“Don’t you remember? We were just talking! About The Jonas Brothers? Hell-LOOOW? Two seconds ago?”
She swallowed. Her mouth was cottony and nothing washed down. “Sorry … I think I had … I think ….”
Beth raised her brows. “What?”
She exhaled, her heart still throbbed in her chest, and she licked her lips. Useless. She had no saliva to wet them. “Nothing, forget it,” she managed. “I’m cool.”
“You don’t look cool.” Beth sat back, her eyes suspicious. “You sure you don’t want to tell Ms. Madison?”
“We’re almost there. I’ll feel better when we’re out of the bus.”
“You’re not gonna puke, are you? I just got this coat and I so don’t want you to puke on it.”
“No,” she said, her voice more steady. “No, I’m not gonna puke.”
The bus wheezed and coughed up a crest, and before them the road took a sharp dip and rounded a hair-pin turn. The driver struggled with the gearshift for a moment, the bus ground a metallic saw-buzz beneath them.
“If you’re okay, fine. But what happened?” Beth twisted in her seat.
A loud snap and then a shudder ran through the bus. The driver shouted a loud curse and the wheel spun in his hands, loose and ineffectual. A whipping sound trailed along the undercarriage before another metallic snap shook the bus. The driver screamed.
They leaned forward as one, the wheels bounced over the debris the vehicle vomited onto the blacktop. The driver leaned forward, grabbed a lever in both hands and yanked in desperate hurried movements. His body shot back against the unexpected lack of resistance and he toppled out of the seat, down the entrance stairs and banged against the folding doors below.
The children all gasped as one, then scattered shrieks began to harmonize in a terrified chorus. Ms. Madison, seated behind the driver, lunged for the wheel but it too offered no resistance to her motions and spun in her hand. It had no effect on the bus, which hurled downhill, gathering momentum, tracking toward the steel strip of guard rail at the bottom of the hill. The road curved left hard behind a contour of mountain there and disappeared. Tree tops speared up even with the blacktop beyond the guardrail. The chasm in which they rooted was invisible as the bus rocketed along the steep hill.
She closed her eyes and the dream returned. The dirty little girl stared through big, clear eyes at her. She had her knees, knobby through the filthy, thin material of her ragged clothes, pulled to her chest and clutched her pathetic, battered doll to her cheek.
Her voice was steady and calm when she spoke to the dirty little ghost, the two of them tucked into the corner of the train car again. “Does it hurt?”
The little girl snuggled the doll closer. She closed her big eyes, and nodded.