The more words that are spoken, the more smoke there is in the air. And who is any better off? And who knows what’s best for us as we live out our meager smoke-and-shadow lives? And who can tell any of us the next chapter of our lives?
This post is just shy of 11,000 words long. Brace yourselves.
Friday, July 20, 4:00 pm
Well, fuck. I told Carl I didn’t intend to die in here, and now Dan has as much as told me that I am going to die no matter what I do. That is just wrong. I didn’t get up this morning planning on dying. I would have done everything differently. God, I wouldn’t have gone to work today at all! Then I wouldn’t be here, and none of this would have happened, and I’d have who knows how long with my wife and kids.
I can’t stop thinking about them now. Are they okay? Were they somewhere safe when the earthquake hit? Are they together and secure now? Can they get food and water? Are they away from downed power lines, safe from who knows what else? Is Jean wondering about me, too? I left as usual, gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, really just a show for the kids, who were sitting at the breakfast table texting or whatever they do all day on their damn phones. They sure don’t use them for phone calls, that’s all I know. Thousands of text messages a month, and sometimes less than 100 minutes of actual calls.
Oh, God, I haven’t prayed in forever, but if you exist, if you’re out there…keep them safe. I don’t expect to come through this, I won’t even ask for that, because you’re probably not even real and I’m just talking to myself. But if you are real, take care of my family.
“Jon? What do you think?” Dan, patiently squatting next to my car, breaks me from my reverie. “What’re you thinking?”
He doesn’t actually mean what was I thinking; he means “Have you decided whether I dig you out or not?” I have decided, and he’s going to think it’s the wrong call, but I cannot remain here like this, just waiting to die.
“Dig me out, Dan. I can’t stay here.”
“You know what that could mean.”
“I know. Just do it.”
He looks into my eyes, and whatever he sees there convinces him. With a firm nod, he stands up, strips off this coat and steps out of my field of view, presumably to lay it across his backpack, which is somewhere in the vicinity of the back of my car.
Friday, July 20, 4:00 pm
This is one of those “easier said than done” situations. Paul really is not in good shape, but he’s a trooper. He doesn’t complain, but has to rest every few feet. Every time we have to clamber over something, he rests. He’s eaten some of the hot dogs; I don’t know if they’ll help, but being so heavily processed, they must contain a fair bit of sugar. He’s going to need food, far more than the rest of us, and those hot dogs, vile as they are, won’t last very long. I wish I had more food in my car. Fasting isn’t going to work for him for very long. If it takes days for help to arrive, he’ll die. Helping him to my car has firmed my resolve: I will find this Daniel and we will find a way out, so we can lead help back to Paul.
Rachel, on the other hand, is wimp. Well, okay, that’s not exactly a fair assessment. She could very well have internal injuries, because she’s looking awfully pale but isn’t bleeding anywhere that I can see, and sure as heck breathing that dust didn’t do her any good. She’s finally taken a mask for her face, but won’t admit that it’s actually an improvement. “It’s so hard to breathe through the cloth,” she complained, and then made a big deal of coughing and having to move the mask to spit out whatever that is. She’s sounding bubbly when she coughs, and that’s bad. But there’s nothing we can do about that, and who knows, maybe being upright will help.
I’m carrying all the stuff I brought with me originally: Clara, her baby bag, the towel wrapped around other stuff that didn’t fit in the baby bag. It’s awkward having all that and then trying to help Paul, too, but we’re making do.
We’re almost to my car now. The dust seems to be settling down a little bit, because we’re within sight of the looming white blob that is the semi truck’s trailer, and we’re not right up against it. Even so, we’re really close. It won’t be much longer.
With every step, I wonder if I made the right choice. Lifting each foot feels like lifting a ten-ton weight. Climbing over debris, I start to imagine I understand what a whale beaching feels like. My hands have started bleeding again; I have to use them constantly to hold myself up, or I would collapse.
I refuse to show weakness in front of these two women who are relying on me.
The young woman, Chris, doesn’t seem afraid. She’s calm, strong, helping me when it’s clear I need it. It rankles every time she puts her hand out to steady me or takes some of my weight, loaded-down as she is. Throughout my long career, it was my job to help women in distress, not the other way around. But I wouldn’t make it without leaning on Chris, and she’s a nice enough young woman that she doesn’t mention it. I think she can tell how much it pains me to lean on anybody.
During our rests, I sit and conserve my strength for the next push. I think about Carol, my love. We haven’t been separated in over 50 years of marriage. How is she doing? In my optimistic moments, I can envision her rallying neighbors, chivvying everybody into being safe and prepared, organizing food and water distribution. In my optimistic moments, I know she’s doing great, and I hope she’s not worrying about me too much. In my realistic moments, I fear she’s been hurt, crushed by something falling in the house, or… I don’t want to think what. In my realistic moments, my heart breaks, knowing that the longer we’re in here, the less likely we are to come out again.
Chris stands up and Rachel groans. I silently agree with Rachel. It feels far too soon to keep going.
“That’s the semi truck,” Chris says, pointing, and I aim the Maglight in that direction. Sure enough, there’s a big white rectangle that could be a semi truck’s trailer. “We’re almost there. We can make it this time.” Chris sounds like a mom talking to her kids, encouraging, coaxing, endlessly patient.
I heave myself into a standing position. “All right, then,” I say, gasping a little bit but trying hard to sound firm and strong, as befits a man helping two women, “Let’s go for it.”
I just do not see how taking this long slog is beneficial for us. Paul is dead on his feet, surely Christina can see that. And for that matter, it turns she out is a veterinarian, or something, so she doesn’t even treat people! I can’t believe she took care of Paul like that when she probably didn’t even know what to do. If anything happens to me, I’m not letting her take care of me. What would some animal doctor who takes care of dogs and cats know about taking care of people? No way, Jose.
When Christina stands up to show that our rest is over, I heave a big sigh, because it simply was not long enough. I look at Paul, and the expression on what I can see of his face is resolved, but underneath I can see that he’s exhausted and suffering and it’s wrong to drag him along when we already had a safe haven.
