The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 1

The Incident

Looking out, Michael viewed the fields passing by rapidly, as he listened to the steady chatter around him. It was a mix, composed of various kids and teens of all ages, full of laughter and much more. Some were isolated, while others were almost shouting within groups, trying to be heard above the noise of their companions. Interspersed with each was the sound of the old school bus, its engine and gears either revving up or grinding down as it came to a halt, depositing one or more people safely at their stop. The massive frame of the vehicle would creak from time to time, especially when it turned in some new direction, yet it still held together soundly, despite its age.

On this overcast day, the countryside lay barren, dry and dusty. There was a chalkiness in the terrain, and anything - whether man, man-made or beast - that disturbed it, would stir up a fine cloud of dust to billow in its wake. To say the weather had been dry lately was an understatement. Although not unheard of, having periods of drought or limited rain throughout the area was rare. When they did happen, they generally occurred in the summer months, not the middle of October when autumn was well underway. The rains that normally accompanied this time of year had - for whatever reason - disappeared of late, abandoning the countryside.

The temperature held well into the upper-60's during the daytime, which was not all that unusual. In a more normal time, the nights dipped into the mid- to upper-40's. Students began each day at its coldest moment, as dawn broke, but few wore jackets or coats. By mid-day, on average, the temperature was quite comfortable, thus staving off the need to tote about jackets by the time they left for home. To top it off, many students were highly active by the mid-to-late afternoon hour, creating a beehive of bustling bodies going every which way, disseminating their pent-up energy in anticipation of arriving home. The older teens may have not moved about as much as their younger peers, but getting school out of the way still gave them a sense of release. Their conversations were always of a different nature, but still filled with mostly cheerfulness. As they traveled on, even with the windows of the old bus lowered and opened, many were sweating, or at least generating heat that served to surround others about them. That, from both young and older students alike, contributed to an overall discomfort along with the dusty, long ride home.

Their usual routine of heading home, however, was about to change. Outside, hopefully for the better, clouds were rolling in from the northwest, and had been for the better part of the day. The outlook looked promising. A welcoming storm front was approaching, and aside from the obvious moisture it carried, it also brought the promise of more seasonable temperatures to follow. Farmers were anxiously anticipating it, along with a multitude of others throughout the community. Rain was something they needed badly, and for once, this front seemed to promise plenty of it for a change.

As was the case with most kids and teenagers, Michael didn't really care much about the weather, not in the usual terms anyway. For the most part, he left those musings and discussions to the grown-ups – people whom the rain impacted the most. If it rained, then it just rained - otherwise it didn't. Today, however, he looked across the fields that flew by the window, and perceptively noticed the change that was coming. It was enough so that it made him stop the tune he was humming, and silently kick his head into gear. He frowned, realizing how close and quickly the rain was approaching as they moved along. Close enough, in fact, that he grunted as he realized if the old bus didn't get along any faster, he was going to have a very wet trek from the road to his house. And this was one of those days he had no jacket, no poncho or anything, to shield himself against the elements.

They were about a third of the way into their route when it happened. One of the high school teens, a well-known tall and muscular boy by the name of Jeremy Riddle, grabbed their attention that day. As far as Michael was concerned, the teen was a prick, a true bully if ever there was one. He used both his physical prowess and sharp tongue to dish out misery to anyone less fortunate. He generally hung out with a select group of buddies, most of whom represented the school's rougher students. Most partnered with Riddle, not so much because he was a gang leader - for there were no true 'gangs' to speak of - but instead, to avoid retribution from him. In effect, they wanted to ride his 'coat tails', figuratively speaking, sometimes for the safety net, but mostly for curiosity.

On this particular afternoon, Jeremy had somehow chosen a new victim to taunt. It was common for him to act with some measure of superiority around others, belittling, prodding or embarrassing them in any way he could. In the back of Michaels' mind, he heard and registered a chorus of loud taunts and laughs coming from the back of the bus, but it was a routine so common place that at first, he ignored it. Eventually, however, he heard someone cry out, shouting distinctly above the rest of the crowd. "Hey, give it back! Give it back, you fucking asshole!"

