Shawna Tynan woke early on the morning of the class trip to Boston. After eating a larger than normal breakfast, she got dressed quickly. She'd been looking forward to this day for weeks, and she didn't want to miss the school bus. As she headed down the stairs toward the front door, she swung her backpack over her shoulders. Her mother was waiting for her in the foyer.
"Here's ten dollars," Sandy Tynan said. "In case you see something at one of the gift shops."
Shawna thanked her mother, took the ten and placed it in the zippered pocket of her backpack where she put the change from her piggy bank, two months of allowance and six weeks of babysitting money she'd managed to save.
For once, the bus to Puritan Falls High School was full since few students wanted to cut class or stay home sick on the day of a class trip. Shawna found a seat next to Gunther Pearlman, a tall, lanky sophomore with a bad case of acne. Neither one spoke to the other on the ride. Gunther was far too shy to talk to girls, and Shawna didn't want any of her friends seeing her associating with such a geek.
When the bus came to a stop in the school parking lot, Shawna was the first one out of her seat. Unlike most days, she didn't loiter in the hallway outside her locker or waste time in the girls' room checking her hair and makeup. Instead, she headed directly to her classroom.
Mr. McGrath, her homeroom teacher, had forsaken his suit and tie for a pair of jeans and a Patriots tee shirt, taking full advantage of the informal dress code during class trips.
"All right, listen up, everybody," he called. "Mrs. Stiller and Mrs. Titus have volunteered to act as chaperones today. I'm going to split you into three groups. Mrs. Stiller will supervise one group, Mrs. Titus another and I'll watch the rest of you."
Mr. McGrath then enumerated in detail the rules of behavior that he expected his students to follow both on the bus and while touring the sights in Boston.
"And remember," he concluded, as the students lined up in single file to board the chartered buses that would transport them to Beantown, "stay together. Don't wander off. I don't want to leave any of you behind."
* * *
The bus pulled up to the curb near the Boston Common, and the students got off. Shawna joined her classmates that were assigned to Mrs. Titus's group. Mr. McGrath took a quick head count, and once he confirmed that everyone was present, he led the three groups across the common to the State House.
The morning passed slowly for Shawna. She had no real interest in seeing the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, Old Ironsides or the Bunker Hill monument. It was nearly one o'clock when Mr. McGrath suggested that they take a break from sightseeing and get some lunch. Shawna smiled when the bus driver pulled in front of a McDonald's. The fast food restaurant was packed, which was to be expected given the time of day.
"We'll go in and buy our food," Mr. McGrath instructed, "and come back and eat it on the bus."
Once inside McDonald's, Mrs. Titus herded her group to the shortest order line. Shawna waited until the first of her classmates stepped up to the counter. Now was her window of opportunity.
"Mrs. Titus," she cried. "I have to go to the bathroom."
The chaperone looked at the crowded dining area and reluctantly gave her permission.
"Make it quick, dear."
Shawna headed toward the ladies' room in the back of the restaurant. She turned to see if Mrs. Titus was watching her. Thankfully, the chaperone was looking the other way, enabling Shawna to duck out the side door undetected.
Free at last, Shawna reached into her backpack and took out the map of Boston she'd printed from the Internet. After finding her bearings, she briskly walked--she did not want to call attention to herself by running--toward South Station. Like McDonald's, the transportation center was bustling with activity. Feigning an attitude of nonchalance, the excited teenager walked to the ticket window.
"I'd like a one-way ticket to Wichita, please."
She was afraid the agent would question her or demand to see some identification, but he simply took the fare and printed out the ticket.
"The bus leaves at 3:35," he announced before calling for the next person in line to step forward.
Since the bus was not due to leave for more than an hour, the platform was empty. As Shawna waited, she looked at the ticket in her hand and wondered what Wichita was like. Making the decision to run away from home had been easy. Deciding where to run to had been more difficult. Large cities intimidated her, so New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were out of the question. On the other hand, strangers would more likely be spotted in small towns. Wichita, with a population of roughly 350,000, was small enough not to be daunting and yet large enough that she could get lost in the crowd.
