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Yellow Hell
by Kenneth Cupp

1981

Twelve Years Old

 

      A pair of years slipped by since braving the Yellow Hell, a name birthed from fear and loathing for that glaring monstrous commuter. The school bus more than a mere transporter of bodies, but a gallery of worst nightmares, with its riders cloaked in the guises of my peers.

 

      Every rattle of its metal bones, a signal of impending doom. Every jostle against its cold window, a reminder of an outsider.

 

      The smell of erasers and crayons, the pungent scent of kids farts, the prickle of worn-out seats against my trembling hands; these were few sensory markers of my torment.

 

      My heart raced ahead the steady throb of the diesel engine; every beat echoed the slow torturous journey that lay ahead.

 

      At ten, ditched the school bus all together. Crafted a mask, an illusion for my dear mother, upholding the pretense of my daily travels on that maligned yellow beast. But in truth, ventured a power-walk towards my education.

 

      The distance was nothing compared to the legendary stories of Mississippi elders' long barefooted treks. My route was a humble one, less than a mile. Yet, demanded skill to cross the spindly crop fields that lay in my path.

 

      Despite the gruffness of the terrain, its wet and cold winters and wet and hot summers, it was favored over the harsh barbs and rough battering.

 

      The last time riding the bus a girl spat her chewing gum in hair. My mother tried to freeze it, lube it, and peanut-butter it; but eventually she scalped a half-dollar-sized section, which of course led to numerous heckles for weeks to come.

 

      On that same day, a boy snatched my homework and flung it out of the moving bus's window, where it spiraled through the air landing in the passing fields. Yeah, daily scrolls to school with my gaze on guard, making sure none of them would see the fear lurking within; embarrassment, truly.

 

      In pursuit to evade the Yellow Hell, Max, my faithful ally in this silent struggle followed close. For a German Shepard, his eyes, deep wells of empathy, possessed a human-like depth that seemed to understand my tortured existence.

 

      Tardiness was a curse, casting me in the merciless spotlight of the bus's approach. Our home, perched on a hill, came on the monster’s route before winding down the road towards school. If caught, my solitary hope rested in blending into the hill's embankment, lying motionless as a husk discarded by life, camouflaged by the shallow drift of the hill's contours.

      The wind could whistle its mournful tune, the soil could press its jagged ice, but hidden in borrowed invisibility never to budge; desperate for survival, willing myself undetected.

 

      Otherwise, in this harsh landscape the movement of a phantom was mirrored; seeking shelter behind sparse trees, houses, or secluded nooks that offered brief respite. Each step plotted with precision, breath held, as if the mere act of breathing could betray my presence.

 

      Venturing out earlier than normal, a wild storm had already claimed the world outside. The heavens bellowed with thunder, as lighting ripped across the sky in a concert of electrifying power. A fictive wind blew the rain sideways, each drop a tiny bullet whipping each tree, each blade of grass, with me squirming under a meager umbrella.

 

      Amidst this frenzy, a bold decision took place—to turn back and confront my deepest fear—the bright lemony school bus.

 

      To most, the color represented the warmth of a sunbeam, a symbol of joy, laughter. But to me, its ostentatious vibrancy masked the horror that lived within. It was a yellow demon, its gaping pit waiting to swallow me whole into its belly of torture. Every creak of its doors, every hiss of its brakes, sent chills down my spine. Each day a new chapter of horrors.

 

      No less different that day, as the bus rolled into view around the bend, charging a memory of deep trepidation: A mere six, maybe seven, entirely unprepared for the savagery.

 

      A sudden shove from behind, sharp and unexpected, pushed me off balance flailing for a hold that wasn't there. A cruel chuckle echoed in my ears, turning my head to see the perpetrator behind me with a grotesque smile and his eyes gleaming with unholy joy.

   

      With each blink, time slowed. There was just me and the yawning chasm of space beneath me as I stumbled off the threshold of the rickety bus. The world turned lazy circles in my vision, and the ground below seeped into view like the creeping tide.

