The bus I was riding in ran over a pothole. I was lifted off my seat and the fear I’d been feeling since I left my apartment intensified. My breathing came in shallow, choking gasps as I clutched my backpack close to my chest. I shoved my face into the comforting fabric as my heart beat erratically. The steady pressure of it came across as a powerful rushing sound in my ears. Every nerve ending seemed to tingle with fear. Every tremble in my gut was magnified and seemed like a devilish entity was sliding its hand into my skin to grip my insides and squeeze them mercilessly.
I lifted my face from my backpack and looked around at the other people on the bus. It was hard to focus on them. My vision constantly felt like it was swirling, making it hard to see much of anything.
I missed my home. There was comfort there. And safety.
More importantly. There were no songs.
I looked out the window. There were three more stops till my block. Just three. If I could make it there, then everything would be okay.
I took some deep breaths, trying to calm my racing heartbeat but it wasn’t working. I had to get off the bus. I had to get home. Now there were only two blocks left. I turned away from the window, hoping to distract myself. Hoping my attention would shift away from the relentless terror that consumed me.
My eyes just so happened to meet a woman’s in the back corner of the bus and for a second, a very small second, the pressure of all my fears eased and the only thing that I could focus on was her. On her pretty blue eyes, which lit up whenever a stray shaft of sunlight hit them. On her dark brown hair that fell across her shoulders in wavy locks. On the mole on her temple, near the tip of her right eyebrow. On her soft, sun kissed skin. It was the first time since I was a kid that I could focus on anything other than my fears.
She noticed me looking at her and I jerked my face away before she could catch me staring. As I did, my fears came crashing back in. I huddled once again into my backpack and tried to keep myself as small as possible.
But that’s when they started. The songs.
There were sixteen other people on the bus. Nine songs started playing at once and the sound of it was enough to force a loud, shrieking howl from my throat. Everyone turned and looked at me, but I wasn’t paying attention to them. My hands were clamped over my ears and my eyes were squeezed as tightly shut as I could make them. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stop the songs from drilling into my head. Their different pitches and melodies gradually picked up speed.
They felt frantic. Urgent. I couldn’t pin them down either. Nine of them blared and I had no idea who they were coming from. I looked around through watery eyes.
Everyone was staring at me, including the woman. She had a look of concern on her face and got out of her seat. She started walking over to me. As she drew closer, my heart lurched. One of the songs was definitely coming from her. There was no reason why I should’ve cared as much as I did. There was no reason why hearing a song coming from her would fill me with such dread and crushing loneliness.
But it did.
There was something different about her. That’s all I could say.
All of a sudden, the songs whirled and coalesced into a single piece. The frantic, fevered pitch of them heightened and became faster, like someone sped them up. I knew then it wasn’t going to be long.
Minutes? Seconds, maybe?
I looked out several windows and then at the people on the bus with me. I was trying to figure out what was about to happen in the next few seconds that was going to kill nine people.
That’s what the songs meant. They meant whoever was...emitting them I guess...was about to die.
The first time I heard one I was eight. We were visiting my grandparents. A song that sounded like a weird blending of country and classical music started ghosting through their little house. After spending what felt like forever trying to track the strange noise down, I finally realized it was coming from my grandpa. I heard it clearly. No one else did and I got a lot of awkward stares from my parents and grandparents. The staring didn’t last long, however. The minute the song finished playing, my grandfather clutched a hand to his chest and dug it into his shirt. His face contorted with pain. His teeth were bared and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
I remembered thinking he shouldn’t do that because it made his face wrinkle and made him look ugly. He collapsed to the floor a moment later, gone forever.
His doctor said he died of a major heart attack.
After that day, whenever someone was about to die, I would hear their song playing right before they did. It always started slow at first. Faint too. Then, as their deaths drew in closer, their songs would get louder and faster. The noise would be deafening in most cases.
Over the next few years, I did try to help people. I tried to stop their deaths from happening but no matter what I did, I lost. Death would beat me to them. After so many failed attempts I lost count, I became withdrawn and depression set in. I tried to kill myself twice but failed both times. I don’t have any proof but I’m pretty sure it’s because whatever lets me hear the death songs won’t allow me to die. I think it wants me alive so I can suffer. So it can torture me.
It wasn’t long after the second time I tried to kill myself that my parents “got me some help.” I spent a couple years in an institution. They put me on several medications, but nothing helped. The doctors couldn’t do a thing to stop them. The songs still came. They always came.
The only thing that stops them from coming is to wall myself away from people. If I never interact with anyone, if I never talk to anyone, or laugh, kiss, play, dance, have fun, drink, eat, all of it, with anyone then I won’t hear their death songs. I won’t have to watch them die, unable to change anything. I won’t have to feel like a complete and utter failure.
I snapped out of my own dark memories and huddled deeper into myself as I waited for the inevitable. It didn’t take long. There was a sudden, high-pitched squealing sound. My head jerked toward one of the windows and I saw a speeding delivery truck come hurtling toward us. The squealing sound was coming from its tires as the brakes tried desperately to stop the vehicle. The driver’s belated reaction, however, wasn’t enough to do any good.
