This is one of the first stories I ever wrote. As the tag says, there is no overt eroticism in this one. There is no sex scene. It is the semi-lucid stream-of-consciousness account of a man's ordeal after a building collapse. Parts of it are disturbing, either for their visual images or for the pain and despair of the main character. You have been warned.
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Trapped in the darkness, I didn’t know what had happened. Was anyone alive? Was I alive, or was this my own personal version of hell?
There had been an instant of complete, unsettling quiet. The birds had stopped singing; the insects had stopped their complaints. It almost seemed as though someone had cut the speaker wires on life’s background noise. Almost as quickly as I noticed that, there had been the onrushing wind.
Then I saw it. A wall of air rushing toward me, or more accurately, a wall of airborne debris. There were bits of trash paper at first, along with a lot of dust. Then there were larger objects – shards of glass, bits of plastic, wood, and concrete. These were followed by more sinister bits of debris – torn cloth, unrecognizable pieces of skin, meat, and bone. And the blood. So much blood. Oh dear God, so much fucking blood.
I know I was out for a while. Maybe it was merciful that I had been. The first thing that returned to me was my sense of smell. Even though the air was stiflingly thick with smells, I could identify many of them.
There was the unmistakable smell of concrete dust. If you’ve ever been around a commercial re-modeling project, you know the smell. It was thick, heavy, choking. But it wasn’t as strong as the smell of burning plastic and rubber. Before vision returned, I already knew that the air would be thick with black smoke, although I didn’t know why.
There was also the smell of blood and shit. Anyone who has ever smelled a large spill of human blood can never forget that smell. The shit smell was not the smell of a broken sewer or a bad gas station rest room. It was the smell of shit in a war – the smell of torn, ruptured intestines. In all my nightmares since I had left the service, even my buried internal demons had not had the power to force me to remember that odor. I guess I had repressed it, since I recognized it now. The other powerful, soul-tearing smell that I could identify was the sick, sweet odor of burning human flesh.
Idly, I lay there wondering if the smells were coming from me. I really couldn’t tell, since I couldn’t feel my body. The only thing I could really feel was moisture on my face. Soon, I realized that the moisture was warm, body temperature. Was it my blood? Maybe. That was OK, I reasoned. If I were bleeding, maybe I was alive. I pondered that for a moment, not sure if that was a good thing or not. It was dark, and I couldn’t see anything, so I didn’t know my situation.
My brain's functioning was sluggish at best. My head hurt like hell, as though I had taken a pretty bad hit to the old noggin. Finally, it occurred to me to wonder if the darkness was truly darkness, or if I was blind. I realized I had been lapsing in and out of consciousness, and my thoughts were pretty incoherent. The darkness was really starting to bother me. Then my foggy mind told me that my eyes were closed.
When I opened my eyes, subdued, shadowy light told me I was not blind, although I almost immediately wished I had been. I found the source of the moisture on my face. It was blood, dripping from what I eventually realized was a torn female torso.
Slowly, I realized that it had at one time been the beautiful body of a young woman I worked with. Funny, I thought. She used to look so good. She had never been a close friend, although I liked her, and all of us guys in the office liked looking at her.
I had met her family at the company picnic last summer. Her father was my age, an intense but decent sort of guy. He was a lawyer who worked in the new office building across the courtyard. Her mother looked like a mature version of the girl I worked with, trim, beautiful, with a ready smile and animated eyes.
A memory of the picnic was what allowed me to identify my young co-worker. She had just gotten a delicate tattoo of a rose on the top of her right breast, and the halter top she wore that day displayed it proudly. I was glad I had studied it that day, since it had given me an excuse to ogle her beautiful breasts, which normally were demurely covered in the conservative, stylish clothes she wore to the office.
Even though I had always thought she was beautiful, with her laughing eyes and her seemingly natural strawberry blond hair, I had never seen her as sexy until that day. The following Monday, her professional manner, brilliant mind, and chaste appearance seemed to put the lie to the side of her she had revealed at the picnic.
What remained of the tattoo, and of her breast, was enough to let me know how she had fared through whatever had happened to us. Everything above that breast was gone. Not severed, really, more like ground away. It appeared as though she had been attacked by Satan’s own wire brush.
I attempted to see past her. I remembered that we had been out in front of our office, taking a mid-morning smoke break. It had been one of those unseasonably warm early spring days. The migratory birds had returned with a vengeance, and the spring crop of insects had been making their presence known. We had been looking across the courtyard at the towering office building where my co-worker’s father worked. It was the first completed stage of the redevelopment project that would eventually claim the old building our company occupied.
