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2 Comments | Jan 08, 2010


concrete-rubble-230x142Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Vladimir Nabokov

Where am I? Why is it so dark? Jesus, my head hurts. I hope I haven’t overslept again. Weathers’ll have a conniption if I do. I knew I should’ve stopped at two glasses of wine last night. Now I’m gonna’ be miserable all day. Why the hell is everything so dark? Wake up, Rachel. C’mon girl, get with it.

It is morning, early morning, or at least it feels that way insofar as it feels like anything, absent nearly all external cues. Rachel awakens after what feels like a fitful night’s sleep. A very dim gray light bathes her, the sort of light familiar to those who arise before dawn. Its source cannot be determined directly, yet somehow it is there in sufficient quantities to meagerly illuminate her surroundings. But unlike regular light, which offers clarity and acuity, context and reassurance, this light, so feeble and reluctant, only seems to obfuscate and confuse. It illuminates things that cannot possibly be, and in so doing, affords only fear and uncertainty.

Rachel is recumbent – no, at best supine, for there’s no comfort about it. She doesn’t know how she got here. She doesn’t even know where here is. On her back, torso arched unnaturally and painfully upward, twisted slightly to the right, supported from beneath by numerous sharp unforgiving protrusions, helpless to reduce the weight with which she presses down onto them. Her left arm is pinned beneath something immovable. Her right arm is free, but very painful. There is no feeling at all in her legs. She struggles to lift her head and gaze downward, but a searing pain leaps down the back of her neck. In the instant before she cries out and lets her head drop back down she sees enough to know that it’s probably just as well she cannot feel her lower half. Her legs are unseen, crushed and buried beneath an impenetrable wall of broken concrete shards and twisted metal. Her tap dancing days are, it would appear, in the past.
The thin grudging light creeps in from somewhere behind her head. She cannot crane her neck around to make out its source, but it cuts thin colorless ribbons through the blackness, slivers through which thick dust dances and swirls. The space around her is compact, claustrophobic, admitting no sign of whatever it was before—before what? Before the strange unnerving tremble she felt roll through the floor just as Dan Weathers turned and said something like “Rachel, did Edwards fax over that revised contract yet?”

As a matter of fact, Edwards did send it, the condescending bastard. And why in the hell am I thinking of him and his obnoxious sexist repartee in a situation like this? Because he most probably saved my life, such as it is.

Dan had been hurried and annoyed. For no particular reason, she remembers that very vividly. She remembers turning and walking across the office to the fax machine, picking up the contract, and turning back to face Weathers. She remembers him then starting and looking about uncertainly as the floor seemed suddenly to move. She was twenty feet away from where she would have been standing had Edwards not sent the fax three minutes earlier. She remembers looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows that were their office walls, watching disconcerted as the parallel vertical relationship between the edges of their windows and the building a block away suddenly ceased to be parallel, became instead wavering acute angles that meant one of the structures was moving relative to the other. She remembers reaching out for the corner of the fax machine table, then the feeling of a sudden stomach-churning drop, rather like when an airplane hits an air pocket. After that, she only remembers waking up here, now. The office had been on eighteen, two floors down from the top of the building.

There is no sound. She shouts for someone, anyone, because it seems like the thing to do. But her voice goes nowhere, the sound absorbed by the heavy layer of gray dust that covers everything. She raises her right hand to wipe the grit from her face, grimacing as a different pain darts through her right shoulder. Turning her head slightly to the right, letting her eye movement, not head movement, handle as much of the gaze as possible, she sees an unnatural rounded protrusion at her shoulder—a dislocation probably. Nothing compared with whatever’s going on below her pelvis and her left elbow. She is relieved and surprised when her hand comes away bloodless away from her face. In fact, there is no blood anywhere that she can see in the poor light. There is no color either. Her silk blouse was dark red, the color of blood, now that she thinks about it. Her knee-length pleated skirt was somewhere between mocha and latte. Her hair was dark brown and curlier than she has ever liked. But everything now is one color—dust gray.

The space is cramped, claustrophobic, like she imagines a coffin might be. Her torso and hips extend orthogonally from a solid vertical wall of shattered concrete debris that begins near her pelvis, then bends around and up her left side to ensconce her left arm from about mid bicep downward. She tries to wiggle her unseen fingers and finds that she can do it, or at least it feels like she’s doing it. She’s heard stories about the bizarre feelings that amputees sense in appendages no longer there, pains that won’t go away, itches that cannot be scratched. The only pain she feels in the trapped arm is a steady pressure from bicep to mid forearm. It’s as if her left hand has found a small cavern of its own.