That outcry got the attention of the whole bus then, in more ways than one. A new level of accompanying jeers followed, but Michael noted how the tone had changed. The attitude of the other kids became more focused, as most scrambled to see what was going on. It was as if the air itself, acquired a temperamental stillness amongst the crowd, and for an instant, everyone fell silent. Only the sounds of the old bus, grinding to a gradual halt, could be heard before an explosion of shouts went up. Michael closed his eyes briefly, fully anticipating what was about to come. He groaned, more to himself than he did aloud, but resigned himself to the fact that something bad was about to happen, and it would prolong their normal route regardless.

As he turned around, he focused his own eyes toward the rear of the vehicle. There he found a dense mixture of bodies, all staring or working around to see what was unfolding. A fight had broken out, and in no time, it was being impelled by the surrounding audience. Some chose to side with the bully, while a few rooted for and supported the underdog. Mostly, however, it was because the event gave the group ring-side seats. Michael already knew Riddle was involved, after catching the briefest of glimpses, seeing the boy's figure moving around with arms flailing. The other kid, however, he could not see, so he had no real idea who it was. For some reason, that piqued his curiosity.

As the bus ground to a halt, many students who were already out of their seats or in the aisle, were thrown off balance. The jerking stop threw them forward at the sudden change of inertia, making them cry out. A few of the smaller kids were forced back into their seats, but most caught themselves either by grabbing a nearby seat back, or a fellow body nearby. As they heard the air brakes kick in, many of them began chanting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!". Shouts of "Hurry!" and "He's coming!", and "Wow, you guys are in deep shit now!" could be heard. Michael frowned as he sat back, crossing his arms while continuing to watch.

As the driver hauled himself out of his seat, he started yelling back into the crowd, "Break her up! Break her up, I said!" Michael grimaced, again more to himself than anything, but decided he might as well take an interest. If nothing else, he could at least find out who the latest casualty of the Riddle reign was. He stood, turning around and placing one of his knees into the seat, watching the sideshow with everyone else. It was as if the entire bus was being treated to the main act of some long sporting event.

The bus driver, a husky black man named Stan, was a stocky fellow in his 50's, and carried a belly that protruded over his belt. Upon seeing him start down the aisle, students began backing into their seats, as they had nowhere else to go given his size. He could be heard muttering under his breath, as he worked his frame between the seats and the crowd, until he maneuvered into the melee. As he appraised the situation, he hooked an arm into that of the sophomore, who happened to be on top, drilling feverish punches to someone beneath him. Stan grunted as he hauled backwards, using both his weight and his strength, pulling Riddle clear of his victim with seemingly little effort. He immediately then braced himself to bear the full weight of the teenager if he needed to, in case there was a need to reassure him the fight was indeed, truly over.

"Break her up! Break her up I said, and I mean now!" Stan grabbed the teen's wildly flailing fists and subdued them, finally coming into control of situation. Before anyone could react, Stan also straddled his legs around the kid still on the floor, his purpose being to protect the youth against anyone who might get second ideas of adding their own visage into the melee. When everyone had finally stilled, the driver looked down to observe the youth. "Good lord!" he muttered to himself. One of the victims' arms had been pinned around a seat support, and his body was jammed into the opening in such a way, he could never have been freed to even partially defend himself. His other hand clearly had been deflecting, Stan surmised, what he could of the blows raining down on him. In short, the driver realized this fight was over before it had even begun.

It was more than just a fight, however. Michael stretched, his neck hovering higher along with the 30 or so other kids still standing, trying to get a look at the new focus of attention on the floor. Riddle, still pumped up and bouncing about wildly, had bloodied hands that were still clinched into tight fists. The teen had to be restrained by a friend, and when Stan noticed it, he turned and screamed at the bigger teen. "I told you, dat's enough, you rug rat!" A smirk of triumph covered Riddle's face, as he finally fell back into the seat behind him. As he listened to the taunts and laughs made by the few that were there, Stan also decided he had heard enough all the way around. "If I hear another pipe out of anyone here, I'll put you off the bus, right here and now! You can walk home in all the bloody rain and mud the rest of the way! Now, SHUT UP!" The booming voice had the desired effect, as most of the kids instantly fell silent.

Riddle was still hyper, however, reeling himself in, but finding it hard to completely withdraw. That is, until somebody quietly muttered, "Oh shit Jermz..., oh sshhiiittttt…" His smile faded slowly then, as he finally looked down and saw what everyone else was now observing.

