Paradise Falls: Chapter 11
- Paradise Falls: Prologue
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 1
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 2
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 3
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 4
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 5
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 6
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 7
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 8
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 9
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 10
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 11
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 12 (future)
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 13 (pending)
Pale grains of sand arced in the humid air behind Sophia as she ran. The closer she got, the more jagged pieces of metal littered the ground. Dodging debris, she hurried forward until she could see no more safe places to step.
Sophia heaved a great sob as her body expelled her frustration and grief. Now that she was closer, she realized the impossibility of her task. She wore only a bikini—picked to show off her body, not to crawl through rubble.
Marcus huffed to a stop next to her and tried to catch his breath.
They both jumped when they heard a shout above them. Marcus squinted and held his hand against the stark light. He could make out the silhouette of several firefighters in full gear. They picked their way across the small hill that was once a towering structure.
“See anything?” Marcus called up to them. The firefighter closest to him responded, “Get back, please!” and returned his gaze to his footing.
“PLEASE!” Marcus roared. “My wife’s in there! My boy and my baby, too!” His voice broke as he swallowed a sob. No answer. He glanced at Sophia, who wore a grim, defeated expression.
“They’re dead,” she said with dull apathy.
“I need you to go to the tents,” Marcus said.
Sophia’s eyes snapped to his. “No.”
“The hurricane is coming. I can’t leave. But you can’t stay.”
His daughter’s head shook from side to side, picking up momentum and speed.
“You need to evacuate. I have to know you’re safe,” Marcus pleaded. “But I have to try to get them.”
“NO.” Sophia swiveled to face him. Her skin bloomed splotches of red as her eyes narrowed in anger. “They’re my family, too. If you can go looking for them, then so can I.”
Marcus felt the last strings of his temper snap. “Dammit, Sophia!” he shouted, spittle flying. “Quit being stupid! Look at you! You’re wearing underwear. And you want to go up there like that? You’re a liability and you’ll only slow me down.”
His chest heaved as he willed his breaths to steady. He already regretted the outburst. Sophia’s visage had turned to ice.
She regarded him for a long moment, then said, “Like you’ve done anything the past year? You let Mama wait on you all day, but you’re going to save her now?”
Marcus jerked away as though he’d been slapped.
Before he could respond, Sophia left. Marcus watched her make her way toward the canvas shelters, where a commanding voice gave directions over a loudspeaker.
He took one step after his daughter, then pushed the impulse down. Fists clenched at his side, he tried to focus on the task ahead. Marcus couldn’t see where the first responders had gained access to the top of the pile, but he certainly couldn’t see any way up there from his vantage point.
Watching for sharp edges, Marcus cut a path through the beachgrass that lined the boardwalk and pool enclosure. Maybe if I can get to the building’s side.
It took longer than he expected to hike around the ruins. While he chose each footstep, he strained to hear even the slightest sound coming from the wreckage…anything that might hint at survivors. Muffled panic clawed at the walls of his stomach, like a creature desperate to escape.
After several minutes, he came upon another fence. Marcus frowned, then realized it was the pool enclosure for the condo next door. People stood at the far end of the water’s edge and talked softly as they stared at the disaster next door.
Marcus leaned over the white plastic barrier to try and get a better view of the wreckage that leaned against the neighboring high-rise. What he saw sent a stab of hope through his dread. Marcus grunted with exertion as he lifted a leg over the fence and toppled without grace to the other side. When he stood, a familiar pang twinged in his lower back.
Not now. Marcus mentally shoved away the sensation. He reached to massage the area and walked toward the building, where a large steel beam rested at a 45-degree angle. The dusty metal disappeared into the sea of debris halfway down, but left a large gap under the rest.
Marcus approached the dark opening, somehow both hesitant and eager. Now that he was closer, he could make out some details inside. The precarious cavity extended at least 10 feet back. Huge slabs of concrete jutted from the sand and he could see some floor tile still attached to one piece. Sharp edges from a multitude of materials stuck out in all directions.
As Marcus massaged his sore lumbar muscles, he remembered his shirt was gone. A quick survey of the pool chairs nearby gave him no clothing options. Murmurs from the crowd nearby pierced his thoughts and gave him an idea.
