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Two Stops (3rd Prize Winner - Group III)

March, 2011
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There’s an elementary school kid on the public bus I take to school who spends half his time bothering whoever’s unlucky enough to be sitting next to him. He spends the other half of his time picking his nose or tripping over his own shoelaces. He gets on the bus before I do, so I don’t know where he lives. I try to avoid him, because if I stand too close to him I’m sure I’ll end up missing a few brain cells.

"My name’s Al!" He comes up to me on a rainy day when I almost miss the bus.

 "Okay," I look out the window at the gray scenery rushing past, hoping he’ll go away.

"Aren’t you going to tell me your name?" He asks me. For some reason, this just makes my mood worse. I oversleep, I put my pants on backwards, I have to run through huge puddles to make it to the bus, and now this little midget who wants to play grownup with the big kids is asking for my name.

"No." I reply firmly. If I tell him my name, I’m sure he’ll automatically think we’re best friends and bother me everywhere. I glare out the window. Go away, go away, I think. There’s always a tiny chance that he’ll catch on and leave me alone already.

“Well, that’s okay," he says, and even though I’m not looking at him I can tell he’s grinning stupidly. "I’ll just call you Sam. Like, you know, the guy in Transformers? Has anyone ever said you kinda look like him? Well you do. Don’t you think he’s so cool? Do you have a yellow car like he does?" He babbles on and on, not even bothering to wait for my reply. "My pet goldfish’s name is Sam, too. You kinda look like him too. Isn’t that such a coincidence? My mom takes care of him though, because one day when I woke up he was floating upside down and my sister said he was sick and maybe mom should take care of him so he wouldn’t get sick again. And I think the principal’s name is Sam, too. I don’t think you look like him, he’s almost bald. Isn’t it amazing how many different people are called Sam?"

I glare at my dripping sneakers. The time it takes to get to school is the longest thirty minutes in the history of mankind. When I finally get off the bus, I’m already a dinosaur.

 

The next few weeks, I ran into him quite frequently. I’d end up behind him in the cafeteria line trying to make sure he didn’t turn around and notice me. I bumped into him a few times on the way home, and he’d follow me around until he got bored. I’d have to wander around the neighborhood in circles to make sure he didn’t find out where my house was and start stalking me every day. After the fifth time, I tried to go home as quickly as possible, so I wouldn’t bump into him or end up on the same bus.

"Look," I say one day, when he’s at the top of his game and being particularly annoying, "When you grow up, you’ll understand why I don’t want you following me around, okay? Stop bothering me already." The moment I say those words, I regret them, but I continue anyway. "I’m busy. I have homework to do, you know?" It’s a lie, but luckily the bus stops and I get off as quickly as I can without looking like a complete idiot for running away from some little kid.

One clear Tuesday morning, Al’s sitting on the seat next to me swinging his legs up and down. I do my best to pretend he doesn’t exist, and it works for maybe ten seconds, but then the traffic light turns red and the bus jerks to a halt, almost catapulting Al off his seat. A few people stumble. The light turns green, and the bus lurches forward. Al accidentally kicks the lady standing in front of him. "I’m so sorry, ma’am! I’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again. Apologize, Al.” I say.

“I’m sowwy,” Al says, acting like a baby and looking like a class bully who’s just dumped a bucket of paint on a nerd. He obviously isn’t sorry at all, but the lady smiles at him anyways and says, “That’s alright, it was an accident.”

I turn back to Al. “Stop swinging your legs. Don’t be so rude,” I hiss. He looks at me and sticks his tongue out. I glare at him. "Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?"

He’s quiet for a merciful moment, staring at his stubby legs, then, just as I’m wondering if he’s finally going to shut up and leave me alone, he continues. "My mother’s dead," He says bluntly. "She died last year."

