Jack’s Earthquake story.
It took Harry some time to calm things down and peel the kids off Jack. When he did manage it he wrapped him in a huge hug of his own, the relief of the safe arrival of the baby and Jack’s return overwhelming. They clung to each other. Jack was filthy, reeking of something nasty Harry couldn’t define but he was alive and here, home safe.
The police officer shepherded the children out of the room then came back, standing over them, awkward and uncomfortable. ‘Do I need to get him to hospital?’ he asked someone. Harry wasn’t sure if it was him or the midwife.
Jack was a mess. Harry had no idea if Jack ought to be in hospital. As he wrapped him in his arms Jack gave a choked sob and started to cry. His body was shaking like he had a fever. ‘Hey?’ Harry stroked his face, trying to work out what was wrong with him. His skin was gritty and dry. ‘Are you okay?’ Jack didn’t speak, just curled tighter into his arms.
A hand touched Harry’s shoulder as the midwife Marnie crouched beside them and held out a bottle. ‘Jack love, do you need water?’ Jack reached for it gratefully, sucking hard. He coughed and spit out mud. ‘Easy,’ Marnie soothed. ‘Are you hurt Jack? Let me check you out?’
Jack sat up straighter in Harry’s arms, making a visible effort to control himself. He shook his head but his breathing stayed ragged. ‘I’m okay.’ It took him two goes to get his mouth around the words, ‘Bruises, that’s all.’ Marnie ignored him, running her hands through his hair, feeling his cheek bones and moving down his neck. Jack winced as she got to his shoulders. ‘It’s just bruises.’ His grip on Harry tightened; the shudders back. ‘I’m okay.’ He buried his face in Harry’s neck, his voice a breathy whisper that Harry hardly heard. ‘I’m alive.’
The weather was grey and nearly drizzly but Jack didn’t mind. Life was good and he was happy. He tucked the large canvas prints carefully into the boot of the car and checked his phone. The baby could come any time and he needed to be ready. He patted the canvases, so pleased with how they’d turned out. They were gorgeous and were going to look great in the foyer of the new place. He decided he’d head around there now. He laughed out loud with delight. He was sort of in love with the place. It was like the previous two gyms had taught him, taught them, him and Harry and Kev and the team, what they really wanted from the business and this one would have it all – studio with a sprung floor, state of the art sound systems, full time, professional trainers and something really new for them, a café in the foyer.
Coffee. That was a thought. Maybe Harry could come over to the new gym later and they could, he laughed again, christen the place maybe. Grinning he pulled out his phone as he drove out of the car park behind the camera shop. It was illegal to text and drive, but he wasn’t on the road yet. Coffee. He’d invite Harry for coffee, then if the workers had gone…. The guys doing the floor were supposed to be finished by this afternoon. “Cof” was as far as he’d got before he arrived at the street. He wasn’t as fast at texting as the kids. He hung onto the phone as he swung out onto the road behind what looked like a brand new four wheel drive. That would be great for heading up the ski fields in winter. Jack would kill for a truck like that. Maybe if the new gym started doing well it would be time to take some money out and reward themselves; stop funnelling money back into the business all the time.
Pulling up behind the vehicle at the lights he continued struggling to find the letters for his message. Coffee later, come to new gym, was what he was intending to send. “Coffee L8”... He looked up and saw the lights change, eased forward, glanced back at the phone for the next letter. Bang. The car jolted. He fumbled and dropped the phone.
The four wheel drive had barely moved before stopping again and Jack had just driven into the back of it. And… ‘Oh crap.’ The driver’s door opened and a guy in a suit got out. A big guy. ‘Fnck.’ Pulse rate increasing Jack got out to meet him. It wasn’t that he didn’t think he could look after himself if things went bad, but he just didn’t want to get into something in the middle of the street for heaven’s sake. And honestly - over reaction. He’d barely touched the other car and if anyone had come off badly it was probably his tinny front bumper. Other traffic tooted but he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t go anywhere or get off the road with the other guy in front of him. Someone edged around them, hand heavy on the horn, other hand gesticulating rudely. The advancing driver was about his age and in spite of the suit and tie he looked fit. And really pissed off. Oh great.
‘Hey,’ Jack held up his hands. ‘I’m really sorry.’
Then suddenly the whole world went weird.
