My fingers clenched to the seat in front as the bus took another tight turn. It felt like someone had been ripping my stomach from my body all morning. I figured someone must have forgotten to send the memo to the driver. A school bus filled with students would be widely considered as carrying valuable merchandise.
I glanced over to Tom sitting next to me. To no surprise, he was doing a better job of maintaining composure than I was. There was no doubt the ride up the winding mountain road was torturing him as well. But he was able to combat the nausea better than I could. He always wore the more convincing mask.
Though not clearly visible to any stranger from our demeanour; my older brother and I had been victims of a horrific car accident at the tender age of seven and eight respectively. Ever since the crash, any ride in a vehicle that could be deemed just slightly unsafe; was certain to be misery for the both of us.
It happened exactly ten years earlier to the day. Our single mother had been driving us home from school. She had been running late, leaving us in the sweltering heat to wait.
I sat next to her that old station-wagon after beating Tom in the race for the front seat. I was sweating, trying to keep cool with my arm draped out the open window. We had just passed the sign for our exit when I was suddenly deafened from my mother’s scream. Before the impending collision, I caught a glimpse of a small school girl walking out onto the lane in front of us. My mother slammed on the breaks and swerved the car to the left in a state of panic. We smashed into the transport truck driving next to us. The car was launched as if it were weightless onto the highway shoulder.
My vision blurred and I heard nothing but a piercing, high pitched ring in my ears. I was in a daze until I felt Tom rattling the seat from behind me. His shouting was faint behind the constant buzz. He was urging me to get out. He reached over my shoulder and pointed forward. Flames crept out from beneath the demented car hood in front us.
I was able to wriggle my thin body out of the open window and onto the hot pavement. I immediately fell to the ground in a heap atop a broken ankle unable to support me. Broken glass sliced my hands open as I tried to collect myself against the barrier. Tom managed to pull himself out of the rear passenger window and came to help. I noticed the flames from the engine had already grown considerably from when I last looked. In disbelief, I looked towards our mother. Her contorted body was plastered to the driver’s seat.
With Tom shouldering my weight, we rounded through the debris to her side of the car. The entirety of the frame had caved in. From what remained of an open car window, we could see through to our mother’s torso. She was pinned down to the seat by displaced pieces of the car frame. There was still a faint glimmer of life in her eyes as she turned towards us. She moved her lips to say something, but I couldn’t make out the words. I could only hear the high pitched buzzing and the sounds of approaching sirens in the distance.
Tom dropped me to the ground and started trying to pry open what remained of the car door. It was to no avail. Tears streamed down his face as he pulled desperately at the remnants of a car door that could no longer open.
I could feel the heat from the fire growing more intense. But the emotional stress far outweighed any sense of physical danger. I crawled along the shards of broken glass getting as close as I could to where my mother was trapped. I knelt on bloodied knees as I brought myself to eye level with her. With what I imagine was her last shred of strength, she reached a broken arm out the window towards me. I reached my tiny, bloodied arm towards her. And for a moment our hands met.
It was the last that we touched. It was the last time I saw my mother alive. Seconds later, I was ripped back in the arms of a fireman. The last image in my mind is the blaze of the fire shooting upwards as they closed the ambulance doors.
A few years later, Tom broke down crying as he described the sound of our mother screaming in pain as the flames engulfed her. I’m sure I would have cried alongside him had I been able to hear anything clearly that day.
Keep in mind, this very detailed, disoriented memory should be taken only lightly. Though I can still drift through it motion by motion, it is truth to only my brother and me. Only the two of us recount a story of crashing while trying to dodge a small girl on the highway. Anyone who was at the site would tell you that they pulled our unconscious bodies out of the wreckage. This was after our car was T-Boned by an SUV at an intersection just around the corner from the school. She had just picked us up before we crashed. We had never gotten on the highway.
Make no mistake, Tom and I struggled mightily with the idea of getting on the bus as high school students that day ten years later. But it was our choice to attend the field trip up the mountain on the anniversary of our mother’s death. We thought we could hide the sickness that was sure to rip us apart from the inside. We were among company that we felt the need to entertain.
