The bus is on fire.
No, wait—before that.
It’s 5 AM and I’m in a panicked scramble for my duffel bag. Wendy, down in the driveway in her dust-colored third-hand Toyota, won’t stop honking even though I specifically told her not to. When I get to the hall my dad stands in the doorway to his room with a shoe in his hand like a weapon.
It’s just Wendy.
He blinks and looks at the shoe. When will you be back?
I roll my eyes because I know we’re going to lose and Dad knows we’re going to lose and so I’ve woken us both up at 5 AM on a Saturday so I can go to Denver for no reason, but no one can say no to Owen. Thanks, Dad.
He turns to go back to bed. Tell Wendy not to do that anymore.
Wendy hands me hot coffee in a plastic collectable Big Gulp cup. The Toyota’s weak speakers pump Irish folk music at full volume. We drive to the school parking lot in the dark, but I don’t need to see to know what’s out there. Corn corn soybeans, corn soybeans corn, soybeans corn corn. It smells like fertilizer and wet dirt, even though the air is dry and the sky is so clear I can still see the stars when we get out at Sandhills. We leave Wendy’s car with the other half-dozen familiar vehicles and head to the bus, a rumbling shadow in the corner of the lot.
We climb onboard and ignore Gen Brown, sitting straight-backed and stiffly smiling behind the driver.
Owen, in a seat to himself exactly halfway back, touches my leg as I pass him and I feel the shock straight up, buzzing from knee to lips. I make a plan to wait one hour of the five and a half hour drive before going over to him, because Wendy deserves one hour, and I like the idea of prolonging the wait, letting that buzz build until it’s a force stronger than the gravity that keeps me in the seat next to my best friend.
Wendy and I sit in the very back of the bus.
I’m thinking of going blonde.
You’re an idiot.
Wendy twists her naturally red hair around a finger and scowls. It’s too loud. I need to quiet down.
Then you should dye it mouse-brown like mine.
I said quiet, not invisible.
She laughs her cackle laugh, rough on the ears at six in the morning even after a Big Gulp of her home-brewed prescription-grade coffee, and we sit and talk about nothing and everything.
Exactly an hour passes and I stand. Wendy groans and makes a gagging face.
Give it a rest, Wendy.
I feel very tall and grown-up because I’m usually never even slightly mean to Wendy but I’m sick of her not being happy for me. So I march over to Owen and immediately forget about Wendy and what her problem is until the bus is on fire.
The bus is on fire.
I don’t turn around to see, but I can see the reflection of the flames in the corners of the lenses of my glasses, even as far as we’ve walked, which feels like forever on the smash-flat plains.
Fire is quiet from this distance. They must add crackle and snap for the movies. It’s almost peaceful, licking little flames reaching out the windows and waving us away. Go. Go farther.
“I’m tired,” Gen Brown says. She is the only one with enough energy to complain. She is the only one still carrying her duffel bag. Everyone else dumped them, and the expensive gear inside, after the first five minutes.
Except for me—I don’t know where my bag is.
I know where it is. But it’s lost anyway.
When the bus flipped I had just moved to sit with Owen, and my bag was in the back with Wendy and the others in the back and there wasn’t enough time for Wendy and the others, let alone my bag.
“Where are we going?” Gen says.
Answering Gen got boring a long time ago.
“Have you checked your cell phone again?” No one answers. “Mine still has no bars.” Another pause. “Can someone else check theirs?”
“Shut up,” someone says, or maybe several someones, or maybe even me.
Gen slows down and wanders toward the center of the road. We’re walking right on it because the high grass in the shoulder tangles in our laces so we have to walk like we’re wearing snow shoes, and the May mud gets stuck in the treads of our sneakers and the slurp-plop, slurp-plop of our steps slows us down.
And it doesn’t matter that we’re in the middle of the road because there hasn’t been a car since we set out an hour ago. If one did come we’d risk getting run over to make it stop, because Owen and Ruby Lagaro are still back there if they aren’t dead yet.
The plains go on forever. At the very edge of the curve of the earth there’s something that may be a building or it may be a funny-shaped rock.
