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The bus, crammed with children, pulled over on Daniell Street.  From my seat near the back I glanced up and noticed a lone passenger exiting the bus: my sister.  Startled, I got up and followed her.

If Joan was leaving, then I must, too: our mother had told us to stick together.  So I hurried to catch up, not pausing to consider that this wasn’t our stop—we lived miles from here—or that Joan wouldn’t have left the bus without me.  But logical thinking is not a strength when you’re four and three-quarter years old.

We were returning from a theater show—the sort of low-budget production they pack children off to during summer vacation, as much to entertain them as to give their harassed parents a few precious hours of peace.  Kids from our neighborhood were bussed downtown to a makeshift theater in a school gymnasium, and duly bussed home after the performance. 

As we took our seats for the return journey, our perky young supervisor stood up front and announced a change of plan: instead of sitting next to our friends and siblings, we were to mix ourselves up and sit next to someone we didn’t already know.  This, she assured us, above a chorus of groans, would be “fun” and a “great way of making new friends.”  With utmost reluctance, I slid from the seat I shared with Joan and found an empty place further down the bus, beside a random stranger.  Both of us were mute with shyness.

The instruction to “mix ourselves up” proved unhappily prophetic.  Within moments of stepping onto the sidewalk, I got a better look at the girl I’d followed and realized my blunder.  I sprinted after the departing bus, but it was gathering speed and my yells for it to stop were drowned out by the roar of the engine.  Soon it was swallowed up in traffic, my sister still aboard.

Strictly speaking, I’d seen a girl with chestnut hair pulled back into a ponytail exit the bus.  Yet she looked, from behind at least, so strikingly similar to my big sister Joan, that it didn’t occur to me that it might not be her.

So there I was, alone under the midday sun.  The girl from the bus had already vanished down a side street.  Bewildered as a nestling fallen from a tree, I was at a loss over what to do next. 

Although stranded, I was not lost.  My parents sometimes shopped at a supermarket a couple of blocks away, often with me in tow, so I knew where I was, more or less, and it was too far to walk.

Daniell Street ran parallel to the main street through Newtown, a bustling city-edge precinct populated by immigrants, the elderly, young families and small businesses.  Auto repair shops, greengrocers and food import businesses operated at arbitrary intervals alongside narrow, tin-roofed cottages.  Cabbage roses rambled unkempt in minuscule front yards. 

As I looked around for help or inspiration, a colorful building at the end of the street drew my eye:  a ramshackle wooden structure with a scarlet front door and hand-painted mural.  I walked up to this curious place, and inside found an adult to whom I explained my predicament. 

This decision turned out to be a good one.  The place was a community center, run by a crew of amiable bohemians who took me under their collective wing.  A bearded young man shared his brown-bagged lunch with me, blanching when I wolfed down more of it than he expected.  Then he and his colleagues tackled the thorny issue of how to find my parents. 

Being unable to remember my home address or phone number, I was of little assistance.  I did however know the route home by sight, and offered to point out which streets to take, if someone could drive me.  The adults were not supportive of this idea.  Maybe they didn’t believe a young child could navigate such a long distance.  Maybe they couldn’t spare anyone from their work duties.  Maybe they didn’t have use of a car.  Or perhaps they did, but worried how it might look, to be found alone in a vehicle with a missing child. 

While the grown-ups played detective, I drifted out of the office and amused myself in the center grounds, making mud pies and fairy gardens.  It was a strange feeling, to reside in this little haven of calm, if only for an afternoon.  Although half-aware that I was in the peaceful eye of a tornado, I didn’t fret about what I knew would happen later.

Somehow my parents arrived to collect me.  My hippie guardians congregated on the sidewalk to bid me farewell, our happy chatter morphing abruptly as my exasperated mother leapt out of our car, not with hugs but a good walloping.  Scolds ringing sharp, she bundled me into the backseat. 

The center’s red door swirled and receded through a blur of tears, as our car drove away.  “I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” fumed my mother from the front seat, beginning a sporadic tirade that would continue until bedtime.  My sister Joan scowled at me, eyes narrowed in contempt, scooting as far away as she could by pressing herself against the car door.  Probably she’d gotten yelled at, or worse, for failing to supervise me properly. 

I curled up as well, pressing my brow into the pungent vinyl upholstery.  Sorrow was my predominant emotion.  Simmering beneath, gradually being absorbed, were the lessons of the day: the kindness of strangers, the coldness of my family, and the perils of being distracted while travelling.

Twelve years later I would flee the family home, embarking on another bus journey that would see me alight on a city street, alone and dependent upon my intuition.  On that occasion, I’d be utterly confident that, somehow, I could successfully navigate my way to the right people.

 

 

About the Author
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Kate Dowling writes from her home near Wellington, New Zealand; she has previously lived in England and Spain.  Her work has been published in ProDesign magazine and the Evening Post newspaper; also Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and forthcoming in The Chaos Journal.