Full Steam (Ahead)
As a college student majoring in Education and Foreign Studies, Will Schuester thought he already knew what exhaustion was, but it wasn't until he had to drive a school bus full of rowdy teenagers for sixteen hours straight two days in a row that he learned what it meant to be really, truly fatigued. Why the National Show Choir trustees had decided to host the competition in Seattle this year, he'd never know, and an even bigger mystery was how in the name of hell every kid on the bus was acting as if they'd chugged three cans of Red Bull. The only people who looked remotely sleepy were the chaperones and Kurt, whom Will had heard complaining of a serious lack of beauty sleep resulting from having to share a motel room in Bismarck, North Dakota with five boys bent on pelting each other to death with Nerf bullets.
After the previous year's destruction of hotel property in New York, Figgins had strictly demanded that this year there had to be two chaperones of each gender, so after a meeting of all the Gleeks' parents, he'd accepted three volunteers – Carole Hudson, Walter Jones, and Susan Lopez (the last of whom was more than a little reluctant). So now, Will was looking forward to arriving at their venue in Seattle and taking a quick power-nap before their pre-performance rehearsal without worrying that all the kids would run off and disappear like Ringo in A Hard Day's Night.
Back in the rear of the bus, Puck and Lauren were making faces and rude gestures at the cars passing by, and Kurt and Mercedes were sharing the headphones to Mercedes' iPod and singing along loudly to the Dreamgirls soundtrack. Finn was leaning his back against the window and trying to listen to Rachel (who had moved to the seat in front of him so he could stretch out his legs) prattle on about the importance of getting his dance moves perfected before the competition, and was mostly succeeding only in a blank stare. Quinn was sitting in front of Kurt and Mercedes and trying to read the latest issue of Elle, but failing since Sam had turned around in his seat to talk to her. In front of Sam, Mike and Tina seemed to be having some sort of contest to see who could make the other laugh first, and ahead of them, Santana was quietly scowling at Brittany and Artie's sickeningly adorable PDA.
As the final notes of One Night Only drew to a close, Kurt yawned and pulled the earbud out of his ear, returning it to Mercedes. "Sorry, but I seriously need to take a nap if I'm going to stay upright on stage," he said with a smile. "Wake me up if anything gossip-worthy happens." He gave her a wink.
As Kurt leaned his head against the window and shut his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest, Mercedes left the remaining earbud in her ear and switched her iPod to a Rihanna album. Her phone buzzed against her leg and she fished it out of her pocket to see a text from her mother: Good luck this afternoon! Say hi to Pop for me. xoxo. About to type a reply, a sudden dip in the road jostled the bus and caused her to drop the phone, which bounced once on the floor and then slid under Quinn's seat. Mercedes reached for it, but it lay a maddeningly few inches out of her grasp, then slid forward a little further as the bus hit another small bump.
Up ahead, Santana was approaching the front of the bus, keeping her balance by bracing her hands against the passenger seats. "Santana, sit down!" her mother hissed.
Santana rolled her eyes, placing her rear end on the massive console that contained the gear shift. "Fine," she snapped.
"You see what I have to put up with?" Mrs. Lopez said to Will, who was trying to stay awake in the driver's seat.
"Britt's gonna blow," Santana told him.
"She's not feeling well," the younger Lopez clarified. "She thinks she's preggo again because the stork outside her window is still there. And I saw that bird – it's not even a stork. It's a pigeon. I keep telling her not to eat crayons, but…" She trailed off with a shrug. "Anyways, you should pull over unless you want to clean up barf."
Will sighed. He would so love to take a break right now, maybe close his eyes for a minute… "Sorry, Santana, we don't have time to stop. Have her open the window and see if anyone has a plastic bag or something."
Santana huffed and stood up to go back to her seat, but then several things happened in the blink of an eye. First, she became aware of the bus floor suddenly bucking under her feet, and she was thrown hard into Carole's side as the four-ton vehicle skidded sideways. A half a second later, there was a rushing cascade of sounds: a piercing scream that had come from either Tina or Lauren, splintering glass and screeching, groaning metal buckling in on itself as if the bus was suddenly being crumpled like aluminum foil.
In the back, Mercedes, who had been still reaching for her phone, felt the earbud rip out of her ear. She yelped and let out a grunt as the sudden violent jerk of the bus caused her to lose her seat and land on the floor in the aisle. Out of the corner of her eye, she very briefly registered that same thing had happened to Tina. A loud squeal filled the air as she felt the rear end of the bus swing in an arc across the road, the rear tires crunching as they slid onto the gravel shoulder. Mercedes screamed as she was thrown against the legs of the passenger side benches and the back of her head exploded in pain.