I was confused. The day had been bright, but now it seemed so dark. Still more than a little foggy, I wondered why. Since I realized I had vision, I attempted to use it. I swiveled my eyes as much as I could to see what was around me. At that point, I hadn’t yet tried to move my head. I really hadn’t considered whether such an act was possible. What I saw didn’t encourage me.
There was debris everywhere. Thick. Deep. It was all I could see. Most of what I saw appeared to be building materials. There were twisted red-iron beams, broken concrete, hunks of re-bar, glass, bits of flake board, the debris of smashed office equipment, and lots of paper. A file folder hung from an open file drawer near where my left hand should be. It was labeled “Henderson v. Morgan LLC et al.” A paper inside bore the letterhead of the law firm that occupied an upper floor of the 20-odd story building across the courtyard, my co-worker’s father’s firm.
That helped, in a way. Something had caused that building to collapse or explode. I was trapped in the darkness of the debris from that building collapse.
Sirens in the distance. I was starting to feel my body now, and I was wishing I couldn’t. I had pain in places I didn’t recognize, and no sensation at all in places I wanted to feel. I guess I kept falling asleep, or passing out. Tina (I had finally remembered her name) was no longer dripping on me. In fact, the gore on my face had dried into a sticky, crackly coating. I could still hear sirens and the sounds of shouting and heavy equipment, but they were muffled. I wasn’t sure if they were far away, or if they were just muffled by all the debris piled around me.
It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to try to let someone know I was here. I tried to yell, but pain in my chest and abdomen prohibited me from getting enough air to do much more than whimper. I decided I should just get up and look for help, but a quick assessment of my body told me that wouldn’t be easy.
I had no sensation other than searing pain from my waist down. I spent a lot of time trying to remember the little I knew about phantom limb pain, wondering if the pain I felt was really from my lower extremities, or if it was from severed nerves that had once serviced parts that were no longer mine.
The damned law firm filing cabinet was on my left shoulder and arm, crushed there by a length of iron girder. My right arm seemed to work a little, but it was the source of my most exquisite pain. With a lot of struggling, I was able to see out of the corner of my eye that a piece of re-bar protruded from my bicep, extended through the mess that used to be Tina’s left shoulder, and disappeared into a carpet-covered slab of concrete. Getting out of there on my own might be difficult.
I had no sense of time. Had it been five minutes since my world had changed? Five hours? Five days? The physical darkness around me, the lack of light, seemed pretty constant, but I was drifting in and out of mental darkness. I wondered how long it took to die under these circumstances. By this time, I was oriented enough to realize that I was lying more or less on my back, with my head somewhat downhill from my chest. A good survival position, I realized. If I were in shock (and why wouldn’t I be?), what blood still remained in my body would serve my vital organs and my brain, which would prolong my life. It would also prolong my agony.
Light and a ringing sound stirred me. Since I was pretty sure that I had woken up and passed out several times, I assumed it was an hallucination and ignored it at first. It went away, which allowed me to rest again. Then it started again. This time, I recognized it for what it was. A cell-phone.
I knew it wasn’t mine. Mine was in my jacket pocket at my desk. I remembered briefly when I came out here to work on ruining my health that I had forgotten it, but I knew I would only be out here a few minutes. If someone couldn’t wait to talk to me until I had a cigarette, too bad.
So, whose phone was it? That question was answered when the phone went to voicemail. I could hear Tina’s voice: “Hey, it’s Tina. I’ll call you when I can. See ya!” Then I heard the caller. “Tina, honey, it’s Mom. Where are you? Are you OK? I can’t reach your Dad. They won’t let us near the scene. Please, baby, answer the phone! Oh God, please pick up the phone!”
I wanted to answer. I wanted to talk to Tina’s mother. I didn’t even remember her name, but I wasn’t really worried about social niceties at the moment. I was alive, and it would be a good idea to let someone know that. I could tell that the phone was near my right hand, since the sound seemed to be coming from there and the glow of the screen seemed to be in that area. Now, here was a challenge. How was I going to talk to Tina’s Mom and get the help I needed?
The phone had gone quiet and dark. Shit! For the first time, I was scared. Odd, I thought, why wasn’t I scared before? Why did my inability to talk to a woman I had only said ten words to many months ago fill me with such a desperate sense of loss? I began to cry. I couldn’t cry hard. It hurt too much to let my chest go into the wracking sobs that my mind wanted.