 

      My heart rattled in my chest, a wild drum against my ribs, as the inevitability of my descent seized me. Cruel laughter, with mocking resonance at my tail. The gravel road, a fierce and indifferent hellscape, waited with open arms.

 

       As I collided with the road, shards of rock and stone carved their ruthless signature across my hands and knees. A fiery pain bloomed a wildflower of agony in the garden of my senses, as the brutal kiss of the earth greeted me. Each pebble was an unforgiving jigsaw, embedding itself into my flesh. Each breath, every attempt to rise, was a bare-knuckle fight against the relentless pain of the gravel's embrace.

 

      And the taste of tears? Tears, salty and bitter, stung my lips lying there. My dignity trampled under the weight of their laughter, a ghastly theatre of pain and humiliation.

 

      All of this, my body, my heart, my soul, and my crux recalled that moment as the Yellow Hell arrived at my feet on that stormiest of days. The doors opened wide like a hideous grin.

      And with heavy heart, ascension into the looming beast with jaws agape and ready to swallow me whole. It is a rip from heaven itself, wrenching me away from Max, my lone bastion in this insufferable war.

 

      Wrestling further into the snare of the aisle, taunts whistled through the stagnant air from the furthest reaches at the back bus. Each word, a cruelly crafted dart, aimed with ruthless accuracy that belied their age.

 

      "There goes the sssssissy," slithered out from Billy, loaded with venom.

 

      "I bet his momma still dresses him," shrilled Jamie, laced with acidic sweetness.

 

      More voices chimed in, each one adding layers to the chorus of mockery. Their words formed a grotesque symphony of spite and revulsion.

 

      Derogatory labels, 'weirdo', 'freak', ‘mama’s boy’ seemed to grow wings as they fluttered, transforming into monstrous creatures of abuse; their fangs glistening in anticipation.

 

      “Find a seat,” shouted the Driver. His stern command a stark reminder of the unyielding rules of this rolling blockhouse.

 

      Surveying the rows, my eyes locked with the hawk-like stare of the demons who ruled this hellish kingdom. Perched on their seats like vultures ready for the kill, their smirks hidden behind a mask of pretended innocence.

 

      Ouch! A crumpled projectile of paper flung with precision hit my eye. Reading, the word 'sissy' scrawled in a snickering delight.

 

      Heat flushed my cheeks as I crushed the paper with force.

 

      Trudging on, every step a struggle against the imposing necessitate of their derision. My usual seat occupied by a devil with an angel's face, grinning at my obvious discomfort.

 

      Turning away, despair dragging at my shoulders.

 

      Instead, halfway down sat an exceptionally lonely girl in a seat on a crowded bus. The girl, like myself, an outsider. Might we find some schmooze in our shared exile? A beacon of acceptance in a vast of contempt? “I have to sit here,” telling her.

 

      She stared at me, blanketed, as if some alien was running about her planet. When she finally deigned to speak, it was nothing like the affable overture anticipated from such a detestable, vapid girl.

 

      After all, Marylou Donahue was notorious for her rather unsavory reputation. To put it plainly, most folks kept as far away from Marylou as they would leprosy; which, although curable, was still feared by many. It was widely whispered that she and her whole clan were infested with lice, showing no inclination to rid themselves of the pesky critters.

      And while this fact distressed me greatly, the pressing need to sit, to escape the piercing stares forced me to set aside my discomfort. The relentless scrutiny was soul-crushing, to understate it. And to my surprise as it became evident, Marylou demonstrated the same degree of hospitality as the cruelest schoolyard bully. In reality, she was downright mean.

 

      “You have cooties,” she shouted, so that everyone could hear.

      I was mortified by her comment, and somewhat confused.

      “I do not,” I protested, “but you do. And you have no right to keep me from a seat.”

      “You do have cooties. Everyone says so. Go away!”

