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The Accident

    The bus went off the road just after 10 AM on a Tuesday morning. The fifth grade class was having a field trip, a day in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was a terrific, nearly perfect day. The sky was a brilliant light blue and the trees were at their autumnal zenith, a riot of bright chaotic color. The air was clean and crisp. Despite the season, everything seemed new.

    The right front tire burst at the worst moment, midway through a sweeping but comprehensive turn. For unyielding seconds there was a pause, as the bus poised between staying on the road and flying violently off it. No contest, once physics and momentum had their way. The bus tenaciously hugged the incline, though, with scrambling tires, for what seemed like a long while. Endless seconds, the accident playing with time. There was time enough for everyone to feel terror – fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of not being in control of one’s destiny. Then there was another split second reprieve, as the bus hovered between the incline and a steeper slope. And then it fell.

    The debris trail was unending. Wisps of paper, fabric from seat covers, jackets and clothes. Purses and backpacks and paper bags opened by a giant’s hand with contents strewn everywhere.

    Smells in the clear still air were especially vivid and real. First there was the smell of thickets of bushes rudely displaced, the clean smell of fresh dirt as the bus struggled for purchase, the wet tangy smell of ravaged leaves. Then, as the bus continued on its downward path, there were other smells: the tearing, overheated sheet metal of the bus’s body, unable to withstand the abuse of so many trees and bushes met with such violence and speed; the mechanical smells of an engine and chassis gone badly awry – brakes pushed impossibly rigid yet stopping nothing, oil and brake fluid and fuel and transmission fluid, the bus bled its own lifeblood even as the people inside it bled theirs. The fresh green smell of living bushes mingled with the smell of dying leaves and other things. Adults and children alike were choked by their own terror and the suddenness of familiar surroundings turned into a nightmare without escape. Some of them made desperate grabs, at seats and companions, the need to hold onto something a visceral strength even though the surroundings were no longer the safe and solid havens they’d been moments before. Seats at the front and back of the bus came together like an accordion snapped tightly shut, bodies the obscene glue in the cracks. Windows shattered, the easy give of safety glass replaced by grasping, impaling branches appearing without warning. The outer shell of the bus tore, metal ridged and bent to all angles, edges sharp as saw blades. The sights didn’t match the sounds, the continuity was all wrong. They passed too slow, stills frozen in the mind’s eye. A window frame suddenly buckled. A body one second in a seat and the next gone. A large bush now a fellow passenger, shaking, gathered in by ruthless sharp metal. A purple and blue jacket shifted slightly on a seat but stubbornly maintained its place, even as its owner was hurled away.

    The sounds of violence were muted by the screams of terror and agony, shrieks and cries, undignified grunts and squeals, some suddenly cut off unfinished. Sliding, snapping, wrenching, everything was heard with unusual clarity in the still clean air, but the sounds were a constant unmatched by the sights, which were only peripheral things sometimes glimpsed.

    Hours that were only seconds passed and the bus skidded and slithered to a halt. The sudden cessation of movement was as shocking as the accident itself, an impossibility achieved. Nothing that had been important an hour before was important now. Now it was necessary just to stay alive.

    Consciousness was a cruelty. It forced an unwanted acknowledgement of pain and fear. A ten year old little girl didn't want to wake up unless the waking was as if from a bad dream, to travel from the direst of circumstances to the warmest of comforts in a heartbeat. But this waking was not like that. Her left shoulder and arm hurt badly, and when she breathed in a fiery pain caught at her chest. She was cut, little nibbles of skin taken by tiny pieces of glass. Glass was everywhere around her. Glass was everywhere. Her head felt heavy and sticky and wet. She was cut there, in her hair above her left ear, but it was a long while before she realized it. Her neck hurt.

