Swing for the Heart

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It rained at night; the rain froze on the roads and formed a perfectly smooth icy surface. Cars and pedestrians reflected in it like in a mirror and nobody was able to stay on their feet.

“So one more time. Just because it’s April, it doesn’t mean that the roads are safe. Quite the opposite. We can all see what’s going on out there on the roads today. We don’t think we’ll need all buses. It’s an exceptional situation. To be on the safe side, don’t go anywhere you’re not sure. It’s not a problem to phone the school and tell them a bus isn’t running today. We don’t want any accidents. Besides, several buses are out of order anyway, so everyone expects it.” They all knew this but it was good to say it out loud.

Melissa commanded authority not only because of her weight, but also because she’d been with the school bus company for over fifteen years, “if someone doesn’t feel up to it, they don’t have to drive out there.”

“But they won’t get paid, right?” asked Kaz. They all laughed and mumbled to themselves.

“If he doesn’t drive, then there’s nothing to pay,” answered Melissa clearly, “you get paid for routes driven. Who doesn’t want to go, doesn’t have to, which is probably a lesser loss than having to pay an injury.” David thought the conversion between injury and money bizarre, but it was just pragmatism. He had already decided regardless. He would go. He took every route, the longer, with more stops, the better. The longer ones were better paid. He felt good; even though he occasionally still coughed, he was mostly over it. Still, he suspected it’d been a pneumonia that he didn’t properly cure. But he had a job and that was key. He was also glad that his sprained – potentially chipped – left ankle didn’t prevent him from driving. Good luck accompanied him still, he figured.

“I’ll take number eight, if it’s available.” He claimed the longest route before anyone else would take it.

“Good, David, eight; Frank will go three, two is cancelled today, Mary will grab number four?”

“Could someone else, maybe? I’d take seven. I don’t want to tempt that hill on fifteenth and Warden Street.”

“Ok fine. Kaz is going?”

“I’ll take number one.”

Before every ride, each driver was responsible for checking under the hood, examining all connections and hoses, oil and breaks. They also walked around the bus, kicked the wheels and verified all meters around the steering wheel. David never forgot any step. He sat down, turned the ignition and let the engine warm up. He released the hand-brake, shifted the gear and started out of the parking lot. His was number eight today. It was hilly and difficult. But he didn’t have much of a choice. Ever since he began regular work schedule, he was able to study again. That’s why he took every route. The whole study program would take only sixteen weeks, then he would be under a roof again and increase the financial and social standard of both himself and, most importantly, his family. He still wanted to achieve more, even though he was over fifty years old now. Actually he was older, and he knew it.

After the first three stops, the roads didn’t seem to be too bad. David stopped without any problems, the boys from the fourth grade were again squabbling over who would pull the door handle this time, and the ride was overall enjoyable.

“But today really sit down, boys. I don’t want to see anyone standing up. Do you understand?” They listened and were aware that the roads were different today. David got into the residential area and a hill where the black ice was the worst. He knew he couldn’t stop on the way up the slope, because the bus would never start up again and may start skidding uncontrollably.

The school bus was full; David was driving sixty-six kids to school.

He turned to the left up the hill, and the heavy yellow bus slid further than David had anticipated. Only by a centimeter did he miss a parked Buick on the narrow suburban street. He stepped on the gas pedal, the bus rattled and started up the slippery incline. David felt the rear part of the bus veering to the left. He didn’t want that, and was now only waiting to see what object would halt it. He was lucky, no terrible sound came. Gently David continued to press his foot on the gas pedal and let the heavy machine slowly scale the hill. He straightened the wheel and the yellow school bus finally made it to the top of the hill. It’d safely made it to stop number six. Two children, then one more stop and then straight to Junior High Saint Barbara. He closed the door, pressed the brake and put the stick into DRIVE.

