fiction by Michael Henson

hen school started in the fall, Lily Markham set her alarm, slept dreamless and hard, then woke with the jangle and rose in the dark. She dressed herself, helped her grandmother dress, made their breakfast, set out her grandmother’s morning pills and made sure that she took them, and fixed lunch for herself and lunch for her grandmother. She left her grandmother’s sandwiches in her grandfather’s old lunch pail from the mines to keep them from the mice and set out to the highway to wait in the dark for the bus.

It was a long ride. A hundred yards beyond their house, the highway dropped from the crest of the mountain to cross the border from Kentucky into Virginia. That meant they were at the limit of the school district, so Lily was the first to be picked up every morning. The bus route took her down the mountain, past an abandoned tipple, back and forth among a network of battered hollow roads, and finally, to the consolidated middle school at the edge of town.

The last three years had brought big changes to Lily’s life. First, her grandfather died of the Black Lung on her tenth birthday. Then, last spring, her grandmother had a stroke that shut down her whole right side.

It was a lot of work to be thirteen and to have the care of a house and her stricken grandmother. But they managed. Her Uncle Johnny lived close by and he took them once a week to shop and he drove them to all her grandmother’s appointments. But everything else was in Lily’s hands and she was often tired and there were nights when she was ever so tired but still could not sleep. So, most of her teachers, if they saw she was drowsy, let her rest her head on her desk. They all knew her, and they knew her grandmother from when she taught school, and so they understood. They knew she would catch up on the work and they gave her the lessons to take home. 

All but Wilson, the science teacher. He was new and he wanted to prove himself. Starting from the first day, he took it as a personal challenge to keep Lily awake if ever she nodded.

“Are you bored, Missy?” He rapped on her desktop with his rubber-tipped, bullet-headed pointer.

She snapped herself awake, but not awake enough that she could answer.


Wilson tap-tap-tapped the pointer once again. He had learned the knack of making the pointer vibrate and hum when he rapped it on a desk. 

The sight of it stiffened her spine.

He said again, “Well?”

“That’s a deep subject.” It was an old, cornball joke. Her voice was cold, measured, and malevolent in response to what she felt was cold, mean, and malevolent in the way he spat out the word, Missy into the end of that question. It burned her at a moment she could not take being burnt. She flared; her back was up. One of the other kids in the room laughed at Lily’s joke about the well; another whispered, “Awwww!” A third whispered, “It’s on now.” The rest gasped.

“Cut it!” Wilson looked around the room to silence the rest, then turned back to Lily. “I don’t care what you do in anybody else’s class. In anybody else’s class, you can sleep the whole semester. But in my class, I expect you to be awake and ready to learn.”

He tapped once more on Lily’s desk. “Do I make myself clear?”

He did not wait for a reply. He strode back to the front of the room.

The doctors set up Lily’s grandmother with pills, lots of pills; it was part of Lily’s responsibility to keep track of them, to renew them when she ran out, to make sure her grandmother took them on time and in order. She set up a shelf in the kitchen cabinet just for the pills and she ranked them –morning pills to the left, evening pills to the right, pills for both morning and evening in the middle.

At home, after her run-in with Wilson, Lily could still hear the snap of his pointer on her desk. She could still feel the thwack of it through the wood of the desk and through her hands and up her arms.

She burned with rage and determination. She did not intend to be caught sleeping again if she could help it. She stood in front of her grandmother’s medicine shelf and pondered: if I take this one, will it help me sleep? If this one, will it help me stay awake?

“Do you plan to stay awake today?”

Lily did not feel Wilson’s question deserved an answer. Nor, apparently, did he, for he quickly turned to another student as Lily and the rest filed to their desks. 

She sat down, placed her science book in front of her, and opened it to the chapter they were on. She was determined to stay awake; she was determined not to give him a handle to demean her again. Wilson saw that everyone was seated, did a quick roll call, then turned to the blackboard to draw the cluster of protons and neutrons that made up the core of an atom. Lily copied the picture into her notebook, even though it was the same as the picture in her text. When Wilson turned to face the class, Lily was looking right at him. He met her eye just long enough to let her know he was watching. Then he turned back to the board to draw the electrons in their looping oval paths. She followed the loops and drew them in her note book.