Christina says we’re almost there, but honestly, I can’t see that semi truck and I don’t think we’re almost anywhere. For all we know, she’s hallucinating, or brain-damaged and thinks she’s leading us to safety, when her car is actually a pancake beneath a ceiling tile. This is ridiculous, it’s a farce, this woman who is a total unknown leading us goodness only knows where. I wish Paul had listened to my advice.
I haven’t told Paul or Christina yet, but the last little while I’ve been feeling really bad. My stomach has been hurting, this sort of pressure pain, but that’s probably just because I’m hungry. We haven’t eaten since breakfast, at least, I haven’t. Paul’s eaten plenty for all of us, it doesn’t seem right. I know he’s diabetic, but I’m really hungry, and I’m starting to feel kind of weak and dizzy, too. I stand up and it’s kind of hard to stay upright, but I decide to wait a while to say anything because it seems like a good idea.
We start walking again.
Friday, July 20, 4:30 pm
I’m having to move more dirt than I expected. Sweat streams down my back and face. I’ve tied more fabric around my forehead to keep the sweat away, so I probably look like some kind of bandit, with just my eyes showing. I’m breathing hard, moving this dirt is really hard work, it’s practically cemented in place and I have to use some real force to break through it, but I also have to be careful not to break through Jon while I’m at it.
I’ve removed enough dirt to see the remains of his windshield, which remains held together from that plastic they put in windshields, but which has popped out of the frame and broken up internally. I start clearing around it to remove it.
As I work, I think. I knew that Jon would want to be dug out. I probably would, if I was in his shoes, even knowing what I know. I hope I’ve done a good enough job helping him understand exactly what could happen once he’s dug out. I want to be sure he knows that digging him out may – even probably could – make things worse, hard as that could be for him to imagine. But ultimately, he’s an adult, lucid, at least for now, and he at least understands that he could die from this, almost more than if he stayed buried longer. So I try to focus on digging, and I don’t think about what happens next.
For his part, Jon doesn’t say much. He’s looking pallid, even by Maglight light standards, and I’m concerned that one of those many injuries is already getting to him. He keeps his eyes closed most of the time, to protect them from falling dirt that I keep dislodging no matter how carefully I try to dig. He seems like a decent enough guy. Stoic enough, anyway, no panicking or giving me dumb instructions the way Rachel did.
I don’t want him to die, so I work harder. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I immerse myself in the repetition of moving dirt and debris, and as I live in the moment, taking each individual problem one at a time and solving it, I stop worrying.
After a while, I have to stop and get a drink. I’m sweating out way more water than I brought with me, and now I wish I’d brought more.
“How you holding up?” I ask Jon, as I lean on the side of the car.
“Okay,” he answers, which is really the only thing to say. What’s he going to say, “Oh, I’ve just found out I’m probably going to die without seeing my family, I’m suffering from some kind of spinal damage, internal injuries, and God knows what else, and I feel really excellent”?
“You have any kids? Wife?” I ask, taking some deep breaths, psyching myself up for more hard-as-a-rock dirt removal.
“Yeah, a wife and two kids. Austin is 14 and Mackenzie is 17.” His voice, through the dust mask and despite the raspiness caused by breathing in all that shit earlier, sounds terribly wistful. He’s probably thinking he’ll never see them again, and I was the bastard who brought it up. Good one, Danny boy.
“We’ll get you back to them as soon as we can, then,” I say in my best optimistic, “this situation is totally under control” voice. It sounds like a lie. Without another word, I re-wedge the flashlight in its spot and pick up the shovel again.
Thank goodness, we’ve made it to my car, and it’s still exactly as I left it. Looking at it through Paul’s eyes, my SUV looks awfully small and hard to access, squeezed in there against the truck trailer and the wall.
“How did you get out?” Rachel asks, and as usual, I want to slap her as soon as she opens her mouth. She makes a reasonable question sound like a criticism.
In answer, I pull out the key fob and press the hatchback open button. The car beeps loudly, unlocking itself, and then the hatchback starts to rise up of its own accord. I have to half-smile when I see it: I can’t help but think of David when I use this. I’m going to get out of here just so I can tell him he was right.
Paul has a glazed look in his eyes that he’s trying to hide, but we have to get him into my car, ASAP.
Sitting on the leather passenger seat illuminated by the dome light in Chris’s extremely nice SUV, I finally take a deep breath and sigh. It feels good to not breathe through that mask, to take a breath of actual clean air. Her car still works and she’s run it a little bit to bring in fresh, filtered air for us. Rachel has appropriated the bench seat in the back, tossing the baby seat out and stretching across it, her head propped up with some miscellaneous soft stuff. She’s asleep, or pretending to be asleep. Clearly doesn’t want us to talk to her.
Sitting here in the passenger seat, I finally have a moment to take stock, and I can acknowledge that I’m feeling my age and more. Everything hurts. I am weak and shaky. All I want is to sit forever, eyes closed, and rest. Preferably never move again.
No, that’s not what I want. I want to see Carol. I want to feel the deck of a ship beneath my feet again. I want to feel the chill of the wind across my face, the slap of spray on my cheeks. I want to watch the horizon, stretched out as far as I can see, merging sky and water. I want to see the sun setting across the Pacific Ocean, red and orange and yellow rays shining out, alchemically turning the clouds pink with gold edges, forming a perfectly straight road between me and the sun. I want to rub Pepper’s fur again and have Carol chide me for waiting so long to get him trimmed. I want to smell the scent of fresh-clipped grass in our yard. I want to sip lemonade while looking out at the Seattle skyline. I want to hear the happy shout of kids in our neighborhood. I want to kiss my daughters and granddaughter.
I want to live.
I expect that if we wait long enough, help will come for us. I just don’t know if I will make it that long with no food, only a little bit of water, and the potential for any number of things to go wrong.
It can’t have even been a full day since the earthquake, but it feels like an age. When I was under fire, I remember how everything seemed to take forever. Reloading, I knew it took me just a minute, but when I really needed to do it in action, every motion seemed to slow down, as if the air had congealed around me. I’m feeling that way now. I lift my hand to wipe my eyes, which are streaming with tears for some reason, and my arm feels incredibly heavy.
“Paul? Are you okay?” Chris asks, and her voice stabs me. It’s full of pity. I can’t show this kind of weakness. I open my eyes and muster a smile, hoping she can’t see the effort it takes just to do that.
