~ Shaken ~
by KG MacGregor
Disclaimer #1: My characters are of my own creation, though they bear physical resemblance to a couple you may recognize. Any references to XWP, Diet Coke or Depends should be considered uncompensated product placement.
Disclaimer #2: This story is about two women in love, and all that goes with it. If you find that idea offensive, if you aren't old enough, or if you live where reading such depictions is not allowed, this isn't for you.
Disclaimer #3: Occasionally, my characters use bad language.
Disclaimer #4: Occasionally, my characters use bad grammar.
Disclaimer #5: Most of the places depicted in this story are real. However, I took poetic license in the creation of some specific venues and streets. If you happen to be from LA, don't bust a gut trying to figure out where these places are.
Disclaimer #6: There is no number 6.
Disclaimer #7: This is my first attempt at fan fiction. I apologize in advance if you're bugged by my writing style. I wanted to tell a story that's been cooking in my head for a while, and this is the best I can do for now. I welcome your feedback, as I sincerely want to get better at this.
Thanks to my beta readers, especially Tami, who spent a lot of her precious time reading my rewrites. She also served as my fashion advisor. Thanks also to Roz, TF & Linda for their feedback and encouragement.
This is for my Sweetcakes, 'cuz without her, I don't think I could write about love at all (or skyboxes).
The dark-haired driver of the black 745i puzzled over the words "rush hour." Nobody was rushing, and here in LA, this traffic lasted all day and half the night! Occasionally, the congestion broke up and all five lanes took off like the thoroughbreds at Hollywood Park. A half-mile later, the mass would slam on its collective brake and come to a standstill.
The snarled freeway, as germane to southern California as its poverty and pretense, caused Anna Kaklis Rutherford to dread the regular trips from her Bel Air home to the downtown convention center. But as the new treasurer of the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, her presence was a must at their monthly breakfast meetings.
This morning's meeting had featured a compelling presentation on community organizations involved with the area's "at-risk" youth. It was, of course, a thinly-veiled plea for businesses to support charities and causes that carried less prestige and opportunity for notoriety than those already in the public eye. The accompanying video had shown children and teenagers in a variety of settings, in classrooms, on sports fields, in hospitals, and even in their own homes. Many of those depicted were minorities or disabled, and all were being guided by caring adults.
For more than 40 years, Premier Motors of Beverly Hills, southern California's top BMW dealer, had lent its support to LA's thriving symphony, its opera, three of its theaters, and no less than a half-dozen art museums. The company was a major underwriter for an afternoon business update that aired on the local public radio station. "After all," Anna's father had reasoned, "those are the people who buy luxury cars." Anna, who at 31 served as vice president of the family's dealership, agreed that supporting the arts was good business, the best advertising their money could buy.
But the car dealer had been moved by today's program, especially by the teenaged girl who told a personal tale of how one organization had helped her overcome an abusive home, poor school performance, and a flirtation with drugs and alcohol to become a college-bound senior with hopes and dreams of one day being a leader in this very business organization. Despite losing her mother at an early age, Anna felt truly blessed by the hand dealt her, and she vowed today that she would do something to help LA's disadvantaged children and youth.
A blaring horn snapped her out of her reverie, and she hurriedly accelerated to close the 30-foot gap between herself and the red Honda Civic with the "Bush Cheated" bumper sticker. It wouldn't do to leave enough room for another car to squeeze in - that might create good will in the world!, she thought to herself, rolling her eyes. Spotting the ramp for Endicott Avenue, she slowly picked her way to the exit lane. Endicott eventually dumped into Santa Monica Boulevard, and stoplights and surface streets were preferable to this creeping, growling mass of motorized inhumanity.
This morning's look at the struggles of troubled youth had ironically been a respite from the thoughts that had consumed the dark-haired woman like a cloud for the past three months?no, make that 15 months, two months before she had married Scott Rutherford. Focusing on the plight of others was an effective ploy for getting her mind off her own problems, and Anna was determined to milk this morning's presentation for all it was worth. But the silver Z3 that stopped in the lane to her left brought that cloud back to bear on her consciousness. There was nothing special about the driver, a red-haired woman of about 20, gesturing animatedly as she talked on her cell phone. It was the car itself, the James Bond roadster, that started the depressive spiral. Her husband drove a Z3.
As days go, today was a bad one, even by Lily's standards.
She had started her day in the family courtroom at the Los Angeles County Courthouse with her client, Maria Esperanza. They were squaring off against ex-husband Miguel for primary custody of the couple's two children.
She'd called Maria the day before, reminding her of what to wear to court and what to tell the judge about her ex-husband's volatile behavior. "Whatever you do, don't get angry," she had advised Maria. "We want the judge to know that you want custody of your children because you're afraid of what Miguel might do, not because you're angry about what he's already done."
As Lily looked back with her near-perfect hindsight, Maria had seemed quite surprised by the call. "I had marked tomorrow on my calendar," her client had said. For a fleeting moment, the attorney too had recalled a Friday court date, thinking that she would have used today to go over next week's filings and four scheduled court appearances. Nonetheless, Maria hurriedly agreed to be ready, and Lily had stayed late yesterday to prep her case.
Unfortunately, the case file that Pauline, the clinic's newly-hired secretary, should have pulled was that of Maria Espinosa, Lauren Miller's client, whose final divorce hearing was to have been today. It all came to light when Maria Esperanza looked across the aisle at Mr. Espinosa and asked her attorney simply "Who is that man and why does he want custody of my children?"
Begging opposing counsel's forgiveness-they would tangle many times, so it was always a good idea for either side to be owed a favor-she threw herself upon the mercy of the court and Judge Evans fined her only $200. She forked over a personal check, and offered to drive her testy client home.
Once in the hallway, she'd called Lauren to give her the bad news - Judge Evans was fining her $200 too for not having her client in court this morning. Lily held the phone from her ear as Lauren spewed forth a stream of curses that would have had a New Yorker looking at his shoes. "I'm going straight to Tony about this," she shrieked, her reference to the firm's administrative partner. "Jesus H. Christ on a Raft! All we get at this salary are Murphy Brown rejects!"
Lily chuckled inwardly. Often the chief peacemaker in their office, she finally replied, "Lauren, it's partly my fault, too. It's hard to keep all of these names straight and I didn't check it out before calling the client."
Climbing into one of the first RAV4's to come off Toyota's assembly line, Lily gathered up the pile of folders and law books on the front seat, making room for her passenger. "There you go. Sorry about that." She tried to make nice with Maria-they had to go through this again tomorrow. The day was usually warm for February, and without a working air conditioner, Lily thought it best to remove her suit jacket and fold it over the back seat. Sweat might be sexy, but it's hell on silk.
Maria had finally seemed to accept Lily's profuse apologies, and it looked like they would have a peaceful ride to Culver City, where Maria was staying with her sister and brother-in-law until she got the custody of her children resolved. Rather than subject herself to yet another briefing on what tomorrow would bring, Maria opted instead to call the sister she would see in only a matter of minutes. Had Maria known that Lily had a pretty good working knowledge of Spanish, she probably would not have said anything to her sister about the "abogados tontos". Idiot lawyers. As she merged onto the crawling Santa Monica freeway, Lily decided to take her thoughts elsewhere.
Now racing from one stoplight to the next, Anna checked the digital clock on her instrument gauge. 11:40. Today's meeting had lasted until ten, then the officers met in closed session to discuss the new membership drive. Passing her hand over the infrared eye on the doorframe produced a dial tone. "Premier Motors," she stated succinctly. A few moments later, her call was answered with the same two words. "Carmen, would you let Dad know that things ran late this morning? I'll be in the office in about an hour." Thanking the receptionist, she started looking for a bookstore along Endicott.
Three months ago, Anna's well-planned life was flung into doubt. Could she salvage her marriage? Could things ever be the same? Not yet ready to talk about this with her family-not even with her stepsister Kim, who was her closest friend-she had called her longtime friend and roommate at Cal Poly, Liz Patterson. Liz lived now with her husband and daughter in San Mateo. Anna recounted most of the tale, purposefully leaving out the details of the doubts she had harbored about her marriage even before the wedding. Strong and confident in most aspects of her life, especially in business, Anna had somehow always struggled with relationships and was particularly lost in this current dilemma. The situation left her feeling hurt but also angry that she didn't have complete control.
Liz had listened with love and concern, but was unwilling to guide her friend to a decision she could not reach on her own. She asked all the right questions to prompt Anna to explore her options, and finally recommended a book she had seen reviewed in the New York Times.
The distraction of the morning presentation now forgotten, Anna recalled her friend's suggestion. Playing by Ear was a rising best-seller about a woman who had left her job and boyfriend to pursue her bliss as a concert cellist. Though she lived now from hand to mouth, the cellist had found her fulfillment in her lifelong dream. Anna wasn't looking to change careers. On the contrary, she loved selling cars. But she needed to find the nerve to make at least a change in her own personal life.
As long as she could remember, 29-year-old Lily Stuart had wanted to practice law. "They help people be happy" was the reason she gave as a young girl when teachers had asked her why. Katharine Fortier had certainly helped Lily and her mom find happiness, by seeing to it that they stayed together.
Lily's birth certificate listed no father. Her birth mother, Lisa Parker, was little more than a child herself when Lily was born, far too immature to care for the demands of a baby. Rather, she left Lily unattended for long hours while she saw to her own social needs. On those occasions when Lily was actually taken along, it was often to places children shouldn't visit, such as bars, pool halls, and parties with alcohol and drugs. Social services stepped in twice to remove the child from her mother's care, once when Lisa was arrested for shoplifting, a second time when 2-year-old Lily was left unattended in a car for over an hour. Each time, Lily was returned after short stints in foster care.
On the third occasion, when Lisa faced certain jail time for assaulting a woman and stealing her car, social services began processing the papers to sever parental rights. Since Lisa's mother had a record of her own, Lily was adjudicated dependent and placed up for adoption at four years old.
In the next two years, the little blonde lived in seven foster homes and attended four different elementary schools in kindergarten and first grade. She was uninterested in school, and very much a behavior problem. She rarely completed her work, and was constantly getting into fights with classmates who teased her about not having any real parents. Lily was small for her age, but she usually held her own in these playground tussles.