The driver looked up briefly into the older boy's face only once, a clouded expression masking a level of coldness that was incalculable. "If you know what's good for you, you will plant your ass in that seat, and you will stay there until I tell you to move otherwise." The mere tone in which it was delivered, assured Riddle the man meant business. Cowering backwards until his back braced against the wall of the bus, he relented.

Michael did not see anything immediately, as the broad man's backside blocked the view beneath, but he could tell when Stan reached down and gently began to pull the other boy up. The stocky man was doing it with the uttermost care, helping to slide the youth out so he could be freed from the various seat braces and rods. When he had successfully maneuvered the youth into a sitting position, the boy then gathered his legs beneath him and stood. The task required considerable effort, but Stan backed up and offered a helping hand of support. Michael heard the man hiss at Riddle one last time: "I mean it pup: you move, and your ass is mine! Do you understand me?" There was a low whistle that cut loose, and as if on cue, others joined in. That is, until the man swept his gaze over them with a pointed finger. At once, the group fell silent again.

When the two began to move, several backed away to clear the aisle and give them room. It was then that Michael got his first unobstructed view, and what he found made him gasp. The boy's face was covered in blood and grime, stretching from his eyes to his chin, and then further down onto his chest. His nose leaked a slow red stream, causing it to mix with a nasty cut upon his upper lip. Both eyes were swollen from bruises, and it would not be long before they both tightened and darkened, creating the infamous black-eye effect. The kid's hair was disheveled and skewed, and the whole side of his face looked as if it had been dragged through dirt associated with a machine shop.

The severity of his appearance was what horrified everyone mostly. In the short amount of time the fight occurred, this teen looked like he had been on the receiving end blows for hours. He held his head at an angle, probably to help limit the flow of blood still collectively assembling, and at one point pulled his shirt-tail free to use and wipe beneath his nose. His shirt, torn from just below his collarbone clear to his left side, exposed the rib cage it hid underneath. Where once were buttons, it hung loosely now in folds where they had been ripped away.

As the youth stood steadying himself, Michael noticed one remarkable trait that stood out: he did not cry. Though try as he might to hold the anguish of the pain he undoubtedly suffered, his face betrayed a mixture of emotions. Not one of them, however, caused him to moan or utter a sound. As Michael got over the initial shock of his appearance, he was startled to see that he recognized him. He was none other than someone his own age, named Thomas, who lived close by his house for years. They both attended 7th grade, sometimes with shared classes, but they had never really interacted with one another to any extent.

Although both boys were shy to a certain degree, Michael thought Thomas was more timid than usual, more of a loner in the crowd. Nevertheless, he began to feel a deep well of anger building inside, faced with the fact that one of his own classmates had been Riddle's most recent brutalized victim. As he watched, Thomas moved slowly down the aisle behind Stan. It was not hard to see that the teen had been outclassed by Riddle, by and large, by both size and weight. The older kid had a good 20-pounds more than the younger teen, aside from being more muscular. Although both Michael and Thomas had begun a growing spurt the summer before, classifying them both amongst the tallest boys in their grade, it still could not match up to Riddle's 6-foot frame.

Michael suddenly winced inwardly, thinking about what it must have been like, having Jeremy's weight pressing him down and being pinned underneath the seats. With a single arm free, he could visualize how Thomas had tried to deflect the blows away, all the while being beaten with no recourse but to take it blindly. Seeing Thomas as he made his way forward, Michael knew the teen hadn't even had a fair chance. As he glanced at all the other kids in the back, he inwardly raged, thinking about all the taunts and jeers that were called out. If it had been a fair fight, perhaps his thinking would have been different. However, it wasn't, and it sickened Michael to think that the older ones hadn't even tried to intervene. Riddle had lost control, and no one even cared.

After moving forward a few feet to a more open area of the aisle, Thomas stood still as the bus driver checked him over. To his credit, the teen was oblivious to the stares around him. He continued to say nothing, refusing to shed a tear or moan aloud. He did dart his eyes here and there, looking at the various faces in his peripheral view, but not studying anyone with consequence. At least, not until he came across one person particularly, a fellow classmate it turned out, only a few rows ahead of him. He noticed the look of surprise meeting him, but the otherwise masked expression conveyed nothing else.

