Joe The Hero
Joe Pearson loathed riding the school bus. For him, it was a moving bully mobile with jerky kids who liked to pick on him and stuck up girls who ignored him. Joe sat in the first seat behind the bus driver (Mr. Belcher, who did tend to burp a lot) figuring it was the safest place from ridicule and teasing although he still occasionally got punched and smacked by kids walking down the aisle.
Joe read his book or stared out the window and nobody sat with him unless there was no other option. He didn't mind being alone (he rather enjoyed it) and he resented not being left alone by those who insisted on being obnoxious pests.
Joe was a shy and quiet kid being raised by his single widower Dad. Kids made fun of Joe's Dad too because he ran the Mt. Griffin Junkyard and that's where the school bus picked up and dropped off Joe Jr. Joe and his Dad lived in the apartment above the old gas station that no longer had pumps but still serviced automobiles, provided towing services, and of course was where old cars went to die. It was a cool place to live with the hundreds of car carcasses behind the building but it was not a particularly glamorous abode and most of the kids considered Joe weird because of where he lived. His unofficial nickname on the bus was either "Junkyard Joe" or "Junkyard Dog".
The bus driver Mr. Belcher was a tall thin man with hair whiter than snow and eyes in the back of his head. Joe was fascinated that Mr. B was always aware of what was going on behind him when he drove. He also knew the characters and personalities of every kid who rode the bus. Joe was amused that the retired thirty year mail carrier traded in yipping dogs for yipping school kids! But Joe sensed that Mr. Belcher was disappointed in him because he didn't stick up for himself or fight back which allowed the bullying to continue.
On this particular Friday morning, Joe boarded the school bus as usual. He gave his standard polite nod to Mr. Belcher and then took his customary seat behind the bus driver without so much as looking at the others on the bus. He pulled out the tattered paperback he was reading and buried his face in the pages to avoid any possible interaction or eye contact with anybody else.
There were no stops on the last three miles of the bus route leading to school. (Mt. Griffin) Mountain Road was a houseless stretch of curvy hilly road that cut down the mountain into the village of Mt. Griffin where the hundred year old high school waited. On the right was a guardrail along a thirty foot wooded embankment that ended on the banks of the Blue River. On the left were a curb, telephone poles, and rocky ledges where the road had been cut into the mountain. It wasn't the safest road in Blue County (especially for teenaged dare devils who liked to drag race up or down the challenging mountain road) but Mr. Belcher was a conscientious and careful driver and Joe never thought twice about the daily ride down the mountain.
Joe was immersed in his book when he felt a jolt and heard a scream. He glanced up and saw a horrified Jenny Martin in the seat across from him screaming hysterically. He turned his attention to Mr. Belcher who was slumped over the steering wheel as the bus began to bounce against the steel guardrails on the right edge of the road. Who knew if the barrier would give away or if the bus would jump over or through the rail and tumble down the embankment into the river?
Without even thinking about it, Joe sprang from his seat and grabbed the steering wheel veering it to the left which caused the bus to free itself from the guard rail. Only now the bus was careening into the other lane of traffic. Joe saw an approaching pickup truck skid out of the way into the other lane. Now everybody on the bus was screaming and yelling and crying and wailing.
Joe used his free hand to yank the unconscious Mr. Belcher out of the driver's seat. The driver tumbled into the stairwell as Joe fell into the driver's seat and began to pump the brakes while downshifting the transmission. Joe had driven plenty of vehicles in his father's junkyard, but nothing as big, clumsy, or heavy as a school bus.
The bus jumped the curb on the left side of the road, ricocheted off a telephone pole and bounced back out into the road again, sailing across the lane and once again bouncing off the guardrails. There was a loud bang followed by a thumping and Joe realized the front right tire had blown out causing the bus to swerve and dip, the steering wheel shaking in Joe's grasp. But his braking and downshifting had greatly reduced the speed of the vehicle as it grinded across the road to the left again (narrowly missing a swerving SUV), jumped the curve, hit a rut caused by a recent heavy rain and furrowed its way to a jolting stop just short of a rocky barrier as Joe nailed the brakes in a desperate final act.
Kids had been tossed about during the slow motion endless crash. Some were crying, others were sprawled out on the floor. Somebody in the back opened the rear emergency door and began evacuating the bus. Mr. Belcher lay folded and still in the front stairwell. There were broken windows and steam coming from the folded hood of the bus.
Joe grabbed the microphone to the bus radio and yelled into it:
"Mayday! Mayday! SOS! SOS! Help! Help!"
"Bus 123, what is your situation?" A startled dispatcher wanted to know.
"There's been an accident," Joe hollered into the mike. "We're about a 1/4 mile up Mountain Road. Mr. Belcher...doesn't look too good."
"Are they any other injuries?" The dispatcher wanted to know.
Joe glanced behind him and saw various dazed kids in various places and positions.
"I'm not sure how bad," he reported. "Hurry. Send help!"
