Darlene Ferris had been driving school buses in Smallville, Kansas almost all her life. In her youth she drove the elementary and junior high aged kids, keeping the youngsters in line quite readily with her fuzzy-browed glower and her long, hooked nose. They called her "The Witch" behind her back. Darlene wasn't a witch, and she really wasn't ugly, but she took advantage of what witchy features she did possess. Adults tended to show her more respect, often thinking she was older than her chronological age, and the kids most certainly behaved themselves - especially around Halloween.
She wore red and white striped socks on purpose, since that was the first thing a child standing at the door to her bus would see, followed by the dark clothing, the nose, and the eyebrows as their gaze moved upward. Sometimes they would cry and not want to get on the bus, but usually they were too shocked not to obey. One quick thinking little tyke, however, once had the presence of mind to feed her a line from the Wizard of Oz.
"Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"
To which Darlene replied:
"I'm a bus driver, and you're making me late. Get on, sit down, and shut up."
He quickly became one of Darlene's favorites, and ultimately, a high school principal who she addressed as "Mr. Kwan" - but with a wink and a smile.
All was good until Darlene began to age and her witchiness became more pronounced. Her hair got coarse and turned gray, the wrinkles on her face grew more prominent, and her voice deepened. From spending so much time over a steering wheel her back grew hunched and crooked. More and more little ones balked at the foot of the steps and refused to get on Darlene's bus. They cried. Parents complained. Darlene offered to dye her hair and be more pleasant, but the superintendent of schools could not be swayed. Darlene would be reassigned.
The news broke Darlene's heart, for as gruff as she seemed, she loved her youngsters a great deal and took pride in delivering them safely to and from school every day. She had been looking forward to driving the children of children she'd met at the beginning of her career. It seemed such a thing was not to be.
Her last day driving the elementary school children was in September of 1992. They had not yet found a replacement for her, so she was asked to run her usual bus until the assignments could be rearranged. Darlene looked at her route with tears in her eyes and an ache in her heart.
She noticed something unusual.
"Hickory Lane?" she asked. "I haven't had a stop there for years. Not since Hiram's little lad started high school." Darlene smiled. She remembered Jon-Jon. He had been tow-headed and freckle-faced, a little Tom Sawyer if she'd ever seen one. He'd climbed on the bus and stared at her with large blue eyes, before grinning broadly and complimenting her on her socks. He sat directly behind her, polite and as curious as could be, despite his young age.
"What does that thing do?"
"How fast can this bus go?"
"Can I drive?"
The last Darlene had heard, Jonathan had moved back to Smallville with his city-bred wife, and they had no children. There had been talk, but she'd dismissed it. Apparently it was true, the Kents had adopted.
"And the house down the road. Lana is starting school too," Darlene was told.
Lana, Darlene knew. Everybody knew Lana. Darlene sniffed derisively. The child would probably be one of the balkers and the school would get an angry phone call from Nell Potter. Darlene had driven Nell and Laura to school too. Nell had been an insufferable brat.
Oh, well. At least Darlene would get a few days of exposure to the latest generation.
She climbed into her bus, adjusted the mirrors to her liking, and propped her route map up on the dashboard behind the bobble-head kitty with the sunglasses. It had been a gift from one of her older kids the previous year, one of the ones who graduated up to high school and no longer rode with the elementary and junior high kiddies.
"A witch has to have a cat," she'd said, and gave Darlene a hug.
Darlene petted the kitty and set out from the parking lot before the first light of dawn broke the skies.
It went well. Most of the kids were returning, and had already met Darlene. One little tot, who actually seemed too young for kindergarten, ran screaming back to his mother the very second Darlene opened the door. She doubted he even got a good look at her. She chatted with his mother, who told her to go on after several failed attempts to console the weeping child. Thus, when Darlene pulled up at the end of Hickory Lane, she was already behind.
