I’d never been through an earthquake before nor had I ever heard of one occurring on the East Coast. Therefore, in hindsight it seemed like a fairly odd conclusion for me to have rendered as the Earth shook beneath my feet and the sky began falling in around me.
Immediately in response, I steadied myself against a railing separating the third floor from a sixty foot drop. Discernable screams of fear and shocked surprise broke through the chaos. Intermingled with those screams were gruesome cries of anguish whose presence was silenced by the sound of concrete striking the floor.
Smoke invaded The Lakes blending in with the hurricanes of dust being generated with each explosion, three in all, creating the perfect storm. It was, in the aftermath of the final explosion, that the railing serving as my sanctuary began to buckle. The steel squealed in defeat as the piece supporting my body suddenly swung out over the center of the mall bringing me with it. In shock, I looked down at the floor below my dangling feet noticing that the majestic thirty foot fountain, and the crowning glory of The Lakes, now stood in nothing more than piles of broken concrete.
My heart raced rapidly inside my chest as my body hung over the chasm. Tears welled inside my eyes from the fog of smoke encasing me, impairing my vision. A sudden tremor then shook throughout the mall causing the third floor to shift once more and the portion of the railing I clung to creaked as it slowly started to break away from its foundation. Holding on tighter to the metal bars, I knew that if I didn’t act fast I too would be in pieces like the concrete beneath me.
Taking a deep breath, I slid my body upwards to the third floor. Inch by inch I hoisted myself along the railing in a near vertical climb up the side of what had once been the floor beneath me.
"Keep going, Celaine, you aren’t going to die here…not like this," I repeatedly told myself unconvincingly.
Halfway to my destination further disaster struck. Droplets of water began raining down from the mall’s sprinkling system. These water droplets dripped unrelentingly down the sides of the metal railing rendering it a virtual slip-and-slide in my hands. Any grasp I’d had on it was suddenly compromised forcing me to slide back down it. If I couldn’t find a way to battle my way back quickly, I would be in dire trouble. Before that day, I hadn’t realized just how amazing the sheer human will to live was. At the point when I should have lost my grip, my adrenaline kicked in. With this new burst of energy came an overpowering determination that only intensified as I forced my body back up the railing. Before I knew it, I’d surpassed the point where I’d slid down.
Water poured in steadily from both the sprinkling system and the remnants of the mall’s ceiling soaking me to the bone. The bitterly cold air from the outside was also making its way inside sending my damp body into shock.
"Inch by inch," I repeated to myself.
I could feel the varietal mountain I was climbing beginning to tremble again making me fully aware of the fact that I didn’t have much longer before the final avalanche struck. It was a culmination of every horror movie I could think of except I kept telling myself that the lifeless figures scattered on the floor below me were nothing more than mannequins.
That illusion was shattered when I saw the blood.
The railing shuddered again forcing my body to swing precariously back and forth. I looked back up the metal pole and gasped in shock upon realizing that less than an inch of steel was left binding it to the rest of the railing. Desperately, I made one last heave propelling myself away from the pole and, to my relief, my hands managed to grasp the jagged edge of the third floor foundation. Using all the remaining energy I could muster, I pulled my body safely to the floor just as the railing broke loose falling to the rubble.
I lay crumbled on the dust-covered floor, sobbing. Dust and smoke created such an impenetrable haze that, if not for the mini fires spouting from the perforated gas lines, I wouldn‘t have been able to see at all. In pain, I managed to stand up and assess myself. There were a few minor cuts on my arms but they were otherwise unscathed. I knew that would not be the case elsewhere. As I inspected the burning pain in my thigh, I noticed blood flowing down my leg from an extensive cut leading from the upper thigh halfway to my knee. My jeans had been torn all the way down on one leg exposing my skin. These new wounds made the throbbing knee I’d experienced earlier seem insignificant in comparison.
As my thoughts began to clear, I remembered the whole reason I was even still in the war-torn mall. I let out an audible gasp while the tears welled in my eyes. Oh God, no, I thought to myself as I remembered that George, Carol and Jake were waiting for me outside. Hobbling along the rubble, I ambled towards the department store that was separating me from the parking ramp. It was in this direction that the explosions had come from.
Above me, a sudden snap erupted. Looking up to see the source of the sound, I found myself diving out of the way to avoid a skylight as it crashed to the floor sending shards of glass flying in my direction. Picking myself up from the floor again, I felt my skin prickle. Broken glass had cut into my hands, but neither that nor the pain mattered to me right now. The entrance to the department store was just yards away and I was going to make it or die trying.
I climbed over the debris making up the remnants of the department store entrance. Survivors who’d been in the store at the time of the blasts were scrambling to get out, looking at me as though I were suicidal for wanting in.
"You’re heading to the worst of it!" a woman, covered in dust from head to toe, shouted at me.
