Heading up the stairs to Jake's room, Elizabeth tried to control her breathing. What she was getting ready to do was going to be difficult, and she hoped it wouldn't bring about another panic attack. She always knew the time would come to tell Jake what happened on the way back from the field trip to Topeka four years ago, but no amount of time could make this story easier to tell.
Taking a few breaths to calm herself, she knocked on Jake's closed door. She waited a few seconds. Then the door opened.
"Hey, El," Jake greeted cheerily.
"Hey," she returned, stepping into the room. 'Sorry to ruin your good mood.' Turning around to face him, she asked, "Can we talk?"
Nodding, he said, "Of course." He closed the door. Then seeing Elizabeth sitting on the edge of his bed, he made his way over to the window. Leaning back against the windowsill, he faced her. "What do you want to talk about?"
Taking another deep breath, Elizabeth looked up at him. "About why I blanked out after the car accident. About how Sara and Lauren died."
Jake felt some relief knowing that he was finally going to get answers to some of the questions that had plagued his mind since the day he returned home. At the same time, he sensed that this was not going to be an easy conversation – for him or Elizabeth – and that worried him. "Okay, El."
Moving so her back was against the headboard, she took a few moments for herself. She needed to gain as much composure as was possible for this. She needed to prepare herself to relive the worst night of her life. "We had just boarded the bus right outside of Topeka and were heading toward the interstate. It was raining really hard. Ms. DeVanzo had just put a movie on – Brian's Song – when the bus swerved. Then it started to roll. The last thing I remember before everything went black was glass breaking."
She woke to the sound of a horn blaring, unsure of the time or where she was. She tried to move, but pain surged through her body. Staying put, she tried to get her bearings. Slowly her sense of hearing became more acute. The rain was a thunderous roar. She heard crying nearby and shouting in the distance. Then her other senses came slowly back to her. She was cold. And wet. There was a metallic taste in her mouth. Blood. Her eyes found a dim light on the ground a few feet from her, watching it flicker. Then her world went black.
When she woke up again, her eyes could discern a spotlight in addition to several blue and red flashing lights. The crying was louder this time and there was more of it. Someone was yelling for help, saying he didn't want to die. She realized she was lying on a floor, seats suspended above and around her. That's when she remembered what happened.
Jake's breath caught in his throat. He already knew he was going to be heart-sick by what Elizabeth had yet to tell him. He went over to the bed, sat down next to her and grabbed one of her hands. He began to run his thumb back and forth over the back of her hand.
"Liz? Elizabeth!" The panicked voice came somewhere from her left. She managed to turn her head slightly, and without causing too much pain, to spit out some blood. She turned her head a little more to see her friend Lauren lying with one leg bent in an awkward position, hands clasped tightly over her abdomen, face cut and bloody.
"Lauren," Elizabeth said, wincing at the sharp pain in her ribs. "Are you-" she painfully started. "Are you okay? Where's Sara?"
She watched as tears began to fill her friend's eyes. "We're going to die! We're going to die! She's dead and now we're going to die, too!" she screamed, starting to sob.
A taste of bile filled Elizabeth's mouth, overpowering the taste of copper. 'Sara's dead? She can't be.' Looking around as much as her injured body would allow her, her eyes fell upon a hand, no more than two feet away, peeking out from underneath jackets and backpacks in the aisle, sporting a friendship bracelet that matched the one on Elizabeth's own wrist. "Sara!"
She continued to shout her friend's name, forcing herself to not match her other friends' cries. Not satisfied, she willed herself to move her arm, sucking in her breath from the pain as she did so. Desperately, achingly, and far too slowly did her fingers finally find her friend's. They were Sara's, yet they weren't. Sara's long slender fingers – piano fingers – were always warm; these were cold, ice cold. With one last hope, Elizabeth pulled the hand towards her, hurting herself further in the process.
