ll I needed was handcuffs. If my wrists had been chained to the seat, the scene could have been taken straight from one of those movies where they show the bus bringing the new guy to the prison. Of course, there wasn’t any need for cuffs on this ride. Fill my pockets with rocks, add a couple more layers of winter clothes—wet winter clothes—and I might push the scale up toward ninety pounds.
The bus driver looked like he weighed three times that much. His wrists were thicker than my neck. He could probably crumple me up like a used tissue and still keep one hand on the steering wheel. No way I was going to cause him any trouble.
So I wasn’t in cuffs—but the rest of it felt a lot like going to prison. I was the only passenger on the bus. After a long ride across three counties, we’d reached the main gate at Edgeview Alternative School. A guard out front holding a clipboard waved us inside, then talked with the bus driver for a minute. The two of them reminded me of a pair of dogs who stop for a quick sniff as they pass each other on their way to important doggy missions. I smiled at the thought of the driver wriggling around on his back in the grass.
Once the driver and the guard finished yapping, we rolled through the yard. The building even looked kind of like a prison—big, cold, gray stone, all wrapped up with a high brick fence. Edgeview was the sort of place where people kept broken machines, old tires, and other stuff
they didn’t need. Yeah, this was a place for things nobody wanted. End of the trip. End of the line. No way I could pretend it wasn’t happening.
As the bus stopped near the front door of the building, I noticed all the windows had that dead look of glass filled with wire—the type of windows they use in a gym or a warehouse. A man slipped out from behind the door and walked stiffly down the steps. I got the feeling he’d been watching from inside for the bus to show up so he wouldn’t seem like he was waiting. At first, I thought he was real old. As he got closer, I realized he wasn’t that much older than my parents—he just moved like he was ancient. He was wearing a dark suit with a bow tie. I never trusted anyone with a bow tie. I didn’t trust anyone without a bow tie, either, but I especially didn’t trust people who wore them.
The driver leaned over and pulled the handle, thrusting open the bus door. Then he glanced back at me. “Last stop, kid. Everyone out.” He laughed. The big, stupid hunk of meat laughed like that was the funniest joke in the world.
I got up. My whole body made little cracking sounds as I straightened out. My spine was having its own Fourth of July celebration, six months late. Thanks to all the construction on the highway, the ride here had taken two hours. That wasn’t counting the half-hour trip to the city to meet the bus. Me and Dad. What fun that was. Dad didn’t say a word when he handed me over to the driver. He just gave me that where-have-I-failed? look. I didn’t say anything, either. I just gave him my how-would-I-know? look. He couldn’t wait to get out of there.
“Come on, kid,” the driver said. “I ain’t got all day.”
I grabbed my bag out of the overhead rack and scooped up my jacket from the seat. Mom would have made me wear the jacket. Probably a dorky scarf, too. But it wasn’t all that cold for the beginning of January, and Mom wasn’t around.
“Move it, kid.”
I took my time strolling down the aisle.
“Have a nice life,” the driver said as I walked past him. He laughed again, wheezing like a donkey with asthma.
“Have a heart attack,” I said. Then I hopped to the ground before he could grab me.
Behind my back, I heard the door slam hard, cutting off the stream of swear words the driver was spewing at me. Some people sure are touchy.
I looked at the stiff little man with the bow tie.
“Hello, Martin,” he said, smiling the sort of smile that doesn’t mean anything. “I’m Principal Davis. Welcome to Edgeview.”
I had no idea what he expected me to say.
Gee, nice place you have here, thanks for inviting me.
I waited. He didn’t seem like the sort of person who would run out of words. I’m sure he had all sorts of wisdom to share with me. I hadn’t met an adult yet who didn’t have essential advice to pass along.
“Well, you have a bit of settling in to do. We’d better get started.” He creaked his way up the steps toward the front door, muttering the basic facts of my life as if to prove he knew and cared. “Martin Anderson, age thirteen, grade eight, hometown is Spencer, recently expelled from Spencer Heights Middle School. Previously expelled from Upper Spencer Junior High, expelled before that from …”
I tuned him out. To my right, the bus rolled out through the gate and rumbled down the road, carrying the driver back to the free world. I followed Principal Davis inside the building. The entrance was dark, barely lit by two weak bulbs that hung from the ceiling on frayed cords. The air hung down over me, too. Warm and heavy air. I felt like I was breathing soup.
We climbed a steep flight of stairs to the left of the front door. The steps ended in the middle of a long hallway. Something that might have been a carpet a million footsteps ago clung to the floor. More dim bulbs made a halfhearted attempt at lighting the area, revealing walls covered with scrawled graffiti.
“I assume you understand why you are here,” Principal Davis said.
“I got on the wrong bus?” I figured a very stupid question deserved an extremely stupid answer.
He ignored my guess and kept walking, leading me up a second flight of steps. The wall felt rough, and the dull green paint had flaked away in a couple of spots. The odor of old varnish on the second floor gave way to the sharper stench of unwashed clothing as I climbed higher.
I tried again. “I won a contest? I wrote the winning essay? I’m the tenth caller? I got the highest score in Final Jeopardy?” This was fun. And as long as I kept talking, I wouldn’t have to think about where I was going.
“These are the living quarters,” he said, still ignoring my guesses. “After you’ve gotten settled, I’ll have someone give you a tour of the school.” He stopped where he was and I caught up to him. Actually, I almost ran into him. His suit smelled like dusty mothballs.
“I know,” I said as the perfect answer hit me. “I’m here because you need an assistant. The place is too much for you to handle by yourself. You just aren’t up to the job.”
Oops. That one got rid of his smile. His face turned mean and angry for an instant—the sort of meanness that needs to lash out and cause pain. I could almost hear his teeth grinding together. Unlike the smile, this was an honest expression. This was Principal Davis at his finest. If he’d been a cartoon character, steam would have shot from his nose and ears. But, like a true professional, he hid the anger quickly. “Well, now … no point standing here chattering. Let’s get you—”
He never finished that sentence. From down the hall, we were interrupted by a shout: “FIRE!”
TELEPHONE CONVERSATION BETWEEN THE PARENTS OF MARTIN ANDERSON
: Hi. It’s me. I got the kid to the bus. I stopped at the office on the way home.
: Do you think he’ll be okay?
: Who knows? I hope this place does him some good. Heaven knows nothing else has worked. I’ll tell you, my old man wouldn’t have let me get away with anything. He’d have smacked me a couple of good ones with his belt. That always kept me in line. I don’t know where the kid gets that mouth of his.
: Martin’s not that bad.
Tell that to the last three schools he’s been kicked out of. Tell that to the scout troop that threw him out. And while you’re at it, try telling it to his Little League coach. You know how bad that made me look when he mouthed off to the coach?
It’s my fault. I just know it. I saw this psychologist on a talk show, and he said—
: Forget that nonsense. And don’t blame yourself. Or me. It’s not our fault. It’s his fault. We’re good parents. His sister is turning out fine. We did everything we could. Listen, want me to pick up a pizza on the way home?
: I guess. Yeah, that would be nice.