They get at us through our kids. As if we don't suffer enough already, surviving in this terrible, violent world, they go after our children, too.
Beth wasn't entirely sure, although she thought about this almost constantly, who they were, but they were out there and her daughter was vulnerable and had suffered. And would suffer again. It was no use asking why the world was such a dangerous place. The more important question was what she and Tom could do about it? When she explained her fears to her husband, he blocked her out, turned away, silenced her with condescending smiles.
This was the man she loved, but she no longer knew him. Or maybe she’d come to know him more than she wanted, more than she’d ever expected. More than he knew himself. She’d also discovered vulnerabilities and terrors within herself that she never would’ve believed existed, that didn’t exist until she became a parent.
“Tom!” she said, trying again to penetrate his smug confidence, but Judi stepped between them, her skinny nine year-old body an ineffectual levee trying to hold back both her mother’s distress and her father’s annoyance.
“Don’t worry,” she told them, looking first at one and then at the other. “I can take care of myself.”
She got that from the Talland girls, Beth was sure. Mavis and Roger Talland were British and believed that kids should be self-reliant, even at the young age of nine, even if they had to travel through a war zone to get home from school. The Tallands, Beth felt, embraced the concept of self-reliance because their own convenience was more important than their daughters’ safety. And now Judi was offering up her bright-eyed courageous smile because she thought it was what parents expected.
Beth hadn't wanted Judi to ride the city bus, but Pacific Beacon Day School lost its previous building and the only place it could afford was across town in a former glassworks factory. The old car pools had broken up and the best arrangement the two families could work out was that Tom dropped off Judi and the Talland twins on his way to work and the kids rode the city bus home, although it meant transferring.
That's all fine, Beth told Mavis, but violence regularly exploded like land mines on the traveling battlefields known as city buses. Purses were snatched, wallets lifted, jewelry ripped off, limbs bruised, hair pulled, clothes ripped, lives threatened: it happened. Especially to the old and the young. But she couldn't convince either Mavis or Roger of the seriousness of the dangers. Mavis and Roger Talland both taught at the university and couldn't reschedule their lives to include picking up three fourth graders each afternoon. However, since she and Tom couldn't buy a second car – they really couldn’t afford a private school, but somehow managed to pay for it – Judi and the twins became hostages of the public transit wars.
The converted school building was wedged among rotting apartment blocks and decomposing Victorians near the worst junior high in town, a glass and brick building with half of its tall windows boarded up so that it looked like a bombed out prison for the gangs of bantam thugs that terrorized the other kids and intimidated the teachers. When the three girls climbed on the city bus, after walking two blocks from the relocated Pacific-Beacon School, it already was choked with swearing, smoking, fighting junior high kids who knew the driver couldn't control them and was too smart to try.
At first, Judi told Tom and Beth alarming tales of incidents on the bus, but she grew used to foul language, cigarette smoke, fighting, and threats. She also learned to avoid eye contact and to keep her shoulders back, head up, and manner alert, to show she wasn’t anyone to mess with. She seemed proud of her new street wise skills.
“Judi’s learning to be tough,” Tom told Beth, with a complacent smirk meant, she supposed, to be reassuring.
“We raised Judi to be sensitive and civilized,” she argued, “to be polite and to trust people, to respond to affection and kindness. Why should we lower ourselves to the level of everybody else?”
“Beth, you’ve become a snob.”
“I haven’t, but isn't it better to maintain our standards and help raise the level of society?”
Tom leaned back, arms folded over his taut gut, “You don’t give a damn about society.”
That wasn’t entirely true, but she did care more about Judi and what was happening to her. A nine-year-old shouldn't have to know how to react if she saw a kid with a gun bulging under his Fila sweats.
Her feelings weren’t simple. She felt guilty taking Judi out of public school, but how could she be socially committed and still do what was right for her child? And why should she have to make a choice? Why were the best teachers defecting to private schools? You couldn’t blame them if they no longer wanted to risk their lives for the pitiful salaries the city paid them. For that matter, why not let Judi watch obscene and violent television shows or play with vulgar, sexist toys, since the child confronted violence and vulgarity every time she stepped outside their house. Why not let the world rape her daughter’s mind and spirit?
It was one thing, bad as it was, to compromise Judi’s inner life and something else to put her physical safety at risk.
Was Beth imagining the dangers? Would nothing ever actually hurt Judi? Had she been hallucinating? Is that what Tom and everyone else wanted her to believe: that her imagination was overactive? If we could buy another car, if Tom would stop being so stubborn, she told herself yet again, but that wasn't the issue. Something more fundamental was involved, and she was losing. No, her daughter was losing. All the kids were losing.
Beth could see it happening in subtle ways, a phrase here, a gesture there: the eroding of her daughter's sensibilities. Sometimes, Judi mimicked the slang and bad grammar, other times she unconsciously reverted to what she'd heard and seen on the bus. The girl didn’t even realize when she imitated the rolling, high-shouldered swagger of the public school kids or tilted her head and presented a worldly wise simper in reaction to something her mother said. This was another world, with its own style and laws and codes, and it was powerful.