Something about this errant child tugged at the heartstrings of her first grade teacher, Eleanor Stuart, who began spending more time with Lily in the classroom. She stuck close at recess to protect the little girl from the other children's cruel taunting. Eleanor saw past the tough exterior Lily tried so hard to create and knew that under this façade was a passionate, creative, and kind-hearted little girl. Suddenly, Lily's interest in school soared as she tried desperately to please the only adult who had ever seemed to care about her. Her foster parents, the Tomlinsons, reported to social services that she seemed to be adjusting finally, and all were hopeful that this would improve Lily's chances of being adopted.
Toward the end of that school year, social services requested her school records yet again, because the Tomlinsons had agreed to take in two brothers, and they would no longer have room for Lily in their small home. When the little girl learned that she would be changing both her home and school, she became hysterical. She had been content staying with the Tomlinsons, but where she lived was unimportant. What mattered was that she stay close to Miss Stuart. She was devastated.
So too was Eleanor, and she immediately contacted her friend Katharine, an attorney who specialized in family law. Katharine was one of the nicest women you'd ever want to meet?and she ate nails for breakfast. With Katharine's help, Eleanor was granted interim custody of Lily. Four months later, as Lily entered second grade, Eleanor began adoption proceedings.
In late October of that year, a paroled Lisa Parker informed the court that she had had a change of heart. Out of prison only three months and already pregnant with her second child, she knew she'd need seven-year-old Lily's help to keep an eye on the baby, lest she find herself back in trouble with the authorities. Of course, the story she offered the judge included none of those plans. Instead, she spoke tearfully of how heartbroken she was at the loss of her child, and how she thought of nothing more for the past two years than how she would make up for her past by doing right by her daughter.
Fortunately, Eleanor and Lily had Katharine Fortier in their corner again, and she was a bulldog in court. By the time she was finished with Lisa and her false promises, the miscreant was lucky not to be going back to jail for perjury. On November 15th of that year, Lilian Lisa Parker became simply Lilian Stuart.
Katharine remained close to the family, and it was she who suggested to Lily at age 17 that she study law at UCLA. Not that Lily needed any encouragement. On that day long ago when the three of them had walked triumphantly from the courthouse, Lily had vowed to be just like Katharine someday. It was Katharine who prepped her for the LSAT, who wrote her recommendation for law school, and who finally pushed her through the bar exam.
When she accepted the job at the Braxton Street Family Law Clinic, she was proud to tell her mentor that she had been her inspiration. "Don't do this for me, Lily," Katharine had said humbly. "Do it for the Eleanors and Lilys who will need you."
Eleanor and Lily were crushed two years ago when Katharine's sightseeing plane crashed in Alaska, leaving no survivors.
Clutching the steering wheel of the RAV4 a little tighter, Lily fought back the emotions that memory always brought to surface. Even though the attractive young attorney now possessed an optimism which seemed to belie her rough start in life, it was this part of her life which had given her empathy for others. She pursed her lips a bit and sneaked a sidelong glance at her passenger. Maria Esperanza probably doesn't know it, but she's an Eleanor who needs me, Lily resolved, as they pulled up in front of the small stucco home. With an "adios" Maria dropped her phone into her handbag. She actually said 'goodbye' to her sister and she'll see her in about 10 seconds! Mentally rolling her eyes, Lily neatly executed a tight U-turn, and headed back to her office.
Anna had reached an important decision. She wasn't going to languish in this mess another day, just waiting to see what life would hand her next. She was going to take control, make the decisions that had to be made, and live with the consequences.
There was no easy answer. Anna knew that she and Scott would both have to work hard for their marriage to survive. Do I even want it to survive? She also knew that admitting the failure of her marriage and walking away would be humiliating and a disappointment to her family, especially her father. Can I do that?
It had been easy in some ways to retreat emotionally and act on the outside as though nothing were wrong. She went to work early, and stayed late most nights. She avoided spending time with friends, even her sister Kim. And it was so uncomfortable being at home with Scott. But she couldn't keep this up. People had begun to comment on her weight loss and tired features. In truth, though she masked her emotional turmoil from her friends and family fairly successfully, it wasn't hard for them to notice the physical changes. Anna was usually confident and upbeat, and her strikingly beautiful features were noticed by everyone, except perhaps by Anna herself.
What Anna realized she missed most over these past three months, even more than personal happiness in her marriage, was her confidence. She had quietly stepped back from the world, allowing things to proceed as she watched from the outside. Today, Anna resolved to come out of the safe corner she had willingly backed into.
Turning on her blinker, the dark-haired woman pulled into the parking garage of the Endicott Mall. She had decided that today would be the day she would begin dealing with this mess. Getting her hands on Playing by Ear was the first step.
Finding a space easily on the ground level, she pulled her long slender frame from her car and straightened her shoulders, as if physically demonstrating the resolve she now felt. She tapped her keychain to set her car alarm, and turned toward the breezeway leading into the stores. Out of nowhere, a battered RAV4 careened around the corner, and continued its rapid climb to the second floor. "Crazy driver," Anna muttered as she rolled her eyes.
At precisely 11:40, Lily's phone vibrated to announce a new text message, calling her to a one p.m. arraignment for another client's abusive boyfriend. These little gadgets sure were handy in court, but the attorney missed the good old days when she actually got to speak to people.
She just had time to pick up lunch at In-and-Out Burger on Endicott Avenue, and to stop by her office to gather the files she would need. Lily placed her order and proceeded to wait for what felt like an hour while the single man in the car in front of her retrieved seven bags of food. He's obviously picking up lunch for the entire office. Why isn't there a 'two bag or less' rule for the drive-thru? Lily sighed and pulled up next to the small window.
"$4.36, please," the woman in the window barked. Lily handed her a five dollar bill and watched in fascination as the woman stretched one arm across the small compartment to top off Lily's Diet Coke and with her other hand punched hurriedly at the cash register.
"Sixty-four cents is your change." Lily quickly put out her hand to catch the change but was a second too late as the rushed and oblivious employee opened her palm and deposited the money onto the ground. As Lily cracked her door open and leaned out to rescue at least the quarters from the pavement, the other woman stretched her arm out of her window with the Coke, bumping Lily's right shoulder with the beverage. As usual, the plastic lid on the cup was not secured. Oops, and that blouse was pure imported silk, the nicest one she owned. Lily had never understood the appeal of Coca-Cola clothes.
A right turn out of the drive-thru and four quickly-crossed lanes later, she turned into the Endicott Mall. Pealing around the corner to the second floor of the parking garage, the frenzied blonde barely missed a tall, beautiful woman with long dark hair exiting her fancy BMW. "Careful, gorgeous," she muttered.
Squeezing her mini-SUV into a narrow No Parking walkway by the elevator, Lily phoned Pauline to have a runner deliver the needed files to the courthouse. This time, she spelled her client's name, just to make sure there were no mistakes. Grabbing her wallet and jacket, and shoving her briefcase under the seat, she set out to find a cream-colored top to match her olive green suit. Thank goodness I had taken off the jacket - otherwise, I'd be looking for a suit too! Little victories were important on a day like today.
Entering the nearly deserted mall, Anna looked about for a bookstore. She scanned the directory at the entrance to the main concourse. "Come on, come on. Every mall has a bookstore," she pleaded with the silent sign. There! Binders Books on the lower level.
It was now a few minutes past the noon hour, and the only other person in the store was Skye, a friendly young clerk with orange hair and multiple piercings. Ah, youth!, Anna thought enviously. "I'm looking for Playing by Ear. Do you have it?" she inquired.
The girl looked up from a copy of Rolling Stone, quickly swallowed a bite of what appeared to Anna to be a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and swiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "Sure, I'll show you where it is," Skye answered with a half-grin as she laid her sandwich on the opened magazine.
"No, go ahead with your lunch. I'm sure you don't get many breaks. Just point in the general direction and I'll find it." From her perch at the register by the shop entrance, Skye directed the dark-haired woman to the Bestsellers shelf located along the left wall.
A few moments later, Skye once again looked up from the magazine. "Are you sure I can't help you find what you need? Those are all mysteries," she called, noticing that her customer had wandered from the left side to the very back of the store.
"Yes, I know. Actually, I've already found what I need. Now I'm looking for what I want."
Anna loved a good action or mystery book. Her eyes immediately fell on the cover of Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists: A Cassandra Reilly Mystery. Though she hadn't played in years, the bassoon might have been Anna's first love. Unlike other bassoonists, she didn't "start" on another instrument and "work up to" the skill required to play the strange instrument. She just picked it up instinctively. A mystery and bassoons?cool!, she thought. She flipped open the front cover and skimmed the reviews.
The very slow elevator emptied Lily onto the mall's main concourse. She scanned the directory and located the Casual Corner, a women's apparel store, on the lower level at the far end of the building. She could not possibly have been further from the store than where she currently stood. Naturally.
Lily headed for the escalator and got her bearings for a hasty retreat once she found what she needed. She charged past Fredrick's of Hollywood--Wow! Check out that slinky red number!-Lawson's Jewelry, Rack Room Shoes, Peggy's Bridal Shop, Binders Books, Foot Locker, and finally entered the Casual Corner.
An online and catalog shopper, Lily rarely set foot in a mall. Though she usually only hated shopping, she absolutely despised it when she needed something in particular and was short on time. Not believing her luck, there was a rack near the door holding the perfect style blouse in a variety of colors, and on sale! But there was none of any color in her size. "Naturally."
Her size was available however among a new shipment in a slightly different style, and at a much higher price. Out of options, she handed over her debit card and dashed to the fitting room to change. A good yank on the stuck louvered door caught her knee with a sharp crack, and a splinter in the wood neatly pierced her hose. "How could this day get any worse?" she asked the ceiling of the small room?rhetorically.
Art Hanson scribbled a few additional comments into his small notebook. He had just finished an interview with tenants at Casa Del Sol, an apartment building on the edge of Culver City. The story was a public interest piece about the dangerous health risks related to the level of lead in miniblinds. God, how can I make this story not put people to sleep?, he mused.
"Hey, Janie! Watch the potholes, will you? I just want to get a few more comments down," he said to the driver of the white and blue News 26 van.
"Mr. Hanson, we're at a stoplight!"