The route had led him to the top of the hill. Now he faced the ride down into a relatively densely populated area, with a sharp curve and a stop sign before the main road. It was because of this hill that route number eight was dreaded. David braked a little, looked down and took a deep breath. He wanted to straighten the bus before the curve, up on the hill, and then gently glide down the long slope all the way to the stop sign. David positioned the wheels in the direction of the declining road, but before they straightened the bus swung over the peek and the icy surface let it slide towards the side and in-between parked vehicles. David knew he mustn’t touch the brake pedal. The sliding bus began to pick up speed. He knew he couldn’t control the wheels in the skid, and so there was no other alternative but to set them in motion. David lightly added gas and now the wheels were directly facing one of the other cars. The bus was obediently approaching the red Toyota. Just before contact David turned the steering wheel, his foot still gently pressing the gas pedal, the bus barely missing the door of the Toyota. The bus was now straight in the direction of the road and was gaining in velocity on the way down the hill-side. Pearls of sweat on his forehead, David firmly clutched the large steering wheel, to skillfully maneuver the heavy school bus full of sixty-six little passengers, squeezing it between Scylla and Charybdis. He was nearing the intersection at a relatively fast pace, but braking was extremely difficult; the road had become a bob-sled corridor. Gently, David pressed on the brake pedal, but it seemed to bring no result. One more time he stepped softly on the brake, but knew already that he wouldn’t be able to stop at the stop-sign. Twice he honked the horn, the piercing sound of the klaxon resounding between the bungalows as David propelled his heavy bus into the intersection. Now the vehicle finally began to slow down, but it wouldn’t stop until two or three meters into the intersection. David exhaled and remained still for a moment. Both the bus and all children escaped without a scratch. He started again, and safely pulled in front of the school.

The entire episode meant more for David than an avoided accident. His morning route number eight ended at nine, and in the afternoon he wouldn’t need to be back at the school until two-thirty. At ten-thirty, David therefore arranged one of his exams. He had enough time to make it. It was a written test, hundred and twenty minutes long. In the afternoon he would be in front of the school as required, and before then even the cold would ease up and the roads would turn into early spring slush.

All the children exited the bus; David walked through it and set out towards the dispatch parking lot. He let his thoughts wander to possible test questions and topics they might ask. It shouldn’t be too hard. He knew the questions would be technical, like the speed of moving paper, what is Einthoven’s triangle; surely there would be a question about leads and what the normal color for electrodes is supposed to be. Then they’ll probably show him some records, probably atrial fibrillation and blockages. For sure they’ll ask about Wenckenbach, and most definitely a question about branch bundle blocks. And they will probably also ask something about a pacemaker’s rhythm. He should be fine.

David was making a surprisingly good time so far. Now he was about to travel on that stretch of highway where he’d recently ran during the deep-freeze. David had to smile now. It paid off, he had a job. As he merged onto the highway, he immediately saw it, but it was too late. All three lanes were full, all cars halted. David had no options; he had to take his place in the line. He glanced at his watch and hopelessly threw up his arms. How long might this take?

“It’s ten after nine; if it starts moving now, I still have a chance,” he bumbled to himself. The streams of cars slowly began moving, but only walking speed. The colonies of cars soon stopped again for several long minutes. But he can still call there. David pulled his cell out of the pocket and dialed. The number wasn’t hard to memorize.

“Good morning, this is David, I’m…, yes, yes…, I’m well, thank you. Today I’m supposed to…and how are you?...ok good…I’m supposed to write an exam today….. Yes, yes…, I’m on my way, but I got stuck in traffic …yes…;” he welcomed that the lane had started moving again a bit, even if only at the speed of a funeral procession, “…certainly, but maybe later…it’s out of my control, I’m so sorry…. No, I’m not cancelling, I’ll get there, but it might be later…thank you, thank you very much…yes, yes, bye.” He folded his phone and immediately felt better. He won’t have to run there. He’ll simply get there later. That’s alright, the important thing is that he called and apologized; it’s the result that counts, anyway.

The radio from dispatch came to life.

“Calling number eight, driver David Reeha. Do you hear me?” That wasn’t Melissa.

“Yes, I hear you. Eight is finished, without an accident, now just….”

“Driver, do you fully know your responsibilities?” What is that? That sounded bad. David looked around; he really hadn’t made any contact with another vehicle.

“Yes, I do,” he whimpered.

“Is the school bus number nine-hundred and twelve, route number eight, in motion?” David was glad that he was able to give an affirmative answer. But still he didn’t know what was going on.

“Yes, we’re in motion now and on our way.”

“Are you aware that the driver of a school bus in motion, especially during extreme road conditions, can under no circumstances use his cell-phone? For communication purposes he is to use solely the radio and prescribed communication codes.”

David’s heart started pounding. He glanced around into the nearby vehicles; next to him, in a white Mercury, he soon noticed a woman, attentively watching him with a smile on her face. From the height of his seat, he could make out a cell-phone in the passenger’s seat.

“Yes, of course I know that, but….”

“…come to the office of the head safety technician today at ten-thirty. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I…Ten-four.” He felt it appropriate to use a communication code now, signaling ‘Heard and understood’. David stowed away the microphone of his dispatch radio. That was bad. As if it weren’t enough, he now had to call the examiners to postpone his test. He almost reached for his phone when his eyes fell, once again, on the white Mercury slowly driving beside his yellow bus nine-hundred and twelve.

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