Over Mount Fuji – Chapter 6 –

An Epic NovelSitting cross-legged on a zabuton like a Buddha, Carol Macleay practiced her Zen meditation. Sleep had eluded her since her divorce, and for a year, she’d taken herbal remedies and practiced Zen to unwind and calm herself. It was already past midnight and the street noise had faded in her high-rise, Hollywood apartment. With soft oriental music in the background, her mind tried to suppress all other thought.

Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out . . .

When such meditation relaxed her, she would even forget her breathing pattern.

But now, after only ten minutes in her one-hour session, the name ‘Simon’ kept coming back.

“Simon! Simon!” It was as if an old friend was calling him. “Simon! Are you there?”

She started to sweat. Feeling troubled and finding it hard to continue, she stood up and sighed. She drank a glass of water and sat at her dining table. Anxious over how her meeting with Simon would turn out, her mind wandered and reflected upon her life with him. At first, his mood swings kept her piqued and interested, and happy years brought them two fine daughters. By the time her daughters were in their twenties and married, Simon’s mood worsened, and his unpredictable behavior was diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Despite medication, his provocative manner and irritability increased, and Carol ended their marriage.

For seven years, she agonized over her divorce. She worried over her life, her children and later grandchildren, and Simon, until a friend introduced her to Buddhism and Zen meditation. Grateful for the calmness it had brought her, she felt compelled to share her peace with those suffering from traumatic experiences. She found herself feeling passion for earthquake victims a year later. To fulfill her ambition, she received earthquake rescue training and joined the International Rescue Corps. On her first mission, her team arrived late in the Indian subcontinent after a 7.5 quake. It tore her heart to see so many had died where they lay.

Since recovering from a broken arm in Nepal a month ago, she hadn’t received any new assignments, but with a strange sinking phenomenon in Japan, her enthusiasm had rekindled. Though the international relief operation would welcome her participation in the archipelago, she wondered why the Japanese Consulate hadn’t approved her visa.

After yawning, she tried to relax again on her zabuton and focused on her breathing, but troubling thoughts continued to trample her mind. Only after taking a Tylenol did she manage to fall asleep.
     
An insidious feeling sweeps over her as a succession of tsunamis a mile high clawing up from the sea to Sunset Boulevard, down the coastline toward San Diego and up to San Francisco. Then, water claws at her, dragging her. She struggles to hang on to the doorway. But more swirling water rushes at her, choking her . . .

“Help!”

Jolted, Carol gasped. Has the state of California blasted into the ocean? The nightmare was as if the pressures between the plates had given way, slipping the western side of California into the sea. She threw off her blankets, slipped out of bed and opened the window to gulp fresh air.

Still groggy, she blinked. Rumbling day and night, the San Andreas Faultline ran through the seam of two different plates along the west coast. Geologically, a Big One might burst, but local residents remained bravely apathetic to the certainty that their world could rip apart.

Calm down, she told herself. She rubbed her eyes and stared out, trying to see reality. The image of destruction vanished as her mind cleared; the sparkling lights of the sprawling city replaced the reflection of the clawing waves. Creeping ant-like rays of light turned into crawling vehicles along the streets.

The normal Hollywood landscape reassured her, but her thoughts remained troubled. Like Nostradamus, she had a premonition, but there was no specific prophecy for this region. Only the righteous believed this City of Sin was doomed.

In the clear night sky, blinking lights of aircrafts mingled with twinkling stars. The Santa Ana winds must have cleared the smog from the Los Angeles basin. Thank God for peace and tranquility.

Still perspiring, she put on her robe and shuffled to the kitchen to make a cup of chamomile tea. But the phone rang before she could pick up the kettle. “Hello.”

“A quake has just struck,” her captain said.

“Where? What magnitude?”

“It’s 7.9 at Rockdale.” His voice hesitated. “Call the office for directions.”

Something like what she’d dreamed. Could this be the Big One?

She called her teammates, Jason and Nikki, for backup. After dressing, she rushed to her car.

When she reached the suburb at seven-thirty, the sight looked familiar: fractured remains of buildings among piles of concretes and shattered glass. Among sirens, horns, and excited voices, people sobbed or looked dazed while fires raged in the distance.

Shit! Carol smelled gas. Cracks rippled along the streets and three cars had slipped into a sinkhole two yards ahead.

