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I am fourteen years old with the eyes of an old woman. Perhaps that is not my reflection in the school bus window. But it is. All of a sudden, screams pierce my eardrums followed by a soothing discovery that they are not coming from my throat. I stare at my reflection again. No blood. I seem less aged. Maybe even normal. Looking beyond the window, I see the green grass of the ditch. My school bus lies on its side, and I am sprawled out of my seat onto the window.
Earlier in the morning, I tried to distract myself from the sinking feeling eating away at my brain. Listening to music or playing chess was my “go-to” to hush my nerves. Chess was not an option on my walk to the bus stop. I turned on my music, couldn’t decide on a playlist, and clicked shuffle on my phone. The first song played “Goner.” A knot in my stomach plunged a couple of notches. I skipped the song immediately. After the second song bellowed “Murder On My Mind” and made the hair on the back of my nape bristle, I decided that music wasn't the best idea.
While standing at the bus stop, an incessant voice in my head screamed “Don't do it. Don't go. Pretend that you're sick.” Several kids milled around, and as our yellow cheesebox came and swung open its creaky doors, students crashed through the entrance. My shoes had millions of wads of chewed-up pink bubble gum stuck to them, gluing me to the pavement. I forced myself to step forward through the gaping hole and shuffled to the middle section of the bus, on the right, seat 11, my usual. Kyra boarded on the next stop and sashayed to the back. I did not need to lift my head to know when she passed by my seat. Her honey-scented perfume left a trail everywhere she went. I had been trying to figure out a way to get into Kyra’s universe for weeks. I imagined witty lines to say to the attractive Scandinavian-American to get her attention. But every morning and every afternoon, I fell mute. Kyra was the popular girl so I was invisible to her. The queen bee forever preoccupied with maintaining her position in the school hive. She was gazing at the people on the bus without seeing anyone. How did one look and not see at the same time?
“A successful salesman looks you in the eye and makes you feel as though there is no one more important in the world than you,” my father had once remarked.
Kyra’s look verbalized, “Who are you, again?”
Rithika, sitting in front of me, whipped around. She was an awkward genius and had few friends. I pretended to be immersed in my cell phone. Eventually, Rithika silently turned back to the front, and I exhaled in relief.
“Queen bees like Kyra would be someday outplayed by people like Rithika,” my mother had commented at the beginning of the school year. At that moment I thought of a passed pawn that reached its eighth rank to be immediately promoted to a queen. After several years of playing chess, I was never able to manage this move. Will Rithika?
“When would this happen?” I challenged my mom.
“In the future.”
In the future was the timeline for everything. In the future, the dark energy of the universe was supposed to create black holes that would destroy all matter. The universe would expand into nothingness. Every atom would disintegrate into quarks. Quarks would drift aimlessly, oblivious of the other quarks. In the future. I wondered if Kyra’s future subatomic quarks would float superior to mine.
“Skyler.” Now it was my turn to look behind to see who had called my name. It was Lena. We used to sit at the same lunch table. I stopped talking to her months ago when she had started dating the ex-boyfriend of another friend. Two days ago, Lena had posted about wishing she were no longer alive. The other girls from my friend group were skeptical. “Everyone says that at least once a week.” I never said that. The day before, I went to my counselor and revealed what Lena had posted. I had been feeling like a snitch ever since. Now she called my name. I looked at her nervously.
“Forget what I posted the other day. I was just stressed. Everyone’s been pretty mean ever since I started going out with James.”
“No problem,” I replied and breathed a sigh of relief.
Talking to Lena gave me a chance to steal another brief glance at Kyra. She was oblivious of me as she chatted with Brooke, one of the other popular girls in our school. Brooke was not a natural beauty like Kyra. She was, however, easily the tallest girl in our class. She “guarded” Kyra at all times from interlopers such as me, like a rook protecting her queen. I appreciated Brooke despite her intimidating presence. When we talked alone, a different person would emerge. Not a talented volleyball player but a thoughtful classmate. I felt some pity for Brooke. She had to sense that the boys siding up to her were only trying to pass muster in order to get to Kyra. Forever the guard and never the guarded.
Hunter passed by in his convertible. Who still drove a convertible? This was not Malibu in the 60s. He looked every bit like the class president he was predicted to become next month. He waved at Brooke and smiled at Kyra. His school election poster promised “parking space for every student.” Which teacher was going to give up his or her parking spot? Teachers protected their spots with the ferocity of a mother grizzly bear guarding her cubs. Hunter sped ahead.
Suddenly, the back of the tractor-trailer on my left slithered like a snake, and a black cloud filled my vision. The crisp morning air was sucked out of the world around me. For just a split second, I wondered who lifted me off the seat. My stomach wedged into my nostrils. One good sneeze and my esophagus would splatter on the back of Rithika’s head. Next to my face, a giant cobweb appeared: the window glass fracturing, readying to cover me in shards. The metal of the bus frame twisted and screamed like a wounded animal being slaughtered. It was an angry low pitch blended with the high-pitched screams of the terrified passengers. The last thing I remembered before the accident had been the deafening, roaring, booming silence of the crash. The sound of the absolute end.
Someone, an adult at the front, yells, “Don’t worry! Stay calm!” Then another adult voice screeches, “Who is hurt?” For some absurd reason, I start counting my fingers. Then I look at the rest of me. Everything is attached. All parts move. Another ridiculous thought comes: surviving a bus accident means I am protected from future bus accidents. If it happens once, it will never happen again. I mean what are the odds?
Interrupting my silent thoughts is the not so silent voice of Jessica. She is praying for someone. Nicknamed “the Bishop,” she is always praying for people she dislikes. No one can weaponize prayer as Jessica does. If clerics had Jessica's cunning, the geopolitics of the world would have shifted tectonically and overnight. She starts reciting more scripture. I find myself wishing for a noise-canceling headset adjusted to the pitch and frequency of Jessica’s voice.
Everyone has evacuated the vehicle before the ambulance and fire trucks arrive. I see Brooke leaning over and dry heaving. A police officer has his hand on her shoulder, guarding her. Jessica’s angry eyes dart around searching for a culprit. Lena stands in the sunlight, a slight smile on her lips. Kyra yelps and leans away from a painful ankle. A hand shoots out to support her. It belongs to Rithika.
Some would later speculate that Hunter distracted the bus driver and caused the accident. I have no idea. I have seen nothing. Only the back of the trailer. My stomach shifted as one side of the bus lifted up. I heard the sound of doom. The bus swerved and toppled: a chessboard overturned. Queen, rook, bishop, and pawns - all in a heap. Any sense of hierarchy toppled with the bus.
I stand on the street and realize that the sinking feeling in my stomach is gone. Instead, I feel the unexpected joy.