The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.
1 John 2:16
Sorry for the post blackout this past week. Expect another post blackout this coming week, as I am traveling for business. Today marks the milestone where I pass the 25,000-word point (I can’t say halfway, because I’m not sure how long it will be). Enjoy. If you’re still reading, do me a favor and leave a comment – just so I have some idea who’s made it this far.
Friday, July 20, 11:05 am
I’m a woman of action. Sitting still, holding Clara, and meditating upon the vagaries of life, the universe, and everything is not my style. After an earthquake, I always have this adrenaline rush, and it translates into this urge to get out and do something, to go, to help or just to move around. I don’t panic or freeze up the way I’ve seen other people do because I know what’s going on and what I should do, and the rush helps me do it.
Now, every minute I keep thinking, “I should go do something. Just sitting isn’t a good plan,” when I know in my head that it is a good plan, the safest plan, at least for the time being. I can’t see anything; outside the windows it’s totally black, except when I turn on the headlights, which I’ve done a few times to reassure myself. Somehow it is reassuring, having the ability to add light to the environment – perhaps it’s that urge to do something getting satisfied, at least a tiny bit.
I keep wondering about Phyllis and Ethan, if they’ve come through it alive, if Ethan is hurt, if I’ll ever see my baby boy again. And what about David? Him I’m reasonably sure of, he’s smart and would know what to do, but if he was working, he might almost not have noticed anything until the power went out. But Ethan, he’s only 3 years old, he can’t swim, he doesn’t know to get under a table or into a doorway. Heck, he probably would think it’s all a big game – I did during the earthquakes we had earthquakes when I was a kid. I can just imagine him looking at Phyllis when the shaking stopped and saying, “Do it again!”
I can’t help but think that there must be other people out there, moving around, trying to get out, and if we joined them, we’d be better off. This big of a quake, it’ll take forever for the rescue crews to get to us; they probably aren’t even trying yet. They’re dealing with downed power lines, burst gas lines, collapsed apartment buildings, masonry that fell on suckers standing nearby, those kinds of immediate emergencies. We’re a slow emergency. They can ignore us for a while, and we’ll be here. We’re not going anywhere.
Clara starts crying. I dig out her bottle and give it to her, but I’m worried: I can’t not feed her, but we just don’t have that much food, and she won’t be able to go very long without food or water. I could stand to lose a little bit of weight, those last few pounds from my pregnancy with her that I haven’t quite been able to get rid of yet. One good thing about this, at least I’ll probably come out slimmer…
That’s assuming we do come out.
We will. I refuse to surrender to that kind of defeatist thinking.
So far, I’ve left the little overhead cabin light on in the car, even though I know it will draw down the battery, and the longer I spend in the back seat with Clara, the more I realize what a mom car it is. It’s got a decent tan leather interior, but under the driver’s seat there’s a brown splotch where Ethan spilled a chocolate milkshake; crumbs have become wedged in every crevice; there’s some kind of dried liquid on the middle seat between the kids’ seats that I don’t want to know what it is.
The rear is entirely full of Mom Shit: A stroller that attaches to Clara’s carseat, a soccer ball and some of those little almost-flat cone things we use to mark soccer drills, a bin full of emergency supplies like extra diapers, diaper wipes, and other essential not-yet-toilet-trained essentials; clean rags (you can never have too many of those); a change of clothes, including jacket and shoes, each for Ethan and Clara; an umbrella with a duck head for the handle; and oh my god, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner – a gallon of water.
When I remember that water, relief floods through me. That’s going to make this so much more doable. Without water, we would have had to venture out fairly soon in the hopes of finding a way out, or finding water. I awkwardly twist around and hoist my torso over the rear seat. The far back seats are down, as always, and all that Mom Shit is there. There’s a lot more crap back there than I remembered – it must have gotten worse since I looked last. It looks like that’s where I left that bikini from our day on the beach, along with a couple wadded-up beach towels; there’s a pile of cloth that looks like David’s still-dirty work jeans; Ethan’s ongoing collection of rocks, which I keep meaning to get rid of, but that brings a tightness to my throat at the moment; and there seem to be some computer parts back there, which I’m sure will prove extremely useful in these circumstances.
Where’s the water? I had all those emergency things organized back here once upon a time. Now I’m trying to root through everything from the very awkward hanging-over-the-seat-back position necessitated by the car’s architecture. I’m tossing things over my shoulder, and slowly burying us in this pile of family detritus without finding the water.
Now that I’ve remembered the water, I realize how thirsty I am. It’s like having to pee, and suddenly you hear trickling water everywhere, and every drip makes you think how desperately you’ve got to go, and you have to wait – and wait – and wait – My mouth feels like the Sahara, like a mountain of sawdust, like all the chalk in the world.
