by Jim Sellers
CHAPTER FIFTEEN | THE OLD DRIVER
Danielda’s moment of celebration evaporated, like steam. In its absence, a feeling of dread poured over her. She was in so much trouble, it was impossible to imagine. The morning replayed through her mind like a bad movie. Then everything that happened before then started playing as well. The candy, the pen, the bus driver’s uniform, which probably cost a lot to clean. And she had stolen a bus! What is the punishment for that? Her mother would probably have to pay for everything. Maybe Danielda would go to jail—juvenile jail for trouble makers. That really hurt Danielda’s stomach, which was already cramping with worry. It was bad enough that the bus driver hated her, but now her mother would hate her too. Tears started to fill Danielda’s eyes and trickle down her face. She pulled a tissue out of her pocket to wipe her tears and blow her nose. She didn’t want the old man to see her crying, even if he didn’t seem to understand what was going on.
She saw movement in the mirror and looked to see what was happening behind them. A policeman was wading through the mud toward the bus. She could see how far into the field they had driven. A long set of tire tracks cut deep lines through the mud in the field behind them. A sound of someone clearing his throat beside startled her. She turned and saw the old man standing next to her, smiling. He was holding a white cane. Danielda realized she had never seen him stand but suddenly everything made sense.
“You’re blind?” she asked, unable to think of anything less obvious to say.
“Yup,” he replied, “Mostly, I can still see shapes and things but legally I’m as blind as a bat. Macular Degeneration they call it, like a car window with too many cracks and dark smears all over.” He tapped his head with his finger, “Sometimes I get a bit confused and forgetful, too. They call that getting old.”
Danielda smiled at him. At least he didn’t hate her, or he didn’t seem to anyway. The man pointed at the driver’s seat.
“Say, now you’ve stopped, can I have a turn in the chair? I haven’t been able to do that for a while and I’d like to give it a whirl,” he said with a grin.
“Oh, sure,” Danielda got up from the seat and helped him into it. He handed her his cane and then started feeling around the buttons and levers. He found the gear selector and pushed it. That was followed by a loud clunk from the back of the bus and the tone of the engine changed. He continued to feel around the controls until his fingers located a button, which he pushed and the engine shuttered to a stop. The whole bus shook briefly in sympathy with the motor, as if the huge machine was relieved to finally stop running.
“This old girl has had a pretty rough morning,” the man said, sounding more like a wise grandfather than the funny old man she thought he was. He was a bus driver, of course he cared about the bus. She stood next to him, holding his cane and watching as he felt around the once familiar place he used to work. She saw him smile as he held the wheel and sat straight, probably imagining that he was driving again. A tap on the side window startled both of them. The old man reached over and pulled it open. A policeman, standing in ankle deep mud, was looking at them.
“Is everybody okay in there?” the policeman asked, looking in the bus at the seats.
“Everything is just fine here, Officer,” the man replied with his characteristic grin.
The policemen adjusted his hat and stood on the bumper to get a better look, “Is it just you folks in here?”
“Yes sir,” the old man replied, looking toward Danielda, “Just me and my young apprentice here.” He turned back to the policeman, “I trust we didn’t cause too much trouble out there.”
The policeman looked at the old driver for a moment, then shook his head, “No major damage but a whole lot of worried people, especially your mother,” he was nodding at Danielda. “Just hold tight and we’ll get you out of here.”
“Aye, aye sir,” said the old man grinning, “We shall await our rescue.”
The policeman turned and started back through the sticky muck, struggling not to lose his balance.
“Take your seat, missy. We’re about to be rescued,” the old man seemed excited as he adjusted the seat. Danielda sat on the side bench, where the old man usually sat and watched him with a newfound respect.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” she said. The man turned his head in her direction.
“What’s that, my dear?”
“Didn’t you know what was going on? That a kid was driving the bus?”
“Listen, I may seem like an old snooze-bag but I’m not as dumb as I look. I knew what was going on.”
