Your mother hollers that you’re going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don’t stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don’t thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not—you hurdle down the stairs and make a run for the corner.
Only, if it’s the last time you’ll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you’d stopped and did those things. Maybe even missed the bus.
But the bus was barreling down our street so I ran.
* * *
As I raced down the driveway I heard my mom yell for my brother, Alex. His bus was coming down Park Trail Drive, right behind mine. His bus came at 7:09 on the dot. Mine was supposed to come at 6:57 but was almost always late, as if the driver agreed it wasn’t fair to pick me up before 7:00.
Alex ran out behind me and our feet pounded the sidewalk in a dual sneaker-slap rhythm.
“Don’t forget,” he called. “We’re going to the Salvation Army after school.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
My bus driver laid on the horn.
Sometimes we went over to rummage for old electronics after school. I used to drive him before the gas shortage. But now we took our bikes.
I used to drive him to school, too. But since the shortage everyone in our school, everyone, even the seniors, took the bus. It was the law, actually.
I vaulted up the bus steps.
Behind me I heard Mrs. Wooly, who has been driving the elementary–middle school bus since forever, thank Alex sarcastically for gracing them with his presence.
Mrs. Wooly, she was an institution in our town. A grizzled, wiry-haired, ashtray-scented, tough-talking institution. Notorious and totally devoted to bus driving, which you can’t say about everyone.
On the other hand, the driver of my bus, the high school bus, was morbidly obese and entirely forgettable. Mr. Reed. The only thing he was known for was that he drank his morning coffee out of an old jelly jar.
Even though it was early in the route, Jake Simonsen, football hero and all-around champion of the popular, was already holding court in the back. Jake had moved to our school from Texas a year ago. He was a real big shot back in Texas, where football is king, and upon transfer to our school had retained and perhaps even increased his stature.
“I’m telling y’all—concessions!” Jake said. “At my old high school a bunch of girls sold pop and cookies and these baked potatoes they used to cook on a grill. Every game. They made, like, a million dollars.”
“A million dollars?” Astrid said.
Astrid Heyman, champion diver on the swim team, scornful goddess, girl of my dreams.
“Even if I could make a million dollars, I wouldn’t give up playing my own sport to be a booster for the football team,” she said.
Jake flashed her one of his golden smiles.
“Not a booster, baby, an entrepreneur!”
Astrid punched Jake on the arm.
“Ow!” he complained, grinning. “God, you’re strong. You should box.”
“I have four younger brothers,” she answered. “I do.”
I hunkered down in my seat and tried to get my breath back. The backs of the forest green pleather seats were tall enough that if you slouched, you could sort of disappear for a moment.
I ducked down. I was hoping no one would comment on my sprint to catch the bus. Astrid hadn’t noticed me get on the bus at all, which was both good and bad.
Behind me, Josie Miller and Trish Greenstein were going over plans for some kind of animal rights demonstration. They were kind of hippie-activists. I wouldn’t really know them at all, except once in sixth grade I’d volunteered to go door to door with them campaigning for Cory Booker. We’d had a pretty fun time, actually, but now we didn’t even say hi to each other.
I don’t know why. High school seemed to do that to people.
The only person who acknowledged my arrival at all was Niko Mills. He leaned over and pointed to my shoe—like, “I’m too cool to talk”—he just points. And I looked down, and of course, it was untied. I tied it. Said thanks. But then I immediately put in my earbuds and focused on my minitab. I didn’t have anything to say to Niko, and judging from his pointing at my shoe, he didn’t have anything to say to me either.
From what I’d heard, Niko lived in a cabin with his grandfather, up in the foothills near Mount Herman, and they hunted for their own food and had no electricity and used wild mushrooms for toilet paper. That kind of thing. People called Niko “Brave Hunter Man,” a nickname that fit him just right with his perfect posture, his thin, wiry frame, and his whole brown-skin-brown-eyes-brown-hair combo. He carried himself with that kind of stiff pride you get when no one will talk to you.
So I ignored Brave Hunter Man and tried to power up my minitab. It was dead and that was really weird because I’d just grabbed it off the charging plate before I left the house.
Then came this little tink, tink, tink sound. I took out my buds to hear better. The tinks were like rain, only metallic.
And the tinks turned to TINKS and the TINKS turned to Mr. Reed’s screaming “Holy Christ!” And suddenly the roof of the bus started denting—BAM, BAM, BAM—and a cobweb crack spread over the windshield. With each BAM the windshield changed like a slide show, growing more and more white as the cracks shot through the surface.
I looked out the side window next to me.
Hail in all different sizes from little to that-can’t-be-hail was pelting the street.
Cars swerved all over the road. Mr. Reed, always a lead foot, slammed on the gas instead of the brake, which is what the other cars seemed to be doing.
Our bus hurdled through an intersection, over the median, and into the parking lot of our local Greenway superstore. It was fairly deserted because it was maybe 7:15 by this point.
I turned around to look back in the bus toward Astrid, and everything went in slow motion and fast motion at the same time as our bus slid on the ice, swerving into a spin. We went faster and faster, and my stomach was in my mouth. My back was pressed to the window, like in some carnival ride, for maybe three seconds and then we hit a lamppost and there was a sick metallic shriek.
I grabbed on to the back of the seat in front of me but then I was jumbling through the air. Other kids went flying, too. There was no screaming, just grunts and impact sounds.