The van began to violently shake and suddenly lurched forward. Both passengers were pushed hard against their seatbelts. Art's coffee toppled out of the holder and splashed onto the dashboard. Camera equipment and video from the back of the van broke their bindings and crashed to the floor. The van continued to tremble and shudder and it seemed to the pair that some unknown force had picked up the back end of the van, thrusting their end vertically downward at a nearly 45 degree angle.
Forty-six seconds later, the news team found themselves still suspended by their seatbelts, though the shaking had stopped.
"Shit! That was a big fucking quake!" Jane excitedly shouted to the reporter. Art knew that a bigger story than leaded miniblinds had just broken, and was already radioing back to the station.
"This is Hanson in van 4. Janie and I are at Endicott and Spruce in Culver City and there was just an earthquake here. Hang on?.I'm going to check and see if there's anything big here to report?the van feels like we're sitting on a cliff?." Art put his phone in his shirt pocket momentarily and carefully extricated himself from the seatbelt, pushing against the dashboard for balance. He carefully opened the passenger side door of the van and hopped down.
"Oh my God! That must have been a pretty big one, Dennis," he commented anxiously into the phone to the station manager. Looking around, he continued, "The road looks like someone was kicking it from underneath. The stoplight is lying on the street in front of us. There aren't a lot of people around?just one other car and the driver looks fine." Looking off to his left, Art audibly gasped and his voice was grave as he said, "Holy shit, Dennis. The north end of the Endicott Mall looks like it was bulldozed. Janie - get the camera! Dennis, I'll call you back when we get closer to the mall and have good position."
The reporter slipped the phone into his pocket and looked across what had been the west parking garage of the mall. Cars and concrete were sandwiched together and one entire side of the garage had completely toppled. The pair had been traveling on Spruce Street, which ran along the west side of the mall. The north end of the mall was actually built into the side of a hill, so people parking in this garage on the west side entered the mall on the top floor. What made Art's stomach flip over was this realization that the mall was supposed to be two stories. The north end had completely collapsed.
The inevitable sound of police sirens and emergency vehicles were already invading the eerily silent landscape.
Nine miles from the Endicott Mall in his second floor office, Scott Rutherford eyed his senior marketing student. The young man had shown a great deal of ingenuity in his earlier work, but Scott was very disappointed with the latest assignment. "Your plan was quick and dirty, just like too many product launches in the real world," he scowled. "Remember Mr. Caldwell, your marketing budget includes research and development. In your project, you designed a product launch without putting your product in front of potential customers. If you guess wrong, you waste a quarter of a million dollars."
Justin Caldwell looked first at his professor, then at the floor. "Dr. Rutherford, I can do better. I'd appreciate the chance to rework this, and resubmit it," he pleaded hopefully.
After a few moments of contemplation, the professor answered. "Mr. Caldwell, what's important here is that you learn to do this correctly. But if I agree to evaluate your project a second time, I want to be assured that it's your best effort." Seeing the relief on the young man's face, Scott continued, "You should review Chapter Four of Paddock's book. It deals with..."
As he reached to retrieve Paddock's book from the shelf above, the professor lost his footing on the shaking floor and fell across his desk as though struck by an unseen force. At the same moment, Paddock's book and dozens of others crashed to the floor as the windows rattled and burst. Practicing what he had learned in his youth, Justin jumped back to brace himself in the doorway as fiberglass panels shook free from the ceiling.
Nearly a minute passed before the tremors stopped. The student, now pale and wide-eyed, stepped forward to help his teacher stand. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah, thanks," Scott murmured. He stood up from the desk and looked around at the total disarray in his office.
"That was some powerful shake!" Justin said queasily. "We must have been right at the epicenter."
Looking out the open window across the LA basin, Scott replied "Well, if we weren't, God help the people who were."
His first thoughts were of the safety of his young son. If they were at home, they should be safe, since they lived near the water. Guiltily, he thought next of his wife.
Skye remembered the floor shaking and shuddering, books falling and the shelves being wrested from their bolts and crashing to the floor. A mighty jolt had thrown her from her stool across the counter and after another thrust, the lights in the store flickered twice and went dark. The clerk had scrambled for the entrance, where the last of the natural light poured in from the atrium, forgetting the dark-haired woman at the back of the store. No sooner had she reached the lower concourse than it lurched skyward, hurling her across a rippling plane. Heavy plastic panels floated from the skylight, and she had scurried for the cover of an overturned candy kiosk.
Now, the earth was finally still. Gradually, moans, shouts and a baby cry began to fill the air, and Skye struggled for her footing. She turned instinctively toward her shop, confused and disoriented. Where Binders had once stood, computers and electronic gadgets were strewn about and smashed. Radio Shack had been located directly above the bookstore.
Skye crawled to her feet and began to climb across the piles of debris toward the south end of the mall.
"Annnnhhh!" the woman grunted, struggling against the bookcase that pinned her firmly to the floor. Only minutes before, Anna had been reading the book jacket for The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists when a deep rumbling suddenly consumed the moment. In a matter of seconds, the floor had simply fallen away, and she was enveloped in blackness.
Breathing heavily, the tall woman regrouped for another push. "Unnnnnhhhhhh!" she groaned again, moving the bookcase only an inch or two from her chest. With every effort, more of the books that were somehow bracing the heavy bookcase fell away, leaving her left knee to bear even greater weight under a lower shelf. Her twisting and pulling had only exacerbated her predicament, and now her knee was throbbing and firmly trapped in a vise.
"Help! Somebody!" Anna heard no one. Where is everyone? Where am I? "In deep trouble," she answered herself aloud.
The worst part was that it was completely dark.
No, scratch that. The worst part was the throbbing of her head right above her eye. Rolling onto her side, Lily traced with her forefinger the rim of the wide gash responsible for the sticky mess on the left side of her face. Remembering her earlier lament to the proverbial heavens, Lily muttered, "I was only frustrated?it wasn't intended to be a challenge!" But, she had received her answer to the rhetorical question when the floor beneath her began to shake. Lily had reached to brace herself in the doorway, and was suddenly flung head first into the angled mirrors on two walls of the fitting room. The accompanying boom was deafening, and was followed by grinding and popping, as the drywall crumbled all around into dust and ragged shards and the newly exposed metal supports twisted and bent. A second jolt had rippled the floor and plunged the small space into darkness.
As she had felt the ground give way underneath, her last conscious thought was that the sales clerk had probably already run her debit card, and without moving money from her savings account, her check to Judge Evans was going to bounce.
Lily had no idea how much time had passed while she lay unconscious in the fitting room. She now groped around on the floor hoping to find the top she had intended to purchase earlier. Grasping the cloth from underneath her, the young woman held it to her wound and pressed hard to stop the bleeding. She pulled herself up to a sitting position and reached out to get her bearings. Glass was everywhere. The mirrors, she figured. The floor-if it was still the floor-was uneven, and the wall to her right now leaned above her. She knew it was the mirrored wall, as she felt a few of the jagged fragments still attached. Behind her, the place she remembered as the back of the store was a concrete block wall. "Where the hell did that come from?" she asked aloud, not expecting but half hoping to hear a reply. It seemed to Lily that she was still in the fitting room, such as it was. To her left was a wall and she recognized in front of her the splintered texture of the wood from the louvered door. That meant the entrance to the store was past the door and straight ahead.
Where was the light? Hadn't there been an atrium in the center of the mall? She knew she been knocked out for a few minutes, but surely it wasn't evening already.
"Is anybody in here?" Silence.
Louder this time, "Hello! Anybody!" Lily strained to hear another sound. Nothing.
Slowly, she tried to stand. The uneven floor and the low ceiling made it difficult to navigate the darkness, but she picked her way along the edge of the hallway and emerged into what she supposed was the main store. Again, she called out "Anyone here?"
As she continued in the direction of the entrance, the floor became steeper, sloping forward. Racks of clothes had gathered where the floor had buckled, and she lost her balance as her feet tangled in the cloth and metal. The smell of fresh dirt was vaguely present, and Lily realized that the ground had literally broken through the bottom of the store. She knew from 29 years of living in California that she had been near the epicenter of a very significant earthquake. She was indeed lucky to be alive.
Reaching forward, her hand came to rest against a wall of earth. The mall had collapsed, she realized, wondering what had become of all the people who been inside. Was she the only one still inside? Or were the others? With alarm, Lily acknowledged the truth: The worst part was that she was trapped.
Art Hanson shed his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. "How much time?" he asked into the air. He nodded as the answer crackled back into the discreetly placed earpiece. "I'll do the background, then we can pull in the eyewitness. I'll track down the scene manager for a follow-up," he stated, the latter referring to the area's emergency services coordinator, who had arrived on the scene a few moments ago, sirens screaming. Loosening his tie, the reporter mussed his hair to give the appearance that he, too, had been working frantically to free those trapped in the fallen building behind him.
Getting his cue, Hanson-born Randall Lyzcienski-began his report. "Julie, at 12:04 p.m. today, a massive earthquake shook the Los Angeles basin. We're live on the scene at the Endicott Mall here in Culver City. Preliminary indications are that the mall has suffered major damage, and that the second floor may have collapsed onto the lower level in the north wing."
The camera panned the broken structure, zooming in on the north wing with its crumbled exterior and uneven roofline. "I have here with me Skye Steinberg, a clerk at Binders Books on the lower level. Skye, what can you tell us about what happened?"
"It was awful!" the clerk blurted. "Everything shook and the ceiling started to fall. I was near the door when the shaking started, and I was knocked out into the center of the mall. Glass was falling, people were screaming. I was so scared!" The young girl's forehead furrowed and her eyes became wide as she recalled the images. "When I turned around, the Radio Shack, the store that was right over us, had fallen to where the bookstore used to be."
The reporter lowered his voice somberly, and followed, "Did you see other people in there? Did everyone get out?"
"It wasn't crowded today." Skye's lip began to quiver as she remembered the kind woman in her store. "But there was one customer in the back of the bookstore. She was tall and beautiful and she had long black hair." Tears welled up and threatened to fall.
"Do you know what happened to her?" the reporter prodded. They were live on the air!
"I didn't see her again. I?I don't know?I don't think she made it." Skye raised her hand to cover her eyes and started to sob.
Hanson signaled Jane to linger a few more moments on the crying woman, then cleared his throat softly and said "I'm Art Hanson for News 26, and we'll have more later from the Endicott Mall."
