River Road is a short story that was written for round one of the New York City Midnight Flash Fiction competition. It placed 10th, round 2 has just ended with results released in late November.
Each round takes place over 48 hours, with writers being given a genre, location and object to incorporate into a 1000 word story.
This story is: Thriller, school bus, milkshake.
The moment she sees the stag standing in the middle of the road, Margaret knows she’s going too fast. After twenty-six years of driving the route on River Rd, she can’t believe that there is no way to stop this disaster from happening. Ahmed’s scream melds in her head with the sound of scraping metal as the bus slams into the guard rail. The metal lets out a high pitched wail of its own as it flexes and groans trying to contain the weight of the hurtling yellow bus.
The bus spins to the side as the guard rail and it’s bumper engage in a tug-o-war for eighteen young lives. Margaret’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel as the cacophony of sound blends to silence. She won’t let herself look into the rearview mirror to see if anyone’s in the aisle, she won’t let herself think about rushing river 25 meters below. She clutches that steering wheel, pumps the brake pedal and prays that it’s enough.
The crack echoes inside her bones as the guard rail struts crumple and the metal barrier falls to the side. They lurch forward in their metal capsule, the children crying or screaming in communal terror. Margaret slams the brakes and the tires lock as the bus slides steadily downwards. Abby, James and Lin crash to the floor and lie in a whimpering heap at Margaret’s side.
The front window shows the churning brown water sliding towards them. How will she save her darlings once the bus hits the water? Her eyes fall on Abby who struggles to sit up, forehead bleeding, large brown eyes pools of uncomprehending terror. “I t-tried to stay in my seat.” she pleads looking up desperately at Margaret. Abby is not one to ever break the rules.
“It’s ok baby,” Margaret says as a sudden lurch throws her into the steering wheel knocking the wind from her lungs. She feels bile rise in her throat but swallows it down. She doesn’t get to fall to pieces now. “We’ve stopped.” She whispers as the realization blossoms in her like hope.
Margaret rips her eyes from the torrent of water and turns to face the crying crumpled children howling throughout the bus. “My glasses are broken.” Lin sobs holding out her hand.
“Now my friends, I need you to be your bravest selves!” Margaret calls out and is surprised to hear her own booming cheerful voice, hardly quavering. “We’ve had a little accident and we are going to need just a bit of help to get out of this old bus.”
All eyes are turned to her as she counts the little heads. Sixteen. Her mind spins and she tries to breathe and think what to do next. “Ok my very brave friends,” she smiles at them with as much reassurance as she can fake. “There are two heads that I’m not seeing.” She glances out the window at the slanting ground and feels the bus shift and shudder on the crumbling rocks.
“Ahmed’s crying under the seat.” Caden says a brave smile on her trusting face. Marvin pokes his head out from near the back. Eighteen.
Sirens wail in the distance and gratitude floods into Margaret’s soul. “Thank you Caden. Ahmed I can hear help on the way, can you hear them everybody?”
As news spreads, the parents gather behind the yellow safety tape, their hearts clenched in their throats, watching the workers climbing over the rocks and bushes like giant ants.
“Our first job is to stabilize the bus.” One of the rescue workers explains. “We have teams that have moved down to the river in case we are not able to evacuate all the children in time.”
A dry sob escapes from one of the dads, who drops the paper bag he was carrying. They all watch as thick chocolate milkshake oozes out of the shattered package staining the sidewalk. “It was supposed to be a surprise.” He says, his voice choked and hollow.
Margaret’s sing-a-long ends as without warning the bus is suddenly in motion again. The windshield holds as it slams into the murky moving water. The bus teeters in the current, throwing the occupants from side to side before righting itself. Margaret lurches to her feet bleeding and limping. Her only thought is to open the top hatch. She’d seen the rescuers on the edges of the river, they will pluck the children to safety, they just have to. The water seeping steadily into the bus tells her that time is running out.
Margaret isn’t aware that the bus is moving until it stops with a bone crunching suddenness. “Have we hit a boat?” She mumbles, hauling herself back to her feet, tears streaming down her face as her eyes sweep over the wreckage of screaming children. She grabs one floating face down in the accumulating water. James. He coughs and sputters, but doesn’t open his eyes.
All is lost, until two heavy thuds hit the roof of the bus announcing salvation. Rescuers.
Margaret shoves James through the hatch in the ceiling without even looking to see whose hands are grabbing him. She plucks children one at a time, popping them through the hole in the ceiling with the speed and agility of a woman half her age. She can’t pause, can’t think, she just needs to empty this sinking bus. Someone must save the children that she’s failed.
The bus tilts to one side, swaying sickeningly. “Four to go!” Margaret screams wading to the back of the bus and grabbing two at a time, ignoring the pain that screams through her body.
She’s swimming now, the last two of her precious darlings clutched to her shoulders. There are hands reaching for Savannah, time slows, her mind foggy, her strength failing.
“Marvin! Please, take Marvin,” she calls out to the unknown saviours from above, as she collapses into the oblivion of the sinking bus.