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The Ride to Fernally

I'd told her so. When-- if-- I came back from Aunt Sadie's house, I'd show my mother. I shivered a little in the air conditioning and squeezed a little closer to the wall of the bus. The man sitting next to me made me nervous, and I wanted to be as far away from him as possible.

It had all started last night. I was lying on the couch in my pajamas, watching soccer on ESPN when my mother walked in. "Reggie! I have wonderful news!"

I half rolled over so I could see her. "Mmmmm-hmmm..." I muttered, looking back at the TV.

"You're going to visit Aunt Sadie tomorrow. Won't it be fun? You'll get to ride the bus all the way from here to Fernally, all by yourself!" My mother looked thrilled. I didn't.

"Mother," I said. "I'm going to the movies tomorrow with Jill and Lizzie. I can't go out to Fernally. Besides, vacation just started."

My mother frowned. "Regina Melissa Wilcox, you are going to Fernally tomorrow and that is that. You'll be staying for a week. It's time you got out of this city smog and into the country air."

"Mom! I won't! You can't make me!" I cried. That was the wrong thing to say. So that's why I am now on a bus out to the middle of nowhere.

There isn't anything wrong with Aunt Sadie. She vaguely resembles a giant teddy beat. She's round and soft, and her hair and her eyes are brown. Her clothes are like those you can find on stuffed animals at Macy's. I'm her only niece, so she thinks I can do no wrong. She's sure I'm the next best thing to an angel. When I think of her house, I think of rainbows and sunshine-- that's what she calls me, in fact. Rainbow Sunshine. Every day with her is like Christmas. But at her house...

Dogs. So many dogs you wouldn't believe it. Last time I was there I counted thirteen, but two were pregnant and five or six were visiting the vet. Golden retrievers, Boston terriers, daschunds; you name it, she probably has it. But that isn't the main problem. The problem is-- well, the problem is that I'm afraid of them. Dogs, I mean. Even Aunt Sadie's dogs, which are house-trained and well-behaved. But that's another story for another time. Right now, I'm worried about the bus.

And the man beside me.

I glanced at him quickly. His teeth were crooked and yellow (my father is a dentist; I notice these things). His leather jacket was black and looked expensive. He grunted from time to time for no apparent reason, and he smelled of cigarettes and a certain aroma which is usually found in places such as the lobby of cheap motels and gas station bathrooms. I thought about what his name might be, and came up with Rex. Rex Reynolds. Sounded like a cartoon character. He was manually cleaning his nose with his index finger and innocently depositing whatever came out on the armrest between us. Repulsed, I sucked in my breath and made a face.

"Burrrrrrrrgundy," the driver called out as the bus halted, and to my relief the man beside me rose and stumbled down the aisle. I breathed a sigh and almost laid my arm down on the contents of my seatmate's nose. I decided to move, and reseated myself across the aisle in the middle of a set of three seats. No sooner had I sat than a woman got on to sit beside me.

This woman was such a contrast to my former seatmate that it was almost funny. Her black curls were in a carefully arranged upsweep, and her eyes were a startling bright blue. When she called out her stop to the driver, I saw that her teeth were white and even. She was dressed in a high-necked blue dress and reminded me of Louisa May Alcott, or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then I noticed something that puzzled me. In her lap she was clutching her purse and a bright pink bag from Victoria's Secret. Something black and lacy peeked out from the edge of the bag. I stared at her. I couldn't imagine what a woman like her would be doing in a lingerie store.

Just as I was trying to puzzle it out, she began to rummage around in her purse and came out with a handful of peppermint candies. "Would you care for a mint?" she asked politely, holding one out to me, with just a tinge of an English accent.

"Thank you," I said, taking the candy and unwrapping it. I popped the candy into my mouth and gazed out the window, watching the trees and houses rush by. Soon the bus began to slow again. I looked through the glass to see the people waiting at the station. A bald, nervous man was standing there, looking worriedly at the bus.

My seatmate picked up her bags (including the one from Victoria's Secret) and moved into the aisle. Her black strapped shoes clacked every time she took a step. I turned my attention from her feet and continued my inspection of the waiting crowd. I had labeled two anxious young women standing by the phone booth as sisters going home from school when I turned my attention back to the bald man whom I'd dubbed "Harvey".

I watched in surprise as the woman who'd been seated next to me ran to greet the bald man I'd seen waiting. She gave him a huge hug and a kiss. "I've been waiting to see you for so long!" she cried.

Well. Obviously I wasn't as good a judge of character as I had thought.

I looked critically at the people who were now boarding the bug. A skinny boy about fifteen with a long nose and stringy blond hair straggled on and seated himself across the aisle from me. He reached his hand up and began cleaning his teeth with his fingernails, and I noticed with glee that his long, floppy sleeve was close to resting on the mess on the armrest.