Jack’s memories of the earthquake were incredibly confused. He remembered seeing the ground rolling, great waves coming across the park and along the street, but he was also sure he was knocked off his feet in the first instant. He spent the entire time flat on his belly trying to crawl under the car as bricks and shrapnel crashed down on him. He was sure he was going to die. The noise was incredible, an overwhelming cacophony of sound abruptly ending in a moment of eerie silence as the ground went still. The silence lasted one, two heart beats and then suddenly the air was filled with the sound of alarms as security systems in buildings and cars went off. The noise was shrill and insistent and over it rode the sound of screams.
Dust was thick in the air as Jack tried to move. He was held down, weighted by rubble, bricks and concrete and he fought, panicked to get to his knees. He hurt. He as coughing, choking in the dust then he felt hands on him and suddenly he was free, yanked painfully out from under a mantel of bricks. ‘Christ man,’ said a male voice and through gritty eyes Jack recognised the Suit Man. At least he no longer seemed to want to beat Jack to a pulp.
With the other man’s help Jack staggered to his feet blinking in shock and disbelief. His car was covered, absolutely covered in bricks and concrete. So was the footpath and half of the road. With a sense of complete unreality he realised the whole front of the building nearest to him, all three floors of it had come away and cascaded outwards. If he’d been in the car he’d have been lucky to survive. If he’d been on the other side of the car he wouldn’t have survived. He could see into rooms as if they were film sets, someone’s flat on the upper floor, kitchen table and chairs, a potted plant in the corner. The rooms below obviously storage for the shops below them. A tangle of fallen shop mannequins made him giggle hysterically. It looked like a frozen orgy.
The city he’d been in, only minutes before was gone, replaced by a cloud of dust, the set of a disaster movie. It wasn’t even a good disaster movie he thought, slightly unhinged. If Hollywood had done this they’d never have piled all those bricks so haphazardly, they wouldn’t have put the mannequins like that. The dust would be more artistic. People were looming out of that dust, like zombies, panicking and crying, and Oh My God, it suddenly hit him as he turned to look back up the street, there’d been another earthquake, a big one, and this time the city hadn’t got away with it.
‘I think the truck’s got some real dents now.’
Jack blinked in surprised. He’d forgotten about running into the four wheel drive. It hardly mattered now. The four wheel drive wasn’t completely destroyed like his car, it had been further out into the intersection, away from the falling building façade, but it had certainly taken some hits. Jack started to make some comment, when his eyes swept on past. Dust was starting to settle and it looked like… oh God. Of course there had been people in those cars. ‘Come on,’ he grabbed for the guy’s arm. ‘We have to get them out.’
The two of them worked down the row of cars that had just started turning with the lights. Many people had already gotten themselves out. They managed to wrench open doors and in one case smash through a windscreen to rescue several others including a teenage girl, bleeding copiously from wounds to her face. Suit Guy had run back to his vehicle and found a towel to wrap her head in. She was barely coherent but she refused to sit down and wait for help. She was terrified. Jack didn’t blame her. After shocks rumbled through and more bricks fell as the ground heaved. Everyone was frightened. The girl pressed the towel to her cheeks and started walking. She disappeared into the dust and the crowd. Some people were still running past; others were stumbling, shell shocked. Many people walked with purpose, getting out of the city, out of the devastation.
‘Shit,’ Suit Guy said. ‘We should have gone with her. Made sure she got to the hospital.’
‘I know.’ In mutual agreement they both stopped a minute, leaning on a ruined car. Other people were trying to climb into a collapsed shop. There was a lot of shouting. Office workers joined construction workers, students, tourists and the occasional police officer frantically trying to save people trapped in the rubble. ‘Do you think we should get out?’
‘Might still be people in those cars.’
Some of the cars had managed to drive away. It was funny, but after Suit Guy pulled the bricks off him Jack had never considered leaving. Suit Guy’s car was in the clear, he could have easily left and yet he remained at Jack’s side, the two of them checking cars and pulling people out. There was quite a crowd now, slowly making their way down the centre of the street, leaving town. There was also quite a group, climbing into damaged shops, pulling rubble aside, helping people. It still felt like a bad disaster movie set, but now they’d seen real blood it was all much more real.
