Chapter 1 - Catherine Bianchi
I remember that Friday morning as being quieter than most. I'd woken at five-thirty as was my usual routine. I crawled from bed at six knowing the coffee pot would be full and hot. Fridays were generally my light day at work and I didn't intend to drive to the office until around nine. As usual, I poured a large cup with sugar and creamer and, donned in my bathrobe and slippers, I moved out back to the deck furniture to enjoy the stillness.
The raised deck offered a limited view of the neighborhood through the trees. The eastern sky began to glow and I remember the sunrise as being particularly beautiful that morning. As much as I wanted to, I didn't linger over the coffee and headed for the shower. I showered and stepped out when the entire house shook. I'd once had an earthquake scare in Los Angeles and knew to get out of the house as soon as possible. I hurriedly grabbed clothes and shoes from the bedroom and sprinted for the front door, naked. I dashed out to my modest front concrete porch and pulled on the black dress pants that I'd intended to wear to work. As I pulled on my shirt, I realized I'd forgotten my bra! I glanced back to my front door and the house began to shake. Crap! I thought. I guess I'll be nippin' it out today. Next, the porch under me began to quiver and I leapt to the front lawn. While dressing I'd dropped the shoes on the porch. I turned, snatched them up and put some distance between me and the house.
The ground heaved and knocked me off my feet! Cars drove willy-nilly on the street, swerving over the unsteady ground. Some overturned. People ran screaming frantically stumbling and falling. I made for the street and the only security I saw, a steel post that held my mailbox. Yards before reaching the post I was again knocked down so I crawled and laid as close to the lawn as possible.
Then the wind came with a deafening roar. Trees ripped from the ground, sometimes splitting lengthwise before being swept away. Debris flew like sideways rain. People vanished as they were swept up like debris and into the fury. I clung to that pole with both arms, pressing my head against the side of the pole, face down both to avoid seeing the slaughter and to protect my face and head. Debris raked over me but nothing heavy enough to do major damage. Something hit my forehead just below my hairline and I saw stars. In seconds I knew I was bleeding because my vision clouded into colorless grey shapes. I knew then that if I released just one hand to check, the wind would take me too, so I clung. At the sound of tearing lumber and metal, I turned my head sideways to see the last of the roof tear off my home. Odd the things that go through your mind. I loved that house, I had brief flashes of when I had first toured and then purchased the split-level. It was larger than what I needed but I instantly fell in love. Then so many memories collapsed within those walls. The walls hadn't fallen flat but leaned in precariously, supported by my possessions. The windward facing wall was the worst, leaning in at a near forty-five degree angle.
Only then did I notice that my Ford Escape that I had parked in the drive last night was gone. Not stolen, I knew, but blown away.
I had never wished so badly for Jason to be home with me then. I needed his assurance, to be close. Even if I died that moment, I'd have felt better knowing he was at my side. Like I say, odd the things that go through your head.
It seemed like hours that I hugged that post when it reality it may have only been twenty-minutes. My strength was waning and the debris seemed to never end. If I stayed where I was, sooner or later I'd be hit again and by something larger. With the house collapsing the way that it did, I hoped to find safe shelter in the basement if I could just get down there. A cinder block rolled by and I took a chance, releasing the post, hugging the ground as I grabbed for the block. The weight held me down. I gripped that block, thrusting it toward the house and then pulled myself to it. Another block slammed into my legs. I snatched it, and struggled to lay it beside the first. I pulled up onto all fours with a hand pressing each block into the lawn. I crawled with those blocks as quickly as I dared toward the safety of the house. If anyone had seen my blood covered face they'd have been horrified. Blood had run down the front of my shirt too, though it looked only grey to me.
I reached the front porch and didn't want to raise myself higher off the ground so using those blocks I made my way around the sheltered side of the house corner. The walls and foundation blocked the wind enough that I made good headway along the wall. I found an opening just before the rear corner and I dove inside.
The second floor had fallen onto the first, held up only by my washer, dryer and water heater. I made a mental note that the water heater might still hold water if I needed it. A folded white towel lay on the floor. I grabbed it and wiped blood from my eyes, then face and forehead. I dabbed at the freely flowing wound. Concerned for my safety, I crouched and pulled myself through what was left of the laundry room to find a breach in the floor. The wall had collapsed some and the framing served as a ladder that I climbed down into the basement.
The first floor had held up reasonably well under the weight. The roar of the wind drown out the sound of creaking walls and floor joists. To me, the safest place to hide out was the side of the house toward the wind. That way, if anything else collapsed or blew away it would likely be ripped away from me. The tall cabinet that I used as a pantry had fallen. Food cans littered the floor. Small blessings, I thought. At least I had enough food to hold me for a while.
