Recently I experienced my first car accident. It was just an ordinary winter day and the roads were a little slippery from the snowfall the previous night. I was driving downhill towards a set of lights that turned red and I applied the brakes. Everything was normal until my tires locked and I couldn’t stop and I hit the ford pick up truck in front of me. The crash was so slow that the airbags didn’t even go off. The driver of the pick up got out and came by my window with a smile on his face, waving his hand, I could see him mouthing it’s all right but that smile left him when he saw me and I imagined I mirrored the paleness of the snow which surrounded us and he knocked on the window asking if I was okay, his voice muffled by the window pane. I mustn’t have said anything cause he quickly called 911.
I was frozen in place. My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. My heart felt as if it were trapped underneath a layer of ice and it was hammering against the icy sheet, trying to draw attention to itself while on the other side of the ice, gentle wind blew harmlessly without care.
The paramedics said I went into shock. They said it happens, it’s the fight or flight response but because I didn’t have anywhere to go, I froze up. They had to get my wife on the phone and once I heard her voice I began to unwind, the frost thawed out and my heartbeat slowly settled and I came back to myself. The whole thing was embarrassing. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a blanket around my shoulders and a cup of hot chocolate in my hands. I kept on apologizing to everyone but they were all too kind. They suggested I head back home and rest but I had work to do so I kept on going. Maybe that says something about me.
When I got home that evening, my wife asked if I wanted to talk about what happened. I told her not to worry about it. I made some half-hearted attempt at a joke which got a sympathetic laugh from her. She suggested that maybe I was overworked and stressed and she said that it’s a good thing Christmas was just a week away. Christmas rung a bell. Maybe the bell was always ringing but I piled on so much other noise on it that I stopped hearing it. That night I sat down with a pen and paper, slowly shovelling away at the flakes of clutter which I had knowingly or unknowingly gathered in order to repress a moment, a memory, an incident which happened on Christmas day when I was eight years old, back when I still lived in India.
Mama tell him to give them back, I said as I tried to get the bus tickets from my brother. The three of us were sitting on a bench waiting for the bus to come. I was wearing a grey Nike jumper which my brother once wore. My brother had on a navy jacket which he got for his birthday a month before. Christmas time in India was much different than most countries. The sun was blinding and yet there was a coolness in the air that required most people to layer up. Under the layered clothing the warmth caused me to sweat but my mother told I couldn’t take my sweatshirt off.
Mama, mama, mama, my brother mocked me.
I pulled at the tickets again and he dug his boot into my shin which made me cry out for my mother again.
Stop it you two, she said with quiet anger as the other passengers stood around us. She took the tickets from my brother.
But you said I can hold them, I said.
She ignored me. My brother smiled because I didn’t get what I wanted. He got up and I followed him with my eyes, keeping a track of where he went but all he did was go a few feet from us to kick a rock towards the edge of the road.
A patch of dirt separated us from the road. We sat on the bus bench alongside an old grandmother who covered her head and ears with a shawl and I thought it wasn’t that cold. Cars, bicycles, rickshaws, trucks and buses passed by in a continuous loop. The smell of manure was heavy and a few people had their noses covered with their shawls or handkerchiefs. To the left of us were a couple cows lounging under the trees, their tails whipping away the flies that hovered around them.
How long will it be again? I asked my mother.
Four hours, she said.
A silver Honda honked as it went around an old Fiat that slowly made it’s way up the road, hissing and moaning as a wisp of smoke snaked from the hood of the car. The Honda squeezed back into it’s own lane just in time before the oncoming traffic barrelled by, its honking lingered in the air along with the manure smell which stayed once the hoking left. The normalized danger went unnoticed by everyone but me. That morning, when we went to pick up the tickets, I caught a glimpse of a news story on the TV in the back of the ticket office. It was showing a car accident where a Suzuki had been flattened completely. My brother came and sat down beside me.
I leaned closer to him and asked, are you nervous?
He didn’t reply.
I poked him to get his attention and he swung his arm, striking my hand away.
Mother told us to stop again.
The bus came with a sticker of a Pepsi advert on its side. An actor, Salman Khan, was drinking the Pepsi or had just finished drinking it. He flashed a smile at everyone and good thing it wasn’t a colgate advert because his teeth were painted with specks of dirt.
Mama you said I could give them the ticket.
Mother sighed and handed them to me. I immediately showed my brother that I got them and he tried to punch me in the shoulder but I moved quickly to the other side of my mother.
The bus doors opened in a mechanical fashion as if it were just going through the motions and it made a yawing sound, tired of working. The conductor wore a grey jumper and a fuzzy maroon toque which made my brother and I laugh. His brow glistened with grease and sweat. The other people quickly formed a line and the three of us fell into place. I stayed close to mother, sheltered by her hip. My brother led the three of us and I felt as if I should be like that too. I edged my way by my brothers’ side.