“Never better,” I lie. “You were right. Your car is a good place for us.”
“I’m glad you made it.” She’s in the driver’s seat, feeding her infant daughter the last of the formula. What will happen to the little girl, now that she’s finishing the last of her food? She can’t eat hot dogs.
“Thank you for the space,” I say. It sounds strange, awkward. “We’ll be able to wait here for a long time.”
There’s a pause as Chris cleans up and burps her baby. She’s weighing her words, and I already can guess what she’s trying to say, so I say it for her: “I know you want to go look for Daniel and try to find a way out.”
“You know what I think.”
“Paul, if you and Rachel don’t get help soon –” I hold up a hand to forestall her.
“We’ll wait here. I don’t like the idea of should separating, but sometimes we have to do things we don’t like.”
Relief floods her face when she realizes I’m not going to argue with her about this. She’s right, too: On the way to the car, I kept seeing Rachel clutching at her abdomen, as if moving hurt. When we got to the car, Rachel paused at the truck trailer to cough, and the coughing turned into vomiting – and it looked too dark for regular vomit. I fear she’s injured worse than we thought. I saw Chris watching, too, but neither of us said anything. What is there to say?
“I’ll bring help,” Chris promises. She’s wrapping her daughter up securely again, using some elaborate twisted towel system that defies my understanding. “I promise, I’ll be back.”
“Take my flashlight.” I hand it to her. It probably won’t last much longer, but we won’t need it. “And take water,” I say. We only have eight bottles left, and I feel like I could probably drink them all, but instead I keep two each for me and Rachel, and give Chris the other four. She nods and adds those to her baby bag. She’s got all sorts of potentially useful stuff in there. Guess there’s something to being a mom: You always have lots of extra stuff in your car, just in case. And now that we’re in that “just in case” situation, it’s coming in useful.
“Be careful,” I caution her. My motivation for giving advice is running out. I’m so tired.
“I will.” She carefully crawls over the back seat, avoiding Rachel, who remains perfectly still despite the jostling around. The back door opens through that jaw-dropping bit of technology, and then she’s gone. She’s left the key so we can turn the car on for more air, but taken the fob with its miraculous door opener with her. I guess we’re trapped in here now, but it doesn’t really bother me.
I switch off the dome light, lean my seat back, and close my eyes.
Friday, July 20, 6:45 pm
Time slips by without my really noticing it. Dan keeps working, and he’s almost done. He’s like a machine. Relentless. He’s not one of those super-buff firefighters that women love to have on their calendars, but he’s got a sinewy toughness that makes up for a lot. He can keep going forever, it seems like, has this stamina that I have to envy. I’ve never been that fit, always hated exercise, was terrible at sports. Give me a drum set or a guitar, or, later, a computer. I’m not fat or anything, but just not super fit, either. Last checkup the doctor told me I should work on toning up, that I was carrying an unhealthy amount of fat inside my abdomen, and it would be better if I got rid of that. I bought a gym membership and went a few times, but I always felt like a pussy compared to the huge dudes pumping iron that weighs twice as much as I do. Jean tried to encourage me to go, but that kind of just fell off my radar after a few visits. Okay, I intentionally let it fall off my radar.
A while ago he softened the dirt up enough around my torso that I could pull my arms free – oh my god, what a relief. Just knowing that I can still move them is such a great feeling. In fact, I’m feeling so much better, it’s hard to believe. I’d almost say I was high or something, but I think it’s the euphoria of having some freedom of movement after hours of imprisonment.
Dan paused to help me wipe my hands as best I could. Can’t use water to rinse them – we’re down to under half a bottle for the two of us. He’s sweating a ton, even though the air feels cold to me. I want him to take the last of the water, but he keeps insisting that I should have at least a little bit. We’re both dehydrated and starting to feel it.
After all these hours of work, Dan has switched to using the spade now because most of what’s left is around my body. I try to keep my arms out of the way. If I twist or move my torso really at all – which I can now do, that, and take a deep breath without having my chest squeezed in a vice – this agonizing pain shoots through me. I have already decided to hold as still as I possibly can for now.
I’m trying not to worry too much about what happens next. Because it’s abundantly clear that (a) I won’t be able to walk anywhere, let alone clamber around what Dan’s described as a veritable war zone of smashed cars out there; and (b) Dan is going to be tired after the hours of heavy labor required to free me, so carrying me is out of the question.
That being the case, I can’t help but start thinking: What do I do, once I’m free? Do I just sit here and wait for Dan to bring help? Do I try to, I don’t know, crawl somewhere? Do I ask Dan to carry me? I can’t ask that. He’s tough, no question, but carrying a full-grown man who probably weighs more than he does, over all this rubble and stuff? That’s the stuff of legends, and we sure as hell aren’t in any legend right now.
The options are all bad. Stay here. Try to go somewhere else. Staying means likely death. Going means likely death, possibly accompanied by a fair bit of pain first. Shit. What to do?
Dan takes a break and I ask, “How’re you doing?”
He wipes his forehead with the back of his forearm, leaving a cleaner swath through the thick layer of dirt that has coated every inch of exposed skin. “Holding up well enough,” he replies.
I hand him the water. “Finish it off,” I tell him, and he hardly hesitates. It’s only about three swallows total, and then the bottle is empty.
“When we get back to those other people, we’ll get more water,” he says. We. He picks up the spade again, but I have to talk with him first.
“Hold on,” I say. “Listen, man, we gotta figure out what happens next. You’re almost to my legs. I feel a million times better already, I can’t thank you enough. But once my legs are free, what then?”
“Once my legs are free, what then?” Jon asks. He’s filthy, I mean, totally filthy. I can’t tell what kind of clothes he put on this morning beneath all the caked-on dirt. There’s a line from mid-chest down where the dirt was, a high-water line, if you will, but even above that, he’s covered in fine gray dust mixed with the dirt I’ve been loosening. He has hardly moved positions at all since he got freedom of movement with his torso, and he’s holding himself very stiffly, and I can see that any movement of his torso is extremely, even frighteningly painful for him.