“Pick up more Wheaties,” were the last words Sean said to me. Did I even turn back? Did I look at either of them before I dashed out the door this morning? And Brad? Jesus, I don’t even remember what he said this morning.

More loose shards encroach immediately behind and beneath her head. She senses this by reaching with her free hand. Her neck will not twist around far enough to see what is behind. There is a substantial clear area to her right, capacious enough to perhaps hold a small refrigerator. She cannot reach its far side with the somewhat limited reach of her dislocated right arm. And above her, suspended by some unseen force, hovers an enormous cantilevered flat sheet of concrete the size of her double-wide garage door. From this sheet, in fact a portion of the sub-floor to nineteen, protrude many distorted inch-diameter steel rods—re-bar she thinks she once heard someone call it—pointing directly downward like the bristles of a hair brush, the bent and ragged tips perhaps two feet above her chest and head. So she was lucky after all. She can reach about half a dozen of the shiny newly exposed sharp tips with her free hand. For no particularly good reason, she grasps the end of one of the bars and gives a tug. No movement whatsoever. It is an immutable part of the huge slab in which it is cast.

She musters another coarse shout, the sounds of which go no further than the first, consumed again by the maze of rough surfaces and the thick ubiquitous layer of dust. Given the circumstance, the nearly complete lack of pain is an astonishing thing. The only sensations she feels are thirst and fear. She wonders incongruously about the water cooler. It stood not ten feet from her desk—a new bottle installed just that morning. What she wouldn’t give, she thinks, using her tongue to work pieces of grit and dust from between her teeth. She spits something gray and gritty to her left just as she hears the first distant sound. It is really more of a feeling than a sound. A rhythmic thumping, very distant, but slowly growing in intensity. It builds up until sufficient to actually shake loose small quantities of dust from the surfaces above and around her. The newly freed dust particles make more challenging the task of the already inadequate wash of illumination. The sound seems to emanate from behind her head, the same point of origin as the light. A helicopter is in the area. Maybe police? News? Whoever they are, this must, she thinks, be a pretty big deal from the outside. The sound of the whumping blades wanes, but does not vanish, lending a small unnamable comfort. There are people searching, working to find her, to find—how many are in this building? There are perhaps a hundred people on her floor. Twenty floors, mid-morning on a Tuesday. Whatever has happened, she is near the top of it. Ninety percent of the building is below her, ninety percent of the occupants. How many pockets like hers can there be? She closes her eyes for a moment, lets her head fall to the right. She is a part of something very big. She will know people who won’t have survived this—whatever it is. She opens her eyes again and at the far end of the open space sees a tasseled oxblood loafer and blue and gray argyle sock protruding from between two fractured concrete slabs.

Jesus, oh Jesus, who is that? Who the hell is that?

It’s not a shoe and a sock – it’s a shoe, a sock, and a foot. Did she look at anyone’s feet that morning? Who notices feet? Hundreds of people, it could be anyone – well, any of the men. It’s an executive looking shoe, expensive, well polished, obvious even beneath the layer of dust. She wants to turn away, needs to. Yet she stares, clutching for details in the bad light. The bottom of the shoe is perhaps four feet from her head, and she can clearly make out its leather bottom, the hole worn nearly through at the ball of the foot. It is, she notices oddly, a left shoe. The sock is pushed down slightly, revealing the tiniest glimpse of the ankle’s skin – white with no hair that she can discern from this distance. A white male executive on eighteen or perhaps nineteen. Names begin to run through her head.

She finally forces herself to turn away. It occurs to her that someone else, someone also alive and some yards below her, could be looking at her feet in exactly the same way. She makes a conscious effort to feel her feet, wiggle her toes. There is simply nothing, no feeling, no pain, no tingling, nothing at all.

God, Sean’s got a soccer game I’m supposed to take him to tonight. And the dinner party – I was supposed to bring home all of the things from the market. What are they doing right now? They must know, right? They’re sitting by a TV someplace. Or maybe they’re here helping to search. That’s what Brad would do. He’d hightail it over here the moment he heard what happened. But he wouldn’t bring Sean. He’d take Sean to mom’s, and then he’d come. He’d dig with his bare hands if he had to. Bare hands…

The distant thrum of helicopter blades has never ceased since she first noticed it. But now there comes another sound, sporadic, overlaid on the mechanical rotor beats. It’s a shrill excited barking. And the phrase from the news that pops into her head is “cadaver dogs.” You seldom hear about them finding live victims. They find remains. Bodies. Body parts. How do they know the difference? Is the smell different? She arches her head backward as much as the concrete shards and the neck pain will allow. She throws her mouth open like a baby sparrow and emits all of the sound she can manage. It feels like nothing, goes nowhere. The barking lasts another few seconds and slowly subsides into the distance as a new low rumbling ensues.