Still, I cried. I remembered the way I had cried over various things in the past. I remembered my tears when my mother died of cancer when I was twelve. That had been bad.
I remembered the way I had cried when my buddy threw himself on a grenade to save me during the war. That had been bad, too.
I thought about how I had considered killing myself when I had shot up a hut that was supposed to have housed enemy snipers, only to find the bodies of women, children, and babies inside. That had been really bad.
I remembered getting to the hospital just after they had pronounced my father dead of a heart attack. I hadn’t cried much at the time, but he had been my best friend, maybe my only real friend.
I cried harder when I remembered the hot tears of rage and loss I had shed when my wife and toddler daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. That was over ten years ago. Sometimes, I still cry a lot about them.
These tears were more bitter than any of the others. Amazing, in a way. Selfish.
The phone rang again. I could feel the re-bar in my arm tearing new meat as I pushed myself to reach the phone. I touched it. It felt good. It felt like life. My finger touched a button and the ringing stopped. Had I turned the phone off? No, I heard a voice. It sounded like a choir of angels, even though I could tell it was only one woman.
“Tina, Tina, are you there? It’s Mommy. Tina? Answer me. Are you OK? Tina?”
I couldn’t really talk. I couldn’t move the phone. But I sure as hell could croak. “Tina’s not here.”
“Who’s this? What did you say? Where’s Tina?” the voice said.
“Joe. I work with Tina. She can’t come to the phone.”
“Where is she?”
“Don’t know,” I lied. No sense complicating things right now.
“Where are you?”
“In front of our office, I guess. That’s where we were, anyhow.”
“Why do you have her phone?”
“Found it. Look, I need help.”
“What happened? Where’s Tina?”
“Explosion, I guess.” I let the second question slide.
“Hello?” she said. “I’m having trouble hearing you.”
“Send help. I’m stuck. I can’t move. I’m buried. I’m impaled, I guess. I can’t pick up the phone. It hurts a lot.”
“Put Tina on the phone.”
“Damn it, woman, I can’t. I’m the only one here. Please get me help. Please get me out of here.”
“Put Tina on the phone. I have to talk to my daughter. You bastard, let me talk to my baby!”
“I would if I could. I can’t move the phone. I don’t think Tina can hear us. Get help. If you can find me, you can find Tina.”
“Where are you,” she wailed. “Where’s my baby?”
“Lady, I’m in front of our office. She’s around here somewhere. I can’t see her face.” That much was certainly true. “I just know we need help. Please.”
“OK, what’s your name? Joe? I remember you from the picnic. I’m at the triage center. I have to find somebody. I’ll call you back.”
“Wait, don’t hang up!” I croaked. But she was gone.
I had never felt so alone.
Time passed. How much? Who knew? How could I tell? I rested. Just trying to talk to Tina’s mother had taken more effort than I could imagine. When would she call me back? I knew I was getting weaker. I tried to remember how to pray.
After a while, I started to laugh at myself. I realized that I had been trying to remember all the trite, pat, cleanly packaged and hermetically sealed prayers I had been taught in my childhood. What rubbish.
The tears started to flow again, but this time they were the half-delirious, half-hysterical tears of oncoming madness. Then it finally dawned on me. “Just think, asshole,” I said out loud. “God doesn’t want nursery rhymes. He probably thinks they’re just as stupid as you do. If you’re going to talk to Him, just talk to Him.” So I did. I don’t even remember what I said, or if I said anything aloud. I just know I felt better. Not that He said anything back, but I knew He was listening.
At first, I was annoyed when the phone rang again. I didn’t want any interruptions, but then I got the distinct feeling that I needed to pay attention to my surroundings. “God helps those who help themselves,” I thought I heard my father say.
“Is your name Katie?” I said as I hit the button. I was surprised at how clear and strong my voice sounded, at least to me.
“Joe? Yes, this is Katie, Tina’s Mom. Is she there?”
“No, Katie, I don’t know where she is. Sorry I didn’t remember your name before. I suck at names.”
“Are you OK?”
“No. Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m alive. I’ve been talking to God. He doesn’t say much, but He’s a pretty good listener. Since I’m talking to you, and you’re talking back, I guess that means I’m alive. But I’m stuck.
“Listen, Joe. The rescue crews think they know where you are. But it’s going to take time to get to you. Can you hold on?”