By now, other cars had stopped and Joe could hear the wails of sirens in the distance. In this day of cell phones, the police had already received at least a dozen 911 calls, most from the bus.
"Mr. Belcher?" Joe asked but it was clear that the bus driver was unconscious and perhaps even dead.
Joe felt like the Captain of an airliner or a cruise ship as he slowly walked down the center aisle trying to offer moral support and physical aid to some of the kids who were still on the bus. A couple of cops were climbing through the back emergency door and Joe saw two ambulances and the Fire Department's EMT van approaching the accident scene.
"If you're able, you need to get off the bus," one of the cops said.
Joe did as he was told, jumping out of the back of the bus. Some of the kids standing on the side of the road looked at him with a mix of amazement, appreciation, pride and respect, something Joe had never experienced before. A couple of kids even said thank you and gave him slaps on the back.
There were all sorts of questions asked by the cops. Another bus was dispatched to take kids to school although some went home after the traumatic event. All of the injuries turned out to be minor in nature - bruises, cuts, a mild concussion. The owner of the bus company showed up to offer his apologies and his support.
The unfortunate Mr. Belcher's body was removed from the bus. A subsequent autopsy would reveal a "catastrophic cardiac event" that resulted in his instantaneous death. Joe felt bad about poor Mr. Belcher but that was out of his hands.
Joe was among the kids who went to school (abet a few hours late) and by lunch the place was full of rumors and stories of Joe's heroism, saving thirty-five kids on the bus from certain disaster if not death had the yellow missile gone down the embankment and into the river. A humbled Joe avoided the growing accolades and attention, not used to being in the spotlight or the center of attention.
When he boarded the (replacement) bus at the end of the day (with a fill-in driver) those who had been onboard that morning started cheering and clapping, giving Joe a standing ovation. Suddenly he was being called "Bus Driver Joe" and "Savior Joe" and he was embarrassed by the hoopla. He couldn't stop thinking about Mr. Belcher. The replacement driver was a middle aged housewife type but she took notice of the reaction when Joe came on the bus.
"Oh, you're the kid who stopped B's bus this morning?" She asked.
"I was in the front seat," he explained. "I was closest."
"I'm Mrs. Bergeron," she said, shaking Joe's hand. "You showed guts, Joe. Good job."
"Hey, Joe, sit back here with us!" Some of the older guys called - the same kids who had been bullying him just days earlier. They sounded sincere and inviting now.
Joe glanced at Jenny Martin who looked white faced sitting in the same seat as that morning.
"I'm going to sit here," Joe announced, giving the guys a wave as he took a seat next to Jenny. It was the boldest thing he had done in his life.
She smiled weakly when he first joined her but then she stared out the window.
"Kids, I'm going to take the southern route to avoid Mountain Road this afternoon," Mrs. Bergeron announced. "It will make for a longer trip but you won't have to pass the accident scene today. Unfortunately, the same won't be true on Monday."
There was murmuring of appreciation but the bus was generally mellow and laid-back during the afternoon ride. Joe was feeling relieved that he no longer faced the wrath of the others.
"I thought we were going to die," Jenny finally said.
"We didn't though," Joe reminded her.
"Mr. Belcher did."
"Yeah," Joe sighed sadly. "I'm going to miss him."
"Thank you," Jenny said. "For doing what you did."
"Sure," Joe said. "But I only did what anybody else would have done."
"Only nobody else did," Jenny remarked.
She was a popular kid at school but most of her friends didn't ride this particular bus. She often sat up front to avoid the cat calls and come-ons of some of the sexist jerks who sat in the back but she rarely gave Joe a second look when he boarded the bus since he was not the kind of guy who hung out in her circle of smart kids - the student council types with their personal cliques.
Jenny was pretty, though, with long brown hair that she often wrapped in braids around the top of her head. Sometimes she looked like a hippie from the 1960s or a Native American girl from the 1860s but she was among the best dressed girls in the sophomore class.
"Everybody else on this bus is full of shit, you know," Jenny told him.
"Huh?" Joe asked with confusion.
"They all act like tough guys and know it alls and superheroes but they all sat frozen and frightened this morning," she observed. "Those jerks that bully you and talk smack were pissing in their pants while you were saving the day."
"I don't think it was that dramatic," Joe replied.
"I pissed in my pants," Jenny revealed, causing Joe to blush. He couldn't believe she had revealed something so personal or awkward to him.
She didn't say anything for the rest of the ride but Joe didn't mind. He was happy to be sitting with someone like Jenny Martin, finally freed from his bus prison. He wasn't sure how long the good fortune would last but he was going to enjoy the benefits of his actions for as long as he could.
Several people called out goodbye as Joe debarked the bus in front of the junkyard. He glanced at Jenny as he stepped down the bus stairs and she gave him a half-smile which - to him - was as good as a blessing from the Pope.
