Authors: Richie Tankersley Cusick
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Social Issues, #Adolescence, #Friendship, #Horror fiction, #Traffic accidents
Later, when Belinda thought about that horrible night, she could think of a hundred "if only's" that might have made things turn out differently. If only we hadn't gone to that party. . . . She hated parties anyway, and Hildy had been grounded -- why in the world had she ever told Hildy she'd go along in the first place? She hadn't even known the people who'd been giving the stupid party -- some college buddies of Frank's older brother -- and once she and Hildy and Frank had gotten there, she'd known right away there was too much drinking going on. If only we hadn't gone . . . if only it hadn't been out of town. . . . She'd told her mother that she was spending the night at Hildy's just like any other weekend, that they'd just stay in and rent some movies. // only we hadn't tried to drive there and back again. If only Frank hadn't drunk all those beers. . . .
If only it hadn't been April Fools' Day.
Because, really, that's what had started the whole thing off -- that stupid April Fools' Day
party. That, and Frank being an even bigger jerk than usual, appointing himself the official King of Fools, much to everyone's delight. Frank had never needed an excuse to make a total fool of himself, but this time he'd been so outrageous that Belinda had been embarrassed for him. She'd actually been relieved when he'd gotten so drunk that Hildy insisted they leave. And she remembered how Hildy had fought him when Frank wouldn't give up the car keys, and how much trouble they'd had pouring him into the front seat, how terrified they'd been when he'd grabbed the wheel, weaving them all over the road.
If only . . . if only everything had been different.
But things hadn't been different, and afterward she could still see everything so clearly ... too clearly.
She and Frank and Hildy driving home so late that night. . . and the terrible storm beating down on them . . . They'd taken a shortcut -- some little used road near the airport -- that Frank's brother had suggested, where there wasn't likely to be any highway patrol on the lookout for late party-goers and . . . Hildy had gotten more and more upset because Frank kept trying to drive. . . . Frank had started feeling sick, but there was nowhere to pull off on the narrow downhill stretch, and it was so curvy and dangerous, and Belinda had been so frightened.... That's when the other car had pulled up behind them, honking, trying to pass. Belinda had peered out through the streaming rain on the back window, but hadn't been able to see any faces,
and the car had kept honking and honking and Frank had gotten mad.
"Let's give those hotshots a scare," he'd said, and Belinda had felt like she was choking, thick bands of fear tightening around her chest, that awful premonition that something horrible was about to happen. She'd begged Hildy to pull over and let the car pass, and Hildy had really tried, but Frank had suddenly grabbed the wheel again, and they'd almost run the other car off the road. She remembered Hildy shouting at him, and Frank saying, "Let's give them a real scare this time!" and how he'd leaned on the horn and started laughing.
She could still see it. Even now.
The other car swerving around them, just as Frank's foot hit the gas pedal, lurching them forward, right onto the other car's fender. Faster and faster -- and Hildy had started hitting him, wrestling Frank for the steering wheel, and Belinda had closed her eyes and prayed, certain they were all going to die. Just Hildy yelling and Frank laughing and the squeal of tires on slick blacktop as they'd sUd around curves, hot on the tail of the car in front -- and Belinda begging them to stop -- begging -- begging them to let her out of the car --
"Frank, don'tr She'd joined the fight then, prying his fingers from the wheel. "Someone's going to get hurt! It's not funny!"
"Oh, lighten up, Belinda! It's April Fools' Day, and I can do what I want. Hey -- nothing can happen to me --* I'm King of Fools! What the hell -- they can't just push the king around like I'm a nobody! Vm teaching them a little lesson in respect. Tell you what, I won't even write them a speeding ticket, whatcha say?"
And then it happened.
Right then, right in front of their eyes.
The other car disappeared.
One minute it was in front of them, taillights swishing through the curtain of rain . . .
The next minute the road was black and empty.