Inwardly, Michael saw the connection between them briefly, and he felt the look of pain behind Thomas's expression, before Thomas went on to the others nearby. What that was all about, Michael wasn't sure. It did disturb him, however, that here was someone his own age, living relatively close - yet he had never really taken an interest in him. It was hard enough living in rural parts of America, and even harder sometimes finding kids close to your own age, living nearby. Yet alone end up in the same grade.

Michael sized the other teenager up, noting the similar height and weight. They were both healthy, lightweight Caucasian boys, reasonably fit for their age. Although Michael wore thin, wire-framed glasses over his own bright blue eyes, they were more for correcting astigmatism than anything else. He could not remember ever seeing Thomas wear glasses, so he assumed the teen didn't require them. Feature-wise, both boys were similar, but also different in several aspects. In contrast to Michael's brown hair, Thomas had blondish, sandy-colored hair with darkened roots. Both enjoyed shortened hairstyles that were far from being buzzed, but neither had excessive length. Although Thomas usually held a sharper complexion, his face still held much of his youth intact. Only the cuts and bruises distracted those features now, enhanced by the rapid swelling building underneath.

As the seconds passed, more people must have begun to realize how bad it must have been. The silence had deepened even further, to the point one could almost hear breathing in the crowd. Even the youngest of the kids present, especially the kindergarten and first graders, looked on in stunned silence. There was a certain awe in this for them, many perhaps seeing the outcome of their first real fight ever.

At one point, Stan pulled what appeared to be a clean, neatly folded handkerchief from his back pocket, one that seemed to overly stand out against his darkened complexion. As Thomas let go of his shirt, the man put the cloth to the side of the teen's face and nose, attempting to help stop the trickle of blood that still dripped. After only what had to be seconds - but seemed much longer – the man then moved aside and guided Thomas past him, ushering him toward the front of the bus. The teen's face was still wrought with emotion, from the hurt, humiliation and pain he had endured, while moving up the aisle. He had taken the offered handkerchief and held it in place for himself, and after stumbling only slightly, he rounded the bigger man and gained momentum enough to move forward slowly. In the interim, Stan pointed a finger at the bigger Riddle, and motioned quietly for him to follow them, before turning and falling in behind Thomas.

As he watched the three of them approach, Michael came to an abrupt decision. With his seat being almost at the front of the bus, he knew that both boys were going to have to find a place to sit. Glancing between his own and the driver's, Michael saw assorted boxes and other paraphernalia blocking them, so he removed his sports bag and slid it underneath and out of the way. It emptied the seat beside him effectively, thus creating a place which he hoped would suffice for Thomas to join him. As he glanced up, however, it dawned on him in a panic that the driver might sit Riddle with him instead. He visibly gulped and chided himself for not having thought of it sooner. Now was too late, however, so he would just have to wait and see what happened. His eyes met the older man as they neared, and Stan hesitated only slightly. When Michael moved his attention to Thomas and back, the older man understood perfectly before nodding. He reached out and guided Thomas by the shoulder, gently pushing and seating him in the now vacant spot, much to Michael's relief. When Stan and Riddle then passed and reached the front, the driver cleared a place across the aisle and next to the door. Pointing silently, he commanded Riddle to take his new place. Neither said a single word, but the silence between them spoke volumes - one in contempt of what had just happened, and one in sudden uncertainty of what had just gone down.

As Michael turned to sit back down, he looked upon his newly seated companion, and wondered what had motivated him in the spur of the moment. It was no secret that he was mostly a loner - as had been the other boy for most of their elementary school life. Neither was known for reaching out or making friends, each coming from homes that isolated and shielded them from much of the social interactions of the world. Still, Michael felt that somewhere inside, he sympathized with Thomas. He loathed being bullied or being picked on, especially for little to no reason. At an early age, he discovered that by enclosing his own world around him, spending his time in relative solitude, it gave others little excuse to single him out. He avoided the jokes and pranks of his peers in that manner, and it had been a mutually acceptable position to take. In his mind though, Michael was beginning to realize that maybe Thomas, in some way, was not all that dissimilar. Perhaps that was what made Michael abruptly change his mind, and offer to share his haven. At least it was somewhere away from the obvious, that would have put Thomas front and center of the bus crowd - and alone.

In all his contemplation, however, the fact that Thomas had been sitting near the rear of the bus did not change Michael's view or opinion of him. He knew some kids came from the far side of the school, and when the last bell rung, found it more difficult to get the seat of their choice in the afternoons. Thomas was most likely one of those less fortunate, having to suffer at the whims of other kid's moods, at least initially. That ultimately determined where he would settle down each day on his ride home.