“Why didn’t you help me?” she asked.
“What could I do, I’m blind. You were on your own, I’m afraid. But you handled the whole situation very well, in my opinion. Besides, it seemed to me you had some things on your mind that you wanted to work out. You were talking to yourself, non-stop. You better be careful of that, missy. If people catch you talking to yourself when you get older, they’ll think you’re loopy.”
Danielda laughed. “That’s funny. Can you tell me something else?”
“What would you like to know?”
“Where do you go every day? You’re always on the bus but you never get off.”
The old man laughed, “I get to ride for free and it’s a nice way to pass the morning. Besides, I’m retired, I got nothin’ else to do,” he smiled at her.
“Do you know what I think?” she said. “What?”
“I think that’s loopy.” Danielda grinned. Then she rubbed her hands together. They tingled after holding on so tightly to the steering wheel.
“How’s it feel to drive a bus?” he asked.
“It was exciting, even though I know I’m going to be in a lot of trouble for the rest of my life because of it.”
“Ah, well, that’s how you learn. You do things and sometimes you make mistakes,” he said.
Danielda started to relax. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe everyone will understand that it was just a mistake. She didn’t mean to—
There was a knocking on the door. Danielda saw the Police had arrived in an all-terrain vehicle to take them out of the mud.
“They’ve come for us,” she said, “You’ll have to open the door.”
The old driver felt around for the controls, “They keep changing it on me. Where’d they put the controls?”
Danielda laughed, “It’s over there on your left.”
The door opened and Danielda’s mother jumped into the bus and hugged her tight. Her mother was sobbing but Danielda felt all of her worry, her self doubt and fears drain out of her as she felt the warmth of her mother’s embrace. No one spoke or moved for a long moment but Danielda opened her eyes and saw the old man grinning as he pretended to drive.
They drove out of the mud to the sidewalk where the police had roped off part of the road. Danielda stepped off the ATV first and helped the old man down off. There was a crowd of TV and newspaper reporters recording them along with hundreds of people with their cells phones out. As they stepped on to dry land, a loud cheer rose up from the crowd. Danielda saw that the old man was acting a lot frailer than before and was exaggerating the use of his white cane. She knew he was playing it up for the cameras and maybe for her benefit too. She realized the people there didn’t know what actually happened. All they could see was a young girl helping a blind, old man off a runaway bus. That would look good on the news, but it wasn’t the truth. She was going to have to face her mother and explain everything, soon.
After the paramedics checked Danielda and the old man over and declared they were fine, Danielda sat in her mother’s car watching as the adults stood by the police car talking, or arguing by the looks of it. A monster sized tow truck had backed onto the field and was pulling the bus out of the mud. The crowd of people had lost interest and gone away and the reporters left to write their news stories. All that was left were a few police cars and some other cars from the transit department with their lights still flashing. The bus, her bus, all caked with mud was being hauled up on to a trailer to be towed away.
“Goodbye bus,” she said, “Thank you for letting me drive. And not crashing.”
With mud stains covering its front and coating the tires, it looked as unhappy as she felt. The truck pulling the trailer started with a roar and drove off with the bus, facing backwards on the trailer. It looked like its muddy front was staring back at Danielda accusingly, as if to say you did this to me.
Danielda looked down at her hands, “I’m sorry,” she said. She sat glumly, waiting in the car and looking out at the scrum of police, her mother, the transit managers, the bus driver who came with one of them, and the old man sitting in a wheelchair who spoke occasionally. The policemen in the car that was next to the bus while she was driving were busy writing notes and asking questions and her mother, who was livid, was waving her arms and arguing. The conversation was pretty animated.
Danielda felt the weight of the day settling on her. She had done so many bad things, dangerous things. She couldn’t begin to make up for all of her mistakes. What was worse was she didn’t even understand how they all happened. She never intended to drive the bus or put anyone in danger. She couldn’t apologize for doing something if she didn’t know what it was she had done.