They’d cleared the line of traffic that had been stopped at the lights. Someone was shouting at them, waving them over to a shop front. With a start Jack realised it was the photographer’s building he’d been in only minutes earlier. It was completely shattered, the verandah fallen down, the ceiling collapsed and a chain gang working, passing out rubble, obviously working to free someone who was trapped. Jack recognised the huge photo mural from the back wall, mostly obscured now by concrete beams. He and Suit Guy turned in that direction when Jack heard it. Suit Guy heard it too because Jack saw his eyebrows go up. ‘Shit,’ he whispered as Suit Guy held up his hand, urging him to be quiet.
Over the sound of sirens they both heard the sound of a baby crying. Jack turned his head, trying to localise the sound in the chaos. ‘This way.’ It took them a moment or two and when they found where the sound was coming from they stopped in total disbelief. It was another car. This one had been parked by the footpath. It was buried and hidden under concrete and bricks, nearly completely crushed. It was only half as high as a car ought to be. They scrabbled their way through the mess, clearing a space; just enough to see into the car and then Jack wished they really hadn’t. There had been a woman in the car, probably in the passenger seat. She didn’t much resemble a woman any more. Long dark hair and a sparkly hair clip suggested she’d been quite young.
Jack recoiled backwards and Suit Guy caught him. Then Suit Guy saw what Jack had seen and they both swore and gasped. Neither of them threw up, but it was a close thing. Blood caked dark hair was going to feature in Jack’s nightmares for the rest of his life.
The baby was still crying.
Steeling himself, Jack climbed back into the space and peered around the body into what small space was left in the vehicle. Strapped into the back seat was a sturdy plastic baby car seat. The child was obscured by the car seat but he could see small hands waving furiously as the occupant protested at being frightened and alone. ‘I’m coming,’ Jack managed to call out. ‘Hang on baby. I’m coming.’
It could be Sarah in the back seat. ‘Oh God.’ For the first time since the quake Jack actually thought of his own family. ‘Please God.’ He spoke out loud. ‘Please let them be all right.’ If something had happened to any of them… Don’t let any of them be broken. The kids would be at school. School buildings should be safe. Emily and Sarah though, they’d be at home. If it was this bad here, what had happened there? And how would Emily cope, if she had to get out of the house? Jack really couldn’t afford to give in to his fear, not if he was going to help this baby, the one right here. ‘Be all right,’ he whispered. ‘You have to be all right.’
‘Is the baby all right?’ the other man asked.
Jack started climbing back out. ‘I think so. We can’t get to it this way.’ He felt in his pockets. Harry would be at the gym. That was an old building, an old movie theatre. It could be in as bad a state as any of the buildings he could see here. ‘I’ve lost my phone,’ he told Suit Guy, panicked. Harry could be buried under a ton of bricks. Emily and Sarah could be in the ruins of their house. Who knows what was happening with the other kids. ‘I need to ring my family. I need to check they’re all right.’
‘Phones aren’t working,’ Suit Guy grunted, shifting broken concrete off the back of the car. ‘I’ve been trying. Nothing happening.’
‘My wife’s due to have a baby.’ Jack got his arms around the other end of a beam and together they managed to shift it a few inches. ‘She’s at home with our one year old.’
‘Shit man, you should go home.’ Suit Guy had raced back to his car and come back with a tyre iron. The baby was crying. It could have been Sarah… Jack couldn’t go home, not yet.
It took forever to clear enough space to actually get close enough to break into the car.
Jack managed to get his own car boot open and get his tool kit and tyre iron out too. Two people were carried out of the photographer’s on make shift stretchers before they managed to get in through the back driver’s side window. ‘If Mum was in the passenger seat, where do you think Dad is?’ Suit Guy asked.
Jack looked at one of the broken bodies being carried out of the building and shrugged.
Suit Guy managed to get his upper body through the broken side window. ‘I can’t undo the straps,’ he called desperately. ‘I’m going to have to try and slide the baby out of it. Easy little fella.’
‘No. Don’t do that. What if it’s hurt?’
‘It’s moving a lot.’ And screaming. Suit Guy didn’t need to say that.
‘Hang on.’ Jack looked up at the crowd of people still walking past. ‘Has anyone got a pocket knife?’