That’s what we’re walking toward, all six of us, me and Genevieve Brown and James Lesh and Victor Rodriguez and Amy Oberst and Bill Priest. Owen and Ruby stayed where we dragged them free from the bus. They’ve got broken bones or worse. I couldn’t look too closely into Owen’s dazed face; his eyes weren’t focusing. I’m supposed to be hopeful, though. Ruby said she’d look after him, but she couldn’t stand.
Everyone else is dead.
The bus is on fire.
We are rolling along past broken rocks and the sun is in our eyes when I’m not closing them to kiss Owen and then there’s a gut-punch and we’re flying, faster than a movie on double fast-forward, up down and down up in a split second before the shuddering, skipping jolt. There’s a shocked pause, an intake of breath, before the flames.
The bus is on fire.
The twelve seniors of Sandhills High, our entire class, stand in front of the low flat school building getting our picture taken for the paper on Friday after school.
No one from Dunning has ever formed a robotics team before, and no one else in all of Nebraska has ever competed in a robotics competition, but that’s Owen: He does what no one else does. So the next day we are going to Denver, five and half hours, because that is the nearest place where we can compete and probably lose, but it’s the competing that matters.
Smart kids, right? The photographer wears dirty flannel and hasn’t shaved in a while. He tells us he usually works weather, chasing storms up and down the plains.
He’s a busy man. We may not have a lot of news here, but we do get a lot of weather. Hurricanes and big solid sheets of rain and baseball-sized hail. Sometimes it even snows in May, though it’s so clear and crisp and cloudless as the man takes our picture I can only imagine that snow would feel like bits of glitter sprinkled onto our skins. We would sparkle in the daylight.
We’re not that smart, Owen says to him. We just wanted to try.
Owen’s going to Brown University in the fall while the rest of us are split between state school and nothing. He’s the type of guy that would’ve been class president and quarterback and valedictorian if he’d gone to a city school, and never would have had time for people like me and Wendy and Gen Brown and the rest of us.
Sometimes I feel like Owen’s I-80 speeding along, and I’m an old exit sign that he studies for a second and can’t quite make out before the road carries him past.
This occurs to me even when Owen has his arm around me, which he does now, during the picture and then after as the weather-chaser carefully takes off the camera’s lenses and places them in a velvet box. The man spends more time gently lowering the lenses than he did taking our picture.
Owen’s arm wraps firmly around my shoulder which means our sides are smooshed up together and I can feel the tensing of his muscles under his shirt. The heat of it shorts out some synapses. I can actually feel them flare up and die in excited little bursts. I wonder if my girl bits smooshed against his chest make him feel any sort of anything toward me. Maybe it’s too much to ask for bursting synapses, but I hope at least for a little glow. It’s hard to tell what Owen thinks because he’s still talking and laughing and reminding us that the bus leaves at 5:30 tomorrow and we better remember our supplies.
I wouldn’t be able to do that, be bossy and together and coherent, not with his arm around me, but then again I wouldn’t be able tell everyone what to do in any situation, not just this one.
You okay? He looks down at me and I don’t know what he sees but what I see is his care and focus and goodness shining brighter than the sky, and I bet when the photographer develops his shots you won’t be able to see anything but Owen, a lens flare in the center of the frame.
Perfect, I say, and I mean it.
He leans down and kisses me near my temple. I hold still, heart beating, afraid if I move my head I’ll break his nose or he’ll change his mind, because I’m not sure what it is that’s making him notice me and hold my shoulders and kiss my forehead. Not knowing means that I can’t grab hold of it which means it could vanish any second, just disappear like vapor.
He lets go of me and that side of my body droops. He nods and half-waves and backs towards his friend Sean who’s just pulled up in his truck. See you tomorrow, he says, looking right at me.
I can keep myself from sprinting after him but I can’t keep the wide smile from my face. See you on the bus.
The bus is on fire.
After another punishing hour of walking, the thing in the distance is only slightly less distant. It’s probably noon, or close to it, judging from the beating of the sun. James goes and lies in the mud on his back. Bill and Victor and Amy sort of slump down onto the ground like their bodies just evaporated out of their clothes.
They sit in a half-circle in the middle of the road. I can’t see the bus behind us anymore, except every time I close my eyes.
“What are you doing?” Gen says. She’s standing in the middle of the road a little bit behind where the others sit. “You’re not stopping?”
No one answers Gen. Amy and Victor have tears on their faces but I can’t see them crying.