Stan returned to Thomas's side, having reached under his own seat and extracted a first aid kit. As he began using cotton swabs, coated with rubbing alcohol, he cleaned the dirt and grime that had accumulated in most of the areas around Thomas's face. Grimacing a few times at the burning sensation, Thomas sat still and looked forward, while the man clicked his tongue. After a few strokes, the man then knelt into the narrow space on one knee in the aisle, a considerable feat given the size of his bulk. Most of the kids had returned to sitting down by now, and a low mumble of hushed voices and whispers began drifting through the air. Some of the smaller kids began actively moving about, trying to watch with more clarity. One of them, seated directly across the aisle, began to audibly whistle as the swabs wiped and pulled away more blood and grime. It caused Michael to look up and catch the youngster's attention, before putting a finger to his lips. The youth obeyed, falling silent again.

The entire bus sat on the side of the roadway for several minutes, all the while Stan looked after Thomas, cleaning him up as best he could. When he finally stood, he handed the handkerchief back to Thomas. "Here, you go ahead and keep this, in case you should need it till we get you home, okay?" When Thomas nodded, the man then turned his attention back to the front of the bus, where he moved forward and climbed back into his seat. He looked up into the long, rectangular mirror stationed overhead, and gazed back at everyone else as they returned to their own seats. After a brief pause, he called out, "What say y'all jest sit back down, it's over now. Okay? What say we jest keep it down for the rest of the ride home, huh?" With that, he started the diesel engine again, and began maneuvering the vehicle back onto the road.

As the various kids departed the bus at their respective stops, some by themselves and others with siblings, no one hesitated to observe Thomas minutely as they walked by, getting an extra close-up view of the damage. For the most part, the teen ignored them, instead concentrating on some nonexistent point ahead, and occasionally dabbing at his nose when he felt the need. The trickle of blood had now since stopped, but in its stead Thomas's face was left with the typical swelling and bruises expected. Michael himself glanced and winced, but out of respect he did not stare. As time progressed, he heard and saw the little changes in the teen beside him, too. Thomas was in pain, and it became more evident he was making every effort he could to not let it show. They both sat in the close quarters silently, which seemed to be the golden rule of the moment.

At one point, however, Michael began watching Riddle again, who now sat diagonally across from them; the older boy's face was like stone for the most part, almost featureless. Perhaps he now realized that he had gone too far, Michael thought. Perhaps he would finally understand the anger that had welled inside was out of control, in more ways than one. Riddle had been a bully to most kids for years - though always smart enough to stay out of trouble, and just outside of being caught. Most heated fights and arguments in the past left him victorious - if not visibly, then to the crowd of followers who carried his ego with them. Few crossed his path who were not in his inner circle, and those who did were mostly discarded soon after. Even teachers found themselves weary of dealing with the youth, and some simply just chose to avoid the conflict. At this moment, however, Michael saw not so much someone who thought he dominated his world around him, but something else instead. One who did have a weakness, making him just as human as everyone else.

They were nearing the end of the route where they reached Riddle's house first. Although almost everyone had remained subdued, their arrival was punctuated by the fact that, instead of stopping at the end of the driveway as usual, the bus turned and entered it. You could not see the sophomore's house directly from the road, but most knew it lay over the short rise that loomed in front. When they topped it and began to descend on the other side, they quickly pulled into a dusty, circular pathway near the bottom. The path edged the outline of a barren, unkempt yard. The far side backed up to an aged and cluttered farmhouse, whose structure held a rusted, metal roof that had seen better days. A rickety-looking porch across the front sagged on one corner, giving the whole building the oddly twisted illusion of being unstable. The yard was littered with odd machinery and tools, with tall grass and weeds mixed around them. The growth around the various farming tools gave the impression they had not been used in quite some time. In addition, a multitude of beer cans and bottles were scattered about the scene, on the porch and in the yard both. It made Michael inwardly wince, as he speculated to himself the kind of lifestyle that probably existed here. Any other time, he would have wrinkled his nose at the thought. His mother, a devote Christian and church attendee, had raised him with a faith to believe that drinking was wrong. Sadly, he had witnessed firsthand it's devastating effects on some individuals and families.

