Ready or Not

By Cassie Daley

 

I don't know where I am, or how I got here. The inside of the car smells expensive, like cigars and leather. You know how sometimes a thing can just smell fancy, and you know that it cost someone a pretty penny to pay for it? I don't know much about cars, but I know a lot about how things smell.

 

My Daddy used to call me his ‘Little Bloodhound’, and it was a running joke in our family ever since I was small. Daddy used to test me with candles when we went to the store, asking me to name the smells like it was a party trick. He loved that I was so good at it, up until I smelled Aunt Rachel's perfume on Daddy's shirt after one of his late work nights, and made the mistake of mentioning it to Momma.

 

They started fighting a lot after that, and it wasn't much longer until Daddy moved to LA, and I didn't see him anymore on account of him living in what Momma calls a “fleabag motel". We don't visit Aunt Rachel for Easter anymore either, but Momma says it doesn't have anything to do with what I asked her.

 

Daddy started calling me Abby, and eventually stopped calling me at all. I told myself I didn’t miss being his Little Bloodhound, and that I didn’t miss him. Neither were true.

 

There had been a long string of boyfriends since Daddy left, too. Some of them Momma brought home from bars, and they always smelled like old sweat, dirty laundry, and alcohol. They varied from embarrassed to see me in the kitchen when they awoke from their drunken stupors to barely acknowledging my existence, but I didn’t mind these types of boyfriends. Not as much as the others.

 

My Momma had never had to work. She’d met my Daddy in high school, and he’d been the one to support us all these years. She wasn’t accustomed to being left without a bread-winner in the family. Child support could only do so much, and sometimes a little help from a rich new boyfriend could make the difference between being able to afford groceries for the week or relying on free school lunches to sustain me.

 

She never seemed to notice the way the rich ones looked at me. I didn’t really notice either, not at first. At thirteen, I’d barely even started growing the parts that a woman had, that my Momma had. I’d never had a boyfriend, and was more interested in going to the mall with my girlfriends than boys anyhow.

 

When they were close enough, the rich ones had a certain smell the others didn’t have. It was sharp, cloying. They smelled like poison and darkness, and it didn’t take me long to know which of Momma’s boyfriends I had to avoid.

 

I always tried, but it never mattered.

 

"Are you ready?"

 

Startled, I glance to my left where an older boy is sitting in the

driver’s seat. I don’t recognize him; I don't know very many older boys, except Johnny McKinley in the eleventh grade, who flirts with the popular eighth graders and once got into trouble for setting off the fire alarm in the boy’s locker room.

 

I'm in the eighth grade, but my clothes aren't nice enough to be popular, and Momma makes me get my hair cut at the same place we've always gone, so we've had matching hairstyles since I was six. I don't think Johnny knows who I am, and I know for sure that I don't know the boy driving the car I've found myself in. He’s wearing a dark blue button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up part way, with dark jeans tucked into even darker boots. My eyes travel across the angles of his dark face, his thick eyelashes and dark eyes. He doesn’t look like any of Momma’s boyfriends, but he’s dressed like some of the rich ones, which puts me on high alert.

 

I smell coffee on his clothes. It reminds me of the scent of the coffee Momma let me drink some mornings if I asked her real nice, which was really just a mug filled with milk and a splash of the good stuff. She said the older I got, the more coffee and less milk I could drink. I complained and told her it wasn't fair that Jenny Mitchell's parents have been letting her drink coffee since the fifth grade and I still get barely more than a drop.

 

Sometimes I’d take sips from her mug when I caught her getting ready for one of her dates, and I’d press my lips against the places where her lipstick left a stain. I’d try to imagine what it would be like when I was older, and how it would feel to get ready in the morning with pantyhose and make-up just like Momma. It’s in these moments that I always get closest to telling her the truth about what’s been going on at night, but something always stops me. I know she’s doing her best, and I don’t want to hurt her.

 

“Who are you?" In the passenger seat, I glance out of the windshield and don’t recognize anything. I don’t feel as worried as I think I should. We drive silently through residential streets with names I've never heard of, lined with houses that are just a little bit... off.  At first I can’t pinpoint why the houses look strange, but the longer I stare the more obvious it becomes.

 

The houses are all upside down, the doors up too high to reach near the roof, and stones in the yard leading from the driveway to what should be the upstairs windows. Even as we drive by, the houses seem to shift and almost shimmer, mirage-like, wavering in the sun. At a stop sign, I watch the windows on a house a little further down the street rearrange themselves and then settle in place again.

 

"Are you ready?" The driver asks this again with an urgency in his voice that hadn't been there moments ago. I stare down at my knees, unsure how to answer a question I don’t  understand. Staring down at my lap, I notice the left knee of my tights is ragged and frayed, ripped apart to reveal the torn, angry flesh underneath.

