I don’t know how many other kids on the trip were nervous about it. But I was. As I’ve said, I’d never been away from home (without Father) in my life. And that was a worry. I’d also never been on a long bus ride. Yes, we’d taken short class field trips—like that horrifying one we’d taken in sixth grade to Middle Island in the Ohio River.[i] But those trips had been on school buses—those comforting (if not comfortable) yellow vehicles I’d seen on the streets for as long as I could remember.
But this was a chartered bus—long and sleek with a driver in a uniform. Outside, as he helped me put my bag in the luggage area below the passenger compartment—the storage doors lifted like wings (oh, if we could only fly to Niagara Falls!)—I thought he seemed like a nice enough guy. Short and wiry. Not too old. Relaxed. Joking with other kids. (“Planning on being away a month or so?” I heard him say to several others as he easily slung their massive cases into the compartment.) With me and my measly baggage he said only, “Finally, someone with a little sense in her head.”
“That’s debatable,” I heard Gil say behind me. I turned. He, too, had a single small case. In the gray pre-dawn his white face looked even more ghostly—his eyes, though, glowing with the excitement he must have been feeling about at last seeing something he’d longed to see for most of his life. We smiled at each other.
“Don’t tease Vickie,” I heard another voice—a voice that sounded just like his. And I saw his mother hand her case to the driver, as well.
“Good morning, Mrs. Bysshe,” I said, surprised to see her.
I’d learned at the science fair that she not only sounded like her son—she looked just like Gil, as well, though an older, healthier version. They were about the same height and had in their eyes that glowing intelligence. That’s something you can’t fake, you know? The intelligence in your eyes. It’s there or it isn’t. No faking—or concealing.
“You’re going with us,” I said, immediately feeling stupid.
“Yes,” she said. She moved more closely to me, lowered her voice. “The school wouldn’t let him go without a parent,” she said. I stared and was about to say something rude about the school when she added: “He’s not been feeling well.”
“Oh.” I hoped she couldn’t read the banner headline on my forehead: I know.
“So now,” said Gil, “we have a chaperone.”
“Do you need one?” his mother asked.
“Certainly not,” I said and climbed the stairs into the bus, counted seats backwards until I got to the row they’d assigned to Gil and me, about halfway back. I don’t know why I was feeling so angry. But I knew I needed to calm down. And quickly.
I heard Gil behind me, breathing heavily—almost wheezing as he shuffled toward me. I looked back at him and felt immediately ashamed. As usual, I’d been thinking only of myself, and hearing Gil’s struggle reminded me of what I’d promised myself about this trip—to make sure Gil had the best time possible.
“Aisle or window?” I asked him.
“Would you mind if I took the window? We could switch later on?”
He slung his small backpack onto the seat, slid past me, put the pack on the floor, slumped into his seat. I mirrored his acts in the aisle seat.
I saw his mother smile as she glided past on her way to the back. In the east, the red sun shoved a shoulder above the horizon.