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The Last Best Place
It was on the morning of the second day of school that he saw it. He sat in the way back of the bus, as usual. It was a new bus this year; it smelled clean and sharp and its windows didn’t yet rattle and the seats weren’t torn or graffitied. Except for this one, the back of the seat in front of him. This one already had writing on it, black Sharpie that it hadn’t had the day before.
Jander leaned forward curiously to read the cramped, shaky words. They weren’t the usual sloppy swears slapped all across – the words lay in proper lines, though tilting slightly downward. “I shiver though the wind is mild. I feel alone and lost as a little child. The sun shines warm but I’m followed by a cloud. The rest of the world is muffled by a shroud.” He raised his eyebrows, mildly interested. Angst-y poetry? He’d heard of kids like that, seen a couple of the types around school, but didn’t really know any of them. They didn’t impress him much with their worm-pale faces and painted-dark hair. He wondered which of them had written this.
Jander started to read on, but then it was time to get off and go to school.
There was more writing the next day. He couldn’t help but read it. Thoughts of the writing had nagged him like an old itchy scab. He knew he probably shouldn’t – that it must be someone’s private, hidden thoughts – but then he thought, It’s on a bus seat. It’s public property. I have a right to sit here too.
So instead of listening to his iPod or reading the new ghost story he’d checked out, he squinted at the back of the seat and tried to discern the fresh lines: “To any and all who dare to read – stop, think, take time, take heed. The words are my thoughts, the rhythm my soul. Be careful – there are places you don’t want to go.”
He didn’t know this girl – for he felt sure it was a girl – but it would feel too much like giving up and backing down to stop reading now. Jander resolved to read everything she – if it was a she, he was sure it was a she – everything she wrote for the rest of the school year.
But something in him was uneasy. Somehow the author of those lines knew he had read them. Ridiculous, he thought. Again, though, he felt guilty for reading such personal material. So he pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote, “I dare to read.” He thought maybe he should add something a bit more, well, memorable.… But in the end he just left it there, and headed off to school, still uneasy.
At home that night he tried to concentrate on his homework, but the branches of the apple tree outside his window kept distracting him, creaking and sighing, baby apples thumping the ground. He remembered being so little that the lowest branch seemed miles away, but within his reach if he could only jump. He would collect the yellow-green fruit, hard and riddled with worm holes, and bring them into the kitchen. His mother threw them out, never allowing him to taste one. He must have dreamed of climbing that tree a hundred times, a thousand. Why didn’t I? he thought. The window was right there. The tree – it was right there.
Somehow this reminded him of the writing on the bus seat. He rubbed his temples, thoughts going in circles. Defeated, he got up, seeking his sanctuary – the kitchen.
His mother was there, putting the remains of their dinner into containers. She smiled knowingly at him and nodded to the cabinet. “Fresh supply for the new school year,” she said. He grinned and went straight for his personal Oreo stash.
“Got something on your mind?” she asked.
The apple tree. The writing seat. “Yup.”
“Want to talk?”
“You sure, Jander?”
She held her hands up in mock defeat. “Just checking. I’m here, you know.”
“I know,” he said, absentmindedly crunching a cookie.
He paced back and forth across the driveway, glancing down the street every time he heard a car or truck. Watery early-morning sunlight drizzled through thin fog, shining up the leaves of the trees in the front yard. A garbage truck grumbled around the corner. Jander lifted his head hopefully, then rolled his eyes. Can’t wait till I can drive.
At last. He murmured a greeting to the driver and stumbled as the bus started to move.
There was no new writing on the seat. He was surprised at how disappointed he was.
Jander sat back in the seat and looked out the window. He took out a pen and tapped it on his knee to the rhythm of the bouncing bus. He hadn’t written anything in response since the first “I dare to read”. But what could he write now? “Hey, you forgot something?”
