An Afternoon Off
by Kathy Dillenbeck

Felicity flinched again. The young people in the back of the bus were playing a game, but she didn’t know the rules, only that permanent hearing loss awaited anyone within 20 feet. Each took a turn chanting or rapping some nonsense she couldn’t understand, kicking up the volume to cover the heckling and jeers of the others. Once everyone had a chance to comment on the previous performer, the next contestant began banging his seat to keep rhythm with his verbal assault on her ears.

The four teens, two boys and two girls, boarded two stops after hers, laughing and poking fun at one another as they stumbled their way to the back of the bus. The boys wore baseball caps on backwards, Tampa Bay Buccaneer tank tops, and over-large shorts that defied gravity, drooping down around their hips. One of them carried a brown paper bag with a wine bottle peeking out. The girls, each cracking a wad of gum, wore tight hip-huggers and spaghetti-strapped blouses too low on top and too high on the bottom. Over-size earrings dangled from ears that peeked out beneath multi-toned, spiked hair. After some scuffling and challenges over who would sit where, each selected a seat.

Felicity wondered why the bus driver allowed such goings-on? Didn’t he realize they were teenagers? Wasn’t booze banned on buses? Shouldn’t those kids be in school rather than entertaining passengers on commuter buses? Did the school system still employ truant officers? Why did she have to pick this bus?

Interrupted from her thoughts by loud whispering, Felicity heard the elderly woman seated behind the driver ask what him to do something about “those ruffians in the back making all that noise.” The bus driver shook his head and answered in such low tones she couldn’t hear his reply, but the lady’s reaction to his response spoke volumes about the driver’s unwillingness to deal with the problem. The unhappy senior citizen glared at the noisy offenders, turned her back to them and resituated herself on her seat, arms crossed as if she were afraid she would do something rash if they were not restrained.

Felicity shifted in her seat so she could observe whether any of the participants had noticed the near-silent complaint. They had not. Completely self-involved, they were oblivious to anything transpiring around them. One of the girls executed her part with a dramatic flair, hands gesturing, voice loud and lamenting. The others failed to mock and laugh at her. They appeared struck dumb. The last few words said, she plopped into her seat, turned her back on them, and stared out the window. Silence reigned for about 30 seconds, then her friends cheered and voted her the winner. Before Felicity could breathe a sigh of relief that the game was over, the group invited their winner to be first in a new game.

“I think I’ll sit this one out, but you go ahead. I’m kind of tired,” she told the others. She sat back, abruptly leaned forward and stared out the window, her eyes following something Felicity could not see.

The bus stopped to allow a man carrying a large black bag to step on. Just before climbing into the bus, he hefted the satchel over his shoulder. As he made his way to the seat across from Felicity, he turned his head, slapped the bag, and yelled, “Stop wiggling or I’ll smack you again.” Whatever was in the bag whimpered.

The girl who had dropped out of the game shrank down in her seat and hid behind a magazine. The others paid no attention. Felicity bristled and glared at the man. She didn’t know what was in the bag, but believed nothing could be solved by violence. And talk about unfair: this man was probably more than six feet tall and was attacking something less than one-third his size.

The man, who shifted over to sit next to the window, settled the gunnysack on the seat next to him. He grasped the zipper and opened it about 6 inches.

“I told you to behave, didn’t I? Why do you make me do these things?” He spoke into the darkness of the bag.

The noise from the back of the bus stopped as the teenagers, tipped off by their friend, became aware of the situation. By now, the attention of everyone on was focused on the man dressed all in black.

“Oh, please, let me out. I promise I’ll be good.” The voice was high-pitched and pitiful.

“You never keep your promises. Why should I believe you this time?” The man’s voice rumbled low in contrast to the contents of the case.

“Just one more chance, please.”

The man glanced around and noticed everyone’s eyes on him. “Okay, but let’s review what you’re promising one more time.”

As if ticking off on his fingers, something he’d rehearsed many times, the disembodied voice said, “I’ll be good. I’ll go to school when I should. I won’t skip anymore, and I’ll be quiet, that’s for sure.”

At those words, the teenagers began speaking among themselves.

“It’s him.”

“But I thought he was an urban legend dreamed up by someone playing Mixin’ Fixion.”

“It’s got to be him. He’s all dressed in black and he’s carrying that big black bag with some poor student in it.”

“I’ve heard he’s always looking for new students to stuff in that bag.”

Felicity, who suffered from claustrophobia, couldn’t stand the thought of that poor student confined in that bag any longer. She stood up and crossed the aisle. As she was grasping the zipper to let the student out, the man grabbed her hand and pointed to the contents of the duffle. She wondered how he had pulled this off so long. Inside was a ventriloquist’s dummy.

“We’d better leave you right where you are. We seem to have some other candidates.” The man zipped up the bag, stood, and walked toward the truants.

Felicity breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to her afternoon off.