The Beginning of the End – Underground, San Francisco
The subway car rattles and screeches around a turn down one of the hundreds of dark, dank tunnels beneath San Francisco. I’m exhausted. Micah wears a heavy shade of sleeplessness under his eyes. I can only imagine how my face must look. I’ve never been this far from home, but Micah has been to California a few times. Mom must be worried, I think to myself. Micah and I have been planning our escape for weeks. I let my mind wander back to the moment he told me he was leaving. Micah looks as bored as I feel. The ride from Oakland into the city is a long one. I squeeze his hand and he looks up at me; a crooked smile races across his face. I wrench my eyes open as far as they will go and smile so hard the tendons in my neck flex. He draws one eyebrow skyward and purses his lips. Our wordless conversation ends when his gaze leaves mine.
“I have to get out of here,” Micah says, his voice is desperate. “I’ll be 18 in 2 months and I’m not going to stick around and wait for the fosters to kick me out.” I can feel the tears threatening to spill from my eyes. The thought of living without Micah threatens to crush me. The six months we’ve spent together have been the best months of my life. I clear my throat.
“So where will you go?” I ask keeping my eyes on the grubby carpet of his bedroom.
“California,” he answers quickly. “I’ve got some family out there,” he adds.
“You’ve never mentioned them before?” I blurt. I can feel Micah staring at me. “Sorry,” I add quickly.
“It’s fine,” he answers. Micah doesn’t like to talk about his family, or his past, or anything. “I’m just a private person,” he says. It feels more like closed off, I think to myself as I nod.
It didn’t take him long to convince me to come along. Since my dad left, my mom has been catatonic. She doesn’t get out of bed, she rarely eats, and she hasn’t showered in weeks. My sister is doing her best to keep the family together, but taking care of 3 kids and a household is too much for a 20-year-old to handle.
I wonder if she’s found the note I left? I ask myself. I’d written the letter a few days ago and left it near the refrigerator the night that Micah and I left. I miss my family and Milwaukee terribly. I shake my head and the memories and feelings fall to the subway floor. I look over and Micah smiles. It’s nothing like the movies lead you to believe; California is mostly filled with the homeless rather than the glitz and glam you’d expect.
The subway lights begin to flicker as the ground begins to shudder. I squeeze Micah’s hand nervously. Earthquake, he mouths. I gasp. In the distance I can hear a growing grumble. This time Micah clutches my hand as the shockwave plows into our car. One moment I am looking at him, and the next moment everything goes black. In the seconds between the flickering of the emergency lights, I catch snap shots of the chaos. The bags shoved into the luggage carrier above are heads are thrown violently to the floor. I grip the edges of my seat frantically. I can see panicked passengers clinging to every surface. The air smells of sweat, earth, and fear. One moment I am looking at him and the next my vision goes black.
“Quinn?” Micah’s voice is shaky. “Quinn, c’mon wake up.” I open my eyes to find the ceiling of the subway car. A red-hot pain rockets into my consciousness. “How many fingers am I holding up?” Micah asks. My eyes open just enough to make out four fuzzy fingers.
“Four,” I croak.
“Um, no that’s not right,” Micah breathes. “What’s it mean when you get the number wrong?” I sigh, annoyed. Leave it to Micah to use a test he doesn’t understand.
“It means I’ve most likely got a concussion,” I say, wincing. Judging by the pain behind my ear, I know I am right. “What happened?” I ask, sitting up. The world pivots and sways.
“Easy,” Micah says, steadying my wobbly shoulder.
“I’m fine,” I say, swallowing nausea. “What happened?”
“Not sure,” he shrugs. “I’m guessing the biggest earthquake SF has ever seen,” he pauses. “I mean, these things are meant to withstand an earthquake or two, but that one threw us right off the track.” I trace my fingers along the massive lump behind my ear. I wince. “Oh yeah,” Micah adds matter-of-factly. “You hit your head pretty hard on the seats over there,” he says pointing to the folding handicap accessible chairs. He chuckles.
“What’s so funny?” I ask, annoyed.
“The handicap chairs almost made you handicapped,” he says forcing down a laugh.
