By Edele Winnie
Ellen cursed and tried to start the school bus again. The morning was cold and it was starting to rain. The motor coughed and choked but did not catch. The last of the other school buses had just left the muddy lot. She pounded the steering wheel angrily while the rain began to drum on the roof.
All the grade school kids would be waiting in the storm. She had no way of contacting anyone at this point. Ellen considered giving up, but shook it off. She just wasn’t made that way. She was a fighter. She found herself staring at number 13, the bus at the back of the lot that was never used.
It had begun to pour. The dull grey sky dumped a slurry of rain onto the bus lot. With her coat over her head, Ellen hurried to the little building- they called it the key shack- where things were stored. The keys, all gone now, had labelled hooks. The hook labelled thirteen was empty. It had always been empty.
There was no phone in the shack and Ellen had forgotten her cell phone. She could drive somewhere, she thought, and phone her boss. By then all the kids would be wet and late for school. Thunder cracked overhead and startled her. The rain was pounding down and she did not want to rush out. There were cupboards in the shack and she began to look through them. She found the keys in the old table with the battered drawer. The key fob read thirteen. There were two keys, one was obviously for the ignition and the other appeared to be for a padlock. There was a raincoat by the door and Ellen pulled it on quickly. If she was going to get those kids to school on time she had to leave now. She opened the door and ventured out into the storm to number thirteen.
She did not look long because she was hurrying in the rain but the bus looked fine. The tires looked good and there was less rust than on her usual number 42 bus. The door was padlocked. Ellen fiddled with the keys and popped the lock off and climbed the steps. The bus did not smell like feet, or lunches, or little girl nail polish. It smelled a little musty. Outside the storm hammered on the bus roof, lighting punched the sky and thunder howled. Ellen was safe inside.
Ellen slid gently behind the steering wheel. The seat was puffier than hers, with better back support. It seemed to be hardly used. The bus had been set aside for a reason, she thought. Probably it won’t start. Or there’s some other mechanical problem.
She fitted the key in the ignition and turned it. All the dials and displays glowed to life. The battery was good. Ellen turned the key further and the engine started, first try. She listened to it for a moment but it was strong and smooth, better than most of the regularly used buses. Maybe they were saving it for a special occasion?
Carefully Ellen drove across the muddy lot. She tested the brakes but they were true even in the heavy rain and puddles. She decided to give it a test drive on her way to pick up her first student. She was only running about ten minutes late.
The bus handled fine on the road. The brakes were good, the engine sounded amazing and even the wipers seemed like they were new.
She gave the steering wheel a friendly pat. “You‘re not so unlucky after all, are you number thirteen?”
Little Lucy Webber was waiting at her usual spot. Her father was there too, failing to keep the storm at bay with an umbrella. Ellen stopped the bus and opened the doors. The door opener was smooth and silent.
“Good morning!” Lucy chirped and hopped up the steps.
“There’s not much good about it!” Her wet father croaked with a wink and a wave.
Ellen continued on her route, picking up wet children in groups of ones and twos. She was going a little fast, trying to make up time.
She thought it was water in the brakes when the bus refused to slow down. She was picking up the twin brothers who always fought with each other but when she pressed the brake pedal nothing happened. The bus continued to drive past them, splashing the boys with muddy water from the flooded road. Ellen gripped the steering wheel tightly, while pumping the brake pedal, but it had no effect at all. The bus lurched and did a turn all on its own. Ellen screamed and fought the steering wheel but it did not matter. The bus turned neatly and continued driving. She pushed on the brake, she pushed on the gas, she tried turning off the ignition, she tried the emergency brake, but the bus did not even slow. It turned again and some children slid off the seats screaming into the aisle.
Ellen stepped away from the driver’s seat. It was as if the bus was being driven by remote control. She rushed to help the howling students back into their seats. She did a quick headcount. Thirteen. Thirteen kids.
The bus suddenly stopped. The kids held onto the seats and Ellen was thrown forward, against the back of the driver’s seat. It knocked the wind out of her and she banged her head when she fell. The bus started driving again. Looking out the back window Ellen saw that it had paused at a stop sign.
They were leaving the town on a main road which transformed into a highway. The children were terrified, especially as they watched Ellen fall to pieces. She kicked at the doors and hurt her feet. She tried to open a window and hurt her hands. She tried to smash the window with the small fire extinguisher but it bounced back, hit her in the face and gave her a bloody nose.
The bus accelerated to freeway speed and left the town behind. Soon there were just fields and farms. Ellen sat in the passenger seats, holding onto to two of the terrified little girls. All the children were whimpering. They were asking Ellen if it was going to be all right, but she could not reply. She said nothing and they whimpered even more.
“It’s slowing down!” A young boy named Daniel said. He’d been peering out the window at the passing countryside.