I pause and give that question some real thought. What next? I’ve submerged myself in the physical labor and deliberately not thought too hard about what to do once he’s free. If he is going to have crush or compression I can’t remember which syndrome, he’s probably got at least a few hours before it starts. I think. I hope his arms were lightly buried enough that they won’t be an issue. He can move them freely. That’s about the only thing he can move freely, though.
What to do with him?
“We really have two options,” I tell him. “Either I try to carry you out, or you stay here and wait for me to get help.”
“Yeah.” Clearly he’s given this some thought.
“Option A, I can probably carry you a good ways,” I say, and this is most likely true. Once I get him over my shoulders, I’ll bear his weight with my back, and I can carry a man a good distance that way. But damn, slinging him over my shoulders would hurt him like hell – I might even break his back doing that. Great option. “But it’s going to have to be over my shoulders, and with your back…” Jon grimaces: He can imagine what that would feel like, extrapolating from the pain incurred by the small motions he’s already attempted.
“Option B, I finish freeing you, leave you with some stuff, and go out to try and find help.” Silence. He’s not thrilled about either option, and I don’t blame him. “I recommend Option B.” In the dim light, I can see the stricken look in his eyes. The prospect of being left alone again terrifies him. He thinks, probably rightly, that he’ll die alone in the dark if I leave him behind. Whereas if I bring him with me, he’ll die with company in the slightly-less-dark of my flashlight. Speaking of which, I’m afraid the beam is getting dimmer, but I’m trying not to think about that. One thing at a time.
“Dan…” His voice is low and rasping, the merest whisper, and I have to lean closer to hear him. “God, I… How to decide…”
In the silence, I hear a stumbling around and, looking over my shoulder, see a light coming towards me. “Hold on –” I stand up, shine my light towards the source of the disturbance. The dust has significantly settled, except where the person approaching us has kicked it up.
A woman’s voice calls out, “Hey, anybody over here?”
Sweet Jesus, it’s a young woman. I glance at Jon: “It’s some woman. I’m going to go help her. I’ll be right back.” He nods, says nothing. Speaking is difficult for him, for a variety of reasons. I raise my voice and call, “I’m coming to you. Keep heading towards my light.” In my haste I nearly bash into the bumper of the car that smashed into the rear of Jon’s Porsche. OK, Danny, take it easy. More haste, less hurry.
It’s taken me forever, but when I see the flash of light up ahead through the car windows, my heart leaps. This has to be Daniel. I shout, “Hey, anybody over there?”
A man’s voice calls back, and we’re climbing towards each other like long-lost lovers, so never so desperately glad to see a living person. I’ve pinned my hopes on this guy, I’m counting on him to have a plan of escape. I’ve spent hours sweating and struggling through the twisted wrecks of cars, trying not to see inside, just keep going. I had to keep telling myself, It’s not that big of a tunnel, I can’t possibly miss him. A thousand times I thought I’d missed him, he’s escaped or gone somewhere or I’ve passed him without noticing, and each time I almost gave up and went back to Paul and Rachel, but then I thought of the look Rachel would give me – scornful, arch, “I told you so” stamped large across her weaselly features, and I’d grit my teeth and keep going.
For a while, Clara cried. She’s out of formula, has been for hours, and all I could give her was her binky. She took it at first, but then she kept spitting it out, wanting food, not some stupid plastic thing to suck on. Lately she’s just been whimpering quietly, and I’m starting to get nervous about her, but all I can do is put water in her bottle and give that to her. She’s clearly unhappy with that, taking it and drinking eagerly – and then discovering with disgust that mommy has failed her, there’s no nutrients here, just water.
Oh, Clara, if only I could explain to you, help you understand… You’re too little to understand. All you know is sleep, eat, shit. Sometimes you smile and even laugh, and it’s like the sun has come out, your chubby little cheeks dimpling and your eyes almost closing, your fists clenched and waving in the air. Your silence frightens me. I’m afraid…
Then suddenly the dude I’ve been calling to stands there in front of me, jerking me from my reverie. I’d been moving mechanically, calling to him, clambering over debris, my brain totally disengaged. Weird. He’s stripped to a sweat-soaked T-shirt and jeans and coated in dirt everywhere. He has a face mask on, which he briefly pulls down, showing a clean white triangle of chin. He’s got a little bit of stubble, a 5 o’clock shadow. I want to hug him, sweat and dirt and all.
Instead, I step forward, pull down my face mask, and reach out a hand. “I’m Chris.” Does my hope show through in my voice? I don’t want to alarm him, but god, I hope he has some way out, because otherwise we’re screwed.
He smiles. “I’m Daniel. Dan.”
“I know, I mean, I met Paul and Rachel and they said you were up this way.” He’s taken my bag, gentleman-style, and we’re clambering in the direction he came from.
“Here, step here, this is stable.” He’s showing me the way, and I obediently follow. “Are they doing okay?” It takes a minute for me to remember who “they” was.
“Oh – um…” I glance at him. How to say this diplomatically?
“They’re not okay,” he guesses, as I pause. His voice is flat, factual.
“Well, it’s hard to say,” I dissemble. “Paul, uh, he had a little diabetic episode…” I describe Paul’s low blood sugar emergency and how I took care of it. I add that I’m a vet tech. “He was pale and really weak after that. We didn’t have enough food for him.”
Dan listens quietly to the whole story and nods. “Yeah, I wondered. Good thing you were there and knew what to do.”
“God, yeah, imagine if it was just Rachel. Paul would probably be dead.” I shudder, shake off that image, and continue. “But after that I was able to convince them to move to my car.” I’m looking at my footing and trying to protect Clara’s head as I climb over the trunk of a taxi, so I can’t see Dan’s expression, but he lets out a surprised noise.
“You got them to move?”
“I know, hard to believe. You’d think I was talking about flying to the moon or something, the way Rachel went on against it.”
“Let me guess,” Dan says, “I bet Paul overruled her.”
“Yeah.” Something in his tone is hard. He didn’t get along with Paul, I’m guessing, which would make sense. Before he went all low blood sugar on us, Paul seemed really confident and certain of what to do. I imagine he’d lock horns with Dan, especially since Paul inherently believes in staying put, while Dan inherently believes in active escape. “Anyway, now they’re in my SUV.”
