(A slightly edited version of the story previously posted under my pen-name Rebecka)
God, I hate the snow. When I was 14 years old, my best friend and I were trapped on a bus in a snowstorm. 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 decade. 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, 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 from the school than myself. 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 out 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 wide-eyed 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. Being thrown around as I was, I was unable to look back and see if she was injured.
"No! No, goddammit, no!" The driver, still fighting the wheel as though it could make any possible difference, had finally found his voice. More profanities spewed from his mouth as the bus took a particularly hard lurch crashing through a line of saplings planted on the hillside. The impact bounced him off the ungiving 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 had 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 the 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 muttered. Any minute now, Mom would start having conniptions. 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 said, holding 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 and ooking at the display, he wrinkled his forehead worriedly. He held the cell 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 into the handset 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 transmit 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 till 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 on them. I only wished that I had two packages of cookies in my backpack 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 out 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 them 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, only made scrape marks that, if anything, worsened things. Looking at it first, Agnes 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. "What part of Florida?"
"Sarasota. You moved up over the summer?"
I nodded. 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 flawless. 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.
"I'd give anything to be in Florida right now," she said, shivering. I thought of bikinis and waxing, spaghetti-straps and shorts and sandals. I wondered if they even sold sandals in the state of Minnesota.
"What made your folks move up here?" I asked.
She shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. "My dad got his own congregation here. 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 moped, thrusting out her lower lip. I had to laugh.
"What do you mean by congregation? Like a church congregation?"
She nodded. "Synagogue. He's a rabbi. My mother teaches--"
"You're Jewish?" I broke in, startled.
She looked at me, eyebrows raised. "Agnes? Ahlberg? Yeah," she added, drawing out the word condescendingly. "What did you think I was?" 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 thickly: "I don't know. I thought—"
"That I was Greek?" she interrupted, still teasing. "Yugoslavian? I guess I have the coloring for a Yugoslavian. Actually, I'm from Poland by way of Sweden. My grandparents emigrated just after the war. Mom and Dad were an arranged marriage, actually. Does it bother you that I'm Jewish?"
"Well ... no," I said uncertainly. I didn't think it bothered me. Looking at her more closely, I didn't understand how I could have not known she was Jewish. Suddenly, her unpopularity made more sense. There are not a lot of Jews in Minnesota.
"I've never had a Jewish friend before," I admitted.
"Is that what I am now?" she asked, almost caustically. "Your friend?"
"You don't want to be?" I countered. A smile tugged at my own lips.
Her smile broadened, began to show teeth. "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 friends.
In reply, 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 bent 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 from hot, to 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, Agnes 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, where it displayed 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 enquired. 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.
"Agnes..." I fought 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 mine had been a minute ago. She started to return the laptop to her backpack; I reached across and caught her right wrist.
"You should 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. Please let go of my hand."
Instead, I forced her to return the laptop to her thighs 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."
"Yes, you are," she said decidedly. "You're never gonna want to talk to me again." Regardless, she released the lid and let me lever it into an open position.
"Type in the password," I coaxed.
"Please, Agnes? I want to see."
"No, you don't," she said unequivocally.
"Yes, I do."
Stubborn, she just shook her head.
Pulling the computer off her lap onto my own lap, I typed combinations of letters close to what I had seen her enter. Frowning, her forehead creased and her eyebrows pulled into a straight line, she watched while I tried combination after combination. I was just about to give up when it hit me: I typed in my last name.
"You've got to be kidding me," I said.
Agnes looked away, groaning softly. I stared at her, blinking. When the desktop was firmly in place, I moved the cursor around using the touch-pad, trying to think what to do next. I looked over at Agnes again.
"Here," I said, "show me."
Wordlessly, she reached over and directed the cursor to the Mail icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. She clicked it, and a moment later a window popped up, covering the middle of the display. I skimmed down the unfamiliar list of addresses and headers, looking for anything of interest. I saw nothing. It was just typical correspondence from friends and acquaintances of hers, interspersed with junk mail.
"I don't understand," I said.
Again silently, she moved the cursor so that it rested above the Drafts folder on the left side of the screen. When she removed her hand and replaced it in her lap, I clicked the folder. Blinking, I gasped. Filling the Drafts folder were email after email addressed to me.
"Agnes," I said. "What is this?" I looked at her, and her lips were trembling. Her eyes were filled with tears. Her jaw quivered as though she'd burst into sobs at any moment. Unbidden, my hand stole over to her lap and gripped her clasped hands. "Don't," I said very softly. I looked from her face, to the screen and back again.