I ignored her, continuing my climb into the department store. To say that this was the worst of it had been an understatement. War zones probably didn’t look much different than the sight that was before me now. Smoke infiltrated my lungs causing me to cough so incessantly that my ribs began to ache. As I crouched down to crawl in the more breathable air on the floor below, my hand touched something that felt familiar. A scream escaped my lips as I realized that I was holding a hand that was no longer connected to a body. Throwing the hand off to the side, I continued my crawl to the ramp. My stomach turned and I knew that I had to keep my eyes forward if I was ever going to make it without passing out.
Almost there, I thought to myself. The door was within my grasp with an almost blinding beam of light shining through it into the smoke. It was funny how I hadn’t noticed there being a light there before. The department store had always seemed so dark in the direction of the ramp. Even more amazing to me was that the entryway appeared to be intact. With my target in sight, I took a deep breath using my remaining strength to spring to my feet, running the rest of the way to the door.
The automatic door was more manual than automatic now. I banged on it with my fists attempting to do the job the explosion had been unable to accomplish. When that failed, I braced a leg on one the side of the frame and, with my aching arms, attempted to pry the door open like a human crow bar. No luck. After a couple more minutes of kicking, smacking and invariably flipping the door off, I realized that what I was doing was not going to work. Undeterred, I scanned the rubble for an idea. A piece of scaffolding stuck out like a sore thumb within the concrete. Lunging towards it, I prayed it would be suitable to pry the door open. Just as I bent down to grab it, I felt a hand on my shoulder and another around my waist attempting to pull me back.
"What in the hell do you think you’re doing!" A man whirled me around to face him. His eyes were wild, his hair gray from soot. He appeared to be a security guard or an officer of sorts. It was too hard to tell based on what was left of his uniform. "There’s nothing left, do you hear me? The ramp is gone. You’re going to get yourself killed trying to go out there."
Even though I heard the words he spoke they made absolutely no sense to me. What did he mean the ramp was gone? It had just been there twenty minutes ago. Deciding that the good officer was crazy I broke away from him and proceeded onward to grab the metal bar.
"No!" he screamed at me again attempting to restrain me.
I’d had enough. As much as I didn’t want to do it, I felt like I had no other option but to disable the officer as reasoning with him was clearly not going to work. Raising my arm, I forcibly swung it back striking him in the chest. The force of my elbow to his rib cage caused him to release his grip on me enough to where I was able to break away. Once free, I whirled around swiftly kicking him in the legs as hard as I could in the hope that it would incapacitate him long enough for me to pry the door open.
Fetching the metallic bar from the rubble, I jammed it between the seal and the frame of the doorway pushing with all my strength. At first it put up an admirable fight, but after several solid jabs, it finally conceded defeat, slowly squeaking open. Smoke poured into the store from the outside sending me into another coughing fit. Holding my breath, I gave the bar a few more solid pushes until enough room was created for me to squeeze my entire body through. Through the cloud of smoke, I took off down the crumpled concrete. On the outside, snowflakes stabbed my face like tiny daggers adding further insult to injury.
My eyes worked to focus in the direction I’d left my parents’ vehicle. I walked carefully down the pavement looking for the familiar sight of the garage. I should have been there by now. This walk was taking entirely too long. The fog of smoke slowly became less and less dense the further out I walked, until a wayward gust of wind blew past me punching a hole into the unknown. What it revealed was a scene I hadn’t expected. Instead of the familiar ramp, I found myself standing on the edge of a cliff with the rest of the city spread out before me. Sirens surrounded me as I shielded my ears with my bloodied hands. A strange sound approaching from above drew my attention to the helicopter that was starting to circle around the mall. The hurricane-force wind it generated pushed my broken body in all directions. Did I take a wrong turn? Was I that disoriented?
No, I wasn’t. This was where I’d left my parents and Jacob. They had been right here. A thought occurred to me then; a thought that rendered my delicate stomach as fragile as an egg shell. Taking in a deep breath, I slowly walked to the edge of the pavement peering over the side only to see what I already knew would be there.
"No! God no," I screamed as I dropped to my knees and sobbed. In anguish, I repeatedly punched the pavement over and over again, breaking my hand. The physical pain, however, was not something I remember even feeling to this day. My body was already too numb from the emotional shock. Over the edge of the newly-formed cliff, my family’s fate had been revealed to me. Strewn in a mass of broken pavement were pieces of steel in every shape, size and color. Attached to these pieces of steel were tires, antennas, and license plates. My father, mother and brother were down there at the bottom of that cliff. The parking ramp had been the epicenter of the blasts.
On the pavement of the ledge I lay; immobile and unfeeling. I was wet, cold, broken and I didn’t care about anything anymore. From what I was told later by both my doctors and from reports on the news, I’d laid immobile on that ledge for about an hour before firefighters were able to remove me from my perch. My motionless body was on the national news serving as the perfect illustration for the devastation that had transpired that day.
One of the firefighters, who’d eventually rescued me from the ledge, carried me to an ambulance where EMTs stripped the soggy clothing from my body. I must have been shaking pretty badly as they enveloped me in blankets almost instantaneously. After I’d been secured, the ambulance fired up racing to what I assumed would be Hope Memorial Hospital.
"Poor thing," a pretty, young EMT stated while attaching various tubes to my body.