She just knew the results and that’s what the adults were arguing about outside. They were taking forever. She wanted to walk over and surrender to the police, to say she was sorry to the driver for the pen, the candies and the bus, his bus. She knew that probably wasn’t going to be good enough. Sometimes bad things happen that are so big and so bad, all the apologies in the world won’t fix them.
She wished her mother would come back and take her home so she could start the punishment. Whatever it was, it couldn’t make her feel any worse than she already did.
Finally, her mother came back to the car. It was obvious from the look on her face and the way she walked that she was furious. She slammed the door and started the engine. Danielda braced for a scolding but instead her mother leaned over and kissed her on the head.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, they are going to pay for this. They don’t put my daughter in danger and get away with it. That older man was a retired driver, do you know that?”
Danielda was going to answer but her mother kept talking, “He told us how you took control of the bus and saved both of them. You were so brave, Danielda. I’m so proud of you.” She reached over and hugged Danielda again, then put the car in gear and drove away.
This was bad. Danielda felt the cold sweat on her arms. The old man had covered for her. He thought he was helping but it would only make things worse. She had to explain things to her mother before it became a bigger disaster. She would, just as soon as they got home.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN | PUNISHMENT
The drive home was nerve wracking. Danielda started ahead at the road while her mother was constantly stopping too hard and accelerating too fast. She didn’t know what her mother was thinking but Danielda knew that she had the wrong idea. Fixing that was going to be hard, probably as hard as the punishment that would come afterward.
Her mother turned on the radio and clicked through the channels. There were songs of every kind but she was looking for something specific. She finally found the news where they were talking about the “bazaar runaway bus incident. No one was killed or injured, by some miracle,” they said. That made Danielda angry. It was no miracle; she was being careful. It was hard work. Why would they say that? Her stomach rumbled.
“Mom,” she said in a panic, “Pull over. I’m going to be sick.”
Her mother pulled to the side of the road and stopped in time for Danielda to dive out of the car, run to the grass and throw up. It burned her throat and her nose, her face burned. Her mother ran to her and held her hair back.
“Okay, let it out,” she said, “It’s over now sweetheart, I know you’re scared.”
Danielda sat on the grass, wiping her face with tissues. She was crying, tears poured down her face. She felt worse than ever and her mother had the wrong idea in her head. It was far from being over.
“I want to go home,” she said between sobs.
Her mother helped her up, strapped her in the car and drove home in silence.
When they got to the apartment Danielda dropped her backpack and ran to the bathroom. She needed a bath to wash the frustration and guilt off her. She brushed her teeth without looking at herself in the mirror. That was the one face she didn’t want to see. She was as angry with herself as everyone else was, or would be soon.
She leaned back in the tub and let the hot water rise over her face. She slid below the water and the sounds of the apartment were muffled. She was almost floating. It was a means of escape; she was free from fear for a few minutes. The warmth of the water was wonderful.
After a while, she dried and dressed and stepped out of the bathroom to face her mother and her punishment. Her mom was already on the phone.
“They tried to imply that she had caused it. I want them to understand the seriousness of the situation, Michael,” she was talking to her friend, the lawyer, Michael Feehan. She was almost yelling into the phone. Danielda waved her hand to get her attention but her mother ignored her.
“Yes, that’s what he said,” she was pacing.
“Mom,” Danielda called. Her mother waved her away with a scowl and kept pacing, breathing hard.
“But they’ll just cover it up, the bus was faulty obviously. Ten-year-old children don’t drive off with busses,” her voice was loud, she paced in smaller, faster circles.
Danielda ran to the kitchen, pulled out a notepad and marker from the drawer and wrote in large letters. She walked in front of her mother and held it up.
IT WAS MY FAULT!!!!
Her mother stopped and stared at the pad. She looked at Danielda, her eyes wide, then her whole body deflated. She sat on the chair and put her head in her hands.
“Um, Michael I just found something out. I’ll have to call you back? Sorry. Bye.”