The latest email in the queue, dated last night at 10:45 P.M., read:
Another boring day. I'm sitting on my bed propped against the headboard and a stack of pillows. I'm in the pajamas you like so much (the white ones with the blue stripes?), watching a repeat of Grey's Anatomy. Lexie just kissed McSteamy and I am absolutely livid over it! I want to throw the remote at the screen! What is wrong with that girl?
Anyway, today at lunch you glanced over at me and I managed to get my eyes away from you just in time. You were talking to Sara, who had a really nasty look on her face, the kind she gets when she's teasing me or talking to someone when she knows I can overhear. I wanted to give her the finger, but oddly enough, I don't think it was me she was talking about.
One thing I have to give you: although you normally look at whoever she's sniping, you usually look as though whatever Sara's saying bores or irritates you. Also, you are never mean when talking to un-cool people like me. Not like Sara and your other friends. I like that about you. You're different. In many ways, you're more like my friends and me than you are like Sara and her friends. Not that I think you're drab. You are the most un-drab person I can imagine. It just hurts me to see you hang around those B's and know I'll never be a part of your group, never be good enough for you.
She went on to describe her evening, including an argument with her mom, a yelling match she'd gotten into with her brother—I couldn't imagine Agnes yelling at anyone, brother included—and difficulties with her homework. I also read about the ten times she had wanted to call me on the telephone and hadn't the nerve, the heartbreaking hopelessness she felt, knowing that I'd never in a million years call her. It made me want to cry, and at the same time, go sit at the back of the bus, as far away from her as I could get. Never once, had I ever suspected anything.
"I don't understand," I muttered honestly. "We don't even know each other. How could... ?" The improbabilities made my head spin. There were so many emails.
Scrolling down the list I realized that a day hadn't passed in the last month that she hadn't written me something. Often, there were two or three, even four emails in one day. Turning my head, I looked at her, dumbfounded. Then I pushed the laptop away and stumbled out of the seat and made my way to the back of the bus.
I didn't understand. Worse, I didn't understand my reaction. No, that's a lie; I understood my reaction fully well: I had freaked. I was overwhelmed. Floored by the unexpectedness of the discovery as well as by the significance of it. This girl was in love with me. In love, or hopelessly infatuated, which for a teenager amounts to the same thing. It was so totally not what I expected.
Confounded, I sat with my arms clamped over my chest, my legs clamped together, staring at the window. Ahead of me, Agnes remained where I had left her in her seat. Although I paid no attention to her at all, I could tell without looking that she was really shaken up, possibly even crying. Peripherally, I could see her hunched over, looking at the floor.
Why had she showed me the laptop? Why had she led me to the emails? Was she crazy? What was she thinking? How could she possibly think that I was interested in her? I wanted to jump up and scream Lezzie! Freak! Dyke! Go get your pussy somewhere else!
Then why the hell did you do touch her hair, I wondered?
The question, unbidden and coming out of nowhere, rocked me back in my seat.
What, I demanded, almost aloud.
You touched her hair, tucked it behind her ears. What the hell did you think would happen?
I didn't do that, I objected.
The hell you didn't! You led her on, and then freaked out when she responded to your advances.
I sat bolt upright. Indignantly I set that voice straight right away. Bullshit! No action of mine resulted in that girl filling her head and her computer with nonsense! Did you see that shit? She's been writing to me since the start of school. When did I ever so much as smile at her or say more than hi? Today was the first time we ever said more than ten words to each other. The only time I even notice her is when she says or does something stupid. She's nothing to me.
Really, the voice asked. You think that's true?
I sat, fuming. Where the hell did this voice get off telling me I didn't know my own mind? Since when had I ever thought, or cared about Agnes Ahlberg? God damned little cunt licker.
For another ten minutes I remained rigidly in denial. Then, slowly, as my anger drained away, I began to experience doubt. If I was to be truthful with myself, wasn't it true that I was unusually aware of someone I claimed to have no interest in? Although we shared no classes, why did I always seem to notice what clothes she wore, the state of her hair, her lack of makeup and who, if anyone, she was conversing with. And why, I had to ask myself, was I sometimes bothered seeing her crack a smile or have her dullness otherwise lifted talking with another girl? (I had never, that I could remember, seen her talking to a guy.) And why did the face looking back at me from the frosted over window, though blurry and somewhat distorted, look so miserable?