As they pulled up and parked, an older man - probably in his 50's - appeared from somewhere near the house, and began walking toward them. He looked hot and sweaty, and as he walked his sagging shoulders and slowness suggested he was exhausted. As he neared the bus, Michael could see his expression was one of calculated curiosity, but also one of annoyance. For some reason, he had a feeling this was not going to bode well for Jeremy.

Stan unsnapped his belt buckle and stood up. Opening the door, he motioned for Jeremy to remain where he was. "You sit there, young'un, and don't move," the stout man warned, before stepping off and intercepting the elder Riddle outside.

The conversation was held in low tones, where most inside could not overhear. It wasn't for lack of trying, as the few who were left strained hard, trying as they might, to catch something of the exchange. When they all saw the old man's expression change to one of anger, one of Riddle's allies hissed from the rear, loud enough to be heard. "Shit Jeremy..." Tension and uneasy feelings swept over the group, as clearly the elder Riddle was making every effort to maintain a cordial rapport with their driver. Finally, after both stopped speaking, they turned and retraced Stan's steps back to the entrance to the bus, where the elder Riddle separated and stepped inside. Climbing onto the platform, he surveyed the remaining crowd before setting his sights on his son. Each saw the man's face contort into a mask of fury, until his eyes drifted aside and fell on Thomas. Scrutinizing him with minute detail, the man heaved a huge sigh.

Thomas stared forward defiantly, maintaining his silence and ignoring the stare. There was nothing for him to really say or do anyway, despite the old man's attention. Shaking his head, Mr. Riddle grunted seconds later, before turning his attention back to his son. Surprisingly, Jeremy was looking forward as well, a calm expression over his face - and it was that look which made Michael understand. Like father, like son, it was cold, uncalculating, unfeeling. There was a danger there unvoiced, but without a doubt the level of fury the old man held was indescribable. When he spoke, the words were hardly above a whisper, and the tone was as detached and unforgiving as one could have expected. Only three words escaped him, but they were filled with a venom that sent ice down Michael's back: "Let's go, now!" As he left the bus, Jeremy slowly rose to his feet and stood, hesitating only for an instant, before he exited the bus quietly behind him.

They all heard the old man thank Stan, and then assure him it would not happen again. The words could still be heard in the cold, emotionless tone the man spoke inside. They all watched as the man separated and started walking across the yard, and they all could see Jeremy following some steps behind. Instead of returning to the house, however, the man walked past and headed for what appeared to be a barn, or other structure behind it. As Stan returned and started the bus, he maneuvered it around the drive and headed back toward the road. The remaining kids watched until the Riddle's had rounded the corner beyond sight, before returning to their seats.

The driver himself grimaced and shook his head, his own thoughts betraying what he was thinking. It all but confirmed, in Michaels' mind, what was probably going to happen next: Jeremy was going to get his due. Although he should have felt elated at seeing some level of justice about to come about, Michael was instead left feeling queasy inside. When he was younger, he had been spanked a time or two for the little, ordinary misdeeds that most kids perpetrated while growing up. That was commonplace, though, and happened few and far between. He somehow felt this instance, though, was not going to be ordinary. For a brief moment, he actually felt sorry for the older kid; as rough and as much of a bully Jeremy could be, the punishment probably fitted the crime. Somehow, however, Michael suspected the crime was going to be much softer in comparison to what was coming.

He returned his attention to Thomas, who now was sitting with his head positioned backward on the seat, with his eyes closed. He was oblivious to the world around him, and the remaining kids who were being dropped off at their destinations. No whimpering, no sounds to amount to anything - nothing audible escaped the teen, and that belied his condition. Michael knew better though. He saw the twitching, the slight movement of muscles in places uncommon; he heard the deep breaths the boy took, and the slow escape of the air that followed. Although he thought the boy beside him did not look very good, he also knew the swelling and bruises could be deceiving. For the first time since the incident began, he wondered what could have happened that sparked Jeremy off in the first place. The sophomore had lost control - but why? Michael knew, from his own experiences, that there were just some things worth fighting for - period. It didn't matter if it was physical or verbal, or personal. For some kids, it was just a rite-of-passage, to show that they would stand up to anyone or anything that crossed them. But this went beyond that point. Riddle was hitting and beating on Thomas with a passion, in a rage.

What sparked it, Michael did not know, but he was sure it would be a hot topic of discussion in the days to come.