Anna was exhausted. She had tried in vain to pull herself from her prison. The shelf now rested firmly on her left leg, its sharp edge digging into the soft tissue around her knee. Her toes had begun to tingle, and she feared that she would soon lose feeling in her lower leg.
The woman's repeated cries for help had gone unanswered and she knew with a certainty that she was alone. She wondered what had happened to the orange-haired clerk and then shuddered as she acknowledged the likely truth. It's too soon to panic, she calmed herself. She'd read that a person could survive for several days without food or water, so as long as she had enough air to breathe, the rescuers would probably find her. If they know I'm here, she allowed the thought to creep into her consciousness.
"Help! Help! Somebody! I'm in here!" She yelled until she was hoarse.
"Well, this would certainly solve all of my problems, and all of Scott's too," she sighed. "Worse things could happen." Trapped, and for the moment out of options, Anna closed her eyes and succumbed to the fatigue she felt.
This wasn't Lily's first experience at being trapped in a dark space. Time had a merciful way of stealing memories from her early childhood, but one she clearly remembered was being locked in a dark closet on several occasions when her mother went out. To this day, Lily slept with a nightlight.
Fighting back the urge to kick at the walls and scream, Lily gathered herself for what she knew would be her strongest test. I'm going to get out here if I have to bore through the floor and dig a tunnel.
She couldn't reach the atrium here, so she decided to try to reach it from the adjacent store. Where the floor had fallen, she expected a gap between the wall and the partially collapsed ceiling, or between the wall and the floor. She would crawl or climb, whatever it took.
As she began feeling along the dirt wall to guide her towards the next store, the young woman unknowingly passed within inches of the clerk who had taken her debit card. The total darkness spared Lily the image of her crushed and broken body, and her wide, lifeless eyes.
"We're back here on the scene at the Endicott Mall with emergency services coordinator Philip Bertram. Mr. Bertram, what's the situation here?" Art Hanson asked.
"Well," the official began, "we can confirm that part of the second level on the north wing has collapsed onto the lower level. There are about six or seven stores that are affected, and right now, we don't know how many people were in those stores at the time of the quake."
"Do you have casualties?" Hanson asked eagerly.
"Yes, we do," Bertram replied grimly. "There were over 200 people who were injured, some seriously. We've sent about 75 to area hospitals."
"Are there still people inside the mall, or have you gotten everyone out?"
"Our crews have been inside the main areas that we're able to reach to clear out the survivors. We haven't started our sweep yet, but we're talking with people who were in the mall at the time to help us determine how many people might be missing. It's pretty dangerous to be in there right now, but we're going to do all we can with some of listening equipment that we have. With a quake of this magnitude, we're expecting some pretty significant aftershocks. "
"Are there fatalities?" Hanson prodded.
"We have four confirmed fatalities." Bertram paused. "We expect many more."
Two hours and 40 minutes later, Lily had finally found a small opening at the top of the wall and squeezed into what seemed to be a Foot Locker. Athletic shoes, even new ones, had a distinct odor.
If the floor in this new store was even with that of the store she had just left, Lily expected about a seven-foot drop on the other side. Hanging by her fingers, she stretched her toes down to the floor. In truth, she knew that she was still a long way from getting out of this tomb, but even the small progress was exhilarating.
"This would be a good time to change into sensible shoes," she joked aloud. She had lost her own pumps in the fitting room. "My luck, I'd find shoes that fit perfectly, and when I finally crawled out of here with all of America watching my miraculous escape, I'd be wearing two different colors. Mom would be mortified. I can see her now. 'No, that's not my daughter!'" She laughed at the image. "Earthquake survivor arrested for shoplifting. Details at eleven."
Lily rested a moment when she reached a pile of what seemed like sweat suits and t-shirts. She was exhausted, but she knew she needed to keep moving. It was a roll of the dice whether the aftershocks would free her or bury her deeper.
Anna became vaguely aware of someone talking?laughing even. "Hello! Help! Is somebody there?" She was hoarse, and knew her voice wasn't carrying very far. Her left knee was throbbing, and every small movement was met with excruciating pains. She strained to hear a sound, but all was quiet.
Lily groped around the perimeter at the front of the store, finding nothing but earth from the floor to where the ceiling had fallen, a space only four feet high. Crawling along the far wall, she found no gaps between the floor and the wall. Her only hope was that there would be an opening between the wall and the ceiling.
Most likely, the opening would be at the apex of the spot where the floor had fallen so sharply, just as it had been on the opposite wall where she had crawled from the clothing store. To reach the spot, Lily dragged what she imagined was one of those cone-shaped shoe displays to the far wall. It was lightweight, but sturdy, and it had nice little footholds where the shoes usually sat.
Sure enough, the small woman found an opening at the top, but it was going to take all her strength to pull herself up that high. Those hours on the weight machines are going to pay off after all. The wall had cracked neatly in two where the earth below the store had jutted through. The opening Lily managed to find was a small triangle made by the uneven portions of the wall and the straining ceiling. On her third attempt, she managed to get her head and shoulders through the hole. "Finally!" she shouted triumphantly. Pulling herself through, Lily tumbled to the floor in a heap. "Shit!" she said as she clutched her shoulder, which bore the brunt of her fall.
"Please, help me," a woman's weak voice called.
Seven hours and 13 minutes after the initial quake, the first aftershock began to rattle the darkened chamber. The shift had caused the shelf to grind against Anna's knee, and she passed out from the excruciating pain.
Downtown LA had been spared the brunt of the quake, but power was out over much of the city. Tony, Lauren and Pauline were in the Braxton Street Law Clinic, calling clients on their cell phones to check on their well-being and to let them know not to worry about their pending cases, that the courthouse was temporarily closed. "Did anybody reach Lily?" Lauren asked.
"I've called her a half-dozen times. The only times I've gotten through, it's gone to voicemail," said Tony.
"I talked with Maria Esperanza," offered Pauline. "She said Lily dropped her off about 11:30 at her sister's house in Culver City."
"I'm going to call my brother in San Diego," Lauren said. "They'll have TV. They probably know more about everything than we do." Scrolling through the numbers in her Palm Pilot, she dialed her brother. "Damon?Yeah, I'm okay?Jason's okay?," the latter reference to her husband. "Well, we're a little worried about one of our lawyers, though?Lilian Stuart, you know the cute lesbian you wanted me to fix you up with?Listen, we were hoping you might know something. Our power is out?" She listened a moment. "Are you sure?? Thanks, Damon. Hey, call Mom and Dad and tell them we're okay."
She turned to her co-workers, her face drained of color. "They're saying that it was centered in Culver City. That a mall collapsed. People are dead."
Nervously, Tony asked, "Did she say anything about going to a mall?"
"No," answered Pauline. "She was supposed to come back to the office. She had a court appearance at one. But she called back to say she had an errand and to send her files to the courthouse."
Tony's stomach tightened and an ominous feeling came over him. "I'm going down there." He grabbed his jacket and cell phone. "Call me if you hear anything."
Scott Rutherford stared into the traffic. His handsome face was set in an anxious combination of fear and concern. The muscles in his jaw tightened and he ran his right hand once more through his sandy brown hair in frustration. He glanced in the rearview mirror before signaling to move to the next lane. The brown eyes reflected back at him from the mirror were tired and masked the guilt which he now so keenly felt.
"Kim!" He spoke loudly into the speakerphone as he merged into the next lane. After hearing the obnoxious recording six previous times that "all circuits are busy", he had finally gotten through on his cell phone to his sister-in-law. "Has anyone heard from Anna?" he asked as he inched along the freeway towards Culver City,
"No, she called Carmen about 11:30 and said the meeting had run over and she would be in the office in about an hour. No one's heard from her since." Scott could hear the worry in her voice.
"Kim, I got a call at my office from our housekeeper." He took a breath and stared grimly into the traffic as he broke the news. "They found Anna's car crushed in the garage of the Endicott Mall."
"Oh, my God!" she screamed. "Scott, was she??"
"No, Kim. The police said she wasn't in the car. A lot of people have gone to the hospital, though." He paused. "They said that part of the mall has collapsed. Listen, I need you to see if you can find out if she was taken somewhere. And somebody has to stay by the phone. I'm headed toward the mall. I don't think I'll be able to get all the way there, but I'll get as close as I can. I'll call you as soon as I know something and you do the same. Okay?"
Kim was frantic and she felt tears beginning to form. Her usually cheerful face was fractured by the deep creases which formed in her forehead. However, she knew this was no time to panic. She knew they needed to find out all they could before the news reached their father, George Kaklis. "I'm on it. If you can't reach me, leave a message."
"Right." Scott ended the call and edged over to the exit for Endicott Avenue. Please let her be okay.
Scott loved his wife and was deeply committed to his marriage. But a careless one-night stand with his ex-girlfriend one month before his wedding had produced a child, a beautiful son, and had put his marriage at risk. Anna might never have learned of this breach had they not run into the woman three months ago, now carrying the two-month-old baby boy with Scott's brown eyes. As she had watched the awkward but knowing exchange between her husband and the woman, realization dawned. Anna moved her things into the guest room as soon as they got home and, as yet, refused his attempts to talk about it.
I'll do whatever I can to make it up to her, just let her be all right!
"Hello!" Lily called out. Desperate to find the source of the voice she had heard, she asked again, "Where are you? Are you hurt?" Hearing nothing, she feared the worst for the woman who had cried out. The aftershock had brought the ceiling lower, but Lily was safely crouched at a low point in the bookstore. If the woman was at a higher point, she may have been hurt?or worse. "Talk to me! Where are you?" she yelled. Still no response.
Lily understood the danger she was in. The next tremor might bring the ceiling all the way down, sealing her underground with no hope of rescue. But she couldn't forge ahead knowing that there was someone else trapped here, someone who likely had no chance at all without her help. Her mind made up, Lily started to scramble toward the direction of the sound.
After more than an hour of groping in the darkness and calling out, Lily's hand brushed upon a full head of thick hair, then a warm face. "There you are. I finally found you," she said with relief. Reaching out, Lily discovered that the woman was pinned underneath a bookshelf. The top shelf lay across her chest. She found a strong pulse in the woman's neck, and gently patted the woman's cheek until she felt her stir.
