The road was bumpy. It was a scorching 40 degrees, and I could hear the stones bump and grind on the underbelly of the bus. Stone on metal. Made me laugh.. sticks and stones may break my bones… how untrue that words could never hurt… The sharp screeching of the are-we-gonna-make-it engine was almost soothing, insisting that I attend to that first rather than think about how I left. I wonder when They would notice that I wasn’t there? Even without the dusty hillocks and screeching rusty engine, this road was always going to be bumpy. There was no other option. It was either this or blackness.

I don’t know how long I was staring out of the window, focussing on the endless red dust as we traveled away from the red center and the taunts that led me to run… but as I blinked back the tears, I realised that the older woman across the aisle from me was looking at me.

As if she could see my burden, she reassured me with a soft smile and a nod of her head. She had no idea that I spent most of my recess and lunchtimes hiding in different toilets around school to avoid Them. She had no idea that when They found me, they would grab at my clothing and hair. She had no idea that They would flick my glasses off my face before They ran off. She had no idea that They would throw spitballs at the back of my head during Maths class. She had no idea that I cried myself to sleep every night. But somehow, she understood anyway. I tried to shift my face into what felt like it could be a smile, but I wasn’t sure that I’d succeeded.

The dog behind me started whimpering and scratching at the side of the bus and the man that owner him scruffed his neck in playful reassurance, “it’s ok boy, we’ll get off the bus soon”. Mr dog wasn’t reassured and kept on with a quieter whimper.

Towards the front of the bus an elderly couple, dressed in tweed jackets despite the searing heat, sat in comfortable silence, hands clasped together while the bumpy ride jostled them in their seats. I wondered what it felt like to have somebody. Had they ever suffered so keenly that to vanish completely would seem like sweet relief? Surely not, they had each other.

I wondered if anyone had felt the heavy ball of friendlessness and hopelessness buried deep within that had been weighing me down ever since I started at that school.

I couldn’t hold it back any longer. Tears stung my eyes.

*BANG*

The bus slammed on it’s breaks and came to a screeching halt. Everyone grabbed the seats in front of them and steadied themselves as red dust clouded all around the bus. The tyre must have exploded.

We all looked at each other with worry and shock. We were in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver got out of his seat and walked down the aisle looking directly at me.

“I’m sorry love, but we’ve had a blowout. You’d best come with me to the next town, it’s only a 5km walk down the road. We can find you another connection there.”

I looked over at the woman, the elderly couple, the man and his dog…

“What about the others?” I asked

“What others?” he said, looking around blankly…

And as I blinked and looked around again, I realised I was sitting in toilet block E. The bell sounded, and it was time for Maths…