“Do I have a choice? I sure as hell can’t get out of here on my own.”
“Are you pinned? Are you injured?”
“Yeah, I’m hurt. There’s a piece of re-bar sticking out of my arm. That’s why I can’t pick up the phone. My legs are pinned under something big. I guess they’re still attached, but I can’t tell. My left shoulder is under a filing cabinet, with a big piece of structural steel on top of it. It’s dark, but there’s building materials all over me. That and a bunch of papers from the law firm across the street.”
“Joe, someone planted a bomb in the lobby of that building. They called my husband’s firm and told them that there was a bomb. My husband called me and said he was OK, and that they were going to evacuate the building. I guess the bomber didn’t set his timer right or something. Hardly anyone got out. The bomb blew out the front of the building and it just toppled over toward where you are.”
“Katie, I’m sorry. Is he OK?”
“I would have called you back earlier, but I had to identify his body.” Her voice was cold. “Look, you hang on. I’ll call you back.”
“Don’t go!” I hissed, but it was too late.
Alone again. It wasn’t so bad this time. The concrete dust had long since settled. The smoke was pretty much gone. If I didn’t move, and didn’t try to breathe deeply, I was almost comfortable. Or numb. I had gotten numb to the smell of eviscerated bodies, or else the drying of the wounds had lessened the smell. Even the feel of Tina’s gore on my face was strangely comforting. It was, in my rapidly deteriorating sanity, a link to the female voice God was using to speak to me, in the person of Tina’s newly widowed mother, Katie.
Gradually, I became aware of more light. It was still deathly quiet. Muffled in the distance, I could hear voices and heavy equipment, much as I had almost from the beginning. The sounds were no louder, but they weren’t any more quiet, either. I decided that it must be morning.
The phone rang. Touching the button took a lot of effort, but I knew it would be worth it to hear Katie. “Is that you Katie?” I whispered.
“Hello, is this Joe Dawson?” a deep male voice asked.
“Yes, who is this? Let me talk to Katie.”
“Sir, this is Cpl. J.C. Worthington of the State Police Search and Rescue team. We’re trying to get to you.”
“J.C.?” I cackled. “As in Jesus Christ? I’ve been talking to your Dad a lot lately. What time is it?”
“Nine AM, sir.”
“Have I been here twenty-four hours already?”
“Seventy-two, sir. Today is Thursday. The blast was on Monday. We’re getting close to you now.”
“Hang on, sir. She’s right here.”
I heard Katie’s sweet voice. “Joe? Please stay strong, Joe. They say they’ll have you out soon.”
“Katie, you don’t know how much I enjoy hearing your voice. You don’t know how alone I feel when I can’t talk to you.”
“I’ve never left you, Joe. I’ve been here the whole time. When you don’t answer the phone, I go crazy.”
I was confused. “I think I’ve answered every time you called, except the first time. Haven’t I?”
“The first time you answered was Monday afternoon. You didn’t answer at all for almost twenty-four hours after that, and there were other times you didn't answer, either. They won’t let me call you much, because they’re afraid the phone battery will die, and they need the GPS signal from it to help with their digging. Now I have to hang up. I’ll call back this afternoon. Stay strong for me, Joe.”
I prayed a lot after that. I’m sure I stayed awake, because it seemed like a really long time passed. The equipment sounds got louder. At one point, I thought I heard a dog. Then the phone rang.
“Joe? Cpl. Worthington, sir. How are you doing?”
“Is that a serious question, J.C.? I’m a little tired of lying here, frankly. What’s the progress?”
“Sir, I won’t lie to you. The debris is extremely unstable where we believe you are. We can’t even send a dog to you yet, for fear he will disturb something. I just have to ask you to be patient. Don’t move.”
“J.C., buddy, my moving is not really a concern. I can’t move. I don’t know if I’ll ever move anything on my own again. But I’m really lonely. Do you have my position?”
“Yes sir. Within three feet, in any direction, we know where that phone is. We’ll be dropping a radio transceiver to you in the next few minutes. You’ll be able to talk to us and we’ll be able to talk to you as we work.”
“Then the phone battery life doesn’t matter anymore?” I asked.
“No, sir. Do you want to talk to Katie?”
“Dear God, yes!”
“Joe, Joe, it’s Katie.”
“My angel,” I said. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”
“It’s good to hear yours, too, Joe. Cpl. Worthington says you’ll be out by nightfall.”
“What time is it now?”
