Part II: The Crash
Jennaleigh was awakened by a piercing scream behind her. She spun around, still in a dazed and unaware state, and saw the woman on the other aisle of the bus behind her gripping her child tightly as she screamed. It was then that she realized the bus was moving back and forth erratically. She instinctively grabbed a hold of the seat beneath her as the bus slid unpredictably. The driver was frantically trying to regain control of the steering wheel as they slid for what seemed like an endless string of tense moments on the black, lifeless road before the bus veered off and started towards the woods to the right of the road. Suddenly, the bus came to a violent halt in the snow beside the road accompanied by a screeching of brakes and an orchestra of simultaneously shattering windows. The silence that followed was strangely deafening in contrast. Finally, after a period of collective recollection from the occupants of the bus, a shrieking voice rung out and pierced the echoing quiet.
“Jesus f**k!” the old man’s voice was like the crescendo of a tea kettle raising with growing intensity. “What the f**k happened?!”
“I… I don’t know. I just lost control of the wheel! I don’t know what happened,” the driver spoke. She stood up, a glaring 6 inch gash beside her left eyebrow. “Is everyone alright?”
Jennaleigh looked behind her to the woman and the child, the former seemed traumatized, but physically in tact. The child looked confused, but also fine.
“We’re okay,” said the woman with the child in an accent that Jennaleigh couldn’t quite place.
Behind the girls, at the back of the bus the female soldier was standing up, looking around her in disbelief, gripping her right shoulder.
“I’m alright,” she said in a shockingly feminine voice. “I think my shoulder’s hurt a little, but I’m fine.”
Jennaleigh looked back at the driver, surprised to she her beady eyes upon her.
“What about you honey?” said the driver.
Jennaleigh hadn’t even checked herself in all the commotion. She didn’t feel any pain, so that was good she thought.
“I… I think I’m okay,” she said softly.
The driver gave a nod as if to say, “good,” before looking back to the elderly man.
“And you, sir? Are you alright?” she asked the man.
“Alright?” the old man said as he glared at the driver with raised brows, sleeve dabbing at the dual streams of blood pouring from his nostrils. “No, I’m pretty far from alright. How the hell did you manage this?”
The driver looked at the ground, scanning left and then right, searching for an answer to the man’s outrage.
“I don’t know! I lost control. Maybe I hit a patch of black ice…” her voice broke off before continuing. “I need to check the damage. I need someone to come with me to hold a flashlight while I look.”
“I’ll do it, I’ll come with you,” said Jennaleigh quickly. She still hadn’t processed the situation at hand. It had happened so fast that she still wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or not.
“Okay, here ya go then,” said the driver as she stood up and grabbed a long mag light from above her in an overhead compartment, turned it on and handed it to Jennaleigh. “Alright. Everyone just… stay here for a moment. We’re gonna asses the situation.”
The old man snorted with derision. “As if there’s anyplace else for us to go,” he hissed.
The driver gave a hand signal to Jennaleigh, ushering her forward and disregarding the man’s comments. She opened the sliding doors and the two of them walked off of the bus.
The cold was bitter and the high wind chilled Jennaleigh to the bone. The mag light emitted a cone-shaped beam that ironically seemed to reduce visibility. The snow was falling quickly around them and the only significant source of light, apart from the moonlight was the from the headlights of the bus. They were about 50 feet from the road in a ditch beside what seemed like an infinite forest of trees all around them. There was an almost dream-like ambiance in the air; it was as if Jennaleigh had woken up in a different world than the one she had been in before she fell asleep. It was colder, more isolated and she felt strangely uneasy being outside in the middle of it. The chaotic atmosphere of the bus felt infinitely safer than where she was standing, and she thought she felt eyes on her from the edge of the woods behind her. She turned and shined the light at the trees, scanning between them and saw nothing apart from evergreens swaying in the tempest-like wind. She stood there, staring at the woods trying to shake the feeling that had swept over her.
“Honey, can you shine that light over here please?” the bus drivers voice was a welcome reminder that eased Jennaleigh’s discomfort and made her remember that she wasn’t alone in the cold.
“Yeah, sorry,” she replied as she turned the light towards the driver, who was standing by the tire closest to the door.
“Can you point it at the tire, please?” said the driver.
“Yeah,” replied Jennaleigh, moving the beam of light onto the tire.
The bus driver sank to one knee with a moan, reflecting her old age and peered closely at the tire, which was visibly flat.
“What the hell?” said the bus driver after a beat of analyzing. She reached towards the tire, grabbed a hold of something Jennaleigh couldn’t quite make out, and pulled with both hands until she fell backwards in the snow.
Jennaleigh quickly reached towards the driver and grabbed a hold of her, helping her up.
“Are you okay?” asked Jennaleigh, concern in her voice.