Anna's eyes fluttered open, but in the darkness, she couldn't see who was touching her face. Nonetheless, she felt calmed by the presence of this other person. "Thank god," Anna murmured, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "I'm?the bookshelf is?"
"Yeah, I can feel it across your chest. Can you move?"
"It hurts. My leg?the whole weight of the shelf is on it. Every time I try to push it up off my chest, it presses harder into my knee," she explained. Taking a deep breath, she went on. "That last tremor made it even heavier. I think something fell on it." Lily could hear the relief in the woman's voice, relief she assumed was because someone had come to help.
"Well, let's see if we can get you out of here." Lily crawled alongside the woman. The second shelf lay across the woman's lower abdomen, just above her hips. She ran her hand underneath it, noting that it wasn't pressed tightly against the woman's body.
"Under normal circumstances, I'd buy you dinner first," Lily joked, hoping to ease the woman's tension. "I'm Lily, by the way. I thought you'd like to know who was feeling you up."
Anna laughed at the joke, not minding at all the hands that brushed against her to help free her. "I'm Anna, and I can't tell you how glad I am to meet you! I've been screaming for hours."
"Yeah well, sorry. I was busy trying on a new top."
Anna was comforted by the woman's gentle humor. She caught the small hand and squeezed it. "Thank you for coming to help me," she said sincerely.
"No problem," Lily reassured the woman, returning the squeeze. She then pulled her hand away and reached lower to gently touch Anna's knee where the lower shelf pinched the swollen flesh. "I can see why this hurts so much. This shelf is digging into your knee. Let's see if we can take some of the pressure off."
Reaching around her in the dark, Lily began gathering books into two piles, one underneath the shelf that pinned Anna's knee, the other beside the top shelf that pressed against her chest. When the piles were stacked even with the shelf, she told Anna of her plan. "I need you to get ready to push up on the shelf on your end. I'm going to lift this one up at the same time and slip a couple of books under it. Then I'll put a couple of books under your shelf."
"Just say when," Anna said, gripping the shelf.
Lily double-checked the positions of her stacks of books, and kneeled next to Anna's knee. There was barely enough headroom for her to straighten up. "Ready? Now."
Both women grunted as they lifted their respective shelves. Lily strained to hold the bookshelf with one hand while her other quickly slid two thin books onto the top of the stack. Next, she added one thick book to the stack next to the top shelf. When they released their loads, the shelf was still touching, but not pressing into Anna's leg. The other shelf was no longer resting on the woman.
Anna was so relieved that she could have cried. Her foot began to tingle as the blood once again surged through her lower leg.
"Is that better?" Lily asked hopefully.
"Much better! Most of the pressure is off my leg now, and I can't feel the other shelf at all."
"Think you can do that again? One more time, and I think I'll be able to pull you out."
"Ready when you are," Anna replied eagerly.
They repeated the procedure, this time adding one thick hardback book to each stack. "How's that?" Lily asked as she reached again to Anna's knee.
I'm free! "It still hurts, but at least I can move now." Anna squirmed, trying to no avail to slide out of her prison. "I need to get out from under this thing," the exasperation evident in her voice.
"Let me help." Lily moved up and slipped her hands underneath the woman's arms. "Tell me when you're out." Slowly, she scooted backwards, extricating Anna from the vise that had held her for almost nine hours. It seemed to Lily that she had backed up ten feet. "Good God, woman! How tall are you?"
Lily threw her head back and laughed heartily. Anna joined her, and both women felt a little of the palpable tension of the past several hours start to lessen, perhaps simply from the knowledge that they were no longer in this alone.
Once Anna was free, the two women moved slowly to the lowest part of the room. The injured woman's knee was throbbing, and she couldn't support her full weight on it. She followed Lily to the far wall, and sat while the shorter woman felt for a path to the next room.
"Is there a method to your madness, or do we just keep moving any way we can?" Anna asked.
"In the other rooms, I've found a break between the wall and the ceiling right where the floor has sunk the most," Lily explained. "I'm hoping we'll find an opening, maybe some light from the atrium or even outside. If we do, we'll work towards getting out that way. There's no way out back the way I came."
"Sounds like a plan. What do you want me to do?"
"If you can crawl up to the front of the store, try feeling around the ceiling for a breeze, or even air that's a different temperature. If you find something, it might mean there's a way into the atrium."
Anna did as she was told, but after almost an hour, she had found no clue of a break in collapsed walls. Her leg was aching badly, but she kept it to herself. We have enough to worry about.
Lily, though, had located another pass-through halfway up the east wall. The weight of the store above them had pushed on the wall and forced it to buckle. A small hole had formed between the two sliding layers of wall and the two women pushed and pulled one another until they both fell from the gap into the adjacent bridal shop.
"God, I could sleep for a week!" Lily flopped down into the pile of lace and satin lining the crevasse that bisected the store. Racks of wedding gowns had rolled into the gaping hole and toppled, layering the earth which had broken through the store floor with a strange blanket of plush cloth.
"Maybe we should stop and rest a few hours," Anna suggested casually, falling beside her savior.
"As tempting as that sounds, I'm worried about the aftershocks. The ceiling dropped during the last one, and the next one could finish the job. If that happens, I'd realize my worst fear."
"What's that? Being buried alive?"
"No, being caught dead in a bridal shop," Lily deadpanned.
Anna laughed and reached across the darkness to elbow her companion jovially. After a moment, she said, "Look, I know it's a risk. But my stomach tells me that it's way after dark, and if we wait, we'll have a better chance of seeing an opening in the daylight."
Lily considered Anna's point, but persisted, "I really think it would be best if we kept moving."
"I can't, Lily," Anna finally confessed. "My knee is killing me. I'm going to have to rest it, at least for a couple of hours."
"Do you mind if I check your knee?" Lily reached toward Anna's leg and ran her hand across the woman's injured knee. She heard Anna's breath catch in her throat as she anticipated the tenderness in the joint. Lily was shocked to discover how swollen it was. "Anna! Why didn't you say something? God, it must hurt like hell!" She groped around on the floor until she found what felt like a small display pedestal. Pulling it over to the tall woman, she piled several cloths-probably $3,000 wedding dresses-on top to soften it, and gently lifted Anna's leg to place it on the cushion.
Anna considered the gravity of their predicament for a moment and finally proposed, "I know it's still dangerous in here. Maybe you should go ahead by yourself. When you get out, you can tell them where I am. I'm only going to slow you down."
Lily didn't hesitate. "We're going out together, Anna. I think we'll be safe here-it's a low point. We'll rest a few hours and move out when your leg's better. Besides, with two of us, we should make good time if we're rested."
Both women leaned back and got as comfortable as they could. A minute or so passed and Anna asked into the darkness, "So why are you so afraid of bridal shops?" She was impressed that this woman could keep her sense of humor at a time like this. It was calming, and she knew somehow that the story behind that phobia would be a good one.
Lily chuckled. "Let's just say that walking down the aisle in a white dress has never been on my list of dreams."
"Wish I'd had that foresight," Anna mumbled. "How did you get to be so wise?"
"Well, it isn't wisdom, exactly." Lily wavered. She was usually up front about her sexuality, but finding herself trapped with a homophobe would be the icing on the cake for a day like today. "It just isn't for me."
Anna heard the hesitation and regretted putting her new friend on the spot. "Sorry, I didn't mean to get personal."
"No, it's okay?I just?" Oh, what the hell. "I'm gay."
Silence. More silence. Shit! Should have kept my big fat mouth shut!
"Oh?so you really were feeling me up?" Anna threw another elbow into Lily's rib, and the young woman let out the breath she'd been holding.
I like this lady! Lily thought with relief as she laughed out loud.
Tony reached the mall long after dark. Between the emergency vehicles and the traffic restrictions, he was forced to park in a residential area off Endicott and walk the last mile to the site. Others had the same idea, and soon Tony fell into step with a tall, sandy-haired man who had left his Z3 on the sidewalk.
"Have you heard anything?" he asked the man.
"Just that the mall has collapsed," the other man responded grimly, not losing his stride.
"Yeah, the radio said it was the north side. I think we can get there quicker if we cut through here," Tony said, indicating a side street that ran parallel to the mall's fenced parking area.
The two men helped each other scale the fence and soon emerged behind the parking garage. By approaching from the north, they had bypassed the police tape that restricted foot traffic in the area.
"One of the lawyers from my office is missing. She was in Culver City when she called in, but no one knows exactly where. We haven't heard from her since just before the quake," Tony related to the man, who seemed extremely focused on getting as close as he could.
"My wife is missing," was all the man said as he began to jog to the rescue site.
"Well, good luck! Hope you find her!" Tony shouted to the receding figure.
Tony was taken aback at the devastation before him. On the lower level of the south wing, the mall opened directly onto the parking lot. But the site sloped upward to the north, thus the lower level stores on one side of the north wing were effectively underground. When the second level collapsed, the new roofline dropped to ground level, making it appear as though half of the north wing had been bulldozed.
Tony scanned the parking lot for Lily's RAV4. Not finding it, he slipped into the restricted garage. He ducked to walk through the lower level, checking carefully the crushed vehicles. When he reached the second level, his breath caught. There sat Lily's small SUV, its 'What Would Xena Do?' bumper sticker confirming its owner.
The lawyer backtracked his route to exit the garage. By the time he reached the parking lot, his eyes were full of tears. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he called Lauren. He got through on the fourth attempt.
"Tony! What did you find out?" Lauren immediately asked, recognizing the number on her caller ID. She stood up from her kitchen table and clutched her husband's hand.
"She was in the mall, Lauren. I found her car."
"Oh God, no!" Lauren gasped. Jason stood and wrapped his arms around his wife. When she calmed, she said simply, "I'm going to call her mom, Tony. She needs to be here." They talked a few more moments and hung up.
At 6:15 a.m. on Friday morning, the second aftershock woke the women from their exhausted sleep. Without thought, they reached in the dark for each other and clasped hands while the earth shook. What previously was the ceiling above them groaned under the weight of the collapsed building. Both women uttered silent prayers that what was left of the walls and supports would hold. They could hear the sound of metal scraping and twisting and smelled the fresh dust and debris loosened by the jolt.
"You okay?" Anna asked.
"All things being equal, I'd prefer to wake to 'Morning Edition'," Lily quipped when the shaking stopped. She drew in a deep breath, and stretched her arms and shoulders as she sat upright. "We'd better get a move on. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to get out of here." She pulled the taller woman to her feet. "How's the knee?"