“A little after 3pm.”
“Well, that explains why I’m so thirsty. Oh my God, Katie. I’m thirsty. Do you realize what that means?” I started to cry aloud.
“I don’t understand, Joe, what does it mean?”
“It means I’m alive! If I can feel thirst, maybe I can feel something else. Something other than pain, I mean. I’ve been feeling my share of that lately.”
“Joe, if you’ve survived this long, they tell me your chances of long-term survival are excellent, almost assured. You’re going to be OK.”
“I’ve been praying for that, Katie. Do you know what I want to do first when I get out of here?”
“What’s that, Joe?”
“I want to look at your face. I want to see the face that belongs to the voice of God’s angel that has kept me alive.”
“I’m afraid I don’t look very angelic right now, Joe. I haven’t been home since Monday. I haven’t slept much. I haven’t even had a shower.”
“Do you really think I’ll make a good first impression, Katie?”
“I remember you from the picnic. I still have a picture on my phone of Tina at the picnic. You’re the 50-ish guy sitting next to her. You have a moustache, with a little gray in it. You’re wearing a navy polo shirt and khaki slacks. You’re admiring her tattoo.”
“That’s me,” I said.
There was a pause. “Tina’s dead, isn’t she?” Katie said.
“Yes, Katie, she is. It was very, very quick. She probably didn’t even realize it was happening.”
“Will I be able to have a viewing for her?”
“I guess that’s good,” Katie finally said. “It’s better to remember her when she was pretty.”
“Katie?” I said.
“If they’ll let me, I’ll swear out an ID on her. You don’t need to see her.”
“Thank you, Joe. Thank you for that. I’ll ask. If they’ll let you do that, I’d be grateful. It was hard enough identifying my husband. I don’t know if I can stand to identify my baby. I might not recover from that.”
“I had to identify the bodies of my wife and my 18-month old daughter when some drunk crushed them with his car. I understand. That’s why I offered.”
“Joe, you’re a nice guy.”
“You succeed. Thank you for helping me. And thank you for what you’ve done for my daughter.”
“What do you mean, Katie?” I asked.
“You’ve kept her company. You’ve prayed. She liked you a lot. She didn’t have a lot of people that she really liked, but she liked you. She wanted to get to know you better. She wanted to be your friend. She talked about you a lot. She was planning to invite you to our place for dinner this weekend.”
“Really?” I said. “That would have been nice.”
“You know,” Katie said with a little laugh, “I think she was trying to fix us up.”
“Kevin and I, my, um, late husband, were getting divorced. We separated soon after the picnic. I guess Tina didn’t tell you that. She didn’t like to talk about personal things, and Kevin and I were at least civil and mature enough to try to keep her from choosing sides.
“Nothing bad had happened. We just weren’t in love anymore. We had stayed together out of convenience, I guess, but we didn’t love each other. I’m not sure we ever did, looking back on it. We were friends, at one point, but it wasn't enough to be together as a married couple. Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so, Katie. But, let’s not talk about that right now. I’m sorry, but I’m tired.”
“Oh, God, Joe, don’t go to sleep on me now. Hang on. Help is close! Please, Joe.”
“Katie, I’m here. I’m OK. I’m not dying, at least not yet. I’m just tired. Can I take a rain check on that dinner?”
The phone beeped a few times and then died. Only after it was off could I hear other sounds. I heard a dog barking. It sounded very close. Then I heard a tinny voice.
“Joe? This is Cpl. Worthington. If you can hear me, tell me where my voice is. Is it coming from your left, or your right? Above your head or below?”
“J.C.? You sound like you’re right over my face, but you sound like you’re talking through a wall or something.”
“Joe, I’m moving the mike. Tell me where my voice goes. Where am I now?”
“If my ears are working right, you’re off to my left but still at head level. You're louder, too. Could that be right?”
“You’re pretty good at this, sir. Thermal imaging confirms that the mike is now about four feet from your left shoulder. You’re lying on your back. Your left arm is bent at the elbow, and you’re lying on your left hand. Your legs are more-or-less straight out below you, and your right arm is extended almost straight out to your right side. Looking good, sir!”
“J.C., if you can see that with your thermal imaging stuff, does that mean that my limbs are warm?”
“So they’re attached.”
“I’ve been wondering about that. So they have circulation?”
“It would appear so, sir.”
“So, I’m intact.”
“It would appear so, sir.”
“Then get me the hell out of here. I have a dinner date.”