Scratchy carpet rubbed my cheek. A tiny pat, pat, pat noise came from just in front of me. I opened my eyes cautiously and focused on a spot a few inches in front of my face. Drips of blood hit the surface of a small pool of sticky red.
I lay awkwardly between the overhead storage racks of the bus, with one leg stuck up behind me. I turned my head slightly and followed the drips up. Above me to one side, an old man dangled from his seat. His lap belt and the fact that his feet were wedged under the seat in front held him there. His arms hung limp above his head, and down one flowed the blood. It pooled beneath his fingertips and flowed towards me across the underside of the storage rack, where it dripped off the edge.
I looked into his dead eyes for some indeterminate time, before my mind caught up with what I was seeing.
All along the upturned bus the passengers hung from their seats, limp, unmoving. A few lay crumpled in the groove of the upturned roof, where their belts had ripped out, or they hadn’t been wearing one.
I pulled my leg down and curled up in a ball. I must have been thrown from my seat too. I touched my hand to my temple and brought it away bloody. My neck was stiff and painful. My ribs and stomach ached with deep bruising. I thought I remembered buckling up, but everything was unclear.
The last I remembered was the bus winding its way through the mountains in a long zig-zag. The driver seemed a touch reckless, but I hadn’t feared for my life. Then, I think I remember swerving and leaving the road. I vaguely remember the bus tipping forward and then rolling onto its side. My head must have hit the window, maybe?
I resisted looking behind me at the pair of seats where I’d sat; my friend was not lying on the roof with me, so she would still be dangling from her seat and I couldn’t bear to see her dead eyes staring at me like the man across the aisle.
Eventually some kind of survival instinct kicked in and I uncurled and crawled along the length of the bus.
As I moved towards the front, the carnage increased. The windows went from cracked to completely shattered, the body of the bus from dented to crushed, as if some giant had stepped on it. Torn limbs. Necks twisted at unnatural angles.
I carefully crawled out through the shattered windscreen, taking care not to add to my injuries on the broken glass.
Outside, I stood up. The pain in my stomach flared and I lifted my top to reveal a dark purple bruise.
The bus lay on a step in the side of a steep valley. Up the slope a trail of smashed shrubs and scored rock marked the route the bus had taken after it left the road some hundred meters or more away. Baggage littered the steep incline like guts spilled from the belly of the bus. Among them I saw something unexpected; a man, wandering amongst the cases as if he was looking for something.
“Hey,” I called. He looked up sharply. After a puzzled moment he jogged down the slope towards me.
“I thought I was the only one who made it,” he said.
Blood stained the front his crumpled shirt from a broken nose, but his face was mostly clean, if bruised and swollen. His skin looked pale in the bright sunlight, more so because of the contrast with his dark stubble and brows. Perhaps he was in shock.
“Do you think we’ll have to wait long for help?” I asked.
“Not long I think. Look.” He pointed up at the ridge and I saw a car. Someone had stopped on the road above us. As I watched I glimpsed a person pacing around. It was hard to make out details from the angle and distance. I tried waving, but evidently they weren’t looking.
“I tried, but I don’t think they can hear us.”
He sat down with his back to the slope. After a one more attempt to get the attention of the person on the ridge, I gave up and sat down too.
“What’s your name?” the guy asked. “I’m Mike.”
“Jody. Where were you sat?” I asked.
“Near the back, I think.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
He shrugged. “Not really. I was dozing, I think.”
I looked up at the sun, climbing towards the middle of the sky. “What time is it? How long has it been?” I looked at my watch, but it seemed to have stopped. Maybe I’d hit it against something.
“Couple of hours I think.” He frowned.
“I don’t remember how I got out of the bus.”
“Maybe you were thrown clear?”
His frown deepened.
The sound of sirens drifted down. I twisted to look. Further along the valley a small convoy of emergency vehicles approached. We both stood and watched as the emergency vehicles approached and parked along the ridge. A small group of fluorescent bodies gathered along the edge.
“Hey!” Mike cried. “Over here!”
Perhaps the slight breeze carried his voice away. From up there we probably blended into the scree slope and would be hard to spot. I stuck my arm up and waved in big wide arcs. Maybe they would be able to see the movement.
One of the firemen shaded his eyes and pointed in our direction. I waved more vigorously as he spoke to a colleague and drew his attention.
We’d have to be patient while they sorted out ropes and winches to get down to the bus. The pain in my stomach was becoming very uncomfortable and the sun was fierce. I found a spot on the shaded side of the bus where there weren’t too many rocks and tried to lie down for a while. Knowing that help was on the way I could relax.
“I’m just going to rest here for a bit,” I said to Mike. “Let me know when they get here.”
After a while I heard Mike shout. “Hey, over here!”
I opened my eyes and gingerly sat up.
“Hey you, I’m talking to you!”
I felt bone weary and so tired I could sleep for a week. I hugged my knees. Mike stomped around, agitated.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, weakly.
“These guys are just ignoring me, like I’m not even here.”
A man in a bulky flash jacket appeared beside the front end of the bus and I realised they were already down. I must have nodded off while I was lying there.
“Yeah, you!” Mike reached out to grab the man’s shoulder, but his hand passed straight through and he stumbled forward. He backpedalled, staring at his hand in shock.
I blinked hard, sure that I hadn’t seen what I thought I’d seen. When Mike looked at me I looked away. I didn’t want to contemplate what he was or why I could see him. I just wanted to get rescued and go home.
The bus creaked as people moved about inside, presumably checking for survivors. I struggled to my feet. They wouldn’t have been able to see me on the far side of the bus, so they must not know I was there.
As I walked towards the front of the bus I heard voiced inside. “That’s it, careful.”
Three men awkwardly crawled out manhandling a slim stretcher with a body. I stood back as they carried the person out. I didn’t want to interfere if there was a chance they could save another person.
“Grab the de-fib kit, this one may have a chance if we’re not too late.”
“She still warm?”
“Just. It’s hard to tell. We’ll give it a go.” He started chest compressions.
I crept closer and looked over the man’s shoulder at my own pale face, jerking each time the paramedic pumped on the body’s chest. A shiver ran up my spine. Without really thinking I put my hand out to touch the paramedic and watched, fascinated, as my hand dipped through his shoulder. I pulled it back.
Another paramedic arrived with a bag which he unzipped as he knelt down beside… me. They stripped off clothing to expose bare skin for a contact. Another placed a mask and bag over my face.
“No pulse,” one of the paramedics confirmed. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” They hooked up sensors to my chest and watched a small monitor.
“Damn, she’s asystolic. Try the epinephrine.”
Another of the paramedics retrieved a syringe from the same zip up bag and injected it into a vein. They kept pumping at my chest and I backed away.
I collided with a body and shrieked.
“It’s okay,” Mike said. “It’s only me.” He looked at the body. “That’s you, isn’t it?”
I nodded, mutely. “How is that possible?”
“I think you know the answer to that.” The bruising and cuts on his face had disappeared.
I hugged my arms around my middle which strangely no longer pained me. “But what if they bring me back?”
“I’m no expert, but I don’t think they will.”
“But they could.” A gut feeling told me what he said made sense though. If there was a chance for them to bring me back, I wouldn’t be standing there watching them try. “What do we do now?” I asked. “Why are we the only ones here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we held on longer than the others and they… moved on already.”
“What if we’re stuck here forever?”
He slipped his hand into mine and gave it a squeeze. “We’ll figure it out.”
Image credit - "Red Old Bus Going Fast On The Highway” by Serge Bertasius Photography.