"It's still pretty sore. But I can walk. Let's go."
They repeated the drill from the bookstore. Anna crawled to the front of the bridal shop and checked along the ceiling for a draft. Lily found another gap at the top of the south wall or the bridal shop, and soon they were squeezing through into the shoe store.
"Only two more to go and we'll be at the end," the small woman declared. Left unsaid was the hope that at the end would be a way out. "There's a jewelry store next, then a lingerie store." They sat for a moment and rested against the slanted floor. Out of habit, Lily reached to straighten her skirt. She caught the irony and laughed. "I picked a great day to wear my favorite suit, huh?"
"Yeah, me too. I had a fancy meeting first thing, so I got out one of my best."
"What kind of work do you do?" Lily inquired.
"I sell cars. What about you?"
Anna's response surprised the blonde. This woman sounded well-educated, cultured. "I'm a lawyer." She paused, anticipating a lawyer joke.
"That figures. You strike me as someone who could be pretty argumentative." Another elbow to Lily's rib followed. Since the darkness prevented either woman from seeing the other's expression, Anna's elbow let Lily know she was only teasing the young attorney.
"Hey, watch it! You ever been sued for personal injury?"
The banter quieted for a moment, each woman mentally sizing up the other. After a few minutes, Lily asked, "Are you afraid, Anna? Afraid that we won't get out of here?"
Anna was quiet for so long that Lily wondered if she hadn't heard the question. Finally, the tall woman spoke. "I've considered that. I thought about it a lot during those hours I was trapped and alone. But ever since you helped me out from under that bookshelf, I haven't doubted for a moment that we're going to get out of here. I just don't think you'd have pulled me out if I had been meant to die in here."
"I hope you're right, Amazon."
Friday morning, Scott attended the briefing for family members at FEMA's Public Information Office, a tent set up near the entrance to the mall. No additional damage was reported after the morning aftershock, and rescue workers were hopeful that they could re-enter the building to search for survivors and victims.
Reaching Kim's voicemail, he passed on the update.
Meanwhile, Kim was consoling her step-father, George Kaklis. She and her husband Hal had driven to her parents' home to let them know what they had learned about Anna.
The patriarch of the Kaklis family was visibly distraught. George Tydeus Kaklis was a first generation American. Born in 1937, shortly after his parents left Greece for the United States, he had been raised during tumultuous times. Though too young to remember the war itself, the values of the World War II generation-loyalty toward his country and a firm belief in hard work-were deeply ingrained in him. Anna was his beloved daughter, the only remaining link to his first wife, Christia. It was Christia's father who had founded Premier Motors as an Oldsmobile dealership in 1951. Working with his wife, George had acquired the BMW franchise in the mid-1960s, and built it into the success it was. Anna's beautiful mother had died of breast cancer when the child was only ten. Three years later, George married Kim's mother, Martine, a widow of six years. Together, they had one son, David, now a high school junior.
The entire family, with the exception of Scott, was gathered at the Kaklis home in Beverly Hills. Everyone understood the special bond between the old man and his daughter, and it was important that they offer their support. As blended families go, theirs was unusually devoted.
Martine had always taken in stride her husband's doting on Anna, as she herself was particularly close to Kim. Over the years, Anna had forged a very loving relationship with her stepmother, made much easier by the fact that she had bonded instantly with her stepsister, only one year younger than herself. Since the first day they met, the girls had been best friends and confidantes.
As the family comforted George, Kim walked out to the patio alone and began to sob. She had spent the entire day feigning optimism. A full day had passed since the earthquake and the fears she had worked so hard to bury had begun to simmer to the surface. Knowing she couldn't just sit by the phone and wait for news from Scott any longer, she hurriedly wiped the remaining tears and went back into the house and grabbed her sweater. "Hal, will you drive me to the Endicott Mall? One of us should be there, and Scott shouldn't be by himself. I'm going to sit with him until we learn something."
"It was probably bad luck for me to say anything about not getting out of here. In fact, the earthquake was probably my fault too." Lily and Anna had been searching the room by hand for more than two hours when they concluded that they were trapped. The shorter woman had found a gap at the top of the wall, but when Anna had scoped it out, she determined that it was only about two inches high and four inches across.
"We'll just have to think of something else," Anna said reassuringly.
Guessing that Anna would be reluctant to complain about her knee, Lily spoke up. "What do you say we rest a few minutes?"
The tall woman was instantly relieved. They sat down to rest and regroup. Anna closed her eyes and soon, her thoughts wandered to the life that awaited her if and when she escaped this tomb. "So who's waiting for you out there?" Anna asked.
"Probably no one," Lily replied. "I'm sure my friends from work have missed me by now, but I didn't tell anyone that I was stopping by the mall."
"So no girlfriend?" Anna tried to imagine what kind of girlfriend Lily might have.
"No. I'm between heartbreaks," Lily joked.
"Yeah, I bet. I suspect that you're the heartbreaker. You seem so confident and in charge of everything else."
"It's a ruse." Lily was quiet for a moment. "Is anyone waiting for you?"
"My husband, I guess."
"No, I'm sure he's there." Anna grew pensive. She didn't want Lily to think she'd married an ogre, but their current situation was depressing enough without adding to the misery by pouring her heart out to a virtual stranger in the dark. "I?I didn't mean to give you the wrong impression. He's a good man. It's just that we may have rushed a bit in getting married." She paused, and said aloud for the first time, "I'm not sure we're right for each other."
"How long have you been married?" Lily inquired.
"A little over a year."
Lily placed a hand on Anna's shoulder. "If you want to talk about it, I'm not going anywhere. Literally."
"No, that's okay." Anna paused, then added, "I've had a lot of trouble talking about it. It's just one of those things I'm going to have to work out on my own. And with my husband."
Just thirteen months ago, Anna and Scott had stood before their family and friends saying those words everyone hopes to utter only once in a lifetime. Now those promises stood in shambles, and neither was sure their marriage could be saved.
Anna had desperately wanted to hide her situation from her family. If we can work it out somehow, no one need ever know that this happened. She had waited so long to find the man with whom she thought she could spend the rest of her life, enduring gentle criticism from her father about her so-called perfectionist standards for men. For years, she had written off dates that she deemed too dim, too self-centered, or too focused on ending up between the sheets.
Scott was none of those. A professor in the business school at Southern Cal, he had been eager to hear how she applied her MBA coursework to the operations of the BMW dealership. He picked her brain for ideas on how to make his classes more practical to build in his students the enthusiasm for business that she so clearly manifested. As they shared coffee and conversation over several weeks, Anna grew to like the handsome 40-year-old with the gentle brown eyes. Coffee became dinner, and dinner became romance. Four months after their first meeting, Scott proposed.
Anna had never been so comfortable with a man in all the years she had dated. Memories of her first-and only other-sexual experience always brought an involuntary shudder. Victor was a grad student at Cal Poly with whom she had gone out only casually for a few months. She hadn't even told the young man that she was a virgin, because that would be acknowledging that he was somehow special, and he really wasn't. To this day, she regretted sharing that intimacy just to satisfy a curiosity. The experience was fine. "Fine" was really the only word to describe it. The lack of "fireworks" made sense, she reasoned, since in the absence of love, sex itself seemed an empty act.
Scott was an experienced lover, and the physical aspect of their relationship was pleasing. But to Anna, it seemed that sex wasn't exactly living up to its reputation as the be-all-end-all, though she convinced herself that it would get better as they grew closer. But after only a few months of marriage, their lovemaking seemed strained and mechanical, and no matter how hard either of them tried, they couldn't seem to connect on an emotional level when they shared their bodies. Despite the fact that she truly loved Scott, she just didn't feel the passion for him she thought she eventually would.
After eight months of marriage, Scott suggested they start a family. "I'm not getting any younger," he had stated, "and neither are you," he teased. Anna knew Scott would be a wonderful father, and decided that a baby might be just the ticket to bring them closer. Then they ran into Sarah.
Anna was returned to the here and now when a hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet. "Let's see if there's a way to go through the ceiling!"
The channel 26 news crew was setting up for its live report from the scene for the 26 Noon News. Art Hanson picked up the scene report from the public information officer and scanned the crowd for an anguished face. He found many, including that of a young man in a crumpled suit.
Hanson approached the man. "Hello. I'm Art Hanson with Channel 26 News. Would you mind answering a few questions so that our viewers can get an idea of how serious the situation is here at the mall?" he pleaded hopefully.
"Sure. But I'm just waiting like everyone else."
"That's okay." Turning, Hanson yelled "Janie, over here!" and a tall, forty-ish woman with curly brown hair trudged over to the tent, her camera already shouldered for the news spot. Hanson scribbled on a notepad. "Could you tell me your name?"
"Tony. Anthony LeFevre." He spelled his last name for the newsman.
"Who are you waiting for here?"
"Lilian Stuart. She's a lawyer at our firm. We haven't heard from her since yesterday. Her car was found in the garage by the part of the mall that fell."
Hanson briefed Tony on the questions he would ask, and gave instruction on where he should face and how he should use the microphone. As the taped interview was winding down, the reporter squared his shoulders and looked directly at Tony. "Mr. LeFevre?it's been twelve hours since any survivors were found. What do you think of your friend's chances?" Hanson was hoping for an emotional response, and he was not disappointed.
"If I were trapped in there, I'd want Lily with me. Lily's going to make it out. She's that kind of person." Tony's words sounded stronger and more assured than he perhaps felt.
Scott Rutherford listened in to the final remarks. He wondered if Anna were that kind of person as well. How could I not know that about her?
As though reading his thoughts, Kim Philips placed her hand on her brother-in-law's shoulder. "She'll be all right, Scott. She'll fight to hold on."
"I certainly haven't given her a reason to fight her way out of there," he said dejectedly. Turning to walk away, Kim pulled him back.
"You're going to have to explain that comment, Scott."
The pair walked over to the Red Cross water truck and sat on the bumper in the shade. Scott was crying at the end of the awful tale, and Kim had listened intently to every word. It was all coming to light now-Anna's long hours, her moodiness, the way she had avoided the family. Kim wanted very much to slap her brother-in-law senseless, but knew that this was Anna's call. Instead, she said, "I'm in Anna's corner, Scott. Whatever she wants is what I want." It was their Oath of Sisters, a pact they had made when Anna was fourteen and Kim thirteen. Kim pushed herself up and brushed off her dusty jeans. Looking down at Scott, she could see the anguish in his eyes. She patted him lightly on the back and then turned to head toward the public information tent to await the noon update.