I describe the situation and how my car, Clara, and I came through miraculously almost unscathed. “It’s got to be better than being out in the open like they were,” I say, a little worried that Mr. Emergency Expert Firefighter will find fault with my idea. Instead, his response reassures me.
“That was a good idea. I’m amazed you got ’em in there, but now we know where they are and they’re as safe as they’re going to get. Nice job. Here, step here.”
Dang. I wish I’d met up with this guy first thing! I don’t want to say I wasted time with Paul and Rachel, but if I’d met Dan first, who knows – we could be out of here by now, or making real progress. It took hours to even budge those guys, and here’s a guy who’s all action.
“So you should know – we have a situation here. I’m actually really glad to see you,” Dan says as we walk through a strangely clear patch. He puts a hand on my arm and pauses me as I’m about to climb up some rubble. “Chris, hold on.”
I stop and look at him. “What’s up?” Clara is fussing again, and I look down at her, wipe her face, try to rock her a bit as I listen.
“Rachel’s right, the tunnel is totally blocked at this end. But I found a guy at the end. His car was kind of buried in dirt. He’s in really bad shape.”
Friday, July 20, 7:03 pm
I’m all squished up in the back seat of Chris’s car. Even laying on the bench seat, it’s not that wide. I can’t straighten my legs. The car is full of kid detritus. I can hear Paul’s slow, steady breathing from the front passenger seat. He must be asleep.
“Paul?” I call very softly, the voice I use when I’m talking to Michael when he’s sleep walking, trying to convince Michael to go back to bed, it’s all right, the mice aren’t going to get you. He dreams of mice crawling all over and biting him and I’ll find him standing in his room, eyes open but sound asleep, panicky at the prospect of being eaten by mice.
No response from Paul. He’s definitely asleep.
I feel really thirsty. When I go to sit up, my head spins and my stomach feels horrible. I gently try to press it and that really hurts, so I leave it alone. I’m too dizzy to sit up – I think I’m going to throw up just moving at all. But I’m super thirsty, so I kind of try to keep my head steady as I move toward the front of the car, looking for the water.
The movement makes my stomach churn, and before I can settle it, I’m leaning over and throwing up on the floor of the car, all over Chris’s kids’ stuff. It’s dark in the car, I can’t see anything, but the throw up tastes metallic, like a nose bleed in reverse. I cough a little bit and spit up some more of the thick dust-and-phlegm slurry that’s been coming out of my chest, which sounds awfully rattley when I take a breath. I’m gasping for air, and I don’t know why, because this is the cleanest air we’ve had in hours.
After I throw up, I feel a little better, and I’m able to hoist myself forward to see into the front seats. I feel around blindly. Eventually I find four bottles on the front seat. No matter how much more I grope around, I can’t find any more bottles, it seems clear we’ve got four bottles and that’s it.
What the heck? We had eight bottles before – Paul can’t have drunk four bottles. He wouldn’t. Aw, crap, but he might send them with Chris, who isn’t here. I don’t remember her leaving, but she had that crazy plan about escaping and sending help – ha, as if – and she must have gone off to do that. More fool her. Paul is too weak to stop her, and I was asleep. Why was I asleep? But the exertion of moving my body and feeling around for the water has exhausted me. I’m feeling really drowsy, really really tired, and just reaching out to pick up a bottle takes a lot of effort, but finally I get it and then I have to twist the cap off and I’m almost too weak to break the seal.
My hand shakes as I bring the bottle to my mouth and I spill some, but some makes it into my mouth and it tastes so good, so refreshing, it’s better than fine wine. I finish off the bottle easily, and I’m relieved to have drunk water and rinsed my mouth if nothing else, although my stomach feels really bad. I close my eyes and curl up and try not to think about it. But I keep coughing, which hurts my stomach and makes me have to spit stuff out. The water has woken me up a little bit, rinsed away cobwebs, and my brain starts working a little better.
Laying here in the dark, I really have a chance to think for the first time. What is Michael doing right now? Did he get hurt in the earthquake? Somehow, despite everything, I have a hard time believing we were in an earthquake. I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t know about this kind of thing. Give me lots of snow, sub-freezing temperatures, even the occasional tornado, I’m set. But an earthquake? I keep thinking that what we’re going through is a local phenomenon, the tunnel collapsed but everything else is normal outside, and help will already be on its way. When I think about the world beyond the tunnel, I envision it as it was when I entered: Tall, glittering skyscrapers, shining sun, people moving around normally. I imagine the firefighters – real ones – and medics burrowing through the debris towards us even now. No matter what Christina and Daniel say, I’m certain that we’ll be rescued in short order.
But if it was as big and bad as they say, I’m still not too worried. I have good confidence in Michael’s earthquake preparedness – they’re always wasting teaching time at school with drills and such like – but was he even awake? I imagine him asleep in bed, waking up to the shaking, not having anybody there to tell him what to do as things were falling around him. I hope his shelves held up – we never did add the earthquake straps that came in the box. Now I kind of wish we had. He’s probably gone downstairs to our first-floor neighbors, they have a son about his age and he spends a lot of time down there when he’s not at summer school or off doing whatever teenagers do.
Really I’m more worried about my meeting. What happened with the presentation? Did Shane finish it right? Did the clients like it? It can’t have gone that well without me. I have accepted that I missed the meeting, but I still hope that I’ll be able to salvage something once we get out of here. I’ll have to buy a new nice suit; this one is ruined, thanks to all the climbing around and dust and everything. I hope help comes soon.
I’m feeling really drowsy now. I cough and spit and lean back and
Friday, July 20, 8:00 pm
Dan and Chris have contrived a stretcher for me. I don’t know where or how, but they’ve got something involving shovel handles, sweatshirts, and straps. They said Dan found a landscaping truck with useful stuff in it. Good for him.
I’m having a harder time with this somehow, now that I’m dug free and laying out on the stretcher. I want to live, but god, the pain. Not in my legs – I can’t feel a thing down there, and it’s probably better, when I looked at the shape of them in my pant legs they were all lumpy and misshapen and I really don’t want to know. Getting onto the stretcher was like nothing I’ve ever endured before, and Dan and Chris were trying to be as gentle as they could.