Gen turns from one of them to the other, a wide, dazed look on her face. I think she’s going to sit with them and start talking again, about Wendy and Mr. Oliver and Pam Lightman and Kerry Haight and Sean O’Donnell, about how they are in heaven now looking down at us and how we should be happy for them and how God makes buses flip over for a reason. That’s what I expect from her. James screamed in her face and the rest of us ignored her once already, but she’s never taken a hint in her life so why should today be different.
But she doesn’t start in on us about heaven. She just re-hoists her duffel bag over her shoulder. It makes a metal broken noise. She’s gripping the strap white-knuckled, like it’s filled with money or a collapsible car. She steps around Bill and Victor and Amy, carefully, like the mud is still sticking to her shoes, and passes me where I stand.
My legs quiver and I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw up again.
“Someone will come for us,” Bill says. “When we don’t show up in Denver. They’ll figure it out.”
Gen keeps walking, doesn’t turn around to acknowledge him.
Amy says something but I can’t hear her. My mouth is dry and my heart’s beating too fast. I want to pull Bill up from where he dropped to the ground and then push him down again as hard as I can. Cover him with mud until he’s spitting and choking with it. My arms start shaking with the wanting. But I don’t move.
“That’ll be hours,” I say. “Hours from now. That’s when they’ll look for us. Twelve kids from nowhere Nebraska—might even take longer than that.”
Bill doesn’t look at me. “They’ll come for us.”
“Don’t you—” I stop suddenly. I was going to ask, Don’t you care about Owen? But I can’t finish. I’ve got no more air in my lungs and my chest crumples in.
Leaning down with my hands on my knees, I know in my gut that if Owen were here and I were the one by the bus, he would not stop and wait for someone to come. He would not let anyone else stop and wait, either. With him around it wouldn’t occur to anyone that stopping was even an option.
I suck in a breath. If Owen were here instead of me, he’d do everything he could to help me. Not because I’m me. Not because of some tingly special feeling he may or may not ever have had, but because he is Owen and that’s what he does.
But Owen is back at the bus and I’m the one on the road, and I can’t make anyone do anything. I can’t convince a single one of them to keep going.
I turn away from Victor and Amy and Bill and James and look for Gen Brown’s back. She’s going so slowly it only takes a few quick steps for me to reach her. She looks at me with her usual open, blank stare and keeps walking.
I’m not walking for the same reasons Owen would. I’m not brave, or a rescuer, or the only one who can do it. I’m walking because if Owen dies and I didn’t walk as far as I could, I would know that in my heart forever.
It’s already my fault that I’m alive and Wendy’s not. I can’t have Owen be my fault, too.
I walk next to Gen. After a while she unzips a side pouch of her duffel bag, takes out a granola bar, and hands it to me.
It’s right to say thank you. It’s easy. She deserves it. Not just for the food, but because she’s still walking.
I rip open the package and stuff half the bar in my mouth.
I don’t know why I can’t say thank you. The words crash in my head, loud and spinning, but my mouth is stuck shut, teeth clenched.
Gen doesn’t seem to notice. She just keeps walking.
I follow, because we’re moving away from the bus.
The bus is on fire.
But before—days before.
Twenty-seven days until we leave for Denver.
Wendy and I wait for the bell to ring. We’re sitting on the trunk of her car. It’s raining a little bit but not enough to make us go inside. Wendy has her pre-calc book open on her lap and is trying to get me to help her, but I can’t pay attention because Owen just got out of Sean’s truck and he’s walking over to us.
When she looks up and sees him coming over Wendy snaps her book shut. What does he want this time?
I’m always nice. Aren’t I helping with his stupid robots?
They’re not stupid.
They are. And I’m not doing it for him. Maybe I just want to go to Denver for the weekend.
Yeah, right, I say, laughing, because she can’t be serious. Beautiful, glamorous Denver. City of dreams!
Wendy shoves her book into her backpack and mutters, barely loud enough for me to hear. At least it’s somewhere.
Owen says hi to us both and then just stands there looking at me. The rain drips in little rivers down my glasses, distorting his face.
Okay, well, bye or whatever! Wendy jumps off the trunk of her car. I guess I’ll probably see you later.