I set up a canvas camp chair that I had stored in the basement and pressed the bloody towel to my forehead. I hadn't used that chair in years since I hadn't gone camping after Jason had left two years ago. I had never been keen on camping anyway unless it involved a hotel room. My arms and legs were so exhausted that they quivered uncontrollably. From my seat I searched the litter of cans for coffee. I couldn't remember my meager inventory so I hoped.
My fingernails were a wreck! Rough and ground from the cinder blocks, I imagined. This had been a new manicure too! When was it, Tuesday after work I'd had them done? Cheez! Then I laughed at my absurdity. My stomach grumbled from hunger. I'd been known to be cranky without eating regularly. I supposed breakfast was off the table. Then I noticed a can of chili laying on the opposite end of the concrete floor. I looked to the ceiling and pictured where my kitchen was. The chili can lay a long way from the kitchen floor so I imagined it had fallen and rolled. Or maybe it had been on the pantry shelf. The wind howled shaking the walls above me. Should I risk crossing the basement floor?
I sat for a time, listening to the roaring wind and my stomach grumbled again. Then came an ache in my gut. I couldn't think of how to start a fire. Cold chili is better than nothing, I figured. I stood on weak knees. I had regained some of my strength but the shakiness persisted. Unable to make a mad dash for my breakfast, I walked as quickly as I was able, retrieved the can and returned to my chair.
Fortunately the can had a pop-top eliminating the need to search for a can-opener. I popped the top and looked at the beans on top, floating in a bath of grease. Yuck! A spoon, fork, or even a knife would have been nice. I sighed and dipped two fingers to scoop a mouthful of gook. Oh boy, I wasn't so sure. I slipped the cold mess into my mouth, resisting the urge to gag. Crap! After chewing twice, I swallowed. A sudden shudder caused me to shake my head. As the residue warmed some in my mouth, the taste was tolerable at least. It wasn't so much the taste, I guess, it was the texture.
Suck it up, I imagined Jason saying. I sighed and said aloud, "Yes, babe." I dipped the fingers again, more meat this time, if one could call it meat. Choking down the entire contents took a while. While eating, I reflected that I might not find another meal soon unless I risked my life searching on the unsteady floor above. The thought didn't dull the taste much. I tossed the empty can toward the far wall and then licked my fingers. Cleaning them took several minutes as the chili grease coated the inside of my mouth and it took some swallowing to work up the saliva to rid my mouth of the yuck.
It wasn't long before the wind slowly blew itself out. Outside I heard what I believed was wood, stone, rocks and shattered trees, even cars crashing to the ground. And then, silence. I'm sure it wasn't as quiet as I remember but rather my hearing had likely suffered from the thunderous gale. When the sounds of falling objects let up, I looked around. I brushed a matted mess of hair from my face and spotted dried blood on my hand. I scrounged a shirt that had once been in my bedroom and wrapped it around my head to staunch the blood flow.
I sat for over an hour I guess to regain my strength and to make sure the storm wouldn't return, the eye of a hurricane and all that. Then, I slowly pushed up from the chair and staggered across the cellar floor as though I was drunk. I guess the wind had messed up my equilibrium and I steadied with each step toward the opening where I had come in. I now saw other splits in the upper floor where the wind had ripped at the walls. I felt more comfortable going back out the way that I had come in, at least I knew what to expect in the laundry room.
When I finally made it outside and worked around to the front of the house, I couldn't see a soul, at least none living. A few bodies lay strewn about, fortunately far enough away that I couldn't see their faces. Some lay in pieces–horrible.
Nothing stirred, no dogs barking, no cats, no birds singing or flying. Even the breeze didn't stir leaves or litter that was scattered everywhere. The biggest trees were gone. The younger ones mostly remained, stripped of every leaf.
In looking up and down the street, houses were gone. Not just torn apart, but gone above the foundations. Mine was the only one that resembled a building, with no roof and caved in walls. Oddly, I felt fortunate. The mailbox was gone, but the cemented post remained solidly planted. I made it to the concrete front porch when my strength left me. Seated on the top step, I looked out over the destruction and my lips quivered. I hadn't the strength to cry.
I don't know whether it was dust or what but the sky had taken on an eerie orange color. I guessed the time must be about ten o'clock or so. Even though the storm had let up less than an hour ago, I saw no clouds. Just this eerie, rust-orange color.