You think it’ll be fun, I asked him.
I don’t know.
Mama said they play a movie now. What movie do you think it’ll be?
Probably some boring one.
You think so?
He didn’t reply. He was older than me by three years and this was his first time too. I wanted to ask him if he was nervous again but I didn’t. He was like me but he was older so I followed him.
We stopped in front of the conductor. I handed him the tickets. He looked at the for a quick second and then nodded, giving the tickets back and motioning us through.
We followed my brother in.
Go to the back, mother said.
All the seats were painted blue and you could see the white plastic underneath the peeling paint on most of the chairs. There was a red and black cushion placed atop the seats and particles of dust shot in the air when you sat down on it. The bus smelled like the deep part of the attic where you keep all your old photo albums and luggage that you don’t use. That area which is best of hiding when you play hide and seek.
My brother picked out the seats and began to scoot inside, going to the window seat.
I quickly turned to mother, you said I could have the window seat, I said.
Does it matter, she asked.
You said I could have it.
Let your brother have the window seat, she said in a tired voice.
My brother looked to protest but before he could mother raised her hand and I knew I had won. He threw himself onto the middle seat.
As I walked by him he stuck out his leg and tried to trip me but I knew that was coming and I stepped over it. I smiled at him, letting him know I won. When I sat down he leaned over and pinched me under my arm where mother couldn’t see. I cried out to her but she ignored the two of us.
I looked out of the window, rubbing my arm. It was like a school bus, I told myself. I had been in plenty of those. Every morning at eight I waited for the bus outside my house along with my brother. I rode the same bus back in the afternoon. So twice a day…for…I tried to count how many times I had ridden the bus in the past three years but I ended up settling on a lot. The door closed and the bus started, jerking us all back. The windows opened slightly at the top to allow the air to circulate. Mother was right. There was a television at the top corner of the bus, straight ahead. It played a bootleg movie that was still in theatres. You could see the silhouettes of the heads of the people in the movie theatre watching the movie and occasional a shadow stood up and sat down. My brother was right too. It was boring.
How much longer, I asked my mother.
Almost halfway done.
So two more hours?
More or less.
My brother was asleep. His head tilted back, his mouth slightly open, arms crossed over his chest. I tried not to laugh. Apart from the occasional fit of cough from one of the older passengers, there had been the usual sound of the movie playing and people snoring. I played my game most of the ride. Trees lined both sides of the road and their shadow fell on the road. The objective was to not let the shadow hit the bus. Whenever the bus approached the shadow I would unclench my teeth, separating the bottom row from the top and imagined the bus jumping over the shadow and when it cleared it I would clench my teeth again which meant that the bus came back down on the road. Then, once more I waited for the next opportunity to jump and land. I always played this game on the school bus. I was concentrating on the road, my teeth clenched, when a truck rushed past us, I caught a glimpse of the driver smoking a cigarette as the red and white stripes on the side of the truck almost grazed the bus. I stopped playing that game.
The bus slowed down. I asked mother what was happening. She told me not to worry. The bus came to a stop at the side of the road.
Mother asked If I needed to use the bathroom and I shook my head. I did need to go but for some reason I felt as if I left the bus it might leave me and I would be left alone on the side of the road. I stood up and leaned over my brother to see where everyone was going. There was a restaurant on the other side of the road.
My brother woke up and he elbowed me in the chest and told me to get off of him. I sat down rubbing my chest. He saw that mother was not here.
I told him not to worry, mama will be back soon. She just went outside.
He stood up to leave as well.
I called his name and told him to sit down. Mama said to stay here and don’t go anywhere.
I sat alone gripping the metal railing in front of me, trying to look outside the window to see where my brother was going, I wanted to go after him but mama said to stay put and I wanted to go find mama and let her know that he left and that we should find him because what if the bus left without him but I told myself It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t leave, I repeated it over and over but the other thought stayed firm, It might leave, It might leave now, without him and without her, It could, some of the people had returned and took their seats and I was still alone with the fear growing in my heart I felt it itching in my throat as the conductor came back and I wanted to go up and tell him not to leave but I couldn’t move because mama said not to, he was talking to the bus driver and as the noise grew in the bus, the more noticeable the lack of sound of my brother and mother became and the more alone I felt, I saw the conductor looking, counting the people, I tried to draw attention to the two empty seats beside me and I wanted to ask him where the bathroom was, the feeling reaching deep inside of me and the thought of it made my ears burn and I wished the windows would open some more as I felt my body shaking but didn’t know if that was from inside myself or from the motor of the bus, which had just started up again, and my feet wrestled to be in top position as I felt the need to cry.
An older man came up the steps and the conductor helped him. Behind him was my mother and I stopped shaking. Behind her was my brother, drinking from a juice box, holding a bag of chips in his other hand and I let go of the railing and sat back. I looked out of the window as if I had been doing so the entire time.