The Kents, all three, stood there waiting. Jonathan was hard to mistake for anyone else. He was still tow-headed and freckle-faced, and grinned his toothy white grin as he leaned in the door to greet Darlene.
"I like the socks," he said, and winked.
Darlene suppressed her own grin. "I'm late," she gruffed. "What do you have for me?"
"This," Jonathan said, guiding his small charge forward. "Is Clark. Clark, say hello to Ms. Ferris."
Clark did not say hello. Clark did not say anything at all, and instead stared at her with eyes the size of small planets and a horrified look on his face.
Uh-oh, Darlene thought. Here's a screamer.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked.
He started, and amazingly, his eyes got bigger. The saying was apparently not familiar to him. He eyed Darlene's bobbing kitty and clamped his mouth shut even tighter. If the cat had not yet gotten his tongue, he wasn't going to let it.
Martha Kent's red head appeared in the open doorway. "He's shy," she explained. "It's okay, Clark, climb aboard."
He turned and looked at her with an expression that clearly indicated he'd rather be rolled in batter and deep fried than get on Darlene's bus, but he obeyed. He was a relatively small child compared to the other five-year-olds and his bag was almost bigger than himself. It seemed to give him no problem, however, as he hauled it up the steps and scurried past Darlene as if he was afraid she'd grab him and eat him. He sat down in a seat toward the back, as far away from Darlene as he could manage. In the mirror above her head Darlene watched him watching his parents until the bus rounded a curve in the road and he could no longer see them. Darlene waited for him to shriek, but he didn't. He simply turned around in his seat and sat very quietly. Darlene turned her attention back to the road.
She stopped at the Potter's house, and exchanged glares with Nell when the door was opened. Lana was dressed in a pink ruffled party dress that she was clearly disgusted with, and wearing a necklace that Darlene found tawdry and unsuitable for a child of five. Fortunately the girl was nothing like Nell, and found Darlene not the slightest bit intimidating. She climbed on the bus, said hello to Darlene, and plopped down in a seat as if she'd been riding the bus every day of her very young life. Darlene watched her warily for a minute, noting that she'd chosen the seat next to Clark, who was staring at her as if she were a two headed alien from another planet. Lana ignored him, and sat squirming and scratching in her uncomfortable dress. Darlene put the bus in gear and moved on.
Darlene was just getting comfortable, and picking up speed in an effort to get back on schedule, when all hell broke loose. She heard some "ewwws!" from the back and glanced in her mirror to see Lana standing up and waving a hand for attention.
"Ms. Ferris, Clark just threw up."
The smell wafted up from the back.
"Oh for crying out...."
There were tears, shouting and general pandemonium as Darlene turned the bus around and headed back toward Hickory Lane. There was a delay at the Potter house as Lana disembarked to change clothes and Darlene said a few things back to the few things Nell shouted at her, none of those things being things that should have been overheard by the kids on the bus. (Who were pressed to the windows in an effort to hear the taboo language.) There was a further delay at the Kent Farm as Clark disembarked onto his nose in the dirt, which generated blood, which in turn generated shrieks of the "I'm being attacked by an axe wielding maniac" kind. Darlene was perplexed by the reaction. ("Hasn't he ever skinned a knee or anything before?")
By the time Darlene pulled into the parking lot, she was over an hour late, the school switchboard had been inundated with complaints from Nell Potter, and the bus stank so badly every kid on it staggered out looking decidedly green around the gills themselves.
As she sagged heavily against the side of her bus, wondering what in God's name she'd ever done to deserve such a day, Lana appeared to give Darlene some good news.
"At least I didn't have to wear that stupid dress. This one is lots better."
Ten years later found Darlene still driving the high school bus, a bus full of kids who were much less respectful, but too frightened of their parents to be overly obnoxious. Darlene had a lot of clout, and one word of complaint from her could result in serious punishment such as being banned from the bus or serving after-school detention. Frequently such punishment resulted in long walks to and from school, and additional pain and suffering inflicted upon them by the parental units.