Carefully, painstakingly, he began to shape letters on the slick plastic. After a good five minutes of hand-cramping work, he surveyed his masterpiece. He whispered, “Your words have heart. They are the best part/Of my day/In every way. Please write again, before I do/My words must be rhymed poison to you.” Ok, he thought, it sucks. Nothing turned out right when he tried to rhyme. But at least it got his point across.
A couple of weeks passed. The Bus Seat Writer, as Jander came to call this mystery person in his mind, never again missed a day. Some days there was only a line or two; other days, full paragraphs or poems. He almost never wrote responses, only circled or underlined or drew arrows to things he liked, or maybe things he didn’t like but made him feel something. He’d get a smiley face or some other appreciative sign in return. True to his “rhymed poison,” seeing the back of the bus seat was the best part of his day.
In the first week of October, his English teacher assigned an essay. “Listen up! Five pages, due on Friday. Make it good! Make it creative! Make it meaningful!” The class groaned collectively. Mr. Wilson cuffed a kid across the head with a rolled-up newspaper. “If I read another paper on your meaningful trip to Disney World, I’ll slaughter you all!” The bell rang. “Get to it!” The kids scooped up their papers, shuffling them as they rushed out the door.
During break Jander scanned the cafeteria. It was easy to pick out the goth and emo groups; they were the ones all in black. He picked out those who could be candidates for the Bus Seat Writer. None of them seemed very likely.
It didn’t matter. Why should it matter? He only knew this girl – this person – through the writing on the bus seat. Why should he try to find her?
Unsettled, he shouldered his backpack and followed the crowd to class.
Dinner that night was not a peaceful affair.
His little sister Shael, at twelve years old, was already developing an attitude worthy of a teenager. She sat sullenly across from him, glaring at her potatoes as if each one had personally insulted her.
“Eat,” snapped their mother. Shael flicked her black-rimmed eyes for just a second; then went back to frowning at her plate. “That’s good food,” said her mom. “Eat it, or you don’t eat tonight at all.”
“That’s fine by me,” she said. She pushed back from the table and got up in a huff.
“You will sit down and eat dinner with us!”
“Because we’re a family.”
“Some family! You don’t even know me.” Shael stormed off to her room.
Jander’s mother turned to her husband. “You could give me some support, you know.”
He looked tiredly at his wife and for a second at his son. “Shael’s just going through something, I’m sure. It’s a tough time. Maybe we should just let her be.”
Mom ran her hands through her faded corn-silk hair. “I just wish she was still friends with that Shelby girl. She was so sweet. They were always together, so cute – Shael and Shelby. Whatever happened to her?”
Shelby? Jander had heard something about a Shelby. A track meet last spring, and a senior boy under the bleachers. Middle school gossip usually didn’t reach the high school unless it was something really, really good. Or in this case, really, really bad.
“Mom,” he said, “does Shelby’s last name start with a C? Cronner, or something?’
“Kronsk, with a K. Why? Did you hear something?”
“I think so… If what I heard is true, maybe you should be glad Shael’s not hanging out with her anymore.”
He could tell she was about to press him further before his father stopped her. “Enough. This will pass. For now,” he stood up, his tall frame unfolding like a creased paper doll, “let’s clean up.”
The next day came and went. So did Wednesday and Thursday. By midnight Thursday night, Jander still had no “meaningful” five-page English essay.
He crumpled up another notebook page and sank a shot into the garbage can. He rubbed his eyes and saw apple trees and bus seats behind his eyelids. Resting his head on his notebook, he imagined all his failed essays in the garbage can melting, dissolving into a sea of words and blue lines. As he closed his eyes, the sea rose up and up and up, and he was dragged down into the slow pressure of discarded words.
He woke up to the sun blasting through his window and his sister yelling. “Jander! You’re gonna miss the bus, idiot! Move it!” He heard her slam the door on her way out to her own bus, which arrived ten minutes before his. Ten minutes! He jerked up and raced around the house, half-conscious, feeling saturated with dreams he couldn’t remember. When he finally collapsed onto the bus seat, it took him a moment to focus on the writing before him. Jander rubbed at his eyes, pushed his hair back irritably.