With a suddenness that made me jump, the engine died and the lights went out. Ten rows ahead of me, Agnes gasped and started out of her hunched-over position. Mr. Sanford muttered, "What the hell?" and looked around the interior of the bus, now illuminated only by an emergency panels mounted front and rear on the ceiling. I stood up, uncertainly, and then sat back down again. Now what, I wondered.
Setting aside her backpack, which she had been holding in her lap, Agnes slid off her seat and walked cautiously forward, stopping right behind the driver's seat. Mr. Sanford was trying to restart the engine, but it wasn't even turning over. It made no noise at all, not even the clicking noise my dad's car made when the battery had died. I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest and looked down at the floor. With the engine stopped, heat no longer blew out of the vents. I began to shiver.
"What's the matter?" Agnes asked, alarm in her voice. "Why won't it start?"
"I don't know, honey," Mr. Sanford said distractedly. "We have plenty of fuel." He tapped the gas gauge, and then examined all the other gauges on the dashboard, his finger following his eyes. "I'm afraid it could be electrical."
"Isn't the engine a diesel?" Agnes surprised me by asking.
Mr. Sanford grunted disagreement. "Propane. It needs electricity, just like a regular gasoline engine." He stared at the dashboard, muttering, thinking hard. "The only thing I can think of is the alternator went out when we hit that stranded car." So that was what the impact had been that spun us completely around, I guessed. He half rose out of his seat to look out over the hood. "We hit on the left side, where the alternator is. If it was damaged or the belt came loose..." He shrugged and sat back down. "The engine would run on the battery for a while, until it ran out of juice. I think that's what happened." He did not sound happy. It fact, he sounded very worried.
"How long will the emergency lights work?" Agnes wanted to know. She looked at the fixture above the windshield, then at the one above the rear door. Our eyes met for an instant; I looked away, half a second too late.
"Eight hours," Mr. Sanford said. "More or less. They work off a separate battery." He looked over his shoulder at Agnes. "Don't worry, missy. We'll be out of here way before then. I promise you that."
Agnes shook her head forcefully. "How can you promise that? We're stranded here. We're not even sure we're on the right road. You weren't able to raise anybody, and now we don't even have lights to show anybody where we are."
The rising panic in her voice was unmistakable. Shaking off my stupor, I slid off the seat and shuffled up the isle. She had just begun to speak again in a high, cracking voice when I touched her shoulder. She jumped and cried out sharply.
"It's okay," I told her. "The bus is insulated, right, Mr. Sanford? It shouldn't get below freezing in here. We can easily hold out until someone finds us. We have your water, and my Diet-Coke, and like Mr. Sanford said, we can always eat snow if we really get thirsty." I squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "We'll be fine."
Her fear I could handle, but I wanted to flinch away from the look of pain and betrayal in her eyes. I smiled. It felt horribly forced and wooden.
"The trouble is--" We both looked at Mr. Sanford. "No matter how well the insulated the bus is..." He paused to look at the already glazing-over windshield. "The temperature is going to continue to drop until it gets quite uncomfortable in here. I'm sure they'll find us before the drop in temperature becomes life threatening--" He held up his hands defensively. "But I don't think I can take that chance."
"What do you mean?" I asked dubiously. He didn't expect us to leave the bus, did he? That seemed suicidal.
"I have to go for help. I'll—"
"No!" Agnes and I cried in tandem.
"You can't go out there!"
"You'll freeze to death!" Agnes cried.
"You won't even be able to find the road!"
"And what if no one comes along? There's hardly any houses along this stretch of road."
"Even if it's Broad Neck," I persisted. "Which we're not sure it is."
"You'll freeze to death!" Agnes repeated.
Sanford stood up. "I have a responsibility to you kids. To make sure you're safe. You won't be safe as long as we're stranded in this bus without heat. I have boots, I have a heavy winter coat; my ski cap and woolen gloves will keep me plenty warm. I'll be fine," he assured us.
"Bullshit!" I shot back. "You'll kill yourself, and leave us here alone to freeze. You're shirking your responsibility, Mr. Sanford, not honoring it!"
Looking pained that I would use such language, Mr. Sanford shook his head and pulled his parka off the back of his seat. Agnes looked close to panic again, but also undecided, biting her lower lip. She looked from me to Mr. Sanford and back, plaintively. I shrugged. If Mr. Sanford wanted kill himself, what could I do about it?