I don’t answer her because before I can open my mouth Owen takes her seat next to me. I want to wipe the rain off my glasses but if I take them off I won’t be able to see him and if I can’t see him I can’t tell his expression and if I can’t tell his expression I’m sure to misinterpret something and end my life in agonies of embarrassment.
I don’t think she likes me, Owen says.
Everyone likes you. I say it automatically and then my face burns when I hear it out loud.
Owen looks at me curiously. You like me?
I try to laugh it off, like we’re all pals, of course, hahaha, but my face won’t smile—the muscles have seized up. When I notice I no longer have any idea what my face looks like a terrified jolt runs down my spine.
Owen scoots closer on the trunk and reaches out to hold a strand of my wet hair between his fingers. Because I like you.
I can only sort of half-comprehend that sentence before he leans in and kisses me lightly on the mouth. I have no idea where I am or what’s happening but I’m pretty sure I don’t kiss back and the thought is like an arm being pulled out of its socket—what if, after all this time, after years of wanting him, he thinks I don’t like him because I didn’t kiss him back?
A second later the question vanishes because he smiles, his hand on the back of my neck, and closes his eyes like he’s going to lean back in for another kiss—
but the bell rings and we jump and shuffle for our bags and go in to class.
It’s all I think about for the rest of the day.
And the next few days.
And a few after that.
Spring blooms into summer, and we board the bus for Denver.
Summer crumbles into fall, and I step through the doors of a three-story stucco house.
Three men in wheelchairs sit motionless in the living room. I pad on wall-to-wall carpets and breathe in disinfectant. Disinfectant and boys’ locker room. Every time I smell it I feel the wrongness of the combination in my bones—young and old, healthy and sick, normal and broken.
On the second floor, halfway down, I knock on the unpainted wooden door but I don’t wait for an answer. Owen sits in a chair, staring out the window, with a book on his lap. If they take away his book he screams, but I’ve never seen him read it. Not yet.
The changes are superficial, and they’re not. They keep his head partially shaved because of a shunt in his neck. The right side of his face slips a little, especially when he’s tired. He snaps at the nurses, now that he can talk. He squeezes my hand, but he doesn’t always recognize me.
I sit on the bed a few feet away from him.
He doesn’t turn to look at me.
He raises his right hand to scratch his ear and I almost start crying, because two months ago he couldn’t move his right side at all and now here he is scratching—scratching!—like it’s nothing in the world.
The doctors are right; the nurses aren’t lying because they feel sorry for me. He’s getting better.
The doctors say that patients often make big leaps and they don’t know why. They don’t know a lot. They say he could be here for another six months, or maybe a year, or maybe something crazy happens and he’ll be home in a month.
Or he’ll be here forever. That’s the one option they tend to gloss over.
They really don’t know. It’s shocking, actually, how they have no way of knowing these things. Yet it doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I used to take comfort in things that were known and rules that we followed. But it’s a relief to finally understand how little anyone knows about anything.
I take a deep breath. Owen hears and turns to look at me.
I just wanted to come and let you know I was leaving.
He nods. Where are you going? His words only slur a little.
I’ve told him before but the fact that he doesn’t remember doesn’t rattle me. It could be the injury or it could just be he has other things on his mind. College.
Owen flips through the book on his lap, like the thought of college reminded him it was there. I’m going to Brown.
I know. Not this year. But I don’t say it.
Where are you going?
St. Thomas. In Minneapolis.
He doesn’t say anything to that, probably because he has no idea what it is. I hadn’t heard of it either and picked it somewhat at random from the fliers that came in the mail. Back before, I had applied there as a safety. But I don’t want to stay in Nebraska, and so Minneapolis is as far as I can get, for now.
Good luck, he says. In it I hear a sliver of the old Owen—the one who was generous and encouraging.
You too, Owen.
When I stand I’m much taller than him in his chair and he looks up at me like a little kid. My heart thumps once just to let me know it’s still there. I lean down and kiss him on the forehead and he submits to it with his eyes closed.
At the door I look back and he’s gazing out the window again, at the freshly-mown field and the cars going by on the highway, two and three at a time.
I don’t ask him to stay in touch. I don’t ask him why he kissed me in the rain in the Sandhills parking lot. I don’t ask him if he thinks about the crash or if he remembers what happened that day. I don’t ask him if he wants me in his room, if I should stay, if he thinks I’m growing up or wimping out.