He looks at his tangled, tattered shoelaces. "Oh, um… I’m sorry about that," I say, looking away. It’s hard to find the right thing to say to a kid about death, especially since anything I say would probably end up sounding fake. The lady Al kicked glares at me like I’m a complete troll for being so insensitive, and then pointedly looks away. The bus bounces along a particularly rough spot on the road.

"NOOOOT! Eheheh!" He blows a raspberry at me, laughing loudly. The lady glances over and the edges of her mouth curl downwards in a frown. I aim my nastiest stare at Al, who’s laughing so hard that his red cap falls off.

"Gotcha! It was a joke!" He grins his usual grin, but right now it seems ten times as annoying as usual. "My mom’s still aliiiiiive!" I glare at him, deciding that I’m never going to worry about him again. We get up, and I swear the bus driver sighs in relief as Al gets off.

"Hey, Sam, can I go to your house today?" He asks. "No way." I reply immediately. "I’m busy, you know? Go play with your classmates or something." He doesn’t seem affected at all. "Okay, then you can come over to my house today!” He says, completely oblivious to the icy glare I give him.

“No way, kid.”

“Yes way!”

“I am not going to your house and that’s final.”

“Yes you are! Or I’ll follow you around school today and tell everyone embarrassing things about you!”

I’m quiet for a moment. Al doesn’t know anything about me, so there’s no danger of him spilling out my secrets to everyone or anything. But then again, knowing him, he’d probably make up something totally embarrassing and somehow force people to believe him. I flick his cheek. He takes it as a yes.

“I’ll see you after school then!" He says, his triumphant grin splitting his face into two uneven halves. He runs ahead of me. I walk as slowly as possible so there’s no chance of people seeing us together. Luckily, once I get to school I don’t run into him at all.

 

I get to the bus stop at the same time the bus arrives. Al’s already there waiting for me and when he sees me he runs over and starts skipping around me like a malfunctioning satellite thrown out of orbit. Before I can tell him that no, I am never going to go to his house ever and stop skipping you’re making me look like an idiot, he grabs my hand and pulls me towards the bus.

The bus ride passes by in an uneventful blur of scenery and Al’s high-pitched voice. We get off four blocks away from my house and walk in the direction of a convenience store with neon signs. One right turn later, he tugs on my hand, points at a two storey house with white plaster walls, and proudly announces, “This is my house!”

It’s an old house with a warm feeling, like the same family has been living in it for three generations. The lawn is trimmed neatly, with bushes shaped like baby birds and a tiled red roof. Al pushes the gate open and drags me up to his front door. There are windchimes on the porch and a cheery welcome mat with dancing mice in red and green. Al opens the door, pulls me inside, and tugs on my hand, not even bothering to close the door or take his shoes off.

“I’m home, Mom!” He yells, dragging me into the living room. “I’ve brought a friend over!”

“Hello!” I say, looking around at the picture frames displayed on a shelf.

“Hello!” A voice comes from the open door on my right.

Al pulls me up the stairs before I have time to look at any family photos. “Don’t worry about Mom, she’s in the kitchen making dinner. Are you going to stay?” He asks me.

“I don’t think so, I’ve got work to do so I should be leaving really soon.”

“Sucks.”

“Sorry.”

He shows me his room. It’s a cluttered little space stuffed to the brim with toys. “Do you like it? This is my ultimate invincible collection! I’ve got more stuff than everyone in our family combined!”

“It’s… very nice,” I say slowly. He must have the biggest junk collection in the whole neighborhood. “Well, I have to go now,” I tell him quickly. He looks disappointed for a moment, but leads me downstairs to the foyer anyway.

“We’re leaving now, mom!” He shouts in the direction of the kitchen.

“Have fun!”

As I leave, an old lady strolling across the street stares at me. I guess Al doesn’t have many friends. Not that I’m his friend or anything.

 

The next day, Al doesn’t take the bus. It’s the first time in two weeks that he hasn’t come and bugged me. I catch myself thinking about going to visit his house to see if he’s okay. I ignore any strange thoughts my brain comes up with. I refuse to be worried about that kid.

