As her bus tackles tight roads on a mountain in Spain, a traveler tries to hold back memories of a past trauma that threaten to send her into a tailspin of panic.
I’m riding on a bus that’s driving along the mountains of Errezil, Spain. We’re passing cascading cliff tops that feature every shade of green imaginable, and the cold, fresh air is seeping into the vents of the bus. The birds are loudly announcing our arrival, and the cows are staring as we drive past. The bus is like every public transport bus, with a faint old smell but still comfy enough to fall asleep if you’re desperate. Every few minutes we catch a glimpse of a distant, quaint farmhouse, but for the most part we’re the only civilization in sight. We’re in the middle of nowhere, with failing reception – and we’re all about to die.
At least I think we’re about to die. It’s a conflicted emotion because Justin Beiber’s ‘I Don’t Care’ is crackling through the radio as I process my imminent death.
I’m at a party I don’t want to be at.
As we navigate the winding path, we hit every tree we pass under. I wretch at the sound of a stray twig peeling the paint from the roof of the bus. I’m trying to see as far into the distance as possible, trying to see road bumps and potholes the driver might miss, but there’s fog surrounding us. Every corner is blind.
We can’t have more than a few centimetres between us and a catastrophic drop off the mountain we’ve spent so long valiantly climbing. The driver hasn’t been able to stay on the microscopic path, so we’ve run onto the sliver of grass on either side of the road more than a few times.
Everyone else on the bus is calm, some are even sleeping. I try to reassure myself that everyone else would be panicked if we were really about to die.
Abruptly, my stomach twists, and I’m back in the car.
The red car which went too fast. Where I felt just as out of control. When the car didn’t stop, and the brakes didn’t work, and the tree was the only thing strong enough to stand up against us.
I’m smelling the same burning brakes, only this time they’re coupled with leaking petrol.
You know I love you, did I ever tell you? You make it better like that.
I start imagining how the bus will sound when it crashes. Crash? Shudder? No. Shatter. Definitely shatter. Maybe even a skid and then a shatter. People think it sounds like a thump, but the loudest noise is the headlights smashing, the metal crumpling. The last scream the car can make.
I hear the red car skid. I look to my right and see him staring at me. Panicked. Apologetic. He tries the brakes, and they fail. He tries to swerve through the corner. He knows, I know. No escape, no alternative route. Just a tree and a car – destined to be.
I clutch my seatbelt in my hand, checking it is secure – bracing for impact.
Cause I don’t care when I’m with my baby, all the bad things disappear.
My best friend beside me has her eyes pinned closed – but she can sense I’m feeling anxious. She holds a hand out to me, and I lightly grip it – careful not to squeeze too hard and alert her that I’m losing my mind.
The headlights explode. Glass immediately pours down and mixes with the petrol and storm water. I lurch forward. The airbags fail as we smash into the dashboard and wheel. I hear my knee crunch into the glovebox. I feel my collarbone snap into itself. Leaves slowly sprinkle the car in soot and debris. The tree heaves forward, then sways calmly in unison with the wind and rain.
I can hear myself screaming at him: “Get out! Get out!” Not considering he might not be able to peel himself from the steering wheel. I can’t feel the bus wobble anymore. I can see a gush of people running towards us, they’re screaming, but I can’t hear them.
Finish my drink, say “shall we dance?” Hell yeah.
My eyes refocus and start darting toward every tree. In the years following, when people drive through this small village, there won’t be any evidence of a bus accident. I expected the red car to have totalled the tree. For it to be cracked at the seams, completely in half. Destroyed. It wasn’t. I was hoping to see scars – there weren’t any to find. No wood that had regrown out of shape or bark which shed slightly faster. It was just a tree. No trauma to hide, no trauma to bear.
I can deal with the bad nights. When I’m with my baby, yeah.
I work through my steps to prevent any further break down – deep breaths, closed eyes, activated senses. Touch, smell, taste, sound, feel. I am gripping my seatbelt with such ferocity it’s cutting through my hands. I can smell the burnt tyres. I can feel the overworked and smoking hot brakes under my skin. I’m sweating. It’s already too late. I’m too worked up.
The tears are welling in my eyes. I start biting my cheeks and clenching my jaw and swallowing as much as I can. But they’re breaking free, and I’m breaking down. My shoulders are on fire, and the adrenaline is so rife in my veins it’s painful to sit still. I start rubbing my fingertips together, fidgeting my toes and manically moving my tongue side to side. I reposition myself to face the window and sit perfectly still – embarrassed and hoping no one can see me. I watch the bus teeter and threaten to topple. Any minute now, it has to fall from this cliff.
Read your lips, I’d rather kiss em right back, with all these people all around I’m crippled with anxiety.
I recompose myself. The bus takes another corner. I crumble again.
I don’t have any tissues, so my only option is to quietly sob as I listen to girls exclaiming, “This is so scary! This road is so small.”
While I’m still fighting the onslaught of trauma, my best friend begins hysterically whacking my shoulder. She’s mumbling something and hitting me to turn around. I’m certain she wants me to reveal my soaked eyes and panic, but I can’t bear to drop the calm façade. I quickly glare at her, trying to entice her to stop making a scene. As I whip my head towards her, I catch sight of the vomit falling from her mouth onto my clothes.
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh (no).
My brain is frying itself now. I’m conscious not to move so the mix of paella, sangria, and potato chips remains as contained as possible.
I pause. My brain halts its preparations. I blink. I breathe. Miraculously, I’m laughing. I’m uncontrollably shaking and numb to the sensation of vomit on my skin, but I am laughing. My eyes split at the seams, shooting tears faster down my face. Caught now by my cheeks, the tears gloss over my rosy and uplifted face. The tears trickle into my mouth, directed by my dimples.
We glance at each other; despair and gratitude wash over our faces.
The bus keeps driving, and we keep rolling through the mountains. Covered in vomit and listening to my best friend sniffle as she holds back more, I return focus to my calming techniques. Her hands are equally drenched in vomit, yet my anxiety cannot help itself. The minute the bus putters through a bend, I instinctively grab her hand. We bind our slippery hands together, her other hand occupied with clutching a makeshift vomit bag, mine still glued to my seat belt.
When we arrive safely at the farmhouse, I find the driver, thank him for a safe arrival and excellent driving – and quickly mention that his seats might have some vomit on them.
This story appears in Fearless Footsteps – True Stories That Capture the Spirit of Adventure, created by Intrepid Times and published by Exisle Publishing. Pre-order your copy today!