“Yeah, yeah I’m alright, thanks,” said the driver, standing up and brushing off snow.
“What was wrong with the tire?”
“Well, apart from the tire being almost detached? I found this stuck inside of it.”
The bus driver held out her hands, which were cut and bloody, and opened them revealing a tool of some kind, or at least it looked like that to Jennaleigh. It was long, about a foot or so; a long, straight rod with about 20 or so serrated edges that almost looked like shark teeth. The ‘teeth’ were each about 6 or so inches long and glistened in the light.
Jennaleigh looked at the object with equal parts horror and curiosity.
“What the f**k is that?” she asked the driver, an unstoppable look of terror building in her face.
“No idea,” replied the driver. “Looks like it was made by someone though. Never seen anything like it. One thing’s for sure though, no way it could have gotten there by accident. From the angle it was in the tire it looks like it was thrown.”
“Holy s**t,” is all Jennaleigh could muster. She was in disbelief. She had nearly forgotten the circumstances that had led her to this point, they seemed to pale in comparison to whatever weird s**t was going on.
“Alright, listen to me,” the driver began. “I think we should take a second to get our barrings and not assume anything too quickly. I don’t think we should get back on the bus and start spreading conjecture right now, at least not yet. It’ll just worsen the situation.”
“Well, don’t they have a right to know if someone did this to us?” asked Jennaleigh, shocked at the driver’s suggestion.
“We don’t know that yet,” said the driver raising her hand as if to console.
“Um… I think it’s pretty safe to assume that that thing didn’t get there on it’s own!” said Jennaleigh in a concerned whisper.
“I know it seems like that, but we have to consider all possibilities. Maybe it was made by Native Americans, it looks old enough. Maybe we ran it over at an angle that shot it up and pierced the tire. I mean, we don’t know someone could throw something like this at a moving tire. Who could even be out here in this cold?” said the driver, examining the ‘thing’ in the light of the flash light.
“That sounds like wishful thinking and a lot of speculation to me,” said Jennaleigh matter-of-factly. She had forgotten that outside of the influence of Charlie, she wasn’t one to mince words; especially in situations (not that she had been in many) like this.
“My point is,” the driver said dismissing Jennaleigh’s assessment. “We don’t know what happened. So until we find out more, let’s not make everyone freak out. It’s the last thing we need right now. It won’t solve anything. Agree?”
Jennaleigh didn’t like the idea of lying to everyone, but she felt the driver’s concern was justified.
“Yeah. That’s fair,” said Jennaleigh, sighing with reluctant acceptance.
“Alright then. My name’s Clarabelle by the way. Usually just go by Clara though,” said the driver.
“Hey Clara, I’m Jennaleigh,” said Jennaleigh.
“Alright Jennaleigh, hold onto this,” she passed the ‘thing’ to Jennaleigh, who stuck it in the long front pocket of her hoody. “Let’s get back in the bus, we’ll freeze out here.”
Jennaleigh gave a nod of agreement as she followed Clara back onto the bus.
The old man was waiting, arms crossed. Dried blood caked underneath his large and crooked nose.
“Well?” began the man, impatiently waiting an explanation.
“Well, it looks like the front right tire popped. Don’t quite know how; we may have hit a rough patch of road. I’m sorry about this, folks,” said Clara.
The man didn’t look satisfied. “So, what do you propose we do? With all these windows cracked or shattered we’re gonna freeze in here,” the old man said angrily.
“I’m gonna call 911,” an accented voice cried out from behind the man. It belonged to the pretty lady with the child.
Jennaleigh pulled out her own phone then, surprised that she hadn’t thought of calling 911 herself. She unlocked her screen and was greeted by a, ‘NO SERVICE’ alert atop her screen.
“S**t, no service!” said the woman, flailing her arms in frustration. She let go of her hold on the child, looking around frantically at the others on the bus. “Does anyone else have service?”
“I don’t, just checked,” said Jennaleigh, folding her arms behind her head and sighing loudly. This couldn’t be happening. Here she was, on the cusp of escape, ready to try her best at a new life, when this happened. Stranded in the middle of nowhere with strangers, in the cold, with god knows who else out here; freaks with tools like the one she still had in her hoody pocket. Panic began to set in.
“Anyone else?!” cried the woman.
“No,” said the soldier flatly and seemingly without concern.
“Me neither,” replied the bus driver.
The old man slowly opened a flip phone, and peered at the screen. “No service,” he said, processing the words as he spoke.
“F**k. F**k!” the woman shouted, crying and hyperventilating. The child looked up at her.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” the child spoke in a starkly innocent tone.
The woman ignored the child, fanning herself and breathing like she was in labor.
“It’s okay, Miss. Just take a deep breath,” the female soldier said, approaching the woman and reaching out a consoling hand. The woman batted it away.