*What -- stop the car, Hildy -- stop the car!" And Belinda was never sure if she'd really said the words out loud or just in her head because the noise had come then -- the terrible, unbelievable noise not so far away -- the crash going on and on through the dark and the thunder, and the crunching and twisting of metal, and the helpless, panicky screams --
My Gody those awful screams --
For a moment time had ended. She remembered Hildy frozen in the front seat . . . Frank's dazed, white face. . . . She could feel the rain pounding on the roof, like her heart pounding in her throat --
"Oh, God! Hurry!"
"No, Belinda, wait --"
And somehow she'd found it -- or what was left of it -- the mangled car at the bottom of the gorge, the sudden flicker of light, a small burst of flames --
*We've got to help!" She'd been half out of her mind, running toward the wreck like that, sUpping and falling over the rocks, sliding down the muddy hiU. 'We've got to help --"
It had taken her a while to even realize that Frank and Hildy weren't behind her. She remembered whirling around and hearing her name being called over and over from the darkness . . . seeing them struggling over the rocks, trying to catch up . . .
While someone watched from the top of the hill.
Even now it made her skin crawl.
Because someone had been up there in front of their car, caught in the weak blur of the headlights, a person -- a man -- just standing beside the car, just standing there, watching them --
"Help!" Belinda had screamed, and she'd started back again, waving her arms -- "Help us! Pleaser
But he hadn't moved, and so she'd run on, run straight on to the burning car, and had almost reached it when Frank finally tackled her, throwing her to the ground, and she'd kept screaming, and someone else had been screaming, too.
Not Hildy, whose face was soaked with rain and tears, not Frank who kept yelling, "It's gonna blow -- let's get out of here -- the whole thing's gonna go wpT
But other screams -- screams of pain and terror -- and in the growing rush of crackling light, she'd seen the outline of someone -- someone still alive -- moving against the flames, trapped upside down behind the car window --
And "A/'O/" Belinda shrieked. She'd tried to claw Hildy and Frank away, as they'd pulled on her, forcing her up the hill --
They'd heard the explosion, felt the earth tremble beneath them, and she'd tried to turn around and go back, but Frank had shoved her so hard, she'd fallen to the ground in front of the headlights. . . .
The mushy ground where two footprints were filling up with water . . .
"Someone was here," she'd mumbled, "Hildy, someone was here -- do you see him? Where'd he go?"
"Come OYiy Belinda, there's nobody -- we've got to get out of here --"
"But Hildy, someone --"
"Come on, get in the car!"
She hadn't really thought as she'd reached out for the muddy rag beside her on the ground . . . she'd gone into a sort of numbness, hands reaching out and pushing her, and the warm taste of blood in her mouth and on her lips as she'd pressed the cold, wet rag against her aching face.
She remembered the rain . . . beating down on them without mercy.
And Frank babbling over and over like an idiot, "It was just a joke . . . a jo/ce."
My God, what have we done. . . .
If only it hadn't been April Fools' Day.
If only the screams would stop echoing forever and ever in her mind.
"Frank and I are worried about you," Hildy said, popping a french fry into her mouth. "You're acting kind of depressed."
"Well, that's silly, isn't it? What could I possibly have to be depressed about?" Belinda gave her friend a wry smile, then sighed as Hildy leaned forward and slapped her palm down on the table.
"Snap out of it, will you? It's over with. It's been two weeks, and it's over with. Besides, we made a pact and you can't break it."
"He shouldn't have done it," Belinda mumbled.
"For God's sake, it was a stupid joke! You know Frank -- it was April Fools' Day, and he was the King of Fools! He doesn't take anything seriously on normal days." She studied the other girl with an exasperated sigh. "You're really being dramatic about this. Your mom's gonna start asking dumb questions if you don't watch it."