"Damn! This thing is stubborn!" The women had been working more than an hour to loosen a ceiling panel near the wall that bordered the next store. The ceiling at this point was just low enough for Anna to stretch her arms up and reach it. Lily had located a standard plastic and metal chair on which to stand, though it teetered precariously on the crooked floor. Each time they pushed, pulled or pounded, it gave a little but always returned snugly to its place. On one occasion, Lily reached through the opening when it was pushed upward and determined that there was about a foot of space between the ceiling tile and the actual ceiling of the shoe store. That would be barely enough room to maneuver, but first they needed access.
Lily, still trying valiantly to keep their spirits up, had been jabbering on about how they could have picked up souvenirs along the way, emerging from the rubble in dirty white wedding gowns with tennis shoes and diamond earrings. "Just imagine what we could pick up in Fredrick's of Hollywood!" she joked.
Her companion though, was quiet, lost in thought from their earlier conversation about who might greet them when they exited. "Pardon me, am I keeping you awake?" Lily noticed the woman's extended silence and tried to inject some levity into the question.
"Sorry. I was thinking about something. What were you saying?"
"I was saying 'Why don't you tell me what's on your mind?' It might help if you got it off your chest." Lily continued to tug at the ceiling tile.
Anna sighed, and plopped down on the sloping floor. It might help. And maybe it would be easier to talk about it in the dark. "Well, it's?you see I?I learned recently that my husband had a baby with another woman. It happened before we were married, but we were engaged, and?we had already?been intimate." Well there, that wasn't so hard. She continued, "It was his old girlfriend, and both of them had been drinking. We ran into her and the baby last November, and I've spent every night since then in the guest room."
Lily considered her companion. Anna's quiet strength and confidence were obvious and Lily realized it must have taken a lot of courage for Anna to admit this betrayal in her life, especially to someone she had known for such a short time. Lily wanted to kick Anna's son of a bitch husband, even though she didn't even know him. "That's a pretty heavy load, Anna. I can see why you're upset." She didn't want to pry, but she sensed that the woman needed to talk about it. "What do you think you'll do?"
"Well, it occurred to me more than once that disappearing under a pile of concrete would settle a lot," Anna laughed quietly.
"Don't even say that!" Lily countered angrily.
"No, no! I'm not being serious," the tall woman backpedaled. "I told you already. Once you helped me out, I knew I wasn't meant to die in here. I plan on getting out of here. And when I do, I have to decide what's next. I'm not going to keep beating Scott up about all of this, or myself for that matter. We'll fix it."
Lily relaxed, relieved to see that Anna still had a fire in her. "I'm sure you will, Anna. I bet you have no idea how strong you are. I can see it, and I've known you less than a day."
With a strong jerk, Lily broke off a corner of the sturdy tile, and reached above it. A metal brace in the center was holding the tile - each tile, probably - firmly into place. To get through, they were going to have to break it apart piece by piece.
"What would you do if you were me?" Anna continued.
"I wouldn't touch that question with a ten-foot pole! I don't really know your history, or how you feel about each other. Besides, you definitely don't want to be taking advice on your love life from someone like me."
"Oh, right. I forgot I was in here with The Heartbreak Kid."
"Noooo. You're in here with The Heartbroken Kid. I make bad decisions. Repeatedly."
"Why don't I take a turn on tearing that ceiling apart? While you rest, you can tell me your sordid tales."
"You'll think I'm pathetic," Lily groaned.
"Me? Who am I to pick on you? Come on, tell me about your heartbreaks, Kid." Climbing up to take her turn at the ceiling, Anna added, "Besides, if you're that pathetic, maybe I'll feel better."
"Great. I'm stuck in here with a comedienne."
"You'd have said the same thing and you know it." She was right.
"Okay, but you're going to think I'm such a loser." She leaned back on the incline and told Anna the tales of Melanie, Becca and Beverly, leaving out the sex parts so she wouldn't embarrass her new friend.
Lily had never been with a man. Her first sexual experience was during her sophomore year in college, with Melanie, a woman she met at a lecture on lesbian health. The sex was fantastic and Lily was sure she had found her other half on the very first try. But it was not to be. The more experienced lesbian wasn't ready to settle down, and Lily was determined not to wear her heart on her sleeve next time.
Alas, the heart has a will of its own, and at the beginning of her senior year, she fell hard for Becca Silby, UCLA's All-American point guard. That lasted nearly two years, until Becca opted out of the WNBA draft in favor of a more lucrative European contract. It was pretty clear to Lily what that said regarding their future.
After she landed her job at the law clinic-landed is a funny word, since most young lawyers shunned this work in favor of a little prestige and having enough to eat-she met Beverly, a home health care consultant ten years her senior at 35, with a precocious five-year-old son. Lily moved into Beverly's three-bedroom home and immediately meshed her life with that of her new lover. She adored Josh, and the feeling was mutual. Beverly was definitely The One. That is, until two years into their relationship when Lily suggested that they trade rings or some other token of devotion. Beverly wasn't into commitment, but she didn't want to be the jerk here, especially since it might be difficult to explain to her son. So she began to complain about the things Lily did, little things at first, then eventually, most things. She would pick fights, then lambaste the younger woman for losing her temper. In a final act of cruelty, she asked Lily to move out so that her son would no longer be exposed to Lily's mood swings and unpredictable temper. It took a long time for Lily to stop blaming herself for the demise of the relationship and realize Beverly's game.
"So I'm a three-time loser," she finished. "If I ever do really fall in love, I seriously doubt if I'll be able to tell if it's real. Now you see why I say you shouldn't ask me for love advice."
"Don't be silly. You're not a loser. Sounds to me like you opened up your heart and some people just took advantage," Anna comforted. "Your turn again, okay? My arms feel like they're going to fall off." Anna had successfully removed another portion of the tile.
"Sure," Lily said, scrambling up to the lowered ceiling. Taking turns, the women continued to break the tile apart bit by bit. When Anna found a metal shoe sizer in the pile of debris, they were able to make quicker work of their task, and soon, the hole was large enough for each to squeeze through.
Eleanor Stuart drove straight to her daughter's apartment, hoping against hope that Lily had somehow made it home. She was met by Lily's two closest friends, Sandy, a social worker who collaborated often with Lily on some of her cases, and her partner Suzanne. Without a word, the three women embraced in the entryway, each shedding quiet tears.
Sandy and Suzanne had been partners for 11 years, and Eleanor loved that Lily had such strong successful role models in her life. Two years ago, she and Lily had vacationed with the pair in Mexico, and she got the chance to really get to know the two, individually and as a couple. There were never any secrets between Eleanor and Lily so Eleanor had known from Lily's high school days that she was gay. Though she would never have chosen such a difficult path for her daughter, Eleanor wanted the kind of happiness she saw between Sandy and Suzanne for Lily.
Those pleasant memories were far removed from the moment. The women saw the dark circles under Eleanor's red-rimmed eyes, and knew how hard this was for her. They pulled her into Lily's apartment, and filled her in on what they had learned from Tony after the six o'clock briefing.
Search crews using dogs had entered the mall shortly after ten this morning. As of six o'clock, they had removed the bodies of nine victims. No survivors had been found. The search was continuing, though the FEMA task force was no longer optimistic.
Tony had been sickened by what he saw, but he was relieved to report that Lily was not among the dead. Eleanor knew Tony from having visited Lily several times over the five years that her daughter had worked at the clinic, and she had passed on through Lauren her appreciation for the role he was playing in learning Lily's fate.
"I need to go down there," said Eleanor, looking around to retrieve her car keys. "It's my job to wait, not Tony's. He's done enough."
"Not now, Eleanor. You need to rest." Sandy put her hands on Eleanor's shoulders. "I'll go down there with Tony. Suzanne will stay here, and you can come tomorrow morning." She searched Eleanor's eyes for agreement. "Really, you need some rest."
Eleanor acquiesced, and walked out onto the small patio for a few moments of quiet contemplation. "You need to come back to me, baby," she said to the night, hoping Lily would somehow hear her.
Suzanne brought the woman's bag in from the car and placed it in Lily's guest room. Hugging her partner, she instructed, "Call me on my cell phone if you hear anything. I'll have it on vibrate so it won't wake her up."
It was well past midnight, but the trapped women had no way of knowing. Both were tired, sore, hungry and thirsty, but they resolved to keep moving as long as they could. Dehydration was their biggest worry now.
Over an hour ago, they had climbed into the narrow crawlspace above the ceiling. The support structure, a series of metal frames and braces, was difficult to navigate, especially in the dark. Anna in particular was struggling, her long legs constantly scraping against the bolts that stuck out from the frames. Progress was slow in the limited space.
When they reached the wall, they were frustrated to find that the metal frames were laid out like a maze, preventing them from moving forward toward the gap in the ceiling. In fact, it seemed that the only avenue for moving from the back of the store to the front was along the row that held the light fixtures. That meant backing up about ten feet and crawling toward the front of the store. They would have to guess which alley led to the gap in the wall.
Two hours later, on the fifth try, Anna found the opening. "The wall is crumbling here, but it still isn't big enough for us to get through. I think we're going to have to break it away like we did with the tile," she reported.
Lily was behind her in the narrow corridor which housed the light fixtures, and opted to return to the store for the shoe sizer. There was no way they could break through the wall with their bare hands.
The crawlspace was filled with dust, bugs and rodent droppings, though these elements were fortunately hidden from view by the darkness. For Lily, the stagnant air and exertion had combined to produce a tickling cough that was always bad news. Prone to asthma attacks when she exercised or encountered certain allergens, Lily carried her emergency inhaler wherever she went. Almost everywhere, she lamented, knowing it was in her briefcase under the driver's seat. Who knew?
Anna napped while Lily retrieved the tool. She awoke to the sound of violent coughing. "Lily! Are you all right?"
"I'll be fine," Lily wheezed as she crawled into the narrow space beside the tall woman. "I'm having a little trouble with my asthma, but I don't think it's going to get any worse."
