The town I grew up in could boast exactly one remarkable event. The accident of 2004. It resulted in the indefinite closure of Stover Road and a stricter screening process for new bus drivers.
No one ever lived on Stover Road, but it was a key stretch of pavement, linking our small town with the even smaller village of Buckhill. After the 2004 tragedy, I learned that the road’s construction had caused a bit of a fuss with some of the older folks in the region. The few who were still alive in 2004 wasted no time in shouting “we told you so” loudly enough to convince the authorities. The resulting closure meant kids from Buckhill had to suffer a doubled commute time to and from school.
I never had to ride the bus. My mom was a bus driver, so I’d just go to school with her in the dark hours of the morning and wait at the bus garage until the main building opened up. My mom didn’t drive the Buckhill route, fortunately, but the accident still rattled her. It rattled a lot of people. I can only imagine what it was like in Buckhill. All those kids, just gone like that.
Because my mom was a bus driver, I knew a few things about school buses. Things that came up frequently in the aftermath of the accident. For instance, federal law requires the body of a bus be strong enough to support one and a half times the bus’ weight, the idea being that it’ll hold up in the case of a rollover or collision, preventing the kids inside from getting crushed.
Investigators determined that the bus hadn’t been properly inspected. The closure of Stover Road spoke to how much faith our town put in the investigators’ opinions. Afterall, the bus hadn’t rolled over, and there were no other vehicles it could have collided with. And no lack of inspection could explain what had happened to the missing rear half.
They set up orange and white barricades on either end of Stover Road. The pavement crumbled, and slowly succumbed to weeds. The forest through which the road ran closed in on either side and covered everything in fallen leaves. Years later, after the shock and mourning had passed, kids would dare each other to approach the barricade, to shout across it and listen for an answer. But not even the toughest kids would set foot onto that cracked and faded blacktop, nor dare their friends to try. It was an unspoken law that not even the most irreverent among us cared to violate.
There was some argument about what to do with the bus—what was left of it, at least. Some parents wanted it destroyed, others wanted it preserved as a memorial. It sat behind the bus garage, at the very edge of school property, waiting to learn its fate. The debate went on for weeks, then gradually simmered away without any decision. And so the bus stayed there. The grass grew tall front of it, and the woods, which formed the back edge of the school grounds, reached out to claim it. Between the road and the bus, it was like nature was slowly erasing the tragedy from our history.
But you can’t erase something like that. Not completely.
It was another one of those early mornings, the time of year when it’s still dark at seven a.m. My mom had just started her bus route, and I was left with the transportation supervisor at the garage. I hated the supervisor’s office. It was cramped and stuffy, and I wasn’t terribly fond of the supervisor himself. He hunched over his desk, listening to the drivers chatter over the radio. I don’t know how old he was; younger than he looked, probably. His hair was still full and dark, but his face was wrinkled enough to belong to an octogenarian. He never spoke to me. Just sideways glances now and then. Mostly, his eyes were fixed on the radio.
Sometimes I thought, as I stared at his wrinkled face and those unblinking eyes, that this is exactly what he’d been doing on that morning in 2004. Sitting, listening. I hadn’t been there that day; I’d been kept home from school by a stomach bug. But I imagined. Wondered. What had the supervisor heard over the radio that morning? The driver of that doomed school bus, had she reported anything before she died? Had he listened to her final moments, perhaps even the screams of the children—
I couldn’t take it. Those eyes, that face. The atmosphere in the office was so thick I could barely breathe, so I went outside. Out into the cool, dark air. Waited for eight o’clock when the main school building opened and the first students arrived safe and sound on their buses.
As I walked the grounds around the garage and waited for the sun to rise, I saw a flash of movement. Somewhere toward the back, where the weeds rose high and the woods clawed at the property line. An animal, I thought. A deer running behind the trees or a bird settling on a new perch. I went closer for a better look, rounding the corner of the garage, then pausing.
I was right outside the office window. Inside, I could see the supervisor leaning back. His arms were tense, his bloodless fingers pushing against the edges of the desk. And his eyes, wide and quivering, glared at the radio.
I ducked beneath the window, stifling a frightened gasp. That face. Each wrinkle had seemed carved from gray stone.
Then I saw movement again. A shadow passing behind weeds and branches. I started forward again, but then I realized something that stopped me in my tracks.
What I was looking at, that patch of overgrowth, was the resting place of the bus.
