I should not have been on that bus. I would not have been had I graduated the year before like everyone else my age. But I got held back a year because of injuries suffered during a car wreck in 10th grade, and had to repeat. I'd never hated the fact more than I did that afternoon.
It was the middle of January. The temperature was arctic (even before the snow), and I'd already seen more snow than an Atlanta girl would see in a lifetime. The problem was, I was no longer in Georgia.
"Minnesota sucks," I grumbled.
The boy sitting beside me, Paul, my defacto boyfriend, laughed condescendingly. "Wus. You haven't lived until you do it on the side of a ten foot snow-drift."
I showed my disapproval by elbowing him in the ribs. "Asshole," I added, when he laughed again. The truth was, I was utterly miserable being cold.
The snow had begun as a gentle flurry around ten o'clock, and had grown into a howling monster by the time school let out early at two-thirty. I was totally miffed that they would even have school on a day where a foot or more of snow was predicted by three o'clock. Only in Minnesota, I thought.
"Actually," he said, gazing out the window at the brutal white out. "This is pretty radical, even for Minnesota."
A lake-effect storm gone psycho; they were now predicting up to four feet with snow-drifts eight feet high by midnight. Unbelievable.
Twenty minutes later, Paul got off the bus half a block from his house—reluctantly; he liked leaving me on the bus no more than I liked being left—waited in the whirlwind until the bus pulled away, waving at me unhappily, and then trudged toward home with his shoulders hunched and his hands jammed in the pockets of his parka. It bothered me seeing him so miserable; I was really getting to like Paul.
For the next hour and forty-five minutes, the bus crept forward a foot at a time, discharging students lucky enough not to live in Mesaba Estates, while I ran my battery down to a flashing rectangular outline relentlessly texting Paul and my other friends. I barely paid attention as the ridership of Bus 9899 dwindled to fewer than a handful of students. Scowling out the window into the now perfect darkness, I clamped my arms across my chest, pressed my lips into a straight line, balled my fists against my ribs and tried to keep my nostrils from flaring unattractively. Not that anyone would look at me and see. The driver was too wrapped up in driving to look anywhere but out the icy front windshield. Twenty minutes later, the only other passenger on the bus beside myself was Agnes Ahlberg, the one person on the route who lived farther away than I did. As she always did, Agnes sat alone by the window, five rows from the back, on the opposite side of the bus.
Agnes was peculiar. She wasn't pretty, but neither was she ugly. The truth was, Agnes could be cute if she wanted to be. However, she always wore her dark hair parted in the middle, chose drab, out of fashion clothes, and looked totally devoid of makeup, even when she had some on. She was a seriously blah girl that boys either ignored or ridiculed, and which girls made fun of. In the half-year I'd been at school, I'd talked to her maybe twice, three times at the most. We'd never had a conversation.
Looking at her reflection in the glass, I felt guiltily sorry for her. Like me, she had her arms crossed over her chest, and was staring out the window, unseeing, by the look of her reflected face. I watched her from the corner of my eye, afraid to be caught looking.
Two things happened at once. The driver, a string bean balding man in his late fifties yelled "Shit!" and then suddenly the bus was sliding sideways, the front end going right and the rear end going left, the tires on the locked wheels making a grinding sound as they plowed through the built-up snow and ice. The noise became twice as loud and frightening as the bus, going nearly perpendicular to the road now, extended both sets of wheels into the gravel shoulders. I grabbed the top of the seat ahead of me, sensed Agnes do the same thing behind me. I was too afraid to speak, too shocked to cry out. Looking back, I locked eyes with a terrified Agnes.
We hit something with a sickening jolt and suddenly the bus was no longer going sideways but backwards. Agnes and I screamed at the same time and so did the driver, though his scream was more an angry denial than an expression of fear. I watched as he twisted the wheel first one way and then the other, having no effect whatsoever on the attitude or direction of the bus. We slid off the road and headed down the embankment, which thankfully wasn't steep enough to pitch the bus over onto its side. It was steep enough, however, to pitch me off my seat into the isle and fling Agnes clear across the bus. I grimaced as I heard what could only be her head smacking the window pane. Being thrown around as I was, I was unable to look back and see if she was injured.
