“Please, sir.” The little girl spoke softly like she was shy or embarrassed. Nathan would have had to turn up his hearing aid if he had not been sitting so close. “I missed the school bus, but I have to get home. My grandmother is very sick. My mother will pay you when we get to my stop.” That took real courage. Nathan admired the little girl
“Sorry kid. You’ll have to walk.” The bus driver looked sympathetic, but it was his job, and Nathan wondered how many rotten things were committed in the name of doing one’s job. He hated that expression. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Here is the little secret, business or not, everything in life is always personal.
The little girl looked ready to cry. “I can’t,” she said and both Nathan and the bus driver were drawn to her feet where one shoe looked stiff and metallic. Nathan did not know if it was a club foot or the result of some disease or accident, but come to think of it, the girl did limp up the steps.
“Listen, kid. I’ll lose my job. I’m sorry.” The bus driver spoke kindly but shook his head before he looked back into the bus as if to suggest that someone from the city might be there spying on him. Nathan knew no paper pusher would leave the warm security of an office to ride a bus, but he allowed that the bus driver might have thought this was a set-up to see who they could fire, given the current state of the economy. “I need my job,” the driver said honestly enough.
The little girl began to cry, softly.
“Look, I’ve got family too. I have to get home.” The burly man spoke over Nathan’s shoulder.
“Yes, can we get on with this?” The minister spoke up from behind his newspaper.
Nathan glanced back. The young man turned toward the window to ignore the whole scene. The old lady began to dig through her purse, but Nathan preempted her. He pulled a bill from his pocket.
“Here, child. You sit right up front with me and sit by the window so we don’t miss your stop.” Nathan pulled himself slowly to his feet while the bus driver made change. The little girl hesitated. She looked once into Nathan’s sad, old eyes while he looked into her sad, young eyes and they understood each other in that moment. The girl scooted past him to sit next to the window. Nathan barely got his change pocketed and sat down again before the bus driver shut the door and took off.
After that, Nathan put the rest of the bus out of his mind. He looked at the back of the little girl who dutifully stared out of the dirty window. He judged her to be about seven or eight and he wondered what kind of world we had become to have school busses leave without their passengers accounted for. Surely the school had some resources for those inadvertently left behind; and especially for a little girl like this, lame as she was. Nathan understood being lame even if both of his feet were normal for his age.
“Do you know which stop is yours?” Nathan asked, not certain if he would get an answer out of the child. She had to be scared, all alone with strangers as she was. He was pleased to see her able to respond.
“Yes, thank you. I have ridden this bus before, with my mother.” The girl gave up on the dirty window and turned to face front and the hard plastic translucent board that separated her from the bus driver’s back. “And thank you for paying.” She added as if remembering her manners. She looked up into Nathan’s old face, seeking his adult approval of her polite words and Nathan, who caught that look in her eyes, smiled in response.
“So what are you, eight?” Nathan asked.
“Seven,” she said. “I’m in the second grade.”
“Second grade.” Nathan repeated as he thought a long, long way back. Fortunately, the ancient days were easier to remember than that morning’s breakfast. “So you know all about reading and writing.”
“Oh, yes,” the girl said. “I love to read, but my writing needs some practice.”
Nathan nodded. “Do you stick out your tongue when you write?” he asked.
“No.” The girl shook her head. Clearly she did not know what he meant.
“Like this.” He let his tongue a little way’s out of the corner of his mouth and pretended to have a pencil in his hand. “You see?” He pretended to write on the translucent plastic in front of them. “A-B-C.” He spoke as he wrote.
The girl put her hand quickly in front of her grinning mouth. “That’s silly.”
“But it helps,” Nathan insisted. He did it again. “D” he said, and he pretended to have trouble with the letter and let his tongue move as his hand moved. The little girl giggled and Nathan smiled again. He had a grand-daughter – no – a great-grand daughter that was seven. “My name is Nathan.” He introduced himself.
The girl paused to examine his face before she spoke. “Mine is Mya.” And she lifted her little hand up to touch his wrinkled, craggy face. “You are very old, like my grandmother.”
Nathan lost his smile, but slowly. “You grandmother is not well.” It was a question though he said it like a statement.
Mya nodded. “She is in the hospital. My mother is going to take me to see her tonight. I think Grandma is dying.” Mya took her hand back and straightened up. Her eyes looked once again near tears. Nathan thought we are all dying; only some of us are closer to it than others. He forced a smile.
“Now, enough about dying,” Nathan said brightly. “You just give your grandmother a big hug when you see her and tell her that you love her. That is all that really matters.” He wanted to hug the little girl himself and pat her hand to comfort her in her distress, but he did not dare. Surely someone would accuse him of terrible things, and he wondered again what sort of world they had become. All he could do was lift his heart in a kind of prayer for this little soul while the bus brakes brought them to the next stop. The big man started to get up as the doors opened, but before he could move far, someone jumped in and ran right past the driver babbling something about paradise and Satan and you demons. The minister hid behind his paper. The Bus driver grabbed and missed. The big burly man also made a grab, but it was too late. Nathan instinctively threw himself over the little girl like a shield of flesh and blood. There was a deafening sound, a moment of pain, a brilliant, blinding light and then nothing.