“You’ve got a sick sense of humor,” I retort. We both laugh. Our laughter draws inadvertent attention from the other surviving passengers. My smile fades quickly when I catch the glossy eyes of a man holding the lifeless body of a young girl. He is dressed in a mechanics uniform. The patch across his chest reads ‘Lieutenant’. There is something about his face that is familiar. The Lieutenant scowls. The way his lips turn down reminds me of Micah. I shove Micah lightly and he stops laughing.
“Help me up,” I bark.
“I don’t think that’s a good –“
“Micah,” I whine, cutting him off. He sighs taking my outstretched hands. He pulls me slowly to my feet. I can feel the bile rising in my throat. My eyes gloss over and my mouth waters.
“How about we sit first,” he says, helping me into one of the handicap seats.
“How bad is it?” I ask. Micah pulls my dark hair aside, sending fireworks of pain through my body. I shiver.
“It’s not bleeding, but you definitely lost the battle.”
“But alas,” I say in my best Shakespearian accent. “I have not lost the war!” We giggle.
“Hang on,” he says as he turns away. I watch as he rifles through his tattered backpack. Moments later, his hands emerge holding an empty sandwich bag and his water bottle.
“What are you –“
“Shh,” he cuts me off. “Just give me a second.” I watch as he dumps the water into the sandwich bag and seals it. “Here,” he says, handing me the impromptu ice pack. “Put this on it.”
“Who are you?” I ask playfully. “MacGyver over here.” He rolls his eyes. The pressure from the icepack sends sparks of pain down my spine. Slowly the pain fades and the nausea follows. As the icepack warms and becomes more flaccid, my surroundings begin to register.
In the eerie glow of the emergency lights, I can see a total of 10 moving bodies. There are four more shapes that remain motionless. I assume the worst. The Lieutenant has covered the little girls body in his leather jacket. He paces near the front of our subway car. A woman near the rear is crying hysterically and holding her arm, which is bent at an unnatural angle. The others on the car are doing as I am. We watch the Lieutenant pacing in the front. I can see a vein in his neck drumming with adrenaline. He stops and clears his throat.
“Alright, everyone listen up.” The Lieutenant says. His voice is cold and controlled, but under the surface I can hear the grief bubbling. “How many of you are able-bodied?” Slowly, hands begin to rise toward the ceiling. He begins counting. “Alright, 11 able-bodies, myself included.”
“Wait, no!” a woman’s voice screeches from the back of the car. “No, there’s 12,” she says motioning to the young man lying in her arms.
“No,” the Lieutenant bellows. “11.” I wince, realizing that the young man is lying in a pool of blood that seems to be slowly growing. “He’ll be dead in a few minutes if he isn’t already.” The Lieutenant’s voice is cold and clinical. The woman bursts into violent sobs.
“You don’t have to be so cruel,” I retort. I can feel the Lieutenants hard stare fall on me the moment the words leave my mouth.
“Cruel? You think that’s cruel?!” he grumbles, stepping towards me. “Cruel is using a child as a solider. Cruel is strapping a bomb to a brain-washed 19-year-old and having him detonate it in a square full of innocent people.” The Lieutenant is inches from my face now. I can feel his hot breath on my cheek. “You have not seen cruel,” he whispers, turning back toward the front of the car. “Like I said,” he says, gesturing at our party. “Eleven able-bodies.”
“I can’t leave him here to die,” the woman sobs from behind me.
“Fine,” the Lieutenant says. “10 able-bodies.” I can hear the woman begin to weep quietly to herself.
“Wait,” I say with all the authority I can muster. I can feel the Lieutenants steely gaze on me as I rise to my wobbly feet. I lean heavily on the metal pole beside me.
“What are you doing?” Micah asks, his voice frantic.
“We can carry him,” I say, trying not to puke. The Lieutenant scowls at me.
“Quinn, sit down,” Micah pleads, pulling gently on my wrist.
“You should listen to him,” the Lieutenant growls. “At least he’s being realistic.”
“Would you leave her?” I ask, motioning to the small body under his jacket. For just a moment his eyes grow teary. He swallows hard.
“Have it your way,” The Lieutenant barks. “Don’t expect us to wait for you.” I nod and motion Micah towards the woman. Micah takes my hand as we approach the young couple. I can see that the young mans chest has already gone still. I inhale sharply, realizing the woman’s plight.