She clicked off the phone and dropped it on the floor, her face still in her hand. Danielda stood stock still, still holding her notepad, her hands shaking so hard she could barely hold on. Silence filled the room, then the sound of sobs, her mother was crying. Whatever Danielda expected to hear, this was worse.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” she pleaded. Her mother stood abruptly but said nothing as she walked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. It was pretty clear how she felt. Danielda picked the phone up off the floor, grabbed her backpack and went to her room.
Danielda hadn’t handed in her homework assignments from yesterday and she just missed an entire day of school. Now she was two days behind and everyone knew about the bus. She might as well run away to a different country. She wished she could shrivel up and disappear right there. Even if lightning struck her right then she knew the words “Dangerous Danielda” would be engraved in her tombstone. She was an utterly complete failure at everything she tried to do and nothing would ever change. Today proved that.
She was staring at the blank pages of her diary when her mother walked in the room. She pulled out the chair from the desk and sat facing her daughter who was sitting on the edge of the bed. She took a deep breath, shook her head and closed her eyes. Then, she opened them and looked at Danielda with no expression on her face.
“Alright,” she said, “Let’s have it. Tell me what happened, and don’t leave anything out. I need to know every detail, no matter what.”
As hard as she tried, Danielda could not stop the tears from coming.
“You hate me,” she sobbed.
Her mother sighed impatiently, “We’re not going to get emotional, Danielda. I’m mad at you, at the situation, but I don’t hate you. I’m calm now, but I’m confused. I want, no I need to know what happened. Now stop crying and tell me.”
Danielda told her mother what happened. She told her about the candies. How she mixed them up with the pills and how the driver got mad after he fell asleep. Then how she made the pen, a special one for him, and how it leaked and ruined his uniform.
About being cold and wanting just to close the door and how, somehow, the bus started moving. How scared she was, and how sorry she was. She was shaking.
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I never did anything on purpose to cause things to happen, I was trying to be really careful. Nothing worked, I can’t do anything right. I’m so – I’m a disaster, just like they call me at school.”
“What?” her mother demanded.
“They call me names, like ‘Dangerous Danielda’ at school. They wait to see if I cause anything bad to happen. They expect it, even the teachers. They think it’s funny,” her voice rising with her frustration.
Her mother’s eyes flared, then she took a deep breath and calmed herself, “I will be talking to your teacher tomorrow. But, why did you touch the controls on the bus? You know you’re not allowed to do that.”
“The old man told me, I just—”
“There,” her mother interrupted, “That’s the problem, Danielda. As soon as you think you can just do something, no matter what the reason is, that’s when you get into trouble. You think you just tried to close the door on the bus, or change the settings on Mrs. Grey’s pager, or run into the shopping mall and knocking that man over. You just wanted to help, that’s always your excuse, Danielda, and that’s the problem. You do things you’re not supposed to do, even when you know you shouldn’t. There’s no excuse for that, there’s never any excuse for it. You just can’t do it.”
Silence hung between them, Danielda was trying to listen but she felt an urge to speak, to explain herself. He mother raised her hand.
“No, this is not a discussion. Do you even realize how dangerous it was touching the controls on that bus? You could have been hurt. You could have crashed and someone else could have been seriously hurt.”
Danielda looked at her hands but said nothing. What could she say? Her mother was right. When she put it that way, of course she was right. Danielda never said “Oh I can’t do that” when she faced a problem. She never said “no” to anyone who asked for help, even if she didn’t know how. She just did whatever she could, even if it was something she couldn’t do, or shouldn’t. Why didn’t she see that herself?
“Mom, can I just say one thing?” she looked up at her mother’s face, trying not to shake.
Her mother sighed and nodded, “Yes, Danielda. What is it?”
Danielda took a deep breath, “You always told me to be good and help people. I only ever tried to do that. There are kids in my school who do bad things on purpose. They like to do those things because they like hurting people and ruining things. I’ve never done that and yet people treat me like I was one of them. Like I’m a bad person. It’s not fair.” She sniffed, fighting back her emotions.
