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On my first evening in the back country, I skipped down the porch steps of the farmhouse—leaving my father inside and the radio playing and my small suitcase decorated with neon flower stickers unpacked—and wandered toward the upside-down school bus I'd spied from an upstairs window. Flanked on either side by Johnsongrass taller than my head, I followed a narrow and crooked cattle trail, extending my arms straight out for a while so my palms could reach into the grass and brush against the sorghum.
"You bend so you don't break," I whispered as the Johnsongrass slapped across my hands, half-singing the song my father had written about me: "You bend so you don't break, you give and you give, but you can't take, Jeliza-Rose, so I don't know what to do for you."
And I continued along the trail for some time—winding left, then right, then left again—until it ended at a grazing pasture sprinkled with foxtails and the last bluebonnets of late spring. A breeze shuffled through the humidity, and the sky was already dimming. But the low-growing bluebonnets were still radiant, so I carefully stepped over them while moving further into the pasture.
Behind me swayed the Johnsongrass.
Before me rested the upside-down bus in a heap—the hull a mess of flaking paint and seared metal—with most of the windows busted out, except a few which remained black and sooty. It seemed bluebonnets had sprouted everywhere, even from under the squashed bus roof, where they drooped like bullied children. And the air was so richwith the scent of lupine that I sniffed my fingertips as I came to stand beside the bus, inhaling instead an earthy odor which belonged to my filthy dress.
The bus door was ajar, an inauspicious entryway. Peering within, I spotted the melted steering wheel, the upholstery on the driver's seat bursting fuzz and springs. A smoky scent filled my nostrils, bubbled plastic and corrosion. And even though I was eleven, I had never been in a school bus. I had never been to school. So I squeezed past the inverted door, glancing at the stairwell overhead, and delighted in the glass chunks crunching beneath my sneakers.
Looking through the topsy-turvy windows, I shook a hand at the Johnsongrass outside, pretending they were my parents waving from a sidewalk somewhere. Then I put myself below a seat in the rear, imagining a busload of fresh-faced kids filling the other charred seats, all smiles and chatter, smacking gum, spinning paper airplanes down the aisle, and I was leaving with them.
From where I sat, the second floor of the farmhouse was visible, jutting behind the high Johnsongrass. The upstairs lamp was on, glowing in the third gable's window. At dusk, the old place no longer appeared weathered and gray, but brownish and almost golden—the eaves of the corrugated steel lean-to reflected sunlight, the thumbnail moon hung alongside the chimney.
And soon the grazing pasture erupted in places with bright soft intermittent flashes, a lemon phosphorescence. The fireflies had arrived, just as my father said they would, and I watched them with my dry lips parted in wonder, my palms sliding expectantly on the lap of my dress. I felt like running from the bus and greeting them, but they joined me instead. Dozens of tiny blinks materialized, floating through the smashed windows, illuminating the grim bus.
"I'm Jeliza-Rose," I said, bouncing on my crossed legs. "Hello."
Their flickers indicated understanding: The more I spoke, the more they blinked—or so I believed.
"You're going to school. I'm going to school today too."
In vain I reached out, attempting to snatch the nearest one, but when I unclenched my fist there was nothing to be seen. After several failed captures, I made myself content by simply naming the fireflies as they flashed.
"You're Michael. You're Ann. Are you Michael again? No, wait, you're Barbie. And that's Chris. There's Michael."
The bus was suddenly populated by children of my own creation.
"We're going on a great trip today," I told them. "I'm as excited as you are."
The sun had almost disappeared. And if the train hadn't startled me so, I might have stayed in the bus all night, lost in conversation with the fireflies. But the train flew by without warning, rattling the ground, and making me scream. I had no idea that tracks were concealed in thick weeds beyond the pasture, perhaps fifty feet away, or that each evening at 7:05 a passenger train tore past the property.
For a moment it seemed as if the world had started spinning faster. A vagrant wind pushed into the bus, mussing my oily hair. Squinting my eyes, I noticed blurs of silver and fluorescence outside, glimpses of people riding in the coaches and dining car, followed by freight cars—and then the caboose, where a lone figure seemed to be waving from the cupola.
Then the train was gone—so were the fireflies, having been whisked afield by the wind. I was alone again, still screaming, terrified. I bit my bottom lip without thinking, felt the skin crack, and tasted the blood as it swam onto my tongue. And everything became quiet, just the faint breeze whooshing the tall reeds, three or four solitary crickets tuning up for the night.
I glanced in the direction of the old house, knowing my father was in the living room, quiet and awaiting my return. Then I studied the rows of Johnsongrass, which had grown darker during dusk. That's where the Bog Man is, I thought, wiping blood from my lip. And I knew I'd better leave the bus before it got too late. I had to be with my father before the Bog Man stirred.
I needed to unpack.