The field trip was for our biology course. It was an annual event for the schools in the area to send kids up into the mountains to get a hands-on look at the local ecosystems. For Tom and me, it was just an opportunity to mingle.
At the rendezvous point for the three schools, my brother and I intentionally put ourselves at the back as our class lined up. We knew our class size was a little bigger, and some of us were going to have to spill over onto one of the other school’s buses. That particular school had a rumour about it for having an excess of beautiful girls. My brother and I were the last to step on their bus. We were not disappointed.
“Twenty-three and twenty-four,” their teacher counted out as he finished the roll call.
It didn’t take us long to learn the ride up the mountain was going to be bumpier than anticipated. We found ourselves sitting at that back of the bus, just trying to keep our stomachs. We figured it would just take us some time to adjust, and that eventually, the feeling would just go away. But it never did.
After about half an hour, Tom had finally decided that he had enough. He took a deep breath and forced a smile only I could recognize as fake onto his face. He got up and stumbled a few rows of seats forward. He did it carefully, gripping the top of every seat for balance. He made a point to flex his triceps each time he grabbed for support.
He sat himself down beside two pretty brunettes a few rows in front of us. I overheard him trying to break the ice with some bogus story about what happened on the class’s trip the year before. From my view, it looked like it was working. Even when he was holding his stomach, somehow he could still prove entertaining.
On that particular day, I would have preferred that he wouldn’t have even tried. My competitive nature started gnawing at me to do something similar. But I was feeling so out of it, I didn’t know how I could pull it off. I took a moment to look out at the mountain terrain outside the bus. We took another turn that once again forced me to brace myself against the seat. I tried to keep my eyes on the pale grey sky and the matching cliff walls above me. I listened to the sound of the rattling floor below. After a little while, it felt like it started to work. I was more at ease, if only just slightly.
Wary of my facial expression, I chanced a look up at the class of unfamiliar students in front of me. I saw a lot of girls, but most of them sitting in groups of two or three. I enviously looked on at my brother who had clearly done well with the girls he was now in full conversation with. Somehow, I didn’t think I would achieve a similar outcome.
It was then that my eyes caught something they liked the look of. She sat alone at the on the seat behind the driver. I could only see the side profile of her face, but that’s all I needed. She had straight blonde hair that rested just below her shoulders. This girl was absolutely stunning. You could tell just by her physique as she sat there. In my eyes, she was better looking than the girls my brother was talking to. I knew he would agree as soon as he saw her.
It surprised me to see she was sitting by herself. I didn’t make sense in my seventeen-year-old mind that a girl like that would sit on her own. But it would work to my advantage. It only made her more vulnerable.
It bothers me to admit that I kept my eyes on her for too long. I made a point to never get caught staring. But almost on cue, she turned around and caught me red handed. The expression on her face made it seem to me that she knew I was looking at her the whole time. She gave me a familiar smile and I immediately dropped my head down to the floor. I was so embarrassed. Worse yet, the sickness in my stomach started to return, and it was becoming so much worse than before.
It wasn’t long before I became a complete wreck with my head down in my lap. A dull ache slowly crept into my ankle as I started downwards towards it. I started to wish that I had just skipped the trip and stayed home that day. I would have done anything to be back safely in my bed.
The bus continued to make sharp turns as we wound our way up the mountain. Staring at the ground below me was proving to be no help. I figured I would try and keep my focus on the stretch of road through the front windshield. That way, I could at least try to anticipate when the paralyzing bends in the road were coming.
But what I immediately saw was that the road in front of us was coming to an end. It was due to take an immediate turn to the left. We were headed for what looked like a free fall off the mountain. The bus driver was fiddling with the radio, not paying attention to where we were going.
I screamed at the top of my lungs.
There was a moment of communal panic on the bus as everyone realized where the bus was headed. The bus driver steered hard to the left and the wheels screeched. I felt no sickness on that turn; only the calm feeling of inevitable death.
The bus skipped a little as we skidded towards the guardrail. We had slowed down, but still hit it hard. The rusted barrier bent, but somehow did not break. It stretched back and the bus went partially over the edge.