"I held onto her hand the whole time, clutching it to my chest. I couldn't understand how her hand was inside the bus while the rest of her body was lying outside in a pool of blood. She was dead, but the only thing I could think of was how I'd never get to see her fingers dance over the piano keys again. She was dead." Her voice quivering, she looked up at Jake, seeing tear-filled eyes that matched her own. Even though she knew she was safe in the house where she was raised, a huge part of her felt as if she were still on that bus, still holding onto Sara's hand, still screaming periodically to the paramedics outside.
Jake gave into the tears, pained at what he was hearing. He knew from experience that words did little to make the memories less painful. He just told Elizabeth that she was safe now. He continued to rub her hand, all the while feeling absolutely helpless. He was shocked. He never imagined the accident was so horrific or that Elizabeth would come face-to-face with death in the way she had. And at such a young age! He was angry, too. Angry that his mother hadn't told him more about the accident. Angry that he hadn't been told his daughter's best friends had perished. Angry that in all the time since then, Elizabeth herself hadn't told him. He hugged her close, hoping the rhythm of his heartbeat would help her relax a little, like it had in the storm cellar only a few days ago.
The realization of what was happening finally hit her. Her thoughts kept taking her to her family. To Mom and Dad. To Grandpa. To Eric and April. Stanley and Bonnie. To Jake, who was somewhere in an Iraqi desert. She couldn't remember if she told them she loved them before she left for the field trip. She hoped she had. If she was supposed to die tonight, she prayed that God gave her family peace and comfort. She prayed that she'd see them again. She prayed for Sara. Elizabeth didn't ask God to spare her own life, only that He'd be with all of them throughout the duration of this tragedy.
Later – she wasn't sure how long – Elizabeth, now armed with the strength she needed, returned her attention to her other best friend. She didn't know anything that was happening with the rescue; she could hear shouts in the background but she couldn't focus on anything other than herself and Lauren. Her throat raw, she yelled again at the rescuers outside, telling them their location on the bus, pleading for them to hurry.
Turning her attention back to her friend, Elizabeth reassured, "We're going to be okay, Lauren," hoping her voice didn't betray her fear. "We're not going to die." When her friend didn't answer, she screamed, "Lauren! Don't fall asleep on me! LAUREN!!"
Her friend still didn't answer and yet Elizabeth did not allow herself to cry. She wouldn't cry until this was over, if she lived to see the end of it. She just held onto Sara's severed hand and told herself that Lauren would be okay. Minutes later, Lauren finally spoke, Elizabeth hearing her clearly despite it barely being above whisper.
"Tell my parents I love them. And tell Amy – "
"Stop!" Elizabeth told her, panic making her way into her voice. "You can tell them that yourself when we get out of here."
"Please, just promise to tell them," Lauren pleaded, groaning in pain. "'Cuz I'm not going to be okay." Her breathing grew shallow. Her eyes closed.
Lauren slowly opened her eyes. "Please, Lizzie. Promise me."
Elizabeth swallowed the huge lump in her throat. "I promise," she whispered, tears threatening to fall, and reached across the floor, offering Lauren her hand.
Lauren grabbed a hold of Elizabeth's hand with her own. "Tell Amy she's a good sister. And you and Sara are good friends, the best."
"She died, too, Jake." Elizabeth looked up at Jake again, tears making their way down her face. "She was talking to me, making sure I knew that I was a good friend and that she loved me. Then all of a sudden she wasn't."
It wasn't until much later, after the cries were reduced to whimpering and most of the students were pulled out of the wreckage and taken to hospitals, when only she and two others were still alive inside, that Elizabeth felt the sticky substance between their joined hands. The second spotlight that had been brought in allowed her to see with perfect clarity that the substance was blood. It wouldn't be until months later that Elizabeth would finally tell her therapist where that blood came from. The source of that blood would still haunt her dreams years later.