I heard the other EMT, a man, who’d obviously been the seasoned veteran of the two, with salt and pepper hair and a stare devoid of all emotion, speak as he radioed ahead to the hospital. "Teenaged female with probable hypothermia, smoke inhalation and a possible broken right hand…possible bilateral rib fractures and multiple contusions. Estimated time of arrival is ten minutes."
The woman EMT whose last name was "Topper"--or so I gathered from the badge dangling around her neck--soothingly caressed my cheeks. She then began humming a familiar tune I recognized from my youth and the volumes of lullabies my mother used to hum to me at night. This instant memory of my mother sent a new wave of pain coursing through my body and a small tear formed in my eye.
"She looks catatonic," she had a worried tone in her voice.
"They’ll do an MRI at Hope Memorial," the male EMT replied un-phased. "She’s probably just in shock.
There’s no telling what she’s witnessed today."
Topper winced continuing to stroke my cheek.
The last thing I remember that day was the ambulance pulling up in front of Hope Memorial; the hospital that’d become like a second home to me through the years. The hatch opened and my stretcher was unloaded to a throng of trauma-hungry physicians. It was a sight that would have made George proud. A handful of trauma physicians, some of whom I recognized through my frequent meanderings in the halls, rushed me through the doors into the Emergency Room.
"Oh my gosh! Is that Dr. Steven’s daughter?" one of them exclaimed.
"All pretty girls look the same to you, Scott," another retorted.
It was then that my memory cut off.
The rain and sleet came splattering down against the umbrella I clutched in my good hand in the sea of black umbrellas gathered together in a tight semi-circle. In the middle of the circle stood three oak coffins each covered with a bouquet of roses; my mother’s favorite flower. Standing next to me, Lucy was nearly as devastated as I was. Wanting to comfort me but not exactly sure how to do it, she simply hadn’t understood just how much her mere presence meant to me.
Everything went by in one big blur that day. I’m not sure I could recite a single word of Reverend Logan’s eulogy or any of the heart wrenching memorials given by my father’s colleagues. I couldn’t remember the names of most of the people who attended the funeral. I couldn’t describe the faces of the individuals who embraced me while passing along their condolences. All I could focus on were the three oak caskets sitting side by side being pelted by balls of sleet.
Why had I been spared? What made me so special? These were the questions I yearned to have answered but of which I knew answers did not exist. My father had done so much in the advancement of pediatric medicine and had so much more yet to offer. Why him and not me? None of this made sense; none of this was fair. I watched as the caskets were lowered into their final resting places while the crowd dispersed to their vehicles. With Lucy still loyally at my side, I continued watching them until they were no longer visible--half tempted to ask for a hole to be dug for me too.
"Celaine," a voice behind me said soothingly, "are you ready?"
I turned to see my Aunt Tasha looking at me sheepishly.
"Yeah," I replied.
"Okay. Wait here and I’ll pull the car around."
Carol’s sister, Aunt Tasha, must have drawn the short straw as it was she who would be my guardian for the next year. This meant a move halfway across the country, but I really didn’t care. There was nothing left for me here anymore. Lucy was devastated but I reminded her that the year would go by fast and there was always the Internet. That had seemed to appease her for the time being.
"You’re like a sister to me, you know," Lucy murmured almost incoherently through her tears.
"Don’t…don’t get all emotional on me right now Luce." Breaking my gaze away from their coffins I turned to face Lucy wrapping my arms around her. As much as I tried to fight it, I just wasn’t strong enough to keep the tears away.
"Now look who’s getting emotional."
I gave Lucy a small smile releasing her from my grip. "You’ll always be my sister too." With the sleeve of my overcoat, I wiped the tears from my eyes.
"I’ll be back, Luce. I promise."
"You’d better be."
She looked over my shoulder just as my aunt pulled the car off to the side of the drive behind us. "Well, I guess this is goodbye then?" she sighed.
"Only for now."
Giving me one last quick hug, Lucy too wiped a tear from her eye and, with a forced smile, waved to me before walking to her parent’s car. Aunt Tasha must have sensed that I wanted one final moment alone with my family. For not being good with such "delicate situations" she was handling me like a professional. I stared at each individual resting place, the places that would eternally hold my father, mother and brother.
"I promise you that I will do whatever it takes to give stop whoever did this to you. You will not have died without retribution…I…I promise you that I will do what I can to stop this from ever happening again. Never again will anyone be made to suffer like this. I promise you…I promise you…even if I have to give up my life to do it, I will stop them. I love you."
My knees, having shaken all day, became too weak to support me. I dropped to the rain-soaked ground sobbing in my good hand.
It was later determined that the bombings at The Lakes had been related to the overall string of attacks occurring along the East Coast. However, this bombing was different in that there were mass casualties; one hundred four in all. There were also witnesses this time who described seeing a mysterious male figure in black. At least, some had thought him to be a man. Others swore this mysterious figure was more machine than human. Thus, the story of The Man in Black was born inciting headlines on the front pages of every national newspaper. Who what this Man in Black? Why was he doing this? Was he human? One thing was sure, whoever was doing this was getting bolder.