And then, suddenly, the only sound she could hear was the ringing of her ears and, far off in the distance, traffic screeching to a halt.
Eventually, Mercedes became aware that the bus had stopped moving and, amazingly, it was still upright. The back of her head was pounding as if someone had hit her from behind with a crowbar, and someone was shaking her shoulder and repeating her name.
"Come on, Mercedes," Lauren said. "Mercedes, get your ass up!"
Mercedes' eyes snapped open and she immediately began to try to pull herself to her feet, but a strong hand on her shoulder stopped her. "Don't stand up," said Lauren, who was on her hands and knees behind Mercedes. She glanced up to see a solid ceiling of steel only a foot above her head. "What the—" she started.
"Don't ask," said Lauren. "Just go." Mercedes frowned at the other girl. Lauren's eyes were wide and terrified, her voice low. The air was clogged with the heavy scent of wet copper, iron, gasoline and something else she couldn't quite identify. "Go!"
Mercedes finally pulled herself up onto her hands and knees. Then, something on the floor to her left caught her eye, and she froze, her throat closing up.
It was a severed forearm, clothed in the sleeve from Kurt's jacket.
"Oh, God," she breathed, feeling panic bubble in her gut and bile rise in her esophagus. "Oh, God." Kurt's other forearm was lying against the wall by his feet. "Kurt!" she screamed.
"Don't look!" Lauren yelled. "Go!"
"Kurt!" Mercedes cried again, staring at the several pairs of legs still seated on most of the benches.
"Just go! Or I swear to God, I will push you out of here!" Lauren shrieked, her voice suddenly uncharacteristically high. She gave Mercedes a rough nudge, forcing her to begin to crawl forward.
"Lauren?" Mr. Schue called from the front of the bus, his voice trembling. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," she answered. "Mercedes is with me."
"Oh, thank God." Up ahead, she saw that Mr. Schue was kneeling down in the aisle where the steel ceiling ended with his hand stretched towards them. Mercedes grabbed it and he pulled her to her feet, then reached back to help Lauren. "Are you guys okay?"
In the pit of her stomach, Mercedes knew that she should not have looked back towards the rear of the bus. Somehow, though, her head had turned of its own accord, and she couldn't help but let out a scream. Mr. Schue's arms grabbed her from behind and tried to pull her away towards the bus door. "No!" she half-sobbed, pushing against her teacher's hold. "No!"
An enormous sheet of metal had nearly bisected the bus, coming in from the driver's side at an angle, the corner punching out of the other side, and only stopping just shy of where Finn had been sitting (Finn was no longer there) but leaving the entire front of the bus unaffected. The seat where Lauren and Puck had been was also untouched, but Puck was leaning limply against the window, his eyes closed and blood dripping onto his shoulders from the back of his head. The top of the metal sheet was covered in millions of scattered glass shards from the windows and more blood than Mercedes had seen in her life.
A slurred groan made her gaze snap to Sam, whose upper body was lying in the middle of the bus, having been separated from his legs just above the hips and thrown to the side. Mercedes let out a pinched sob as Sam's eyes struggled open and looked straight at her, glassed over and distant. A few seconds later, they slid shut.
Finally, Mr. Schue succeeded in half-pushing, half-carrying her off the bus, with Lauren following behind. He brought her over to the road's gravel shoulder, where her father engulfed her in a tight hug, crying with relief. When her dad released her, she saw that Finn, Tina, and Santana had already made it out of the bus and were standing in a huddle along with Finn and Santana's moms. Carole was sobbing almost uncontrollably, her hand over her mouth as she leaned against Finn, who looked utterly lost and not too far from crying himself. Tina had her arms tucked in across her chest, tears quietly streaming down her cheeks and smearing her makeup (Mercedes could have sworn that Tina's hair had been blue that morning), and Santana looked more vulnerable than Mercedes had ever seen her.
Carole drew a long, shaky breath, trying to steady herself. "I have to call Burt," she said, her voice flat.
A wave of nausea slammed into Mercedes, making her dizzy and lightheaded. Her nostrils were overwhelmed with the remaining stench of blood and gasoline in a horrible mix, and her breakfast abruptly christened the pavement.
Mercedes wasn't really aware of the spectators that had been accumulating, standing by their cars or running up to the bus and asking if everyone was okay. After what felt like hours, there were finally policemen and EMTs and firemen swarming the street, going in and out of the bus and examining the accident from the sidelines. She wanted to smack them, to scream at them to stop staring and DO SOMETHING.