The quiet was unnerving. Not a wisp of a breeze. Everything lay on the ground like the mess of a child's bedroom floor. Quiet, so quiet. Surely someone was out there. I stood from the porch and stepped down, making my way around an empty milk jug, what looked like the hood of a car, then a shattered windshield that looked like a blanket of diamonds. A wrench, and a rather large one at that. I made a wide sweep around a torn tin roof, and a myriad of asphalt shingles. I reached the street and looked both ways. Since my house sat the fourth lot from the corner, I chose the corner for a first look. The three houses to the corner had all been swept away. In my busy life, I hadn't noticed much of my neighbors aside from the houses on each side of me.
I passed the Gimbal's house or rather their foundation. A young couple, Cathy had recently mentioned that she was pregnant. We had chatted briefly after retrieving our mail. I thought it somewhat odd that she shared this tidbit as we knew each other only in passing. Her husband, Greg, worked in some office in The Loop, the city's central business district. I didn't know either of them well enough to know their occupations. Sad. I suppose that like me, their work and building a life didn't include socializing with neighbors.
The second foundation that I passed was owned by an elderly couple. I don't recall their name if I ever knew it. They stood out because the rest of the neighborhood were all young professionals. Even their house was older than every house on the street. I imagined that they had lived here for years, probably before the street held any neighbors.
The corner house, also gone, was home to a family that I had never met though I'd often seen a young boy and girl playing in the yard. They owned an enviable large lot though I don't know if it would have been for me. Dealing with one street was enough for my taste.
Up the street smoke plumes rose here and there into a cloudless sky. About half a block up and across the road flames stretched as high as the building had been. The building had been a warehouse or row of storage units if I remembered right. I had access to fire if I needed it. I smiled, no more cold chili for me.
Like my street, nothing moved. No people wandered. Not a living thing was visible. In the opposite direction, a large oak tree had landed not far away, blocking the street. Dark gray smoke rose beyond it in three equidistant columns. Across the street, for the first time the complete destruction now seemed real. Nothing stood taller than broken buildings and those that I could judge clearly no higher than eight feet or so. The view faded into the orange haze at a quarter to a half mile away. My stomach knotted.
I turned and made my way back up my street. When reaching my house, I probed at the head wound under the makeshift bandage. The blood soaked bandage needed changing soon.
Three houses beyond mine flames billowed above the concrete foundation. I staggered across the yard and looked in. A gas line had ruptured. I didn't know how long the gas would continue to flow so I thought it was best to transport the fire somehow to my house. Aside from cooking, in the absence of street and house lights I expected the night would be dark. I returned home and gathered wood, paper and cardboard and soon had erected a campfire in my back yard, less the fire, of course. I built a torch from a two-by-four with a splintered end and wrapped the end with clothing scrounged from the next door neighbor's yard. There was plenty of it! Most with price tags still intact, the inventory from a popular Superstore chain.
With the kindling in place, I returned to the gas flames and lit the torch. On the return walk, I held the flaming cloth high to avoid the heat. By the time my little campfire burned hot, I had worked up a thirst! I had fire, and shelter of sorts, now I needed water. I had always kept a case of bottled water in the kitchen and remembered that I still had more than half of the case remaining. I committed to work my way into the house, to the kitchen if possible, and retrieve the water if the room appeared safe.
With that as my only plan, I made my way into the laundry room. The water heater still lay on its side and I laid a hand on it. Still warm. I looked ahead to the entry to the kitchen. The door was wrenched aside with enough room for me to fit through. The top of the doorframe had broken but held, for now. The ceiling over me had warped dangerously, ripping the drywall which still hung in large chunks. "Jason, where are you when I need you?" I asked, realizing that I hadn't thought about him as much as I should have. I wondered now if he had heard about the earthquake and the storm. Was he on his way to rescue me? Then, I refocused on the mission at hand.
I crawled on my belly, reaching the door, mindful to proceed quietly and avoid creating vibrations that might cause the floor above to fall and crush me. I'd be upset with myself after surviving the quake and the wind, if I got squashed in my quest for a water bottle.
The top of the laundry room door had opened farther than the bottom, creating a difficult to navigate wedged opening. Still, by squirming, pulling and kicking, I emerged on a steeply slanted kitchen floor. The refrigerator had fallen onto its door but not before vomiting the contents onto the floor. Plastic containers, ketchup and mustard bottles, an intact milk jug lay over broken glass and foods that had spilled from the sealed containers. The cupboards had also deposited their canned food contents and spices with the clutter. Cheez, I was glad that I wouldn't have to clean this mess!
