I JOIN THE STREAM OF OTHER students who seem as impatient as I to leave the school grounds. The fact that they’re just as eager makes me feel like we were born under one star. Perhaps they have a purpose like me. A mission.
I stroll past the huge wooden school board near the gates, the words “St. Johann Gymnasium for Music and Art, First District Vienna, was built in 1901 in memory of Johann Wiedermeir” in bold white letters. According to history, Johann dedicated his life to teaching children who could not afford music classes and instruments. He believed music is life. I guess that’s why Vienna is known as the City of Music. Music is like air around here.
As I walk out the school gates, an incessant screeching song shatters the spring air. A few heads, including mine, turn in search of the source. I cringe, realising it’s coming from inside my rucksack. I duck my head to avoid the eyes burning into my face. Lucy must have messed with my ring tone while I painted her nails yesterday evening.
I halt, swing my rucksack to the front, and dig out my mobile phone. “Mom” flashes on the screen. “Hi, Mom.”
“Ana, honey, we need about five minutes. Too much traffic and no parking spaces left. Could you meet us outside the Institute of Psychosomatic on Parkring?” Her voice sounds tense, taut. My bones sag as weariness and wariness bite into them. Did I make a mistake planning this trip to Italy? Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me to always listen to my heart. I have. Hope my heart won’t fail me on this.
I shove the doubts aside. “Okay, Mom. See you in a few minutes.” Before she hangs up, I hear Anton and Lucy bickering in the background. Is Dad with them? What if he decided not to come along? Only one way to find out, I guess.
I sigh, zip the phone back inside the rucksack, turn right, and walk past Palais Coburg wine archive, its neoclassical facade looking so white against the blue sky. Seconds later I’m head for the institute to wait for my family.
For the twentieth time, I glance at the time on my mobile then look up as tram line two whizzes by. Mom said five minutes, but I’ve been waiting for thirty. What’s taking them so long?
My fingers tap impatiently at the open page of the math textbook on my lap. I figured I’d get some material inside my brain for the last two exams. A useless attempt. My ears are perked up, and my eyes comb the area every few seconds, searching for our navy blue Opel. My eyes wander to the dark-haired man across the street on a small stone path leading to the Stadtpark, Vienna’s city park. His fingers leap about on the accordion keyboard, playing a tune that conjures images of medieval times in my head. Without pausing, the tune changes to a jaunty one. He tosses his usual don’t-worry-be-happy smile to pedestrians strolling in and out of the park, his dark eyes holding a dreamy look. The man has been playing his accordion on that spot for as long as I can remember.
Any other day, I would be smiling, even dancing to that jovial tune. Usually, on the days I’m not riding in Rolf’s car and have to wait for the bus, the dark-haired man’s music is a godsend after hours of math, biology, and teachers sent from hell. Today, I would rather not hear the music. I wish my family would be here already so the bonding can begin. I slam the book shut, shove it inside my rucksack, and recheck my phone. Again. No missed calls. Only one text message. My heart jolts in my chest. It’s Rolf.
Already miss u. Everything ok?
Miss u 2. Everything’s ok. U? I reply.
Ok, I guess. Dad’s being his usual pompous self. What r u wearing?I cringe. Rolf’s dad is a party-pooper. Lacy black top, hip hugging jeans, and stilettos. I hit send, and smile. This is the boy I remember falling for a year ago. Flirty, passionate, attentive.Over the last couple of months, things seemed to change. One minute he’s desperately pleading with me to never leave him, and the next he’s confident. It’s like two people in the same body. Is love supposed to be this… confusing? Is it why Mom and Dad are the way they are?
I sigh and focus on the daisy henna tattoos covering each of my fingers. Tiny strands and leaves weave along my hand to join the daisy chain tattoo around my wrist.
The phone beeps, and I glance down.
God, Ana. 1 word: torture. Can’t wait 2 c u on Sunday. Love u.
I type ‘Keeps the fire burning ;) C u Sunday. Love u too’, and hit send.
I tuck my phone back with a smile and rake my surroundings for our car. They should be here. What’s taking them so long?
The medieval tune floating across the street switches abruptly to a mournful melody. I swallow hard, wipe my sweaty hands on my jeans, and look across the street at Accordion Guy. His face reflects the mood of the song.
Way to go soothing my already strayed nerves.
Blowing out a breath, I drop my head in my hands. All this waiting. It’s like…
Tires squeal horribly on the tarmac, cutting off my inner rant. I swing my whole body in that direction, every muscle alert. The crashing sound of metal against metal follows, puncturing the air. Heart pounding in my ears, my legs thrust me to my feet, before freezing in place. Inside of me, I feel as if invisible threads have been severed. I squeeze my eyes shut, waiting.
