’d all seen a thousand times, but no one had ever had the nerve to turn onto it. It was a dark and scary place that no one liked to talk about. It was the local mental hospital.
We cowered in unseatbelted fear as he stopped in front of an old decrepit house that was most definitely haunted. He put the bus in park and pulled the fire alarm.
“Everybody out,” he yelled.
We swung open the fire exit at the back and took turns jumping out. The road was graveling where we landed and beyond it was nothing but patchy grass and wildly overgrown elm trees. The last child jumped from the bus and we watched as JakeJack shut the door and walked back down the aisle. We waited for him to come out and count us, so the drill would be over.
Instead, he drove away.
We stood there on the front lawn of the insane asylum, huddled together without any idea of what to do. There were no cell phones and there was no way any of us were going to knock on the door of the creepy old house.
Luckily, JakeJack returned before we’d had a chance to scatter or get eaten by any sort of cannibalistic psychopath. He was probably only gone for a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. He laughed as we desperately climbed back onto the bus, our eyes wide with terror. We had only barely survived this brush with insanity.
Twelve years passed, and I still thought of the mental hospital as a dark and scary place. The gravelly road had been paved but the old haunted house still loomed over an ill kempt lawn. Its windows were boarded up and the screens hung in tatters, flapping in the wind like Spanish moss.
I couldn’t help applying for a job at such a charming place, and quickly learned that cannibalistic psychopaths are a rarity. The people you really have to watch out for are the other employees.
Much as I enjoyed the fond memories of JakeJack and Bus #9, I decided it would be part of my job to completely gut and renovate that old haunted house. It went from a formidable old relic with office carpeting, peeling wallpaper, and a colony of skunks in the basement, to a charming piece of history with shining hardwood floors and gorgeous crown molding.
I remember thinking JakeJack must have been insane to leave a bunch of children alone on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, but perhaps he was just very perceptive. All along, it was right where I was meant to be.
Do you have any school bus horror stories? What’s the biggest misconception you’ve overcome? Have you ever realized something insignificant actually came to play a huge role in your life?
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