On the first day of the new school year, Rondell Dawson walked from his house on Longview Lane to the stop sign on the corner of Mountain Road to await the arrival of the school bus.
There were only five houses on the lane, three of them huge newer monstrosities at the upper end of the street that looked like they belonged in Beverly Hills instead of Mt. Griffin.
Rondell lived with his grandparents in the original house built on the trail, originally a carriage house to a larger house that burned down years earlier.
Rondell was the only school aged kid who presently lived on Longview Lane although a new family had moved into one of the larger houses at the end of the street about a month ago but he hadn't quite figured out the makeup of that clan yet.
The other houses were occupied by an elderly couple in the second oldest house on the street and two childless yuppie professional couples in the newer mansions.
This particular section of Mountain Road was rural and sparse so Rondell was used to being alone. The next road (Mountain Trail) was a good half a mile down the hill.
Rondell took his position by the stop sign just as he had done for years to wait for the bus approaching from his right which required him to cross the street to board the bus once the flashing lights went on.
There had been fellow students in the past – a family once occupied one of the newer houses when Rondell was in elementary school but they moved away a few years ago. There was also Mike Harper but he was a few years older than Rondell, got his own car, and long since graduated and moved on anyway.
Rondell was surprised to see a girl around his age walking toward him and the stop sign from Longview Lane. She must be from the new family who moved in earlier in the summer – this was the first time he had seen her. She had long brown hair that was blowing in the breeze.
It was a pleasant September morning so she was wearing shorts and a long tee shirt with sandals. She was holding a smart phone with earphones on her head. Rondell was awestruck from the moment he saw her but of course he wasn't going to say anything – he was to shy for that.
The newcomer arrived and she stood about ten feet away from Rondell and the stop sign and she didn't pay much attention to him as she listened to whatever she had teed up on her smart phone. Rondell tried not to look at her but it was hard not to.
Rondell always heard the school bus before he saw it (ala Radar O'Rielly) coming down the mountain and it was no different this year – the squeaking of the brakes and the growl of the engine as it came around the corner from its last stop (Carson Pass Road, three quarters of a mile in the other direction).
For safety reasons, the bus driver years ago had instructed Rondell not to cross Mountain Road until the bus came to a stop and turned on its flashing red lights. He noticed that the girl didn't move either as the bus approached, perhaps not sure if it was her bus.
But when she saw the bus stop and Rondell start to cross the road, she did the same, following Rondell onto the bus.
Rondell noticed that there was a new bus driver this year, a middle aged woman with black frizzy hair replacing "Bud" from last year's run.
Like most years, there were only a handful of kids on the bus as they were on the far end of the route – the bus filled up with more students with each stop. Rondell took his usual seat a few rows back from the driver but the girl kept on walking and she sat nearer to the back.
Generally, the older kids sat back there but Rondell wasn't interested in the usual commotion that came with some of the shenanigans of the older kids.
Rondell glanced out the window and he watched the familiar scenery go by. He knew the route by heart and with his eyes closed but he never got tired of the view and the passing scenes.
It was also interesting to see who was at what stop this year – new kids starting high school – and who was missing (kids who had graduated or now had their own cars or other ways to get to school).
Rondell might say hello to a familiar face or fellow classmate who boarded the bus after him but, unless somebody sat next to him, he generally kept to himself – sometimes he'd read a book but usually he looked out the window.
When the route was completed, the bus pulled into the ancient Mt. Griffin High School and the passengers flowed off the vehicle. Rondell exited the bus and he hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should say something to the new girl like offering to show her around the school but she walked off the bus and right past him before he had time to decide and it was too late.
Rondell followed her into the school building and it wasn't so bad being back in the familiar surroundings once again, this time for junior year.
Rondell lost sight of the new girl but it didn't matter much – the school was small enough that he would see her again sooner or later.
Sure enough, three periods into the first school day, the new girl showed up in Rondell's History class so he figured she must be a junior too. She sat across the room from him so there was no opportunity for interaction – not that Rondell would initiate a conversation with her anyway.
At the end of the day, Rondell headed for Bus #9 in the line of yellow bananas lined up in front of the old school. He took his usual seat and he noticed the new girl coming out of the school a few moments later and boarding the same bus, not even looking at him as she headed for the back of the bus with the rest of the cool kids, of which Rondell was certainly not one of.
When the bus arrived at Longview Lane on Mountain Road twelve stops into the route, the bus stopped, the flashing red lights came on, and Rondell and the mystery girl debarked the bus, not having to cross the road on this end of the trip.
Rondell was the first off, of course, so he immediately headed up Longview not waiting to see if the girl wanted to walk with him. He figured she'd say something or catch up to him if she was truly interested in talking.
The same process unfolded much the same for the next few weeks. Rondell usually showed up at the stop sign first in the morning and he'd watch with anticipation for the girl to come down the lane and join him, always standing at least ten feet away from him, usually with her earphones stuffed in her ears.
They both had backpacks over their shoulders most days and Rondell was interested in seeing what the girl was wearing each morning. She was a good dresser.
He eventually learned that her name was Leona, which really didn't match her appearance or what he determined to be her personality. Leona sounded like a waitress or even a bus driver (whose name, they discovered, was Mrs. DeToma).