Time to be strong.

To her left, half-collapsed multi-story buildings tilted precariously atop heaps of rubble. To her right, some had sunk into the ground and bricks, rafters, furniture, fans and clothes lay strewn everywhere. A bulldozer was already working at the Willow Apartment block. Covered in dust, rescuers raced about to find trapped survivors or pull bodies from the fallen structures.

Flashlights illuminated the area where TV crews stationed themselves. Rescue groups brought a plethora of equipment: cranes, generators, cutting tools, seismic monitors and poles attached to long cameras, accompanied by sniffer dogs.

After Carol met her teammates and gave specific instructions to each of them, they dug into the rubble, throwing aside bricks and debris, hoping to find more survivors under the shadow of teetering concrete and the mangled structures.

An infant’s wail rose above the surrounding noise, and Carol directed her team to find the baby. Eileen and Jason tore into the rubble with their bare hands. They found the crying newborn, hugged by a woman with streaks of blood on her face. Between mounds of concrete and twisted metal, an air pocket had kept them alive. Carol removed the loose debris to make a bigger hole, and pulled out the mother and her tiny child, amidst a burst of cheers.

Of the twenty-six people rescued in the following hour, some sustained only minor injuries, others had been critically wounded, their heads or bodies crushed by falling concrete. The death toll escalated.

Carol set up a trap locator on the site. The size of a shoebox, the device had acoustic sensors capable of locating sounds and movements, amplifying them fifty times. She pleaded on the loudspeaker for any survivors to make the smallest of movements, or even the slightest of sounds. She knelt lower, concentrating, picking up noises through the headphones. More survivors were pulled from the rubble, but her team dragged out five corpses for every one rescued. Still, she worked through the grueling hours.

Exhausted and covered in dust, the rescuers continued into late afternoon, with the Southern California sun still hanging low over the Pacific. Carol looked around with a heavy heart. Some survivors lay moaning in the open among the dead, others waited under temporary shelters. But the more desperate ones dug with bare hands, searching for lost family members in the wreckage of their homes.

Carol hastened to the crumpled lower level of the Vintage complex. Its higher floors tilted at an angle. Cracks marred peach-colored concrete walls. After peering between two blocks, she stepped over the rubble and climbed through an opening.

Along with Jason and Nikki, Carol searched a bedroom, then a lounge. Shattered furniture and glass were strewn everywhere. To Carol’s horror, a long shard of mirror had almost severed a woman’s head, with blood covering her face, arms and hands. Her dead baby lay nearby. The team removed the broken frame and carried the corpses out.

Drawn by strangled gasps, Carol followed the sounds to the next apartment. One man, wheezing, lay pinned under his bed, his shinbone sticking out from the skin. He wailed when Jason and Nikki tried to stabilize his broken leg, so they could carry him to safety.

Carol moved to another apartment. Too late. The weight of collapsed floors had killed a man and a woman. Jason and Nikki rushed into the room and helped remove their bodies. On hearing another weeping, she hurried to the next apartment. The door was locked, but she used a crowbar to break the doorknob. An elderly woman wheezed as blood oozed from her forehead.

“Easy now,” Carol said, taking her hand. “I’m here to help.”

“Thank God . . . Bless you,” the woman responded.

They carried her into the parking lot, where an ambulance whisked her and several others to a nearby hospital.

Carol and her team hurried to another apartment, only to find a young woman thrashing her arms above her head, grabbing at other dazed survivors who ignored her. “My son! Where’s my son?” the woman cried, louder each time, smudging bloody fingerprints wherever she touched.

“We must get out of here, in case of an aftershock,” Carol said. “We’ll find him,” she added, but immediately felt guilt swirl in her belly. How could she promise?

The woman kept on sobbing, “My hand . . . I can’t feel my hand.” Blood continued to drip from her fingers. She limped toward the door, with one bare foot clad in a dirty Yonex shoe, the other a mosaic of crushed flesh.

“Calm down, now,” Carol said, leading her to a parking lot where a triage system had been set up. With supplies from Nikki, she wrapped the woman’s injured hands. “Sit down. We’ll do what we can while we wait for an ambulance.”

Jason spread an emergency blanket over the woman’s trembling shoulders as a medic examined her wounds.

The nightmare stretched into the evening.