As she continued to wait for the bus to freedom, Shawna wondered what was happening at McDonald's. Mrs. Titus and Mr. McGrath must have noticed her absence by now. They had probably looked for her briefly before phoning the police. How long would it be before someone contacted Sandy Tynan? The image of her mother stunned with disbelief at the news, her shoulders suddenly slumping as she broke down in tears upset Shawna. She didn't want to cause her mother too much pain.
"Stop it!" she told herself as the first hint of regret crept into her thoughts. "I'm running away, and that's that! I've already made up my mind."
By three o'clock a handful of people had joined Shawna on the platform, and by quarter after there were several more. No one took notice of the young girl traveling by herself. Apparently, no one guessed she was running away. All that might change soon, Shawna mused. Within the next few days her picture would most likely be in the local newspapers under the headline GIRL MISSING IN BOSTON or something to that affect. Perhaps she might even make that night's six o'clock news. Hopefully, by that time, she would be safely out of Massachusetts.
When Shawna saw a middle-aged man in the Greyhound uniform board the bus, she knew it was almost time to leave. She looked at her watch. It was 3:30. The driver opened the door, and people began boarding. Shawna took a seat in the back, hoping to keep out of the driver's vision should he look into his rear-view mirror. She was glad when a handsome young man sat in the seat across the aisle. People would be less likely to notice her if there were other people around.
Only after the bus left the station and was heading toward the entrance ramp to the Massachusetts Turnpike did Shawna remove her backpack, push her seat back and relax.
* * *
The hum of the Greyhound's engine lulled Shawna to sleep. When she woke several hours later, the bus was nearing the Pittsfield exit. Soon it would be crossing the border into New York. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten since breakfast. She opened her backpack and took out a granola bar. It was gone in a few bites, and she wished she had brought another one.
The voice startled Shawna. It belonged to the man sitting across the aisle.
"A little," she replied.
Her mother had always warned her never to talk to strangers, but now that she was on her own, things were different. With no money, no place to live and no food, she would--like Blanche DuBois--have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
"The bus will probably stop at a service center in a little while. You can get something to eat there."
"Oh, I'm not that hungry," she lied.
"Don't have enough money?"
Shawna lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"Do you have far to travel?"
"I'm going to Kansas."
It was all the information she was willing to give.
"It looks like we'll be travel companions for some time. My name is Tom, by the way."
"Nice to meet you. My name is Shawna."
"Are you going to visit relatives in Kansas?"
"Y-yes," the young girl lied unconvincingly. "My grandparents live there."
Tom raised his eyebrows, as though he knew she wasn't being honest with him.
"Do you plan on staying there long?"
"A few weeks."
"I know it's none of my business, but you give every appearance of someone who's running away from home."
The girl laughed nervously.
"Where did you get that silly idea?"
"One, all you have with you is a backpack. I saw you on the platform, and you didn't have any other luggage. Two, you keep looking around as though you're afraid someone will find you. Three ...."
"That's enough already. I'm a lousy liar. I am running away, all right?"
"I already surmised that."
"And what are you going to do, tell the driver to notify the police?"
Tom shook his head.
"No need to bring in the authorities. Even if I did 'turn you in,' so to speak, you'd probably run away again first chance you got."
"You really won't tell anyone?"
* * *
Shortly after 7:00 p.m. the bus stopped at a service center where Shawna got out, stretched her legs and washed her hands and face in the ladies' room. When she got back on the bus, she saw that Tom had bought her a hamburger, fries and a Coke. Her eyes brightened and she thanked him for his kindness and generosity.
"You can't expect to get to Kansas on an empty stomach," he laughed.
Before dusk ushered in the night, a new driver took over the wheel. By midnight more than half the passengers had turned off their reading lamps and were resting their eyes. A few lucky ones had even managed to doze off. Shawna was not one of them.
"Can't sleep?" Tom asked when he saw the teenager restlessly fidgeting in her seat.
"I guess I'm too excited."
"I can well imagine. It's not every day one runs away from home."
"What about you?"
"I can't sleep either. Why don't we talk until one of us gets tired?"
"What do you want to talk about?" Shawna asked.
"For starters, why don't you tell me why you're running away?"
