The Johannesburg Tragedy

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May 7th 2017  |  0  |  Category: Moral  |  Author: rmmaltbie  |  257 views

Who could possibly live in a place like Johannesburg, CA?

It’s a town literally sliced down the middle by a heavily traveled slab of pavement called Highway 395. Tucked away on the heel of the desert, this former mining district is better left in the rear view mirror. Shacks and buildings older than the road itself sit within spitting distance of either side and the only amenity available is a bush to pee in. The nearest gas station is fifteen minutes away and the grocery store is another hour after that, if you’re so inclined to go that far.

But for two young tikes like Jenn and Pete who grew up in this no-horse town, this was the only home they’d ever known. Jenn, a mere nine years old and Pete, a wicked 11, spent many of their days creating headaches for their parents. What better way to break up the monotony of nothingness than start a bit of trouble, right?

Well, one windy Thursday afternoon, a bright idea might have left Jenn and Pete with a little more than they’d bargained for, the outcome of which would change the town forever.

Jenn and Pete sat down on either side of Highway 395 for their daily game of catch. Jenn, who was skinny with blonde hair and clad in Goodwill clothing, assumed her usual position as she sat against the lamppost in front of the dilapidated gas station. Pete, a robust boy with shaggy brown hair, sat in the dirt in front of his house on the other side, tossing a large red rubber ball up and down over his lap.
Pete chucked the ball across the highway to Jenn, who leaned forward to grab it as it bounced.

“Do you think super heroes dream?” she asked as she caught it, and tossed the ball back.

“Of course they do,” Pete answered as he caught the ball square in his lap. He held the ball in one hand and blotted out ants crawling on his shoes with the other, smashing them with his fingers.

Jenn inhaled a deep breath as she waited.

Confident he’d gotten every last ant, Pete tossed the ball back to her.
“What do you think they dream about?” Jenn asked as she slapped the ball back to him.

“That’s a silly question,” he said with a smirk, sending the ball sailing toward her. “Maybe they dream of caves filled with kryptonite and magic dynamite that can destroy anything.”

Jenn held the ball, thinking. “Maybe they dream of being normal,” she said, and heaved the ball back at Pete.

The ball grazed his fingertips as he reached for it, and it bounced over the fence into his yard. He glared in Jenn’s direction before stomping off after it.

“Sorry,” Jenn muttered, avoiding eye contact.

A car whizzed by as Pete walked back toward the road; a small, silver sedan that barely made any noise.

Pete sat down, cross-legged, and lobbed the ball across the road to Jenn.
“Normal is boring,” he mumbled and he propped his elbow with his knee so he could rest his face on his hand.

Jenn held her breath as the ball bounced slowly across the road. It seemed to take forever to get to her. She grabbed it with both hands and shoved it back toward Pete. “Do you think we’ll be able to leave here?” she asked.

Pete had to lean over to catch the ball, and he then slowly dragged himself back to a sitting position. “I hope we do. I don’t want to be stuck in this place,” he said and tossed the ball back to Jenn.

She sighed as the ball arrived quicker this time, and gripped it tightly. A semi truck careened by and Jenn tucked her face into her lap, the draft caused by its momentum pulled her forward. Her heart skipped a beat.

“Are you going to throw the ball or what?” Pete asked.

Jenn said nothing and pelted the ball back to him. He grabbed it and held onto it for a moment as he watched Jenn, who stared at the ground and rolled pebbles in the dirt beneath her shoes.

Pete gazed into the distance, south toward the city line. Of course, they couldn’t see anything in the daytime. Just rolling swirls of liquid air across the desert. That’s when a thought came to him like a nervous twitch in his leg. He stood up and grabbed a rock no bigger than the palm of his hand.

“Wanna make a bet?” he asked Jenn, who looked up at him and pressed her lips together. Pete chucked the ball back at her and she caught it with one hand.

“What kind of bet?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“The next car that comes through…I bet you I can stop it.”

“How would you do that?” Jenn asked.

Pete held up the rock in his hand. “I’ll stop the car and they can take us away from here.”

Jenn stood up, tucked her hair behind her ears and shook her head. “I don’t know, Pete,” she said. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Who cares about getting in trouble? What can our moms do? You in or not?” he asked.