Rachel shrieks briefly as something bad and painful happens at the end of the arm she cannot see. She feels, but does not hear, a sharp cracking. Something warm and wet trickles down her palm to her fingertips. She tugs again at the pinned arm, but receives only a searing pain for her trouble.

The rumbling lasts only seconds but it sets her surroundings to shifting and scraping like some enormous coffee grinder. And me the bean, she thinks, completing the ill-conceived analogy. Five seconds, perhaps ten, the ground and rubble beneath her moves and slides tectonically. Thankfully, most of her immediate surroundings shift as a group. There is a dull distant sensation of movement in the wall of debris that ensconces her legs and hips, but the merciful paralysis prevents any feeling. Above her head, the garage door sized concrete slab slides perceptibly to the right, and then, with a heart-stopping crack, the end nearest her head suddenly drops six inches or so, stopping abruptly as a corner catches on something impervious. The noise and movement cease and the deep rumblings grow quiet. Dust rains down on her like autumn leaves.

It occurs to Rachel that she still doesn’t know what has actually taken place. Maybe an earthquake. Doubtful though in the northeast. If so, that last bit would have been, she supposes, an aftershock. Failing that, either a bombing of some sort, or maybe just plain structural failure. God knows that’s happened before. Hell, hadn’t there been some sports stadium up north that’d collapsed the day after it was awarded an architectural medal? In either case, the last episode would’ve had to be a settling of what must be a fairly tenuous pile of debris. Twenty floors worth of cement and steel and desks and chairs and forty or fifty or so people with whom she had worked for the past six years, and God knows how many hundreds more she’d never met other than in elevator rides. Inexplicably unable to cry, she lets her head fall to the right and sees that the shoe, the foot, has moved in the aftershock. It hangs down now, ninety degrees from the line of the cleanly severed tibia, the tip of which pokes a point in the side of the argyle sock. There isn’t much blood, just a quarter-sized round stain in the fabric that slowly creeps downward toward the wine red shoe.

I ought to write something. Where in the hell is my purse? It’s in the bottom drawer of your desk, idiot. Three guesses where that is. All just part of the pile now. Like you, just part of the pile.

Rachel grits her teeth, swings her free arm downward to rummage in the pockets on either side of her skirt, the upper six inches or so of which protrudes from the wall of debris. There are two skirt pockets, both immediately beneath the waistband. The right pocket, the easy one, contains only a half-filled plastic container of breath mints. She ponders this momentarily, wonders if mints qualify as food, before replacing it in the pocket and then considering how to reach the left-side pocket. Her arm does not have the range to cross her torso and reach the far side. But by raising slightly her waist, she can remove enough pressure on her back to allow her hand to slide the skirt around her waist until she can access the other pocket. Not entirely wasted energy, for there is a four-by-six sticky note Weathers left on her computer screen earlier that morning, or the morning before, who knows? There is, she notes, an extra unused sheet stuck to the one bearing the message, an exhortation for her to please plan on not leaving for lunch until after one, as there is an important noon meeting she will need to attend with him. Funny thing, importance.

Another low rumble, but this one in the distance. A moment of silence and then another rumble, deeper, a little closer. This is different. It is not the debris. Could there be more than one building affected by this . . . this thing? Far away comes the faint hiss of white noise and as the rumble comes again she realizes. The rain has come – the rain they talked about on the radio that morning as she was driving in, as she was cursing the traffic, as she was trying to figure out how she was going to make it out of the office in time to get Sean to his game.

That means it’s the same day – still Wednesday. It was ten or quarter after when the building first moved. And there’s still some daylight. Would they stop searching because of a rainstorm? Can dogs smell in the rain? God almighty, I’m so thirsty.

She feels the tiniest hint of a cool breeze, sneaking in, no doubt, from the same aperture that grudgingly admits the light. It feels good as it moves across her face, but it kicks up small eddies of the fine concrete dust, clouds the already opaque air. Rachel blinks hard, uses her right hand to wipe grime and dust from her cheeks and forehead. But her hand is covered too, and all she succeeds in doing is moving the dust around a bit.

