| Fiction, Print Issues

Stray Bullets

Acrylic on canvas image of mother and daughter humpback whales

Lacy Arnett Mayberry

Once a year, a bus appeared at school in the middle of the day—alien and out of place, larger than we remembered from even just that morning—for a safety training exercise. We were meant to behave seriously, but the freedom of being turned outside at a strange hour and the onslaught of exhaust fumes made us giddy.  

Inside, our legs stuck to green plastic seats. Addressing us through the enormous rearview mirror, the driver warned that a hand waving out the window could be severed by a passing semi-truck. That a child would be hurled through windshield glass if she were standing in the aisle when the bus braked. We practiced for impact, arms crossed over the seat in front of us, lurching forward when the driver yelled: “BRACE, BRACE, BRACE!” Always at the end, before they opened the back emergency door, the driver told the cupcake story. 

Molly Purdy had been a year older than me. I wonder now at the bad luck of the Purdy family; their younger daughter had an alarming lazy eye and their older son would later be shot in the arm by a stray bullet as he washed his truck in the driveway. But this was nothing compared to Molly, the middle daughter, who died chasing a cupcake under the bus as it let her off after school, a precious, fallen leftover from the birthday offering she’d brought to class. Pink icing gathering gravel like sprinkles as it rolled. Then the bump as the wheels went over. 

My dad was her bus driver, but he wasn’t the one who killed her. The week Molly died, he had driven our family to visit Yellowstone, a rare vacation, and we gagged at the sulfur pots and counted buffalo and waited for water to spray from the earth’s blowhole. I convinced my little brother Kenny that a fossilized whale lay beneath the surface. That this whole place had once been an ocean, the whale stuck in the mud as the last of the sea evaporated, his corpse doomed to a life of spewing out water heated from the hot center of the earth.

“The whale’s name was Faithful,”  I told Kenny. And he nodded at the sense of this.

We returned home to the news about Molly. What frightened me more than seeing her flat and waxy face, more than the earnest Sunday School teacher standing by the casket and hounding all the passing children to touch the body (Don’t be afraid, she said, wielding me by the wrist), was how violently my dad cried during the service. 

“I should have been there,” he told Molly’s parents after the funeral.

The next year he quit driving the bus.

A submissive quiet descended as the driver finished the story and walked down the steps and around to the back to open the emergency door. The tallest two children were selected to scramble down and offer raised fists to the rest of us to palm as we jumped. Afterward, I sat on the grass with my classmates, prolonging our last minutes outdoors until the driver approached, casting a severe shadow.

When my dad drove the bus, he parked it in front of our house and would let the neighbor kids gather on our lawn in the mornings instead of walking to the bus stop. I dictated where each could stand in the line as they waited, wielding temporary social power. 

I’m glad it wasn’t him driving that day, my mother confessed to me, years later. I don’t think he could have borne the guilt.

Her logic unnerved me; I’d always thought that if he had been there, he could have saved Molly Purdy. I began to dream about the substitute driver, though I knew almost nothing about her. There was a rumor that she’d moved away after the accident. And many years later, a rumor that she’d killed herself, though I think it originated with children hearing the story for the first time, children who hadn’t sung at Molly Purdy’s funeral, who were unfamiliar even with Molly’s little sister’s wild eye. In my dreams, the substitute driver worked in a factory, shouting to me over the noise of machinery, but I was never able to hear what she said. 

On our last day in Yellowstone, we stood on a platform above a waterfall hurling itself over and over the ledge. I’d watched men pour a sidewalk in our neighborhood so I knew a little about the labor that went into shaping concrete. That someone had managed to coerce so much of it over such a precarious place seemed a marvel on par with scientists knowing how much the moon weighed or being able to measure the age of a fossil. Or how the police eventually tracked down the Purdy’s son’s shooter—an oblivious duck hunter at the lake, nearly a mile away.

The waterfall disoriented me, its gentle spray hurling relentlessly upward into our faces, the raging sound of water beneath us, wind shoving my father’s carefully combed hair in every direction as he stood on the platform. It was the last time I would remember seeing him smile that way: leaning over the charging water, laughing almost boyishly at the wonder of it all. 

Lacy Arnett Mayberry won Boulevard Magazine‘s Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers and received AWP’s Kurt Brown Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in Washington Square Review, The Pinch Journal, Literary Mama, and Permafrost Magazine, among others. She holds an MFA from Lesley University and writes at lacymayberry.substack.com.

Art: “Humpback Whales, Mother and Daughter” by Lesley Goodyear

Acrylic on canvas

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