September, 2001. Darlene received her route, and noticed immediately that once again she had a stop at the end of Hickory Lane. Clark Kent was starting high school.
Darlene was old, but she had a memory like an elephant. For ten years she'd thought of Clark as "Puketart" due to the stomach contents he'd left behind on her bus, and rued the day he'd once again climb up those steps. This was despite the fact she had heard no other negative reports regarding Clark from any other driver over the years. Darlene was definitely a "one strike" sort of individual.
She pulled up at the end of Hickory Lane.
And counted to ten.
When, after ten seconds no one appeared at the door, she wrestled the bus into gear, and stomped on the gas. The bus lurched forward. Darlene shifted into second, then third, gradually picking up speed away from the Kent farm.
"But Ms. Ferris...." Somebody from the back of the bus called. "Clark...."
The bus roared as Darlene's foot came down harder on the gas pedal, drowning out whatever the voice had to say to her. She knew what the voice was trying to tell her anyway, because in her rear-view mirror a tall boy with a knapsack had burst out of the lane onto the road and now stood there staring at the ass-end of her bus as it rounded the curve toward Lana's house.
Ha! Take that, Puketart.
Darlene grinned, speeding along until she arrived at the Potter residence where she slammed on the brakes and brought the bus to a skidding halt right in front of Nell Potter herself. The sound of books sliding off laps, and pens flying from hands, was music to Darlene's ears, as were the cries of injustice from the gallery behind her. They didn't have any homework yet, this was just a dress rehearsal. In Darlene's opinion homework should be done at home, not at the last minute on the bus ride to school. Her stops tended to get her point across quite well. Nobody did homework on Darlene's bus, and it was best that her kids be reminded of that fact.
Her bobble-head kitty nodded in agreement. Darlene opened the door and smiled at Nell.
"At school." Nell said crisply. "She rode in with Whitney. He has a new truck."
"Well la-ti-dah," Darlene snorted, and slammed the door in Nell's face.
Nell stomped off toward the house, no doubt to make a phone call.
This is turning out to be a very good day, Darlene thought, as she pulled away.
The bus continued on its way, turning off onto the paved highway and picking up speed. Cornfields ran by the windows on either side, dipping and rising over the hills in a sea of green and gold. The tassels seemed to wave as they passed. A flock of crows flew up from one field as Darlene honked her horn at an elderly man on a tractor. Mr. Peterson waved back and the kids shouted and waved from the windows.
Something hit the top of the bus - hard.
Darlene jumped. Instinctively her eyes went to the mirror, only to find her kids looking as perplexed as she. It could have been an act.
"What was that?" she roared. "Who's fooling around?"
"Nobody, Ms. Ferris."
Darlene's eyes narrowed. Several of the kids cringed back in their seats.
"Maybe it was a meteor," someone suggested.
The bus grew silent. As little as they had been on the day of the meteor shower, nobody in Smallville took it lightly. Darlene was glad Lana was not on the bus.
"Not likely." A blonde girl - Chloe? - piped up. Her lips parted in a huge grin. "Maybe it was a really, really big bird."
"A big bird turd," someone else suggested.
The kids busted up laughing. Darlene ducked her head to keep from revealing her own good humor.
"All right, that's enough."
The rest of the journey went without incident. Darlene arrived at school ahead of schedule, and parked the bus. Her kids trundled out, in good spirits now on this first day of school. Later in the year there would be more grumbling. They waved good-bye and Darlene picked up her log book to make note of any incidents and/or time delays she may have experienced. She noted the thumping sound, suggesting that the mechanic take a look to see if there was anything amiss with her bus, and was just about to log her time when something caught her attention.
Darlene looked out the window just in time to see Clark Kent walk into the parking lot, cross in front of her bus, and in the front gates of the school, joining the Ross boy and their little blonde-headed girlfriend in the yard.
"How in the hell...." Darlene blinked, turned to look out the back window of the bus, and then out at Clark again.