Mother came and sat in the middle seat. She opened her purse and took out a juice box for me and she was smiling. She always brought the same lemonade flavour. I could smell the fruity lotion on her hands as I took the juice from her. I took it without giving away what had just been in my head. She also placed a bag of chips on my lap and then leaned back in her chair, watching the movie as the bus got back on the road.
I tried not to think about the thoughts I just had but they kept creeping back into my mind like thoughts always did, especially the bad kind, the kind which kept imagining what will happen at night if the closet door was left open. I wanted to stop thinking and thinking about that made my ears burn again. I was older now. I should be more like my brother. He watched the television screen, gently rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the moving vehicle. I had finished my food and washed it down with the juice box. I placed my head against the cool window and watched my breath fog the glass. The sirens grew louder at once and an ambulance went past us and the sirens died away.
When I woke up it took me a moment to realize the silence that lay inside the bus. It was almost crushing if anyone spoke it would bring it crashing down upon us and I knew this instinctually for when I awoke I grabbed my mother’s arm and asked her with my eyes what happened and she slowly shook her head.
We were no longer moving. My brother was gripping the metal railing in front of him with one hand. Outside the only thing that was still unconcerned were the leaves of the trees. They kept going with the gentle wind. The uneasiness inside the bus made me want to move around. I felt the same whenever I took a test at school. The quietness of classrooms always made me more nervous as if everyone could hear or sense the little boy in me. I wasn’t a little boy anymore, I reminded myself.
I heard then the squeaking of metal chain. In the quietness, it spoke loudly. An old man, with a checkered shawl wrapped around his shoulder and head, rode his bicycle down the side of the road. He was hovering slightly above his seat and he was not looking ahead of him but rather at the inch of concrete directly in front of the rubber tires. I still remember those unblinking eyes. He disappeared.
The bus door opened. A family of three walked up the steps and the conductor did not bother checking their tickets. The family stood still for a second at the front of the bus, like new school children waiting to be told where to sit by the teacher. The father’s face resembled the colour of his white shirt which was neatly tucked into his trousers except for this one part at his right hip which was coming out as if he had been leaning to the other side for too long. The mother was holding the daughter’s hand and she was looking straight ahead but not looking. My mother put an arm around my shoulders. The daughter’s open jacket showed a pretty blue dress, the kind you wore in school plays. Her hair was done in the style of a ponytail which was held together was a butterfly pin. The mother clutched the daughter tightly. Both her hands were gripping the daughter’s shoulders as if she let go, the little girl will float away like some balloon at a fair. I noticed then the tears from the mothers’ eyes. Even they fell in silence. The father put his hand on his wives back and motioned her to go to the backseat. The three of them were in unison as they walked down the aisle, heads turned to watch them from the back. When they passed us my brother stared at the ground and so did I. My mother kept her arm around me. There was something haunting about them. It was as if we feared to look at them because whatever haunted them could haunt us too.
People made room for them in the back. Giving them plenty of space as if they were also aware of the haunting thing that accompanied them. The mother sat in the corner and then the daughter and the father beside her. The father leaned in towards his daughter and wife and kept a tight hold onto them. I could see the part of his shirt that was wrinkled.
The bus jolted in motion. The television started once more but the conductor turned the sound down. People’s heads turned towards the windows as we went past the scene. The back end of the bus came in view and soon after, too soon, the front. The bus had been compressed as if it’s inside had been taken apart, accordion like it stood, with its shattered glass sparkling on the ground, it looked so pretty, the sun glinting off the glass, fallen stars, hints of the setting sun painted upon certain glass pieces which had been stained with blood. Where the front of the bus ended, the front of the truck started and my mother made me look away.
I looked back and I saw them too. The white cloths covering something on the side of the road. So many white cloths covering the same thing. The image of the flashing lights from the ambulances engrained in the darkness of my eyelids when I closed my eyes.
Even now I can see those lights. I see the cloth peacefully fluttering with the wind and above them, the leaves of the trees still moved, unconcerned and above it, all the sun was so wonderful. That family was together but with the addition of something else, something new they had to carry with them but they couldn’t carry it alone so everyone who was there that moment had to take a small piece of it, to lessen the burden which would always be the heaviest on those three. Knowingly or unknowingly I had participated in some kind of human obligation and after all these years that thing that had haunted them showed itself. A part of me was exchanged for a part of that burden. That part lies under those covers. The part that wished to be sheltered by my mother’s hip. Know I know what that old man’s look meant. He was trying to erase what he had seen, to forget what was imprinted on his mind but it doesn’t work like that. We can’t pick or chose what affects us, what shapes us, what leaves a mark on us. We don’t have the will to decide. I wonder what kind of ripple I have started in the life of the man whose truck I hit or the paramedics who came after or all those cars that drove by and turned to look at my ashen state inside my own car.