"No! No, goddammit!" The driver, still fighting the wheel as though it could make any possible difference, had finally found his voice. More profanities spewed from him as the bus took a particularly hard lurch crashing through a line of saplings planted on the hillside. The impact bounced him off the unforgiving wall, and halfway off his seat. He kept one hand on the wheel while planting the other on an outcrop of the dashboard. Nothing he did had the slightest effect on the bus's trajectory. And then suddenly it was over.
Oh, my God, I thought frantically. We've stopped. I looked out the windows to make sure this assumption was in fact, correct. It was. To my amazement the bus had come to rest on almost perfectly level ground. How in the name of God we had remained upright I didn't know.
The driver coughed explosively. Pushing back into his seat, he twisted around to look back at us. Still coughing, he choked out: "Are you girls okay?"
I looked back at Agnes, who looked on the verge of hyperventilating. She was fingering the left side of her head, wincing at whatever it was her fingertips probed into. She looked at me and nodded.
"We're all right," I confirmed. "What about you?"
"Okay," he answered. His coughing fit had subsided. I wondered if it had been a reaction to fear, because I felt like I should be coughing too. In fact, I think I was seriously close to throwing up. I looked back at Agnes.
"Are you okay?" I asked. I asked this not in the way of a curious bystander, but as a friend. Peculiar or not, Agnes had just gone through the same horrible experience that I had. I felt an instant bond with her, if not of friendship, then at least of camaraderie. We had survived.
Carefully, I got off my butt and brushed off the back of my jeans. My elbow hurt, and so did both of my butt cheeks. So did the outside of my left thigh, where I must have whacked it against the opposite seat going down. My back also felt stiff, as though I'd almost thrown it out of whack.
"Where are we?" Agnes asked. "Do you know?"
I had to admit that I had no idea. Turning to the driver—his back was giving him problems too, from the looks of it—I asked the same question of him that Agnes had asked of me. He looked dubious.
"Well, I think, we're off Broad Neck Road."
Anxiety shot through my chest at the question mark in his voice. "You think? You don't know?"
Rather painfully, the driver shrugged. "I know we turned off Route 3. The trouble is, it was snowing so hard when we turned that I couldn't make out the street sign. There were no landmarks that I could identify either. It was a complete whiteout for God's sake. I was counting off distance by the odometer, and when I saw a road where Broad Neck was supposed to be, I turned. I wasn't positive, but the turns in the road seemed right. We must have been coming up on Wentworth when we went off."
He hesitated, unsure.
"How far did you go up?" I asked. Right after we had moved in, I idly checked the distance on Dad's odometer from the school to home. The distance from Route 3 to Wentworth was a mile and a half. Though I hadn't been paying close attention, I was sure that we had gone a mile and a half down Broad Neck, maybe even two miles. Oh, God. Were we lost?
"Relax," he said, smiling tightly. "Even if we're on the wrong road, it's not like were on the backside of the moon. We didn't slide that far, and anyone passing will see the headlights. They're pointing right at the road." We all looked through the front windshield at the whirling, driving snow. I wondered if the lights could be seen from twenty feet away, much less up that long hill to the top of the embankment. Seemed to me anyone up there would be concentrating hard as could be on the snow-covered pavement right before him or her; not sightseeing.
"Besides—" He indicated the radiophone that he used to communicate with the dispatcher and school. "I'll call in and they'll send a wrecker out for the bus and a 4x4 to get you girls home. We can't be more than a hundred feet from the road. Nothing to worry about."
In my old school district in Atlanta, the buses had all been equipped with GPS tracker units on the roof. You couldn't get lost, even if you had tried. Here, you had to depend on the radiophone if something went wrong; or, on your cell phone. Remembering that mine was dead gave me a new, seasick feeling. I pulled it out and flipped back the lid to check. It was dead, completely. It had died in my pocket. I couldn't even call my folks to tell them what was going on.
"Fuck." I turned to Agnes. "Can I borrow your cell phone? Mine is dead."
She smiled in apology and shrugged. "Sorry, I don't have one."
I looked at her in astonishment. "You don't have one?"
She shook her head, blushing, lowering her eyes out of embarrassment. I didn't know anyone, not even here in Minnesota that didn't have a cell phone. I turned to the driver, whose name I now remembered was Mr. Sanford.