"Martha must have given him a ride."
Clark was waiting at the stop the next morning. Darlene pulled up to him and opened the door somewhat reluctantly. The boy just stood there.
"Hey!" Darlene barked. "Wake up!"
He blinked, and stared up at her. "Oh, sorry."
Darlene eyed him carefully. "What did you have for breakfast?"
"I want to know what I might have to mop up later." Darlene put the bus in gear and tromped one Converse-clad foot down on the gas pedal, making the big vehicle lurch forward and Clark to stumble backward into an unoccupied seat.
She kept an eye on him the whole way to school, but he simply sat staring out the window, looking as if someone had poisoned his puppy. Darlene had serious doubts that anyone could look more morose. He hadn't looked like that yesterday. She wondered what was going on, but refused to pry. Instead she tried to lighten the mood.
"So," she asked him, as he was leaving. "If I drive this thing off the Loeb bridge, are ya gonna jump in and haul my old ass out?"
Clark looked perplexed. "Huh?"
Darlene rolled her eyes and wondered if her bus wasn't just a tad too long for Clark Kent. Perhaps he needed to be assigned to the abridged version instead.
"Nevermind. Get to class, Puketart. You'll be late."
Darlene had a secret log book. In it she kept track of Clark's tardiness relative to the times he missed the bus. One would assume that the black marks Principal Kwan, and later, Principal Reynolds, jotted down in their ledgers each time Clark was late for homeroom, would coincide with the times he did not make an appearance at the bus stop. Or, if he just missed the ten second window Darlene gave him, the times she left him standing in her dust. What Darlene found was that there was no pattern. Sometimes those days jibed, but most of the time they didn't. Clark missed Darlene's bus at least every other day during his freshman and sophomore years at SHS. He was officially tardy far, far less than that.
Some of those times she could say he probably caught a ride with someone, or perhaps (after he turned sixteen) he drove himself in to school.
Yet frequently Darlene would catch sight of Clark casually walking through the gates just as she was pulling in - and neither Martha's car, nor Jonathan's truck would be in the student lot. It bothered her so much to see this that for the first time in nearly thirty years, Darlene called in sick to work. At the age of sixty-three, Darlene Ferris became Secret Agent Ferris, drove her car down to the Kent Farm, and parked in concealed location behind a small stand of trees with a pair of binoculars at hand.
There she waited.
A few minutes passed before she saw a cloud of dust moving down the road. Presently the snub nose of a big yellow bus could be seen rounding the corner. It stopped at the end of Hickory Lane, and waited. It waited far longer than Darlene would have, and then moved slowly off down the road when no one arrived.
Not two seconds later, Clark appeared. He jogged down to the end of the lane, watched the cloud of dust that was his bus disappear in the distance, and sighed.
Darlene watched him carefully. He stood there for only a moment.
Clark was gone.
Scrambling for her keys, Darlene cranked her old Chevy into life. With a gnashing of gears and a whine of an engine not used to hurrying anywhere, the Chevy peeled out from concealment. Darlene ignored the speed limits as she zipped past her bus and onto the paved road. The Chevy's back tires skidded. Darlene jerked at the wheel, bringing the car back into control, back up to speed and back in the race.
She was sitting in the school parking lot, waiting, when the bus arrived.
Clark got off of it.
Darlene got out of her car and collared another student.
"Hey, Ms. Ferris. They said you were si..."
"Did you see Clark Kent get on the bus?"
The startled freshman looked puzzled.
"Tall kid, dark hair...."
"Oh, him. Yeah. He got on at my stop today. Guess he missed the bus again and his mom dropped him off or somethin'. "
Darlene let her informant go. "Or something," she muttered.
That afternoon, Darlene reported for work, and Clark reported for his ride home. He was, in fact, early, and Darlene met him at the door before any of the other kids arrived.
"I don't know how you're doing it, Puketart, but I'm going to find out your secret."
