Wednesday, June 19th
The first realization to hit Lela Jordan, as she woke, was pressure on her back kept her from breathing deeply. A greater darkness surrounded her than she was used to. The blinds in her bedroom always let a little light spill in. She didn’t like the room totally dark. The house was new enough she liked having a little light from the lanai outside, just enough to navigate the room to find the bathroom in the dark of night.
This was darker than that. Was the power out?
She growled low and quiet at not being able to breathe deeply. Yet it was more than that, wasn’t it? The same pressure weighed heavy on her hips, on her legs. It wasn’t like when her brother’s huge boxer tried to sleep on her as a child. She couldn’t move her legs under the weight.
She probed about her in the dark, and the smell of dust ambushed her. She couldn’t even roll off her stomach. Hard, irregular, textureless surfaces surrounded her. Some had right-angled corners. Something large and rectangular lay across her hips and back.
Drowning. She remembered drowning. She pulled at anything she could reach to get out. Things shifted in her hands. She was somewhere dry.
The broad surface of the river raced towards her. The car lurched when the front bumper hit the water, and then the car was toppling forward. She reached her hands out, as if she could brace herself, or catch the car and somehow stop it slamming her into the water. The water might as well have been the ground.
Ground. She was on ground. Her fingertips ran over the flat, smooth…floor. Of a building. That meant the stuff on top of her was…also parts of the building. Rubble. Whatever building she was in had collapsed, trapping her in the dark.
It must have been several minutes before she got her breathing back under control. She was alive. That had to matter.
“Hello?” she called out with as much projection as her reduced lung capacity allowed. Nothing happened. No echo. No replies. “Hey! I’m in here!” Someone would be looking for her, right? She was supposed to be at a meeting. One of the producers would have people looking for her.
The rest slammed into her like the hard surface of the river water. Asteroids–no, pieces of breaking apart spaceship–screaming through the sky, tearing bloody wounds of fire. One of those pieces hitting the end of the bridge she was crossing. The windshield shattering, something punching through the Porche Boxter’s bright orange hood. The greenish shard, for lack of a better word, impaling her stomach.
She couldn’t reach her stomach, but there was no pain there–no pain anywhere, in fact. Huh. Was that a bad thing? She should be in pain, right?
God, what if her back was broken? Maybe that was the real reason she couldn’t move. But no, her toes and feet moved on command. Knees bent. She wasn’t paralyzed, she was only trapped under god-only-knew how much collapsed building. She was going to die in the dark, alone.
She screamed for help until she realized she might have limited oxygen.
People would sift through rubble looking for survivors. She just had to survive long enough to be found. That thought gave her a chance, and a reason, to calm down. Of course people would look for her. Producers, directors, her agent, all kinds of people knew where she was supposed to be and where she was coming from. They had enough political influence to prioritize searches along that route. Her salary on this movie alone was ten million. There was no way they’d leave her un-found.
Calm helped. Her breathing settled, long and slow within the constraints of the rubble pinning her down. As time passed, boredom became the enemy. The more time she had to think, the more she dwelled on her situation.
She had no idea the scope and scale of what had happened. The whole city could have collapsed for all she knew. There might be millions buried like her. What if there weren’t enough emergency personnel to search it all?
She had to stay calm to survive. But maybe she couldn’t afford to just sit and wait in the blackness. Empty space waited to her left, and some in front of her. She had to do something. Her hands found smaller pieces of what she assumed to be cement and shifted those she could. More dust tickled her nose, so she moved things slowly.
As best she could tell there was one larger piece pinning her. It did not shift when she exhaled and her rib cage contracted. There was no way her hips were holding it up, right? She tried pushing against the floor, glad she was in shape. But the block held immobile. That had to be a good thing. It wouldn’t crush her if she could get out from under it.
“God, I’d kill for my cellphone,” she said to the space around her. Reception or no, it would serve as a flashlight. Seeing the mess around her would give her more information, as long as the view didn’t only make things look hopeless. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, she chose hope.
But her phone was in the little red clutch on the passenger seat. That meant…somewhere downstream. Somewhere in the river, which she was clearly not. Inventorying her world was not hard. Part of her shirt draped from her left arm. Shoulder straps of her tanktop lay where they were supposed to, and she could find the same fabric along her side. Her denim skirt was in place. Toes of both feet pressed against her boots.
Nearby rubble and lack of ceiling space prevented her right arm reaching downward. The arm remained bent with her hand unable to move far from her head. Her left arm had its full range of motion, however. She found rough edges of the block she was under along with the edges of the empty space to her left, sometimes only reachable with fingertips. She could not tell how tall the space to her left was, but it was taller than where she was. Both feet had some room to move, and by bending her knees she estimated about a two-foot ceiling past her hips.
She searched out for stable footing to push against. Something shifted under her right, and she froze, waiting for a collapse to crush her. Nothing did. Once both feet had found solid purchase she pushed.