"Could I use your cell phone to call my mom? Mine's dead. " I held it out as proof.
Nodding absently, he dug in his coat pocket and came out with a battered old phone that looked nearly as old as he did. Flipping it open, he wrinkled his forehead. He held the phone up and away from him, turned in a quarter-circle, and then turned completely around. Then he walked down the isle toward us moving the cell phone to either side of the bus, scowling more and more deeply.
"The tower must be down. I usually get three bars out here, no matter where we are." He looked out the window in the general direction of Route 3, where the cell phone towers were. "Bad luck," he said, holding out the display so that I could verify that he was telling the truth. The phone was a Samsung; I was amazed it worked at all. Sure enough, there were no bars showing.
Suddenly, Mr. Sanford turned around to stare at the handset of the radiotelephone. He hurried back up the isle to the front, Agnes and I right behind him.
Please! I thought. Please, please let that phone be working!
Snatching up the handset, Mr. Sanford pushed the transmit lever on the side and spoke loudly and clearly: "Dispatch? 9899. Over."
Nothing but static answered the callout. "Dispatch? 9899 here, calling an emergency. We are off the road somewhere east of Wentworth on Broad Neck Road. Do you copy, dispatch?"
He released the lever and we listened to more static. I thought, maybe, that I heard a faint voice attempting to answer. If so, it sounded from the far side of the moon.
Bending over to check the dial, Mr. Sanford called out again. When there was still no answer, he rotated the switch to a second frequency and called out on that. The results were no better. Each time his call went unanswered, my stomach cramped a little harder, and my hands shook a little more, until I felt right on the edge of panic.
"Are we trapped out here?" I croaked. "Please tell me we aren't trapped out here." I cast a frantic look at Agnes and found her staring back at me with big, slowly blinking eyes.
"It's okay," she muttered. "Even if we are, it's not like we're going to freeze to death or anything. The engine's running, and we have plenty of gas." She and I and Mr. Sanford all looked at the dashboard at the same time. Seeing the needle on the gas gage resting at just over half a tank, I released a shuddering sigh and relaxed. If worst came to worse, we could run the engine for a while, get things warm and toasty, and then shut it off for a while. It would surely last until we were rescued. Surely.
After trying the third and final frequency with the same result, and then going through all three channels one more time, Mr. Sanford resolutely replaced the handset into the cradle and cursed mildly under his breath.
"Either the weather is doing this, we're too far out, which I don't believe is possible, or something happened to the antenna when we crashed. Whatever the cause—" He folded his arms deliberately across his chest. "—we're stranded here until the storm is over, or until they come looking for us."
Another thought occurred to me. "What about food? What about water?"
Looking surprised, and then thoughtful, Agnes returned to her seat and grabbed her backpack off the floor. She hunted through it for a moment and brought out an unopened bottle of Dasani. It was only 12 oz, but it was something to drink. Seeing it made me remember the half-full bottle of Diet-Coke in my own backpack.
"I have a pack of cookies in here somewhere too," she said. She located not one, but two packs of Oreo cookies in the smaller front pocket. She continued looking, but finally shrugged and admitted, "That's it, sorry."
We both looked at Mr. Sanford, who shook his head. "Worst comes to worst, we melt snow. It's not like we've any shortage of frozen water."
Snowballs for dinner, I thought. How yummy.
I told them about my half-bottle of Diet-Coke, not wanting anyone to think I was holding out. I only wished that I had two packages of cookies in my backpack also, instead of the half-ounce of pot I was holding for Paul. I guessed we could eat that if we had too. That idea made me grin, wryly.
While Mr. Sanford returned to the radiotelephone, and alternately his useless cell phone, Agnes and I sat down in a seat a few rows back and bundled our arms across our chests. Despite the heat blowing from the floor vents, it felt not much warmer than fifty degrees in the bus. I experimentally opened my mouth and blew out air. I was alarmed to see mist. It was colder than I had thought. Agnes leaned forward and looked down at the floor, then up at the frost-spangled windows. For the windows to be frozen over like that, the temperature outside must have really plummeted.
"This is scary," she whispered. "I've never seen snow blow this hard." She wiped the window with the heel of her hand; it did nothing whatsoever to clear the frost, if anything, worsened things.She rubbed the side of her hand against her pant leg and then put it back in her coat pocket. It occurred to me that Agnes was no more a Minnesota native than I was.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
She sighed wistfully. "Florida. I hate it here. What about you?"