“Driving, driving, getting nowhere/On a crystal sun-sharp morning/Music so loud/I can’t hear myself think/But there’s too much to think about anyway.
Secrets so loud/I can’t hear myself speak/But there’s too much to talk about anyway.
I tell you I got better/But I’m actually worse/I say I try harder/But it seems like I’m cursed/One vice after another-/I’ll be glad on the day/I learn to deal/With my own pain…”
Jander mulled over the lines. He wrote in small letters next to the poem: “I hear you.”
The poem reminded him of the essay he was supposed to have done. With little hope, Jander pulled out his notebook. Soon he found himself staring at the back of the seat again.
A silent poet – an apple tree. A leap in vain…a fruitless childhood. He’d always thought – no, he’d known – that if he could get up in that tree, he would own the world. But he jumped and jumped and he got nowhere. Now, wouldn’t he be tall enough, strong enough to do it?
Why didn’t he?
Jander began to write furiously.
It didn’t take much more than an A-minus to make Jander realize that he did his best writing in that bus seat. He thought it was odd, but it worked. The only downside was that his teachers kept asking why he turned in wrinkled papers with messy handwriting rather than the crisp typed pages of the other students. He didn’t care too much; the bus seat was the best place for writing, so that was where he wrote.
This also gave him an excuse not to do his English homework until the morning before school. Having extra time, Jander decided to tackle some old ghosts.
Tap tap ta-tap tap, tap tap.
“What?” Shael yelled over the angry music blaring from her headphones.
Jander opened the door a bit. “Just me.”
She scowled. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to show you something.”
“Well? Are you gonna show me, or are you gonna get out of my face?”
“You have to come outside.”
After a healthy amount of grumbling, Shael followed him to the front yard. Jander stopped at a tree close to the house. “Okay,” she said, “now what?”
Jander dug his sneaker into the bark, grabbed a low branch, and started to pull himself up.
“You dragged me out here because you learned how to climb a tree?”
He reached the first branch and stretched for another.
“This is so not that cool, Jander.”
He was almost there. One yellow-red apple hung patiently before him.
“I could’ve climbed this tree when I was, like, six.”
The apple thudded the grass at her feet. She looked up at her brother, perched with his feet dangling. His face was tilted up, towards something she could not see. He looked down at her and gave her a little smile. “Then why didn’t you?”
The episode with the apple tree did not magically make everything better, but it got things moving. Shael turned a little softer – she didn’t yell or roll her eyes, much, and she helped Jander rake leaves on Sunday. She didn’t say anything, but they understood each other.
In fact, Jander was feeling so good when he got on the bus Monday morning that he almost forgot to look for new writing. When he did remember, and when he did look, what he saw made his warm memories of the weekend collapse into cold chalk dust.
“There’s a point that’s too far/Things can’t stay as they are/In my power – my knife –/My choice, my life – /What can I say, world?/I tried./What can I say, reader?/I tried./Goodbye.”
No, said a little part of his mind. No, NO!
Why was this happening? He thought everything was going so well, with Shael and with his mystery writer. What could he do? He still didn’t know who she was.
Trembling fingers found a pen. What could he do? What else could he do?
“Goodbye is not a good ending./It doesn’t feel like the truth./I will not say goodbye -/I refuse to comply -/Until you tell me the truth./Who are you?”
And more importantly, he thought, please don’t kill yourself.
Jander was distracted all throughout the school day. He told his friends it was just because it was Monday. Inside he agonized, his ears sharp for any word of an accident over the weekend, eyes searching the crowds and cliques for a face that wasn’t there.