I flew sideways but hit, somehow, the roof of the bus. Then I understood that our bus had turned onto its side. It was screaming along the asphalt on its side. It shuddered to a stop.
The hail, which had merely been denting the hell out of our roof, started denting the hell out of us.
Now that the bus was on its side, hail was hammering down through the row of windows above us. Some of my classmates were getting clobbered by the hail and the window glass that was raining down.
I was lucky. A seat near me had come loose, and I pulled it over me. I had a little roof.
The rocks of ice were all different sizes. Some little round marbles and some big knotty lumps with gray parts and gravel stuck inside them.
There were screams and shouts as everyone scrambled to get under any loose seats or to stand up, pressed to the roof, which was now the wall.
It sounded as if we were caught in a riptide of stones and rocks, crashing over and over. It felt like someone was beating the seat I was under with a baseball bat.
I tilted my head down and looked out what was left of the windshield. Through the white spray outside I saw that the grammar school bus, Alex’s bus, was somehow still going. Mrs. Wooly hadn’t skidded or lost control like Mr. Reed.
Her bus was cutting through the parking lot, headed right for the main entrance to the Greenway.
Mrs. Wooly’s going to drive right into the building, I thought. And I knew that she would get those kids out of the hail. And she did. She smashed the bus right through the glass doors of the Greenway.
Alex was safe, I thought. Good.
Then I heard this sad, whimpering sound. I edged forward and peered around the driver’s seat. The front of the bus was caved in, from where it had hit the lamppost.
It was Mr. Reed making that sound. He was pinned behind the wheel and blood was spilling out of his head like milk out of a carton. Soon he stopped making that sound. But I couldn’t think about that.
Instead, I was looking at the door to the bus, which was now facing the pavement. How will we get out? I was thinking. We can’t get out. The windshield was all crunched up against the hood of the engine.
It was all a crumpled jam. We were trapped in the demolished sideways bus.
Josie Miller screamed. The rest of the kids had instinctively scrambled to get out of the hail but Josie was just sitting, wailing, getting pelted by the ice balls.
She was covered in blood, but not her own, I realized, because she was trying to pull on someone’s arm from between two mangled seats and I remembered Trish had been sitting next to her. The arm was limp, like a noodle, and kept slipping down out of Josie’s grip. Trish was definitely dead but Josie didn’t seem to be getting it.
From a safe spot under an overturned seat, this jerk Brayden, who is always going on about his dad working at NORAD, took out his minitab and started trying to shoot a video of Josie screaming and grabbing at the slippery arm.
A monster hailstone hit Josie on the forehead and a big pink gash opened on her dark forehead. Blood started streaming down over her face.
I knew that the hail was going to kill Josie if she kept sitting there out in the open.
“Christ.” Brayden cursed at his minitab. “Come on!”
I knew I should move. Help her. Move. Help.
But my body was not responding to my conscience.
Then Niko reached out and grabbed Josie by the legs and pulled her under a twisted seat. Just like that. He reached out and pulled her two legs toward him and brought her in to his body. He held her and she sobbed. They looked like a couple out of a horror film.
Somehow Niko’s action had broken the spell. Kids were trying to get out and Astrid crawled to the front. She tried to kick through the windshield. She saw me on the ground, under my seat, and she shouted, “Help me!”
I just looked at her mouth. And her nose ring. And her lips moving and making words. I wanted to say, “No. We can’t go out there. We have to stay where there is shelter.” But I couldn’t quite piece the words together.
She stood up and screamed to Jake and his people, “We’ve got to get into the store!”
Finally I croaked out, “We can’t go out! The hail will kill us.” But Astrid was at the back of the bus by then.
“Try the emergency exit!” someone shouted. At the back of the bus Jake was already pulling and pulling at the door, but he couldn’t get it open. There was mayhem for a few minutes; I don’t know how long. I started to feel very strange. Like my head was on a long balloon string, floating above everything.
And then I heard such a funny sound. It was the beep-beep-beep sound of a school bus backing up. It was crazy to hear it through the hammering hail and the screaming.
Beep-beep-beep, like we were at the parking lot on a field trip to Mesa Verde and the bus was backing up.
Beep-beep-beep, like everything was normal.
I squinted out, and sure enough, Mrs. Wooly was backing up the elementary–middle school bus toward us. It was listing to the right pretty bad and I could see where it was dented in the front from smashing into the store. But it was coming.
Black smoke started pouring in through the hole I was looking through. I coughed. The air was thick. Oily. My lungs felt like they were on fire.
I should go to sleep now was the thought that came into my head. It was a powerful thought and seemed perfectly logical: Now I should go to sleep.
The cries of the other kids got louder: “The bus is on fire!” “It’s going to explode!” and “We’re going to die!”
And I thought, They’re right. Yes, we’ll die. But it’s okay. It’s fine. It is as it should be. We are going to die.
I heard this clanking. The sound of metal on metal.
And “She’s trying to open the door!”
And “Help us!”
I closed my eyes. I felt like I was floating down now, going underwater. Getting so sleepy warm. So comfortable.
And then this bright light opened up on me. And I saw how Mrs. Wooly had gotten the emergency door open. In her hands she held an ax.
And I heard her shout:
“Get in the godforsaken bus!”
Copyright © 2012 by Emmy Laybourne