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The fraudulent cold air emitted by the air-conditioning system pushes back bestial waves of summer heat. With humidity as thick as fog, it is impossible to participate in outdoor activities without drowning in the air. It is warm, even with the bitter replica breeze blowing from the musty vents. Not only is the toasty bus spotted with winter, it also smells of sweaty, fermenting clothes and hot bologna sandwiches.
Being the first person on the bus, I take a seat in the far back corner. It will not be until later that I will move up to allow room for the Cranes. Until then, I kick my feet up on the cracked vinyl seat and try to estimate the number of pieces of gum stuck to the metallic domed ceiling. Gummy ear buds are plugged deep into my ears, but there is no music playing. The cord is not attached to anything; the end of the wire is tucked into the pocket of my jeans.
The back seat is the penthouse of the twenty row bus. Within the next hour, the other seats will be occupied by their usual tenants, and I will move on to another perspective. However, for the next ten minutes, I have the back row to myself.
The mosaic mural along the ceiling is becoming something of a masterpiece. According to legend, the first piece of Wrigley’s was laid by the bus driver himself, but there is no written record of this phenomenon. Al, the bus driver, will never admit to vandalizing public property, but the mischievous sparkle in his eye says otherwise.
I keep several packs of Wrigley’s sugar free gum in my backpack, all in different colors. At the moment, I am working on a scene from the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Unfortunately, my masterwork is three seats up and across the aisle. I will have to wait two more stops before situating myself on my scaffold.
With my back against the side of the bus, I can feel the movement of the tires on the road. Every rock and pothole the rubber encounters transfers to my nervous system, and the chronic bumping and vibrations are like a savage rocking chair. I consider the Michelin Man to be a pathological liar; never in my fourteen years of living have I experienced a smooth bus ride.
After a few minutes, the metallic cries and coughing exhaust decrease, and the bus limps to a complete stop.
“It’s even worse than yesterday,” Little Red exclaims. She pulls the sleeves of her red sweatshirt over her black fingernails and drops into a seat near the front. It is not her fault that she smells bad; rather, it is the red sweatshirt which plagues her torso every day. I doubt it has been washed since it was manufactured. Fortunately, the stench filling the bus is far worse than her odor. I assume the stewing lunch meat is the reason for her complaint.
After Little Red, Samson clomps onto the bus wearing camouflage and combat boots. Gruffly, the long haired boy takes a seat near the back of the bus. His eyes skim over me without recognition.
The door squeaks shut, and Al guns the engine. The groaning and bumping returns and I lean my head against the uncomfortable, smudged glass. There are grease prints staining the windows like shadows of past actions, hand and nose prints, grease pictures drawn with the tip of a finger, and, unfortunately, flaking drool. I have to remind myself that the antiquated germs are no harm to me now, but I avoid pressing my skin against the glass.
“Why do you wear a sweatshirt in ninety degree weather?” Samson asks Little Red. The two of them come from the same stop; I am surprised that he hasn’t asked her before.
“None of you business,” she replies smugly. I can assume why she always wears the sweatshirt. It is a security blanket. On occasion, she will push the sleeves up to reveal dozens of thick, red scars running lengthwise down her arms. Why she feels the need to mar her own skin, I will never know.
For the second time this morning, the bus rolls to a stop, and the doors creak open. Five sets of tennis shoes thunder up the steps into the main cabin of the bus, and I take the ruckus as my cue to switch seats. The flesh colored gum I have been chewing is immediately added to the hand I have been building on the patch of ceiling above the seat.
The Cranes, an elite group of sophomore jocks, claim the back row as their realm. Behind them, several thin Doves flutter to the back of the bus. The three girls are teetering on their stiletto heels. I have wanted to stick my foot out and trip one of them for years, but then I would have to watch her recover if, per chance, she broke a bone.
The Cranes immediately crane their necks over the seats in front of them to look upon the lovely Doves. Rather, they are undressing them with their eyes, but I like to think of things in more modest terms. I pull a stick of white peppermint gum from my backpack, shove the glutinous sweet into my mouth, and chew thoughtfully.
In my new seat, I can see and hear Samson and Little Red, but the Cranes and the Doves can only be heard. It is mostly churlish banter and meaningless snickering, but after a while, it blends together to create background noise. During times like these, I wish I had something to attach to my ear buds.
Once my gum is thoroughly chewed, I add it to the beard of God before selecting another piece of tan gum and popping it into my mouth. So far, I have the charismatic hands of Adam and God metaphorically touching. Now, I am working on faces. Nobody seems to notice my hard work; they all assume that I am a nervous chewer and keep a collection of the roof. In reality, I have an eye for beauty, and colorful breath freshening gum is the only medium I have to work with.
At this stop, more students board the bus and fill the remainder of the seats. None of them attempt to sit next to me. I do not expect them to; I am invisible to all of them. There is nothing remotely interesting about me. My face is easily forgotten. After middle school, none of the kids on the bus bothered to remember my name.
Cologne and perfumes besiege my nostrils, and for a moment, I forget that I am on a school bus. With the amount of fragrance circulating through the tight space, one would assume that it is a department store cosmetic department.
The scent does not last long. After a few moments, the eye-watering aromas are overpowered by the rotting lunchmeat and sweat laden socks stuffed through the rips in the vinyl. I settle against the window of my compartment and gaze upon my mural above. Years in the making, it has become quite a spectacle.
Within the next few minutes, we pull up to the school. The school frenzy sophomores rush off the bus. Samson pushes several freshmen out of his way and bounds down the steps to the ground below. Little Red disappears into the line and drops out of view as she descends the steps. The Birds are last.
“Oh my God!” A Dove proclaims and points at my masterpiece. A manicured hand is perched over her mouth in shock and disgust, “That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen.” She wipes her hands on her skirt and trips a few steps down the aisle.
“What is it?” One of the Cranes asks and looks for the source of her disgust.
“It looks like someone made a mural out of gum,” another decides.
“Obviously,” I say. None of them hear me; they continue to criticize my artwork.
“I dare you to touch it,” one Crane says to another.
“Nah, man, that’s been in someone’s mouth,” he replies. The Crane grabs his victim’s arm and attempts to force it onto my work. Instead, he falls into my seat. I expect to feel the impact of a two hundred pound boy, but I feel nothing. He falls through me onto the seat.
Sometimes, I forget that they cannot see or hear me, and that I cannot feel them. It was not much different before I died, but living was much more satisfying. It was better to be heard and ignored than to be unheard and acknowledged.