The singing of the tires was his executioner's song. In minutes, the faded yellow bus would disgorge him at his place of incarceration where, physically or spiritually (or both), he would suffer certain death from the unthinking actions of an unspeakable collection of geeks and goons. Blondie could envision no other outcome from his first day at Fenton High.
On rolled the bus, past copycat collections of brick ramblers and two-story colonials where runty trees and whiskers of grass fought for existence on burned over late-summer lawns. Look-alike homes for think-alike people, Blondie thought, most of them occupied by families fleeing Baltimore for a hoped-for taste of country living.
Blondie had begged his dad not to move to Fenton after he retired from the small Signal Corps base in Percy fifteen miles away. He'd stressed to him the importance of living someplace more sophisticated than Fenton — a place where people covered their mouths when they belched.
His dad hadn't found his comment amusing.
"People are the same everywhere," he'd said.
Maybe for adults. Not for kids. Every kid in Mayhew County knew Fenton's adolescents were the least civilized of all known teen rabble.
This morning, the evidence was indisputable. Stop after stop, they'd piled onto the bus — cretins of every form and in every costume imaginable. Long- necked boys in loose-fitting western shirts and blue jeans. Pony-tailed girls in poodle skirts, with stick legs and braces on their teeth. Duck-tailed fatsos in stretched-out tee shirts. Aspiring harlots with pale lipstick and beehive hairdos.
The boys tripped each other getting onto the bus or shot each other the finger or farted or cleaned their ears with pencils. The girls giggled or gossiped or taunted the boys or stared out the window as if they weren't there at all. Could he possibly, Blondie con-sidered with dismay, be genetically linked to creatures such as these?
Blondie sat by himself on the blood-red vinyl on one of the last seats toward the rear, staring at the graffiti scratched on the back of the seat in front of him. "J.S. LUVS R.L." "GO FLYERS" and the inevitable "FUCK YOU." For relief, he lowered his eyes, only to encounter on the rubber-grooved floor myriad deposits of chewing gum turned to stone, miniature hairballs, paper wads, pencil erasers and cigarette butts. And this was only the first day of school!
It was even more dismal than he'd contem-plated. Again, Blondie felt his sense of betrayal well up inside. Why couldn't his parents have moved to Baltimore? At the very least, why couldn't his dad have bought a house near Percy so he could have finished high school with the kids he knew? So what if his dad had landed a job with the Fenton water district? There were other water districts, other jobs.
The day would get worse. He'd have to go to the office and meet the principal who would say something fatuous like, "It must be pretty difficult changing schools at the start of your senior year. But I suppose you're used to it, having grown up in the military."
Everyone always thought that. What did they know? Did they expect him to say, "Actually, it's pretty scary?" Did they expect him to give them that much of an edge?
The sun slanted through the dusty window onto his face, drawing him from his anxiety. Blondie loved the feel of sun on his face. Its rays were warm through the glass, though Blondie remembered the air's cold bite while he'd been waiting at his stop. He loved autumn: its crisp mornings, its turning leaves, its tinge of nostalgia. For a moment, he transported himself to another time, another place, where the coming of fall had been free from the threat of school.
An object flew to the front of the bus where it banged against the side of the driver's seat. The driver, a near dwarf of great girth, cast a malevolent glare to the back of the bus. He muttered something indeci-pherable and turned the wheel.
They entered a more established development where homes were constructed of sturdy fieldstone and lawns carpeted with a rich green shag. White-shuttered windows looked out upon summer zinnias and dahlias.
Spewing gravel, the bus rattled to a halt. Blondie's throat tightened. Each stop drew him nearer his doom. He'd never been able to think of anything beyond that first day in a new school, no matter how many times his family had moved — the awful staring of the students, the disgusting cooing of concerned teachers, his own overwhelming self-consciousness.
Blondie consoled himself with the thought that within eight hours he'd be back home again, eating dinner with his mom and dad. But it was a knowledge that held no emotional content and offered no solace. Emotionally, there was only that first moment, the first creeping caterpillar of a day in a new school when he was the magnetic pole for a thousand prying eyes.
This time, Blondie promised himself he would be ready. He would withdraw so far inside himself that faces would register no more than far-away clouds and voices no more than distant echoes.
Then she got on the bus. Into the midst of the riotous freak show walked a Madonna, the apotheosis of young womanhood. Her skin was pale as daybreak, her lips red as fire, her hair dark and shiny as a moonlit sea. She was slender, boyish — as he preferred — her movements lithe and unstudied.
Blondie's libido awakened with a fusillade of longing and lust, routing his first-day fears. He watched entranced as she approached him in a straight dark skirt, pink sweater, rolled-down socks and penny loafers, carrying a vinyl gym bag in the crimson-and-cream colors of Fenton High School.
As she drew near, he realized the seat next to him was vacant. My God, was she going to sit beside him! What would he say? He wasn't prepared. His face burst into flames. His tongue flopped once or twice inside his mouth as he tried to form words to cast her way, then turned as fat and lifeless as a dead fish. Blondie mustered all his will and forced his mouth into a rictus-like smile that was wasted on the angel's back as she seated herself two rows ahead. A homely girl with pigtails who'd followed her onto the bus plopped down beside her.
Blondie glanced around, expecting a stir from the young males on the bus, an echo of the tremor that had shaken him. They were as busily committing perverted acts upon each other as before. What was wrong with them? Didn't they realize a queen had just boarded the bus? No wonder they were so lost.
A raucous grinding of gears and a sudden jolt knocked Blondie from his reverie. He looked out the window and his skin froze. They were here: The Big House!
Blocking the horizon was an endless gray facade. It stared at him with a hundred eyes of glass. And behind each of those unblinking squares would be scores of smaller eyes ready to examine his every pore, his every move.
Blondie sat paralyzed as the unruly horde massed for the exit. He stared at the stainless-steel letters that named his prison: F-E-N-T-O-N-H-I-G-H-S-C-H-O-O-L. His mind added the only possible subtext: Nothing inspiring ever has — or ever will — happen here.
When he glanced around again, his Venus was gone, swallowed by the multitude that had erupted from the massed army of buses. A fearball as cold and compact as a dead star settled in the bottom of Blondie's stomach. The moment of truth had arrived.