“Thank you so much,” the woman blubbers. “I couldn’t just leave him here like this.” I nod.
“What’s his name?” Micah asks.
“Matthew,” the woman answers. “His name is Matthew. We just got married 2 days ago…” her voice trails off. The way she looks at him breaks my heart. “We were heading to the airport for our honeymoon and—“ her words become a jumble as she bursts into tears.
“It’s okay,” I say, unsure of how to comfort her. “Micah grab that arm and me and—“ I stop, realizing I don’t know the woman’s name. “Uh,” I say, giving her a look.
“Oh,” she clears her throat. “Emma, my name is Emma.”
“Okay,” I say, switching my attention back to Micah. “Me and Emma will take his other arm.” Micah groans under Matthew’s weight. I’ve never understood the appeal of thin men, but at this point, I’m glad that Matthew is scrawny.
The Lieutenant has gathered everyone in front of the exit door and is helping them into the muddy tunnel. As we reach the exit, Emma reaches out her hand, but the Lieutenant turns away. He follows the eight able-bodies into the darkness.
“Here,” Micah says. “Hold this side.” I wobble over and take Matthew’s weight from him. Together, the three of us lower him through the narrow exit and into the tunnel. We join the mass of broken, bruised, and bleeding passengers moving through the darkness.
My shoulder prickles with numbness under Matthew’s weight. I motion to Emma and she takes her turn. I can’t imagine how sore Micah must be. I tap his free shoulder gently with mine. When his eyes find mine in the darkness, the pain is clear and vivid.
It feels like we’ve been walking for hours. Each turn in the tunnel is a spin of the roulette wheel. Several times, we’ve had to turn back because of cave-ins, water leaks, or other not-so-lucky passenger cars. Our group grows with every step we take.
The man with Micah’s smile has since assumed leadership over our misfit group. From his well-muscled physique and the military tattoo playing peek-a-boo on his left bicep, I assume he is ex-military. Marines, Maybe? I think to myself. No regular Joe in his 50’s looks that good. Every so often, when our eyes meet, he scowls at me.
“Quinn,” Emma whines. I slither behind Micah and take Matthew’s cold and lifeless shoulder. Emma trails behind.
“She has to know,” Micah whispers, but his voice still echoes. I glare at him. “C’mon Quinn, we’re killing ourselves from someone that’s already dead.” He smirks to himself, no doubt pleased with his clever word play.
“As soon as we get to the surface,” I whisper. “There will be help, and he won’t be our problem anymore.” I pause. “I would be shocked if there isn’t a rescue team down here already,” I mumble half to myself.
“Quinn, this is stup—“
“I’d carry you,” I cut him off. He scowls. It’s a painful thought, but it does the job of silencing him. My head pounds with every harsh whisper. My eye twinges with guilt and pain.
“Light!” the military man shouts from the front of the group. I can feel the excitement ripple through the group. Within moments everyone is running, shoving, shouting, and jostling towards the opening.
The mood of the tunnel shifts from weary to animalistic. I can hear those behind me huffing and grunting like animals. A woman shoves me from the side; her elbow pokes painfully into my ribs. I yelp, but the woman is un-phased. The look in her eye is laser-focused; it’s as if she doesn’t even see me. The ground seems to vibrate beneath my feet as people push past me.
“Quinn!” Micah shouts. “Get to the side!” I can feel his hand clamp down around my wrist. He yanks so hard I fear my shoulder may be dislocated. We drop Matthew.
“Where’s Emma?!” I shout as we weave through the crowd towards the tunnel wall. Glancing behind, my eyes find Emma. She is frantically trying to pull Mathew’s corpse towards the far side of the tunnel. “Emma, No!” I shout. She lifts her face to answer, but as her mouth opens a scream takes its place. She falls into the dusty blur of feet. “No!” I shout. Micah holds me tight against the wall. I fight his grip, but I remain fixed to the cold concrete. As the last passengers scurry into the light, the tunnel goes silent. In the quiet I can hear my sobs mix with Micah’s heaving panting.