She does not find a pen. There were dozens of them in her desk drawer. How many must there have been in the entire building, on her floor alone. Surely you’d think—she lifts her head painfully, so high her forehead nearly touches the jagged tip of the nearest piece of rebar hanging down. Is it so far fetched that a pen might simply be mixed amid the chaos that contains her? She scans her little prison briefly before lowering her head again onto the concrete. Better, she supposes, to see nothing than to see one that’s out of her reach. Only one other option. Rachel grips a corner of the blank note between her teeth, peels away the one that’s been written on, setting it next to her, just in case. Without hesitation, she carefully lays the blank four-by-six-inch light yellow sticky note as flat as she can on the dusty thin silk of the blouse that covers her stomach. She places the very tip of her right index finger between her front teeth, has to turn it sideways because her long incongruously undamaged fingernail is in the way. She hesitates an instant and then bites gingerly at the tip. It stings and brings a tear, bizarrely her first since awakening.

It works though, her own personal ink supply, and more than enough to do the job. She cranes her neck forward to see the note, reaches with her blood-tipped index finger and in a single uncertain stroke makes a test stroke that ends up as a passable letter “I” on the note’s upper left corner. It’s big though, too big. How can she say all there is to say in the space of an index card? In a pinch she has three sides if she also uses the back of Weathers’ note too. Then she turns the paper over to discover that the blood stain his seeped through to the other side—less space to work with than she’d thought. In the end, one side of the first note is enough, at least for now. She gently picks it up between her thumb and middle finger, careful not to make extraneous stains with her blood-tipped index finger. The note says simply and legibly “I love you guys – Mom.” She picks up the note from Weathers, sticks it back on top of her new one – to help protect it, she figures. She folds the two small pages in half and slides them into the small pocket on the left breast of her blouse.

Rachel, concentrating on her efforts to create a legible final note, has not noticed the gradual diminution of the already feeble light that surrounds her. Now though the only reason she can even see the ragged broken walls that encase her is because her eyes have long ago adjusted to the diminished light. She is, thus, shocked when a brief beam of bright yellow light illuminates the top of her head, casting a long shadow down her chest, lighting the lower portion of her torso and the broken concrete wall that ensconces her legs. It is there for one second, no more, and then darkness again surrounds her, all the more so due to the dilating effects of the brief burst of light on her eyes. It takes a moment longer to register in Rachel’s mind what this is. Someone is nearby. They are searching the wreckage of the building. Looking for survivors – or bodies. She madly lifts her shoulders, ignoring the searing pain from her dislocated right shoulder. She throws her head backward almost enough to see the hole through which creeps the last of the evening’s light, and through which presumably came the bright beam of a searchlight. She pauses only a second, gathers her strength, then screams with all her will and all her might. It lasts only seconds but feels an eternity, the shrill urgent sounds bounding about inside the cramped space.

God, please hear me! Please hear me. Please hear me.

Rachel screams again, her head rocking back and forth violently against the sharp concrete surfaces, her cries ululating with the movement of her head. She keeps it up until her breath runs out. She takes several deep harsh breaths and strains to listen, hopes for the bright light to reappear. The faint hiss of distant rain has ceased, and after twenty, thirty seconds of trenchant silence there comes again the low rumble of the helicopter rotor blades. The beat grows momentarily louder and then fades away. Silence again and then the distinct low bark of a large dog. It grows louder. Rachel wonders incongruously what breeds of dogs are best at this sort of work, She imagines a German Shepard or perhaps a Lab, although she cannot say why. The canine sound comes again from far above her head, same direction as the now non-existent light.

How far away is it? Can dogs smell that far? How well do they hear? Are they better at smelling dead people than live ones? Is the smell different? Oh God, don’t go away. Oh God, don’t…

Rachel gathers her strength and manages another extended cry, wonders if her voice can be heard above the dogs, the helicopters, the sounds of digging and searching. But there is genuine activity now. The sounds of the dog do not abate. The bright light flickers again briefly across the top of her head. again illuminates her upper torso, causing stark shadows against the far wall of debris. And then there comes a voice.

Hello. Like someone answering the phone at the end of a long hallway. Just Hello. Then she can make out other words. There is a call for silence. The sound of the dog fades away. Who is she? How is she? What condition is she in? Stay calm. They are nearly to where they think she is. Just stay calm. There are reassurances. The sounds of happiness and relief come faintly down the hole. The sorts of sounds that people make when they haven’t had much to celebrate in a very long time. Then comes something confusing. Say “max” as loudly as you can. Keep saying it. Don’t stop saying it.

