For those who haven’t already read them, you can find links to the previous chapters here:
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9
Chapters 10 and 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15
The street was pretty quiet as I pulled up behind a white Taurus stopped at a red light. We both sat there for a minute waiting for the light to change, and even then, the Taurus didn’t seem to be in any hurry to take off through the intersection. I thought about honking, but I still had plenty of time to reach the school so I just waited, giving them a chance to get moving before I even let out on the clutch. It took them long enough, but just as I was about to follow them into the intersection, I heard the squealing of the gravel truck’s tires as it locked up it’s brakes trying to stop, only by then, it was too late. The sound of the massive vehicle hitting the Taurus was incredible and sickening at the same time, like nothing else I’d ever heard.
The impact spun the car around in circles and slammed it against the curb on the far side of the road as pieces flew in every direction. I didn’t wait for the car to come to a complete stop before racing the bike to within a few feet of the mangled wreck and tearing my helmet off. There was only about half a car left so I knew the driver couldn’t be in great shape but the black smoke pouring out what was left of the engine compartment and the overwhelming gasoline odor told me I had to get them out of there. The driver side door was completely crumbled and the window was nothing but a fractured spider web of glass pieces so I braced myself for whatever shape the driver would be in. There was no way I could have prepared for what I saw when I finally got the door open.
Mrs. Reader was leaning forward, her head resting on the steering wheel like she was asleep but all the blood pouring out of the gash across her forehead told me she might not be sleeping. To make things worse, my first thought wasn’t about how I could help her or how I might save her, it was that I might have gotten out of being responsible for her death and for a brief moment I felt a sense of relief. The callousness of the thought hit me like a brick, but then she moved, slightly, and I knew I had to do something.
Smoke was building up but I couldn’t reach past Mrs. Reader to kill the ignition. Instead, I reached beneath the driver’s seat and was able to find the lever to slide it back, un-pinning her from the steering wheel. With the extra room I was able to remove her seatbelt even though she was still unconscious. Taking a deep breath I readied myself for whatever images I’d be flooded with, then grabbed her up.
I don’t know what I expected to see from her. Maybe I had just become a little jaded after what I’d seen from the others and expected the worst, but from her all I saw were visions of her taking care of the special needs kids at school, then going home to take care of her sick husband. I’d heard about her husband but he had died several years before I even reached high school, though he seemed to be in most of the vision sequences. From the way he looked, he must have been suffering from some sort of dementia and been unable to really take care of himself, though he had an in-home nurse when Mrs. Reader was at school.
I did my best to push the visions from my head and concentrate on getting us both away from the car. She was a lot heavier than I’d expected so I barely managed to stumble across the road and into someone’s yard before falling to the ground with her.
I don’t know whose house we were actually at, but someone came rushing out to see if we were okay. I’d let go of Mrs. Reader when we fell, stopping the visions before I could see anything I didn’t want to, so besides a little exhaustion from the adrenaline dump I was doing okay. Mrs. Reader, on the other hand, didn’t look good at all. The homeowner was on the phone with 911 and I was just starting to second guess whether I should have moved her from the car when the white Taurus burst into flames thirty feet away from us.
With everything going on around me, the KZ was the last thing I should have been thinking about, but when I saw the flames engulfing the car just a few feet from my bike I ran back across the street and stood it up, quickly kicking it to life. My helmet was still laying on the ground by the Taurus but the heat coming off the car was already intense, and I’d rather lose the helmet than the bike, so I left it and pulled the bike a safe distance away.
The homeowner was still with Mrs. reader and I heard sirens in the distance so I knew everything was under control. I also knew that if I was late to in-school suspension things would be even worse for me so rather than wait around, I took off again, using a couple side roads to avoid the first responders as I made my way to school.
The KZ wasn’t quite running as smooth as it had been, but I kept going anyway and made it to the dungeon, smelling of sweat and smoke, just before the tardy bell rang. Vice-principal Miller was our warden for the day and he looked disappointed to see me. I just smiled at him and took my seat.
The first couple hours passed slowly as I tried to work on a history assignment but I just couldn’t concentrate. The wreck, and everything that happened after it, kept replaying in my head. And after each replay I started second guessing myself. Mrs. Reader was my next assignment. Had I not stopped, not pulled her from the wreckage, the whole thing might have taken care of itself. But by not doing something, I probably would have felt just as responsible.
But then I had her in my arms, and I could have done what I needed to right then, but I didn’t. I had the opportunity to complete that assignment and didn’t take it. So the question then became whether I would have another opportunity, and if so, could I take it?
I was still staring at the same page, chasing the same thoughts around my head, when the lunch bell rang. For those of us stuck in the Dungeon it meant brown bag lunches – a cold meat sandwich, an apple and a bag of chips. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t filling either, basically just enough to get you through the school day without your belly growling too loud. About halfway through my extremely thin turkey and swiss on wheat there was a knock at the door. I didn’t bother even looking up until someone called my name.
“Mr. Holden,” they called out again. This time I saw who was yelling for me and unfortunately it was Principal Rooney, now standing just inside the room beside vice-principal Miller.
“I need to see you out here for a minute, and bring your things.”
I hadn’t done anything new to get myself in trouble, so I racked my brain trying to think of something I’d done in the past that they might have just caught on to as I quickly gathered my stuff. Nothing came to mind which made the trip out to the hallway even more unsettling. It’s hard to come up with an excuse for something if you didn’t know what it was.