I fight his grip again, and this time I manage to free myself. In the mud near the center of the tunnel, I find Emma and Matthew. I drop to my knees beside the young couple. I lift her head from the dirt, but her neck bends unnaturally and her head lolls to the side. I can feel Micah’s hand on my shoulder.
“We have to go,” he says gently. I nod, knowing there’s nothing I can do to help Emma, but reluctant to leave her. I stand and Micah guides me towards the light.
“Wait,” I whisper, turning back and dropping beside the two bodies once again. I tuck Emma into Matthew’s side, laying her head into the crook of his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to Emma. They look almost peaceful lying in the dirt and grime.
“Ready?” Micah asks, his voice gentle. I nod. I lean heavily into Micah’s shoulder as we walk towards the opening.
The further we walk, the clear it becomes that Emma was not the only casualty of the stampede. Near the entrance, an older woman lies eerily still. She is almost flat. I step carefully over her lifeless shell and into the sun. The light burns my eyes, and I lift my hand reflexively to shield them. I can feel Micah do the same. It takes a few moments before the horror before me settles into my bones. My breath catches in my throat. The stench brings bile up my throat and I lean against a concrete chunk and I wretch. I wretch until my stomach is empty and then I wretch some more. Micah stands beside me, no doubt holding back his own stomach contents. The air burns my lungs. It smells of sulfur and death.
This was clearly not an earthquake. Everywhere I look, I find bodies, burned beyond recognition. Every man, woman, or child lies lifeless, covered in a pink blisters and charred flesh. I right myself against the concrete block.
“We have to get somewhere safe,” Micah says matter-of-factly. I scowl at him as hopelessness fills my chest.
“Where?!” I shout, beginning to cry. “Where is safe, Micah?” I shout through the tears. Micah grabs my wrist and pulls me into his chest. Each time I break free from his embrace, he captures me again.
“Shh,” he whispers, pulling me into his chest. “It’s going to be okay,” he says wrapping his arms around me. I fight him, but he just holds me tighter.
“Shh,” he says, running his hands through the muddied mess of hair on the back of my head. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, I promise.” I collapse into his chest.
I stand, sobbing into Micah’s chest. After a time I make myself breathe a ragged lung full of air, life my chin, and wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.
“Ready?” Micah asks. I nod, pulling myself away from the safety of his arms and into the death and destruction that surrounds us.
“Where does your Uncle live?” I ask. Micah pulls a crumpled shred of paper from his pocket. “Do you know how to get there?” I ask again. He shrugs, not meeting my gaze. “Have you ever been to his house before?” I ask; no response. “Micah,” I pause. “Have you ever even met him before?”
“Before last week I didn’t even know he existed,” he admits.
“What?!” I shriek. “Micah, you can’t just drop into someone’s life like that—“ I stop, unsure of what to say next. Micah holds his silence. “Micah,” I whine.
“Look, Quinn,” he interrupts. “He’s the only family that I’ve got, okay?” The pain in his voice is audible.
Micah has been in the foster system for as long as I can remember. According to him, his dead-beat dad was gone the minute his mom found out she was pregnant. After his mom died just after he was born, Micah was left alone and nameless. It was actually his first foster family who named him Micah; “Like from the Bible,” he says. Micah always remembers his time with the Patrick’s as the best time of his life. He stayed with them for 32 months, 3 weeks, and 4 days. But, just before his third birthday, Mrs. Monica, as he knew her, found out she was pregnant. With a new baby of their own on the way, The Patrick’s decided that their one bedroom apartment just wasn’t big enough for four people.
After that, Micah bounced from foster home to foster home, never staying longer than a year or so. He always tells me that he lost count of how many ‘families’ he had, but the 14 tallies on the inside of his worn, black, sneakers tell me otherwise. How could anyone do that to a child? I think to myself. Micah deserved so much better.
My face must look overly concerned because Micah shoots me a worried glance. I sigh. “Okay, Micah,” I say, taking his hand in mine. “Which way?”
“Umm…” he pauses. His head swivels, searching for any indication of our location or even direction. “Let’s try this way,” he says, pointing to my left. Together we take our first steps into our new world of destruction. Hand-in-hand we step over rubble and ruined bodies into our future.