"Someone outside kept yelling at us, telling us to hold on, that they were going to get us out. I wanted to believe them but I kept waiting. We all kept waiting," Elizabeth told Jake, leaning into him, taking comfort from the touch of his hand on her shoulder as he hugged her to him. All she knew was that as painful as this was, she felt great relief at letting go of the burden she'd chosen to keep from him for four years. She rested her head against his chest again, listening to the beat of his heart. Somehow it calmed her a little bit.
Catching her breath, Elizabeth continued. "By the time they got to me, Peter and Jason had both died." She was silent for a few moments, using the sleeve of her t-shirt to wipe her face. "The next thing I remember is waking up to Mom's voice at the hospital. The whole family was there, even Aunt Margaret and Uncle Ben. Everyone, that is –"
"Except for me," Jake finished for her. "The whole family was there except me."
"Well, yeah," Elizabeth agreed. "But it's okay. If you could, you would've been there. Besides, all I did was sleep. When I wasn't getting looked at by the doctors and nurses or talking to the counselors. It wasn't much fun."
Jake frowned. "Stuff like that's not supposed to be fun, El. It's a serious matter."
"I know, Jake." Elizabeth sighed. "I know it's serious. I think about it every day. I was just trying to make you not feel bad."
"I do feel bad, El," he replied. 'I should've been there for you. I let you down.' He kissed her on the top of the head. "I should've been there, but I never knew how bad it was."
Elizabeth pulled away from him, sensing his tenseness. "You're mad."
Jake denied it. "No. I just don't get why Mom never told me anything more than you were going to miss school for a few days. She could've told me," he said, before muttering under his breath, "She should've told me."
"I asked her not to."
Jake's eyes widened. "What? Why would you do something like that?" he asked. He stood up and moved around the room, stopping near the window. 'Why would Mom agree to something like that?'
"You were in Iraq," she said, "getting shot at." She shook her head. "I didn't want to be the distraction that got you killed. I couldn't be the distraction that got you killed. I love you. Your safety was more important than what I was going through."
Jake's breath caught in his throat. It wasn't her admission that she had known where his job had taken him, but rather her selflessness. As much as she was his daughter, she was equally her mother's, thank God. At twelve, Jake had been one of the most selfish people to ever walk this earth, vandalizing anything he came across: cars, homes, the library and schools. He even vandalized many of his father's campaign signs, not caring if it had a negative effect on the election or not. He didn't care about anyone's well-being but his own, regardless of who he hurt in the process. But Grace had always been the kid who cared more about everyone else than herself, who always offered to help others, who went out of her way to do good deeds for others, just because she felt like it was the right thing to do. Jake was grateful every day that Elizabeth had taken after her mother in that regard.
"Don't be mad that we didn't tell you. Okay, Jake?"
Jake sighed. "Okay, I understand why you didn't tell me then. But what about in San Diego? I wasn't in Iraq anymore. What about that nightmare? Is this what it was about?"
"I know," Elizabeth acknowledged. "And I was going to tell you, but then Freddie came over that one night to talk to you about the offer you both received. I know I wasn't supposed to eavesdrop, but I did. Then the next morning you told me you were going back over there." She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her knees to her chest. "And, yes, that's what the nightmare was about. The one in New York, too."
"Why didn't you tell me, El?" Jake asked as he made his way back to the bed. Sitting on the edge next to her, he continued, "I could've helped you. We could have talked about it."
She shrugged her shoulders, not looking at him. They sat in silence for a few moments, until Elizabeth quietly asked, "They're gone, too, aren't they, Jake? Aunt Margaret and Uncle Ben?" They were technically Mom's cousins, but for as long as she could remember, they'd been referred to as her aunt and uncle. Memories of summer days spent visiting them in Lawrence and Christmases spent with them here in Jericho came flooding back to her. Sniffling, she continued, "They're all gone."