Joe didn't say anything to his father about the events of the day. He changed into his work clothes and stepped into one of the garage bays where the 1950 Chevy 3100 pickup truck he had been restoring for nearly a year was parked. He still had a long way to go before the truck was road ready but that was okay because it would be nearly a year before he had his driver's license anyway.
It wasn't until Joe's father became inundated with dozens of phone calls thanking him for his son's courage and heroism that the Senior Pearson went to his son to get the whole story of the stricken bus driver and Joe saving the vehicle from certain doom.
"Good Job, son," his Dad understated. (Was it any wonder why Joe Jr. was a quiet kid!?).
The bus company released the bus video of the incident and it played on the local television news stations and was picked up by the New England Cable News Network and CNN. Joe didn't like watching the video because he knew Mr. Belcher was dead in the images although he saw that Jenny was correct in her assessment - most of the kids sat frozen in their seats and prayed that Joe would be able to save them.
There were several news people at the junk yard by Saturday afternoon hoping to grab an interview with the hero kid but Joe refused to go on camera to tell his story, feeling it was disrespectful to the late Mr. Belcher and self-serving to talk about himself. He believed the video spoke for itself. The news folk ended up interviewing several other kids who were on the bus, all of whom called Joe a genuine hero. Of course, none of them owned up to the previous bullying and shaming practices leveled against Joe the Savior.
Joe stepped onto the bus driven by Mrs. Bergeron on Monday morning and he was once again greeted with hearty and heartfelt hellos. Jenny Martin was seated in her usual seat and Joe asked if it was okay if he sat with her again.
"It would be my honor," she replied and for a moment Joe felt like a Prince.
There was an assembly first period and Joe was humiliated and embarrassed when Principal Daniels called him up to the stage to recognize him for his bus heroics. Joe gave a humbled wave but he didn't say anything to the student body. He honestly believed the hype and attention was overblown and that people needed to move on. He appreciated being accepted now, though, and for that he was grateful for the opportunity to alter his reputation and destiny and be perceived differently than he had before Mr. Belcher was stricken.
Now kids said hello to him in the hallways and teachers noticed him in their classrooms. People wanted him to join them at their tables during lunch. Joe enjoyed his newfound notoriety but he was uncomfortable with the false praise and near celebrity treatment and - worse - he feared in a few days everybody would forget and he would find himself ignored all over again.
Joe wondered if Jenny Martin might be different. She was the only one who had been honest with him and he was flattered that she had confided in him in that way. But now that the emotion of the terrifying bus ride was beginning to fade would she lose interest in talking to him?
"We're all hypocrites," Jenny said during the ride home that afternoon, Joe happily sitting next to her once again. "I ignored you just like everybody else. I didn't stand up and say anything when some of the assholes back there were bullying you. Why should you be sitting next to me now?"
"Because I want to," Joe replied.
"You should tell me to stick it," Jenny growled. "I'm just as culpable as anybody else on this bus. You don't have to be nice to me now."
"Me being a hero isn't going to last very long," Joe predicted. "People will forget. Lose interest. Get caught up in the next happening. But if my five minutes of Mt. Griffin bus fame gives me a chance to get to know you, I'm good."
"What kind of superhero are you?" Jenny asked. "What's your secret? What's your identity?"
"I don't have any secrets," Joe let her know. "I'm not even sure I have an identity! I'm not your typical role model when it comes to being the hero. I just happened to be the one closest enough to do something about a driverless bus."
"I never saw you before," Jenny admitted. "I never cared. It's only because you most likely saved my life that I'm even talking to you now."
"That's okay," Joe said.
"No it's not!" Jenny frowned. "One minute you were a bullied nobody and then the next moment you were miraculously saving the day."
"I was never a nobody," Joe pointed out. "People just thought I was."
"I know that," Jenny groaned. "That's why I hate myself for having to admit that I was one of those who didn't care."
"People like me aren't supposed to be the hero," Joe replied. "I know that. But now my image has changed and if that helps change my future that's okay with me. It's a good thing."
"But we weren't good people," Jenny sighed. "Somebody shouldn't have to become a superhero to be noticed."
"I'm willing to give you a chance," Joe smirked.
She looked at him dumbfounded and then she laughed. "Thank you," she said warmly. "I appreciate that."
"I'm going to Mr. Belcher's service Wednesday night," Joe announced. "Would you like to go with me?"
"Yes," Jenny replied. "Thanks for asking." Then she leaned in and kissed him - right on the bus, right in front of everybody! Joe blushed but he was happy. "Thank you for what you did for me," she said.
"You're welcome," Joe replied. "I hope I can be your hero for a long time to come.
She smiled. "I'd like that."
Author's Note: This story idea came from a writer's prompt I saw - write about a "hero" (or "heroine") under any circumstances. I liked the idea of an unnoticed kid like Joe having the opportunity to prove himself and change the perspective of how he was seen by others. Too bad it took heroics for him to find his place.