As the bus chugged down the dark road, Hannah realized something was wrong. She searched for the culprit and could only see snowy fields and hillside lit by the meagre ray of the bus’s headlights. With no reason to panic she tried to stomp her coiling nerves, but her fingers still clung to the silky texture of her favourite fleece blanket.

Her instincts were screaming at her when the bus ever-so-gently rolled to a stop.

Seconds later, black smoke spewed from the rear. As it barrelled down the aisle, terror rose in Hannah’s gut like muffins in the oven—only it tasted like burnt motor oil instead of blissful sugary confection. Death had come for them.

Passengers choked and panicked. “I can’t open the window,” one guy said, cutting through frightened murmurs.

Two days earlier, Hannah Charles had boarded the bus, heading home for Christmas. Last year, she’d said goodbye to her mother before boarding a plane and vowing never to look back. Yet here she was just praying to make it home.

“I can’t wait to see you,” were the last words her mother had said to her. Hannah wiped at the excess liquid forming in her eyelids.

“Everybody off the bus,” the driver choked. “Now! Hurry up.”

“But it’s freezing out there,” a stranger whined.

“Out there or in here. It’s up to you. Take… only what you need. I’ve called for help.”

Hannah heard the bustling noises of people donning their coats and scuttling toward the exit. She did the same, while praying help would arrive quickly. As people piled into the aisles, tripping over each other, Hannah lifted the edge of the hood to her face and eagerly awaited fresh air. She’d almost welcome the cold after inhaling so many toxic fumes. Her lungs felt sticky as she realized the line wasn’t moving.

A new voice verbalized Hannah’s thought, “Why ain’t we movin’?”

“No one can leave the bus,” a woman answered. “We should wait until The Company gets here.”

“Lady, get out of the way!”

“I’m not moving!”

“You want to be responsible for all these peoples’ deaths?”

“Get her!” A new voice shouted.

A few seconds later, a cheer erupted up front and the line began moving. We are going to survive this night.

The moment the fresh air hit her lungs, Hannah greedily gulped. She shivered, denying the urge to kiss the concrete. 

“I still don’t… think we should have… gotten off the bus,” a familiar female voice said. Hannah finally saw her. Five-seven, curly-haired, forty, and wearing bright red lipstick. Her tiny green eyes were full of fear, which didn’t excuse her actions. Fog escaped her shivering lips as she continued, “The Company could… be sued for this.”

Hannah rolled her eyes and waded through the crowd, putting distance between herself and the redhead. If she thought the bus company was going to get sued, just wait until they found out that one of their employees almost killed 30 people. 

Hannah turned toward back and noticed the fifty-foot flames for the first time. Her mouth dropped.

The volunteer fire department showed up twenty minutes later and were able to get everyone’s stuff off the bus. It finally hit her how lucky they were once Hannah saw the singe mark on her blanket. She hugged it closely as they boarded a school bus heading into the small town of Marathon, Ontario to await another Company bus.

The fire hall was small and clean, but most of all, it was warm. With its old brown carpet, low lighting, and wood paneled walls, it looked more like an old pool hall. “Another bus won’t arrive for at least four hours. You are welcome to wait here. We picked up food and drinks. There are a few vending machines if you’d like something else.”

Another bus? Hannah’s stomach sank; she hadn’t thought that far ahead.   

Hannah moved through a narrow hallway to wash her hands, and to sprinkle cool water on her face, hoping to clear off the last remnants of smoke. Two women followed, talking about the employee who’d tried to keep them on the bus.

“We should have left her with the bus. That’s what she deserves,” said the blonde.

The redheaded gem with Bambi eyes nodded, checking her makeup in the mirror. “Thank God those guys moved her out of the way.”

“We’re lucky to be alive.”

Hannah felt the same, though she didn’t butt into their conversation. Christmas was a week away. All she wanted to do was get home to her family.

The secondary bus arrived just after 8 a.m. Hannah was both exhausted and full of adrenaline from the nights’ events. She offered her tremendous thanks to the volunteers and headed outside.   

People piled onto the bus, anxiously awaiting their destination. Hannah watched, frozen in fear.

“You coming, girl?”

Hannah looked up to see the redhead tossing her doe eyes and big smile at Hannah. “Uh,” was all that slipped from Hannah’s closed, dry throat.

“How far are you going?”

“Heading to Windsor.”

She nodded. “Toronto for me. It’s only a few more hours, right?”

Hannah sighed, answering with her own nod, even though those hours would seem like days once she stepped onto that bus. “Come on. You can sit with us. It won’t be so bad.”

This trip is too long. Hannah quietly stroked the stained fleece blanket on her lap. She knew that God had given her a gift on the same night he’d given her the fright of her life.  

“You made it!” Hannah’s mother opened her arms for a hug. “It’s so good to see you. You look…” Hannah expected her mother to lie and say she looked wonderful, or grown-up, or something equally sweet. “tired.”

Hannah chuckled. She wouldn’t tell her mother the events that transpired. Not yet. They would get through the holidays first. “Merry Christmas, Mom. It’s really good to be home.” 

**This story and its characters in no way express the author's beliefs. It is fiction created for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblances to real life people is purely coincidental.**
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