She tried other positions, visualizing her body position in her head. Wide-legged squats. She adjusted her footing to optimize muscle utilization. Tighten the core, activate the glutes. Exhale and push.
She shifted. Marginally. Perhaps an inch. One knee rubbed against the floor beneath her without the pain she expected. Shoulder straps pulled at her shoulders as the shirt had not moved with the rest of her. The skirt she couldn’t tell about. The clothes were hardly her priority. She had moved. Tiny as it might have been, it was something. The pull at her shoulders was proof. She had not imagined it. Again she deliberately chose hope. She was going to survive, dammit.
After more foot positioning she pushed again, grunting to make her physical trainers proud. Had their salaries ever been money well spent! Another inch. Fabric tore, and the pull at her shoulders lessened. The shirt had decided to come with her after all.
“Ha!” She coughed on the dust, but the exclamation was worth it.
On the eleventh shove her shoulders were free. When she exhaled enough she could shimmy her shoulders side to side. Body geometry was not just about blocking and camera angles. She could change the direction she pushed. Feet to the right would be the shorter path to freedom. She just had to pivot. With a flat ass she’d be able to slide free by now.
Still, she didn’t have the leverage with anything she could reach to use her arms to help. It would still be all legs. “Come on, quads.” She angled her feet for leverage. More grunting and her body rotated a few inches. The wrong way. “Seriously?”
It took three more tries to get the right angle and then four more to get her positioned the way she wanted. Now it was just a straight push. Those round, hard glutes might mean she’d have to push more, but they also gave her more pushing power that she knew how to use. Working out was not just about looking like an action star. It was more than being strong and flexible enough to do most of her own stunts. Now it might mean the difference between surviving and dying alone in total blackness.
She cried out triumphantly when the final push scooted her free. No longer was she trapped beneath that huge slab of immovable concrete. Now it was just the rest of the building atop her. She sighed while her legs spent several minutes shaking.
Laughter came unbidden at the absurdity of it all. Of course it did, she rationalized. She was trapped still, but she was alive. Wherever she was.
Now she had more room, enough to breathe fully, although not enough to roll to her side or back. She had too much shoulder and hip width for that. She scoffed at the bitter, hollow victory. Yet it was still a victory. Now she could move, more or less. More than she could before, less than she wanted. The darkness was still as impenetrable as the concrete slab pinning her had been immovable.
On top of that, a staleness hung along with the dust in the air. Was she running out? She held her calm with a tenuous, fingertip grip. She was alive. The shard of alien debris was no longer in her, and her stomach beneath her tank top was intact. But something was not right. Her skin did not yield when she pressed on it. Everything was too smooth, even her shirt seemed to have lost texture. Nerve damage? No other explanation volunteered itself. If it wasn’t life-threatening, it would have to wait.
Some pieces of rubble she knew she could shift, possibly even move. She had room behind her to move debris out of the way. Perhaps, just perhaps, she could dig her way out. Maybe even without collapsing everything around her. She clung to hope still, weighing her chances of digging herself out against the chances of her being found before she suffocated. If nothing else, she had to try to dig for air, even if it did not gain her a way out yet.
So she explored the piled debris before her with her fingers. Smaller pieces she moved and pushed behind her. Some she was only able to shift. Each time she shifted one she waited for a rumble of imminent demise. None came. She shifted blocks larger than she thought she would be able to, and some she arranged around her, in short movements, to places she thought would support the weight above her if something started to fall. The weight of the whole building would surely pulverize one block of concrete, but the weight would be distributed, right? If it was enough to support just the piece that moved, it might be enough.
Time stretched on, immeasurable, as she moved and scooted, pulled and shoved, chunks of debris. Several were too heavy, or too wedged in place, for her to move. She groaned at each detour. She had created a rough burrow the length of her body before faint light slipped through the debris to hang as a weak ray of hope in the gray dust ever present in the still air. While it was not enough to see by, it was light. And with light came air. However far away it might be, freedom lay somewhere ahead of her.
A dozen more large chunks, and a detour around a piece still connected to unyielding rebar, brought her first waft of breeze–fresh air deliciously scentless compared to the odor of dust and sweat and a little of her own urine. Survival first, dignity later. Daylight’s irresistible beckoning drew her onward.
Between each heavy chunk’s struggle she called for help. When her calls went unanswered she moved on to another piece. Closer to freedom, rubble shifted more easily, and many times she was thankful for pieces she had shifted to be alongside her when rumble and a fresh blast of dust preceded or followed something falling. Somehow she remained uncrushed each time, although twice she had to work herself free again.
Daylight had given way to summer twilight by the time she crawled outside and rolled to her back to look up at the sky. A triumphant yell devolved into hysterical laughter. She had done it. No stunt people, no safety rigging. But if her agent ever came to her with a script about surviving an earthquake or anything like that she’d smack his pudgy cheek with it.