Now they’re resting, and we’re going to try to find a way out near here. Dan thinks there may have been an egress hatch he missed on the way in, and if that’s the case, we’re probably all set. Right. As all set as we can get, I guess. We’re going to stick close to the north wall, and they’ll try to move me over things as well as they can.
Chris brought four bottles of water, plus diaper wipes and a bunch of other useful stuff. I swear when she pulled those bottles out of her filthy baby bag, I could’ve kissed her. It damn near brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. We all drank and felt a million times better. The diaper wipes were a great thing too, now our hands and faces are a lot cleaner, we can actually rub our eyes without rubbing dirt from hands into eyes, and we feel more human.
I’m having an oddly hard time focusing. After Chris arrived, everything seemed to speed up, and the next thing I knew they were stabbing hot knives into my back – wait, hold on, they were lifting me up – I was crying, screaming, I don’t know what. Now they’re talking about The Plan, but I’m not really paying attention. I’m just along for the ride at this point. They keep their voices low, a murmur in the background that reminds me of hearing Mother and Dad when I was a kid.
I remember laying in bed upstairs and hearing their voices, just the tones, not the words, coming through the ceiling in the morning before it was time to get up. I would lay with my eyes open, staring at the ceiling, dreading my day because in elementary school I never got along with other kids that well, listening to the rise and fall of their voices and knowing things were right in the world because Mother and Dad were there, and soon Mother would come up and give me a kiss and tell me to rise and shine, Dad would be downstairs eating his Wheaties when I stumbled down and into my seat, and Carl would come bounding down the stairs all chipper and perky, which I hated, and he’d immediately start chattering away about some school project. I would mash my cereal into goop and then complain that it was too goopy, and Mother made me eat it anyway, and sent me muttering out the door to catch the bus in the flurrying snow, and at lunch time I’d find she’d swapped my lunch with Carl’s so I had to eat his tuna fish sandwich with chopped celery, which I hated, while he enjoyed my PB&J.
Glancing over at Jon, I’m not happy with what I see. He’s lying there with his eyes closed, extremely pale, taking shallow, gasping breaths, and his face is sweaty. He’s going into shock. I nod with my head in his direction, nonverbally asking Chris what she thinks. She looks at Jon and her lips compress, she shakes her head. We’ve gotten him dug out, but moving him is sheer folly. He’s in bad shape, moving him will just make it worse, I’m not confident of our stretcher…
“He looks bad,” Chris murmurs. She’s rocking her daughter, Clara, or Claire, or something like that. I hope it’s not Claire, because I don’t want to think about the Claire in my life. This morning I was ready to dump the bitch, and now I can’t help but hope she’s somewhere safe. I shake my head, refocus.
“If we move him…” I shake my head again, this time in uncertainty.
“He’s not going to last if we leave and send help later.” Chris has never done triage, not on people. I don’t want to have to.
“He’s not going to last anyway.” There, I’ve said it. “We will make better time leaving him behind. We could go back to the east and try to get out that way. This entire tunnel is less than a mile long.”
She just looks at me. I can guess what she’s thinking: Danny boy spent hours working to dig him out, and now I’m advocating leaving him?
“We have to try to get him out,” she says, and her voice is calm, firm, unafraid, resolved. “If we don’t try, we’ll definitely fail. If we do try, who knows, maybe we’ll succeed.” She’s made up her mind.
“Okay. You know what you’re getting into, do you? This is going to suck hardcore. More than carrying your daughter and that bag. He’s heavy.”
“I know. I’ve helped carry 150-pound dogs before.”
“How far?” I ask, then immediately add, “Never mind. Sorry. Let’s do it, then.” Chris buries the resentment she must be feeling at my snide comment and nods. Takes a gulp of water – thank god she brought water, it was the most delicious thing I think I’ve ever tasted. I sweated gallons digging Jon out. Too bad there aren’t gallons of water to drink. Just four little 12-ounce bottles, of which just one remains unopened. She stows the water away in the baby bag, which I take and sling over my shoulder messenger bag-style.
“There’s no time like the present,” she says and stands up.
Jon is muttering to himself, eyes closed, head rolling a bit on the stretcher, talking about Wheaties and Carl. Who’s Carl? I have the end by his feet and Dan is at the front, bearing more of Jon’s body weight. Damn but he is heavy. If only this was WoW, we could just use a strength buff and get an awesome strength boost with no problem, easily haul Jon to the wherever we end up. He’d have it better than we did. Unfortunately for us, we’re trapped in this world, and Jon is unconscious and we’re stuck carrying him with our own puny strength every inch.
I remember when we had to sedate a big bull mastiff in the clinic once. He was in to get neutered. He refused to get up on the table no matter what we did, so finally we sedated him on the ground and had to lift him onto the table unconscious. I think he weighed just over 150 pounds, but at the time I was sure he had to be at least 500 pounds. It took three of us, one at each end and one in the middle, to hoist him up. His tongue lolled out, and his eyes were kind of slitted open a little bit, which I always found unnerving.
I preferred slightly smaller dogs, myself. Not the really small ones – little yappy dogs I always wanted to kick, see if I could punt them as far as a football; it would have been so satisfying – but a nice solid Golden Retriever or Labrador. A sporting dog whose goal in life is to fetch a ball, and secondary goal would be to lick your face as many times as possible.
Muffin, our German Shepherd/Golden Retriever mix, meets those criteria perfectly. She sheds like a maniac, but she’s a big bundle of love. I wish she was here right now, sticking her nose inappropriately into my crotch and making sure we were keeping the pack together. She’d be right ahead of us, scouting the way, looking back occasionally as if to say “Come on, what’s taking you so long?” Four legs would probably help us too.
I wonder if Muffin is okay. She was at home in her dog run. I don’t think anything would’ve fallen on her, but animals tend to freak out during earthquakes, so she’s probably barking up a storm, trying frantically to escape and get to her people. And who knows where her people are? I’m here with Clara, David’s probably at work, Ethan…
Oh god, I hope Ethan is still alive, that he’s safe. I would give anything, anything to be able to go to him right now. I don’t want to, cannot think about the possibility that I might survive this, only to find out my little boy died. When I think of the possibility that he’s dead, floating in the wreckage of the Aquarium, that they might not even find his body… My nose starts to tingle, that first sign of crying. I stifle it. I have to trust Phyllis – which I hate to do, she’s just so, so, so… I – well, I have to trust that she’s kept him safe. Maybe they never made it to the Aquarium, and were on the bus or at Phyllis’s house still.