 

I don’t remember falling, but my knee is scraped raw, bits of my white school tights stuck to the wound where the blood has soaked through. A dull ache starts in my knee as I become aware of the damage I can’t explain, and it slowly spreads until it envelops most of my thigh, reaching up to my hip. I lift the edge of my skirt a little to make sure I don’t have other injuries, and can’t see anything that explains the aching.

 

An exasperated sigh from the driver offers a temporary distraction from the growing pain, and I flip my skirt back into place as I turn in my seat to face him.

 

"Who are you?” I repeat. “How did I get here?" He looks over at me, and I don’t understand his expression. The sadness I see in his face seems too familiar for someone I don’t know, discomfort creeping along the base of my spine, goosebumps rising along my arms. I look through the windshield and realize we’re no longer in the neighborhood of wavering houses; the road arches ahead of us, with the desert on one side and a river on the other. There are no landmarks or buildings, nothing to tell me where I am.

 

"Can you remember anything from today?" The driver’s voice was soft, concerned. He doesn’t seem dangerous. While I don’t get the sense that he wants to hurt me, my unease grows at his avoidance of my direct questions. Shaking my head, I tried to think back to the last thing I remembered, which was proving to be harder with each passing moment.

 

The pain in my leg has spread upward to my lower back, and I’m having trouble focusing on anything other than the ache that seems to get worse with each passing second. Closing my eyes, I try to think about what I had eaten for breakfast that morning. It was cereal at school -- no, eggs! Momma made eggs for breakfast before leaving for work, because I had a field trip today and would miss breakfast at school. If I didn't eat at home, I'd be starving  by the time our field trip lunch came around, and Momma could only spare $5 for me to eat at the aquarium diner. It was a miracle I could even go at all - with $40 admission and field trip costs, my mom had barely managed to scrape together enough for me to attend.

 

The week before, she’d brought home a new boyfriend. This one had that same dark smell, and he moved faster than any of the others. The first night Momma invited him to spend the night, I woke up to him in my bedroom, felt him closer than he should have been. The next day, he’d given Momma what she called ‘spending money’, and she was so happy to have a little extra that she’d taken me out to lunch and a movie. I hated every dollar we spent of his, but I didn’t want to wipe the smile from Momma’s face. She kept saying it was our “girl’s day out”, and that we deserved this.

 

Shortly after returning from our activities, Momma announced that her new boyfriend would be coming over for dinner. He’d stayed that night, and again he’d come to my room after he and Momma had gone to bed. I cried until he was finished, until he went back to Momma’s bed and only the faintest scent of his poison remained. There was more money the next day after he left for work.

 

That morning, we didn’t have a ‘girl’s day out’. This time Momma looked at me as she put the money into her wallet, and I saw a tear slide down her face. With two words she confirmed something I’d only suspected during my darkest moments: “I’m sorry.” With those two words, I realized that I hadn’t been protecting her by keeping my secret. She’d known, and she’d chosen not to protect me.

 

Brought back to the present by the throbbing in my body, I thought about the field trip. Had the driver kidnapped me while I was there? Was I taken from the crowds, while I stood beneath the rippling blue lights and marveled at the jellyfish I’d seen in the pamphlets handed out by the teacher? Had I gotten separated from my class somehow, had he drugged me so I wouldn't scream? Was that why I couldn't remember anything?

 

As we approach the top of the steep hill, I notice how dark the world has become. The sky is a deep purple, and I know the field trip must be over by now. I wonder briefly if my classmates asked why I hadn’t gone home with them, or if my teacher noticed that the head count was one student off.

 

We drive toward a bridge that I can barely make out in the setting sunlight. As if a result of my thoughts alone, each beam of the bridge starts to light up with bright bulbs, sparkling and shining, twinkling in competition with one another. We race alongside them as we drive onto the bridge, and it seems to stretch on forever.

 

Grimacing against the pain, I twist back around to the front windshield as we slow to a stop near the middle of the bridge. The road is blocked by news crew vans, cars, police vehicles and fire trucks. People are standing outside their cars, crying, huddled against one another in the pouring rain.

 

"Are you ready?" The driver’s voice is quiet, pleading. I don’t understand the question any more the third time around, and I tell him so. He shakes his head at me and parks the car toward the side of the bridge, motioning for me to get out. My whole body aches now, and I feel cold. Certainly too cold to get out on a bridge with a boy who may have kidnapped me and have an odd case of selective amnesia. I want to stay in the car, not because it feels any more familiar, but because it feels safer than whatever is going on up ahead on the bridge.

 

I want the driver to get back in the car and take me home. He can even take me back to the aquarium if he wants, I don’t care. Even as I think this, I watch him walk around the car to the passenger side where I had already begun to shiver. He opens the door and holds his hand out to me, the movement deliberate and slow. I give him my hand, and allow myself to be pulled from the car, stepping away without bothering to glance backward. I instinctively know I won’t be returning.

