The last fifteen minutes on the afternoon bus are agony. In that time, there are ten drop-offs and what feels like a stop sign at every corner. The first waves of motion sickness hammered to shore five stops earlier. The stifling heat from the sun pounding against closed windows and the fact that I haven't eaten since third period lunch which was at 11:00 only adds to the nausea. So, I make myself very quiet, concentrating on keeping my stomach settled. But Gordon, a squirrely seventh-grader in my homeroom, keeps needling for my attention. He talks with his hands which quakes his whole body sending vibrations through the vinyl seats. He is annoyed that I am not engaged in his reenactment of Family Guy from the night before. I threaten that I might puke on him if I have to talk. That just aggravates him more; so, he calls me "Ginger" above the din and racket of the other voices. The rest of the bus joins in the taunt. "Ginger! Ginger!" It's not that I am not used to the appellation. Ever since I was in Pre-K, someone has latched onto a moniker to ridicule my red hair: Elmo, Carrot Top, Ronald McDonald, Ginger. But, today, with the queasiness, the jeering stirs a different warmth which boils up and burns my throat. Fortunately, I am rescued by the announcement of my stop. I rush off before saying goodbye to my bus driver, Mr. Leon. I hear him "Humph," before the doors seal behind me. I just want to be home in my room. It's only the second week of October and I am already sick of seventh grade.
Before I can even unload the 20-pound backpack digging a permanent groove into my shoulder, my mother has intercepted me at the door. She has my 18-month-old sister, Penny, on her hip and Penny's diaper bag slung over her other shoulder. Facing each other in the small hallway, we look like beasts of burden.
"I'm so sorry, Samuel. GiGi's caretaker did not show up today." She pauses as if expecting me to figure out what that means. I don't respond; but, I do know it means—GiGi has driven away another caretaker and we have to pick up the slack. I think your skin would need to be thicker than an elephant's in order to endure the racial slurs that spew from GiGi's mouth when she is having a bad day. "I need you to look after her. She's asleep now. I don't expect her to wake up before I get back from Penny's doctor appointment. I should only be an hour. If she wakes up, you know what to do."
"Keep her calm. Keep her entertained. Keep the doors locked. Don't leave her alone. Ever."
"Thank you. You're the best," she says hurriedly. "Call me on my cell if you have a problem." She hugs me with her semi-free arm. I wonder if she feels my shoulders tense. I wonder if she senses that I want to shrink away from her. When I hear the car pull away, an involuntary sigh escapes me and I realize I've been holding my breath all day.