I was sure the rear right wheel beneath me had no ground below it. The bus swayed gently from a gust of wind that passed us by. I looked down to see a perfectly still lake that looked to be fifty or so feet below us. I couldn’t believe we had not fallen.
The driver cautiously applied his foot on the gas. By some miracle, the rear left wheel still had enough traction on the road. Slowly, the bus crept forward until all wheels were on solid land. I continued to feel no sense of sickness or fear as we got back on the road. I couldn’t feel anything at all.
We stopped at a rest area a few kilometers down the road. The other class’ teacher was in a shouting match with the bus driver. He was refusing to let us continue to our destination. He wanted another bus to come up and bring us back down the mountain. All students were in agreement.
I decided it best to sit alone on a picnic table farthest from everyone. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. I felt scattered raindrops land on the top of my head, but it was no bother. That numb feeling I experienced as we were headed off the edge of the mountain was still in control. If you asked me before I got on how nearly dying in a second vehicular accident would make me feel; I would not have guessed that I would have felt nothing. My body was shaking slightly, but my mind was strangely alright. It was like my body knew I had nearly died, but my brain was unaware.
Tom was standing and talking with the two girls he had sat with on the bus. He had his arm draped over one of them, deep in conversation. His tone was soft and reassuring. Even that came as a surprise to me. I was trying to figure out how he was feeling after the crash. I couldn’t understand how he was still focused on pursuing those girls.
I was officially having none of it at that point. I just wanted to leave. Along with the majority of the students lounging on the rest area, I had no interest in getting back on the bus with the same driver. I would have walked back down if I had to.
That blonde girl who I had seen earlier was leaning against the side of the bus. Once again, she was by herself. Much to my surprise, when I looked over to her direction, I met her gaze. It was me who caught her staring the second time. The difference was that instead of cowering down or looking away, she kept her eyes locked on mine. With no hesitation, she started to walk towards me. There was nothing visibly distraught about her demeanour. She had the same, calm smile that she had flashed me on the bus ride earlier. I tried to keep my legs from trembling as she came to sit down beside me.
“Did you think you were going to die?” she asked.
That was hardly the introduction I was expecting. I tried to not sound surprised as I answered.
“For a minute, yeah, but it’s not that big a deal. We weren’t that high up from the lake. We might have even survived the fall.”
“I knew we were going to die,” she said. “Have you ever been in a car accident before?”
I would have much preferred to talk to her about something else. Talking about my previous car accident experience was the last thing I wanted to set my mind onto.
“Yes,” I answered after a pause. “Have you ever been in a car accident before?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “I’ve been close.”
I was trying to figure out why this girl was talking to me about this. It was the most awkward initial conversation with someone I had ever had.
“Listen,” she said before waiting for me to respond. “I was here before, a long time ago with my mother. There’s something really cool I want to show you just a bit up that trail.”
She pointed behind us to a path that led off into some woods. With her other hand, she squeezed the leg I had been trying to keep from trembling.
“Come with me. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I promise it will shock you more than what happened today.”
I was even more taken aback by her offer than when she came up to talk to me initially. From behind her head, I could see Tom looking back at me with a grin on his face. Clearly, he noticed our little encounter. He nodded and flashed me a quick wink before turning back to the girls next to him.
She had caught my attention, albeit in a strange way. It was going to take at least two hours for another bus to come from town to pick us up, and I didn’t really have anything to do with the time. Aside from how strange her offer was, I didn’t have a legitimate reason for me to turn her down. I think pretty well any seventeen-year-old guy would take the opportunity to sneak off with a girl like that.
She never loosened her grip on my arm as we jogged off into the woods together. I guess the teacher and everyone else didn’t notice or even care that we left. Nobody followed or called out.
We walked along the path through the tall Cedar trees. Small puddles were forming in the dirt from the light, persistent rain. After about two minutes, she pulled us off of the trail altogether. Together we scraped through the untreated thicket. I asked her if she was sure if she knew where we were going, but she did not answer.
Finally, we broke the forest and reached a clearing. There was fog everywhere and little patches of grass sticking up through the rocks. I figured the fog was there because we were at such a high elevation. The clearing led upwards towards a plateau that was about another thirty feet up. When we reached the top, we were met by a perfectly smooth stone surface. Right in the middle stood an old picnic bench. Who put it there, and why they did it is still a mystery to me.