She knew what was going to happen when she went back to school. Brittany and her friends were going to have a great time once word got out that Danielda caused the whole thing. She will be called Crazy Danielda, or Mad Danielda the Bus Stealer. Kids are meaner than any adult could imagine.
Her mother walked over to her and gave her a long hug and kissed the top of her head.
“No, Danielda, it isn’t fair. If you don’t know it by now, life isn’t fair. But still,” she stepped back and looked at Danielda, “there has to be a mid-point between being bad and being too good. Maybe just focus on your responsibilities and your life and let others handle theirs. And don’t worry about the trouble makers, they get theirs in the end.”
Her mother walked to the kitchen and took food out of the fridge for dinner. Danielda followed her lead and started setting the table. She knew there had to be more to say about this but she was pretty sure her mother wanted to get back to normal life as much as she did.
They ate dinner in silence. Her mother usually left the TV on to see the news but today it was off and silent. They didn’t want to hear any more about busses today. Danielda enjoyed the quiet but there were still questions and worries floating in her mind.
“What happens now,” she asked as they finished eating. I will call Mr. Feehan in the morning and explain what happened,” her mother said, “We’ll figure it out, don’t worry. You won’t go to school until we figure out what to say. But you will go back and catch up on your work, and face the other kids. There’s no way out of that. Just ignore them and don’t let them get under your collar. If they call you names, you tell your teacher, and me. Make sure you don’t say anything about what happened on the bus. That’s very important.”
“Okay,” Danielda agreed. Her mother leaned in close to her and stared into her eyes.
“Do you promise me you won’t say a single word to anyone, no matter what, no matter who?” her voice was deeper and kind of threatening.
Danielda leaned backwards and blinked, “Uh, I won’t, I promise.”
“Good,” her mother sat up, “But we aren’t finished talking about this. There are going to be repercussions from your actions today, and before. We’ll discuss that after I meet with the lawyer tomorrow and find out what happens. Now, I’m sure you have things to do. I’ll clean up.”
In her room, Danielda pulled her books out of her bag and looked at her notes. She already finished the homework from yesterday and she missed today so she really had no homework to do. She looked over at her diary again, it had been neglected for a while. There was a lot to catch up on. She opened it to the right date and began writing.
When I got out of bed this morning, I hoped today was going to be different than the kind of days I have been having lately. It turned out to be more different than I can have imagined.
After today I know what it’s like to drive a bus, to be chased by the Police and be on the news.
It started by catching the bus.
She was going to need a larger diary.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | BACK TO SCHOOL
Danielda ended up missing the rest of the week of school while they worked out the legal issues of her road trip on the bus. There was a lot of disagreement about who was responsible: the driver, Danielda, the old man. Fortunately, other than a dirty bus, a broken fence and the time and trouble of most of the police, there was no major damage done. But the potential was there.
Danielda worried that the bus driver would get fired. Her mother said that was very thoughtful, considering that the driver wanted Danielda to be sent to the North Pole where she couldn’t cause trouble. The old man insisted everything was his fault. No one believed that, they knew he was worried about Danielda and felt bad about not being able to help. The transit department didn’t want the public to think their busses weren’t safe and the Police didn’t want to charge a ten-year-old girl with stealing a bus when the public thought she was a hero. In the end, they decided to say the accident was caused by a number of contributing factors and the end result was that no one was hurt, thank goodness.
After the hearing, the old man gave Danielda’s mother a gift for her. It was a small, plastic model of a bus with World’s Youngest Bus Driver printed on the side.
“I love it,” Danielda said as she turned it over in her hand.
“He says hi and hopes you plan to take driving lessons,” her mother said. “I told him you won’t get anywhere near a steering wheel again until you’re 16.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Danielda grinned. She ran to her room to put the bus on her bookshelf, with her most important things. When she came back to the kitchen her mother pointed to the chair and she sat.