Of course, who was he to judge – Rondell sounded like a rap artist or rodeo rider.
Rondell noticed that there were a few times when Leona didn't ride the bus home after school. He figured maybe she was staying for afterschool activities but one day he saw her getting into Steve Nickerson's car. He also saw her hanging around with Nickerson at school and he was amazed that she had landed a boyfriend that quickly.
Wasn't that the story of his life? He got to stand ten feet from a pretty girl every morning and yet he couldn't find the courage to say something to her – not even a good morning or 'Hey, how's it going?'
And the fact that she hadn't bothered saying boo to him pretty much let him know that he was, as always, the invisible one.
It was about a month into the school year, an early October morning, pleasantly sunny but still cool. Rondell arrived at the bus stop first as usual, manning his post by the stop sign and waiting in eager expectation for Leona to arrive.
They had yet to exchange a word even though this was at least the 23rd morning they had stood at the bus stop together. There she was, walking down Longview Lane with the sun shining down upon her like she was an angel being illuminated for all to see. That Nickerson sure was lucky!
Rondell noticed that Leona wasn't holding her smartphone and that her earphones were missing from her lobes – the first time all year she wasn't jamming to music and ignoring him. She glanced his way where he stood by the stop sign, slightly hunched over from the heavy blue backpack slung over his shoulders.
"So, are you brain damaged or is it you just don't talk?"
Those were the first words Leona Phillips ever spoke to Rondell Dawson.
"I'm brain damaged," he replied.
"That's what I heard," she said, not missing a beat.
Rondell heard the sound of the bus coming down the road and he decided not to say anything more. He wasn't sure if Leona was trying to be lightly humorous or cruelly sarcastic.
The bus stopped, the red lights began to flash, and Rondell crossed Mountain Road with Leona following behind him. He took his usual seat near the front and she disappeared to the back. Rondell was never sure if he wished she'd sit with him or if he was relieved that she didn't.
The same scenario played out a few days later. Again Rondell was standing by the stop sign waiting for the bus and again Leona appeared sans the earphones.
"Do you think Mt. Griffin is a dump?" She asked.
He wanted to say 'You talking to me?' like in the movies but he thought better of it so he didn't say anything.
"Hello?" She said after a few silent moments.
"The town or the school?" Rondell asked.
"I didn't realize there was a town," she frowned. "What? The drive in movie theater? The Mt. Griffin Playhouse? The Mountainview Motel? The Manor Inn? The junkyard? Griff's Pizza? You mean that town?"
Rondell shrugged. Okay, so it wasn't exactly a booming metropolis.
"Actually, I meant the school," Leona said. "It's pretty old and dumpy, don't you think?"
"It's rustic," Rondell defended.
"Are you going to start singing The Beach Boys' Be True To Your School?" Leona laughed.
"No," he replied, slightly embarrassed. "But there's a lot of history and lore to a school that was built in 1912. Eleven decades of tradition and memories."
"Aren't they ever going to build a new one?" Leona asked.
"They've been debating that for years," Rondell said. "Most feel it would be a betrayal."
"Let them come be crammed in the overcrowded cafeteria with its limited food services or jam-packed in those dingy smelly small locker rooms or get their butt pinched in the uncomfortable wooden auditorium chairs or write their assignments on old wooden desks screwed into the floor with initials and graffiti carved into the tops or attend study halls in weird places because of room limitations," Leona complained. "Let them get plowed into walls and lockers by burly upperclassmen in the crowded hallways during period changes. "
"Most of them went through that."
"I came from a modern facility built about seven years ago," Leona said. "State of the art. Beautiful. Spacious. Huge. Clean."
"Taxpayers around here are cheap," Rondell noted.
"People who move here expect to find a high school they can be proud of," Leona theorized. "They're looking for a quality education. This place will always be the hicks if they don't build a new school."
"There's a Catholic School in Hillsboro," Rondell pointed out.
"I'm not getting abused," she replied.
"A charter school in Greenville."
"That will kill my college pedigree."
Rondell heard the sound of the bus coming down the road. It stopped, the red lights began to flash, and Rondell crossed Mountain Road with Leona following behind him. He took his usual seat near the front and she disappeared to the back without further comment about dumpy old schools
The same situation played out the next morning. Rondell was standing by the stop sign waiting for the bus and again Leona appeared without her earphones.
"So, you like the old school?" She asked, picking up the conversation where they left off the day before.
"Have you been inside the library yet?" Rondell asked. "Especially now as autumn begins to turn, looking out the big windows at the picturesque beauty of New England. All the wood, the quietness? And the music room above the auditorium? The band room underneath the stage? All the unique nooks and crannies found throughout the school? Such character in those hallowed halls. Sure, it's old and there's disadvantages but the teachers are just as good as any other school around here and I think I'm getting the best education I could hope for as long as I apply myself."
Rondell heard the sound of the bus coming down the road. It stopped, the red lights began to flash, and Rondell crossed Mountain Road with Leona following behind him. He took his usual seat near the front and she disappeared to the back without further comment about Mt. Griffin High School.
But he felt good that they had at least finally conversed a few times after all this time.