She finally let go of my arm and moved calmly towards the bench. She took a seat on the far end and beckoned me to join her with a gesture of the hand. I nervously approached and sat down across from her. The fog was so thick on the landing you could hardly see more than a few feet off the cliff. Given how high up we were, I imagine that the drop off was enormous. Had I been in a normal state, I would have surely felt some sense of vertigo.
“Do you want to be here?” she asked me. She raised her arms up and rested her elbows on the table. Her palms were open towards me.
“Do you want to be here?” she repeated.
“Um… I guess.”
“Put your hands against mine,” she said. I’m going to show you something.”
I paused before looking her in the eye. I realized that I hadn’t even gotten her name yet. She gave me that familiar, reassuring smile again. I had no idea what to expect. I rested my elbows on the table in front of me and placed my hands against hers. It was a smooth transition.
Instantaneously, I was at the back of the school bus. Outside was faintly lit by the pale grey sky. Confused, I looked up and saw my brother talking to the brunette girls a few rows in front of me. Further up on the bus, I could see the blonde girl in the seat behind the driver. She was alone and facing forward. Everything was the exact same as it had been on the ride up.
I started to feel the same physical sensations again. But they were so much worse than before. At first, it was the crippling sickness in my stomach. Then the dull ache in my ankle followed soon after. I dropped my elbows to my lap, trying to suppress the pain. With my eyes just above the back of the seat in front of me, I could see through the windshield. We were headed towards the sharp bend in the road again. Just like how it was originally; the driver’s attention was focused on the radio.
I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. A high pitched buzzing started to fill my ears. It looked like some girls near the front screamed a moment later, but it was too late. We broke through the barrier and flew off the edge of the cliff. The calm, soothing feeling of inevitable death came over me again. It was only broken by the horrific sensation of my body being crushed as we hit the water.
Suddenly, I was on the picnic bench again. My hands were still resting against hers. The grin she had on her face now seemed so much less innocent and sincere. Before I could so much as even move, the seamless transition occurred again.
This time, I found myself someplace else. I could feel the heat of sun above me, and the burning of my feet on the pavement below. My ankle lost all strength and I fell to my knees. Shards of broken glass sliced my hands open.
In front of me was the wreckage of my mother’s old station wagon. Her arm was outstretched through the mangled door frame. I reached out to touch it. But it was seemingly out of reach. No matter much I crawled, or how far I stretched, my hands could never reach hers.
Her face was broken and bleeding. She let out a scream that pierced through the ringing in my ears. The bloodcurdling sound is the worst thing that I have ever heard. I realized how fortunate I was to not be able to hear it the first time through as a child.
I looked to the sky and tried to scream with all the agony that had welled up inside of me. But again, no sound came out. My vision started to blur. I looked back at my mother, trying to get her to come back into focus. From behind the car, I could see the faint silhouette of a little blonde school girl standing and watching us.
That transition happened before I could even realize. Once again, I was seated on the bench. The emotional anguish of watching my mother die was still pulsing through my body. I felt like I was frozen in place. I couldn’t get up or move my hands away from this girl. She continued to grin at me. The look in her eyes seemed somehow less human than it did before.
I felt someone grasp my wrist. I turned to see the blonde girl sitting beside me on the back of the bus. We had transitioned again. Ahead of us was that sharp turn on the cliff’s edge. The driver was distracted as we headed right towards it.
She posed the question to me just as we were about to break through the guardrail.
“Do you want to be here?”
I had no time to answer. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to make a sound even if I could have. The numbing feeling of impending death was quickly ended by the feeling of my body being shattered as the bus hit the lake.
Immediately, we were back on the bench. The fog that surrounded us had grown thicker. My breaths were deep and my body continued to ache. I looked helplessly at whatever was masked as the blonde girl in front of me.
Then, I was back at the wreckage – then back to the table – back to the bus – back to the table – and endlessly on.
Round and round she took me. She forced me to endlessly relive the same two memories. They were always interrupted by a brief trip to the picnic bench in between. The minute details would always change.