Somehow he got through the rest of the day and came home. He let his backpack fall in the front hall, kicked off his sneakers, and collapsed in the kitchen with an Oreo. With eyes closed, savoring the sugar rush, Jander noticed how quiet the house was. Usually his mom had the radio on, or Shael would be blasting her songs of pain and rebellion. Today there was nothing. After the Oreo was gone, though, he could hear, just faintly, the sound of crying.
Tap tap ta-tap tap, tap tap.
There was a wet sniffle and a muffled, “What?”
Jander didn’t open the door. “Shael? What’s up?”
“It’s none of your business…like you’d even care…”
“Maybe I would if I knew what was wrong.”
“Just…how could she…” He heard renewed sobs.
“Shael? If you don’t let me in, I’m getting Mom.”
“No!” She opened the door. Mascara and eyeliner traced gray lines of misery all over her flushed face. Her ash-dark hair was ruffled and greasy-looking, as if she’d been trying to pull it out. “Why do you have to stick your nose into my life all the time?”
Jander shrugged. “’S my job. What happened?”
Her nose scrunched itself up toward her worried eyes. “Remember Shelby?”
Shelby. Under the bleachers. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear…”
“Well – oh my God, she was so stupid – just that one time, and she got pregnant –”
Oh boy. This was so not his territory. Pregnant teen girl? Jander started to regret offering his help. “Um, maybe she should -”
“Oh, that’s not the point. But she – she started pulling away from everyone. She wouldn’t hang out with me anymore. She was getting really down on herself for that mistake.” She covered her face with her hands. “She was my best friend…” She sat on her bed.
Jander leaned against the doorframe. “Well, I -”
“She tried to kill herself.”
Jander opened his mouth with nothing to say. In his mind’s eye the past few weeks seemed to condense and whirl. The goodbye poem written on Friday…found on Monday. The weekend in between.
He went to the bed and put his hands on Shael’s shoulders. “Is she okay?”
She shook her head wildly. “I don’t know! No one will tell me anything! She took a load of pills, she’s at the hospital now, it’s so awful -”
“Come on.” Jander grabbed his sister’s hand. “We’re going.”
“You don’t have your license.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t drive,” he said, heading out the door.
Jander grabbed the keys, feeling the metal teeth bite his palm. What was wrong with him? He was usually so cautious.
He glanced up from the driver’s seat and saw the apple tree.
With Shael in the passenger seat, he hit the gas.
Jander was prepared to lie and say he was Shelby’s brother once they entered the hospital, but it wasn’t necessary. With Shael still crying uncontrollably, no one questioned them. He pulled her around the emergency area until she shrieked and darted toward a middle-aged man with a despondent expression that turned quizzical as Shael accosted him. Jander hung back, his reckless confidence leaking out of him. What now?
The man, listening to Shael’s blubbering, began to nod. He looked up and beckoned to Jander. “They think Shelby’s going to be okay. She’s been in recovery all weekend.” Jander had never seen an adult look so broken. “She’s barely conscious. They don’t want a lot of people around her at once, but, well…Shael was her best friend.” He pointed them toward a room. “You can go see her, if you want. I’m staying here.” He sank into a chair, rubbing his temples.
“You go on,” Jander told Shael. “You see her first.” He needed to sort out his thoughts.
While Shael rushed ahead, he leaned against the wall. Are you sure you want to do this? There were so many reasons he shouldn’t – wrong time, wrong place. Maybe the Bus Seat Writer should just stay unknown, for good. But before he could make a decision, Shael returned.
Jander steeled himself. Just another apple tree. He walked in.
When he saw Shelby, he swallowed hard. A thin, pale girl, no bigger than his sister, was lying in the bed. Her pregnant stomach seemed unnatural on such a small frame. She blinked, squinted, trying to remember who he was, why he would be here to see her like this.
Jander crouched near the head of the bed. “Hey, Shelby. I’m Shael’s brother.” She nodded, barely. “I’m the one who’s been reading the back of the seat on the bus.” Her eyes widened, fearful and glassy. She tried to speak, but he shushed her. “Don’t worry, I didn’t tell anybody.” Shelby relaxed only a little. She still eyed him warily, waiting for him to judge her. “I just wondered – It seemed like you were better. I mean, you seemed happier. Why…?”