Horrifying images flashed through her head again and again and again:
Sam's eyes closing for what Mercedes understood was the last time.
Brittany and Artie sagging against each other, unmoving, blood pooling around their chests.
Quinn's head and neck lying thrown against the opposite wall, at least ten feet away from the rest of her body.
Rachel's purple unicorn sweater turned almost black and ripped in half.
Mike's upper half lying sprawled amidst glinting shards of glass and blood that may or may not have been his own.
And Kurt. Oh, God, Kurt.
Mercedes buried her face in her hands, trying to block out the sounds of intermittent sirens, shouts, and crying. Her father pulled her closer to his chest.
Mr. Schue seemed to be running on a loop – every couple seconds he would rake his fingers through his hair, swear or say "Oh my God", pace a few steps, and then repeat the process.
Santana, like Mercedes, was taking solace in her parent's hold, remaining completely silent but tear-free and simply staring at the bus with the giant metal sheet sticking out of both sides. About a hundred feet away, the tractor trailer truck that had been carrying the sheet (along with about twenty more sheets in a huge, deadly stack) was parked, and in front of it a police officer was speaking quietly to the driver, a middle-aged woman who was seated on the truck's wheel well and sobbing hysterically into her hands.
"We've got a live one!" came an abrupt shout from the bus. Immediately, the heads of all the remaining bus passengers snapped up. Several EMTs scurried over, carrying armloads of medical supplies. "We're gonna need a gurney at the back exit," announced the EMT who had first shouted.
Finn, Santana, Mercedes, Tina, Lauren, Mr. Schue, and the parent chaperones (except for Carole, who was still crying over the phone to Burt) took a few steps toward the back of the bus, holding their breaths and none of them sure who to pray for.
A gurney was swung around to the back of the bus and the rear emergency exit opened. An EMT slid a stretcher onto the floor in the aisle.
Mercedes hated herself for it, but she found herself thinking, Please be Kurt, please be Kurt, please, God, let it be Kurt, despite the fact that she had seen with her own eyes what had happened to him.
The EMTs pulled the person from the seat and lowered him onto the stretcher, sliding him out of the bus and onto the gurney. Mercedes saw the small braided bracelet tied around his wrist and caught a glimpse of the dark strip of hair. Her heart sank.
One of the EMTs felt the side of Puck's neck, then quickly yelled, "Someone get me a defibrillator – he's in cardiac arrest!"
Mr. Schue inhaled sharply and clasped his hands in front of his face as if he were praying, watching along with the rest of his remaining students as the small portable machine was rushed from the ambulance to the stretcher. The EMT sliced open Puck's shirt with a pocketknife and placed the paddles on either side of his chest.
There was a faint whir as the defibrillator powered up.
A loud, solid thump, and Puck's entire body jerked, making the gurney rattle.
Thump. Puck's eyes remained closed and his body unresponsive. Mercedes heard Mr. Schue whisper a prayer under his breath.
Thump. Puck's arm dropped off the side of the gurney, his blood-covered head lolling slightly to the side.
"I got a pulse!" cried the EMT with her fingers on Puck's neck. Her colleague immediately set the defibrillator aside and shone his penlight into Puck's eyes. "Pupils are responsive. He's back. Let's get him to the hospital."
They loaded Puck into the back of the ambulance and drove off, sirens wailing. A policewoman approached them and asked to speak to the driver. Mr. Schue stepped forward. His eyes were still wide in shock and his hands shaking a bit.
The policewoman took out a notepad and pen and asked him to describe exactly what had happened in the moments before the crash.
"I – I don't know, it's all fuzzy," said Mr. Schue. "D-do you know if any of the other kids are okay?"
"I'm afraid that the only survivor we found was the boy in the back."
Mr. Schue ran his fingers through his hair again, staring up at the clear blue sky that was so rare for Seattle. "God, how could this happen?"
The policewoman sighed. "The driver of the other vehicle is also being questioned," she stated, her voice a mix of formality and sympathy. "We're not a hundred percent sure, but right now it looks like the straps holding the construction materials on the back of the tractor trailer either were frayed or they weren't properly secured. We're looking into it now."
Listening to the officer's words, Mercedes wanted to squeeze her hands over her ears like a child. She hated the driver of the tractor trailer, she hated the cheap bus they'd been riding in, she hated the EMTs for saying that Puck was the only one to make it out, and she hated the fact that the sun was shining – in Seattle, of all places – as if nothing was wrong.
A/N: Please leave a review. There's a lot more to come. Special thanks to Spookykat.