On a warm afternoon in late May, a long yellow Saint Paul school bus huffs and puffs down the street, full of noisy kids on their way home from school—kids full of high spirits because it’s warm again and summer is approaching fast; high spirits because soon school will be out.
I am six years old, scrawny and loud-mouthed, almost seven. I have one friend on the bus and his name is Andrew McKinley: McKinley like the president, McKinley like the mountain. He’s a best friend, one who shares his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with me at lunchtime—we have an unbreakable bond. We enjoy the bus ride home together, talking about cartoons and superheroes.
They say every school has a bully. I don’t know if that’s true, but our school has a bully. A big, mean kid with a bowl cut and a scar running down his cheek. He rides my bus to and from school every day. Every day, the loud voice of the backseat tyrant is heard over all the others. Laughter is silenced with a flick of his wrist. His name is Joe. No last name, just Joe.
On this warm afternoon in late May, Joe is picking on Andrew, calling him names, slapping him with the sharp metal edge of a ruler (a particularly nasty and popular weapon of bullies), pulling his hair. I say, “Cut it out,” and the bully’s eyes turn to me. I know those eyes. Cold, dead eyes. I’ve had trouble with him before, and I’ve seen those eyes turn black like a shark’s—like a shark going in for the kill. No words are spoken.
Joe tackles me, beating my small stomach and fragile rib cage. My head pounds repeatedly against the bus window behind me. My nose is bleeding and I’m crying, unable to hold it back. I’m six years old. I’m scrawny. I have a big mouth.
My cheeks are red and my head is throbbing. The bus doesn’t seem so loud anymore. The curious and eager faces of the other children watch from their seats, standing to get a better look. Pity on some of the faces, shock on others. Relief on most, as they are happy it isn’t them underneath the furious fists of Joe. The beating stops suddenly, and Joe is again at the back of the bus, sitting on his throne, in his rightful place. Children move out of the way for him, and I start to wish I had done the same. The children respect him, and I wonder why I don’t. He leaves me defeated, vanquished, finished. Bleeding at the front of the bus.
Andrew looks out the window. He watches trees and houses roll by. He doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t even blink. My best friend. He ignores me. He respects Joe. He isn’t President McKinley. He isn’t Mount McKinley anymore.
I’m still crying as I step off the bus at my stop, and the bastard bus driver hasn’t even noticed. He smiles and waves and tells me, “See you tomorrow.”
Andrew doesn’t look at me as the bus pulls away.
I run all the way home, bursting into the kitchen, out of breath, with red cheeks and wet eyes. The Ninja Turtles backpack slides off my hunched shoulders, and I let it hit the ground.
I feel safe in my mother’s kitchen, surrounded by shelves of tie-dye Tupperware and secondhand china; the smells of hot soup, baked bread, and scrambled eggs; the smell of sweets hidden on the top shelf. Here, my mother is queen. Here, where I sit every day after school and enjoy a snack, I nurse my bloody nose, I catch my breath, I wipe my tears.
I’m no longer crying as my mother comes into the kitchen to ask how my day was. I’m not crying, but she can tell something is wrong. She asks, “What happened? What happened to your face?”
I shake my head. I don’t answer.
I get a hug and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. This bond is unbreakable. My mother is an angel, a Power Ranger, a superhero who knows how to make me a sandwich and who always has a cold glass of milk to wash it down. I am untouchable here in the kitchen, far from the school-bus tyrant, far from Joe.
Sitting in the warm kitchen with my mother and the familiar sights and smells, safe and happy, this is a feeling I won’t forget through the many years to come, through the many Joes and Andrews I will meet.
I see Andrew the next morning on the school bus. He gives me a Capri-Sun and a Fruit Roll-Up and we make peace. Best friends again. And then I say, “Hey, Andrew. My mom’s cooler than you.” The cool morning in late May feels calm. I can hear Joe in the back. I can hear the laughter and yells of all the other kids, excited because it’s almost summer vacation, excited because soon school will be out. And I’m excited too.
Years later, as my mother lies on a sterilized white bed in a hospital room that smells like medication and chloroform, I think about that day. The large, monstrous hospital that looms, intimidating, casting long shadows over the streets, has swallowed me whole, and I have a lot of time to think.
The warm afternoon in late May is shut out from this hospital room with its plastic flowers, strange smells, and no excitement. No excitement because it’s almost summer—no excitement, because she’s been in that bed for over three months, surrounded by strange machines that beep beep when something goes wrong.
It’s 2004. I’m not six years old anymore, I’m sixteen, almost seventeen.
Every day I come to the hospital, and the doctors offer no good news. You’d think they didn’t care. They don’t even seem to notice. They say they’ll talk to me soon. They say the same thing as I leave, running home.
My mother no longer reigns in the kitchen. No more peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches when I come home from school. Now it’s my turn to take care of her, although there is no way I can succeed. I am no angel. I am no Power Ranger.
I think about that day, and the bully Joe. My mom is being bullied now, by Leukemia—no last name, just Leukemia.
I say, “Cut it out.” But the bully ignores me. I am no superhero.
I think about that day, and I remember the loud-mouthed first-grader who thought he could stand up for his friend. I think about the loud-mouthed six-year-old that ran home to the safety of the kitchen. I think about the queen of the kitchen, the superhero who makes sandwiches and makes the world okay. I think about the Tupperware and the china and those comforting smells.
I think about today, and I wish I had the strength of a thousand Joes. I wish President McKinley would bring me a Fruit Roll-Up and a juice box. I wish I had the strength of a million peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. I wish my mother could run back to the kitchen where a hug and a snack will make everything okay.
Adrian Schramm is a German-speaking English major who has been writing and illustrating since the day his mother handed him his first crayon. He also spends his free time reading, cooking, and indulging in his true love: cinema. Recently graduated from Hamline University, Adrian is now on the hunt for fame and fortune, or whatever the economy allows.
Photo of school bus courtesy Rosa Say. For more photos by Rosa, browse her Photostream on Flickr.