“What part of this is okay to you?! The part where we’re stranded in the middle of the mountains, or the part where we freeze?” the woman yelled in response.
“Ma’am. You need to calm down. For your child, if not for yourself,” said the soldier.
The woman looked at the soldier, anger in her eyes. “This is because of my child! I’m scared for her!” the woman shouted.
“So keep her safe. And comfort her.”
The woman looked down at her child, dropped to a knee and brought her close to her, squeezing as she stroked her hair. It looked to Jennaleigh like it was more comforting to mother than to child.
“I agree with her, I have to say,” said the old man. “This is not an okay situation. This is far from that. We have no way to contact anyone and the snow is starting to come down. We need warmth, and we need it now!” said the old man in his usual bristly tone.
“Wait a minute, don’t you have a dispatch or something? A radio?” asked the soldier from the back.
“I already tried, looks like the crash knocked out a wire or something. I’m just getting static,” said the driver, trying again in vain to operate the bus’s handheld transceiver.
“F**k’s sake,” The old man chimed in.
“Well, doesn’t the bus service monitor your location? Or keep track of your route?” asked the soldier.
“Yes, but they don’t bother checking location unless someone reports a late bus, and the next scheduled stop for this one isn’t ’til next Monday at 9:00 AM.”
“F**k. F**k! That’s not for days! F**k! This isn’t happening,” the woman with the child yelped out.
“Wait, what time is it?” Jennaleigh said, reaching for her phone. The time was 4:14 AM. A wave of hopefulness blanketed Jennaleigh.
“It’s past 4 AM. It’ll be light out soon. All we have to do is stay put for another hour or so ‘til the sun comes up, then walk to the road,” said Jennaleigh, proud of her realization.
The mother looked up, hopeful at Jennaleigh as she spoke. “Yeah, that’s right! I’m sure we’ll see someone on the road soon. Why don’t we head there now? Someone might drive by.”
“It’s too cold and dark right now. It’s doubtful that anyone will drive by at this hour of the night. These roads are hardly used,” said the driver, skeptical.
“Well, there’s a chance right? Even if there’s a chance we have to try. I don’t wanna just sit in this bus and wait all night,” said the mother.
“If you wanna go stand at the road in the freezing cold, by all means, go ahead,” snapped the old man.
“I… I don’t wanna leave my daughter,” the mother said, looking around for a substitute. She scanned the occupants for a beat in silence, until at last the soldier spoke up.
“I’ll go. I’m used to the cold. Trained at Fort Leonardwood, after all.”
“Thank you,” said the mother softly.
“Are you sure you wanna stand out there? It’s freezing and the snow’s starting to really come down. Mix that with the gusting wind and it’s gotta be in the teens by now, if not colder,” said Clara the driver, scratching her head.
“Yeah, it’s all right. I’ve slept in worse, slept in colder. I’ll let you guys know if I see anyone,” replied the soldier, seemingly unfazed by the blistering cold she was about to venture into.
Jennaleigh couldn’t help but feel guilty for not speaking up about what her and Clara had found; the ancient looking device that she still had in her pocket, especially now that this woman was about to venture unknowingly into the night. ‘Clara is probably right,’ thought Jennaleigh, justifying her chosen silence. ‘It was probably an old Native American throwing knife or something, no way in hell someone could’ve thrown it at a moving tire.’
The soldier threw on a thin, black jacket and walked to the front of the bus.
“Are you sure about this, honey?” asked Clara, no doubt burdened by the same brand of guilt as Jennaleigh. “It’s bad out there.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Stay warm everyone. With any luck, I’ll be back soon,” the soldier spoke solemnly. Clara opened the bus doors; a gust of wind blew the soldier back a step.
“Here, sweetie,” said Clara, handing the soldier the flashlight. “And make sure you stay warm too. If it gets too cold, come back.”
The soldier gave a grateful nod, zipped up her Jacket to the very top, flicked on the flashlight and stepped off of the bus.
The driver closed the doors behind her.
“Well, with any luck she’ll be back soon. Let’s hope someone comes along,” said Clara, sighing aloud.
Jennaleigh gazed out her window in the direction of the road, or at least where she thought the road was; with the snow falling and gusting as hard as it was she couldn’t see anything but the trees in the near distance. As she saw the soldier walking towards the road through the snow, she looked at the tree line once more. She thought she saw… something. The silhouette of something large in the trees. She felt uneasy and afraid. She was sure that the shadows were playing tricks on her, nothing could be in these woods right now, in the middle of the winter. As this thought crossed her mind, she saw the soldier disappear from her view. A fear struck Jennaleigh in that moment as she gazed into the black and gasping maw of the forest, and for the first time since she had gotten on the bus, she felt alone.