A young Asian guy came over. ‘Don’t look in the car,’ Jack warned, just too late. The kid fumbled and handed over a knife before staggering back into the crowd.
With a knife to cut the seatbelt it only took a minute until Suit Guy was pulling the solid moulded baby capsule out of the car. A small angry person blinked at them and waved his fists in fury. Jack and Suit Guy smiled so hard it hurt. ‘There, there,’ Suit Guy said inanely jiggling the car seat up and down.
The baby was younger than Sarah, probably a bit under a year old and Jack was pretty sure it was a boy. He was nearly too big for the capsule type car seat he was in but that car seat had undoubtedly saved his life. ‘There’s nothing wrong with him.’ Jack had had plenty of experience and was pretty sure he could tell a baby that was okay and one that wasn’t. He cut the straps holding the little boy in and carefully picked him up. The baby stopped shrieking and cooed. ‘There. See.’
Suddenly the Asian kid was back. He had a bottle of water and held it out tentatively. Jack could have kissed him. Together they managed to tease some into the baby’s mouth before Jack took a drink himself. The water was so good as it cut through the bile and dust in his mouth. He took a careful mouthful, swilled and spat before taking another and swallowing. He passed the bottle across to his partner. Suit Guy too took a grateful swallow.
The child was more settled now and Suit Guy took him, holding him close against his chest. His big hand completely enveloped the little head. ‘He needs to get checked out.’ He looked up at Jack. ‘I need to make sure that this one gets to the hospital.’ Then in what was just one more bit of weirdness in a weird day he turned and walked away. Jack and the Asian kid stood there and Suit Guy, holding the baby joined the crowd of people trudging off down the street.
‘We should have got some ID,’ Jack said. He was sitting on the sofa shovelling beans on toast into his mouth from a plate on his lap. He was dressed now and hadn’t stopped talking since he’d started in the shower. Some of what he was saying wasn’t really appropriate for his audience to Harry’s mind, but the kids weren’t leaving and Jack couldn’t be deflected. The words just tumbled out.
‘I didn’t think until he’d gone. I could have grabbed the mother’s bag; there would have been something to say who they were. They’ll have got to the hospital and no one will know who the baby is.’ He looked up, ran his gaze around the room, looking at everyone in turn as if checking once again, that they were all there, that they were all safe. Kathleen and Jenny were sitting on either side of him and he took a moment to stop eating and give them a hug. ‘I came back later,’ he said. Emily and Harry were on the other sofa with the new baby and Sarah who was burrowing between them, completely out of sorts. Jack’s eyes rested a moment, warm and soft on the baby in Harry’s arms. Harry looked down at her and swallowed. A rush of warmth and love caught his breath. He kissed her soft cheek.
‘Da,’ Sarah said crossly.
Harry grinned and Emily pulled Sarah back onto her lap.
‘I put a note on the window to say the baby was okay and he’d been taken to hospital.’ Jack seemed on the verge of crying again but controlled himself. Wilson who was sitting on the floor at his feet gave his leg a pat. ‘I just thought. What about the Dad? What if he managed to come back to the car and found… found… She was dead. And the baby was just gone.’ He pushed the plate away and Kathleen saved it from hitting the floor. Jayden took it from her and carried it away. ‘So I left a note.’
Jack sighed and shut his eyes for a minute. ‘I never even learnt his name.’
‘The baby?’ Emily asked.
‘Him too,’ Jack smiled sadly. ‘No. Suit Guy.’
Harry was aware of Marnie watching them all carefully. The television was still playing the terrible images of destruction and despair in the city. Jack seemed to have stopped shaking, but he couldn’t stop talking.
‘I was going to come home then, just join the crowd and start walking.’ His eyes were bright with tears. ‘I was so scared of what might be happening at home.’
Heading for home might have been his intention, yet somehow Jack had ended up helping to free a woman trapped in the wreckage of the photography shop.
‘Hey mate.’ Jack couldn’t actually see who was shouting at him from inside the dark building. ‘We need some help in here.’ The world had been turned upside down and Jack could help so he went in.
In amongst broken glass shelving, thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment and huge printing machines a woman lay pinned by beams that had crashed through the ceiling. Her upper body had been protected by a desk. Her legs and hips were buried in the rubble. ‘Her name was Hazel,’ Jack told the family.