But it was too much. The girl behind her saw Lily’s head dip and she poked her in the back with her pencil. “Don’t fall asleep!” the girl whispered, a little too loud.

Wilson half turned, just to let them know he heard.

But the warning and the whisper did no good. Something about the spin of electrons left Lilly struggling to stay awake. Listen, she told herself, Listen to what he’s saying.

But what he was saying was right there in the book. All anybody had to do was to read it. Why did they have to listen to him drone? The girl behind her poked her again.

Lily set her elbows on the desk, cupped her chin in the palms of her hands, propped her eyelids open with her ring fingers, and set her eyes on Wilson. Her intention was to keep her eyes open and to focus on Wilson and his atoms. But, one by one, the circuit breakers of her brain switched off and she was blessed with blankness. Her mind became a Russian snowfield; she became a dying soldier, her limbs, one by one, relaxed. Her back and shoulders collapsed inward like rotted timbers in a mine. Bone and nerve came unspooled. Her head, balanced on her arms, grew heavy, heavier, so, so heavy.

And then her careful edifice toppled. She felt herself falling. This triggered the instinct to catch herself. Her head went up and her hands went down. She slapped the desk top and she was awake, alert, erect; every nerve was fired and ready.

Wilson heard the slap on the desk and he turned. The whole class inhaled at once, held its collective breath, and waited.

Wilson paused; he seemed to enjoy the moment of suspense he had created. Then he said, “Can I ask, Miss Markham . . .” 
He paused again, so that everyone would wonder what he was about to ask. There was a twist to the way he said Miss Markham, as if he were tightening down a screw. Finally, he asked, “Does this mean you’ll be joining us for the rest of the class?”

Was that to be the worst of it? Wilson turned back to the blackboard and continued to draw. He drew one atom after another, to illustrate . . . Lily had no idea what he intended to illustrate or why. She peered at him and the board through a fog of exhaustion. She could not have slept now if she had been led to a four-poster bed. But neither could she fully be awake. She leaned into the back of her seat, every nerve limp with exhaustion. 

She was ready to whimper with shame.

The friend who sat behind her asked, after school on the bus, “What does Wilson have against you?”

Lily shrugged. She had no idea.

“I mean,” her friend said. “I see half a dozen kids fall asleep in his boring class every day.”

“Really?” she asked. Was that true? “Are you sure?”

“Look around you next time.”

Her friend’s bus stop came up. “I got to go,” she said. “You watch tomorrow.”

Her friend got up, went to the front of the bus, and told the driver the joke that went between them every day, got out, and started to walk up the long driveway to her house.

The girl’s name was Rose. Lily had known her all her life, but she had not become her friend until just this year. Once her grandmother had her stroke and had to quit teaching, Lily started taking the bus back and forth to school. They were among the first two to be picked up in the morning and among the last two to be dropped off in the afternoon. So she and Rose became bus buddies. “We got that flower thing going on. You’re Lily; I’m Rose. So we’re buds. Get it?” They were friends at school and on the bus back and forth to school, but they never saw one another at any other times, not even at lunch when Rose sat at the rich kids table. Lily sat with the nerds.

Rose lived a bit further down the mountain from Lily in a big modern house with a pool out back and a horse paddock to the side and a pair of Jeep Grand Cherokees parked in front. Rose had started taking the bus the year before when her mother left for the city with another man and wasn’t around to take her. “Finally,” she said when she saw Lily on the bus for the first time. “I finally got somebody to talk to.” Which she did, nearly non-stop, all the way to school and all the way back.