"Atlanta," I said. "I wish I was there now"
"Me too. You moved here over the summer?"
Though she looked at me with quick, semi-embarrassed glances, she had beautiful, big brown eyes, the color and warmth of hot chocolate. Her skin, though peppered with tiny dots of acne across her forehead, was otherwise nice. Like many girls with very dark hair, she had a hint of a mustache; it wasn't unattractive; it was just there. The few times she had smiled, she had displaced a very nice set of teeth. I wondered how a girl as inherently attractive as Agnes could be so insecure, so timid, so off-putting.
"We could be on the beach right now," I said, thinking of bikinis and waxing, spaghetti-straps and shorts and sandals. I wondered if they even sold sandals in Minnesota. "What made your folks move up here?" I asked.
She shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. "My dad got his own congregation. That, and it was almost like moving home again. We're originally from Wisconsin. He hates hot weather almost as much as I love it. It's just not fair," she complained, thrusting out her lower lip. I had to laugh.
"Congregation? Like a church congregation?"
She nodded. "He's a rabbi. My mother teaches--"
"You're Jewish?" I broke in, startled.
She looked at me, eyebrows raised. "Ahlberg? I would think so." Her lips curled up at the corners, letting me know I was being teased. I loved how her eyes twinkled as she smiled.
Feeling my face redden, I answered quickly: "Sorry, I didn't mean--"
She laughed, only feeding my embarrassment. "I've never had a Jewish friend before," I muttered.
Her smile broadened. "You're sure it's allowed? I mean, after all, you are blond and beautiful. You wouldn't want to jeopardize your good standing, or your good seat at lunch."
Though said teasingly, her words had bite. I sat at a table jammed from one end to the other with all my friends. Most of the time, Agnes sat alone or with a small group of equally nerdy geeks.
I said: "There's room for one more at my table. Or we could always start our own table. Nerds on one side, all the cool kids on the other."
She couldn't help herself. With a startling radiance, a smile broke across her face. My right hand rose of its own accord, and with no instruction from me whatsoever swept the hair on her left side back behind her ear. My left hand came up and did the same to the hair on her other side. Startled, she blinked and jerked backwards, away from me. Thoroughly embarrassed and beginning to redden I shot a glance forward and was relieved to see Mr. Sanford hunched over, examining the settings on the radio. He had the microphone in his hand.
"Sorry," I said, looking away. "I shouldn't have done that." Agnes had self-consciously—or subconsciously—swept the rest of her hair back behind her ears, securing whatever I had missed. I felt my face go red hot. I looked down at my clamped-together hands, wishing I were anywhere but on that bus. Agnes sat back against the seat and looked out the window.
"I should move," I muttered, almost unintelligibly.
"Please don't." Her right hand moved and hovered just above my clasped hands. She moved it back, let it fall to her thigh.
"Can I show you something?" she asked.
I nodded stiffly.
Picking up her backpack, she unzipped the main compartment and removed a small, white laptop computer and sat it on her lap. I recognized the Apple logo. Her fingers fumbled at the catch, the lid raised to the upright position, displaying a sign-on screen. With visibly trembling fingers she typed in her password and hit the Return key. The desktop appeared. She paused, hand still trembling. Suddenly she shut the lid again.
"I can't do this," she mumbled.
"Can't do what?" I wondered. I didn't want to admit that I was as confused as I was embarrassed.
"What I was doing."
"What were you doing?"
"That's what I can't show you," she said cryptically.
I laughed, fighting to keep my hand in my lap where it belonged, not across the narrow space separating her from me. "You should show me, Agnes."
"I'm too embarrassed to," she complained. In fact, her face had gone beet red, redder even than my own a minute ago. She started to return the laptop to her backpack; I reached across and caught her right wrist.
"Show me. It's okay, I promise. We're supposed to be friends, remember?"
She laughed bitterly. "I don't think we're that good of friends, Ellen."
Unwisely, I made her return the laptop to her lap and fought with her to reopen the lid. She resisted me with something akin to mild panic.
"It's OK," I assured her. "Whatever it is, I'm not gonna think bad of you."