I wanted that milk in the worst way! At the far end of the kitchen, where the interior wall had crushed like an accordion, lay the partial case of water bottles. I surveyed the rubble around me and spied a metal sheet pan. By sweeping the pan like a broom, I began clearing the broken glass in a path to the milk jug. Slowly, so as not to upset the delicately balanced walls, still somewhat supporting the floor above that now rested only six feet above, I scraped the floor, pushing the glass and other debris aside. My eyes filled with tears. The years that I had worked so hard, scrimping and saving to purchase all of this. Now useless. Well, most of it. I lifted a large can of peaches and dropped it back at the laundry room door.
Resuming my sweeping, I banged my head on the low-hanging overhead light and cursed. Fortunately, the blow had missed my head wound and had been cushioned some from the bandage. Crap! I'd forgotten to change the bandage.
First task complete. I dropped the sheet pan, spun the top from the mildly crumpled jug and gulped. The milk was still cool and refreshing! Milk had never tasted so good! After several gulps, I realized that I was breathing hard. I leaned against the warped kitchen counter and breathed. I sipped a few times more, eyeing the path to the water bottles. I'd need to navigate around the refrigerator that now lay with the top more toward me than the bottom, but there was room to pass through. And just enough room to see that half case of water taunting me. I chugged more milk, replaced the top and returned to the laundry room door, dropping the milk through the opening.
It hadn't taken long to sweep my way to the water, snatch it up and return to the laundry room opening, where I dropped the water through also. I had taken a step to wend my way through the opening when I stopped. Since I'm in here, I wondered, what else would be handy to have?
In minutes I had forced open a drawer where I kept a hand-held can opener. The door underneath the oven was more committed to give me fits. Twenty minutes later I had pried it open enough to retrieve a small fry pan and sauce pan. Two plates, forks and spoons in the event of a visitor. My bottle of dish soap had fallen, cap open, into the sink where it remained. I replaced the cap and eyed the contents. A bit had survived.
Bandage, I thought. Something to replace this bandage. The cabinet door where I stored kitchen towels had torn from one hinge so it opened easily. I chose three, leaving the rest because I now had plenty to carry out of there. I also grabbed a reusable shopping bag and dropped my treasure inside, wrapping salt and pepper shakers inside the kitchen towels in hopes they wouldn't spill much.
Before squeezing through the door opening, I surveyed the canned foods within reach, dropping in cans of beef stew, green beans, a small can of pears, and another can of chili. I hoped the water would wash away the foul taste of the cold chili from this morning and maybe someday the goop would sound appetizing again.
I shuttled the bag of treasures and the water to the back yard and my dwindling fire. Fortunately I didn't need to go far for firewood to stack enough to see me through until tomorrow.
Late that afternoon while washing my face and hands, which I used the water only enough to dampen a dish towel, I received a visitor. A large tomcat rounded a corner of the house and froze to consider me.
"Hey there," I said. He stared with beautiful green eyes then dropped his head and crept toward me. "Are you hungry?" I asked.
As I petted him, which he accepted freely, he purred. "Well, where did you ride out the storm? Did you find a safe cubby somewhere?" In lieu of an answer he stepped away to sniff my food stash.
"Sorry," I shrugged. "No cat food. But oh, I do have something you might like." I went right for the chili can and popped the top, then lowered it to give him a sniff. He licked the bean gook.
"Would you like that?" I asked, standing. Those bright green eyes focused on the can. "Alright, well, let's fix you a plate." I returned to my seat on the lawn, fetched a plate and spoon and scooped out the chili. My stomach knotted. "Yes, this is yummy." Technically I hadn't lied to the poor guy, he might like it.
He seemed to enjoy it, biting into the greasy meat, even chewing the beans and he licked the plate clean. When he had finished eating I had washed myself and felt at least cleaner than I had beforehand. The bleeding forehead wound had abated some with the fresh bandage.
By now the fire had burned a neat circle into the lawn that I had cared for with such pride. As sad as it was, the grass would likely die soon without water anyway. I was reminded of the old aphorism to not worry about things out of our control. Even in this disaster I could control some things, the basic necessities and I was proud that I had secured my basic needs in one day. If other survivors remained, I imagined that most had not fared so well as I.
I sat up through sunset which was a bit creepy and beautiful at the same time. The rust colored air transformed to bright oranges and blues unlike any sunset that I had never witnessed.
The tomcat seemed content to lay a short distance from the fire, looking to me occasionally as if to ask, "What do we do now?"