It was a reasonable question, and suddenly the answer seemed awfully childish.
"My mother treats me like a baby," the girl confided. "She never lets me go anywhere or do anything. I never have any fun."
Tom pretended to be shocked.
"Never? No going to the movies or to the mall? No amusement parks? No parties at your friends' houses?"
Shawna blushed with embarrassment and admitted, "Oh, she lets me do those things."
"Then what is it she won't let you do?"
"There's this boy I like. His name is Scotty. He wanted to take me sailing out on his brother's sailboat."
"And your mother said no?"
"That's right. She said since there was no adult supervision, I couldn't go."
Shawna waited for Tom's response. She was sure, as an adult, he would side with her mother.
"I don't blame you then," he said, taking her by surprise. "I'd run away, too. Your mother seems completely unreasonable. After all, you're what? sixteen? seventeen?"
"Fifteen and a half. I'll be sixteen in November."
"That's plenty old enough to make your own decisions concerning men."
Shawna giggled. She had never thought of Scotty as a man.
"And I'm sure you're an excellent swimmer."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Now it was Tom's turn to laugh.
"No one in his right mind would sail on the ocean if he didn't know how to swim. I'm sure if the boat were to capsize you'd have no trouble making it to land."
Shawna shifted uneasily in her seat. The truth was she couldn't swim. In fact, she hated going into the ocean, having the waves knock her about and tasting the salty water in her mouth.
"Can we talk about something else?" she asked petulantly.
In the darkness of night, Shawna couldn't see the smile on Tom's face.
* * *
Whether it was the sun in her eyes, the gnawing hunger in her stomach or the uncomfortable position in which she'd been sleeping that woke her, Shawna wasn't certain, but she was wide awake at 6:00 a.m., an occurrence that would have surprised the hell out of her mother.
"Good morning," Tom cheerfully greeted her. "Sleep well?"
"Not very," the girl replied as she felt another hunger pain stab her.
"Me either," he confessed. "There's nothing like my own bed. I don't sleep well anywhere else. By the way, where do you plan on sleeping when you get to Kansas?"
"I hadn't given the matter much thought. I'm sure I'll find a place."
"I guess you didn't think about finding a job. You know, most places won't hire anyone under sixteen. And even if you were sixteen, you'd need working papers--Child Labor Laws, you know."
"I can baby-sit. You don't need to be sixteen for that. I used to baby-sit all the time back in Puritan Falls."
"That's a fine idea. I never thought of that. I'll bet you have excellent references."
"I didn't know I'd need them, but I'm sure I'll find something anyway," she insisted in a voice that clearly lacked confidence.
"I'm sure you will. You're a very resourceful young woman. You've gotten this far, haven't you? Here you are on a bus hundreds of miles from your family and your home. It takes a special kind of person to leave behind those you love without so much as a goodbye."
Shawna turned toward the window, so Tom wouldn't see the tears in her eyes. She was gone for good, never to return to Puritan Falls, never to see her mother or Scotty again. She had acted rashly, without much thought about her long-range future.
"Maybe you never really thought you'd get to Kansas," Tom gently suggested. "Maybe you were secretly hoping that someone would stop you and send you back home."
Shawna looked at him, her cheeks wet with tears.
"I wish I'd never run away," she sobbed.
"Don't cry. Here," he said, taking a tissue from his pocket and wiping her face. "It's not too late to change your mind."
"Yes, it is. My mother will be furious. She'll ground me until I'm eighteen."
"Maybe not that long," Tom laughed. "In fact, she might be so happy to see you again that she'll forego your punishment."
"You really think so?" Shawna asked hopefully.
"Oh, but I can't go back. I bought a one-way ticket, and I don't have any more money."
"I'm sure we can work something out with Greyhound. After all, you didn't get to your final destination, did you?"
When the bus stopped at the next service center, Tom exchanged Shawna's one-way ticket to Wichita for a return ticket to Boston.
"There's even money left over for you to get some lunch," he said, handing Shawna the change.
"I don't know how to thank you," she cried.
"Just get back home safely, and stay put when you get there."