“Pop says Obama ruined the coal mines and he’s thinking Trump is gonna bring them back. I keep telling him, Pop, it ain’t gonna happen. I tell him, coal’s gone to the dinosaurs. But he keeps waiting. All he does all day is watch the news. He just sits all day and he keeps getting bigger and rounder. I call him Jaba the Hillbilly Hut and he don’t even know what I’m talking about. Back when he was a big boss on a strip mine job, he got used to all that money and now he don’t know what to do. He’s got money for his Bud Lights and his Marlboros, but he ain’t got money for gas to take me to school which he wouldn’t do anyway. So here I am on the bus. Soon as I get old enough, I’m gonna get me a job at Wendy’s or Pizza Hut and when I do, I’ll drive us both to school in one of the Cherokees, which he put it in my name for tax purposes, so he owes me. I’d go live with my mother in Lexington for high school, but she lives in a sketchy part of town with a black guy, which that’s cool and all, but you know, I don’t know if I want to deal with all that, but you got to do what you got to do, you know?”

The bus turned off the highway and onto one of the gravel roads that led up a hollow.

Rose called up to Mister Pete, “Big rain last night, wasn’t it?”

Mister Pete was taking it slow. He leaned forward to study the road.

Rose called, “Road gets rough when it rains, don’t it?”

“It’s these ruts,” he called back. “Damn County . . .”

“You ain’t supposed to cuss, Mister Pete.”

“Yeah, well the County ain’t supposed to let these roads go to hell, either.”

“We know, Mister Pete, the County, the County. . .”

Well, it’s true,” he said. “If it was rich folks up this holler . . .” He paused to concentrate on the ruts and did not take up the subject again.

Rose was right about the other sleepers in class. Lily looked around as soon as Wilson called roll. Two boys in the corner closed their eyes as soon as Wilson closed his attendance book. Another pair fell soon after on the other side of the room. Lily looked back at Rose. She shrugged, as if to say, See! What did I tell you?

It was not fair. The injustice of it was enough to keep Lily awake through the rest of the class. But that night, after she brought dinner to her grandmother, locked the henhouse, cleaned the kitchen, and finished her homework, Lily lay down and tried to go to sleep. 

Instead, as on so many nights, she lay in bed, flaming with insomnia.

She got up, threw a coat over her nightgown, went to the back porch. She stood, barefoot, and stared into the scattershot stars and the slim sickle of a waning moon and wished without knowing what there was to wish for. 

She was not sure what time she finally slept, but when the alarm jangled in the morning, she soldiered herself miserably out of bed. She managed to get breakfast made, got her grandmother and the chickens fed, and got herself dressed and ready for school. Then she marched out to the shelter her grandfather had built her where she waited for the bus.

She could allow herself to doze as far as Rose’s house, but that was only half a mile. Lily caught herself hoping Rose would skip a day so she could doze the rest of the way to school. But there was Rose, running down the lane from her house.

“You were almost too late,” said the driver.

“Aww, Mister Pete. You wouldn’t leave without me, would you?”

Just you try me. I could use a little peace and quiet on this bus for a change.”

Rose dismissed him with a wave and strolled down the aisle of the bus. She looked from side to side, sneered at the boy who patted the seat beside him, and kept going. Her eyes grew wide and bright, though, when she saw Lily. 

“There’s my girl,” she said, and she pushed her way down the aisle to where Lily sat.

“Now, here we are, at the back of the bus,” Rose said. “What’re we gonna do about that?”

“The back of the bus is fine with me,” Lily said. She liked the back of the bus where the boys would mostly leave her alone and she did not have to listen to the chatter of the girls.  Rose had a lot to say that morning, and she said it all the way down the mountain and around the various hollows of the hour-long route. As they bounced over the ruts and washouts of the back roads, Rose sat with her arms crossed and stared at the back of the seat in front of her.

“What’s up?’ Lily asked.


“What’s up?”

“My father,” Rose said, “is such a hypocrite.”

“What . .?”

“He’s such a sonofabitch. He’s such a primitive asshole. No wonder my mom left him, even if she had to take up with a n---“

She stopped, and said, “No, I didn’t mean that.” She went on to explain what she did mean for the next seven miles until Mister Pete pulled the bus up to the back door of the school.

“We’re here,” Rose said. “It’s time to wake up.”

