Paradise Falls: Chapter 7
Sophia frowned when she heard a loud bang. A storm? She squinted up at the clear sky but saw nothing but blue. The horizon revealed no military jets making practice runs with their telltale glints and smoke trails.
She turned to look for a rogue thunderhead and saw black smoke billowing from a balcony on the second floor. A deep rumble rolled over her. Sofia noticed her dad stand, squint up at the building, and then launch into motion. He jogged along the pool’s edge and yelled something she couldn’t make out until he got closer.
“Get away from the building!” he screamed, waving in wide arcs at everyone he passed. “Get to the beach!”
Glass exploded as the first-floor windows shattered in a jarring chorus. Razor-sharp edges flew out toward the crowd. Then the second-floor windows went. A flash of red painted the ground as shrapnel hit a woman in a gauzy green swim cover. Screams erupted everywhere. She spotted two young kids standing against a balcony railing five stories up.
“Jump!” Sophia screamed up to them. “Jump into the deep end!” The kids shrieked and wailed, clinging to the railing with all their strength.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. Marcus’s eyes bored into hers with panicked intensity. “Get to the beach!” he yelled, pushing her toward the boardwalk before continuing to a bewildered family still sitting on their lounge chairs.
People ran in every direction, knocking over chairs. A woman ran through the smoke to enter the building. Sofia looked up and noticed another lady clinging to the kids on the balcony.
She stumbled toward the beach, thrust in all directions by the hysterical crowd. A hard shove sent her flying into the boardwalk railing. She fell to the floor, and several pairs of feet threatened to snap her bones as they fled the enclosure.
Grunting, Sophia pushed herself up and linked her arms around the railing to stay upright against the throng. She raised her gaze once more and watched the 25-story condominium complex buckle. It tilted toward her and loomed over the frenzy. She watched her father push a man over the fence into the sand. Marcus wheeled around as the building’s shadow covered him. The crumbling behemoth threatened him like a clawed hand ready to strike.
Sophia stumbled backward along the railing and finally turned to join the frantic stampede. She didn’t dare slow until her feet hit the sand. When they did, she spun just in time to witness the giant crumble in on itself, deflating like a parade balloon deprived of its air supply.
The noise invaded her ears and drowned out all other sounds. Metal screeched. Concrete split and collided in dull explosions.
And like the flicking of a switch, the cacophony dissipated. Dust rose like smoke from the rubble. A gargantuan campfire extinguished.
Matty groaned. Everything hurt. He sat up in the darkness and something sharp poked at his leg. “Ow!” he whimpered. Where was he?
“Mama?” he called into the dusty void.
No answer. Matty wiped tears and snot away and pulled his knees to his chest. The darkness pressed into him from all sides, and he couldn’t see a thing. A few months ago, his teacher, Mrs. Robbins, told his class about the deep dark caves in Missouri. She said if you went far enough down, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Jesse James hid in caves like that, she said.
Am I in a cave? Matty wondered, helpless fear gaining ground in his mind.
With one arm clutched around his trembling legs, he investigated his surroundings with the other. Everything was rough and pointy. He hacked out a loud bark, and a long stream of coughing followed. Then Matty heard the sound of pebbles falling and felt something hit his head.
Terror ran through him like lightning and he cried, “Mama!” Sobs shuddered through his small frame. He wanted to run, but he was too scared to move.
“Matty?” a small voice drifted to him through the dust.
The small boy gasped and coughed again. “Mama!”
“Mijo, I’m here!”
Matty’s cries intensified, though now with relief. “Where are you?” he asked.
“I think…I think I’m above you mi amor.”
He looked up. “I can’t see you.”
“I know, baby. Stay where you are. Don’t move.”
His eyes felt hot. He rubbed them with balled-up fists and his vision was back when he pulled them away. It was dull and blurry, but much better.
“My eyes work!” he cried, and immediately tried to catalog his surroundings. Dark blurred shapes surrounded him like stone giants. Cowed, Matty lifted his shoulders and lowered his head to avoid an invisible threat.
“Are you hurt?” Esme asked, her voice filtering down from somewhere on top of him.
Matty wiggled his limbs and patted his chest and belly.
He heard a soft laugh floating in the heavy air.
A sudden sharp noise flew up at him from below. Matty frowned and searched for the source of the sound. There. Another one. Louder. It sounded like…an alarm? The volume grew, until he knew exactly what it was: a long, unbroken scream.
Marcus was drowning. When the building fell, he jumped into the pool. Smart move? Maybe. But now he was trapped and he didn’t know which way was up. He searched for a source of light as his lungs burned, and his vision began to fade. He didn’t have long. Suddenly, he sensed air on his face and instinctively inhaled breath after breath as his arms worked to keep him buoyant. A coughing fit struck him as his airways spasmed in protest against the dirty air.
Marcus noticed a sliver of daylight to his right. He kicked and swam toward it. Debris littered the water, and Marcus navigated through enormous shadowy shapes as he made his way to the light. The pool’s edge appeared in the gloom, and he grabbed for the concrete lip. Relief filled his muscles as they went slack.
He couldn’t stay long. Who knew how long the wreckage above him would remain stable? Marcus prepared to crawl over the edge when he noticed a menacing dark fissure in the basin’s side. He dipped his face under and followed the anomaly across and up the other side. Had the collapse fractured the structure in half?
With a grunt, Marcus pulled himself out of the water and squeezed through a narrow opening in the chunks of rubble. The light grew brighter as he crawled through, and after a minute, he pulled himself out of darkness and into chaos.