He limped past lounge chairs, coolers, and colorful flotation rings and approached the huddled group. One man with long wavy hair, a Grateful Dead t-shirt, and ripped blue jean shorts noticed him and stepped forward.
“Dude, were you in there?” he asked incredulously.
“Not really,” Marcus said. “I know this may sound odd, but…can I borrow a shirt from someone? And some shoes?”
Those gathered shot nervous glances at one another. “Why?” a woman asked.
“I need to go in there. My family…” he trailed off as a tear tracked down his cheek.
“You can have mine, dude,” the man said. “But you shouldn’t go in there.”
“Let the police do it!” someone else called out.
Marcus shrugged. “I have to.” He reached for the Grateful Dead top with an appreciative nod. “No one has shoes?”
Heads shook no all around him.
“Just flip-flops,” a man in the back answered.
“Thanks anyway,” Marcus said and pulled the borrowed t-shirt over his head. He started to move and then addressed the group one more time. “My name is Marcus. My daughter Sofia is being evacuated from the hurricane. If you somehow run into her, can you tell her…I’m sorry?”
The now shirtless man nodded solemnly.
Marcus returned the nod and, before he could change his mind, walked toward the gaping hole in the rubble. He rested a hand on an upended bedframe that straddled the fence, which was broken in that spot. With slow, careful steps, he made his way into the darkness.
An unconscious Lexi floated in an unsettled twilight. She saw blurred shapes and muted sounds from time to time, but otherwise, she drifted into a void.
The nothingness began to clear like smoke in a brisk wind and Lexi saw a gas station. The old BP on Highway 189. That gas station. She found herself in front of the door, reached for the handle, and walked into a memory.
Lexi felt a sudden nervous energy as she slinked into the aisle with tiny packets of Tylenol and travel toothbrushes. She wasn’t even sure they’d have one here. After she scanned the meager selection, Lexi saw it. Her heart clawed its way up her throat until she was choking on it.
She crouched to pick up the small box, alert for observers. Still in a squat, Lexi shoved the package into her jacket and folded her arms tightly across her chest. She stood and strode to a filthy door next to a display of baseball hats for sale. Someone had scrawled “GALS” on the door in black permanent marker.
Pushing the handle, Lexi hustled inside and locked the rusty metal deadbolt behind her. She pulled the crushed cardboard out and stared at it for a moment. Before she could lose her nerve, Lexi ripped it open and pulled out a foil-wrapped stick.
She stuck the silver wrapping between her front teeth as she hurried to unbutton and unzip her jeans. She plopped on the stained toilet set and ripped open the package. What part am I supposed to pee on? She thought. Then she noticed the purple end of the stick was a cap.
Cap off, Lexi placed the pregnancy test in position and tried to relax. After she was finished, she set the test on the sink, buttoned up, and started pacing.
The gas station bathroom faded, but Lexi willed it to stay. She wanted to linger in this memory. Her vision narrowed in on the small stick that rested on yellowed porcelain next to the tap. Two lines. Positive.
A balloon of emotion filled Lexi, small at first, and then bigger and bigger until she thought she might break apart. Was she happy or sad? Neither? Both?
She blinked hard and squeezed two tears onto her flushed cheeks. Her palm found her lower stomach, and she walked in reverse until her back brushed against the wall. Lexi smiled.
The room faded again, more quickly this time. Lexi heard another sound, more urgent, insistent. It was her name.
Lexi blinked, and the fog lifted. Her neighbor Jeanie crouched in front of her and worry crinkled her forehead. Jeanie’s lips moved but Lexi only heard muffled sounds for a moment. Then the words caught up.
“Where’s Simon?” Jeanie asked.
Lexi stared at her through haunted eyes. Her gaze drifted toward the building site.
“He’s in there?” Jeanie asked, her voice tremulous.
Lexi’s gaze found Jeanie’s face again, expressionless and cold.
The familiar frizzy waves trembled as Jeanie shook with tears.
Lexi felt a drop of water on her cheek. Surprised, she brushed it off with a hand. Then, another. She tilted her face to the darkened sky as more and more droplets fell from the angry clouds.