In Science, Wilson droned again about electrons. Rose whispered, “How does he find so much to say about electrons? Who cares about electrons?” Wilson clearly cared. And he cared about who slept while he lectured about electrons, and when the pointer thrummed on Lily’s desk once again, she sat upright, looked around the room, saw the boys raise their bleary heads from their desks, and said to him, “It’s not fair.”

He moved back half a step. “What?”

“It’s not fair.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, it’s not fair.”

“What’s not fair?”

“You picking on me for sleeping in class.”

“Miss Markham . . .”

“When you know . . .”

“Miss Markham . . .”

“You know . . .”

“Young lady . . .”

“You know these boys sleep all the time. These boys act like this class is nap time. All they do in this class is sleep and you let them get away with it. So why do you pick on me?”

By this time, Lily had started to cry. Big, drippy, melting sno-cone tear drops. She was embarrassed with the tears, but she could not stop them.

“Miss Markham,” Wilson said. “All you have to do to avoid being picked on as you call it, is stay awake in my class.”

He tapped three times with his pointer on her desk.

“But . . .”

He tapped once more to silence her and scanned the room. “It seems everybody’s awake now,” he said. He crossed to the chalkboard, laid his pointer on his desk and picked up a piece of chalk. 

“The thing to remember is this,” he said. “The electrons are in constant motion.”

As Lily and Rose lined up for the bus after school and the boys of the football team trotted off to the practice field, the girls of the cheerleading squad lined up along the back wall of the school gym. They stood with their heads erect, hands on hips, eyes forward, alert to the squad leader’s command. They looked proud, eager, happy to be where they were.

“Salacious little ho’s,” said Rose. “Prissy little periwinkle bitches. Look at them. They jiggle in all the places they’re supposed to jiggle, and they wiggle where they’re supposed to wiggle.”

Her left nostril lifted; the left corner of her lip curled. “Skankedy fleabag sausage-sucking dog-face bitches,” she said.

“But you . . .” These were the same girls Rose sat with at lunch.

“I wish I never laid eyes on the whole crew of those pimple-face Lolitas.” The curl tightened at nostril and lip. “Except the black one,” Rose said. “She’s alright. But the rest of them are two-faced, lying, falsified Jezebelish whores. I wish I had never seen a one of them.” She mouthed her curses silently as she boarded the bus. She even skipped her usual banter with Mister Pete, headed straight to the back, and settled into her seat.

Lily asked, “What did they ever do to you?” She also wanted to know what was a Lolita, but she never got to ask.

“What would you say,” Rose said the next morning, “if I told you that I could get Wilson off your back?”

Lily did not know what to say, though it did not matter. She would not have had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Nor did she want to get a word in, as long as Rose had a way to get Wilson to let up.

“Do you ever see me fall asleep in Wilson’s class?”

Lily never had. But Lily’s desk faced forward and Rose sat behind her. Rose could have slept for hours and Lily would never have known it unless she snored. But if Rose had a solution to her problem, nothing else mattered.

Two little white pills, one bigger, the other smaller. Lily gazed at them
as they rested in her palm. Rose reached over and closed Lily’s fingers
on the pills. “Don’t let anybody see you with them,” she said.

Rose began to dig in her purse. She continued to mutter curses on the heads of the cheerleaders, bidding them poverty, loss, weight gain, and pregnancies as she rummaged. Finally, “Here it is,” she said.

It was a little brown pill bottle. “Hold out your hand,” Rose said.

“Are you sure about this?”
“Don’t ever ask me if I’m sure. That’ll get me to wondering and neither of us wants that.” Lily put out her hand and Rose tapped out a pair of pills into her palm.

“Tomorrow afternoon, ten minutes before the bell is set to ring for the end of fifth bell, you take this one.” She pointed to the larger of the pills.

“Then what?”

“You’re gonna go to Wilson’s class and you’re gonna sit there with your eyes wide open and your mind sharp as a tack.”

“What’s the other one for?”

“That’s for tonight. If the first one keeps you awake, that other one is gonna put you to sleep.”