A second later the truck hit the side of the bus with a horrendous crash, ripping all the way through the flimsy metal and into four of the nine people whose deaths songs had been playing. Their songs abruptly stopped, ending with a note of terrible finality. There was a moment when a familiar, bitter rage filled me. Rage at not being able to change what was going to happen. Of not being able to stop people from dying.
My anger abruptly switched to outright fear as I was sent flying. Things happened extremely fast and tortuously slow at the same time after that. I eventually crashed into one of the bus’s seats...on the opposite side of me. The breath was crushed out of me and I fought just to get enough air back into my lungs. The woman who’d been coming over to me was thrown from her feet. I didn’t really see what happened to her next, but I could hear her screams of pain. It was loud and it joined the cries of the other people on the bus.
There were several more minutes of crashing and jolting and then everything came to a standstill. The air filled with grey smoke and I coughed the second it hit my lungs. Two more songs abruptly stopped. Now six of the original nine were gone. That meant three songs were left and each one continued to speed up. It wouldn’t be long before they were dead too.
Not long at all.
When things settled down, I worked on getting up. I wasn’t really that bad off. Just some aches. I’d probably end up with some bruises and a minor scratch or two. I looked around the destruction and as I did, two other death songs reached their quickened, final tempos only to stutter and die off.
I ran to the people, afraid that I’d find the woman that had been walking toward me.
None of them were her, however. For the moment, she was still alive. I raced around and tried to find her.
The scene around me was one of utter chaos and confusion. Smoke still roiled through the bus and bodies lay strewn about like a careless child left all their broken toys lying around. There were quiet moans of pain, and there were loud ones. Some of the people were unconscious. Others were awake, bloody and obviously in a lot of pain.
Another song shut down. And then another after that.
My head snapped over to where I’d last heard them. The first person I found was a hefty, middle-aged man. He was holding a shard of glass five inches long in one of his hands. I glanced at his stomach and saw a ragged wound there pumping out the last of his blood. He’d yanked the glass out and probably shredded an artery or two when he did.
I pulled my eyes away from him and found the other person whose song just ended. It hurt to look at her. She was only a teenager. She sat slumped in her chair, her eyes glassy and unfocused and had a nasty, ragged gash in the side of her neck.
Of the nine songs that started playing only one was left.
I struggled to get up but my legs felt too weak to hold me. A new song suddenly started up and my bleary eyes swept over to where it was coming from. It was an old woman. Her hands were pulled into claws that clutched at her grey dress near her heart. Her face was drawn into a mask of horrible pain that reminded me of my own grandfather. She looked almost exactly the same way in death as he had. The only difference was that half the old woman’s face was covered in blood. It was still pouring out of the nasty gash in her forehead near her hairline. I could see the torrent first slow to a sluggish trickle and then stop altogether when her circulatory system finally got the message that her heart wasn’t beating anymore.
I got my strength back to where I could stumble around. I searched for the woman and felt more terror flood my body when I couldn’t find her. Eventually, however, I saw her. I couldn’t begin to express how powerful my relief was. Despite the fact that I didn’t know her. It was weird for me to feel those kinds of emotions again. I spent most of my life walling myself away from people and my emotions. I had no idea why the girl brought them all crashing back into me.
But she did and I got swept up by her. And I realized that I liked it.
I moved around the bus, limping slightly, and threw bits of debris away. The girl had been thrown to the floor of the bus, half in and half out of the middle aisle. She was writhing in pain.
I bent down closer to her to see how bad off she was. There was a lot of blood on the jeans of her left leg and some of it had pooled around her. I moved in closer to her and tried to help. I knew it was ultimately a futile gesture. Her death song (a very emotional bit of instrumental that was heavy on what sounded like guitar) was still playing.
My anger resurfaced, hot and writhing inside my head. That song, so beautiful and sweet, was a tenacious and cruel bully that mocked me as I tried to save her life.
I pulled out my belt and wrapped it as tight as I could around her leg, right above the deep cut she’d gotten. She screamed with more pain but held on.
“Don’t move,” I told her, my voice stiff. “Stay still.”
She didn’t say anything, she seemed to be in too much pain for that, but she nodded her head. I found her hand and impulsively clasped onto it. She squeezed it so tightly I felt the bones there grinding against each other.
“It h-hurts,” she managed after a while. “It h-hurts so bad.”
“Shh,” I responded. “You’re gonna be okay. They’re gonna fix you.” I tried to be reassuring but my voice was awkwardly cracking every few seconds.
She nodded again and squeezed even harder on my hand. The whole time, her song still played. I stayed with her for what seemed like forever. I tried talking to her, but I’m not and will never be a world class conversationalist. My years of self-imposed isolation saw to that. I don’t think it mattered to her though. She only cared that I was there. That she didn’t have to be alone.
I looked around when a sudden noise caught my attention. Four paramedics, each one with bags of equipment, rushed onto the bus.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Hey! Over here!”