There were already three people working to free her when Jack arrived with his tyre iron. The Asian kid brought two car jacks and they started a delicate operation, lifting and bracing the beams. They worked excruciatingly slowly as the woman screamed in pain every time they moved anything. Jack held her hand for a while until his physical strength was of more use propping the beams with sturdier pieces of rubble so the jacks could be moved and the beams shifted just a little more.
‘Stop.’ There was a man in overalls leading the rescue. An aftershock had them all cowering, arms over their heads. Their braced beams rattled ominously. ‘We have to get her out now.’ Dust was thrown back up into the air and something crashed heavily to the ground behind them in the gloom.
Coughing Jack looked around at the other dusty, teary faces, all of them eyes wide in the dim light. Everyone was nodding. ‘Just do it,’ Hazel said quietly. They barely heard her. ‘I don’t want to die in here.’
‘Last attempt,’ the leader said. ‘Get those car jacks under here. Crank em up as high as they’ll go.’
Jack and another man linked their arms under the Hazel’s back and through her arms. He could feel her tense as she braced herself. Two men worked each jack, one holding it steady, the other cranking. ‘Go,’ people were shouting. ‘Pump it. Go. Come on. Go.’
The beams protested, things moved, all the way back into the corner. Hazel screamed. Jack and his partner took a grip and when the guy in overalls nodded they pulled.
Hazel popped out surprisingly easily and the two men nearly lost their balance. They collected themselves, standing and lifting and rushing her out of the store. As they left someone shouted, the rescuers leapt back and one of the jacks overbalanced sending the whole heavy concrete beam crashing back to the floor.
Outside someone had prepared a door and they lay their burden gently on to the makeshift stretcher, deliberately not looking at the bloody twisted mess of her legs. Jack had a brainwave. ‘Wait here a minute,’ he shouted to the others and raced back out into the middle of the intersection to Suit Guy’s SUV. Suit Guy had walked off with the baby but he hadn’t needed to, he could have driven. His vehicle was battered but still perfectly drivable. And, thank God, Jack breathed, he’d left his keys in the ignition. It started first time.
‘Ambulance,’ Jack announced, flinging open the back door. They very carefully loaded the door and its precious cargo into the car. It wasn’t big enough to fit all the way in, but it as long as Jack drove carefully she shouldn’t fall out either. Jack grabbed a towel from his gym bag and they used that to cover Hazel’s legs. First aid didn’t come into it, they didn’t even try. She needed the hospital and she needed it now.
Someone climbed in the back with Hazel and the Asian kid stationed himself beside the driver’s door, walking beside the vehicle, spotting holes, cracks and obstructions to the road. Jack was grateful. It was only five blocks to the hospital but it was the longest drive of his life. The bridges over the river were impassable to cars and hundreds of others were trying to find a way across, trying to get out of the city.
Jack gave a howl of frustration as the third bridge they’d tried had the roadway buckled and broken, the approach torn away. People were walking across. He stopped the car. ‘We’ll carry her. The hospital is just over there.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ The guy who’d been in the back with her climbed down stiffly. His voice choked. ‘She’s gone. Not long after we loaded her in the car. I wasn’t sure. I kept thinking, she’s just unconscious. She’ll be all right. But she’s not.’ He looked pale and shell shocked. ‘I kept hoping.’ He raised a shoulder, tried for a nonchalant shrug that he didn’t pull off. ‘At least we tried. Right?’
‘Right,’ the kid agreed. He looked absolutely gutted. ‘You’re sure?’
‘Yeah. I’m sure.’
The three men stood, lost and unsure. Jack wanted to hug, wasn’t sure if it was right, but then the kid gave a sob and he wasn’t sure who started it, but they were all, three strangers huddled together, holding each other, grieving for the brave lady that none of them knew.
‘We carried her the last few hundred metres to the hospital door.’ Jack had sounded surprisingly matter of fact as he told his tale but was starting to lose it now. His voice was thicker, and he rubbed at his eyes. ‘We left her to be properly pronounced dead on arrival.’
Carrying the baby Harry shooed Kathleen off the sofa and settled beside Jack. ‘And we could tell them who she was,’ Jack told Harry, leaning in against him. ‘And then I started walking home.’
Kathleen took the baby as Harry pulled Jack into his arms.