Please, please . . . Let there be another survivor, one more, Carol prayed. Though exhausted, each time she found a survivor, a new surge of adrenaline recharged her.

“Carol Macleay! Ms Macleay! Can you comment?”

Ready to tackle another apartment block, Carol shoved past the journalist.

The news crew mingled with fatigued rescuers while heavy machines worked around the wreckage. Using everything from sophisticated rock-cutting tools to bare hands, more rescuers clawed through mounds of rubble. Others hobbled into a parking area, aware of the possibility of an aftershock. As the evening fell, a fiery amber hue lit the scene.

A helicopter arrived, bringing with it more seismic listening devices and thermal imaging cameras. Every time a piece of rubble was removed, the cameras scanned for body heat.

Jason and Nikki followed Carol to the Nevada complex, opposite the Willow apartments. There, they searched a hole. A German Shepherd barked and growled over a crack in the pavement. Carol carefully knocked a chunk of concrete out of the way, making a hole big enough to peer inside. She tied to enlarge the opening, but couldn’t shift any of the remaining slabs.

“Hello.” Carol waved the dust away. “Anyone there?”

A FAINT VOICE CALLED, “Anyone there?” He touched his face and struggled to open his eyelids. Someone calling? But he couldn’t see in the dark. Stale air stirred the damp hair on his forehead. His mouth opened and his face screwed up into a rictus whenever pain streamed down his spine.

In agony, Byron regained his thought. What happened? He gulped for fresh air, but choked on a cloud of dust. Numbness gripped him. He prayed and hoped someone would help him.

Cinderblocks pinned his legs. He tried to move. His muscles wouldn’t obey yet he felt the pain. In a cloud of more swirling dust, he moaned and waited. Light beams filtered through the debris and shone in his eyes. A faint female voice returned. Someone calling? Amidst the rays, hands dislodged pieces of debris.

He wanted to cry out for help, but his throat was clogged with dust. The acrid odors of fuel, fumes, even the scent of coffee, filled his nostrils. With stiff fingers, he felt around. An ironwork pressed against his back, and shielded his upper torso.

“I’m here,” he managed a whisper as crushing pain pierced through his legs.

“Can you move your hand?” a woman’s voice asked.

Byron slipped his arms over a rung and pulled against it. He couldn’t; he was stuck. But the blocks rumbled.

Her voice became louder. “Can your move your legs?”

 He couldn’t, but managed to lift his head. The dim light showed the dried blood on his hands.

“Just stay there then.” She sounded familiar.

Another rumble above. He froze. Still trapped underneath a column, he could only watch the pieces of masonry falling away. One false move and the pile would collapse on him.

Byron wanted to turn his body around by grasping pieces of concrete, but couldn’t. Someone held his head, then arms. More noises and voices, then many hands pulled his damp body out of the debris.

“Just breathe,” she said.

He choked on the dust, his throat on fire, his lungs expelling particles. He almost vomited.

“Is that you, Byron? Are you okay?”

Surprised to hear his name, he raised his head. Someone knew him! He searched the crowd amidst loud noises. A familiar woman stood beside him. Like the gathering swell of an ocean wave, his thoughts tumbled from disbelief, to uncertainty, and then to amazement. Aunt Carol!

“Breathe deeply, Byron,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”

Two helpers carried him on a stretcher to an open space. He could feel Carol tying a tourniquet around each of his thighs.

Byron closed his eyes, shutting out the bright lights. His heart beat irregularly and he cringed, trying not to scream. The tourniquets helped to reduce sensation in his legs, but he was still in excruciating pain. Carol monitored his vital signs and loosened the tourniquets at regular intervals.

In the open space, the wails of an ambulance came nearer. He rolled his head higher to the left and noticed a few survivors, some writhing and groaning.

He shifted his head to the right—corpses, each covered with a white cloth. At first he couldn’t focus. With his head propped up, he tried harder. Nearby, the label on a placard, which stuck out in the soft grass stained by trails of blood, read, ‘Bodies identified.’ ‘Barbara Elliot,’ ‘Charles Lucas.’

Byron blinked in quick succession, straining, trying to refocus, hoping to see further. His heart thudded madly as another name shifted through his mind, before darkness overtook him.

‘Simon Macleay.’

©) Joel Huan, author of Over Mount Fuji (available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

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~ by Joel on January 6, 2010.

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