“I understand there was some kind of accident this morning,” he said, closing the door behind me.
“You can’t really think I had anything to do with that,” I said, instantly feeling defensive.
“I didn’t say you did,” he replied as he led me up the stairs towards his office. “But you were there?”
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to choose my words carefully. “I mean I was behind Mrs. Reader when it happened, but I had nothing to do with it. The light turned green and she went into the intersection but the dump truck just didn’t stop in time.”
“And that’s when you got involved?”
“I guess. I mean, it wasn’t like I wanted to, but the car was pretty messed up and had a lot of smoke coming from it. I was afraid that it was going to catch fire so I just got her out of there. Why? Was that the wrong thing to do? Did I hurt her more?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” Principal Rooney said, his face softening a little as he opened his office door. Inside was a firefighter still wearing half his gear with my motorcycle helmet in his hands.
“I’m Sergeant Cooper,” he said, handing me my helmet. “I take it that this is yours?”
There were a couple of fresh scratches from where I had thrown the helmet off but otherwise it didn’t look any worse for the wear.
“It was so close to the car,” I said, amazed that there wasn’t a single burn mark. “I thought for sure I’d lost it.”
“So it was you who pulled her from the burning car?”
“Well it wasn’t actually burning when I pulled her out, it was just smoking a bit.”
“That was very heroic,” Sergeant Cooper continued, “Why didn’t you stick around.”
I really didn’t know how to respond to that.
“It wasn’t heroic, it was just what needed to be done,” I said. “And I guess I didn’t stick around because I’d already done what I could do, and real help was on the way; I heard the sirens. And besides, I needed to get to school. I’d gotten into a little trouble the other day and I didn’t want to get into more trouble for being late.”
Principal Rooney chuckled a little as Sergeant Cooper glanced his way.
“It was just a small incident,” he said, “and I think Nathaniel here, in light of all that has happened, deserves a little leniency.”
I just looked at him as I was trying to figure out exactly what he was saying.
“You can return to your regularly scheduled class,” he clarified.
“Before you do,” Sergeant Cooper said, “I just want to thank you for what you did.”
He held out his hand, and for a moment I hesitated. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I also didn’t want to see whatever images might flood my mind. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any way around it, so I reached out and shook his hand.
The image of Sergeant Cooper, younger and a little less fit, stumbling through a crowded bar filled my thoughts. I saw him struggling to make it from the front door to his car, as he dropped his keys several times before finally unlocking the green Trans Am and climbing inside.
I felt myself tense up, trying to push the image away and he instantly released his grip. A sense of relief flooded through me as the image faded before I could see what happened next.
“Are you okay?” He asked.
“Yeah”, I replied, rubbing my palm with my other hand. “I guess my hand is just a little sore.”
“Maybe you should get that checked out by the nurse, and make sure you didn’t do any damage while you were saving Ms. Reader.”
“I don’t think I really saved her, I just…”
“Speaking of Mrs. Reader,” Principal Rooney said. “She is recovering at the hospital and would like for you to visit her.”
“What? I, uh, really don’t know about that…”
“Nonsense,” he replied. “She just wants the opportunity to thank you herself. You can stop by on your way home and the whole thing will only take a few minutes.”
The word opportunity hit me like a dump truck. Lucifer had said he’d give me the opportunity to complete my task, so I instantly knew he was responsible for the accident that morning. And since I didn’t take the opportunity that morning, he was making sure I had another chance. How many chances was he going to give me? And at what cost? So far no one but Mrs. Reader had been hurt, but that could easily change.
“Yeah, I’ll do it,” I said, probably more to myself than to anyone in that room.
“Well, It was nice meeting you,” Sergeant Cooper said, with a wave as I slipped out of the office.
Since it was lunch time, and I was out of the dungeon, that meant I was supposed to be in the cafeteria but I really wasn’t ready to be around other people so I took my time getting there, stashing my helmet in my locker on my way. Weed was at our usual table with a shocked look on his face as I walked up.
“I got a pardon,” I said, answering the question he hadn’t yet asked.
“So did you really do it? Did you pull a pregnant teacher and a litter of puppies from a burning car just before it exploded?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “You know better than to listen to hallway gossip.”
“Then how’d you get out of suspension?”
I really just wanted a cigarette, but didn’t want to chance getting caught, so I just sat there, grabbed a couple of his fries, and then told him what really happened, including the fact that Mrs. Reader was my latest assignment.
When I finished he just sat there for a minute taking it all in.
“So why’d you do it? Why’d you save her?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“And now you have to off her?”
“I don’t know, I guess so.”
The casual way we’d just discussed killing a teacher was a little unsettling, but we finished out the last little bit of lunch in comfortable silence, then headed to class together. A few people stared or pointed my way but I ignored them the same way they’d always ignored us, partially out of spite, but mainly because I really didn’t care what they thought. The rest of the day went pretty much the same but this time no one was waiting by the bike or Weed’s car when we left. I was thankful for that.
Weed knew I had to stop by the hospital and even offered to join me, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do and having him there would just make things even more awkward.
“I’ll just catch up with you after mom heads to work, alright?”
“No problem,” he said before taking off in the Weed wagon.
That left me no other excuse not to go to the hospital.