Jenn shrugged, and looked around at the decrepit shacks surrounding them. It was quiet, save the sound of the wind and maybe a few loose doors that slammed against storage sheds.

“What are you going to do?” she asked with a shaky voice and Pete smiled. “Watch,” he said and then they waited on either side of the road for the next car to come.

It wasn’t long before Jenn and Pete saw an old white SUV approaching on the highway.
“Hide!” Pete shouted and they both ran. Jenn hid at the backside of the gas station while Pete hid behind the waist-high fence in front of his house.

The Jeep drove closer and Jenn could hear the engine getting louder. Judging by the speed, she guessed a local was driving. They knew this road and traveled just above the speed limit. Her heart began hammering against her ribs, as this thought came to her.

She shouted, “Wait!” but the Jeep’s front bumper had reached Pete’s position, and he leapt out from behind the fence and chucked the golf-ball-sized rock at the Jeep.
Jenn heard a clack, clack, crunch as the rock made contact with the Jeep’s left rear wheel well. The crunch evolved into a grinding noise so shrill, Jenn could feel the sound in her teeth and she covered her ears with her hands. She then heard a loud clunk, and watched the Jeep jolt sideways. The sudden loss of speed caused it to tip right and lurch into a barrel roll. Jenn winced as the crunching, rattling, and grinding sounds escalated while the Jeep rolled sideways––one, two three, and then four times before it came to rest on its roof about five shacks down from where she stood.

The impact was so loud and unpleasant the residents of Johannesburg crept out of their shacks. Upon seeing the wreckage, they ran toward the overturned Jeep.
Jenn’s eyes widened as she shared a guilty stare with Pete and they both ran in opposite directions to hide. Jenn ran into the old gas station, slamming the door the behind her. She backed away from the door, and into the shelves, causing some dusty car parts and aluminum buckets to come crashing down to the floor. She held her arms over her head and then ran toward the window to avoid the falling debris.
Fighting the urge to cry, Jenn looked out the clouded and aged, split-paned window toward the wreck just down the road. She watched a couple neighbors as they knelt on the pavement and tried to help the people inside the Jeep. Jenn saw another woman run to the Jeep and later recognized the woman was her mom, Layla.

No one glanced in Jenn’s direction. No one seemed to know…


Where was Pete?

Jenn bit the nail on her index finger as she tried to think. What if Pete was telling someone what happened right now? What if he tried to blame her for it? What would happen to her? To Pete? What would her mother say? She was going to be in so much trouble! She stared out the window and could see smoke rising slowly into the air like inky swirls in water from the Jeep’s engine.

She had to find Pete. They had to get their stories straight. Jenn made her way to the gas station door, slowly opened it and peeked outside. Traffic was stopped in both directions and people were standing outside their cars. They tried to use their phones, though as Jenn knew, was useless in Johannesburg.

Jenn glanced left and right. Her eyes caught Pete as he stood surprisingly close to the overturned Jeep, just watching, as two neighbors tried to help the driver. Layla knelt near the passenger window, but Jenn couldn’t see what she was doing.

Jenn took her time as she walked up to Pete, approaching him from behind. “Pete,” she called and he didn’t move. She stepped in front of him. “Pete?”

He just stared at the Jeep with a blank expression. He didn’t even see her. A flash of panic from somewhere deep inside her made her chest feel constricted. “Pete?” she muttered and waved her hand in front of his face, but there was no reaction. Her hands became clammy and she felt desperate. What was she supposed to do now? Pete always had the ideas. He always had the answers. She needed his help and he was doing nothing! Now what?

And then she heard the screaming––two terrified voices calling out for their mother from the back seat of the Jeep. Layla was reaching for them, but the windows had been smashed and the roof was caving in, inch by inch. She couldn’t fit.

Jenn heard the driver, a woman, shouting for the children. “Please” she screamed. “Get them out!”

“We can’t reach them!” the men shouted back, as they tried to pull the woman out. They slashed at her seat belt with knives in an effort to cut her free. But the woman fought, and Jenn could see the cuts on the woman’s arms. “You have to try to stay calm!” they shouted in frustration.

“No,” the woman cried. “My children. Please!”