Shelby’s face crumpled. She slid a shaky hand from under the sheets and brought it to rest on top of her belly.
Jander still didn’t get it. “Because of the baby?”
She shook her head and began to speak hoarsely. Jander recognized it from the bus seat. “The day that never comes/I shall hasten it for me/because those that want me here don’t know/and those that know me here still want/The day that never comes.”
“Shelby, you are wanted here. People love you. Your dad is outside worrying himself sick. My sister’s going crazy about you. What about your baby? It needs you too.”
She shook her head again. “It would be better off without a mother who could be its big sister. You’d all be better off pretending nothing ever happened.”
“But we can’t do that. You’ve changed us. Shael wasn’t the same when you stopped hanging out with her. You know the writing on the bus seat? You’re good, Shelby, you’re talented. You made me think. I wrote an A-minus essay in that bus seat. Because of you, Shelby! That’s my favorite place to be, to just think. How many people have a place like that? It must be one of the last in the world.”
Shelby’s voice shook as much as her hands. “It was the last place I could be honest with myself. My parents read my notebooks, my teachers watched me. I needed it…”
“I read everything.” Jander held her desperate eyes. “I read every word.”
“The little notes, the arrows and underlines – it meant everything to me. And I didn’t even know who you were.” Her voice was gaining strength. “Did you know it was me?”
“No. Not a clue. I thought it was a high-schooler.”
“Well… What do you think now?”
Jander looked at Shelby’s injured face, lightened by a tiny bit of hope. “I think…you need to heal. And let people hear you. So they can tell you they care.” Her face fell. He spoke faster. “I know it’s hard. It’s so much easier to keep it all in one place, right? But you have to try. Otherwise – it gets to be too much. It all falls apart.” He was losing her, he could tell. “I’ll make a deal with you,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone about the bus seat. You keep writing there. But show some of it to your parents. Or even just Shael. Keep writing on the bus – that can be your place. The best place. But share it. Okay?”
Shelby sighed. It seemed to contain every word she’d ever written, and plenty more she hadn’t. Jander was half surprised he wasn’t bowled over by the strength of words. In the end she said just one: “Okay.”
He got up to leave. Then he remembered something. It seemed inappropriate, but he had to ask. “Hey, Shelby – in your last poem on the bus, you said your power was in your knife.” She raised her eyebrows. “But you didn’t use a knife. You took pills. Why did you say knife?”
She cracked half a smirky smile. “Rhymes with ‘life’.”
A few months later
Jander climbed on the bus on the last day before Christmas break. Friends called out to him as he walked down the aisle, but he just smiled and kept going – to the seat in the very back.
He saw Shelby almost every day when she hung out with Shael, but their main communication was still kept to the back of the bus seat. At first Jander felt awkward, knowing now who the writer was, and that she was a few years younger than he. But he figured if anything could transcend boundaries, Shelby’s writing could.
Lately he’d been able to see a different side of her. She wrote uplifting, songlike pieces that made him think of swooping birds and apple trees. With Christmas on the way, things were looking better, much better indeed.
Jander rubbed fog from the window with his gloved hand and looked for the newest writing, which was becoming hard to find on the crowded surface. “I didn’t have passion, I only had pain./I had no sunshine to balance the rain./Now a cautious smile slides onto my face./Because I have this, the last best place./Somewhere to think and hide my tears/Somewhere to write away my fears/The place a mystery friend found me/The place he loved, and dared to see./Now everything is sacred, life is not a chase/And I have this, the last best place.” Beneath it: “I can’t thank you for everything. I can only write. But something tells me you’ll think it’s enough. Merry Christmas, Jander – Shelby.”
He smiled. It was more than enough.