"This is really stupid," I grumped.
"Really stupid," Agnes echoed. I noticed a plume of steam in front of her mouth, and tried not to think about that.
Mr. Sanford said: "Inside that compartment are blankets." He pointed to a square door built into the panel below the dashboard. "Wrap yourselves up in them. There are flares in there as well. I'll mark my path up to the road so that I can find my way back. They burn for fifteen minutes each. I'll take half and leave half here with you. When the one closest to the bus go out, pitch out a fresh one. Even in the snow storm I'll be able to find my way back."
He squatted and flipped back the catches holding the door closed. Right in the front was a stack of plastic wrapped blankets. He grabbed one and tossed it to Agnes, another to me, and two more, one for each of us. Removing one for its plastic bag, I shook it out and wrapped it around my shoulders. The other I clutched under my right arm. Agnes held both blankets against her chest, looking very unhappy.
"This is really stupid, Mr. Sanford."
Mr. Sanford pulled out a red plastic box, flipped open the top and removed a package of flares. There were three in the package, protected by a plastic blister pack. Examining them for a long moment, he stuffed the package into his pocket, and then removed the others. There were four packs altogether, twelve flares in all. He pitched the empty box back into the compartment, resealed the hatch and stood up.
"Do you know how to light a flare?" He looked from one of us to the other.
"I've seen it done on television," Agnes admitted doubtfully. "You scratch the top of the cap across the top of the flare." She pantomimed the action, her movements no more certain than her voice.
"Exactly," Mr. Sanford agreed. He opened the package and held out one of the flares to Agnes, but she shied away. I took it instead.
"Show me," he said.
Clumsily, I peeled away the red fabric band holding the plastic top to the flare and dropped it on the floor. The cap slid off easily, revealing a red button that would ignite when struck by the rough surface on the cap. I would not want to ignite it on the bus.
"Okay. Let's give this a go." Mr. Sanford showed Agnes how to lever open the doors with the emergency handle, then had me step down into the well, where he joined me. "Go head Agnes," he said.
Looking very unhappy about it, Agnes struggled with the lever until the doors inched apart and let in a blast of frigid air and snow. Flakes abraded my face, making me blink. I held my hands up for protection, squinting my eyes, which teared almost immediately. My unprotected hands began to sting.
"Do it quickly, Ellen. Don't let more cold air in than you absolutely have to."
Taking a deep breath, still squinting, I held the flare outside the open doors and clumsily struck it with the top of the cap. Nothing happened. I tried it again with the same result. Mr. Sanford reached around and took each of my hands in one of his own and, after holding them steady a moment, deliberately and forcefully dragged the striker patch across the chemical bottom. With a whoosh, and a stink of sulfur, the flare ignited.
"Oh, my God!" I cried, looking away, blinded. I hadn't expected it to be so bright. Still holding my hand, Mr. Sanford pitched the flare fifteen feet out into the snow. It's own weight and the spewing fan of brilliantly burning gases made it sink immediately out of sight. I hadn't expected that either.
"Dammit! That's no good!"
"Just wait, sweetie."
A moment later, the snow began to glow red and suddenly there was an erupting volcano fifteen feet from the bus.
"The flare is made of sodium chlorate. It burns anywhere, even under water. Nothing can put it out." He had let go of my hands and backed up the stairs, where he took the lever from Agnes and closed the doors against the snow. "It'll burn for fifteen minutes. When it dies you strike another one and throw it out. You have six flares, which means I have an hour and a half to find help and get back here."
"What if you don't?" Agnes asked in a strangled voice. "You won't survive out there for an hour and a half. You won't make it fifteen minutes, Mr. Sanford. Please don't go!"
For a moment, I thought Mr. Sanford might cave under duress, but following a moment's indecision, he jammed his woolen ski cap down over his ears, zipped up his parka to the chin and fastened the Velcro straps, and then donned his gloves.
"You kids take care of yourselves. I'll be back before you know it. Close the door behind me and don't forget to light the next flare." And without further instruction, he banged open the doors, crouched down and leaped as far out as he could. Stupefied, I watched him struggle through the thigh deep snow up to and past the burning flare, watched him wave as merrily as if he was off on a skiing expedition, and finally disappear into the swirling, cascading darkness.
"Fuck!" I cried angrily. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" Grabbing the handle, I banged the bi-fold doors closed with a vengeance.