Asking would be hard, like robotics-level hard, but that’s not why I don’t do it.
I don’t need Owen to tell me the answers to these things.
The bus is on fire.
Somewhere behind us. Hours down the road.
I start walking in the mud because the pavement is too hard, like diamonds cutting up my soles. Even in the softer mud, pain shoots into my left knee with every step.
Gen and I pass the thing that might’ve been a building. It is a boulder. A reddish jagged ledge jutting up out of the new corn.
Gen sort of sighs and I want to ask her what she’s thinking but I’m afraid of the answer and afraid of what my voice might sound like. Besides, I’ve never shown any interest in Gen Brown before today. It feels wrong to want to know what she’s thinking now. Like I’m betraying Wendy.
It’s better to ignore Gen and keep walking, because eventually we’ll reach something or we won’t be able to walk anymore and either of those two outcomes means it’ll be over, and I’m not really sure which one I’d prefer. For all we know the rescue has come already from the other direction, sweeping up Owen and Ruby and the rest of them and taking them even further from us with every step.
I smell the rain first, dung-heavy, blowing into my face thick and tangy. Then some clouds appear off to the left of us. But the sun is shining on my head and shoulders and I lower my eyes so that I can only see grass.
In no time or another hour the grass fades from bright green to dark, beaten gray. I turn and there’s lighting in a bank of what looks like solid black slate, moving toward us.
Gen and I edge closer together and shuffle back into the road and keep walking.
It doesn’t start to rain slowly and then grow into a storm. One second it’s not raining and then the next a hard sheet of water crashes from the sky. I wonder if it’s raining back where Owen and Ruby are and if they can crawl somewhere to wait it out. I wonder if this means the bus isn’t on fire any more.
I’m thinking about Owen’s knocked-around face, his tongue lolling in his mouth, when Gen slips and starts to fall. Without thinking I grab her upper arm and pull her close to me before she goes down. She steadies, and with my arm hugging her upright I can feel her heart beat wildly.
She draws away and I drop my arm self-consciously. The weight of the rain pushes me into a hunch, and I have to look at her from over the top of my glasses, so she’s just a fuzzy, wet form in the eerie day-darkness. From her bag she takes out another granola bar, a plastic water bottle, and an extra sweater, all completely soaked through. Then she winds up and throws the duffel bag as far as she can off the road.
“I never really liked robotics,” she says. Screams, really, to be heard over the pounding of the rain.
We start to walk again. Throwing her bag seems to have given Gen a new burst of energy. If I pretend to be her—imitating her steady walk, or copying the way she holds her hand in front of her eyes—I can keep going, too.
“I don’t think any of us—” I shout back to her, then wait for thunder to pass. “I don’t think any of us liked it except for Owen.”
“Maybe that’s why we weren’t very good.”
She’s right. I’ve always known we weren’t good, but I thought it was because we were all stupid compared to Owen. But it’s not that we’re stupid—we just don’t care. “So why did you decide to join?”
She doesn’t answer right away. I think if it wasn’t raining so hard she would shrug, but it’s too hard to fight against the downward force of the rain. “Everyone was doing it. I didn’t want to be left out.”
I thought of all the times Wendy and I left her out. We were even planning on leaving her out completely in Denver, back when it was the twelve of us on a bus.
Instead it’s me and her in the rain on an empty road.
Welcome to the club.
“So why did you want to go on the trip?” she asks.
“Owen,” I say without thinking.
“That’s it? Just because of a guy?”
“Not a guy. Owen.” I can hardly see her at all, which means it doesn’t feel so odd to laugh, suddenly. “I thought everyone was doing it because of Owen.”
She shakes her head and water swirls around her. “You’re the only one in love with him.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I saw you on the bus. And it’s all over your face.”
“I thought…” But I don’t know what I thought.
That Owen was my secret? No. I thought that Owen was a secret for all of us. That we shared him, together. He was the one that made us a group. I thought everyone saw it the way I did—even when Wendy told me flat out she didn’t. I hadn’t believed her. Not really. I thought she was jealous or trying to make me mad. I hadn’t thought about Wendy wanting to join up for her own reasons, which might have been different from mine.
