I just wanted to get home, it hadn't been a good day. I totally blanked on the due date of my essay on Wordsworth and Ms. Sloane already said she would be docking points for handing it in late. So I had an evening of writing an essay I knew I couldn't get a good grade on, no matter how hard I worked on it, to look forward to.
I got on the bus, tapped in and got a seat on the second floor. I set an alarm on my phone and glanced around at the other passengers. There was only an old man in a tweed jacket a few rows back and a woman with a ponytail sat all the way at the front. I pulled up my hoodie, leaned against the window and closed my eyes. I figured I'd be pulling an all-nighter that night and wanted to use my 45 minute journey to squeeze in a nap.
I was about to nod off when this skinny, nervous looking kid jolted me awake by crashing onto the seat in front of me and throwing down his backpack in by his feet. He was sweating and started quickly tapping his foot the moment he sat down. He must have been about fifteen. He nervously glanced out the window every time the bus made a turn. Only after the bus had made two more stops did he begin to catch his breath. He spread out across the two seats and tilted his head back with his eyes closed. He started taking long deep breaths, in through his nose and out through his mouth. I got the sense he was used to calming himself down like this.
An atmosphere of calm slowly re-asserted itself in the bus. I leaned against the window again and closed my eyes. I could feel the bus slowing down at another stop when I heard the kid shoot up and slam both hands against the window. He eyes were open wide with terror, palms against the glass, as his eyes focused on something outside. I followed his gaze to a trio of slightly older boys in black jackets stepping onto the bus.
The kid's breathing sped up and came in large panicked gulps. He grabbed his backpack, ran into the aisle and froze. He must have realised there was nowhere for him to go. He was trapped. He sat back down and backed up against the window. He tried to make himself as small possible. He folded his arms right into stomach and kept his gaze aimed squarely at the floor. I could hear he had started quietly sobbing.
I heard the stomping of what sounded like three pairs of hiking boots making their way up the stairs. With every step, I could see the kid making himself smaller and smaller. If it were up to him, he probably would have chosen to blink out of existence forever right there and then.
The trio of boys reached the top of the stairs and stepped into the aisle. They couldn't have been more than a year older than the kid but they looked rough. The one spearheading the trio had a face full of acne and facial peach fuzz which he wore as a badge of pride. His cruel eyes scanned the bus and his mouth twisted into a grisly grin when they landed on the kid. He confidently strode towards the kid and his gormless lackeys followed in step. The boy leader leaned over the kid, cornering him into his seat.
“Oi, Jess,” he said in an obnoxiously high-pitched voice. “Didn't we say you couldn't ride this bus anymore?”
Jess didn't look up, he kept staring at the same spot on the floor. His expressions was completely vacant, it was as if he wasn't even there. He had transported his mind to a completely different place. Maybe it was a happy place, some kind of memory he could easily slip into. He knew he couldn't stay there for ever. But spending even a tenth of a second longer in that place rather than here was a victory.
“I'm talking to you!” The boy slapped Jess around the head. Jess looked up at him. “Well?”
“If, if I, if I don't take the bus,” Jess mumbled, “I get...home late and my, my mum gets mad --”
“Oh mum, gets mad? Mum, gets mad does she? Are you a little mummy's boy?” The boy guffawed. His lackeys looked at each other and stupidly giggled as well. The boy then abruptly stopped laughing and grabbed Jess by the collar. “We told you, we gave you simple instructions. Now we have to teach you a lesson now, don't we?”
Jess turned and gave me a panicked look. I immediately averted my eyes and and looked out the window. I felt so useless. I knew I should do something. I knew I should step in. I knew the boys were counting on us not doing anything. The boy must have noticed Jess' silent cry for help because he said:
“He's not helping you, is he?” When I heard those last two words, I realised the boy was looking at me, to see how I'd respond. I turn my head to look at him and sure enough, there he was, staring me down, daring me to intervene.
I tried to hold his gaze for as long as I could. As if holding my ground for a few seconds before pathetically giving in was a sign of courage. I imagined myself standing up. I imagined myself swinging my backpack into his face before he had time to react. I had bought a six-pack of Coca-Cola before getting on the bus so my backpack was pretty heavy. I imagined myself screaming at them to fuck off. I imagined the shock and awe of the backpack assault, combined with the screaming, frightening them into fleeing the bus. They would realise afterwards they probably could have taken me but by then the bus would have pulled away already. I imagined Jess looking up to me in relieved gratitude, tears still streaming down his face. I imagined waving my hand at him like it's no big deal and settling back into my seat to resume my nap.
But instead I looked down at my knees. I couldn't bear to look as the three boys tore Jess out of his seat and dragged him kicking and screaming down the aisle. We could all hear the terror in Jess' anguished cries as they carried him down the stairs. My limbs felt like they were submerged in ice.
I turned back to look at the old man in the tweed jacket. He was steadfastly staring out of the window. I looked at the woman with the pony tail at the front. She hadn't even turned around.