Here it comes, she thought.
“So, the final decision at the meeting is that you are banned from riding the bus for a year. That means I’m going to have to drive you to school, which means we have to get up even earlier in the morning. And you lose your allowance for the year to help pay for the gas.”
Danielda sat in silence. She had been saving up to buy a new computer but that seemed to be a small loss compared to what could have happened. She didn’t like the idea of having to get up earlier but she kept that to herself.
Her mother passed her a note, “I called Mrs. Hart at school and she gave me this list of assignments for you to catch up on. You have some work to do before Monday when you go back. Get busy with this and I’ll call you for dinner.”
After missing almost a week from school, Danielda walked in the door on Monday unsure what to expect. She hadn’t spoken to anyone about the bus incident and her mother reminded her not to talk about the specifics of what happened. They had signed a confidentiality agreement and no one was to talk about it. As Danielda walked down the hall, everyone sitting by their lockers or standing around in groups stared at her. She finally got to her locker without saying a word to anyone.
She saw Lorinda standing next to her locker but, she was talking to Kyle, Ashley and Chelsea. Lorinda saw Danielda and waved.
“Hey Danielda,” she said, smiling. Danielda was shocked to see the others smiling at her too.
“Hi, Danielda,” said Kyle, with a big grin on his face. He seemed genuinely friendly, as did the others. Danielda approached them cautiously, waiting for an ambush.
“Hi, ” she said, opening her locker.
“We saw you on the bus,” said Kyle.
“Yeah, and on TV,” said Ashley, also laughing, “That was so cool. You were driving along with a million cop cars racing around you. There were helicopters following you. It was like a movie or something.”
Danielda grinned, “Really? Helicopters?”
“It was on the news everywhere,” said Chelsea, “My parents said it was even on the news in other countries. You’re famous. It’s still trending on YouTube.” She pulled out her phone and clicked on the icons. Soon they were watching video from the bus chase with music that someone put on as a joke.
“What was it like?” asked Kyle.
Danielda thought about what to say. Her mother said not to talk about what happened, but not about how it felt. “It was scary at first, but it was kinda fun toward the end.”
“Why were you driving a bus?” a voice from behind demanded. They turned and saw Brittany. She looked like she wanted to join the group but she wasn’t smiling.
“Are you going to be mean, Brittany?” Lorinda demanded, “Because you can just leave if all you want to do it call Danielda names.”
Brittany frowned at Lorinda, then looked at Danielda, “No, I’m not. It was fun to tease you before when you just seemed to get in trouble all the time, but I don’t think that now. I’m sorry, okay?”
Danielda thought for a moment. She had always wanted to get even with Brittany for all the things she did, but this was better, a lot better.
“First, promise you won’t ever call me ‘Dangerous Danielda’ again,” she said.
Brittany looked at her friends, then rolled her eyes, “Yes, all right. It was just a joke. I promise I won’t call you that.”
Danielda smiled and put her hand out to shake. Brittany hesitated and then shook it. The others cheered.
“Okay, answer the question,” said Chelsea.
Danielda shrugged, “I can’t. I’m not allowed to talk about it. The Police and everyone warned me not to.”
“Aw, what?” groaned Brittany.
Kyle laughed, “Ooo, government secrets. She’s like a spy.”
“Yep,” Danielda laughed, “That’s it exactly. Besides, it was just an accident. It could have happened to anyone.”
“No, Danielda,” laughed Lorinda, “That could only happen to you.”
Danielda smiled and nodded. Of course she was right. But it didn’t matter, because she had friends now. They weren’t laughing at her. This was becoming the best day so far. She hung her coat and backpack and closed her locker.
“What was it like?” asked Kyle.
“It was exciting,” she said, “you sit so high up and you can see for miles. The wheel was so big.”
She talked all the way to class and at lunchtime. After school she waited at the library to be picked up by her mom.
And nothing bad happened…
…for a while.