She does not understand. She screams “max”, but it is a question. Max? More, comes the response. Keep it up. So she screams “max” more, longer, louder, without knowing why. One minute of this nonsense, Two minutes. She pauses to catch her breath. But as she opens her mouth to resume, there comes a low distant scratching sound, like what you hear late at night when you’re lying in bed in the darkness and there is a squirrel in your attic. She shouts “max” again, and then, as understanding begins to creep in, she shouts it as loudly as she can manage. Thirty more seconds and there appears beside her head the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

Max – an impossibly tiny Chihuahua, mocha brown with a black ring around one eye like that dog from the old Little Rascals TV show. Rachel reaches with her free hand and touches the dog’s head, receiving a lick for her trouble. He is dusty from his journey down the hole, but she picks him up, impossibly light, and places him on her chest. Max, as it turns out, comes bearing gifts. He wears a tiny harness to which is connected sundry tubes and wires. There is a note of some sort, but insufficient light to read it. But it turns out to be unnecessary. Max, leaning in to offer a lick on the face, comes close enough for Rachel to discern an earpiece, almost like the one that goes with her cell phone. She tugs it from the dog’s harness, taking care not to damage the thin wire that trails up and above her head. The earpiece clips onto her left ear, and there is a tiny boom mike. Uncertainly, she says lightly . . .hello. And when the “hello yourself” comes loud and clear through the earpiece, she says a silent prayer of thanks.

Rachel is unsure of her emotions, and decides to attempt humor. She has their dog and if they want him back, they must come and get him. This is precisely the plan, they assure her. Meanwhile, they add, if she removes the thin clear plastic tube and sucks on it, she will momentarily find water. Also, if she would be so kind as to remove an equally thin cable of braided steel mesh, this will enable them to see and assess her situation. She unclips the cable from Max’s harness and immediately a brilliant but thin beam of light bursts from the end of it. The borescope is working fine, they assure her, offering guidance for how to aim it around the tight enclosure. They tell her she is not far down. Max trailed out only thirty feet or so of lifeline to get to her.

Rachel tries the water from the plastic tube and it tastes like a miracle. Max lays on her stomach, looking her in the face and panting lightly. There is discussion over the phone line. They work to reassure her. She offers names, addresses, phone numbers.

For God’s sake, find my husband, find Sean, get them down here. Or at least let them know what’s going on. They’ll be crazy to hear. They’re probably somewhere nearby already. Find them, dear God, find them.

Does she want to call home? They can patch in the call straight to her earpiece. She isn’t sure. What will she sound like? She does not feel calm. She doesn’t want to panic them. Can one of them call, leave a message if no one’s there. Tell them you’ve found me, that I’m all right. They are close now, the voice says. She should be hearing the sounds of scraping and grinding as the machines draw mercifully nearer. But suddenly the last sentence is cut off as everything around Rachel rumbles and shifts. There is a crunching sound behind her. The voice stops and the fiber optic light of the borescope blinks out. Something has moved and cut the lifeline.

Hello? Is anyone still there? Hello…

The shift has moved things around, blocked the hole. Rachel now lies in complete blackness, her only sensory input the combined heavy breathing of her frightened lungs and Max’s faint panting. She raises her hand in the darkness, rubs his neck and back. Another rumbling rolls through the chamber that ensconces Rachel. This one is strong, what she imagines an earthquake would feel like. She feels dust and grit fall onto her face. She feels, senses, but cannot see something very large moving. As the motion abruptly ceases, there is a sharp cry from Max, then only faint whining and heavier raspy breathing. She feels something warm and liquid on her chest. She reaches again for Max, but as her hand rises toward her chest, it brushes against a rough steel rod. She inhales sharply, grasps the rod and runs her hand upward no more than a foot before touching a vast expanse of smooth concrete. Reaching out her hand in all directions, ignoring the sharp protests of her shoulder, she feels the slab, now just inches above her. She can touch no less than five of the jagged steel rods, all of them within inches now.

Rachel reaches again for Max. There is no more sound and she hesitates. She lightly says his name. Nothing. She finds his small unmoving body, still warm, still prone across her chest, feels the pointed steel bar that has punctured his chest, dips a finger in the small puddle of blood that has begun to run off the left side of her chest and onto the broken concrete below. And, for the first time that day, Rachel cries.


Simon Singley 8:22 am - 3rd October:

27. Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is fantastic, let alone the content!

BKS 5:30 pm - 7th October:

The site was built for me, but I do all of the content updates, edits, etc. Yes, it’s been pretty easy to run. The hard part is the writing!

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