As I paw through the apparently endless piles, seem to have strata that only a geologist could love, a sense of anxiety begins building. Did we use the water at some point, and not replace it? David never did take my precautions seriously; he grew up in the Northwest, with its famously temperate weather, and has never had to suffer through anything worse than a week’s power outage. At heart, he doesn’t believe anything bad could actually happen. Now, I’m reaching the bottom strata, starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and not finding my water cache, and I start thinking David must have done something with it at some point, never told me, never thought it worth mentioning, and now I need that water and it’s not here.
Because it’s abundantly clear that, having transferred every last piece of Mom Shit from the rear of the car to our seat, a volume approximately equal to the volume removed during mountaintop removal mining, there is no water. Whatever the explanation is, the gallon of emergency water isn’t here.
At this point, I crumple up in the seat and start wailing. A little voice in my head whispers, “Stop wasting water,” but I can’t help it. Hopelessness overwhelms me and I succumb, curling up real small, wailing, holding Clara as she joins me.
It’s still dark.
Nobody heard me.
My mouth is still crusted with dirt, no matter how much I cough and spit. My eyes have started watering ferociously, and when I breathe, which is hard with all this dirt and not getting any easier with time, I feel this bubbly rattle that scares the shit out of me. If something’s wrong internally, like my lungs have been punctured or something, I’m totally fucked.
Of course, I’m probably totally fucked anyway. I can’t move, can’t even squirm at all without inflicting horrific pain on myself; my arms are pinned; I’ve long since shit my pants, and pissing isn’t far off; I have no way of helping myself. The only thing I can do is breathe, cough, spit, call out, and open and close my eyes. The calling out part is pretty limited, too, since I can’t expand my chest.
Increasingly, I find my mind drifting back to think about old choices. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d married Sarah, that “I’m an actress just waiting for a break” waitress I dated when I was in college. She was so sweet, petite, long blonde hair in a pixie cut. That weekend we spent on the beach… I remember the sun shining on her sweaty limbs, her ridiculously fashionable 1980s sunglasses, the gigantic T-shirt she’d tied off, her bikini bottom slipping down just a bit… I remember the seagulls soaring and crying overhead, the smell of the sea – that distinctive rotting but clean salty smell – blowing in from somewhere far off shore, surf rolling in, white-tipped, crashing on the sand, as she ran down the beach, laughing eyes teasing me. Splashes of spray scattered behind her. She was into running, as I recall.
But she moved to LA, looking for brighter lights, and I had a gig in NYC at the time. If I’d gone with her, who knows? Would we be together, have kids, a life together? Or would it have ended anyway? I never saw her name in lights or her face on the silver screen. I wonder what happened to her.
I met Jean in some grungy club in Seattle. I don’t even remember its name. It was extremely dim, extremely loud, and extremely hot. Everybody was shouting and dancing, and the band was just standing a little higher and shouting a little louder than everybody else. We literally slammed into each other, drenched in sweat, and the crowd kept shoving us into each other. Her eyes had this glow – it sounds stupid when I think of it that way, but they shone with this indescribable intensity and life that felt like standing before a fire. I fell in love with her at that moment, with her sweat-soaked hair flying, her eyes locked on mine as if nothing else existed in the world, her body pressed into mine, her arms flying, her heart thudding against my chest. It took me a while longer to figure out that I loved her, but I think she knew all along.
We did things together I had never imagined. We ate raw fish, which even though I’d lived in NYC, I’d never done. I did come from the country, after all. I’d eaten venison, which is still not on her list. She took me on my first ferry ride. We went hiking in the Olympic National Park in the pouring rain, and warmed each other in our tent afterwards. We went for a walk at 3 am through Capitol Hill. We looked at the Seattle skyline from Gasworks Park under a full moon.
We got married in 1993 and then Mackenzie came along the next year. Everything changed after that. Somehow I seemed to slip into second place, and Mackenzie took all of Jean’s attention and love. All these years, it’s been a slow growing apart, until I had that fling with Sharon, who I met on a business trip. She opened the floodgates, tipped the balance, and I spent more time away on “business trips” from then on.
I cough some more, spit some more, and I’m afraid: The spit is foamy, and tastes different. It feels like I’ve been here forever, that time is passing a year for every second, and at the same time, flying by, each second fleeting away time I could have better spent with my wife and kids.
Because what I’ve realized is that I care, more than words can express, about their wellbeing. I love Jean. I’m terrified that she and the kids are hurting or dead. I wonder what they’d think of where I’m at now, and I want to make them proud of me, whatever happens. I wish I could just see Jean again, tell her… Tell her so many things I should have said a long time ago.
Now all I can do is wait, and think.
We get the Hummer turned off, and Rachel out of her wrecked Honda, but the whole time I’m seething.
Who the fuck does this geezer think he is? I’m a lieutenant firefighter, I am highly trained to deal with these situations, and dammit, I’m the one who’s putting his ass on the line here. I’m the one who had to crawl up into that Hummer. I’m the one who found the flat of water bottles, thank god, what a relief to just feel water running down my throat. I’m the one who did the heavy lifting to get Rachel out.
And all the time, he’s standing off to the side, hands all clean – well, metaphorically, anyway – and saying things like, “Try a little more to the left, it looks weaker to the right,” or “Push harder, it’s just about to give way,” or “Look for useful survival tools while you’re up there,” or other such useless bossy shit.
OK, deep breath. Dan, get control. You can’t let this guy get to you. You have to work with annoying pricks all the time, and be honest: some of them are way worse than this guy. It’s just the stress of the situation makes everything seem so much worse.
I can’t stop thinking about looking in the cars on my way over here. All along the way, I kept looking for…something…something hopeful, I guess. Oh, yes, I’m performing triage: This person looks unconscious but alive, maybe can get back to him; that guy’s clearly gone, his car is flatter than a pancake; can’t tell about that one, looks like possibly that glass sliced an artery given the amount of blood; and so on. People are just meat, meat to get out of the meat locker without ripping it to shreds, because thinking of them as people at this exact moment makes me sick when I realize how few of them I can help. How can I walk by all these clearly severely injured people trapped, probably dying, in their cars, to help the conscious woman who’s called out?
Triage. I hate it, but you gotta make a call somehow, and if I can’t help ’em all, I’ll help the ones who will benefit the most.
Rachel’s likely to survive a good while here, for example. She’s sitting slumped against a chunk of rubble, trying to wash off her face with part of a sweatshirt dampened with some of our precious water. I didn’t want her to use the water for that, we’ll need it for drinking and keeping our throats clear of dust, and cleaning injuries. She wanted to use some to pat the filth off her business suit, which is much worse for the wear, but Paul and I at least agreed to veto that. Her shoes are absurdly impractical high heel things, and she’s in a skirt, which will be really excellent for helping her when she starts clambering over rubble. She was probably off to some meeting and had to impress the boss, and did it the old-fashioned way: Wearing the right clothes.
We’ve already washed off her scalp and found it to be a good deep scalp wound, but no bone showing, so not much we can do at this point – no sewing it up. Just wrapped her head in a bandage and hope for the best for now. Paul’s hands we also washed, they were pretty clean from the gasoline, but had a good bit of rubble embedded in them. He was all stoic while we rinsed them, made sure they were thoroughly cleaned, and then wrapped them in more of strips of that sweatshirt. Good thing I brought it along.
Now that I’m calmer, it’s time to address the future.
“We should start finding a way out of here,” I say. The three of us are all sitting close enough together to see each other’s shapes through the dust, but with faces covered, expressions are hard to make out. I can sense Paul’s body tensing up, though, and his head whips around to look at me. Rachel pauses in her face-scrubbing to spit out some dust, cough a bit, and glare at me.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m still recovering from escaping from the car.”
“I agree with Rachel,” Paul chimes in, not much to my surprise, since by now I’m sure he’d disagree with anything I say, just on the principle of the thing, because what could I know anyway? I’m fifty years his junior, I couldn’t possibly know anything.
“Well, Paul, what do you think we should do?” I ask, trying to not sound sarcastic, even though I really feel like sneering and saying, “Well, grandpa, how about if you and Rachel stay here and die while I go off and find a way to get the fuck out of here?”
“We should wait here,” Paul replies firmly, sounding like some old general telling his World War I troops to hold the line, reinforcements will be here soon, can’t give an inch to those Krauts. “I’m concerned about aftershocks, of course, but we can help first responders best by staying together in one place.”
He’s totally serious. My god, does he think we’re about to be rescued imminently? Mr. Retired Coast Guard Captain should know better. Help can’t always get to you when you need it. They’re not coming now, and when they do get here, it’ll be too late for many of us.
“Yeah,” Rachel chimes in, “Don’t they always say to stay in one place, and let rescuers come to you? I don’t think we should be moving around, they’ll be here soon to help us get out.” She crosses her arms and hunches her shoulders, using her body language to tell me what I already knew: She’s not going anywhere if she can help it.
I take another deep, calming breath. That’s one of the things that can help in emergencies, breathe in and hold; breathe out and hold; breathe in and hold; breathe out and hold. Deliberate breathing, deliberate thinking, calm breathing, calm thinking. In, out, in, out. I don’t have the authority of a uniform or the exigency of flames licking at our heels – not yet, anyway. What will convince them?
The young man leans forward and I instinctively lean away, not trusting his intentions. In my years leading men in stressful situations, I became adept at reading a man, and this fellow radiates barely-controlled emotion. He’s a ticking time bomb, and if he thinks we’re not complying with his “leadership” – so-called – he could very well crack. I don’t want to be there when that happens, but I also know he’s dead wrong about our moving.
I’ve assessed the situation. It’s risky, no question. But when you don’t know where the shore is, you don’t go sailing around when your radar is down. We’re sailing blind here, no guidance, no maps, no instruments. That’s when you radio for help and try to hold your last known position, waiting for some external guidance. Despite the gravity of our situation, which would indicate a quake of significant magnitude, I am convinced that the external world is doing fine, and it’s a matter of time until we receive that outside assistance.
“There are too many risks staying here,” Daniel says, his voice rough and low, almost menacing, as if he himself is one of those risks. “I’m concerned about the risk of fire, with the dust in the air and all the gasoline from all these cars it’ll travel very quickly and we have nowhere to escape it. The fumes from cars that are still idling – listen, you can still hear some – I’m worried about the carbon monoxide, plus who knows what seeping from the soil or ground or broken pipes, we could have more than just dust to worry about soon. Plus the tunnel’s too weakened, the first aftershock is going to bring down more. We should make our way to the west end, we’re closer to that end, and try to climb out there somehow.”
I shake my head, which is throbbing. “I’m convinced that’s entirely blocked off,” I tell him. “I came from the west, and it was all entirely dark, as if the whole entrance was covered in dirt. There’s no getting out that way, and it’s not worth taking the risk of trying to find a way. Too many dangers in the dark.” I think of the journey I had just to reach Daniel and Rachel, only a few hundred feet away, and shudder.
My joints hurt terribly from the strain of the work to reach and releasing Rachel, as do my hands and stomach, which have been scraped raw, although not cut deep enough to worry about. I can’t imagine going back that way; it’s a fool’s errand to even try, but the east way would be a foolish risk, too: We can’t know what happened farther back in the tunnel. We only have one real light, and those batteries won’t last forever. Thinking about it in the silence, I add: “We should conserve our strength and resources, and find or build a safe redoubt here, until help can reach us.”
Longer silence. I keep blinking and wiping the dust away from my eyes, which have started watering endlessly, as if I’m weeping, although I haven’t cried since my father passed away forty years ago. What is that young hooligan thinking? How on earth did he become a lieutenant in the fire department? Frankly, I’m not convinced he’s being entirely honest with us; he strikes me more as a laborer, or a delivery driver. Not somebody in a position of authority.
Daniel wipes his hands across his face; his eyes, too, have been running, leaving tear tracks in the dust on his cheeks into his face scarf.
Rachel coughs again. She’s hesitant to use the face scarves, for some reason, but she’s far worse off than either of us. I am convinced she has internal injuries; I have seen her coughing and spitting up what looks like bloody foam. Daniel says it’s from the alkaline concrete dust, but I suspect she has a punctured lung, if not worse. She has finished wiping her face off, and looks a bit more human. Her business suit and hose are unfortunate, but were probably very flattering professional attire when she left the house this morning. She’s in no condition to travel, especially towards what I’m sure is a dead end.
Daniel shakes his head, a dog with a bone. “If I remember correctly, there are emergency egress tunnels in here somewhere. We just have to find the doors, and hope the tunnels are still intact. No car debris in there, and maybe… Anyway, I think there’s a door to the west. We have to find it, get people out.”
“There should also be sprinklers in case of fire, shouldn’t there?” Rachel asks. I’ve noticed that she can’t help but put her oar in, even when what she says makes her look, well, rather foolish.
In the haze, we can’t make out Daniel’s expression, but I can at least see his head shake. “Oh, sure, but I’m sure those are down. If the power’s out, lines have broken. There are supposed to be generators, backup fans, the whole works – but it’s dark and still in here. Nothing’s working, everything’s down, we’re on our own. We have to get out.”
I could have told her that much, at least. If the power’s out, those emergency systems are probably also down.
“Daniel, I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with you,” I tell him, using my firm commander’s voice. “Our responsibility is to first secure the scene, then aid civilians in our vicinity and wait for additional assistance.”
“I agree that we need to aid civilians,” he replies quickly, starting to sound frustrated, “but the best thing we can do is find a way out. Then we can start helping people get out. Right now, there’s not a lot we can do for anybody – look at Rachel.”
“I’m better not in my car,” she says, which has the benefit of being true, if obvious.
“True,” Daniel agrees – even he can’t deny it – “but those seriously injured people, I want to help them, but there are so many, we can’t do anything until we know the situation. If nothing else we should scout around and try to find the emergency egress tunnels, and maybe at least find somewhere safer.”
I shake my head. “Young man, I’m sorry, but there’s no way Rachel can move. You should be able to see that. And I –” I hate to admit that I’m played out after having traveled less distance than I walk from the house to the mailbox. I don’t have to admit anything, because Daniel jumps in: “You’re too old to do anything except order other people around, yeah, I’ve noticed.”
I open my mouth to take this young pup down a notch, when we’re interrupted by a horn honking.