Story by A. C. Riedel
Photos by Gabrielle Stubbert
Rainy Bledsoe died twice before she was finally buried. At least once that I know of, right there on the embankment of the New Jersey Turnpike along Interstate 95 South, right outside of Westhampton. She coded once more when the ambulance pulled what was left of her away, according to the coroner’s report.
We were sitting on the upper deck of an economy shuttle bus from New York to Philadelphia. Our driver, somewhere between Crosswicks and Mansfield began to weave in and out of the inner lane as he started to nod off and some survivors said they raised the alarm with him. It just seemed to aggravate him and postpone the inevitable for another fifteen minutes.
The bus slid into the right lane and careened into the ditch by the shoulder of the road, hitting a pine tree and shearing the back half of the bus with a rending roar. Glass burst in a shower on the grass and gravel and the luggage trunk spilled its contents on a muddy trickle of water.
Rainy, who had sat in the very front seat of the upper deck of the bus, legs stretched out against the oversized windshield, was ejected with such force, sliding across jagged glass and twisted metal, that she landed further out than any other passenger into a thicket of weeds and tall grass.
I landed on top of an older woman, her screams piercing through the cries and whimpers of the other passengers around us. Her body had cushioned my fall, and I could see her left leg bent, her tibia broken right in the center, sticking out through the skin.
I pulled myself from the woman and crawled away from the crash. That’s when I saw Rainy, some seven feet away from me. She was dead. At least she looked dead. Her legs were tucked under her. The skin on the right side of her face had been sloughed off and I could see the cheekbone poke from the shredded cheek. Her right hand hung to the wrist by a single ribbon of flesh.
I rose to a crouch and made my way to the corpse. Just as I approached her I saw her chest rise as she took in a ragged breath and let loose a pitiful moan. She tried to lift her right hand to touch her cheek, but the effort proved too painful and the arm lay heavy on the ground. Rainy broke into a hysterical crying fit. I got to her side and tried to soothe her.
She begged me to tell her what I saw. She asked if her hand was pinned under a rock. I could not tell her the truth.
‘Oh, lift the rock!’ she screamed. ‘I can’t move my hand.’
I grabbed a broken branch and offered it to her. Told her to bite down hard on that stick as I lifted the rock. She bit on the stick and shivered.
‘Count to twenty,’ I said. She might have gotten to eight–I did– when I ripped her right hand clean off her wrist.
She screamed and the stick fell from her mouth. Her cries tore through the mayhem around us. Her pain was so great that she strained as she screamed, her face instantly mottled with broken capillaries. Her eyes bulged and reddened.
I knelt next to her, unable to figure out what I could do to comfort her. I realized I still held her hand. Nervous, I looked around, hoping no one had noticed what I had just done. Fortunately, no one had seen me.
I always traveled light, with only a small weekend bag, which I always put on my lap. I never trusted the luggage hold. I had my electronics and medicines in my bag, so the bag went with me in the cabin. Somehow, my bag had landed two feet away from Rainy after the accident. Without thinking, I pulled the bag close to me, opened it, and placed Rainy’s hand on top of my black tee shirt.
I zipped the bag shut and stared at Rainy. What else could I do? She had fallen into a fevered state. Her eyes glazed and focused on the tree tops. She didn’t know I was next to her. I rose to my feet and walked away from her.
I don’t know why I did what I did.
I thought no one would notice the missing hand but a forensic investigator did and the press seized on the story for a week, propping it up with lurid titles, such as a ‘Bus Crash Mystery Rains On,’ or ‘Missing Hand Stuns Bus Crash Investigators.’
Eventually, online chatter and the lack of evidence convinced the investigators that the hand was either crushed into a pulp, or it was simply overlooked in the crash scene and an animal had made off with it. It made things easier for me.
About a month after the accident I visited Holy Mound Cemetery to visit Rainy’s grave. The Bledsoes, along with a considerable donation from Internet well-wishers and the bus company, had commissioned a monument topped with an angel.
I stood over the soft earth and knelt. I pushed the fresh grass aside with ease and made a ten inch hole. I reached into the bag and pulled out Rainy’s severed index finger. I gingerly placed it in the grave and replaced the earth.
The rest of the hand is safe in my freezer at home. Maybe she’ll get her whole hand back someday.
I closed my bag and walked away from the grave, dusting off my knees.
As I said, I don’t know why I do what I do.
(These photographs were taken with high speed color film that had expired in 1994 with a 1984 Nikon FE2. It was a bright sunny day around noontime. I love how all of the color is washed out of the film and it looks like I took some of them at night.)