Eight-year old Ochi Williams crossed his arms over his chest as he sat on the bench waiting for the bus. His dark skin glistened as the hot morning sun beat down on him. He watched the other children running around in some imagined game.
They all seemed to have parents and families nearby. Ochi had already said goodbye to his foster mother back at the apartment and had walked by himself to the Rec Department, all of the traveling necessities in his backpack given to him by Mr. Franklin. Swinging his feet, he fingered the backpack's zipper as he waited and watched.
When the bus pulled up in the circle, all the other children ran, screaming, to it as they pushed and jockeyed for the best spot in line.
Ochi stood up and shouldered his backpack. Hanging back, he watched them all say goodbye to their families and board the bus. Slowly, he looked at the crowd wishing there was someone there to hug him or just to say goodbye to him. With a deep sigh, he stepped onto the bus.
It was chaos on board as Mr. Franklin tried to get kids into their seats, calling out names and checking them off his list.
"Ochi," he said. "Sit right here with Dante."
Following Mr. Franklin's direction, he sat next to a small boy with glasses who was on his knees waving to a man on the sidewalk.
When the kids were all settled, Mr. Franklin told the driver to hit the road. Ochi looked past Dante and watched New York City disappear. He gulped and held his backpack on his lap.
"Do you still have your snacks?" Dante asked. "I ate all mine already."
Nodding, Ochi opened the front pocket and pulled out a package of peanut butter crackers, handing them to Dante.
When they had been on the road for fifteen minutes, Mr. Franklin stood up in the front of the bus and faced the children. "Next stop, Portland, Maine," he said. "The Country-Visit Program is thrilled to present this opportunity to all of you. We will be met at the bus stop by your host families and you will be with them for two weeks. Does anyone have any questions?"
"I gotta pee," Dante shouted, raising his hand.
Mr. Franklin laughed, along with a few of the older children. "Come on - there's a restroom in the back of the bus."
After Dante crawled back over Ochi and settled in again, he asked, "Wanna play a game?"
Ochi shook his head as he looked out the window. The world out there looked strange - alien. Sucking in his breath, he held his hands over his stomach.
"Are you gonna puke?" Dante asked. "Cuz you look like you're gonna puke." He shifted back against the window.
"No," Ochi answered. "Don't you ever stop talking?"
After another hour on the road, Mr. Franklin passed around bag lunches of tuna or peanut butter sandwiches, an apple and a small bag of chips. He had a couple of the older boys pass out water bottles.
When the kids were done eating, the same boys came around and collected the trash.
After eating, the chatter started to dwindle and the initial excitement of the trip was gone. One by one, the children started to doze off. Ochi stared straight ahead, breathing deeply and steadily.
Mr. Franklin stopped by his seat. "You doing okay, Ochi?"
Nodding he looked up at Mr. Franklin.
"Is this your first time out of the city?"
Ochi nodded again.
Giving him a pat on the shoulder, Mr. Franklin said, "You're going to love Maine."
Ochi nodded. When Mr. Franklin moved on to talk to some other kids, Ochi tried to relax his shoulders and close his eyes. The next thing he knew, Dante was shaking him awake.
"We're here, Ochi! We're in Maine!"
Right at that moment, Mr. Franklin stood up from his seat and pointed out the window. "Look, kids! It's a bald eagle."
All the kids jumped up and stared out the window.
Ochi and Dante grinned at each other as they stood up on their seat to see over the other children. Afterward, they switched seats so that Ochi could have a turn by the window.
"Look at all the trees," Ochi whispered. "Do you think there are grizzlies out there?"
"What's that? Are they grizzlies?" Dante crunched Ochi's shoulder as he grasped it. He pointed to some animals eating at the edge of the tree-line.
Ochi laughed. "I think those are deer. They are definitely not grizzlies."
When the bus pulled into the station, the kids all went quiet. The realization that they were about to meet the people that they would be staying with for the next two weeks hit them soberly.
One by one, they filed off the bus, huddled together in small groups, waiting for Mr. Franklin to gather the families.
Calling out names, he matched kids to host families. When Dante got called, he was introduced to a young family with three other children. Ochi waved goodbye to him as he walked off holding the hand of the mother.
At long last, Ochi stood alone. His heart sank when he didn't see any more families waiting.
Mr. Franklin looked through his paperwork. "We're waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter. I'm sure they'll be along soon," he said. His eyes scanned the edge of the parking lot for cars turning in.
Standing on the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, Ochi nodded. He didn't trust his voice to speak.
A long ten minutes later, they heard a car horn beeping. A dark blue sedan pulled up and a man got out, running around the front of the car.
"I'm so sorry to be late," he said as he opened the passenger door. A woman sitting in the front seat turned outward.
"It's all my fault," she said. "I needed and rest stop and that can be a time-consuming job." She didn't get out of the car.
The man shook Ochi's hand. "I'm Renny Carpenter and this is my wife, Ellen," he said. "It's so wonderful to meet you, Ochi."
He shook Mr. Carpenter's hand then stepped back and looked up at Mr. Franklin, who picked up Ochi's backpack and handed it to Mr. Carpenter.
"We've got a bit of a ride, Ochi," Mr. Carpenter said, "but you're going to love Vintage!"
(Stay tuned for more . . .)