 

Still holding my hand, the driver guides me gracefully through the crowd of sobbing onlookers, to the front where the police have set up signs and caution tape. Several of the policemen and firefighters are standing in a group near the crowd, but a few are closer to the edge of the bridge. He leads me to them, and I see that the part of the bridge they’re closest to is broken. Twisted metal rails bend outward at an alarming angle, away from the bridge as if something had broken free.

 

I let go of my companion's hand and shuffle forward, each step creating a new wave of excruciating pain that is like fireworks exploding from each nerve ending, white hot and blazing. The thought of fireworks reminds me of the Fourth of July cannons that shot into the air at the summer parade Momma and I went to the year before. Daddy had gone into work, so we’d gone without him. “Just us girls,” Momma had said conspiratorially to me, as we watched the fireworks and licked our melting vanilla ice cream cones.

 

The thought of our closeness before Daddy left feels like a knife to my heart when I remember the way she apologized to me over her coffee later. It wasn’t the last time she took that boyfriend’s money, or even the last time he’d spent the night, bringing his poisonous stink into our home and into my bedroom again and again. I replayed the way she looked at me, the way her eyes begged me to understand.

 

"Have we met before?" I ask the driver as he follows behind me, patiently matching my slow speed. I glance back to him and see his smile, and the small shake of his head. I reach the edge of the bridge and look down. The water below is flat. undisturbed, and peaceful. It seems to call to me, the icy water cold enough to numb the pain that is close to overwhelming me.

 

A police radio crackles to life, and a woman's voice pierces the air about a robbery currently taking place. A firefighter separates himself from the main group and heads in our direction. He turns to a man with a thick mustache and heavy eyebrows standing closest to me, staring down at the water’s surface from a few feet away.

 

"Are there any survivors?" My eyes dart back to the bent railing, and then down again to the water. Behind us, more people gather, some holding lighters and crying. A group of policemen hold back reporters and the more gutsy bridge patrons.

         

The deputy clears his throat loudly and shakes his head as he confirms, "None from what we can see. We're waiting on the team of divers now, but the bus was mostly submerged by the time we arrived on the scene. Dispatch says the bus was assigned to a class from the middle school that was due to return from a field trip to the aquarium a couple of hours ago. Parents started calling in, looking for their kids. We didn't know what to tell them, and then we get a call that a bus had gone off a bridge - put two and two together."

 

"Christ! How many passengers?" The firefighter takes his helmet off and stares down at the water, a horrified expression on his face.

 

"There were thirty-two eighth graders, teacher, two student aids, four parent chap--"

 

The blood suddenly rushes to my head all at once and I’m dizzy from the effort it takes to remain upright. The driver who brought me here holds my arm as I sway and shake, remembering at last.

 

I hadn't been kidnapped. I had gotten on the bus after my field trip, and I had remembered smelling the alcohol on the bus driver's breath, but ignoring it. I chose instead to keep my mouth shut, lest I ruin someone else's life like I had ruined my parents' marriage with my Little Bloodhound nose.

 

I remembered looking out the window and lamenting the improbability of Johnny McKinley ever asking me to the eighth grade dance. I wondered what going home tonight would be like, and if this night would go like the last several had. I wondered if maybe I had misunderstood Momma’s apology, if maybe I’d just tell her the truth outright, she’d do something to help keep me safe. I remembered wondering  if it was possible for everything to eventually have a happy ending, somehow, even if things didn't seem to for a while.

 

I recall the startled cries of my classmates when the bus driver passed out from the alcohol he’d consumed on the bridge a few miles away from school. The sound of metal crashing against metal as we hit the railing, and the screaming and terror I felt when the bus flipped in the air as it began its descent to the water. The way the force of the impact threw my body violently against the ground of the bus where the metal bit into my hip and side, ripping the fabric and flesh of my knee.

 

I remembered the world stopping, twirling. The houses on the other side of the river looked so funny from the bus window upside-down, like they were surprised with too many eyes and their opened mouths. We hit the water, and it opened its arms to me, stopping my breath with a hug that felt too tight and too cold. The houses wavered and disappeared as we sank, trapped on the school bus.

 

I remembered choking on the water, the way it filled my lungs as I struggled for air. The light above filtered through the dirty river that ran beneath the bridge, and it drew further and further away as the bus drifted lower and lower, pulling me with it and away from school and field trips, from Momma and her boyfriends.

 

"Are you ready?" This final repeated question pulls my eyes from the scene below and brings them back to the boy. He stands with a cane now, one I hadn't noticed before, made of a dark wood that houses ornate carvings, and words in a language I don’t recognize. He seems older now. much older than when I first laid eyes on him in the car.

 

He holds out his hand again, and I understand.

 

"Yes."

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