In that moment, a memory flashed into Jenn’s mind from a few weeks before. She and her mother lived on their own. There was no man of the house. No Dad. A snake had gotten into the kitchen and coiled up underneath the table. Layla urged Jenn to get away, to get out of the house. She’d call someone to take care of it. But much to her mother’s surprise, Jenn ran into the kitchen, pulled a knife out of the drawer, jerked a chair out from under the table and when the snake shot forward, Jenn swung and chopped off it’s head.

As quickly as the memory came, it had gone and Jenn bolted for the Jeep. The scent of fuel and burning oil became over powering as Jenn crawled to the rear passenger window, opposite her mother.

“Jenn!” Layla shouted. “What are you doing? Stay away!”

Jenn wriggled her way through the small opening and tried to undo the children’s seat belts despite their writhing and screaming. The metal was hot and Jenn flinched as it burned her skin. The children were both a few years younger than she, both so small.

Jenn was finally able to loosen the buckles, press the red seat belt buttons and send the kids flailing down to the roof.

“This way,” Jenn shouted as she crawled on her elbows out the window and then pulled at the kid’s shirts so they could squeeze through after her.

Jenn’s mother met her there and ushered Jenn and the two small kids away from the Jeep. Jenn could hear the snaps and tings of metal moving as the heat from the Jeep increased, and the smell of burnt engine oil was overwhelming.

“Oh my God baby, look at you,” Layla said as she inspected the burns on Jenn’s face, chest and arms.

“It’s going to blow,” one of the men shouted. “Just cut her out,” shouted the other as they both tried desperately to free the driver trapped inside, whom by this time, had stopped screaming. And then, a burst of flame ripped toward the sky as if it had been released after thousands of years in captivity and the two men landed face first on the pavement from the force of the blast. While the flames consumed the Jeep, the residents of Johannesburg, highway travelers, Jenn and her mother, stood helplessly waiting for emergency crews to arrive.

Days later, reporters, news anchors and photographers gathered outside Jenn and Layla’s small shanty for a chance to speak with Jenn. The commotion attracted the attention of neighbors, who stood outside to await Jenn’s appearance, or the little girl had spent scant time outside since the incident. A reporter with shiny black hair and who wore a navy blue dress was the first to go live.

“This is Lucy Chang reporting live for Channel 5 News,” she began, “I’m standing outside the home of Jenn Bailey who has been named a heroine after rescuing the two children from the burning wreckage of a vehicle on Highway 395, only yards from where I stand now.”

Jenn’s stomach churned and she swallowed hard as she could hear the reporter outside. Her mother stood in the bathroom behind her, and both of them caught each other’s eyes through a scratched and corroded mirror. Layla was curling Jenn’s hair, and wisps of steam rose between them.

“My little girl,” Layla beamed. “A real hero! I’m so proud of you.”

Jenn then glared downward; her features drained of color. “Mama?” she asked through pressed lips.

“Hmm?” her mother answered as she pulled at a curl in Jenn’s hair with the curling iron.

“It was my fault,” Jenn said.

Layla stopped what she was doing. “What baby?”

“The wreck,” Jenn answered at a whisper. “It was my fault.”

“Of course it wasn’t your fault,” her mother answered, taking her attention off the curl and looking at Jenn through the mirror. “How could it be?”

Jenn reached for her mother’s hand and looked at her with forlorn eyes. She then explained to Layla what happened, how she and Pete were playing near the highway, how Pete threw the rock and they hid, but she said throwing the rock was her idea. She gulped as the lie left her lips. She hadn’t spoken to Pete since the incident. He hadn’t left his house. But just the brief mention of his name sent a cold chill through her body. Maybe if she took responsibility, it would ease her guilt.

After she told her story, Jenn was silent and waited for her mother’s reaction.

Layla’s eyes glazed over as she became lost in thought. She said nothing; she didn’t look angry. At least, not right away. Layla smiled a forced, tight-lipped smile.

“Am I going to be punished?” Jenn asked.

Layla turned her daughter by the shoulders to face her. She pinched Jenn’s chin, her smile was cautious yet unwavering.

“Let’s not talk about that now,” Layla said. She reached for Jenn’s quivering hand and walked with her to the front door. Layla kept her daughter close as she reached for the doorknob and said, “Smile for the cameras honey.”


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