Afraid to approach anyone, because for all he knew, the entire world were strangers to him, the little boy found the courage to grab his bag and go up front to the seat directly behind the bus driver. He waited for the man to notice him, but the fat, greasy man did nothing but nibble on an old cigarette butt and pass his hands through his thinning hair as he scanned something on a clipboard. Eventually the driver got up to take a leak, but the boy called out to him before the man had descended the first step, "Excuse me, sir?"
The fat man whirled around and nearly swallowed the butt, "Jesus, kid! You nearly gave me a heart attack! What are you still doing here? The bus unloaded like, ten minutes ago. What do you want?"
The boy wrung his hands, hesitant to continue, but his missing mother was a heavy burden to his young psyche so he stepped forward and told the bus driver all about his unfortunate predicament.
The fat man scowled and removed his hat long enough to scratch his expanding forehead. He shook his head and said, "Sorry kid, but your mother was here when we left the rest stop last night. I do a headcount every time we stop somewhere. And six people got off and six people got back on. We were stopped for a grand total of twelve minutes -- three minutes ahead of schedule."
The kid looked devastated, with his large and dark eyes glistening with tears. His chin trembled and he said, "B-but she wasn't here when I woke up."
The bus driver -- his metal name tag said LENNY -- sighed heavily, giving the impression that a hundred pounds suddenly sloughed off his shoulders. He had seen it before, a long trip where an adult abandons a child during the confusion of a disembarkation, never to be seen again. A really crappy thing to do, in Lenny's estimation, but not entirely unheard of either.
"Your mom probably just lost track of you when she went out to get the luggage from under the bus. I'd bet she's frantically looking all over for you, huh?"
Through unconvinced lips, the boy responded, "Maybe," and reached up to take Lenny's hand as they descended the steps and out the door to the street below. The sun was hot and already the pavement was beginning to sear. Lenny squinted in the bright sunshine but the area around the open luggage hatches on the bus were deserted. The boy's mother was gone.
"Damn it," Lenny muttered under his breath. It never occurred to him that someone else might have taken the place of the boy's mother for the final two hundred miles of the trip.