May was rocking back and forth at the bus stop. The butterflies in her stomach smoothed out for a few seconds when one of the other girls admired her new, pink, canvas shoes with blue laces. May loved how her shoes matched her dress and the ribbons in her hair.
No matter how many times she changed schools, the first day didn’t get any easier. May was hoping she would be at Sterling Elementary for more than a few months. May’s father moved her and her mother around when neighbors were too friendly or too nosy. “It’s time for a change,” he would say. She counted the schools on her fingers; five schools in two years.
May’s eyes welled up with tears as she climbed onto the bus, her head spinning with questions. Would anyone sit next to her? Would she find any friends at school? Would the teacher be nice? Would she be smart enough to keep up? Turning back, looking at her mother, May pleaded with her eyes, Please don’t make me go. Her mother, Ellen, waved and blew May a kiss.
As the bus pulled away, three mothers crossed the street, headed for home. Kim suggested they get together for coffee since they lived so close to one another.
Nora said, “I have to get home. My husband is watching the baby and waiting for me to get back so he can go to work.”
Ellen thanked Kim, and said in a voice, barely above a whisper, “My husband is waiting for his breakfast.” Ellen looked at her watch and started home.
* * *
Ellen was allowed outside the apartment, unescorted, twice a day. She walked May to and from the bus stop. Nick, Ellen’s husband, knew down to the minute how long the journey took. If she was gone a minute longer, there would be hell to pay.
Those few minutes in the morning and afternoon were the only time Ellen was alone with May. After school, May did her homework while Ellen prepared dinner. After dinner, Ellen would check May’s work, give her a bath then read to May before tucking her in for the night. With Ellen’s sleeves rolled up during bath time, May could tell when new bruises appeared. The two never talked about the bruises or the shouting when her father thought May was asleep.
One day, on the way to the bus stop May said wistfully, “Momma, maybe someday we can both get on the bus and never come back.”
“We have nowhere to go honey, no one to stay with,” Ellen said in a small voice. But May’s suggestion started Ellen thinking.
That evening, Ellen ripped a sheet of paper from May’s notebook when they were going over homework. The next morning she walked onto the bus and slipped the driver a note whispering, “Please read this later.”
* * *
The next day, the bus driver motioned for Ellen to come onto the bus. He slipped her a piece of paper. Ellen read the note, looked into the bus driver’s warm eyes. With the smallest of movements she nodded her head. The driver put another note in her hand. Ellen stepped off the bus and waved to May as usual.
During bath time, Ellen told May to pick a toy to take to school for show and tell the next day. May started listing her stuffed animals. “Which one should I take Momma?”
“Which is your favorite?” Ellen asked.
May smiled, “Bunny.” Her smile was quickly replaced with a frown. In a small, sad voice May asked her mother, “Is dad moving us again?”
“No May, dad is not moving us again.” Ellen didn’t want to lie to May, but she was afraid to tell her about the plan for the next day. Nick might overhear them. May might say something to give it away.
* * *
In the morning, Ellen left the note the bus driver had given her on the kitchen counter as she and May left for the bus stop. The note was from May’s teacher “reminding” her to come to school the next day to help in the classroom.
Ellen and May hung back as all of the other kids hopped on the bus. It was a different bus driver than usual. Holding on to May’s shoulders to keep her hands from shaking, Ellen looked at him, pleading with her eyes. Gesturing toward the first row, he said “Come. Sit behind me.”
Heart racing, Ellen kept looking over her shoulder as the bus pulled away. What if Nick read the note before she was expected back? He would pull her and May off the bus. They would be moved out of the apartment by dinner time. Nick was always planning two moves ahead.
As the bus drove off, Nora and Kim looked at one another. “I wonder what that’s all about,” Kim said.
“I don’t know,” Nora replied, “but don’t you think it’s odd that May had a stuffed animal, and they both looked like they had on too many clothes for such a nice day.”
“Wasn’t that a substitute bus driver? I have never seen that man before,” Kim added.
* * *
The bus made a few more stops to pick up kids. When the driver pulled into the bus lane at May’s school, he told Ellen and May to wait for the others to leave. Once everyone else was gone, he said, “Slouch down so no one can see you.”
May knew that something was happening. She also knew not ask any questions. She held tight to her mother’s hand clutching Bunny in the other.
“Remember how you wanted to get on the bus together and go away? The bus driver is going to take us to a special place. Somewhere safe,” Ellen whispered, trying to keep May from getting upset. Several blocks away from the school, the driver let them know it was okay to sit up again.
After a twenty minute ride from May’s school, the bus pulled into the parking lot of a plain looking building. The driver turned to Ellen and May. “My name is Dan. I volunteer at The Haven. It just so happens I used to drive a bus and I still have my license. Once inside you will meet with an advocate who will ask you a lot of questions. If anyone can help you, this is the place, these are the people.”
Hanging tightly onto May’s hand, Ellen entered the shelter. “Welcome, my name is Tina; let’s go talk about how to make sure you two ladies are safe.”