Everyone in town knew which bus you meant when you said the bus. As I crouched frozen in the early morning mist, those two words reverberated in my skull. The bus. Yes, I could just make it out now: a row of square windows, an angular silhouette that terminated in a tangle of twisted metal. Something was moving in the bus.
My mouth went dry, and I couldn’t blink. It was just an animal, I told myself. That, or another student getting into mischief. Curiosity eventually won out, and I crept closer to investigate. Closer and closer until I stood in the shadow of the trees, staring at where the back half of the bus should have been. No one knew what had become of it. The bus had just been found like this in the middle of Stover Road. I had a clear view straight up the center aisle to the driver’s seat. The bus, as far as I could see, was empty.
And yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I’d never gotten to see the bus up close. Very few people had, beyond the investigators and the school administrators and the parents of the children on board. If anyone had known I was standing there, close enough to touch it, they would have stopped me. Should have stopped me. Lingering as I did before the jagged opening, absorbing every detail—from the dirty leather seats to the smashed windshield—it felt like I was trampling a grave. I knew I should have left, but I couldn’t make my legs move. Curiosity. Fascination with the macabre. So many kids had died in here, some older than me, many of them younger. If I had been on this bus that morning in 2004, I wouldn’t be here now. My life would already be over.
The thought turned my stomach to ice, and might have been enough to carry me back to the garage, but then the radio crackled to life.
The radio at the front of the bus. The bus that had sat dormant for years at the edge of the woods, without gas or battery. The radio hissed and beneath the white noise I heard something else, a babble like distant voices rising and falling.
This was impossible. And yet, although my insides tightened and my skin prickled, I had to get to the bottom of it. It was just a radio, just an inert collection of metal and plastic. I had to make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me—that confounded, perverse curiosity. It made me raise one leg over the rusted, saw blade edge of the bus. Made me step onto that floor coated with dirt and leaves and moss. Made me inch closer to the front where the radio whispered.
The handset hung by its black spiral cord, swaying as if dropped only recently. Wind, I thought. Vibrations caused by my approach. I wondered, if I picked it up, pressed the button, whispered back, would the transportation supervisor hear me in his office? I considered trying, but then I thought that the last person to have touched the device had probably died holding it.
It was like something snapped, and I realized, as if for the first time, where I was. I started breathing hard, watching that swaying handset as it seemed to swing faster, listening to the shrill babbling as it rose above the static and morphed into a sobbing cadence—
Movement in the rear-view mirror.
I choked and spun around. The silhouette of a young girl stood in the aisle. It was too dark for me to discern much beyond that. She hovered there a moment, then slowly turned away from me and slid into one of the seats.
A sharp, rattling breath sounded from the space behind me. I yelled and stumbled around. A shadow was slumped over in the driver’s seat. I could make out a few stray wisps of hair, a still hand dangling by the radio. Nothing about the figure moved, save for the occasional rise and fall of its shoulders as it took deep, shuddering gasps.
My heart pounded. I took one backward step away from the front of the bus, and nearly fell as my foot encountered something slick. I caught myself on the back of a leather seat. I felt its cold surface, made rough by years of neglect and exposure, and I felt something else, soft and smooth but just as icily cold, that made me pull away with a whimper.
The bus was full. Each seat occupied by a still shadow. Here was the shape of a ribbon tied around the base of a ponytail, there a little baseball cap perched crookedly on a lolling head. They were silent, but the radio continued to hiss. Sobbing voices rose above the static, rose and rose until they were more like screams.
And then a new sound came over the radio. A growl. Deep. Enormous. Heard more with the bones than the ears.
I ran. It was only half a bus length, but it seemed to take forever. I bit back a scream and tried not to think about the wet smacking my feet made as they propelled me toward the jagged opening at the back of the bus. Behind me, that awful growl, melded with the groan of metal and the truncated cries of children. When I finally burst out into the weeds, I kept running. Kept running until the garage blocked my view of the woods and I was safely cocooned in the light from the overhead lamps that illuminated the bay doors. Only then did I stop to catch my breath.
The next morning, I told my mom I was sick. The day after, I waited outside the main school building instead of the bus garage. And that’s what I did for the remainder of my high school career.
My hometown boasts one remarkable event. No one really knows what happened on that morning in 2004. Most likely, no one ever will. Everyone just lives with the mystery, careful to avoid that stretch of road between the barricades. Careful not to disturb whatever growls in the darkness.