I was sixteen when my parents died. It was no great loss. That may seem like a dreadful thing to say. However my parents were not the loving, nurturing people many parents are. Note I did not say all parents. I’ve learned that being a parent is not always born of a desire to bear and raise a child in a happy home.
While my parents lived we moved around frequently. I don’t think we spent more than six months in any place and usually not that long. It wasn’t because we were poor although there were times we were desperately poor. We never stayed poor. If there was one thing my parents were good at it was making money.
I was in high school when my parents died. In fact I was at school when they died; run off the road in a police chase that left their car burning and their bodies turning to ash and blowing away on a warm spring day. While I sat in my English class, staring out at the trees that were beginning to bud, the scent of freshly turned soil was marred by the distant odor of burning rubber. I could see the thick oily smoke rising beyond the campus, dark and forbidding against the azure blue sky. Several of my classmates also turned to look out the window finally getting the attention of our dour English teacher.
Hands on her hips she demanded to know what was so important it drew our attention away from her lecture. However, when she stepped toward the windows and saw the smoke rising to the sky like some dark spirit she gasped. Soon we all stood at the window listening to the not too distant sounds of sirens, the malodorous fumes began to fill the classroom when she began shutting windows. Even with them closed tightly the scent permeated the class and soon she gave up, dismissing us all. By then the school hallways were filled with students and staff hurrying to classrooms with the hope of getting a better look at whatever disaster was taking place just beyond our field of vision.
I was leaning against the window frame squeezed between Hanna K. and Lee Yuen when the principal came into the room. All heads turned toward me when she called my name to join her in her office. It was not unusual for me to be called to the office in those days. I was in trouble more often than not, usually for being absent or tardy. But the heads always turned to watch me paraded from class and down the halls. I believe I provided some much needed entertainment for the school, both students and faculty.
As I followed Ms Templeton down the halls I sensed something was different. She usually walked ahead of me, back straight and shoulders squared with no question I would follow obediently. That day however she walked at my side, shoulders slightly slumped, hands held in front of her prodigious breasts wringing nervously. The crowd of students parted before us like the Red Sea before the staff of Moses and even I, with my devil may care and screw you all attitude, was taken aback. My mind scrambled to remember what offense I had committed that might be so grave to cause this response. In fact I had been relatively quiet the last few weeks.
As we crossed the outer office past the secretaries and the assistant principals, I noticed the women wiping their eyes and the men looking quickly away as though they might reveal what the terrible punishment I was about to receive would be. Templeton closed the door softly behind us and indicated the chair in front of her desk. I was almost afraid to sit. My concern grew deeper when she placed a box of tissues on the small table at my side and instead of sitting formally behind her desk, she propped herself up on the edge of it in front of me.
“Terza.” Her voice was uncommonly low and shook slightly. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
I had been suspended from other schools in the past so this was a consideration.
Her eyes darted about the room as though she would find the words she needed to speak on a shelf or hidden behind one of the framed motivational pictures that hung on her wall. Then with a deep sigh she began to utter the words that would change my life forever. “Terza, I’m afraid there has been an accident.”
The windows behind her desk looked out on the same view I had been watching from the classroom so it was not a stretch to conclude there was a connection between the now gray thin smoke and the accident to which she referred. Nor was it much of a leap to assume it had something to do with my parents.
Suddenly my bladder felt full to the point of bursting and I wondered if I might have time for a quick dash to the girls room before she continued. Instead I squeezed my thighs tightly together. I said nothing unwilling to prompt her to continue. Surely if I said nothing she would be forced to refrain from giving me the “bad news” and we could both go on about our business.
That wasn’t how things played out. In soft almost cloying terms she explained my parents had been involved in a fatal car crash and a deputy was waiting to take me to the hospital. When I heard the word hospital I assumed there was some hope one or both of them had survived in spite of her use of the word fatal. But it was the word hospital that was incorrect. A deputy who I later learned was Office McGahee, stepped into the office, hat in hand and face strangely pale. I did not ask any questions. They assumed I was in shock and truth be told I probably was. Once again I was paraded through the hall, this time accompanied by a member of law enforcement. I felt as well as saw the staring eyes and some gaping mouths. Word travels fast in high school; especially when the news is bad. By the time we reached the police car outside the whispers had grown loud enough for me to hear an occasional word; “dead”, “burned”, unrecognizable”.
Then I was in the back seat of the car behind the grill that separated prisoners from the law and off we went with the embarrassing blare of the siren drowning out the hushed voices. Heads turned as we sped by streets and cars that pulled aside to grant us right of way. Did they think I was some teen arrested for breaking the law? Probably they did; it’s what I would have thought.
We did not pull up in front of the hospital, the one puny hospital in the puny town I called home. We pulled up in front of the Police Department; an aged building with a half dozen empty parking spaces for police vehicles and a gated area that housed several other vehicles. There were no handles on the inside of the car doors in the back seat. It made sense. This was not designed for the comfortable transport of a grieving teenager. This was a vehicle to keep the arrested confined in a small space until he could be moved to another small space, prior to being brought before a judge. MaGahee opened the door and stepped aside so I could get out. About that time several state police cars, a van with HazMat stenciled on its side, and an emergency vehicle marked Coroner pulled in behind the gate. They don’t call the coroner for people who are injured and taken to the hospital. They don’t bring teen-aged girls whose parents have been injured to the police station either. I knew they were dead. I was hustled into the station and led down a hall to an office that displayed the words “Chief of Police” in gold raised letters. I seemed to be spending a lot of time being rushed down halls. Heads turned and I felt the eyes boring through me. The sibilance of whispered voices echoed off the tile floors and bare walls.