Friday, July 20, 9:47 pm
When I open my eyes, I’m extremely disoriented. Why have I been sleeping in the car? Why am I in the passenger seat at all? I’m supposed to be driving to that BBQ with…who? Some guys I knew. From the Coast Guard. On a boat. We were going to go out the locks, spend the day on the sound, sail around the San Juan Islands. Or was that another trip? Wait, this isn’t even my car. I can’t see anything, but we have fabric upholstery, and this is leather. Whose car am I in? Where am I? Why is it dark?
I try to move, but I’m feeling extremely sluggish, it’s hard to think. I am hungry. And thirsty. But especially hungry. There’s something about being hungry that I need to remember, but I can’t think what it is. When are we going to get to the BBQ? I could eat a horse, but I’d settle for a burger and a beer.
Although now that I think about it, a burger and a beer don’t sound so good. No, my stomach wants something mild. Crackers and 7-UP, something calming to the stomach. We would feed our children nice mild foods like that when they were growing up and got the flu. Once we all got the flu from each other, and it wasn’t a stomach bug, it was the real flu. I don’t remember who brought it home, but I was home for a long stretch, and the kids were in late elementary, or maybe middle school. One of them got it, and then Carol got it, and then the other girl got it, and then Adrian got it, and finally I succumbed right before I was supposed to go back on duty. I was sick for two solid weeks, we all were, and my parents had to fly out to take care of us.
I’m just going to close my eyes and rest for a while. When we get there, Carol will get me a nice gentle-on-the-stomach snack, and I’ll feel better.
I hate throwing up, and now I can’t stop. All that water I drank came right back up a little while later, but mixed with that metallic flavor that I’m afraid is blood. If I’m throwing up blood, I’m really in trouble.
This is all Daniel’s fault. If he’d gotten me out of my car sooner, I would have probably been just fine. I felt fine at first, just hungry and thirsty and my mouth all dry. Now I’m dizzy and nauseous and I can’t really sit up at all. My stomach really hurts now, this pressure that’s unrelenting, and I keep curling into different positions to try to relieve it, but nothing works.
To take my mind off the pain, I wonder how things would be different if that idiot from AAA had been on time when I ran out of gas. I would’ve been in Bellevue by then, giving my presentation, wowing our customers. They would’ve loved me. Shane couldn’t have ruined everything, and finally my boss would have seen my merits and given me the promotion I deserve, once we brought this big client on board through my hard work. I really did everything. Shane just mooched off of me and made everybody like him and then took the credit. Jerk.
Jerks. Guys are all jerks. How would my life have been different if The Jerk hadn’t cheated on me? He said I was too controlling, too jealous, too distant, I nagged all the time, he didn’t like the way I was raising Michael – I couldn’t do anything right. All I wanted was for him to love me, only me. He was so handsome when I met him, tall, curly-haired, broad-shouldered, so smooth talking – a perfect salesman. I should’ve known better than to marry a salesman. He was so personable to everybody, all the women we met loved him right off the bat. How could I not be jealous when I saw him flirting with them all the time? When he’d go off on these trips and all I got as a voice on the end of the phone, and for all I know he’s sharing that hotel queen-sized bed with some bimbo he charmed?
Aaaahhhhh, my stomach. I roll to my side and throw up again. Wipe my mouth with my sleeve. Lay back. Well, I’m sure The Jerk is getting his comeuppance somewhere. If I have to be stuck in this tunnel, I hope he’s somewhere awful too, squashed under an overpass or hit by a falling TV or something. Just my luck he’s out of state and didn’t get any of this.
And sleep wraps me up like a cozy blanket, and suddenly I’m not feeling so bad anymore. I’m feeling warm, pretty good, actually, and I just close my eyes and relax into the feeling.
We’re resting. I don’t remember the wall having this much debris around and slammed into it, but now we’re trying to get through with Jon, it seems like every inch has some obstacle. The tiled wall is cracked and fallen in many places, but where it’s still standing, it seems like half the cars in the tunnel caromed into it. We have to try to climb over every vehicle, every pile of rubble, everything, while not jostling Jon.
I’m really doubting that this was a good plan, but we can’t leave him now. Where would we put him?
I listen to Chris breathing in the dark – we’re conserving the flashlight by turning it off when we rest – and I have to marvel. She’s really something: No complaining, just stubbornly pushing onward. She seems a little bit disappointed, like I’ve somehow let her down, but I can’t imagine what I’ve done to let her down. I’ve only known her for a few hours. Usually I disappoint women after a few days or months, not hours. If she was single, or even interested, I’d give her a second look once we got out of here. I’ve never met a tougher woman. I keep pushing beyond my strength because of her, every time I think “No, we can’t get over this with him, it’s impossible,” I see her behind me doggedly holding up her end of the stretcher and I find some reserves somewhere.
“Dan?” Her voice is weariness.
“Yeah?” I don’t sound a lot perkier, to be honest. We’re sitting on some rubble, with Jon on the back of a pickup truck that had some room in the bed still. My elbows are on my knees and my head rests in my hands. If I could lay down and take a nap, I would.
“Do you think… I don’t know… Jon…” She’s really hesitant, dragging each word out.
“He’s dying.” I can’t see much of him from up front, but every time I glance back, he looks like death warmed over. His breath comes in gasps, his pulse is racing, his skin is clammy. I don’t know if it’s crush syndrome, or some internal injuries, or what, but he’s not going to make it much longer.
She sighs. “I thought so. What do we do?”
“We can leave him, or we can keep carrying him.”
“I know. What do we do?”
“Is there any water left?” My mouth is parched. We’ve been trying to conserve the water, but we’re both working really hard and sweating copiously. The mini-Maglight Chris brought switches on and I can see her baby bag illuminated. Her disembodied hand rummages around, pulls out the bottle. Half full. I grimace internally: This is really bad. We need more water. At least the dust has settled, so we aren’t breathing that in as much and we can mostly go without the face masks.