Silence follows. No birds chirping, no cheerful music from Accordion Guy. Even the air seems to be holding its breath. Raising my head, I peel my eyes open and take mouthfuls of air. The stench of burnt rubber strangles me. I breathe through my mouth, at the same time scanning the area.
At the intersection, a hundred metres to my right, smoke snakes from what looks like navy blue metal rubble. An overturned white truck flanks it.
I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. I swing my rucksack over my back, grab my violin, trying to steady my swaying legs. My hand rubs my midsection where a dull needle-like pain is blooming with every passing second. Forcing my legs into action, I shuffle, pick up to a jog, and then a full sprint. Skidding to a stop in front a group huddled together, I inhale and choke. The burnt rubber odour is stronger here. My lungs feel as if they’re suffocating but at the same time drowning with every spurt of breath rushing in and out of my mouth and nose. Hushed voices and occasional anguished weeping fill the air. To my right, a man dressed in a black suit yells instructions into a phone, his voice urgent and panicked. I catch the words “accident” and “death”.
I turn away from him, the ache in my heart no longer pins and needles, but a knife slashing it to thin, invisible ribbons. Taking deep breaths, I shoulder my way to the front and halt, blinking at the upturned white truck. Eyes wide, I stagger forward, detaching myself from the crowd. Broken glass covered in blood twinkles like rubies in the mid-day sun. Black oily skid marks similar to doodles on an even blacker sketchpad lead to the overturned white truck, indicating the crazed dance the truck had performed before its downfall.
How could anyone survive this crash? Was the driver drunk?
I hitch on my toes, trying to peek inside the open door of the truck. No sign of the driver. From under the truck, I catch a glimpse of metal. I inch forward, rounding the humongous thing. My heart plunges to the bottom of my stomach.
I half-walk, half-stumble toward the car. Out of nowhere, a hand grabs my upper arm, pulling me back, speaking words my mind cannot process. I don’t bother to look, just yank my arm back, my feet thrusting me forward. Something crunches under my ballet flats, and I glance down. Completely shocked to inactivity, my lungs shut down, and I drop to my knees, dizzy at my discovery. I barely register my rucksack slipping off my shoulders.
As if disconnected from my body, my trembling fingers stretch out to pick up the white rectangular metal plate with familiar numbers on it. Oh dear God! Oh dear God! OH DEAR GOD! No, not this. Not my family.
The plate slips from my fingers. I crawl forward, heat from the tarmac seeping through my jeans. Tiny pebbles poke and embed themselves in my skin. Ignoring the pain, I pull whatever pieces my hands can pluck from the mess and toss them aside. If I manage to clear the debris, I’ll prove my family isn’t buried in here. The numbers on the plate are just my imagination.
My eyes blur, and I furiously swipe at them. Blood from the cuts on my hands, splutters on my t-shirt and darken the henna tattoos on my hands, mingling with blood of the… no. No! My family is safe, probably waiting for me outside the Institute of Psychosomatic. What am I doing here? I’m keeping them, wasting time. Yes, that’s it. The Main Man up there can’t be so cruel to take my family away.
The mournful sound of sirens slashes through my thoughts. I block it and concentrate on what my mind is insistently trying to whisper to me.
They are waiting for me. I left my spot too soon. This accident must have halted their progress of reaching me. My heart stutters back to life, picking up the beat where it left off moments before. It accelerates so fast I’m afraid it will rupture my chest.
I take a step to retrieve my rucksack and come face to face with a brown limb poking through the mess I inspected earlier. Something gnaws at my stomach, chewing its way up my throat, desperate to be let out. I swallow the sour taste on my tongue, moving cautiously forward to touch it. With trembling hands, I grasp the tiny fingers I had polished red just last night in preparation for the trip.
I shake my head. Not her. Not my Lucy. God, please not my family. I toss the metal aside, scouring the rubble, searching for the body that limb belongs to, a face… something. Finally what has been digging its way up my stomach erupts from my throat and mouth. I jerk forward and vomit. The hazy fog at the edges of my mind slithers closer, eager to embrace me. I have to fight it. I have to search for the rest of them. My family. Gone. No one should touch them. Me, just me. God, don’t leave me this way, alone. Take me as well. If it wasn’t for me, Mom would be in her flower shop, Dad probably delivering some stuff to a customer, and Anton and Lucy on the way home from school. I pushed for this. I handed them over to death.
Something inside my chest shatters like glass. The fog greedily swoops in. My muscles give way. I’m floating, falling into a place so deliciously warm and dark.
I hope I never wake up.
Thanks so much for dropping by and reading this excerpt.