The last of the group were delivered to their homes without incident, coming down to just the two of them remaining. Being at the end of the route, they were used to being among the first picked up in the mornings, and the last to depart. Fortunately, the ride wasn't excessively long, so it didn't affect them as badly as it could, though the route still required 45-50 minutes to complete one-way. The three of them remained silent, as the old school bus pushed forward. As if by signal, the sky began to finally open up, and a shower proceeded to fall, publicizing the oncoming weather in a very profound way. Inwardly Michael had forgotten his earlier musings about the weather, but groaned as it came back into focus for him. He realized he would probably be walking the half-mile or so, from the road to the house, in the rain. 'Oh well' he thought, bemused, but it was not something he was looking forward to.

Thomas' house was the next stop, but before arriving, their driver once again pulled the bus over to the side of the road and stopped. Curious, Michael watched as the man motioned for them both to come up and sit in the front seat recently vacated by Riddle. Getting up, Thomas at first turned to toward the back of the bus, only to stop when he realized someone had already brought his backpack forward and set it on the seat behind them. Grabbing it, he turned and moved forward again. At first Michael was unsure if he should follow, but Stan smiled at him. "Yeah, come on down here, it's alright." Encouraged, he moved in behind Thomas, where they both plopped down in the indicated seat.

When they were situated, Stan turned around from his seat without getting up, and just sat looking at Thomas with a careful eye. "Okay, spill it young'un. What was all dat about, back there?" He said it in a gentle way, with none of the usual gruffness in his voice, despite the slur of his language. When Thomas sat silently, the man spoke again, soothingly. "T'is okay, son. I'm not going to jump down your throat. So, how about it?"

Michael turned to observe that the two were staring at each other. More than once Thomas opened his mouth to reply, but no words escaped. The older man just sat patiently, not pushing, giving the youngster time to sort out what he wanted to say. When Thomas finally did find his voice, it was shaky, and when he spoke, it was in a tone barely above a whisper. Without question, it betrayed the conflict of emotions coursing through him at that moment. "W-why d-does it m-matter? I-I'm s-suspended, anyway, right?"

Stan grunted and sat up straighter. "Well now, not necessarily. A lot of dat depends, don't it? Tell me. What happened back there?"

Thomas just stared back, and after a moment lowered his eyes. "They t-took my stuff, and … and started pulling all my notebooks out and everything, then throwing them around in the floor."

An incredulous expression crossed the drivers face. "You're kiddin, right? All dat racket, just because ... he took your stuff? What are we talking about, your bag?" When Thomas didn't reply, Stan's voice rose sharply. "In all my days, are you sure you didn't get them marbles of yours whacked loose or something? What the tarnation happened back thar?" Stan caught himself, then lowered his voice back to a more normal volume. "I know Riddle can be a handful, but young'un, he would not let loose on you like that for some stupid prank at best. And please, don't think you can smart-ass me about it either! I may not have some of the education like you pups do, but I wasn't born yesterday, you hear me!"

A note of annoyance seeped into the small voice that answered. "No disrespect, but… you w-wouldn't understand, sir," was all that came back.

Michael would have thought that would do it - the tone, the defiance, the lack of excuse - but to his surprise, Stan only sighed and smiled. He sat there observing the boy for a moment, before he spoke again. This time, his voice carried a more measured tone, filled with a kindness and understanding that neither boy would have expected. "Listen to me, I know you, both of you... You're not trouble-makers like that Riddle kid and his bunch. I know he's got a big mouth, and a school record probably a mile long. But something ain't right here, you see? And right now, I gotta ask you one last time, see? I got to knows something, or else I gotta go to the boss in the mornin. And if I take it that far, then yes, both you and Riddle will gets throwed off the bus, or at least suspended for a few days. But I don't want to do that, you see? Not without knowing what happened..."

Thomas looked back into the eyes scrutinizing him, then quietly repeated his story, but using a firmer voice. "They took my bag sir, and they wouldn't give it back. Then they opened it and found… found my journal. And started to read stuff that was… was private, okay? And then they started trying to pass it around, and … and I got mad, and I got up and started grabbing back for it. You know, trying to get it back out of his hands. I called him a shitty, dick-less, spineless wimp, and … and he got mad, and called me something or other. That's when I called him a faggot, and the next thing I know, I was shoved down into the floor by the creep I was sitting with, and then the shithead pinned me down." Thomas stopped and took a deep breath, his emotions getting the better of him. Afterwards, he dropped his eyes to the floor. "Sorry about the language, but… that's it, sir. It's the truth, and right now, to be honest? I don't care if you believe me or not. I just… I just want to go home. Please? Please just let me go home?" He had looked back up at the driver, and Michael noticed the tears that threatened to spill from the boy's eyes.