"Duh-doing what?" He cringed away from her slightly as she waggled a finger under his nose. "Whu-what secret?"
Darlene just waggled her finger. "I'm going to get you," she said. "Mark my words, I'm going to get you."
And your little dog too - well, if you had a dog. Why don't you have a dog? All boys have a dog. God, you're a weird kid.
There was a bus in the middle of the Kents' cornfield.
Inspector Darlene had found footprints in the dirt, and some broken stalks. Clark was cutting through the fields.
It still didn't explain how exactly he got to school before Darlene did, but it did explain where he was going when he vanished so quickly. Nobody could run fast enough to cover the distance between the school and Hickory Lane to get there before the school bus, even with the stops it made and Clark's shortcut taken into account. At this juncture Darlene didn't care about explanations. She just wanted to tie a knot in her nemesis' hose.
So she'd convinced another driver to help her by taking the first half of her route. She'd pick up the second half later, after she sprang a little surprise on her speedy little friend. Being as careful as she could NOT to destroy too much of the Kents' crop, and calculating just where Clark entered and exited the field by his footprints in the soil, Darlene situated her bus directly in his path. The vegetation concealed the golden yellow bus quite well. If one wasn't expecting a bus in the cornfield, one could be quite surprised.
Darlene really wanted to give Clark a surprise.
Until finally, in the distance, she heard the familiar sound of a bus approaching and she raised her binoculars to confirm it. Sure enough, there, at the end of Hickory Lane, was a Smallville High School bus. It was stopped, waiting, a trickle of vapor swirling up from its tailpipe into the cool morning air. Nobody came. Darlene cackled quietly to herself as the bus moved away with a squeak and a rumble. She counted to twenty. She saw movement. Clark stumbled to a stop at the end of the lane. He'd missed the bus - again.
He was there.
He was not there.
Two seconds later she felt a rush of air. She saw the corn part before her like the waters of the red sea, and all of a sudden there was a loud, pealing, glass shattering BANG!
It was indeed glass shattering. Darlene screamed as the glass in the windows of the driver's side of the bus exploded from their frames. The whole bus rocked, lurching sideways onto the passenger's side wheels as the driver's side wheels left the ground. Darlene screeched. The bus hovered in the air for the span of a breath, during which Darlene was sure it would tip over completely onto its side. She hung on for dear life to the big round steering wheel. Frantic, she threw her weight to the side as if her insignificant few pounds could shift the tide and right the vehicle, and maybe it did because the bus slowly began to fall back onto all four wheels. The shocks protested as it fell the last few inches in a rapid descent and hit the ground with a jolt.
Darlene clutched at her chest. Her heart was pounding.
Dear Lord, I'm an old woman....a crotchity old woman to be sure, but....
What had hit her?
Darlene's eyes narrowed at the sound of his voice.
"Who put that there?"
All thoughts of a heart attack vanquished, Darlene threw open the door and hastened out into the corn. She rounded the front of the bus to find Clark picking himself up out of the dirt with a confused expression on his face. Her finger stabbed out at him.
"I GOT YOU!" Darlene yelled. "I. Got. You!" She turned around in a little victory dance, an old woman in Converse sneakers and a faded black dress shaking her booty.
Clark stared at her, slack jawed and wide eyed.
Darlene looked at him. Then she looked at her bus and her grin faded.
He cowered under her glare.
"YOU DENTED MY BUS!!!!"
A big yellow bus pulled up to the end of Hickory Lane, Smallville, Kansas, and stopped.
It sat there idling, and after a minute or so, a tall young man came jogging down the lane. He stopped at the door to the bus and it opened.
Clark grinned back.
"Ready," she said.
"Set," Clark replied.
The door slammed. The bus' engine roared. Clark watched it go around the curve in a cloud of dust.
Darlene was sixty-four years old. At the end of the semester she would retire.
Today, and every day until she handed in her keys....
Clark let her beat him.
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