He looked both ways at the intersection, then stole a quick glance into the back of the bus to see what was going on behind him. Shook his head when he realized the back windows were entirely encased in the snow that was kicking up behind him. Didn't matter anyway. The back windows were more for show; more for the kids to throw moons and fingers in the direction of unfortunate commuters following too closely. Like all professional drivers, Mr. Harper relied on his side mirrors for most of his backing up.
Bus was quiet today, he thought as he turned onto Highway 118. Blessedly so. He was nursing a headache that the handful of aspirin he had tossed back with his coffee at 6 a.m. hadn't managed to touch. He'd had a headache a lot lately, probably because he was having trouble sleeping. He fell asleep with no problem, but found himself waking up in the dead hours between 2 and 4, when no one was stirring except truckers out on the main road a few miles away, a distant, lonely moan on a windless night.
He'd get up, heat some coffee sitting in the bottom of yesterday's pot, light a smoke and flip on the TV, trying to find something better than infomercials and the baby blues, but not having any luck. Eventually he'd fall asleep, the cigarette burning up to the filter in the ashtray, the half-empty coffee cup cooling, the TV people bright and chipper with their veggie choppers and their thigh-shapers and their 1-900 numbers. Mr. Harper would snooze that way for an hour or so, drool puddling on the crochet-covered pillow his late wife had made too many years ago, until the alarm went off at 5:45 to the ratchety-yapping of the local radio jockey squawking about last night's hockey game and what the weather was doing outside.
Mr. Harper knew by the creaking of the roof joists that it was going to be bitter out there. He got dressed in his yellowed long underwear, worn-soft work pants, flannel shirt and hand-knit socks, also made by his wife. He kept them good by darning them regularly. They were the warmest socks he had and he looked after them a lot better than the crocheted, drool-stained pillowcase on the chesterfield. He threw on his coat, his boots and his work gloves, then stuffed his smokes in his pocket, grabbed the keys and headed out the back door.
The snow crunched as he walked through the inky darkness across the empty yard towards the bus, hulking beast-like in the shadows, waiting for him. He pushed open the door and stepped up into the driver's seat, giving the gas pedal one quick pump before he inserted the key and gave it a confident turn. The old girl complained, bitterly, but she always came through for Mr. Harper, was always there for him, and this cold morning was no different. She started.
While the bus warmed up he went outside and did his daily circle check, tapping the tires with the emergency axe, checking fluids, testing lights, opening and closing the emergency door and sweeping snow off the back. He did the sweeping knowing full well that 10 minutes into his run the snow would cover the back again, but he did it anyway. It was just part of the deal.
He had one more smoke while the bus warmed up, checking his Timex periodically to make sure he wasn't going to be late. Not that he ever was. Young mothers along his route could set their own kitchen clocks by Mr. Harper. He had driven them to school when they were in their short-pants stage, through middle school and high school. Some of them ... well, some were the daughters of kids he had driven to school years before that. Things changed, the world grew older, baggy pants replaced skin-tight jeans, laptops replaced binders and books, but the bus still smelled like moldering orange peels and Mr. Harper was still the silent gray-haired man sitting in the front seat.
He pulled the visor down to block the rising sun and headed west into town.