Apparently, it was wrong for parents to expect civilized behavior from kids. Beth’s parents – a pair of high school music teachers who’d met at a Maria Callas concert while in college – had brought her up to modulate her voice, be gracious, and care about the feelings of others, and she’d tried to pass on these virtues – virtues? flaws, perhaps – to her daughter. But how could you respect the emotions of people who punched you in the ribs to get your seat or who tripped you because it was fun to see you fall? Show weakness and they'll kill you.
"You can't protect Judi, forever," Tom told her.
Beth didn't want to smother Judi, but she wanted the girl to grow up physically whole. If Judi was fifteen minutes late getting home, Beth paced from one window to another, watching people climb down from the battered buses, the sides of which were smeared with crude ads for violent movies overlaid with semi-decipherable graffiti. The fear was warping her feelings toward other people and, worst of all, toward her daughter.
Nobody knew how Beth struggled against the impulses growing within her. She considered keeping Judi home from school to teach, herself. She struggled with inner voices that told her to follow Judi, ride on the bus with Judi, curtail Judi's visits to friends' houses and trips downtown. Fear ate into her, fear as real as the man who masturbated with both fists across the street from the downtown bus stop. As real as the Crebillon boy, who was raped by two high school seniors and then locked for thirty-six hours in the men's room in the public library basement. Didn't society owe her freedom from fear?
What about the time Judi wasn't home by four-thirty? Beth didn't call Tom at work or harass the police and the hospitals. Sitting rigidly by the window, she waited. At four forty-five, Judi called. She was at the twins' house. They had decided to walk home – to prove they were grown up – and it had taken longer than they'd expected. Mom wasn't mad, was she? No, sugar, Beth whispered over the phone, Mom isn't mad. And, after hanging up the receiver, she sank to the carpet, alternately laughing and cursing, so she could smile calmly when Judi waltzed in the door fifteen minutes later.
Hadn't this proved that Beth could manage her behavior, even if she couldn’t control her fears? Hadn't that incident been her trial by fire? No, she didn't know what conflagration was waiting and was afraid.
It was enough that Judi was in a private school, Tom told Beth. They didn’t want her to feel superior to other kids, did they? Riding the public buses taught Judi about the real world.
“The real world!” said Beth, bitterly.
“Don’t be an elitist, darling.”
“I’m not an elitist.” She stared furiously at her husband’s handsome freckled features under all that straw-colored hair. She wasn’t a snob or an elitist. She didn’t think she was, but how could she know? “If the public schools were better...,” she insisted. “If Judi could get an education there. Not fear for her life....”
“You’re the only one who’s afraid, Beth.”
Yes, she was afraid. And yet was her feeling one of fear or anger? Did she want to take Judi and run or stay and fight? But run where? And fight whom? Could they even escape? Where was safety? Or if they fought, could they win? How could they fight the unconscious rage that seeped out of the earth around them?
The next time Judi was late coming home, Beth stood by the phone, hand hovering, fingers clenching and unclenching, waiting for the inevitable call, but when it came it was from Judi, herself.
"Mom? This has been the worst day of my life, and I'm not kidding."
Once, Beth would’ve disregarded the tone of high drama in her nine year-old daughter’s exclamation, but no longer.
"Judi! Where are you?"
"It was the junior high kids and the policemen. We couldn’t help it. We tried to be grown up, but they’re bigger’n we are. And the old lady said we were right. They're gonna kill us if we ever ride the bus again."
"Judi – please, what happened!"
Slowly, the story came out. After the three little girls pushed onto the crowded bus, two junior high girls, a fat blonde with double pierced ears and a tattoo of a snake on the back of her hand and a tall Black girl flaunting green nail polish, had rammed up against them, demanding money. When Judi and the twins denied that they carried any cash, the older girls announced they’d settle for candy or jewelry. Finally, the junior high extortionists decided to take the Talland twins' watches.
"Lemme see your watch," the tattooed girl told Samantha, reaching with her plump serpent of a hand.
"See!" Samantha raised her wrist briefly.
"Lemme hold it, smartass."
The fat girl glared at Samantha with a hatred and resentment that the twins and Judi couldn’t grasp. They had no experience or understanding of such deep and sour envy or the anger that grew out of it.
"My mother told me never to take it off."
With an exasperated sneer, the fat girl grabbed Samantha Talland's wrist and tugged at the watch. When Judi maneuvered over to rescue Sami and her watch, the older girls turned on her, first shouting and cursing, then hitting and scratching.
“Don’t you push me, bitch! You shove me, you’re gonna die!”
“You let me see that watch or you’re gonna be sorry!”
Although they were surrounded by scores of other chattering, shoving, hyper-active kids and several adults, no one made a move to help Judi and the twins. Another junior high girl shouted, "You show them fuckin’ cunts!"