She hands me the bottle and I sip. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from gulping it all down. I hand it back and she sips, too, then carefully stows it back in her bag and turns out the light again. I hear her sigh. She wants more water, too.
“Let’s just finish it off,” I suggest. “We’ll feel better. We can make a push.”
The light flicks back on and the bottle reappears. I take it and drink half – still hardly more than a couple mouthfuls, all told. She drinks most of the rest, and then pours the last little bit into her daughter’s bottle. The baby has fallen silent, but her eyes are open and moving. She’s not doing well after hours without food. Chris holds the bottle to her lips and she drinks eagerly, even though it’s only water. Even the baby is thirsty. Now we’re out of water entirely, we have to get out of here or –
Better not to think about it. We’ll rest here and I’ll find the way out. We’ll walk all the way to the west end if we have to. I will do it.
Dan wants to make a push, but I don’t know what for. We’ve been following the wall religiously, but there’s just emergency phones that don’t work and some kind of screwed-on panels too small to get through. No doors, no hatches, no miraculous teleportation devices to get us out of here in one piece.
I’m more exhausted than I think I have ever been in my life. Jon’s weight has dragged my arms for hours, until they’re so tired I can hardly lift the water bottle to my lips when Dan hands it back to me. I give Clara the last of the water, and with that, some kind of finality seems to set in. Oh, I’m not giving up, never giving up. Just need a rest, preferably a good nap, and I’ll wake up feeling ready to carry Jon however long we need.
“I can’t make a push yet,” I tell him. “I need to rest more. Maybe a couple hours.”
“Hours? Jon doesn’t have hours.”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t pick him up again yet. My hands and arms are so tired…” I sigh and start crying. I haven’t cried in hours, and I feel stupid, but it’s so overwhelming. I want to help, I want to carry Jon out and heroically save him just like one of my WoW characters coming back successful from a raid, I want to see David and Ethan again, I’d even take Phyllis with them. And I will. I will. But right now it’s all I can do to stay upright here.
I feel Dan’s hand on my shoulder. “Hey, hey, you’re crying. What’re you crying about?”
I lean into him and he’s reassuringly solid. His shirt is damp with cooling sweat, and I can feel the muscles beneath, steady. He puts his arm around my shoulders and I cry, letting out the tiredness, the fear, the hopelessness. We’ll get out of here before long, I know it, but I’m so tired. I can’t stop worrying about Clara, who’s fallen alarmingly silent; about Ethan; about David; about us…
“Okay,” he murmurs. “We’ll rest here for a while. I guess here is as good as anywhere.”
I lean against Dan and doze in and out. I remember that when I moved in with David, leaving all my friends and family in California for some guy I hardly knew, everybody thought I was crazy. A computer nerd? With me, Chris? I’ve always liked being out and active, it’s so hard to have little kids who keep me indoors changing poopy diapers instead of jogging, hiking, swimming… I miss surf boarding. The surfing here’s lousy, we have to go down to the Oregon coast and even then the water is so dang cold.
My friends always said I was cold-blooded, I liked being out in the sun so much. It’s hard living here in the cool, cloudy Northwest. Winters are hard. I get depressed when it’s dark for so long, and then during the daytime it’s hardly any brighter. It’s summer now, though, and today was shaping up to be the kind of warm, sunshiny day that reminds me of home: Clear, glittering, legitimately hot. I could actually wear shorts and a tank top and not freeze on a day like this. I wish now that I’d taken Ethan and Clara to the park and let Ethan run around in the sunshine. Clara and I could have sat on a blanket in the grass. I could have brought grapes, Ethan loves grapes. He bites them in half and puts them up against his closed eyes, pretending they’re eyeballs.
Tears keep leaking down my cheeks and I wipe them away, flicking them off my hand and sniffling. Clara squirms and is still. I brush her face with my fingers, the soft baby skin dirty now despite my wiping her face with diaper wipes. Her breath is light against my fingertips, the gentlest whisper. What does her future look like? Will she ever have this experience, holding her own daughter to her chest, cuddling her?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I’m laying on a very hard, uncomfortable surface. Ridges dig into my back, but I can only feel them down part of the way. The surface must flatten out around my lower back, because I don’t feel it beyond there. It’s dark.
“Carl?” I call. My voice is hardly a whisper. I can’t even hear it myself. My big brother is always there when I got into trouble – usually he caused it. “Jean?” I so long to tell her a thousand and one times how much I love and respect and value her.
No reply. “Carl?”
“Hey little bro, looks like I’m right, huh?” His sarcastic, cheerful voice lifts my spirits. My heart is racing, I can feel it thudding in my chest impossibly fast. My hands feel clammy, I’m damp and sweaty but cold. My chest hurts and I feel nauseous.
“Don’t rub it in. I’m doing my best.”
“Sure you are. Laying there flat on your back, letting a couple of other people haul your ass around.”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“Uh-huh, great excuse. You should be helping. But instead you’re laying there dying. Well done.”
I start to weep silently, tears seeping down my cheeks and into my ears. I can’t easily move my head, so they just keep dribbling down seeping into my ears and it’s annoying but what’s one more annoyance?
Carl starts up a car engine nearby. No, actually, I think it’s an airplane engine. He used to fly antique airplanes at air shows, and occasionally he flew those huge B-52 bombers that have engines louder than anything you’ve ever heard in your life. It sounds like that now. Why is that sound familiar?
“Carl, please, turn off the engine. It’s hurting my ears.” I can feel the rumbling through whatever I’m laying on; the airplane idling there is shaking everything around me, it’s so powerful. “Carl, stop it! It’s too much! I don’t want to fly with you – don’t go up! You’re going to crash, Mother will never let me hear the end of it – get out, now!” Carl ignores me and the shaking goes on and on and the rotors must be kicking up this dust because I can feel dust filling my mouth and covering my face, flowing down onto my chest. I want to tell Carl to turn off the damn plane, but there’s too much dust in my mouth and I can’t breathe and I’m trying
Then there’s a huge rumble and I think He must be throttling up now
Crashing around me, he’s hardly gotten off the runway and now he’s coming back down, pieces falling around me, everything shaking
It’s so loud and then something hits me, hard, in the head