I’m fourteen years old and my Catholic school uniform doesn’t feel like a fantasy. I’m alone at the city bus stop near my house and there’s a chill in the air that has nothing to do with the weather.
“No, thanks,” I say, so polite despite the fear beating in my chest. “My bus is coming.”
“Get in,” he says again, leaning over to open the passenger door. His car is dirty with a stained beige interior, and I want nothing less than to sit in that car.
“My bus is here,” I say, and it is, cruising through the green light before slowing at the sight of me. The timing is too convenient to be believable in film, but an overwhelming relief in reality. He slams the passenger door shut and speeds off.
That was the first day.
He comes back again, and often. He circles his car through the parking lot behind my bus stop, circling me, closing in. The theme from Jaws might seem inappropriately funny in a film, nervous uncomfortable laughter tittering throughout the theater. Instead, I am left with the sounds of a busy road as commuters pass me by, oblivious to the child being stalked by the grown man each morning. The cars fly by, the drivers drinking their coffee, thinking of their upcoming day, listening to the radio. Would they notice me if they heard about me on the radio?
“A high school freshman was abducted at a city bus stop at 44th Street and Camelback Road. Police are searching for her, but there are no leads yet.”
That’s terrible, they’d think as they drove by the last place I was seen. Maybe they’d discuss this news item around the water cooler.
“Did you hear?” their coworker would ask. “Only fourteen, that’s so sad.”
“I drive by there every day,” they’d say, inserting themselves into the narrative. Suddenly the story would no longer be about me, but about their relation to me, their proximity to my tragedy.
“Did you see anything?” the coworker would asked.
“No, nothing,” they’d say, as if they’d ever noticed me sitting there in my uniform with my pink backpack. Maybe their thoughts would drift to me throughout their workday and they’d imagine what it might’ve been like if they’d seen me. They are the hero in this fantasy, the one who rescued me from a future of violence and death, from having my body discovered in tatters, if at all.
“I was just doing the right thing,” they’d say modestly. “Anyone else would’ve done the same.”
As the days go by, the car drives around my bus stop more slowly, and I try to adjust my schedule. I take an earlier bus. I take a later bus. The man in the car is always there, adapting to my adjustments. Finally, I tell my mother. She buys me a metal rod about six inches long and tells me to jab it in his eye if he comes close. But if he’s close enough for me to reach his eye, I know it’ll already be too late.
“Could you give me a ride to school?” I ask, but I already know the answer will be no. She has to go to work and doesn’t want to drive me all the way to school before having to double back. She likes her morning routine the way it is, doesn’t want to get up earlier than she has to, and this is my problem to solve. Besides, what else do I want from her? She already bought me the metal rod. Her involvement is over.
The next time I see him, I’m waiting with a pen in my hand. I study his license plate and scribble the letters and numbers into the margin of my book. Six letters and numbers I can never forget, even now when I’m decades away from that bus stop. This time the man drives away quickly, likely guessing what I’ve documented. Proof of his presence, evidence that he’s gotten too close to me. He continues to drive past me, but I only know because I carefully watch the cars as they speed past me. Maybe he would’ve grown brave again, maybe he would have started to ease up on the gas pedal again, letting his car coast and slow to turn into the parking lot and circle my stop. I never find out. I never find out because I befriend someone from school who picks me up from that busy road most mornings in their truck. We fly down the road, windows down with the wind in my hair and my pink backpack at my feet. Safe, with that license plate number scratched into the margin of my book.
Just in case.