Tom walked her toward the platform where the passengers bound for Boston were already boarding the bus. Shawna turned and thanked him one last time. Then she climbed up the stairs and headed to the back of the bus where, through the rear window, she saw Tom wave and walk away.
Suddenly, she was very tired. She laid her head on her backpack, curled her legs beneath her and fell asleep.
* * *
Sandy buried her face in her hands and cried. Her daughter, her little girl, her baby, was gone.
"Oh, Shawna," she sobbed. "I don't know how I'll get through this."
She looked down at Shawna's body lying on the hospital bed. The pain of loss was agonizing.
"Why didn't you listen to me? I told you not to go out in that boat. You didn't even know how to swim."
Sandy grabbed her daughter's limp hand and kissed the small, cold fingers. Only fifteen years earlier she had given birth to Shawna in that same hospital. Now, her daughter was dead, drowned in a boating accident.
"Why?" she cried. "Dear God, why?"
As though an answer from the Almighty, the girl's hand moved in hers.
"That can't be. It must be my imagination."
But the fingers moved again as Shawna squeezed her mother's hand. When Sandy looked at her daughter's face and saw the eyes flutter open, her heart leapt with joy.
* * *
Shawna didn't remember the accident, didn't even remember going out on the boat.
"You cut school on Friday and snuck out with that boy, Scotty," her mother explained. "The two of you took out his brother's sailboat. The boat capsized, and you nearly drowned."
"That's impossible," Shawna argued. "I went on my class trip to Boston. I slipped away from Mrs. Titus and walked to South Station where I boarded a bus to Wichita."
"Wichita? You must have had some dream!"
"No. It really happened."
It was like the final scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy was swearing she'd been to the Emerald City while all the time she'd been lying unconscious on her bed.
"It couldn't have, honey. A fisherman pulled you out of the water, and the ambulance brought you here. You were ...."
Sandy's voice caught in her throat.
"You weren't breathing."
"Well, I'm breathing now."
Sandy nodded, smiling through her tears.
"Yes, you are."
* * *
Shawna was kept in the hospital overnight for observation. Her mother stayed by her side, sleeping in a chair. The nurse had given the teenager something to help her sleep, but it wasn't working.
She turned on the light above the bed and found a copy of the Boston Globe the nurse had left for Sandy to read. Shawna opened it to the local section. The headline read OFFICER DIES IN BANK HOLD-UP. An involuntary cry escaped the girl's throat.
Sandy woke immediately.
Her daughter handed her the newspaper.
"This is the man who was on the bus with me."
Sandy looked down and saw a photograph of a handsome young police officer. Beneath the picture was a caption that identified the slain man was Patrolman Thomas J. Sullivan.
"The article says he was killed two days ago," Sandy said, looking up from her newspaper.
"That means he was already dead when I met him," Shawna exclaimed in awe.
"You don't know what you're saying."
"Yes, I do. Don't you see, Mom? Everyone on that bus must have been dead, too. They all had one-way tickets, even me. You said yourself I wasn't breathing."
"But you weren't--you weren't dead!"
"My heart stopped, and I wasn't breathing. That spells dead to me."
"Let's not talk about this," Sandy urged, her eyes once again filled with tears.
"I had a one-way ticket, not to Wichita but to the hereafter. Only I didn't stay on the bus. Tom talked me into coming back home. He exchanged my ticket and put me on a bus heading back to Boston."
"Stop it!" Sandy screamed. "I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense."
Obediently, Shawna dropped the subject. She sensed her mother's fear and had no desire to upset her any more than she already had.
"I'm sorry, Mom. You were right. I shouldn't have gone out with Scotty on his brother's boat. It won't happen again."
Sandy sighed, her spirits brightening. While all The Twilight Zone talk frightened her, she could handle Shawna cutting school to go sailing with a boy.
"You're damned right it won't. You're lucky I don't ground you until you're eighteen."
Her eyes softened. Just this once she would throw discipline to the wind.
"I'm just glad you're all right."
Shawna kissed her mother goodnight and then closed her eyes. But before she drifted off in a deep, dreamless slumber, she said a silent prayer for the soul of Officer Tom Sullivan.
Although I've packed Salem's bag many times, he has yet to take the hint and run away.