Before his family moved to Omaha two years later, Zack introduced me to strange and fascinating things: a pet ostrich in his backyard, midnight snacks, my first and only first-hand exposure to the board game "Clue". He was one of my best friends.
It's strange that I don't remember sitting next to him on the bus that morning. I'm certain he was on board -- later that morning, when the music teacher asked why I was late, I asked Zack, my only witness, to explain -- but I can't picture it. I only see his sister, Rachel, sitting in the back of the bus, near my brother, near the seats half-obstructed by the rear wheels.
Rachel and Zack were the unfortunate victims of the school district's questionable school bus route. Their home was located less than three miles from the school. Rather than being picked up as the bus approached its final stop, they were picked up first, and traveled over five miles before they saw additional passengers. My house was a ranch-style home built from brown bricks, separated from a dirt road by a long driveway, surrounded by 80 acres of sandy soil or wheat, depending on the season -- it was the bus' second stop.
The bus proceeded west after we boarded, down one of the largest hills in the area, toward a small wooden structure that barely qualified as a bridge. The short, narrow bridge spanned less than 20 muddy feet of earth, the terminus of the Cowskin Creek, and was only truly necessary in times of flood -- even then, if the rain was substantial, the bridge was submerged, and the area was impassable.
A car approached from the west, a plume of dust rising in its wake, as the bus rolled downhill, gathering momentum. The car skipped over the bridge and continued forward. As the vehicles met, each hugging their respective sides of the road, our bus hit a bump. It was our turn to cross the bridge.
Behind me, my brother began to cry.
"Mrs. M, I think Chris is hurt," a worried Rachel said to the busdriver.
"He's not hurt," Mrs. M replied. Her conviction was surprising.
She directed her attention to me, her eyes meeting mine in the wide rearview mirror perched above her head. "Was your dog out today?" she asked.
I didn't really understand the question. Our dog -- Snoopy, the beagle, named by my brother, presumably with help from our Peanuts-loving parents -- was always "out". We lived in the country, where there was no such thing as indoor pets. Cats lived outside, and dogs lived outside -- ours had a little red doghouse, complete with shingles, purchased from the lumber supply store one town over. We didn't have cattle, so there was no fence surrounding our property. Snoopy was free to roam the premises -- as far as the eye could see, really, from the wooded creek to the north to the farmland to the south (and east, and west). Snoopy ran. Snoopy dug. Snoopy chased jackrabbits. But he was never so far away that he couldn't hear you -- if you stood in the backyard and shouted, "Snoooo-pyyyyyy!!!" as loud as you could, he'd come barreling toward home in a matter of moments. So yeah, Snoopy was out. He was always out.
"Yes," I replied.
"I think I got him," she said.
My dog had been hit by our school bus. My older brother -- sitting in the back, near the rear windows, as was his right as a fifth-grader -- was crying because he saw it happen.
The rest of the ride was long and awful. My brother moved from his position in the back to a middle seat, and made me sit next to him. He didn't stop crying. I was quiet. I tried to find a silver lining -- no more arguing over who'd go outside to feed Snoopy. No more monitoring his bowl in the winter to make sure his water hadn't turned to ice. New passengers stepped past us on the way to their usual seats, unaware of the situation, curious to know the story behind the grief-stricken boy and his embarrassed, stoic sibling.
At the end of the line, the church near the school, my brother sought help from his religion teacher, Mrs. W. She guided us across the street to the town's only general store, where we were allowed to call home. Mom knew the situation, having already received a call from our very upset and apologetic busdriver. After moving Snoopy's body from the side of the road, she picked us up at the church. We headed home to bury our first pet.
Mom instructed my brother to retrieve a cardboard box from the basement. She overrode his first selection, because it was marked by Anheiser-Busch. "We need to bury him in a box of something he liked," she explained. We found something that met her approval, and headed toward the creek to bury Snoopy in the place he loved the most. I know I didn't have to dig, and I know I never saw the body. I can't remember where we buried him.
Against our wishes and to our shock, my brother and I were driven back to school at mid-morning.
* * *
Now, I feel sad for our poor old dog, who heard the bus's roaring engine and mistook it for the sound of an oncoming car on the other side of the road. And I sympathize with my brother, who lost the dog that was technically "his", and my mother, who had to supervise Snoopy's funeral and teach us the tough lesson of moving on. Most of all, I feel bad for the busdriver, Mrs. M, a sweet woman who assumed Snoopy would get out of her way, and who had to endure 40-some minutes of a fifth-grader's wails and cries as a result of her error.