In the end, after a whole day of getting called on by teachers for not concentrating in class, I decide to go to his house after school. I get on the bus, get off two stops after my normal stop, and walk down the road towards his house.

When I turn the corner, I stop, staring at his house. It’s different somehow. The lawn is overgrown, the bushes are monsters, the gate’s rusted and the paint is peeling. The plaster on the wall is crumbling and discolored. The wooden windowsills are rotting and the glass windows are grimy. There are vines growing up all around the house.

I push the gate open. It creaks and when I look at my hand, my fingers are covered in reddish-brown rust, almost like flakes of dried blood. I ignore the heavy feeling pressing on my chest and walk up the steps. The wind chimes have fallen off, and the doormat mice are gray and brown now. I try the door handle, which turns with just a few protesting squeaks.

“Al?” I call into the dusty darkness. “Al? You there?” There’s no response. I close the door behind me. The floor is covered in a layer of grime so thick that I don’t think my shoes would make it dirtier, so I leave them on. I wouldn’t want to get my socks all dirty anyway.

I make my way into the living room, where all the photo frames are covered dust. I wipe away the dust with a finger and look at one. It’s a sepia-toned photograph of a happy couple and a baby. The photos next to it are all black and white portraits of the same couple. I put the photo down and climb up the stairs.

Al’s room is the same cluttered mess as it was yesterday, but there’s a layer of dust over everything. Al’s red baseball cap is sitting on top of a teddy bear. I take it and close the door quietly, then make my way downstairs when I hear a voice.

“Good morning!” It’s three in the afternoon, but at least there’s someone here. Maybe his family all overslept?

“Oh, hello!” I call out in relief. “I’m Al’s friend, the one who came over yesterday. My name’s Sam.” Well, it’s not really Sam, but Al’s probably mentioned his friend Sam to his mother by now and it might confuse her if I use a different name.

I reach the kitchen. The tabletop and all the pans are covered in a layer of dust, and Al’s mom is nowhere to be seen. “Ma’am?” I ask.

“Hello!” The same voice comes from the kitchen table.

A portable CD player is sitting on top of the varnished wooden surface. It’s an oversized looking machine, and was probably made twenty years ago, but that’s not what catches my attention. Everything else in the room is covered in dust, but only this ancient player is sparkling clean, like it’s completely new.

“Nice to meet you! Hello! Welcome! Hello! Good morning!” It’s definitely Al’s mother’s voice. I shiver, then turn off the player before it creeps me out even further. It crackles once.

“Bye bye…” The sound crackles again, then stops.

I dash out of the kitchen and into the hallway. Everything seems so unreal. I open the door, then turn around and look back into the house. Nothing’s changed except for the footprints left in the dust.

There’s a clean white envelope sitting on top of a pile of old yellow ones outside. Even though I know you shouldn’t read other people’s mail, I can’t help it. I open it. There’s a single piece of white paper inside. I skim through it quickly, but before I have time to digest the contents (something about demolition), a voice calls out to me.

“Hey, kid! We’ve come to demolish the house!” I look up. A group of muscular men are walking through the open gate. “Man, this place is run down! It’s been deserted for twenty years. I guess the city council was right when they decided to demolish it. The water pipes and power lines must be total safety hazards!” A man with graying hair says. “What are you doing here anyways, kid?”

“Oh, uh, I was just looking around. Nobody’s lived here for twenty years?”

“That’s right. They say the couple who lived here had an unhappy marriage and moved out soon after the divorce. They had a son, too, who ended up living with his mother. Well, outta the way, kid! We’re gonna start working now.”

I make my way across the street and sit down on the gray sidewalk, watching the men tear the house apart. As the plaster walls crumble down, I swear I can see a flash of red and a pair of short legs skipping up the stairs. I look down. Al’s cap is still in my hands. 

 

By Emily Yu,

Beijing World Youth Academy

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