By the time the bus pulled up at the transfer stop downtown and the clamoring, shrieking kids elbowed and shoved their way off the bus, Rosalind Talland was sobbing and both Judi and Samantha were nearly in tears. They pushed their way off the bus, pursued by the older girls. A tall white-haired woman in a fake fur coat waiting on the sidewalk in front of Rexall Drugs heard them crying and saw the shoving, threatening junior high girls. Hands on her hips, she walked over and stared down the two thirteen year olds, then pulled Judi aside and told her to get a cop. Judi and the twins ran to the subway station entrance, found a stout policeman puffing up the stairs, and blurted out everything, Rosalind still crying and Judi displaying the scratches on her arms and face.
The big-bellied cop was as sympathetic as Judi had been raised to believe law officers always were. He signaled to a passing patrol car, it double-parked next to a VW bug, two uniformed men jumped out, and the three girls recited their story again, pointing to the pudgy blonde and the green-nailed girl at the bus stop with their gang. Threats and curses battered the afternoon like fists.
Finally, the two junior high girls, shouting at the twins and Judi, were taken away by the police, and the old lady escorted Judi and the Talland twins onto the next bus, where they huddled in a seat near the back, whimpering until they reached the eastern hills of the city.
"I don't want to walk home by myself," Judi begged her mother over the phone after they reached the Talland house. “And Roz and Sami don’t want me to go, either, mom.”
"Are either Mr. or Mrs. Talland there?" asked Beth.
"They're never here when Samantha and Rosalind get home from school."
"I'll be there as fast as I can walk it."
Beth ran most of the way up the hill to the Talland house, perspiration stinging her eyes. Panting, she rang the bell, the door opened, and three faces stared up at her. Rosalind hurled herself at Beth, as if she were her mother, pressing her cheek against Beth's paisley skirt, wrapping her skinny arms around Beth's hips.
"Mom!" cried Judi.
"Mrs. Freemantle," said Samantha, eyes burning with gratitude.
They pulled Beth into the house and, surrounding her, again described the encounter. She comforted, listened, comforted again. The girls didn't know how to respond to such malevolence. They were only children, however self-reliant they might be – or think they were. They needed a grown-up and she was glad she was here and wished she'd been with them on the bus. They were only kids!
Later, hand-in-hand, she walked her daughter down the hill, nine year-old Judi staring up at her with love and trust. I won't fail her again, Beth promised herself.
That night, she talked it over with Tom, called the Tallands, and called Roland Fox, the director of Pacific-Beacon School. They all felt that the incident was unfortunate, but not serious. Most important, Mavis Talland insisted, was that the girls not become afraid of riding the bus. They must ride home again tomorrow and the next day and not dwell on their fear. Tom agreed with the woman. Once again, Beth was overruled.
"Nothing will happen," Tom assured her. "Kids are kids. They’re savages at heart – you know that and I know that – but they survive. Relax."
Beth felt herself hating her husband’s smugness, his superiority, him. How dare he condescend to her this way? And about their daughter?
They, the outside forces, the crumbling, lawless society in which they wallowed, had the power to invoke terror in her heart and to threaten the mind and body of her child. All around her, violence reigned, murder was amusement, and mayhem the rule of the hour. Syringes and needles were left in playgrounds, kids flaunted razors and knives, anybody could hide a gun under over-sized logo-embossed clothes. Kids murdered each other for brand-name shoes. Video games and TV shows exploded with blood and shattered limbs. Generals announced on television that shooting people was good. Where could she go? She felt like Timon of Athens, raving against a world that wouldn’t listen. Or Lear, crying against the storm. Oh, let me be not mad, she whispered to the wallpaper. Let me save my baby.
The next day, when Judi and the twins rode home on the bus, the tattooed blonde girl planted herself like a sequoia in front of them, sneering to her friends: "These're the bitches got the cops on us. I'm gonna smash one o' them. Which of them should I smash?"
The Black girl with the green nail polish shrugged her bony shoulders.
"Kill ‘em both."
Like a fragile statue waiting to be shattered, Judi stared at the fat girl's small, piggy eyes. Before she could break out of her trance, the other girl rammed a fist as hard as she could into her face, flattening her nose. Blood drowned the nine-year-old, as her mouth stretched into a cavern of pain. The bus exploded and pieces of flesh rocketed through the city streets and gore rained on the shattered world.
Bruce Douglas Reeves has published three novels (The Night Action, New American Library and Signet Books; Man on Fire, Pyramid Books; and Street Smarts, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) He has completed a new novel, Unfinished Business.
He has also published short fiction in more than two dozen periodicals and literary magazines, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World, West Wind Review, Connecticut Writer, South Carolina Review, Hawaii Review, The Clackamas Literary Review, Evansville Review, The Long Story, and The New Renaissance. His short story collection, The Dream of the Fisherman's Son, was a finalist in the 2004 Spire Press short story collection competition. He received Honorable Mention in the 2006 Dana Prize for Short Fiction, was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novella Competition, and received second place in the fourth Louise E. Reynolds Memorial Fiction Awards for my story "Obsession."