By David Waid
Just past the bridge, where the two lanes of Route 49 run east-west through the long, corduroy fields between Lula, Mississippi, and Helena, Arkansas, a scorched, torn bus lay on its side. Next to it squatted the flattened cab of a jack-knifed Freightliner and a wheel-less, door-less, still-flaming Toyota shell, charcoal black and charcoal white, twisted up like a kettle chip.
Light wind blew papers along the middle of the road past Officer Nathaniel Loomis as he jogged toward the bus—first on the scene. The stink of gasoline hung thick, dizzying. His head felt weightless, but warm with adrenaline and pumping blood. Scattered details came in snatches: a pocketbook, a tire, a chubby doll in blue and white gingham. One of the papers tacked down by oil spatter proclaimed, No one sees the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Hallelujah!
The bus was white, or at least it had been. What Nate could see of the side now facing the sky had been punched in, the paint singed with gray. On the back of the bus, the words Jefferson-Galilee Ministries were written in holy-thunder red.
Judging by the size, there could be forty or fifty bodies in the bus, easy. If so, the inside would be jumbled limbs, blood, glass—a mass grave, like the Altoona bombing last year. No one had survived that attack, but a news image had been stamped in Loomis’s mind of a uniformed officer carrying a dead woman from the wreckage, her body limp in his arms.
Reaching the back of the bus, he slowed to a walk. To the right, a five-foot diameter hole had been blown in the ground next to where the Toyota lay.
The cavity cut two and a half feet down, piercing the asphalt crust to the ground beneath. Jagged blocks lined the pit’s bottom and a secondary, concussive ring of raised, cracked blacktop surrounded it.
The guys at the patrol station wouldn’t be referring to him as Newbie or Cherry after this. No way. He’d probably be telling this story the rest of his life.
Not likely to be survivors on the bus, though he’d check, of course—leave no stone unturned—but the Toyota had been packed with explosives and placed to obliterate.
Where the front of the bus had been, pieces of metal hung in ribbons, and beyond it lay the dimly lit interior. Because the bus lay on its side, half the shaded windows rested on pavement, and the others faced skyward, some blown clean out of the frame. Bent seats hung from the new ceiling, a few with burnt, broken people still buckled in and folded down like pocket knives. Rows of seats against the floor, piles of victims. From the darkness at the back there emanated a blue septic stink, the dregs of the shitter oozing out.
Nate surveyed the scene as bits of broken glass grated underfoot. A woman moved, and he jumped.
“My baby,” the woman mumbled, head lolling. A dozen cuts covered one side of her face, and her hair was a plastered mix of blood and glass. “Where’s my baby?”
“My God!” he said, startled, but the thought running through his mind was, How the Hell had she lived through this?
He knelt to feel the pulse in her neck, lifted one of her eyelids: pupil dilated. Head trauma. One of her arms was free, the other pinned by the press of bodies.
Damn it. This isn’t right.
Officer Loomis used his thumb and forefinger to pinch her nostrils shut. The woman’s eyes opened in surprise, and he used his other hand to cover her mouth, though she tried to turn her head away.
“Hush now, mother. Hush.”
She struggled, but it didn’t matter; a few minutes later she was dead. He’d seen the final-final enough to recognize it.
Far away, the sirens began. With those police and EMTs would come the reporters who hunch by their scanners, tuned to the frequencies of life and death. For once in his life, Nathaniel would step from the irrelevant fringe into the spotlight and stand at the center. And with that thought, an ache expanded in his chest so fast and so painfully large, his eyes watered and his breathing quickened.
Seconds stretched out as the wail of sirens grew nearer. Officer Loomis pulled the young mother from the pile, removed his trooper hat, and ran his hand through a line of blood spatter, adding a smudge to his cheek and mussing his hair. He lifted the dead mother in his arms.
Turning to the carnage and cadavers, he said the line he’d prepared that morning. “We’ll catch these monsters and make them pay.”
It sounded good, but he said it again, because practice makes perfect; he was ready. Officer Loomis closed his eyes, breathed deep. With the woman’s body hanging limp, he staggered into the light.