Michael remained still, afraid to move as he watched the exchange between the two. The elder driver rarely allowed the use of foul language, but he himself had uttered a few curses himself, so Michael figured perhaps this moment was an exception to the rule. To his surprise, however, Stan suddenly grimaced and looked at the floor as if trying to decide something. Not so much the truthfulness of the story, but more so what he was going to do afterward. When he spoke again, it was slow and clear, annunciating each point to drive it home. "All right, if you say it's that, then I'll believe you - unless I should hear different. Just so you know, that Porter girl, she said something to me along those same lines, so I don't think there will be any problem there. You say you tried to git er back, huh? Your book, I mean? Yeah, dat sounds like something that bunch would do." The man stared outside for a moment, then turned back and started the bus again and moving on. Momentarily, they pulled up to the house where Thomas lived. As he stopped the bus yet again, this time he parked it and, releasing his seat belt, he got out of his seat slowly, looking at Thomas as he got up. "No wunz has any right to mess with other peoples' stuff, I understand that. And believe it or not, I really do respect it, too. Just, be careful, hmm? You need ter be careful who you take on sometimes. Someone twice your size and build, is not a very healthy habit to get into - if you catch my drift. Not over something like dat, although I do understand what you said about it being private and all." He stepped off and started across the yard, Thomas's mother clearly already coming from the house.

Thomas grimaced upon seeing her as he slowly stood up. Before exiting though, he turned to Michael and, for the first time, acknowledged his presence being there. "Thanks, man. I owe you," he said quietly, again his voice barely above a whisper.

Michael was startled, but when their eyes met, something connected. Although in his mind he really didn't do anything, he accepted it with a short nod. "Sure, anytime. See ya," was all he could think of in reply. With that Thomas grabbed his bag and walked off the bus, right into the arms of his mother, who had rushed from the porch to check out what had happened in more detail. The falling rain was ignored by everyone except the driver who sheltered himself on the porch until they returned, and Michael could see a short, but a lively discussion proceeded between the adults. Momentarily she shook her head, but unlike the elder Riddle, her reaction was entirely different and subdued. It looked to Michael that she thanked the driver profusely, and as they separated, she put her arm around Thomas and guided him inside. Stan returned to the bus, and then proceeded to take Michael home.

"It sure is a shame, you know. You boys having to live all the way out here, I mean," Stan called back, as they finally neared Michael's driveway. The remark startled him, as he had been staring out of the window at the barren fields and shrubs as they passed by, along with old fences and clumps of trees in the distance. He picked up his bag as the bus came to a halt at the end of their driveway. "Well, well, looks like you gonna be saved a mighty wet walk after all!"

Michael looked and then smiled. "Way to go, Mom!" he exclaimed. He turned to the driver and hesitated, as he wanted to ask something. Stan, however, shook his head.

"I'm not sure what I'm gonna do, to tell the truth. I thinks I need to study about it tonight, and then decide something in the morning. You two don't need to worry about too much though, not tonight anyhow. Go on, we'll see you tomorrows, okay?" As Michael nodded, he said goodbye before bolting from the bus, and heading straight for the parked vehicle waiting for him. As he climbed in, he heard the big air-brakes of the bus disengage, and the vehicle pulled away. Closing the door, he found his mother sitting there as if she had suddenly come to life from a nap.

"Easy young man, don't slam the door so hard!" she exclaimed, before sitting up. Looking at her watch, she then observed her son closely. "What happened to you guys? Did you get kidnapped at school or something?"

Michael proceeded to tell her everything, as she started up the car and they headed back down the long driveway toward the house. As they approached closer, her eyes suddenly widened at hearing the sordid details, and every now and then she steadily shook her head in disbelief.

To Michael, it had been an interesting event, if not an annoyance... Still, it opened his eyes to something he could not ignore. The moment he and Thomas had looked directly at each other, there was an undeniable connection.

And it was not something he was going to forget.

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