One of them heard me shouting and headed over to us. When she got close, she dropped her bag and crouched by my right side. She looked the girl over as she put on a pair of latex rubber gloves, assessing her injuries. When I started becoming more of an obstacle than she liked, she tried to get me to move out of the way. The girl, however, squeezed even harder on my hand, making it clear that she didn’t want me to go anywhere.
The paramedic nodded and then let me stay. I watched her as she worked to save the girl. I knew it was useless because her song was still playing. Part of me still hoped though. I knew better. I knew the outcome. I knew not to hope. But it was still there.
The medic cut her jeans with a pair of scissors, making one long, neat slit in her pant leg. She pulled the jeans apart to get a better look at her injury. I should’ve been relieved. They were taking care of her and should have no problem saving her life. But I wasn’t. That song was still coming from her. It was a haunting presence. A sad reminder.
She was going to die.
The paramedic managed to stabilize her. She explained that the cut looked deep and that it most likely tore into an artery in her leg, judging by the amount of blood she lost. They had to take her now before things got worse. The bleeding was currently under control with heavy, white pads and medical tape.
She called for a stretcher and another medic rushed through the destruction and brought one over. The two of them buckled her into it. Her head was wedged into those two upright pads and a white strap across her forehead secured her in it.
“On three,” the paramedic said to her partner. “One. Two. Three.”
On three, the two of them let out soft grunts of effort and then lifted the girl free of the ground. She whimpered in pain at being jolted roughly like that but didn’t cry out. They started walking, very carefully, toward the front of the bus.
“Sir,” one of them said, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was focused on the girl and her death song.
I shook my head and looked up at the medic. He glanced down at my hand, which was still entwined with their patient’s. Her arm was stretched back toward mine and it didn’t look comfortable.
“You need to let her go. You need to let us take her,” she spoke to me in a calm, yet commanding voice.
I nodded dumbly and tried to pull my hand from hers. She wouldn’t let it go.
“N-no,” she moaned.
I glanced up at the paramedic with a look of panic on my face. What was I supposed to do? She wouldn’t let me go. It wasn’t my fault.
“Do you know her?” she asked me.
I shook my head no and tried once again to get my hand back. The girl wasn’t letting go. The paramedic looked at her and then back up at me.
“Fine. You’re with us. Let’s go.”
“I-I...,” I stammered, my own panic killing my voice.
I didn’t want to go with her. And I sure as hell didn’t want to go to a hospital. I hate hospitals most of all. Images of when I lived in one flashed through my head and I suddenly had an anxiety attack. My breathing turned shallow and my heart started beating painfully. I tried to take deep breaths, but I couldn’t manage them. I was about a second away from ripping my hand away from hers when she suddenly tugged at it.
“J-just look...,” she started saying, taking a deep breath to tell me the rest. There was an intensity to her eyes that mesmerized me. “Look...at me. F-focus on me.”
I stopped mid panic attack. Mostly because of my own confusion. What she just did made no sense to me at all. She was the one that was hurt. She was the one in pain, but she was trying to make me feel better. I was a complete stranger to her. An awkward, intimidating, somewhat crazy looking stranger to top it off. But she didn’t even flinch at all that. She just wanted me there. I couldn’t help but feel even more attached to her.
I smiled, somewhat shakily.
“O-okay.” I followed her advice. I focused on nothing but her the entire time. “What’s your name?” I asked her when I realized I didn’t know it.
“Casey...Ames,” she responded. “What’s y-your na-”
She clamped down on her words as a sudden jolt of pain hit her. Her teeth were bared in a snarl of pain and her eyes were squeezed shut. My heart leaped into my throat.
Her death song suddenly quickened. Its pace was racing and urgent.
“No!” I screamed and the mass of people (the emergency responders, the onlookers, and the rubberneckers) all turned their eyes to me.
I didn’t care though. About those people. The only one I cared about was the strangely compelling woman that was dying right in front of me. A second later and her song quit playing. Despite the noise and commotion all around me, the only thing I heard was a deep and dreadful silence.
I cried harshly. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. She was only coming over to try and comfort me. She was only being a good person. She shouldn’t have died for that.
“Sir,” one of the paramedics said, but I ignored him. “Sir! Hurry up and get in the ambulance! If we don’t hurry, she’ll die.”
It took me a second to process what he’d said. I looked back at the woman and found her pretty blue eyes staring at me in mild confusion. I didn’t have time to contemplate what the hell just happened, or how. I got into the ambulance and sat next to Casey’s head. She seemed to still be hanging in there despite the fact that her death song already ended.
I couldn’t understand it. She should’ve died. I was extremely glad she didn’t but everything in my past experience told me that she should’ve died. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to her (although I honestly didn’t know what I would’ve said to her if I had) because the paramedics were working to make sure she didn’t start bleeding out again. They monitored her all the way to the hospital. She remained stable the whole time and while her leg looked pretty gruesome, and she was looking deathly pale, she didn’t get any worse. She was going to make it.