"Mom's working double shifts at the hospital again. We never even see each other. Look, Hildy," BeUnda spread her hands, searching for the right
words. "Someone was trapped in that car. I still see him, being burned alive. We were . . . responsible --"
"Oh, come on, we didn't make them miss the road. Those people should have been watching where they were going!"
"It's never even been on the news -- I keep waiting and waiting --"
"It was a two-hour drive from here! There's no reason why an accident that happened a hundred miles away should even be mentioned on the local news! Car wrecks happen every day --"
"But they don't have anything to do with us!"
"And this doesn't, either. You're acting like this is some huge tragedy or something and --"
"It is a tragedy! I just keep -- keep feeling that somehow we'll be . . . paid back for what we did."
"How many times do I have to tell you, we didn't do anything. And we stopped at that gas station, didn't we? Well, didn't we? It wasn't our fault it was closed and the stupid pay phone was broken. Jeez, you're driving me nuts!"
Belinda's voice dropped, her eyes unhappy. "I can't get away from it, Hildy. I dream about it. We should have tried harder to get help. We should have gone to the police --"
Hildy bent low, her mouth pressed into an angry line. "Oh, right, what a smart thing to do. You know Frank was drunk -- he wasn't even supposed to be at that party! If Coach Jarvis found out Frank was there instead of at that special swim practice ... I mean, Frank called in sick and lied to him! He could
be thrown off the team! And / was grounded -- I shouldn't have been there, either. You^ either. If you remember, we were supposed to be house-sitting while my parents were out of town." The anger melted, replaced by a quiet pleading that Belinda could never resist. "Do you know how much trouble we'd have been in if we'd gone to the cops? I don't even want to think about what they'd have done to Frank in his condition -- and if my parents found out about any of it, they'd never let me date Frank again. Look ... we did all we could."
"But what about the man I saw up on the hill?" Belinda said stubbornly. "Someone saw us there --"
"There wasn't anyone there, I've told you a hundred times. Look, it was raining, you were upset --"
"Hildy, someone was there. I didn't imagine it."
"Okay. Suppose this guy was there. He'll just think we stopped to help -- which we didy by the way. And why didn't he hang around anyway? Why didn't he try to help?"
"Maybe he did. Maybe he went and called an ambulance."
"Then what are you worried about?"
Behnda shook her head slowly. "Maybe he saw us chasing the car. Maybe he thinks we pushed it off the cliff. Maybe he got the Ucense number --^"
"Oh, Belinda --" Hildy looked impatient but tried to keep her voice reasonable. 'We've been all over this before. Nobody's come around asking anything, have they?" Belinda shook her head reluctantly. "Okay. I just don't think there was a man. Frank and I didn't see anyone"
"I saw footprints."
"All three of us walked around in front of the car -- there were probably lots of footprints --" Hildy bit her lip, and Belinda could almost hear her mentally counting to ten. "I know you've been under a strain -- studying, and doing everything at home -- and you must be tutoring half the school for exams --"
"Not half," Belinda almost smiled at that. "Almost, but not half --"
"Your advertising sure works. All the cards you posted at school and around town -- I don't know how you stand it."
"We need the money, Hildy. I don't have a choice."
"Yeah . . . well ..." Hildy looked uncomfortable and hurried on. "Mrs. Larson at the library said some guy even asked about you the other day. He saw your card there and wanted to know something about you, so she showed him your picture in the yearbook and told him how qualified you are -- ''
A twinge of fear hit her, though she wasn't quite sure why. "Who was he?"
"She didn't know. But I guess that means he'll be calling you."
Belinda nodded uncertainly.
"So . . . what? Aren't you glad? This might be Mister Right, you know, just walking into your life and . . . what's the matter?"
Belinda shook her head. No matter what, her mind kept going back to the accident, and she didn't want to start Hildy off again.
"I've gotta get to class." Hildy shoved back her chair, long silvery braids brushing across the tabletop, pale green eyes narrowed on Belinda like a cat's. "You'd better get your act together. You're getting to be a real bore with all this,"