    Ridiculously, she was bothered by the absence of one shoe, her pair of much loved Doc Marten’s separated. Of course, it didn’t really matter anymore, very little did. Her stockinged right foot hurt, but it was a familiar hurt – the hurt of a bump, not the hot agony of broken bones and deeper hurts. Nausea and acid scratched at the back of her throat. Everything was dusty. The crisp sharp air was clouded with it. And in the dusty air sounds were gentled, quieted by the sudden stop. Some moaning and some crying, sounds of despairing pain, someone calling out for someone else. No one had the energy or consciousness for any kind of hysteria. The sun caught the torn jagged metal of the bus and highlighted the small pellets of broken safety glass. The sun put the unsettled dirt dusting the interior of the bus into blurred relief.

    She glanced to her right, where her seatmate and best friend had been. An angled slash of red was painted against the green of the seat back, and part of an arm was visible, caught in a vise created by two seats meshing close together. The arm belonged to her friend, and it did not move. A Walkman rested, undamaged, just outside the little girl’s window. It was silver and dark gray, the earphones black, the little viewport clean, catching some sunlight against it. She wondered who it belonged to, as if the shift in focus from the horror around her were a necessary respite. She couldn’t move and with the sharp pain when she drew breath came smells of blood, urine and feces. She hoped she hadn’t messed herself. She floated away as consciousness ebbed, eyes on the sliver of disk visible through the Walkman’s viewport, wondering what the CD was, if it was by anybody good.

    The next time she woke up it was a more gradual thing. And, though the dust had settled, she herself seemed hazier. She had a headache and she was very thirsty. Then she became a little panicky, thinking she was about to throw up and fighting against the nausea. She turned to say something to her best friend beside her and was confronted by a severed arm and a lot of blood. For a couple of minutes she tried to figure out if what had just happened had happened before. Somehow it felt like it had, but she wasn’t sure. Any movement or breath sent pain stabbing into her chest like a hot knife. Her left hand had gone numb, aching dully, swollen to twice its normal size. Someone was crying nearby, one of the grown ups, saying "oh God" and "Nicky" over and over again in a litany of unanswerable despair.

    There was nothing to do, really, except rest and die. The little girl did not see a way out.

    The little girl closed her eyes. The next time she woke up there was something different about her hellish surroundings. She was still in agony from a dozen places and every breath was a crime against herself, but she had an overwhelming sense of aloneness, like when her mother had left her alone and "in charge" for an hour or so one time when she’d had to bring Grandma to the hospital. This was the same scary aloneness. When she’d been home alone, she’d been convinced that someone was in the basement and she crawled past the door, lest her footsteps draw him out. She had gone to her room, breathless and victorious but still frightened. She felt the same way now. The bile rising in her throat could not be kept back this time, and white hot shards of pain lanced through her chest as she heaved, then she was unconscious once again. Only instinct told her that everyone around her was now dead.

    There were other changes when consciousness returned once again. The nausea was immediate and overpowering, sending even the sharp pain in her chest to a reduced level of importance. Her breathing was more labored now, and she felt nothing along her left shoulder, arm and hand. They were like the severed arm, a separate entity. New panic assailed her at the thought. She didn’t want to lose the arm, and she didn’t want to die. It wasn’t just that she didn’t want to die here, she didn’t want to die ever. The blind panic that sent a shot of adrenaline through her was an instinctive response to the dread that she would die. But she was quickly exhausted. The stench had gotten worse, more pungent and real. The sun had moved and new shadows served as a backdrop for what she could see of her surroundings. Someone had been playing Pokemon, the game flung clear of the bus and forever abandoned. Someone else had brought a candy bar in his coat pocket, coat thrown clear of the boy, the candy bar peaking from the pocket. It was a Snickers bar.

    Sounds intruded – the only movement she saw was two Mourning Doves, walking awkwardly amongst the debris, but there were sounds. She didn’t know when they’d started, it just seemed to her as if there had been silence and then there were the normal sounds of life. Voices, people scurrying around, a radio. The man who saw her first was large, full bellied and kind looking, with chestnut hair and a matching, luxuriant moustache. His eyes were the same color as the sky, and they told her she would be fine. Concern warred with jubilation at finding someone alive at last. Death surrounded them both.

    She was saved, carried away from the wreckage, in another series of jerky images and unsynchronized sound. How would she live with having lived through the accident? What did it mean for her and her alone to have survived?


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