Two little white pills, one bigger, the other smaller. Lily gazed at them as they rested in her palm. Rose reached over and closed Lily’s fingers on the pills. “Don’t let anybody see you with them,” she said. “And if somebody does, and you get caught with them, I never saw you before in my life, and you never saw me.”

All through fourth bell, Lily watched the clock. At thirty minutes into the class, Ms. Bain called her to the blackboard to write a sentence with a relative clause, which she struggled through, not because she did not know how to create a sentence with a relative clause, but because, with sixteen minutes to go before the bell rang for the end of class and eight minutes before she was due to take the first pill she had stored in the watch pocket of her jeans, the gears of her brain ran down. Ms. Bain let her go back to her seat. Embarrassed, Lily forgot all about the pill until the bell rang for the end of class.

Which woke her up. She had fallen asleep sitting up. The classroom swirled around her. She scrambled up her books and headed into the hall and only then remembered: Take the pill.

The pill had already begun to dissolve in her mouth before she was able to swallow; it tasted like powdered acid. She mustered enough spit to get it down her throat and, under Wilson’s eye, got herself to her desk. She swallowed again and, as Rose slipped into the room, pointed to her throat and made a face.

“What did you think?” Rose whispered. “It’s a pill, not a Jolly Rancher.”

Nothing happened for the first fifteen minutes of class. Electrons moved around nuclei and up and down the copper wire of the model Wilson had placed on his desk. Lily followed the electrons, but they made her dizzy and they made her drowsy. She teetered on the edge of sleep. Then slap! The pill hit her like a brick to the back of her head. Suddenly, electrons started coursing up and down the wires of her brain. Everything snapped into clarifying focus. The outlines of everything around her–Wilson, the molecule model, the heads of her classmates—became crisp.

She did not know what the pill was, but whatever it was, it was the solution. It fixed for her everything that needed fixing.

“You can’t tell anybody where you got these,” Rose told her. “Ever.”

Lily nodded

“I’m serious.” 

Lily asked, “Where did you get these?”

Rose rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask,” she said. “It’s not cool to ask.”

“But can you get more?”

Rose put her finger to her lips. She leaned in to whisper. “There’s too many tattle-tale ears on this bus. But yes, I can get more. But can you get me some . . .”  She made a get-me-some-money motion with her fingers that characters on television used to indicate money changing hands.

Lily could get her the money. She was the one who cashed all the social security checks and paid all the bills and bought all the medicine and the groceries, so she had the money. Not a lot of money, but she counted this a necessary expense.

Lily and Rose had by now established themselves as permanent owners of the back seat of the bus, where they could put their heads together and talk–though Rose did most of the talking and most of what she talked about was her endless complaints, about her absent mother and her new boyfriend in the city, about her stupefied father. She complained about the ninth-grade boys who thought they were the best, and she complained about the girls at the rich kids table where she still ate lunch every day.

Lily would figure out later in life that those rich kids were not all that rich. They were the daughters of the managers of coal mines, of local lawyers, of the doctors who ran the clinics and the directors of pharmacies. They lived in houses with brick facades and two-car garages set back from the road behind neat, greening lawns unencumbered by chicken coops, broken-down tractors, or cars up on blocks. Their mothers kept gardens of expansive flowers not bounded by tractor tires, but by cedar shaves. These girls were dropped off at school in Lexus SUVs or Jeep Grand Cherokees and were not forced to wait on the side of the road for a school bus slashed with mud at the fenders.

Lily wanted to ask, “Why do you sit with them if you don’t like them? Why do you even care?” But she already knew the answer. She would have sat with them herself if she could. She would have done anything to be someone other than the person she was.

Years later, Lily would recognize that moment when the pill ignited, that smack-in-the-head moment in Science class, as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. In one moment, she was a child, struggling as a child against adult demands. And in the next — she did not know what to call what came next, nor what she had become, for she was neither adult nor child. She had become something unclassifiably other, something out of the normal stages where others moved from infant to toddler to child to adolescent to adult and the various stages of adulthood which were incomprehensible to her, a process in which all the markers had moved and all the measurements had been distorted.