      “That’s you they’re talking about. It’s not me!”

      As she took over the full breadth of the seat with both legs now; we found ourselves locked in a silent battle. Each second was a drawn-out, heavy weight, as the bus driver's gruff mandated, "Find a seat, son. We won't budge until you do."

 

      A feeling of defeat began to pull me under, my head sinking in quiet capitulation.

 

      Just as I was on the brink of succumbing to despair, an unexpected interruption came from the metallic screech of the bus doors swinging closed.

 

      In the midst of chaos, Max's arrival was a soothing balm; his rugged frame, an unyielding monolith of canine loyalty in the tumultuous maelstrom. Navigating the aisle with purpose, his eyes locked onto mine, bolting my way, reverberating through the commotion, as if to say:

 

      You're not alone. You have me.

 

      This lifeline of comfort was a stark contrast to the reality that was about to unfurl, as an ominous silence cloaked the bus as it shuddered, and the world outside blurred into a terrorizing whirl of wind and debris.

 

      We were floating!

 

      Somehow detached from the firm and reliable grasp of Earth we were floating. The bus, our mundane commute, had become a helpless vessel in the merciless grasp of the storm. The ordinary overtaken by an event that defied comprehension. The large metallic structure reduced to a flimsy tin can, buffeted by a storm that seemed to laugh at our fragility.

 

      The world outside spun in a furious circle of disorder. The storm, a raging beast, showed its might, pulling roofs from houses as the wind roared like a thousand angry voices.

 

      Tornadoes, each a devil of its own, spiraled in the sky, their sub vortices twisting violently, consuming everything in their paths.

 

      The sight was a haunting spectacle, a cruel ballet of destruction.

 

      A bicycle, seemingly untouched by the storm's wrath, hung in the air performing a macabre solo; while a crow, feathers rippling against the wind, fought the tempest in vain defiance. Pieces of a car tire, a flag, scattered leaves and other debris spun in a mad whirl.

      The faces inside mirrored the catastrophe unfolding; every mien a picture of fear underscored by the brute force of nature.

 

      Panic-induced screams punctured the quiet, their vicious laughter replaced by untamed fear. Those who had once towered over me as commanding subordinates, now were merely children, crying and begging for mercy from an unfeeling force of nature.

 

      Caught in the calamity's core, the bus bucked and shuddered. Metal groaned, rebelling against the tornado's ruthless pull. A small boy, a petite figure, wide eyes filled with terror, stared towards me, desperate for a savior. The tears streaming down his cheeks seemed as harsh as the lashing rain on my skin.

 

      With the boy in sight, the storm's onslaught was braved. Each step taken felt heavy, every breath a fierce battle against the wind’s cruelty. Yet, in that moment, the storm held no sway over me. All that could be seen was his face, a shield of fear.

 

      His terror, his desperation, echoed within my core, drawing me towards him, against the storm's fury. The storm's rage muted to a distant drone. All that mattered was the scared child in the bus, his wide, fearful eyes locked onto mine.

 

       “Look at me,” I mouthed. The roar was overpowering, yet my message appeared to cross the noisy barrier. His wails dwindled, exchanged for soft, tremulous breaths. His tiny hand found shelter in mine, providing an anchor in the storm-ridden journey.

 

      In the corner of my sight, they emerged, the bullies. Their eyes typically brimming with intimidation, were now shocked circles. They watched as I began humming a melody, a hushed counterpoint to the storm's deafening bellow that filled the bus.

      The frightened boy’s eyes mellowed, his grasp on my hand transformed from despair to expectation. The world outside was a whirlwind of chaos, but within the bus, I had formed a haven of tranquility for the terrified boy.

      But it is all over when the violence throws me to the back, my body colliding with a warm, known presence, Max. He had been hurled about as I had, but he had managed to find his footing, pressing his nose against me, growling at the air; a soothing balm amidst pandemonium, calming the frantic pulse of my heart. Max barked fiercely, trying to assert some semblance of control amidst the chaos.