A wide woman began waddling down the aisle, lugging three or four large bags from Bloomingdale's and Toys 'R' Us. She looked left and right as she struggled to move between the close-set seats. Finally she neared my row. "Hey," she said to me, in a surprisingly deep voice, "hey ya, kiddo. I'm a-gonna sit wit' you, okay? So make some room."

I stared at her in shock. Who was she? Why me?

"Listen, I don't got time to yell at ya, kid. Move it, now."

I slid quickly over to the window seat, leaving this manatee the remaining two. She tossed her bags into my lap, then flopped down. She took up far more than her fair share of room, and I could scarcely breathe for the twenty-odd pounds pressing my into the hard plastic seat.

"Uh," I gasped, "could you take--"

"Yeah, just put 'em on the seat wherever."

I looked. There was no seat, "wherever" or otherwise, that wasn't taken up by this enormoud woman. So I just set the bags down on an extension of her flabby leg.

"Where ya headed to, kid?" the woman asked me, rummaging aroudn in the immense pocketbook she had.

"My name is Regina," I told her primly. I had better things to do than to sit on a bus barely breathing while a woman who should have married my gym teacher called me "kid".

"Ha, Regina! That's some heckuva name. Who d'you think ya are, a princess or what?" She laughed at her own joke. I waited until she was finished.


"Boy, I betcha get teased fer that one a lot, huh, doll?"

Doll? Now, that was just a little too much.

"Look, ma'am, you--" I began.

"Hey, hey, do the kids call ya Reggie?" she asked me.

I sighed. "Yes, as a matter of fact they do."

"Well, then," she said, composing herself. "Reggie, my name is Gloria Hiplawassu-Mantajoy. Pleased to meetcha." She stuck out a hand and I shook it, somewhat hesitantly.

"Hipla what?" I asked.

"Hiplawassu-Mantajoy," she repeated matter-of-factly.

"Hipla what?" I asked again.

"Hiplawass-Mantajoy!" she shouted.

Hippopotamus, I thought to myself.

Gloria Hippo pulled a giant candy bar out of her purse. She tore the wrapper off and began munching on it. When she saw me looking at her, she said, with her mouth full, "Oo oo won fum?"

I took this to mean "Do you want some", and I shook my head no. She's not just a hippo, she's a pig, I thought.

The bus was nearing another stop, and I prayed that this was where the Hippo was getting off. She turned to me and mumbled through the chocolate, "For where are oo dowing?"

"Fernally," I replied politely. "You?"

"Hey, me too!" she cried, swallowing. "Guess we're gonna be t'gether fer awhile yet!"

I groaned inwardly and turned towards the window. We had stopped and even more people were getting on. A tall, thin man with slicked-back black hair, a skinny black mustache, and a loud checked coat skimmed down the aisle and sat next to the skinny boy. He had the fluid walk and cheesy smile of a used-car salesman. I silently made up a life story for him. His name was Vinnie Franks. He worked at a place that salvaged desecrated vehicles and resold them. He'd been married twice-- once to a (female) garage mechanic and the second time to a waitress at a cheap fast food place. His parents had moved to Florida when he was seventeen, leaving him in Hackensack, New Jersey, by himself. I grinned. His motto was "Bad taste is better than no taste at all", and his brother was a sweater inspector for Ames. He was now dating his own second cousin, and on their last date they'd gone to an arcade.

"WHAT THE DEVIL IS THIS!?!" I heard someone shout, and I was willing to bet that 'Vinnie' had discovered the goop which had been in Rex's nose just (I checked my watch) forty-five minutes earlier.

Forty-five minutes! It seemed like an eternity had passed!

"Who ya goin' to visit, Reggie?" the Hippo asked me, balling up the wrapping from the chocolate bar and tossing it under the seat.

"My aunt. Her name is Sadie."

"Oh. What's she like?"

"She's very nice," I said, glancing at Gloria. "She's got brown hair and eyes and she's f-- I mean, she's queen-sized." I kept myself from saying the word "fat". Compared to Gloria Hippalyamusie whatever, no one-- not Aunt Sadie, not my grandmother, not a blue whale-- could be considered fat.

"Hey," Gloria/Hippo said, poking me sharply in the ribs, "this is our stop."

"Thank God," I said, under my breath.

When the bus stopped, I fairly flew down the aisle, steps, and out the door. "Aunt Sadie? Aunt Sadie?" I called, searching faces in the crowd.

"Regina!" a woman called out. I spun around to see my Aunt Sadie running towards me.

"Hi!" I said, stepping out of the way to avoid being run over. "How are you?"

"Oh, good, good, good! Come on, we've got to get you home. You look as though you've had quite a ride."

"I have, I have!" I replied, looking at the bus that was pulling away.