Her life, in certain dimensions became simpler. And certain struggles were now overcome. She had a pill now to help her sleep at night and a pill in the day to keep her awake. But in other ways, her life had become utterly more complex and complicated, for in addition to her care for the house and animals and schoolwork and her grandmother, she had to calculate how much of each pill would get her where she needed to be, and she had to calculate these expenses into what she had to pay out each week to get by.

She could make it. But barely.

One morning in January, Lily woke to see a dazzle of snow across the mountains. She had fallen asleep the night before to the pit pit pitter of snow hitting her window. By morning, the drifts were so deep she had to sweep piled snow away from the henhouse door and she had to slog to the road in her grandfather’s heavy boots. 

When he got to the gravel road up the hollow, Mister Pete didn’t even take the turn. “Can’t risk it,” he said. 

In their backseat corner of the bus, Rose and Lily would be insulated from the bickering, insults, rough-housing, and play of the rest of the bus. Mornings were no problem. Lily was the first passenger to be picked up. Rose was the second. So they could get to their place in the back of the bus and not be much bothered. But after school, they had to dominate. If ever one of the fifth or sixth grade boys—and it was always the boys—took over their corner, Rose wasted no time on him. She pinched his ear and twisted. That brought him up, screaming Ow ow ow ow ow!

Mister Pete yelled out, “Is there a problem back there?”

Rose guided the boy to an open seat two rows up. “No sir,” she called. “Everything’s fine.” 

“I thought so,” Mister Pete called. “That’s the kind of thing I like to hear.”

Rose mouthed warnings, curses, and insults at the boy. He stuck out his tongue, but he stayed in the seat where Rose had put him.

Rose sat back down in her proper seat at the back of the bus and Lily sat down next to her.

Rose sighed. “At least I won’t have to put up with that stupid stuff anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“Didn’t you tell me what?”

“I reckon I forgot.”

“Forgot what? What did you forget to tell me?”

Rose took a deep breath, then looked out the window. They were running through one of the little towns between the mountain and the county seat.

“Are you gonna tell me or not?”

Rose looked down in her lap, then said in a near-mumble, “I’m gonna move to Lexington,” she said. “I’m gonna move in with my mom.”

Lily took a moment to take in this news. “Really?” she said, finally.

“I mean,” Rose said. “She’s living with this Black guy, which I don’t mind so much. I mean, he’s nice and all. It’s just, they’re in this sketchy part of town.”

“So why go?”

“I don’t even know,” she said. “I mean, it’s like I got to get away from here. This place is . . . I don’t know.” She looked out the window once more.

“It’s just too crazy around here.”

Sometimes, at night, Lily could hear the sounds of sirens up and down the mountain. That night, the lights of an emergency ambulance ran past her window.

Her grandmother now slept in her recliner in front of the television, so the lights—the blue lights of the Highway Patrol, the red lights of the ambulance—played across the old woman’s face as she slept.

Tonight, the pills were not working for Lily. Or they had not worked yet. Lily stood by the front window of the house and waited. Her grandmother was sound asleep in her recliner nearby where the soft lights of the television played across her face. The sound of sirens slowly climbed the mountain, folded into the tuckaway curves and flared out on the straightaways. In a moment, the first siren was joined by a second, folding together in a disharmonic wail, punctuated at the crossroads by a sharp Whoop! Whoop! of warning. The two siren sounds continued to climb until, in a blur of a rush, they passed, one quickly after the other, headed in a blur to the peak, casting out, blue and red, venous and arterial, the blood-colored lights over the face of the mountain.

Another overdose, Lily thought. That’s what folks would say. I’m sure that’s what it is. She listened to see if she could tell which way the cars were headed. In a short time, they might be back, sirens roaring again. Or, depending on where they ended up or whose emergency rooms were full, the ambulance might keep on toward Virginia. 

Or, if the people did not make it, if they had taken too much, or if they were not used to the purity, or if they had been off in rehab or jail and their tolerance had dipped, and they didn’t make it, then there would be no more sirens.