Eventually she stood, yelling defiance at the sky one more time. The city around her was not continuous disaster. Buildings stood, although she could see more than one had fallen. Large portions of skyline were dark. Helicopters crossed the sky with the heavier noises of military ‘copters. Distant sirens wailed.
Eight stories of partial building still rose from the rubble she had escaped. Office furniture still sat on what remained of some floors. With a little looking around to get her bearings she could find the south towers of the Victoria Street bridge with what might have been a stub of bridge reaching out towards the water.
“Water. God, I’m thirsty.” She was also a mess. Dust caked every part of her body. What was left of her skirt and tank top could have been wardrobe from some filthy sword-and-sorcery slave scene. Pathetic refugee quality. She tried to brush off what she could of the dust, caked with sweat into dried mud.
What she saw confused her. It had to be something to do with dim lighting. Because her skin showed shades of green and gray. Bruises she could have understood; she was not seeing bruises. On top of that, her hair was gone. Completely gone. Even eyebrows and lashes.
Radiation. It had to be radiation. Should she go to a hospital? No, she needed to call her agent. Let him know she was okay. She could message him with the computer at home. Then he could meet her at a hospital. And get her a new phone. She didn’t even know his phone number to have someone else call him.
What if he wasn’t okay? She still didn’t know how extensive a disaster it was. What if there was no power at home, or where he was?
She could drive herself crazy with questions. “Just get home. Figure it all out from there.” After all, she was not hurt at all, other than whatever radiation or whatever had happened.
Her boots were intact. Scuffed to high Heaven, but intact. The heels had only been an inch; both were still there. “Okay. Walking it is.” She set off.
“Hey, you need a lift?” a heavy-set black man in a battered station wagon asked. She looked down at her shredded shirt and barely-hanging together skirt. Backseat.
“Yeah. I’ve got to get home. Clear across town.”
“Well, I got nothin’ else going on. I can drive you there. I got plenty of gas, at least.”
Too easy. She thanked him and got in behind him warily.
“Where you live?” he said, looking over his shoulder with no visible reaction to her bald head in the growing dark. His cracked dome light sat delinquently dark on the ceiling in the center of a ring of sagging fabric ceiling lining.
“You know where Crestwood is?” Crestwood was not her home, but the next neighborhood south. Her neighborhood was even more upscale. So ridiculously different from Detroit.
“Yeah. Nice ‘hood. Don’t worry, I’ll get you there safe.” The car rolled off with an intermittent squeal from one wheel that grew faster with the car’s speed.
“It’s gonna have to be a bit roundabout, though. Victoria Street bridge is…gone. Seventy-five is shut down between Eighty and Sixty. It’ll actually be faster to loop around Two-Seventy-Five, believe it or not. You don’t wanna go through downtown right now. Lord, that’s a mess.
“To be honest, I was a little surprised you got in. Most ladies wouldn’ta,” he said through the mirror. She half watched him and half watched the buildings, gauging about half the city had power. That seemed to be getting better as they drove, though. “I used to be a firefighter. I’m on disability now. The time I could probably have been the most useful and I can’t do crap.
“That’s why I’m out here. The news is still sayin’ to stay home ‘sept for emergencies. But I just couldn’t sit at home anymore. It was either sit in front of my TV and watch the same mess over and over again, or drive around until I could find a way to do something helpful. I did help clear some broken down cars outta the streets in a couple spots. Car might be junk, but a V-8’s still good for pushing, you know?”
Her agreement was barely verbal. She wanted to ask him what happened, but was afraid if she acted like she didn’t know he’d ask her too many questions. She didn’t really want him paying that much attention to her. They sat in silence for the hour or so it took to get her a mile or so from home. She thanked him again and did the rest on foot.
This far from downtown streetlights and traffic lights worked. While some cars passed her from both directions, the streets were emptier than she had gotten used to in her week or so in Bay City. Eerie shadows weighed heavy beneath a cloud-obscured sky between the spaced out streetlights.
Peering over the wall to her gated community offered her a refreshingly normal view. Light glowed in at least a few windows in most houses she could see from here. The wall was easy enough for her to hoist herself up to the top of; she damned well wasn’t going to walk through the gate looking like she did. She hopped down from the narrow perch, landing harder than expected in soft ground.
A dog barked in the distance, but she crossed through a yard without seeming to attract any attention. From there it was just a few blocks to home. No cars traversed these streets. Most windows offered flickering of televisions as people sat glued to screens to understand what had happened to the city just miles to the south.
A smile and sigh came to her as she rounded a corner to view her house. “That’s better.” The porch light offered a cheerful warmth illuminating gray brick and yellowish wood beneath the tall, sloping roof. Her heels clacked on the smooth pavers from the street to the front door.
She tapped in the code on a panel and the lock beeped open, just one of the smart-house features that had pleased her from day one. She more enjoyed that the door would unlock on proximity to her unlocked phone, but this made a much more convenient plan B than relying on keys just as lost as the phone. She smiled as she opened the door, ill-prepared for the surprise in store for her.
Next: What’s Underneath