Now I don’t know what I think.
We keep walking, soaked through, water getting up our noses and making us cough. I can’t tell if I’m near the road anymore, let alone whether a car is coming. I force myself to stay in step with Gen.
There’s a flash of light and a crash of thunder.
I blink and see in my mind the blackened skeleton of the bus, rain putting out the last flames, and then lightning hitting and igniting what’s left of it. I blink and Owen and Ruby crawl to shelter by a bush, then they flash and burn with lightning that shakes the ground. I blink furiously and try to wipe it all away, but I can’t, not until someone tells me exactly how many bad things can happen all at once until there isn’t any more badness to hand out.
I stumble slightly and Gen takes my arm, just as naturally as I took hers. Except when I’ve steadied myself I don’t pull away and she doesn’t drop me, and we keep walking, side by side, connected, through the rain.
She’s holding my arm and setting the pace, and I know I always hated her but she kept walking when everyone else stopped.
A ball of heat gathers and pulses in my chest and I can’t hold it in.
I start crying again. Small choking sobs coming out of my whole face at once, not my eyes or nose or mouth but all of it including the skin. I can’t see anything anyway, and Gen’s got my arm so I don’t stop walking.
I cry for Owen, the perfect shining person keeping us whole and together, who may have been only perfect in my head.
I cry for Wendy, who I left in a seat by herself to be with him. Who, because of me, died alone.
At first I think Gen won’t notice the tears because of the rain and the noise it makes, but after a few minutes she takes a tighter hold on my arm and leans her head in toward my ear.
“You are bigger than this,” she says.
I have no idea what she means. I doubt she could say anything that would make me stop crying, but even as I’m blinded by tears it occurs to me that maybe the point isn’t to stop crying but to cry and keep going.
So I keep crying, and she keeps holding my arm.
We walk and walk.
Eventually it feels better. Or at least less terrible.
And that’s when the lights of the truck stutter on in the distance, and Gen and I choke on inhaled rain water and then start running, slipping, sliding, muddy, tired, yelling—flying down the road until at last—because of Gen’s shouts I can be sure that it’s not the glasses or my eyes closing or my imagination cracking into pieces—the truck flashes its lights.
We are put in the backseat under a blanket. The road that we’d walked step by step runs invisibly under us as we speed back, past Amy and Victor and James and Bill’s relieved faces, back to where the bus is no longer on fire.
Months and years but not that long later.
I turn 18 and cry all day because I will always be older than Wendy now and for the rest of my life.
Then I dye my hair blonde as a tribute to her, and I like it so much I wonder if she wasn’t really telling me that I should dye it all along.
Gen Brown writes me an email saying that Owen left the hospice, and then another saying Owen went to Brown. Eventually. He doesn’t email, but I don’t mind. Things are back on track for Owen, and I’m glad. I’m glad he’s happy. I’m glad I had twenty-seven days of him, and I’m glad I saw him start to get better, and I’m glad I can leave it behind. Mostly I’m glad I kept walking.
Gen Brown and I email back and forth. She’s the only one I talk to from Sandhills. When I come back and visit, James and Victor and Amy and Bill can’t quite look me in the eye. Ruby moved to Alaska and no one’s heard from her in a long time. There’s no one else left, and that’s a cold emptiness.
Talking to Gen, writing to her, is not what I expected. She never mentions me and Wendy ignoring her or leaving her out. She doesn’t mention God or heaven or the people at the back of the bus. It’s not a string of a thousand unanswerable questions every hour.
She’s helping her family with the farm. She’s going to move to Omaha to go to veterinary school. She has a boyfriend she met on the internet who lives in Iowa, and when she moves to Omaha he’ll drive out and visit on the weekends.
She wishes Minneapolis weren’t so far. She’s sympathetic when I go on a bad date. She’s happy I picked a major. She hopes she’ll hear from me again soon.
There’s a place in my mind where I keep the bus and Wendy and the Owen I had and the person I was. It’s where the bus is on fire, always. If it were up to me alone I’d push that place away and bury it beneath a vast, rocky field, so it never had to brush up against another memory, ever. Even if that meant burying myself along with it.
Gen builds a bridge from there to here, so I can visit.
But also so I can get out.
Category Winner, Young Adult, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize