NaNoWriMo: Day 17

Day’s Verse:
It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.
Luke 12:34

This post brings us up to 39,179 words.

Friday, July 20, 11:09 am

Jon

Things have started getting kind of weird in my head. Time takes on a different dimension in this kind of situation: It has texture, warp and woof, I can feel the fabric sliding by, silky, smooth, and inexorable. Minutes become days, or days minutes; I have no reference, and in a way time becomes meaningless and yet the most important thing in my world. I sleep, I wake, I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, and I desperately long to know what time it is, almost with the intensity of those other physical urges. I have no realistic estimate of how long I’ve spent here, but a conservative estimate would probably come in at just between two and three millennia. After a while, it’s hard to tell when I’m awake or asleep, or if I’ve discovered some new in-between state where even wakefulness isn’t overly meaningful.

I have a conversation with Jean. We sit in our living room, on the white leather furniture I so desperately wanted, and that she insisted would be folly with two teenage kids who are sure to spill pop and crumbs all over it. I won, but she was right; the furniture has turned into a major headache to keep clean.

Afternoon sun streams through the two-story-tall windows, imparting the entire scene with a brilliance rarely seen in this grey climate. A breeze ripples through the leafy green trees that surround our home, and out the windows I can see the perfectly clean patio with its teak furniture, and, beyond, our lawn sloping away towards the expensively landscaped creek area down by the back fence.

I’m drinking a Mac & Jack’s. Jean’s glass of conspicuously non-alcoholic lemonade sweats onto one of the coasters we brought back from Mexico a couple years ago. I’ve been watching her condemnatory glances at my icy-non-coastered bottle sitting sweating directly onto the wood of our $2,000 handmade-in-Washington artisan coffee table. Feet, shod or unshod, and drinks without coasters are strictly forbidden on the coffee table.

Jean looks beautiful, vibrant. Not young – those days are past for both of us – but lovely in a timeless way that makes my heart ache. She always looks beautiful, I realize now; she takes care to try to look attractive for me, and most of the time I just brush by her on my way out the door without seeing. This time I particularly notice, though, because I have this sense of immediacy and urgency that makes all the details of her appearance stand out in sharp relief. Her hair shines in the sun, auburn highlights picked out brilliantly; her summery dress accentuates her still-slender, fit body. Her gaze is clear, direct, unafraid, steady. She is far too good for me, and I am overwhelmed with shame at how I have treated this marvelous, talented woman.

There is something pressing that I have to tell her, but I can’t. Instead, my longing heart is trapped inside a body that keeps doing things to aggravate her, like the beer on the coffee table. Why am I doing that? Reach out yourhand and get a coaster, dammit! But I don’t, I can’t, I’m a prisoner looking through my eyes, suffering through my own terrible behavior.

I want to apologize to her for all my years as an absentee father and husband. I want to apologize for going off on “business trips” and coming home smelling like another woman’s perfume. I want to beg her forgiveness, to fall on my knees and swear on ten Bibles that I have my priorities straight, now and forever. I will come home for family dinner every night. I will attend the kids’ school and sports events – god, I don’t even know what extracurriculars they do these days. My best memory is of Mackenzie in gymnastics at age six. I will stay faithful to Jean forever, truly, no other woman could begin to compare to this radiant vision I see illuminated in the afternoon sun. God, how could I have thought Sharon was anything other than the grasping, dumpy social climber she is? I will listen to Jean, really listen. I will pay attention to what she cares about, and I will care about it.

I want to tell her that I love her, and beg, please, please, let me earn your love again. I have changed.

Instead, we sit in awkward silence, which has become very familiar to us lately. We have become strangers living in the same house, moving through life in parallel, she managing the kids’ schedules, juggling care for the home with her job and errands and whatever else she does. She seems forever busy. I leave for work and don’t come home until late, having had beers with buddies, or spending the evening with Sharon (god! How could I think that was anything other than the most terrible decision ever?), or actually working, but never on anything worth missing time with my family. Jean and I have a tacit agreement that when the kids are out of the house, we’ll split. This reality breaks my heart, now.

“So, um, any business trips coming up?” Jean asks, valiantly attempting to engage. I imagine her like a rock climber, seeking finger- and toe-holds on the sheer wall I have erected around my heart.

“No, I don’t think I’ll be having any more of those for a long time,” I reply, trying to edge my recalcitrant self closer to the confession/plea for absolution I long for.

“Oh, OK. Why is that?” She raises the glass to her lips, sips. I can’t stop watching her graceful fingers, her red lips on the rim of the glass, and it’s clichéd and inane but I think, “I wish I was that glass.”

“I –” the words catch in my throat. I try to fall to my knees, to start pouring out all those needful words, but I discover that my legs don’t work, I can’t move, I’m paralyzed. I open my mouth to speak, and dust chokes my words. I fill with fear, and I try to reach for Jean, but the scene dissolves and I find myself once again trapped in the dark, slowly suffocating on dust that I have to suck in with every breath, and being slowly crushed by the weight of the hillside that now fills my car and covers me. Losing Jean, I feel momentarily bereft, as if she has died and my heart has been ripped from my chest. Then I understand that none of this was real, I hallucinated it, and my reality is not the sunny life but this dark and terrible one.

Later, I think I am at one of Austin’s soccer games. I’m not even sure he still plays soccer these days, but he played some kind of pee-wee soccer when he was four or so, and I think he’s continued the last ten years, even though that decade has slipped by without my noticing. When he started playing soccer, Jean and I had a big fight, because I made a comment about how now she really was a suburban soccer mom, and how it was such a far cry from the future we envisioned during our wild days in the Seattle grunge scene. I said it in the nastiest, most sarcastic possible way, and then walked out the door, covered in… triumph, if not glory. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now I realize I was a nasty little shit. We didn’t speak for days, except in a coldly polite way to coordinate logistical details of our shared life.

It is a grey, drizzly Saturday for Austin’s game, cooler than I would expect for July, but maybe it’s actually autumn – I don’t think there’s soccer in the summer. I don’t know. A bunch of kids in bright-colored uniforms dash around on the boggy the field, splattering each other with mud as they sprint after the ball. They’re all intent on the game, treating it with the seriousness of a World Cup match, intense as if something really hung on the outcome. Their intensity is something to behold, how serious they are, how very in the moment they live. Nothing matters but their teammates, the ball, who’s in possession, their next moves, advancing… I wish I could live with that intensity and focus, deeply enmeshed in the moment, not worrying about what happens after this game because they want to win, and that’s their priority, no flitting from one task to the next after a second.

I look for Austin among the mud-splattered players, and finally find him standing on the sidelines, uniform spotless, dejection written large in countenance and comportment. He has not yet been out on the field, and I feel a pang of empathy as I remember being in his position when I was his age. I want to encourage him, comfort him, and also march down and chew out the damn coach. A sense of anger at the unfairness at Austin’s situation fills my heart. I never did well at physical activities as kid, my ineptitude at sports was legendary in my family, and I hope he hasn’t inherited that trait, but I fear he has.

The drizzle slowly condenses on my face, soaking through my thin pants as cold from the icy metal bleachers creeps up my body with the inexorability of gangrene on a dying limb. My clothing choice is radically inappropriate, light loafers, work slacks, and sport coat over a polo shirt, the slightly nicer work clothes I wear when I have to meet with people higher up on the corporate ladder than I am. Why did I choose these clothes for a Saturday soccer game in the rain? I decide to go back to the van to get one of the GoreTex and flannel-lined blankets Jean made. This was yet another thing I mocked her for, being Betty Homemaker, and the ridiculousness of carrying blankets in the minivan. Classic soccer mom necessity, I’d said. Yeah. Well, now I’m looking forward to wrapping myself up in one of those cozy cocoons, but my legs are numb and don’t want to work.

I start to feel fear and confusion clenching my stomach, and I open my mouth to shout for help, but instead of the expected cool moist air, I feel dry dust and grit. The cool, misty day resolves into the interminable dark of my post-earthquake reality. Closing my gritty eyes, I try to will myself back into the small crowd of hunch-shouldered parents loyally cheering for their kids, I long to sit there freezing my ass off in the rain, to ache with my son at his sidelining, to watch the mud-drenched boys on the field. But I remain firmly in this endless, timeless purgatory of pain, darkness, and slowly ebbing hope.

Weirdest is the conversation I have with my long-dead brother Carl.

“Mother will never forgive you, you know,” Carl tells me. His voice comes from somewhere outside my narrow range of vision, and I can’t turn my head, but of course I don’t have a light so it doesn’t matter anyway. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, even if I could move my hand. “She’ll never forgive you if you die this way. For Pete’s sake, couldn’t you have the decency to die in bed, an old man, long after Mother kicks the bucket?”

“Speak for yourself asshole,” I try to retort, although coughing rather detracts from the strength of my reply. It’s getting hard to get enough air; I’m starting to take more shallow breaths, and having to cough up this thick phlegmy mess more often. “I’m not the one who died in a fucking fiery plane crash. We never even got your body back, just a few things they thought might be your crispy bones.”

“All the more reason for you to die decently, some time after Mother has gone to her reward. Which will be small and dismal, I’m gonna bet.” Carl and I never got along with Mother that well after we grew up.

“I don’t intend to die here at all,” I reply, but this sounds weak even to me. Why didn’t I say that right off?

“You do too,” Carl says, knowingly. “Why else are we having this conversation?”

“I don’t know! I certainly didn’t start it.” I cough, spit out some more nasty shit, cough again. Breathing through all the dust makes me tired, and I wish I could take a break, but who takes a break from breathing? Plus this huge pile of dirt isn’t helping matters.

“You don’t have conversations with your dead brother unless you’re about to buy that one-way ticket yourself, bro. Sorry to break it to you.” There’s almost a hint of pity in his voice that pisses me off.

“I’m dehydrated, plus my brain is probably oxygen-starved. I’m hallucinating this.” Saying it aloud doesn’t make me believe it, though. It feels awfully real.

“You really don’t sound that great,” Carl tells me, and I detect a note of smugness. I can almost feel his breath on my cheek now, like he’s leaning in close to get a good look at my face. He would have made a splendid lawyer, if he hadn’t become a stunt pilot to piss off Mother.

“Shut up.”

“Do you really want me to? Cuz then you’d be alone, and who wants to die alone?”

“I am not going to die.” I say this doggedly. If I say it enough, maybe it will come true.

“Suuuuuure.”

I refuse to answer; I know he’s trying to push my buttons. After that, Carl remains mercifully silent, but the damage is done. I’ve somehow reached a tipping point: Before this conversation, I actually hoped I’d come out alive; now, I don’t really expect that to happen, and it breaks my heart to think I’ll never have the chance to make amends with Jean or get to know my kids as they are now.

Then the firefighter Dan appears, gives me water, cleans out my mouth and gives me a filter to breathe through, and leaves me with renewed hope as he goes off to find some way of getting me the hell out of here.

Friday, July 20, 3:30 pm

Christina

The guy, Paul, seems like a nice enough dude, but the lady, Rachel – she’s a first-class bitch. Right from the moment I stumbled into their little hide-out, she was a jerk to me. Didn’t want to share water, but Paul made her. Didn’t want to share the hot dogs; again, overruled by Paul, although my enthusiasm for those cold, slimy fake meat tubes remains real low so far. Paul seems to be able to get Rachel to do what he wants, but not without her making her displeasure abundantly clear. Sheesh. You’d think all she cared about was her own survival – oh, and that stupid meeting she keeps going on about. She even has a son, but he doesn’t get half the mentions as The Meeting and some dude called Shane that she works with.

I would certainly want to help other people in this situation. In fact, I intend to – I’m trying to convince them to come set up camp in my car, although that would start getting fairly cozy for the amount of time we’d all have spend in there. When I first brought the idea up, Paul seemed moderately receptive, but then he started irritable and hostile about the idea, out of the blue, and then he decided to take a nap, without our having finished the conversation. WTF?

Which leaves me trying to convince the totally irrational, stubborn-as-a-mule Rachel. I’m confident my car is going to be safer than this exposed, uncovered space surrounded by crashed cars, some of which are probably leaking gas and could explode, and unstable piles of rubble.

“Listen, my car is completely intact, and it’s not that far away. I made it here with no light and carrying Clara. It’s not that hard to get there.” I cajole her. Reduced to cajoling, when it’s something I know will make us all safer! It’s ludicrous, and stupid. “The air in my car is way fresher, I’ve kept the door closed except the one time I opened it to get out, and I closed it again immediately. Plus it’s enclosed, the seats are way more comfortable than this, and we’d have some protection from, I don’t know, if something happens.” Something happening is a near certainty, and we’ve got to do something to be ready for it. I’m not at my most eloquent here, but anybody with some basic reasoning ability would be able to see the sense in this proposal.

Unfortunately, I’m not talking with somebody who has basic reasoning ability. Rachel stubbornly shakes her head. “I couldn’t possibly move. I am—” Cough, cough. More evidence of her idiocy: She refuses a face mask to filter the dust, and I can’t imagine why not. She just won’t do it. “—I am far too sore and weak from my ordeal.”

I snort. Her “ordeal” – okay, yeah, you got stuck in your car and probably did sustain some real damage. But come on, you want to live, you don’t just curl up and passively wait for somebody else to rescue you! Yet that’s exactly what she’s doing.

I look appealingly in Paul’s direction, but he’s still asleep. Even asleep, he looks uncomfortable and even in pain, with his back leaning against some rubble, his neck at what looks like a really unpleasant angle. I think I can see the indent where his open mouth sucks air in and out through the filter. His face is pale and sweaty. His little Maglight casts an eerie, unnatural glow on the little cave they have made for themselves here. Paul seems like the decision-making unit in this partnership, with Rachel willingly shouldering the all-important role of whining bitch. She whines enough for all of us, Clara included.

Clara has, in point of fact, remained amazingly quiet and calm. For a second I’m afraid I’ve smothered her with the hoodie, and she’s dead, and I’ve been carrying my dead daughter around – but then I feel her chest rising and falling against mine. Whew. Her deep, rhythmic breathing soothes me. She is asleep, thank God.

“You’ll be much more comfortable in my car,” I insist, but it’s weak. I don’t really want Rachel in my car; she could stay here until Doomsday and I wouldn’t care, but Paul seems to have some kind of “no man left behind” philosophy regarding Rachel, so to get him, I have to get her too. Paul clearly needs a better environment; in addition to the nasty contusions and bruising he has on his face and hands, he’s starting to look sick. Could he have some kind of condition we don’t know about that’s cropping up now?

Then Rachel distracts me by saying, “Daniel won’t be able to find us if we move.”

“Who’s Daniel?”

“Oh, a firefighter who helped Paul get me out of my car. He’s off trying to find a way out.” She might as well have added “the idiot,” her tone is so deeply scornful.

I have to exercise considerable self-restraint not to scream. That would wake Clara and possibly bring the tunnel down on our heads. That would be bad, but at least we’d be free of Rachel. In what I believe to be an admirably even tone, I say, “You had a firefighter, but he left?”

“Yes, none too soon,” Rachel replies. “He was very rude to me and Paul, pushy, profane. Swearing is a sign of mental weakness. I don’t think he would have gotten me out of my car if Paul hadn’t shown up. He didn’t respect my opinion at all, and I’m sure he’s anti-woman, except that we’re useful for making sandwiches in the kitchen.”

I stifle the urge to agree with the absent Daniel: I have no respect for this woman’s opinions, either. Who would? It’d be an improvement if she had straw between her ears. “So…he’s looking for an escape route?” Now that I’ve left my car and found my treasure – water supply, that is – I can see the appeal of trying to get out of here. We could be waiting a very long time for help.

“He won’t find a way to escape. There’s no way out.” Rachel makes this pronouncement with admirable certainty, a queen handing down some wisdom to her foolish subjects.

“How do you know?” I shoot back, “Have you looked?”

“No, of course not.” Annoyance and disdain come through clearly in her tone. “I simply know that we can see no daylight here, and we should, since we’re not far from the east exit. Therefore, that entire opening is probably covered by the hillside, therefore no exit that way.” Ah, yes, of course, Q.E.D. Not as if there could be some other ways out that you’re ignorant of, that a damn FIREMAN might know about. Goddamn it, why couldn’t I get here while he was still here?

Deep breath. “He went east?”

“Of course, we’re closer to the east exit.” Somehow she manages to make it sound perfectly obvious. Only a complete fool would think of going any direction other than east – although she herself shows no great potential for not being a fool, and she’s chosen to stay put so… Once again I control myself. Good thing I’m a mother; I spend all day thinking things and not sayng them. If this had happened before Ethan had given me all this practice keeping my wry thoughts to myself, Rachel and I probably would have come to blows by now.

“And he’s coming back?” This is the key question. She already implied as much with her desire to stay where he could find her, but I want to know for sure.

“Welllllllll….” Her nasal voice expresses doubt plus fake reluctance leavened with scorn, more than a dash of dislike, and a side of bitterness. “He said he was coming back, but frankly, the way he left in a fit of temper, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did find a way out and never came back. He’s like that you know, like all men. Dishonest, lying, untrustworthy, lazy, always letting you down. Use you and then hit the road. Letting you do all the work and then taking all the credit.”

She’s starting to get on a roll, I have to curtail this immediately. Better not to rise to the bait, because I’ve heard this from her enough to know it’s her regular refrain, or one of them. I say, “I think we should go find this guy Daniel.” I already know what she’s going to say, and sure enough –

“Don’t be ridiculous. We couldn’t make it to your car, let alone wander around in the dark, with all the cars, and… um, er… people still in them. No way. We’d never find him. And then if he did come back while we were out looking for him, and we were gone, he wouldn’t be able to find us, he wouldn’t know what happened to us. No, uh-uh, no way. That’s really a horrible idea. Better if we just wait here for help.”

“Don’t you understand?!” I burst out, leaping up, finally unable to control myself any longer, exasperated beyond endurance. “It could be days – a week – who knows how long until help comes! We have to help ourselves if we want to survive, see our kids again. Don’t you want to LIVE?!”

Rachel

Looking up at this crazy woman looming over me, I just sigh internally. Fabulous. Just great. Daniel the crazy control freak “firefighter” (if he really was) leaves, and who shows up but his female equivalent. All I wanted was to quietly wait here for help, and instead these people keep showing up and trying to get me to do nonsensical, illogical things. Not just illogical: Downright dangerous, stupid, and potentially life-threatening. Traipsing around in the dark, with one tiny flashlight, and all that glass and sharp metal and broken cement everywhere? Yeah, great plan, geniuses. No way am I letting some random woman drag me off somewhere. She could be an axe murder, or who knows what. Even if she’s harmless, what does she know? What makes her an expert? I think Paul knows a thing or two about this, and I’ll listen to his advice before I make my choice, but no way am I giving credence to wild-eyed, rude Jane or John Doe, nutcases who are just using up our precious water resources.

“Fine, you go on,” I tell her. “If you think that’s the better choice, go ahead. I’m not going anywhere.”

She leans forward aggressively, about to say something, when Paul opens his eyes, groans, and throws up all over his front, vomit running under his face mask and dribbling all over the place. Gross. I back away. What’s the deal? Why can’t I have fallen in with normal people for a change?

The new woman, Chris, immediately kneels down beside him. She seems to know what she’s doing, so I pull as far out of her way as I can. Besides, I always hated throw-up. When Michael was sick as a kid, I always made The Jerk take care of him.

“Paul, can you hear me?” Chris asks, again, sounding calm and professional, a total switch from a second ago when she was yelling and ready to bite my head off. She was probably just faking that anger to provoke me.

“Carol?” His closes his eyes, then opens them again. “Where am I?”

“Paul, it’s Chris. Can you tell me what’s wrong?” She’s removed his face mask and is – ugh, she’s reached and opened his mouth, is clearing it out. He pushes her hand away leans to the side, throws up again. Ick. It’s mostly just runny stuff, with a few globs of something mixed in.

“Paul. Can you understand me?” Chris sounds reassuring, competent. Hah. But better her than me dealing with this. “I need to know – do you have some condition we don’t know about?”

“Diabetic,” Paul says. Sweat is streaming down his face. He’s looking pasty and has huge dark circles under his eyes. I’m feeling really nervous. He seems really sick. Diabetics can die really fast from, what too much blood sugar or something, right? What will the police think, finding me with this dead guy, if he dies?

“Have you eaten recently?” Christina seems to know what to ask, even.

“Food…not…no…” He’s fading, even I can see that, and for the first time I feel a little bit worried for somebody else.

“Shit, you’ve got low blood sugar.” Christina turns back to me and snaps, “Where’s my baby bag?” I wordlessly find the bag, which was piled with the towel of other junk she’d carried with her, and hand it to her. She frantically rummages through the bag, tossing stuff everywhere. Slovenly, that’s what it is. I gather the flying stuff up and try to keep our area neat.

It takes her a little bit, but she pulls out a small, fairly battered can of apple juice and pops the cap. “Paul, open your mouth. You need to drink this.” She grasps his chin, holding his head stable, and opens his mouth. He tries to fight her, but he’s really weak. She trickles the apple juice carefully into his mouth. “Come on, Paul, swallow. You need to swallow this.”

He does, at first reluctantly, then convulsively. In a few gulps, he empties the can. “Quick, I need more sugary food,” Christina says to me, as if she expects me to pull a cake out from behind my back or something. I shrug and hold out my empty hands. She sighs in frustration and dives back into her bag. What right does she have to be frustrated with me? I can’t do anything.

“Oh, thank God,” she says, pulling out a small baggie of squashed of Nilla Wafers as if they’re some rare caviar or something. “Paul, here, eat this. Rachel, give me some water.” She holds out her hand behind her for the bottle of water without looking at me.

“I’m not your servant,” I snap, but I hand her the water. This time I’ll help, but only because it’s for Paul. My comment earns me a quick angry glance from Christina before she turns back and makes Paul eat the cookie crumbs. He seems to be perking up a bit. He’s holding the cookies and feeding himself, with Christina watching like a hawk.

“How are you feeling?” She’s holding one of his wrists, taking his pulse.

“Awful,” he groans, but sounds a lot better than he did just a few minutes ago.

“Your blood sugar dropped too low,” she explains. “You were on the verge of going into a coma.”

“Thank you,” he says, finishing the cookies. He focuses on Christina’s face and then says it again, this time reaching out to hold her hands: “Thank you. You probably saved my life.”

She smiles. “I’m glad I was here. Here you go.” A rag from her bag appears in her hand and he takes it, wipes his face. They’re developing this sweet rapport that makes me feel sick to watch. He doesn’t have any idea that she’s just Daniel in a sheep’s skin, and now she’s totally winning him over. Cleaned up as much as he can, he still looks pale and awful.

Then the exact thing I feared would happen does happen. Christina looks at Paul. “You need to get somewhere more comfortable and safer.”

“I couldn’t agree more, but this is the best we could do.” He motions to our enclave.

“Paul, my car is not that far away. It’s intact. You could rest in there, in clear air, protected from other possible debris falls—”

I can’t take it anymore. I interrupt: “We can’t make it. You’re too weak.” This is true: He doesn’t look like he could stand, let alone clamber around.

Christina ignores my interjection. “—It’d be a lot safer than this.”

“It sounds appealing, and under other circumstances, I would certainly consider it,” Paul says. I open my mouth, and then wait, which was good, because he continues: “But I’m afraid Rachel is right: I don’t know if I could even stand up, let alone get around in here. I need more food, and some rest.”

“All we have is hot dogs and I have some goldfish crackers.” Christina offers them, and he takes them eagerly.

“I think between me and Rachel, we could get you there,” she pushes. “The way wasn’t that bad. I made it in the dark with Clara.”

He sits and munches, thinking, silent. Finally: “What about Daniel?” He doesn’t remember that she shouldn’t know about him, and she only does because I mentioned it earlier.

“We could leave him a note. Or I could go find him.”

Paul’s eyebrows rise. “You’d venture out there alone?”

A sniff of disdain from our own personal Superwoman. “I grew up in earthquake country, and I’m in pretty good shape. I could do it.”

He eats the last of the goldfish crackers and licks his fingers. Ew, that’s not sanitary.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate, but if we can leave a note, I’d be willing to try to get to your car together. Sitting on the ground is killing me.”

With that, he seals our fate. Christina wins this round, and nothing I say will change it. Oh, I try, of course. I point out how weak he is, how battered I am, our one pathetic little light, that Daniel probably wouldn’t see a note in the dark… But all to no avail. We’re moving to Christina’s car.

Friday, July 20, 2:05 pm

Daniel

I’m pretty sure I can find Jon again. Just go to the north wall and follow the rubble. I’ve spent a few minutes wandering around trying to find some way of digging him out. Nothing great is popping out yet, but I think the dust may be settling a little bit, except where I step, of course. Anyway, my flashlight beam seems to be illuminating more. I run it over the vehicles nearby.

“Anybody here need help?” I keep asking, but these guys, this close to the hillside collapse, are mostly beyond helping. They’ve smashed into each other, flipped, skidded, twisted, you name it. Thank god, the one thing they haven’t done is explode.

As I search I struggle. Jon’s in a worse situation than he knows, and I don’t know whether I should tell him or not. He knows he can’t feel his legs, and that he’s probably sustained some kind of spine damage. He probably has some idea that all that dirt and dust in his lungs is bad news. At least we’ve got that stopped, even if he still has shit in his lungs.

No, what he doesn’t know is that he’s also been buried for five hours, and that means he’s in for crush syndrome. Or is it compression syndrome? I can’t remember. But it’s gonna be bad. The cells in his legs have been slowly dying from the weight of all that dirt, and they’re full of toxins that will be released once we remove the dirt. He could go into cardiac arrest, have…um…kidney failure, a bunch of other nasty shit when those toxins start floating around. If we leave him covered, on the other hand, the toxins will stay in place until paramedics can come and begin IV treatments. All my training says to leave crush victims in place and get experts to deal with it. Shit. I am the expert now, and I have no idea what to do.

Let him go? I’m confident I’ll be able to dig him out, although it’ll take a while. He might be OK. Not everybody who’s crushed has this happen. He really wants to get out. That’s abundantly clear. Would it be cruel to force him to stay there, if digging him out might kill him? I can’t just leave him there without explaining why, but at the same time, should I tell him about this? It’s one more thing, and he’s already fucked. It’s gonna be ugly even if he doesn’t have other repercussions from being crushed.

The longer I look for digging tools and the longer I agonize, the more likely it is that he’ll suffer from this too. Time is not on his side. He’s been under there for too damn long already.

So then what: Leave him in there? Explain it to him, tell him I think he should stay in there? If it was me, I wouldn’t want to stay in there. He can’t piss or shit. He can’t even move his arms – I could probably free those without causing too much damage. But to then leave him buried up to his mid-chest in dirt until I could bring medics? I’d want to take the risk…I think.

Man, that’d be a bad way to go. You think you’re free, you’ve survived being fucking buried alive, and then you have a heart attack and die. Or kidney failure. Or whatever else.

Is that a landscaping truck? Ha! It is! “Hey, anybody in there?” I look – oh god, that’s bad. Some of the landscaping tools went through the truck’s rear window and… Better just look for a shovel. Here we go. And here’s a spade, good, that’ll help. What else? As I perch precariously on the back of the landscaping truck, I feel time slipping away. Now I know where it is, if I need anything else from here I can always come back. Next time I won’t look through the window. It’s too late, I know, that’s one more thing I’ll have nightmares about. No use fretting about it now. Time waits for no man, and Jon less than most.

It’s harder to get back. I didn’t realize how far I’d wandered, but now I look around and see that I’m probably not that far from Rachel and Paul. I could check in with them, but I have to return to Jon…and along the way, figure out what to tell him, what to do. I think I hear a woman’s voice shouting and I half turn, but refocus. Deal with one emergency at a time. Top priority: Take care of Jon, whatever that looks like. Next: Keep seeking a way out. Last: Deal with the shout when it comes into your circle of influence.

God, what do I say to Jon? What do I do? My instinct is to leave him and try to find a means of egress as quickly as possible, to lead a medical team to him sooner. But I’m increasingly concerned that the emergency egress tunnels aren’t going to be accessible, or they’ll take a very long time to clear enough to be usable. I only vaguely remember that such things existed, and I haven’t looked at the pre-fires any time recently, this is all just based on what I remember from a long time ago now.

That would imply I should dig him out and hope for the best. That’s probably what he’ll want. He’s lucid right now; I can’t force him to stay, if he wants to get out, but it’s likely enough that even moving him will cause massive additional damage. He needs to have his neck and spine immobilized, get carried out on a stretcher, X-rayed. Plus there’s the whole broken rib/internal injuries issue. I could carry him, probably, at least a little ways, but it would not be that spine stabilization he needs, to say the least. And what would I do with him after that?

Hell, seriously, what about once I’ve got him un-buried? He isn’t going to be moving under his own power, that’s for sure. I couldn’t carry him all the way back to Paul and Rachel. If there’s a candidate for staying put and waiting for help, he’s it. But I can’t just leave him there… I need to find a way out. That’s the bottom line. Find a way out, get medical aid, come back as quickly as possible. I think Paul and Rachel will keep. Jon’s not likely to survive long on his own if I dig him out and leave him.

If I had another person, we might be able to move Jon to somewhere a little more stable. I’m concerned about the hillside. It seems stable, almost cemented in place now, but I don’t see that hillside staying put if we get any significant aftershocks – I wonder where those are? Shouldn’t we be feeling something by now? How long can it be between the main shock and aftershocks? Damn, we have to get out of here. What I’d give for just one other able-bodied guy here. A fellow firefighter would be unimaginably good. A doctor, yeah, or paramedic, or hell, anybody who’s not old like Paul or useless like Rachel. We could definitely make some kind of stretcher with the tools from the landscaping truck and our clothes…

Pipe dreams. I’m on my own here, and on my own, I can’t move Jon without causing tons more damage, not to mention possibly killing him just by releasing him. Goddamnit. I hate having to make calls like this. It’s not going to be pretty.

Getting back to Jon is actually fairly difficult, now that I’ve got my hands full with shovel and trowel. I keep catching the shovel handle on things outside of my flashlight beam, and a couple times I stumble. One time I put my right hand out and a piece of metal cuts through the glove and into the pad of my hand. It hurts like hell, and bleeds, and I have to stop to wrap it up with some more cloth I cut from my sacrificial clothes. After that, I start favoring my left hand, which is my off hand. I have shoved the trowel into my pants pocket, but I left my backpack with Jon, and I’m stuck carrying the shovel by hand. If I carry it in my left hand, I have to use my right for balance, which hurts too much. If I carry it in my right hand, it hurts and the blood makes it hard to grip.

I keep looking for survivors, but most of the people in the vehicles are in such bad shape, it’s not worth stopping. I do turn several cars off along the way. That’s one little mitigation I can do, anyway.

Eventually I get back to Jon. I haven’t decided what to do, but as I approach, I see his head move around. He’s heard me, or seen my light. “Dan?” he calls out, weakly, his voice muffled through the fabric. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” I call back. “Like an old penny, always turning up.” My attempt at lightening the mood falls totally flat.

“Oh thank god,” Jon says. “I was afraid…”

I hold up a hand to forestall him. “Dude, I understand. But I’m here now, and check this out—” I show him the shovel and then the trowel. I can’t make out his expression, the flashlight can only point one direction at once, but he makes comments about how relieved he is.

“OK, so I got the tools,” I say, seriously, and squat down so we can look eye to eye. “But Jon, before I do anything, we have to talk.”

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