"I was working on my new book all weekend!" Kristi told her little friend, who listened with quiet attentiveness. "It's got a dragon and a knight and a princess. The princess and the dragon are trying to rescue the knight -- "
Next to them, Jim looked up from the game he was playing on his smartphone. "What kind of dragon? Western, eastern, winged, not winged?" Jim was the wizkid, the one who knew everything, especially about computers and video games.
"Western! Green and scaly and HUGE and he shoots fire from the vanes of his wings, like a jet plane. That's how he flies," Kristi said.
Jim pushed up his glasses. "Actually, dragons breathe fire. It doesn't shoot from their wings. And they're too big to fly."
Kristi made a face at him, crossing her arms. "It's my story and he can fly in it if I want him to."
"Dragons?" Bobby piped up. He was only six. "I like dragons! Are they scary dragons?"
"No, the dragon is the good guy," Kristi said.
"Yay!" Bobby bounced up and down, while nine year-old Natalie clung grimly to his hand to keep him from running into the street in his enthusiasm. Bobby's mother paid Natalie five dollars a week to make sure Bobby got to school each day. Natalie and her twin brother Matt were with four year-old Wayne, too, because the twins were the sort of people parents trusted to be responsible. Wayne was wearing his Batman hoodie, as always, and wouldn't walk to the bus stop with his foster parents because 'Batman don't need help'.
Wayne had ... issues.
Nine year-old Mark stood a little apart from the other kids; he was the outcast, and even in groups like this where he didn't get picked on, kids rarely paid attention to him. He peered at them over the edge of his book, listening.
The bus rolled up to the corner and stopped, the door opening with a pneumatic hiss and a ka-chunk. Mr. Jacobs, the bus driver, gave the children a surly look. "No running," he started to say. Wayne dashed headlong up the steps, evading Matt's attempt to slow him. Mr. Jacob's arm swung down and caught Wayne by the throat like the hand of God. He turned the little boy's head towards him. "It's Monday, I'm tired, I'm hungover, and they don't pay me enough. So walk to your seat, sit down, and keep your mouth shut. Got it, Batman?"
Wayne blinked at him, and nodded. In silence, the rest of the kids filed into seats: Bobby near the front between Matt and Natalie, Wayne opposite them, Kristi and Adelaide in the middle, Jim across the aisle, and Mark near the back of the bus.
As the bus started up, Jim slouched down in his seat, playing with his Gameboy. "Hey, did someone see the Joker on the bus?" he asked loudly, without looking up.
Wayne jumped atop his seat and spun about. "Where?"
Mr. Jacobs slammed on the brakes. The bus jerked to a halt, causing Wayne to bang his head against the seat back. Without a glance to the toddler, Mr. Jacobs stumped back to Jim's seat. Jim slouched lower still, continuing to play his game. Mr. Jacobs hit the power button on it.
"Dammit!" Jim swore, then blanched as he realized what he'd said. "Sorry," he added, looking up at last.
"I don't care if you swear," Mr. Jacobs began.
From the front of the bus, Wayne's little voice piped up, "What does 'dammit' mean?"
"Now I care if you swear."
Jim said, "It means 'thank you'."
"It's a bad word. Don't repeat it." Mr. Jacobs glowered down at Jim. "And I care if you lie to little kids about what words mean. Or say things you know are going to provoke them into jumping around and getting themselves hurt on the bus." His pen scrawled across a detention slip. He handed it to Jim. "I'm giving the other half of this to the principal's office. Report there as soon as we get to school." Mr. Jacobs stumped back to the driver's seat. His fingers tapped longingly against the bulge of a flask in his pocket. The bus started up again.
In his seat between Natalie and Matt, Bobby was kicking his feet back and forth and humming to himself until he felt something wet and gooey dripping into his hair. "Hey!" Next to him, the older Matt turned around to see what was happening.
Scotty, the ginger-haired fifth-grade bully, was blowing his nose messily against the back of Bobby's head. "Cut that out!" Matt yelled.
"Make me," Scotty sneered.
Matt shoved the older boy back, hard enough to knock Scotty's retainer out. The mouth gear skittered down the aisle of the bus. Bobby jumped out of his seat and chased after it as it neared Kristi's seat. Kristi extended one foot and very deliberately stomped on the retainer. Then twisted. The device snapped with a satisfying crack.
Bobby picked up the two pieces and helpfully returned them to Scotty. "You dropped this!"
The older boy -- the biggest on the bus -- snatched up the pieces. "Who broke it? Did you break it, you little freak? I oughta break you -- "
Kristi jumped to her feet. "I broke it," she yelled. "What are you gonna do about it?"
"Just wait 'til we're out of school, you weirdo -- " Scotty balled one hand into a fist.
The bus driver slammed on the brakes again. Kristi swallowed, reconsidering the wisdom of taking credit for breaking the retainer.
But Mr. Jacobs went straight for Scotty and Bobby instead. "What's going on back here?"
"He dripped boogers in my hair!" Bobby piped, pointing at Scotty. "He's a big meaniehead!"
"You whiny little brat -- " Scotty started.
Mr. Jacobs cut him off. "Look, kid. You're being a dick -- " the bus driver paused, suddenly aware of the littlest boys staring at him, wide-eyed and attentive. He cleared his throat. "He's being a Richard. Richard was a kid I always hated. Scotty, you may think you can get away with anything, but not on my bus you don't." He handed Scotty a detention slip and stumped back to the driver's seat.
The bully glared alternately at Kristi and Matt. "I'll get you two for this." Matt bore the threat stoically, but Kristi was worried. Boys didn't usually fight girls ... but Kristi didn't stand a chance if Scotty decided he was going to make an exception.
[This story is adapted from the tabletop RP Little Fears game that Randy Milholland ran Saturday night. I played Kristi. All other characters and the game itself are copyright their respective creators. Most of the events are directly from the game, but in cases where I can't recall what led from one event to the next, or where I felt that a literal translation of in-character events didn't properly capture the feel of the game, I've invented additional material.]