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The Year I was Special
By Jerry Mahoney

Her tone was stern and accusatory, as if the segregation of Special Ed kids on the short bus was intended solely to curb cheating and I had somehow gamed the system by sneaking aboard. "I'm going to talk to the principal about this," she hissed. Then she wheeled around and stomped off the bus.

Taqueesha didn't say a word to me all the way home, and I didn't speak to her either. I didn't know what to say.

The next day, I took my usual seat next to Jorge, and once again, Taqueesha said nothing. She didn't pop her head over the seatback, didn't say hello, didn't drop her math textbook into my lap.

It wasn't until we were halfway to school before I heard the first sounds out of her. Her voice was soft but firm. "What'd you say to Jerry?!" she croaked.

It was an odd accusation, because, since I'd stepped on the bus, no one had said anything to me.

"Jorge! What did you say to Jerry?" Taqueesha peered over the seat, and she glared down at Jorge with all the fury her 65-pound body could muster. "Answer me!"

Jorge's silence only heightened her rage. "You leave Jerry alone! You hear me, Jorge? Nobody talks to my friend Jerry like that!"

And then it happened. Taqueesha did the thing that would transform this incident from just another blur in my past to a bona fide memory, something I see in nightmares to this day.

She smacked him. Hard.

And Jorge reacted just as I would've expected. He did nothing.

"How dare you talk to Jerry in that manner!" Slap! "Jerry is my friend!" Slap! "I'm gonna tell on you when we get to school, Jorge, and you're gonna be in all kinds of trouble!" Slap! Slap! Slap!

I was too young then to understand the obvious psychological explanation for Taqueesha's behavior. She didn't know how to express her guilt for selling me out, plus she was attempting to renew my faith in her loyalty and she'd chosen the easiest target available as a punching bag to work out her own anger issues. That, and Taqueesha was fucking nuts. All I understood at that moment was that there was a very good reason why Special Ed kids had their own bus.

As the slaps got harder, I finally heard the first sounds I'd ever heard coming from Jorge. He was crying.

"He didn't say anything!" I shouted. "He never says anything. He didn't do anything wrong, so please stop hitting him!"

Taqueesha glared at me. "You be quiet, Jerry! I ain't talkin' to you!"

It took a couple of minutes before Martha realized something was up. "Taqueesha, what in the heck are you doing?" she shouted.

"Nothing!" Taqueesha said, as she smacked Jorge again.

"You stop it, Taqueesha! Don't make me pull this bus over!"

But Taqueesha didn't stop. I looked back to Linda, the one kid on the bus tough enough to wrangle Taqueesha, but even she seemed afraid.

"You!" Slap! "Don't!" Slap! "Ever!" Slap! "Talk!" Slap! "To!" Slap! "My!" Slap! "Friend!" Slap! "Jerry!" Slap! "That!" Slap! "Way!" Slap!

"Stop!" Jorge cried. "Stop please stop please please please stop!"

But it didn't stop. And it wouldn't stop. There was only one person who could stop it. "Pull over!" I shouted. "Martha, pull over!"

As Taqueesha continued to pummel Jorge, the other kids joined me. "Pull over! Pull over! Pull over!" we chanted.

Martha finally got the message. "What in the heck is going on back there?" She pulled the bus over and waddled down the aisle to my row. Jorge was curled up, covering his face with his arms, bawling uncontrollably. His glasses had fallen off, his cheeks were soaked with tears and he was bleeding from his right ear. Amid all this, Taqueesha was still hitting him.

"He was talkin' bad to my friend Jerry!"

"Oh, my God! You've gone crazy," Martha said. She grabbed Taqueesha by the arm and dragged her up to the front of the bus.

"I'm just protectin' my friend Jerry," she screamed. "Tell her, Jerry!"

Martha turned to me for a response. I was petrified. Should I back up my friend, although she was clearly insane? There was no reference point for a situation like this in my moral code.

"You leave Jerry alone!" Martha said, finally. She seized her CB and radioed her dispatcher. "I need somebody to come here right away!" Then her voice lowered and began to drip with utter loathing. "What's happened? Taqueesha beat the shit outta Jorge, that's what's happened!"

I could tell from Martha's tone that "shit" was probably the worst word she had ever said, and that she had been saving it up for something like this.

We waited on the bus, and eventually, Jorge's parents came for him. They draped him in their arms and consoled him, and they never once looked at Taqueesha. Like their son, they didn't say a word.

A few minutes later, we were instructed to grab our things and disembark the bus. All of us, except Taqueesha. Martha had consigned her to the driver's seat, which meant we had to walk directly past her to get to the door. We filed by her one by one, and the only sound she made was when I went by. "Bye, Jerry," she whispered.

We stepped onto the sidewalk to find a full-sized yellow bus waiting for us at the curb. There was a mad rush to get on board, but I didn't hurry. For once, there were plenty of seats, enough so that we could each have our own row.

I can only imagine everyone else was thinking the same things I was. Would we be interrogated at school about what went on? (We weren't.) Would we ever see Taqueesha or Jorge again? (We didn't.) How would Taqueesha be punished? (I never found out.)

As we pulled down the block, I stared out the window at Taqueesha, and she looked back at me, waving. I feared it was the last time I'd ever see her, so I waved back with whatever enthusiasm I could muster. A few seconds later, the bus turned the corner, and Taqueesha was gone forever. Now it was just me and my trombone, sitting beside me on my seat, totally still and quiet, just like Jorge had been.

The short bus was different after Taqueesha left -- calmer, quieter, lonelier. Every time I looked at the empty seat where she used to sit, I couldn't help feeling a little guilty about her fate. I knew that none of this would've happened if I hadn't helped her cheat. But I also knew that if I hadn't, Taqueesha and I would never have become friends at all. And to me, that would've been a greater loss. I may not have known Taqueesha for very long, and we definitely didn't have a lot in common, but there was something about our friendship that was just, well, special.

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