The bus came almost to a full stop and Ellen rushed to the driver’s seat. But the vehicle did not stop, instead turning down an overgrown trail and proceeding slowly through the ruts and bumps. They crested a small hill and a ruined barn came into view. The bus slowed even more and then pulled inside the dark hollow of the abandoned structure.
The engine shut off. Ellen, in the driver’s seat again, tried to restart it but the bus refused. She gave up and sat there in the darkness with the rest of the children in silence. The bus door opened. Ellen could hear the sound of the rain outside the barn. A dank musty smell came in through the door. Ellen tired to say something to comfort the children but the words died in her throat. She saw something moving in the shadows of the barn, a shape coming towards the open bus door. She pulled on the door closer but it stayed open.
A small shape, a child, a little girl with long brown hair came to the bus door. She looked up at Ellen in the driver’s seat as if asking permission, then she climbed up the steps. She had blood on her torso and her wet shirt was ripped. She looked at Ellen with unblinking eyes.
“This is where he killed me.” She said.
The kids starting screaming. Ellen screamed too and the little dead girl screamed with them. There were maggots in her mouth.
They screamed themselves out. They could only scream for so long, and then there were gasps and sobs. The little dead girl was crying too. She turned and walked back down the steps and into the gloom.
Ellen slowly slid out of the driver’s seat. She was shaking a great deal. Her throat hurt and her face was wet with tears she hadn’t known she cried. She started down the steps after the little girl.
“No!” One of the living girls on the bus shouted.
“She didn’t hurt us.” Ellen said and continued.
She stepped off the bus. The floor would have been dirt but it was flooded from the heavy rain. It was almost up to Ellen’s ankles, and both of her shoes quickly filled with icy water. She could see the little girl now. The little thing walked to the edge of the barn and lay down in the water. She looked over at Ellen.
“This is where he buried me.” She said before lying down flat and disappearing into the water.
A bright flash of lighting drew Ellen’s attention out the big barn doors. There was a man standing there. He was staring at the bus. He was a big man, with wet grey hair streaming rain water. Ellen walked over to him.
“Did you kill her?” she asked.
He seemed not to have heard her. “The bus has come back.” He said. ‘More children.” He sloshed towards the bus door.
Ellen jumped on him, screaming, but he shrugged her off like she was an old coat. He climbed into the bus and the door closed. Ellen, soaked through, got to her feet and tried to open the bus door but it stayed shut. She could hear the children inside screaming. She turned, stumbled, fell, got up again and begun running. She fell again and again on the muddy rutted track, crested the hill, saw the road and kept moving and falling until she reached the highway. She flagged down the first car that came along.
She was wet and muddy and looked insane. She tried to babble out her story.
“Killing the children…. help…. help please help…..”
The terrified driver, a middle-aged woman called police and locked them both into the car. The flashing red and blue announced the three squad cars ten minutes later.
Ellen tumbled out of the woman’s car and pointed down the track. “The children… save the children.”
The police cars sped down the muddy trail and disappeared over the little hill.
Ellen began to weep. She had been crying before but now she was sobbing uncontrollably and shaking. She sat down on the ground. The woman tried to comfort her, wrapped her in a blanket. It continued to rain.
The muddied police cars slowly came back. No flashing lights. Two of them hit the highway pavement and drove away. The other stopped next to the woman’s car. A soaking wet officer got out and came to speak to Ellen, who was still on the ground in the wet blanket.
“What’s your name ma’am?” the young man said.
“What about the children?” Ellen rasped. “Did you save any of the children?”
The police officer stared at her. “Is that your car in the barn?”
“That gray Ford. License GUS 562.”
Ellen blinked uncomprehendingly. “That’s my license….”
The officer escorted her back to the police car. They drove to the hospital and they checked her in.
“The children.” Ellen cried as the put her on the stretcher. “The children.”
“She’s delusional.” The young officer said to the doctor. “There were no children. Just her car. She’s a school bus driver. Didn’t show up for work today.”
Her employer was generous and let her take a leave of absence. The incident was labelled a onetime medical issue and she was allowed to keep her bus driver’s license. In just three months she was back at work. Number thirteen was still parked at the back of the lot. She picked up all the children who had been on the bus that terrible day, and they seemed to be completely normal. It wasn’t real, she told herself. It was just a mental breakdown.
On her third day back at work it rained again and number forty-two bus wouldn’t start. All the other buses had already left the lot. Ellen stood in the key shack, the rain drumming on the roof. She opened the drawer where’d she found number thirteen’s keys before. They were still there. One ignition key and one padlock key. She took them and walked back to number thirteen. She unlocked the padlock and opened the door. She tried the key in the ignition and the motor started right up.
They found her there just before lunch time. The rain had stopped and the sun had banished the grey clouds. She’d smashed a bus window with the fire extinguisher and then slit her wrists with the broken glass. Her eyes were still open. The key was in the bus’ ignition.
“Don’t know what she was trying to do.” Everyone said. “The battery’s been dead for years….”