      Clinging desperately to the seat, my knuckles were white against the worn faux-leather, as the windows shattered and rain invaded, soaking all in its course.

      Every lurch of the bus was a promise of an impending nightmare; a racket of squeaking metal, screams, and the deafening howl of the storm.

      The bus was a spinning, a vertical behemoth, a child's toy whirled by unseen hands. The raw strength of our spin was enough to skew the fabric of reality, to tip the world onto its side. Where we had once been scattered like strewn seeds, we were now a harrowed harvest, crowded together at the rear of the bus. Our bodies, no longer separate entities, but a jigsaw of limbs, a hive of shared warmth under relentless downpours.

 

      Then, with the abruptness of a snake’s strike, our precarious jaunt halted. The bus met earth's resistance, a force so potent it jostled our cores.

      We were tossed about, our bodies an intricate knot of distorted limbs. The line between individual and collective blurred, dissolving in the shared experience of fear and confusion.

 

      Drawing from a wellspring of fortitude within me, I maneuvered through the tangle of limbs and bodies', a grim labyrinth of flesh and fear. Each pulled body served as a stark reminder of the yellow beast that had entrapped us. It was a brute of a barrier, yet not entirely insurmountable, pulling myself above the mound, until my eyes met with Marylou.

 

      Injured, but determined, Marylou and myself solidified our bond in survival. Our reliance on one another was the torch that lit our way, guiding us over the twisted metal, over the lifeless forms, over the consumption of death. A shattered window became our portal to freedom, its shards surrendering to the strength of our resolve.

 

      We emerged, reborn from the wreckage of the Yellow Hell, a testament to human resilience woven into one solid scrap.

 

      As the storm relinquished its grip, we stumbled, dazed, from the maw of the monstrous bus, stepping foot into the aftermath. The landscape was a portrait of chaos, a sketch of upturned trees, decimated houses and scattered remnants of the life that was. The scene bore the hallmarks of a cinema horror, a nightmare brought to life.

 

      The commotion over, left me searching for Max, my unwavering protector, my sanctuary in this wasteland of torment, was gone. A cold dread blossomed, robbing me of breath as the harsh reality of his absence fully set in. His absence, more punishing than any bully dealt.

 

      Yet, amidst the wreckage of this world, a beacon of hope pierced the gloom – Marylou points towards the unmistakable sound of Max's bark from behind a toppled tree.

 

      Tears blurring my vision, sprinting towards the sound with arms flung wide, my heart exposed with relief. My Max, his tongue lapping at my face, tail wagging in free-range joy.

 

      In the aftermath arose a new day, shedding the darkness of the storm that once held a captive. The wreckage, a grotesque testament to torment, lay in the past.

 

      A profound and startling transformation sprouted from the raindrops of trials.

 

      Gone was the timid boy, cornered and defeated day by day. Change had happened, evolution had occurred. The fragile kid who had stepped onto the bus was a memory. Here stood a conqueror. Here was the boy who had weathered the storm and emerged victorious.

 

      The monstrous Yellow Hell, that dreadful bus that had been the theater of my shame, is no longer a stage for my daily trials. It has morphed into the backdrop of my triumphs, has evolved into something more inspiring, etching not just emotional, but physical marks of bravery that pierced my soul.

 

      As the tempest's rage softened into a gentle whimper, a melody born of resilience, let it be a testament to the saga of grit and survival.

 

      The echoes of the storm sing from the mouth of fear, to the shore of courage.

Kenneth Cupp is a native Mississippian and openly-gay author. His novel Men are from Mississippi was birthed in 2018. Titles like The parTyman (2020) and Cut & Dye (June 2023) showcased his evolving craft in various media. His labor of love and experimental side is his only current project online @Amazon: Timbria and the Magical Meadow, a children's book he wrote and illustrated.

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