We're sitting on the bus, Matrix and I. I'm seven rows back, and Matrix is sitting in the seat behind me. I can hear him quietly munching on the pop-tarts he managed to grab from home, and the sweet smell of artificial strawberry hangs in the still air.
As we reach the final stop, the big, yellow, monster screeches to a halt and opens its jaws for a free meal of four high school students. One of the girls who gets on I recognize from my history and math classes. Her name's Bethany.
"Mind if I sit here?" she asks when she gets to my seat.
I move my backpack so she has room to sit down.
Bethany is a nice girl, with an adorable smile that just about every guy in school has fallen in love with. She's always talking about her youth group, and as I look over, she's holding a stack of 3x5 cards.
"What're those for?" I ask timidly.
"Oh, they're invitations for me churche's youth retreat."
"Could I see one?" I ask.
"Well, actually, I only printed enough to go around the team," she says, tossing an apologetic smile my way.
Not only is Bethany pretty, she's a varsity soccer player, too.
"Oh," I say, not even bothering to explain I only wanted to look at one, not have it.
After a few moments of silence between the two of us, I look out the window.
And my heart nearly stops.
"Jamie!" I cry, standing up.
The bus driver looks at me in the mirror.
"Sit down!" he calls out sternly.
But I don't. I climb over Bethany and into the aisle. Just as I'm about to head to the front, a hand grabs my arm.
"Marley, what're you doing?" Matrix asks harshly.
I look back at him, straight into his eyes. Seeing they're still calm, I yank free.
"Mat, I gotta go."
I rush up the aisle to where the driver is, still glaring and yelling.
"Sir, listen! You've gotta stop the bus! I get terrible asthma and I left my only inhaler at home."
The lie slips out easily enough.
The bus driver pulls over to the side of the road, and the driver gives me a quizzical look. Soon, Matrix is standing next to me.
"Marley, what's up?"
"I left my inhaler at home, " I say, hoping Matrix will play along.
"Don't you have one for school?" the driver asks.
I raise an eyebrow.
"What? Do I look like I'm that rich?" I say, holding out my arms and turning around so he gets a good look at me.
Finally, the driver takes off his cap, runs a hand over his shiny head, and cranks open the door.
I fly out of the bus and run frantically down the sidewalk, looking for a glimpse of Jamie. Cars. Streetlights. Dogs. No Jamie. Trees. Houses. Stop signs. Still nothing. I turn corners and cross streets and search and search and search. But it's all in vain. Surely she's gone by now.
I slow to a walk, and shove my hands in my pockets. Maybe I hadn't really even seen her at all. Maybe it was just someone who looked like her. This conclusion doesn't sit well with me, but I accept it. It's the only reasonable thing I can think of. No one in their right mind would come back to our house after they'd gotten out.
I sit down on the corner of Summit and Waverly, leaning against a stop sign. I have to admit, I am a little heart-broken. Even though I know she probably won't, I've always hoped Jamie would come home. She didn't have it that bad anyway. Mom never laid a hand on her, maybe because she was the oldest. They never even yelled at her. They yelled about her an awful lot, though. Mostly to each other.
As I rest my head in my hands, I'm not surprised to hear Matrix's voice above me.
"Tough luck, kid," he says.
He sits down beside me and rests an arm around my shoulders.
"How did you know...?"
"I've only ever seen you so anxious about one person, and that's Jamie. Did you see her?"
He doesn't fluff it up or beat around the bush. When Matrix wants to know something, he asks the straight forward question. I suppose that's why we get along so well. I never was good at reading between the lines.
"Well... I thought I did. Now I'm not sure. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks."
Matrix pauses, then says, "Yeah, you're probably right."
There's a moment of silence between us as we watch the sky change from shades of pink and orange to a brilliant blue.
"Do you miss Jamie?"
He gives a small sigh.
I think Matrix can tell I'm disappointed by his answer.
"Do you wanna try to get back to school?" he asks.
"After that episode on the bus? No way."
"Well, where do you want to go?"
I shrug, looking down at the sidewalk where I'm running my finger along the cracks.
Matrix stands and looks around. Across the street is Leroy Neighborhood Park, with it's candy-colored slides and monkey bars and jungle gym.
"How 'bout the park?" You know, just like we used to?"
By 'we,' he means all of us. Jamie, he, and I used to go there practically every day. It was better than being at home. Sometimes we even spent the night there, sleeping in the tunnel.
I lift my gaze to look over at the park. A young mother pushes a blonde-haired toddler on a swing, but other than that, the place is empty.
"Yeah, sure. Let's go."