And the night would be no more disturbed.

“Before I go, I’m gonna set you up,” Rose told her. “I’m not gonna leave you hanging.”

That was a relief. It was not like she was addicted or anything. But still. Lily had come to rely on the pills to get through the day and to get rested at night. She wasn’t using them to party and to get high. She was using them to help her do the things she had to do. 

“I got you covered,” Rose told her. “You don’t need to worry.” She said she planned to stay to the end of the school quarter; she planned to take her exams before she left. “And I’ll definitely, definitely hook you up before I go. Just give me a couple days and I’ll get you squared away.”

Two nights before Rose was scheduled to leave, a fierce rain came through the mountains. The winds lashed at the trees and strained the rafters of the house. Lily stood at the window and watched as lightning crackled up the sky and illuminated the yard, the trees of the yard, and the highway beyond. The rains drummed against the house and guttered into the yard. Beyond the house, she heard rainwash in the run beyond the yard and in the ditches of the highway.

In the morning, Lily got on the bus as usual. She said hello to Mister Pete, went back to her seat, and opened her science book; they had an exam that day and she wanted to be ready. She figured she could go over that business of electrons and neutrons and protons with Rose once Mister Pete had picked her up. The bus rolled down the mountain past the old tipple as she studied once again the dizzying business of protons and neutrons and the circumambient electrons. She was thinking, how strange it was that these same electrons coursed within her own self and in the book in her hand and in this bus which was headed down the curves of this mountain and how they were the bones of this mountain itself when she had an internal horological sense that something had gone wrong. It was as if the bus had gone off a cliff and had become just another errant electron in flight in empty air.

Lily looked out the window. The mailboxes that flew by were much further down the mountain than they should have been. And here was Mister Pete turning down the rutted hollow road just below Rose’s house. Mister Pete had passed up Rose. He had sailed on down the mountain without stopping for Rose. Lily had to find a voice with which to call out, “Mister Pete, Mister Pete, you passed up Rose. You forgot to stop for Rose.”

Mister Pete had by now stopped to load the children from up the hollow and Lily pushed her way past them to the front of the bus.

The children were boarded and seated before Lily could get to the front of the bus; she had to sway with the movement of the bus as it wobbled over the ruts and buckles and pothole imprecisions of the hollow road.

“Mister Pete,” she called again when she got within the first two rows. “Mister Pete, you forgot to pick up Rose.”

Mister Pete had two more stops along this road. He downshifted, then braked to a stop and peered ahead to assess if last night’s rain had shifted the shape of the ruts or had rendered impassible the culvert he had yet to cross.

“Honey,” he said without turning, “I ain’t forgot a thing.” He squinted toward the ruts.

“Yes, you did,” she said. “Mister Pete, you forgot to stop for . . .” 

“Honey, I ain’t ever forgot a child in fifteen years of driving this bus.”

“But you did, you forgot . . .”

“The girl is gone.”

“. . . you forgot . . .”

“She’s pulled out of school and moved to Lexington . . .”

“But Mister Pete . . .”

“They scratched her off my list. Honey, she’s gone.”

Lily, stunned, could no longer speak.

“So, go on back and sit down so I can drive this bus.” He still had not looked at her. He merely glanced to the mirror to see that she was headed back down the aisle to her seat in the back row.

Most of the children ignored her, but a few mocked her. She heard them, and their mockery stung. Normally, she would have answered them back, mockery for mockery. But the shock of the news had shuttered her words. She made her way back to her back-row seat, swaying with the bus as it slithered over the ruts and skidded over the muddy, unstable places.

Michael Henson has been involved in the Appalachian literary and social justice movement for nearly fifty years. He is author of five books of fiction and four collections of poetry. Maggie Boylan, a collection of linked stories published by Ohio University Press in 2018, won recognition for its depiction of a woman struggling with poverty and addiction in rural Ohio. Secure the Shadow, a novel, was released by OUP in October, 2022. Carter Bridge, a Bluegrass band he started with his wife, is producing its first album.

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