Jake sighed, tucking Elizabeth's hair behind her ear, like he had when she was a child. "I don't know, El." Truth be told, he hadn't really thought about Margaret and Ben or their children. Sure, he'd thought about the outside world – how many people had died, how the towns closest to Jericho were faring, how many other bombs there were – but his focus over the last few days had been his immediate family. After being absent for five years, now more than ever, he felt he owed it to them to keep them safe. "No one knows much about what happened. Lawrence could be going through the same thing we are right now. Once we figure out what's going on we'll be able to try contacting them."
Looking up at him, Elizabeth asked, "When the government figures out who's responsible for the bombs, are you going to have to go back to work?"
He shook his head. "No, I handed in my resignation, remember? Japan was my last assignment."
She nodded. "Yeah, but you were supposed to come home after Iraq but went to Tokyo instead." She stood up, pulling back the comforter then climbed underneath, covering her legs with it as she sat down, adjusting the pillow behind her back.
"You mad at me for that? For not coming home?"
Elizabeth shook her head as she yawned. "No." She shrugged. "You're good at what you do, you keep people safe, you work well with your team. You have an important job."
"But…" Jake prompted, knowing there was more she wasn't saying.
Elizabeth grinned, one that matched his own, then shook her head. "Can't get anything past you, can I?"
"But I want you to be safe, too," she answered him. "Your job requires a lot of responsibility on your part but you also have a responsibility to our family. We all have a responsibility to this family. We need to look out for each other and keep each other safe. Just 'cuz you were gone doesn't mean that changed. We needed you before you left, we needed you when you were gone, and we need you now. We need you safe."
"I'm not going anywhere," he told her, reassuring himself just as much as her. "I'm not going anywhere, El," he repeated. "I'm never going to leave you, any of you, again. I promise." He just prayed he'd be able to keep his promise this time.
They sat in silence for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts. Jake found himself thinking about everything Elizabeth had just told him. Again, he felt guilty for being gone, for giving his daughter a reason to not talk to him, to not seek him out when she was in need. Had he been in town he probably would have been chaperoning the field trip, as he had so many others. Would that have made a difference? Would he have been able to help those other kids the paramedics couldn't reach? 'No use for 'what if's', Jake. Only makes you miserable. Besides, you would have been trapped, too. You weren't around afterwards so be there now. She still needs you.'
"So, El, I know it's not easy to talk about but…"
Laying her head on his shoulder, she interrupted. "Go ahead and ask. I think I'm okay, right now. Other than being cold."
Jake got up and walked to his dresser. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a hooded sweatshirt. He walked back to the bed. Sitting down again, he handed it to Elizabeth.
"Thanks," she told him, pulling the sweatshirt on over her head. Tracing her finger over the lettering, she looked at him and smiled. "Haven't worn one of your shirts since I visited you there." The I New York hoodie had been a gift from Jake's boss. Wanting his employees to "play the role," Jack Murphy had purchased twelve of the tourist items so the team could "blend in" during their recon missions throughout the city. Jake hadn't had much use for it after that, but it had been a nice reminder of El's visit the previous winter. "So, what do you wanna know?"
Staring into eyes that looked nothing like his, he answered, "Well, I know about your broken arm. But based on everyone else's injuries, it would make sense to me if you had more."
Elizabeth licked her lips and nodded. "Yeah. One of my ribs was fractured, I had a concussion, and a piece of metal was embedded in my back."
Jake didn't – couldn't – respond. In his mind, images flashed of Elizabeth – his little girl- lying in a pool of blood, unconscious, in the wreckage of a yellow school bus. He could see her arm bent at an impossible angle, a piece of shrapnel piercing her skin, blood pouring from the wound. A chill ran through his body as he saw her surrounded by other bodies, other children, also covered in blood, eyes lifeless.
"Jake," he heard someone say. Then again he heard his name accompanied by an elbow to the ribs. Shaking his head to clear it, he looked to his left to see Elizabeth staring at him, concern written in her expression.
"You okay? You look more scared than Mom and Dad did that night."
Jake didn't answer.
"I'm okay, Jake."