Sometimes I would see her, sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes I would be a little farther back or forward in time. But the events were always carried out the same way. The pain I felt was always the same. She wouldn’t even let me make a sound.
I experienced the misery of watching my mother die, and the trauma of being crushed as I hit the water in a cycle of what I consider to be an infinite number of times. I want to tell you that you that the pain started to ease as I continued to live through them. But it didn’t. It compounded.
After some number of times through the loop, something finally changed. There came a time where it was just her and me who sat on the bus. We cruised without a driver towards the edge of the cliff. She gripped my arm and once again she posed me the question.
“Do you want to be here?”
For the first time in forever, the words I formed actually made a sound.
“Just one last thing to see,” she responded with that grin I had grown to resent with all my being.
The following transition brought me somewhere else from the picnic bench. I was somewhere I had never been before. I stood on a rocky beach, looking out over a perfectly still mountain lake. The surface was a beautiful, deep blue that contrasted the grey sky above. Gigantic mountain walls surrounded the undisturbed body of water on all sides. I felt the same numb feeling I had when the bus nearly crashed the first time through. It felt like an eternity had passed since then. It was the last moments of my life that I felt content.
The silence was quickly broken by the sound of screeching bus tires above me. I looked up and saw that the sharp turn on the road was just a ways off over the lake.
The school bus crashed through the barrier and began its nose dive downwards. For a moment in time, everything began to slow. I saw the bus fall in mid-air. I could faintly hear the screams of everyone inside. Somewhere in the mix, I could hear Tom screaming at the top of his lungs. The distress in his voice stood out from all the rest.
Time resumed at its normal pace, and the bus crashed into the water. A wave rippled out from where it landed. The tail end, with the last rows of seats bobbed back above the surface. It floated gently in place before beginning its slow descent back into the water.
All serenity had gone. From behind me, I heard her familiar voice.
“Go out and save him. There’s still time.”
Without hesitation, I dashed into the water and broke into a swim when the water became too deep to run in. The bus hadn’t crashed that far out. I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe I could get there.
I reached the bus just as the last row of seats was disappearing from the surface. I could see my brother in the back in the same spot we had been sitting on the first loop through. He was reaching his hand through the open window. His eyes met mine. There was an unfathomable amount of suffering in the look he gave me.
I reached my hand to try and pull him out. But he was just out of my reach. The bus sank beneath the surface. I tried to dive down after it, but it had all but disappeared into the deep.
Everything happened so fast. I soon found myself wading in the calmness of the water all alone. I looked back on the shore and saw that familiar blonde figure standing there. It stood so off center. The way it leaned did not resemble anything that could be considered human.
I closed my eyes and meant to scream something back at whatever that was standing on the shore. I was met with the familiar frustration of not being able to make a sound.
When I opened my eyes, I was at home in my bed. Below me, I could hear my foster mother crying. I flew out of bed and ran down the stairs to see her. She couldn’t even look me in the eyes as the words left her mouth.
“The bus Tom was on crashed! They hit a lake! They can’t find anyone!”
There is no logical aftermath or reasoning to what actually took place that day. In whatever version of reality that I find myself in now, I never got on the bus that day. I never even went to school. Instead, I had faked feeling ill and stayed home in bed. Knowing a trip up the mountain would make me nauseous; I had decided not to go.
The bus had crashed through the barrier at the same bend in the road I remember seeing. The driver, the teacher and all twenty-two students on board were killed. The true cause of the crash has never been determined.
There has not been a single instance that I have stepped into a vehicle since that day. There also hasn’t been one night that I’ve been able to sleep soundly. Because every time I close my eyes and drift away, there are only two dreams that I’m capable of having.
Every night, I’m forced to relive crashing with the bus into the water or the watching of my mother die. Though I can remember the sequence, the pain and the emotions perfectly – apparently none of it ever happened. Not in this timeline at least.
There is nothing left in this world I truly love for whatever that thing was to take from me. There is no experience I can imagine as being worse to relive.
But sometimes, as I lay sleepless at night, I can’t help but wonder. Maybe there is another version of myself somewhere who had to endure things so much worse than I did. Perhaps there is another me who she’s hurt so much more. However, I am sure of this.
I don’t want to be here.