Anna took the shoe sizer and began pounding at the edges of the crumbling drywall. Lily insisted on taking over after a few minutes, but it was obvious to both women that she was in acute distress.
"What can I do?" asked the tall woman anxiously.
"Nothing." She drew a shallow raspy breath. "I just need to get out of here and get some fresh air."
Anna took the sizer and began to work feverishly on the wall. She refused Lily's attempts to take a turn, sliding ahead of the smaller woman so that she blocked the wall from her reach. When the hole was finally large enough, she started through head first. Lily strained to hold her feet as Anna lowered herself to the floor of Lawson's Jewelry. Immediately, she noticed the broken glass. First her hand, then her bare foot met jagged shards that drew blood. Quickly, she turned and helped the blonde through the opening, guiding her up the sloping wall to avoid the danger. Lily was taking rapid shallow breaths and coughing profusely.
"It's okay, Lily. We're almost out. The air's better in here. You'll be okay." She desperately hoped that what she said was true.
"I need to?prop up?breathe better."
Anna hurriedly scooted behind her new friend, pulling the young woman onto her chest. She smoothed short strands of hair from Lily's face, and rocked her gently.
For Lily, this was familiar relief. When she was younger, Eleanor had held her close and rocked her while she wheezed. Lily knew she was in big trouble here. Without her inhaler, the attack could get worse. Anna needed to keep moving.
"You need to go on," she rasped. "Send someone back."
"Not a chance, Pygmy. Like you said, we're going out together." Anna hugged her loosely. "Get some rest. You'll get better."
Eleanor arrived at the mall at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Tony had brought his car to the family parking area, and was asleep in the back seat. He had been at the site since Thursday afternoon. Sandy led the woman to where he slept, opened the backdoor of the car and nudged him gently. "Tony, Eleanor's here."
The young man sat up, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. His sorrowful look as his eyes met Eleanor's nearly broke the older woman's heart. "Thank you, Tony. I appreciate what you've done more than you could ever know." She took the man in her arms as he broke down and sobbed.
The crowd had dwindled this morning to fewer than three dozen. At last count, searchers had removed 18 bodies from the rubble, and no survivors had been found since mid-afternoon on Thursday. The list of missing was down to 11, including the wife of the haggard young man who had come to the mall with Tony. All were concluded to have been in one of the six stores on the lower level, as every other inch of the structure had been searched.
At the seven o'clock briefing, it was announced that engineers were going to come in today to determine the safest way to excavate the lower level. Sound technicians were setting up to scan for stray noises underground. "I'll be honest with you," the site coordinator said. "We're running out of time to help anyone who may be trapped underneath the structure. We don't know what kind of air pockets there might be, or whether there was any gas or hazardous materials in the area. And at this point, dehydration is going to be a problem."
The families looked at one another grimly.
"But be assured that we're going to do everything we can."
Something was different. Anna awoke to Lily's vicious coughing spell. She helped the younger woman sit up and rubbed small circles on her back to comfort her as she gasped for breath. Anna looked around the jewelry store. There! A small but definite glow was evident at the back edge of the wall going into the next store.
"Lily! I can see daylight! Look!" Anna turned her friend in the direction of the patch of light. "Let's go!"
Lily was unable to move. Without treatment, her asthma attack had left her depleted of the oxygen needed to make her body work, her muscles move. Between rapid shallow breaths, she pleaded, "Go, Anna! I can't."
Anna was frozen with fear. She couldn't leave her friend. This woman had saved her life.
Lily made it clearer. "Get help." She gasped for breath, then coughed violently. "I?have?.to get?.an inhaler?" Lily stammered. Or I'll die.
With that, Anna squeezed Lily's hands and kissed her bloodied forehead. "I'll be back, Lily. It'll be okay, I promise." Anna stood and hurried toward the faintly lit crack in the wall.
The dividing wall had separated from the concrete blocks that lined the back of the store, but the opening was too narrow to get through. Anna retrieved the shoe sizer and pounded fiercely on the wall until it crumbled and tore away. She easily scrambled under the fallen ceiling into the lingerie store and was elated to see a solid beam of light coming in from a quarter-sized opening at the apex of the room, about nine feet above the floor.
"Help! Help!" She screamed louder than she ever had. Looking about, she spotted an extension rod that clerks used to reach items on the higher displays. Stretching it to its full length, Anna poked it through the hole to the outside. Up and down, side to side. She needed to get someone's attention.
After fifteen minutes, there was no response. She yelled again, but still no one heard. No one came.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light, and she spotted a mannequin at her feet, dressed in a red satin teddy. Anna pulled the extension rod back inside, and tied the teddy to its end. Pushing it back through the hole, she again waved it up and down, side to side, screaming for all she was worth.
Scott had been staring dejectedly at the crumpled mall as the searchers went about their work. He had asked for the fourth time to accompany them, and was told for the fourth time that he was not properly trained.
Suddenly, a movement caught his eye. "What the hell?" He squinted and walked toward the mall, gradually making out what looked like a red cloth?no, it was lingerie. It was definitely lingerie and it was waving back and forth. "Hey!" he yelled to the site manager, pointing to the spectacle. He started to run toward the spot, but was stopped by security.
By this time, a crowd had gathered around Scott and people were straining to see the first sign of life at the mall in almost 40 hours. Their view was obscured as rescuers rushed to the area.
The pole suddenly stopped moving as someone grabbed it from above. Anna pulled it back through, and yelled again. "Can you hear me?"
"We're here. We're going to get you out. Are you hurt?" the rescuer shouted.
"I'm all right. My friend needs help. She's having an asthma attack. Please hurry."
"You need to stand back. We're going to make the hole bigger. Get as far away as you can. Tell us when you're ready."
Anna hurried back to the passageway. "Go ahead! I'm ready."
The next 15 minutes seemed like hours, but finally, the searchers had widened the hole enough to illuminate the entire room. "It's going to be a few more minutes. We'll need to use some machinery to break through this asphalt," he assured.
"My friend can't wait," she pleaded desperately. "She needs an inhaler now for her asthma. She can't breathe."
A few minutes later, a head emerged through the hole. "Where is your friend?" the emergency medical technician asked.
"She's in the next store, back there." Anna pointed toward the hole through which she had previously climbed.
He disappeared, but soon the hole in the ceiling was filled by another man. "We want you to stay here. It's too dangerous for you to go back there. When we get the hole widened, we'll pull you out and send in one of the firefighters."
Anna was incredulous. What part of 'she can't breathe' don't they understand? "Give me the goddamned medicine!" she screamed. "Now! She's dying!"
The man retreated and the EMT reappeared. "I'm going to pass it to you in a pouch. Do you know how to use it?"
"Yes," she lied. She was certain Lily would know, and she didn't want to waste another second.
Moments later, a red pouch dropped through the hole to the floor below. Anna hurried to pick it up and shouted, "I'm going back. You can work on the hole. I won't be in the way." With that, she was gone.
Lily was only vaguely aware of the commotion in the next room as she teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. She felt the tall woman scoot behind her and pull her into her lap. "I've got it," she heard, "the medicine. I need your help Lily." The EMT had assembled the inhaler for immediate use, and Anna figured out how to hold it to her friend's mouth. Lily wrapped her hand around the instrument, and pumping it once into her mouth, breathed deeply. The reprieve was instant. She took three or four deep breaths, and pumped the device again.
Anna smiled widely with relief when she felt Lily sit up. "We're about to get rescued. You ready?"
"You bet," whispered the blonde.
Together, they ambled to the passageway. As they crawled into the lingerie store from underneath the fallen ceiling, they were overjoyed to see a firefighter descending a ladder, carrying blankets and first aid equipment.
"Anna!" Scott shouted as he watched the tall dark-haired woman emerge from the hole in the ground. He pushed past the security guard and broke into a run. Half a minute later, he was holding the bruised and exhausted woman to his chest, feeling a convergence of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him completely. "Thank God, Anna. Oh, thank God!" was all he could say as tears streamed down his cheeks.
Anna returned the hug, crying as well, and raised her hand to take that of her sister, who joined them seconds later. "I'm okay. It's all okay," she murmured.
Their joyful reunion was interrupted by the EMT, who was directing Anna to a waiting ambulance. She turned back to the rescuers to see them bring her friend through the opening on a stretcher, a ventilator affixed to her mouth and nose. Lily was slender and blonde, with cute features that belied her toughness. A nasty gash crossed her forehead above her left eye, which was swollen and black. "Scott, write my phone number down on something. Quick!" Anna ordered.
Anna crouched low to the stretcher and took her friend's hand. Lily opened her eyes to behold the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Anna's sparkling blue eyes leapt out from her dirty face amidst a cascade of shoulder-length jet-black hair. She smiled down at Lily and it melted her heart. Lily reached for the mask and pulled it aside. "Thank you, Anna. I couldn't have made it without you."
"And I wouldn't have made it without you. You saved my life, Lily." Taking the paper scrap from Scott, she said, "Here's my number. Call me when you're better. We're going to be great friends, Pygmy." She stuffed the paper into Lily's skirt pocket.
"Is she going to be okay?" Anna asked anxiously as the EMT inserted a butterfly clip into Lily's forearm.
"Yeah, she looks good. We're just going to get some fluid into her as soon as possible. This is the best way to do it." His voice was reassuring. "You should probably have some too," he added.
"Will I see her again at the hospital?" she asked as she limped toward the waiting ambulance.
"Probably not," the EMT answered. "You're going to Sinai and she's going to Central. Central is closer and they need to treat her asthma right away."
Anna turned back to watch Lily's departure. An older woman now crouched over her friend, crying and smiling, obviously joyous to have her loved one back. Anna liked knowing that Lily was loved.
"Scott, Kim? Will you meet me at Sinai?" Anna stepped up gingerly into the back of the ambulance. She had wanted Kim to ride with her, but she knew that such a request would have been hard on Scott, so she opted just to go alone.
"Of course!" they blurted, as they turned and ran for the car.
The radio crackled inside Lily's ambulance. "Change of plans, Dean. We're taking her to Valley. Central's full."
When the ambulance arrived at Valley Hospital, the triage nurse carefully removed Lily's soiled clothing and tossed it in a trash bin. "She won't be wanting any reminders of this, I bet," she told her co-worker.
Wait, there's more! Part 5
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