AN: I know it's been a while. I'm sorry for the delay, and I hope this is worth the wait. This chapter sets the groundwork for what comes next, but by the time it's over, many of you will want to throw things at me. Please be patient.
Be aware: the images get a bit graphic here, and I apologize to anyone who might have been in Anchorage on that fateful day. I hope I did it justice.
I owe special thanks to BellaMed. She pre-read, helped keep me motivated, and has turned out to be a lovely new friend.
And thank you to Starpower31/Bella and Alice's White Rabbit from Project Team Beta. Their help was very much appreciated.
Friday, March 27, 1964.
I smiled as Carlisle fidgeted in his seat again. For him, being the immortal that he was, it was practically jumping up and down. I'd rarely seen him this excited about anything. It was unusual, and I was taking perverse pleasure watching him.
"I'm still not sure why you need this piece of equipment, and why you can't just wait to have it delivered," I said to Carlisle for the second time in as many hours. Thankfully, our trip from Denali to Anchorage had been uneventful. The pilot had dropped us at the end of the runway before taxiing away to refuel and reload supplies. Adjusting my hat and buttoning my overcoat, I looked around the private airfield. A few small planes were off in the distance, but I didn't see the truck we were supposed to meet. As much as I enjoyed spending time with my father, I was not thrilled at the prospect of spending three slow days driving back over rutted Alaska roads.
At least the snow had stopped and the wind had died down, making it easier to see. Unfortunately, there didn't appear to be much happening on this dreary Friday morning. One small plane was just touching down on a runway to the north of us. A few scattered outbuildings had people milling about, but it looked like business was slow. When Carlisle had said we were meeting his delivery, I'd expected a bustling area of commerce. Instead, I'd found flat land and runways cleared of snow, but not much else. I turned when I heard a door open.
A scrawny young man of about twenty-five walked toward us. He moved quickly, and I soon realized his motions matched his thoughts. His mind worked faster than most I'd seen. Not only had he received notice that our delivery was late, but he'd anticipated Carlisle would be upset with the delay. He'd already worked out ways to help us deal with the inconvenience. I smiled a bit, trying to keep track of the stream of details, and Carlisle sent me a questioning look. I shook my head to indicate it wasn't important.
"Are you Dr. Cullen?" the man asked. He'd walked out of the main building, which I considered main because it was slightly larger than the others and had smoke rising from the chimney.
Carlisle and I walked toward him. "I'm Dr. Cullen and this is my son, Edward." We shook hands during the introduction. I loved the convenience of living in Alaska. Handshakes were easier without having to make up stories about why my hands were so cold.
"I'm Steve," he said and kept talking, barely pausing to take a breath. "I'm pleased to meet you. We just got a call from the shipping company telling us that your delivery will be late. The truck carrying your machine hit an elk and won't be here until tomorrow. If it gets here by noon, we can get it loaded; otherwise, it'll have to wait until Monday because of the Easter holiday."
"The equipment wasn't damaged, was it?" Carlisle asked, interrupting him. My father had a one-track mind when it came to new technology for his practice.
"No, sir. They said there was damage to the truck, but the driver and the cargo are fine. I hope you don't mind, I called one of the hotels in town but they wouldn't promise you a reservation. You'll have to talk to them when you get there. Ask for Stuart and tell him I sent you. We have a pickup truck we use for errands, and you can borrow it for the night. It's not fancy, but it'll get you there. Will you need a map?"
My attention wandered while I listened to Carlisle thank Steve, tell him we didn't need help with our bags, and accepted the keys to the truck. On the other side of the airstrip, the small plane I'd seen landing had come to a stop. I was surprised to see it was a military plane. A member of the airport staff was standing outside waiting for the passengers to appear. While Steve's thoughts had been fast but orderly, every thought in that man's head was a jumble of dread, centering on one of the passengers in that plane. His inner tirade was shouting through my head; he might as well have been waving a giant red flag in my direction.
The first to emerge from the plane was a military officer in full uniform. He straightened his coat and looked around with a sneer before smoothing his expression and looking at the next person to emerge. I'd expected a junior officer to be accompanying him, but I was pleasantly surprised.
My first glimpse of the woman was her leg, but it was a truly amazing leg. It was perfectly shaped and would put the best sculpture to shame. The skirt was just the right length to make me want to see more. I held my breath until the other leg emerged and she climbed down. The petite brunette was in an olive-green uniform, like the officer, but she was less decorated. I wished I'd paid more attention when Alice had talked about the strides women were making in the armed services; at least then I'd have a better idea of her rank and role. She awkwardly pulled on an olive trench coat while managing to not lose hold of a steno pad and pencil. Another man, presumably the pilot, descended and stood at attention near the plane. The officer shot off rapid-fire questions, first to the pilot, then to the man from the airport. He didn't wait for answers. He just started yelling about the poor state of their welcome. The junior officer scribbled notes on her steno pad and studiously tried to keep up. Mentally, I reached out to this odd little trio, hoping I could get past the airport employee to find out about the young woman.
The pilot was concentrating on remaining at attention and answering quickly. He was hoping that the officer, who he had mentally named The Dick, would get a ride into town soon and let him fly back to base. Several memories ran through his head, and it was obvious this was not the first time he'd been berated by The Dick. It had occurred often and could be about anything: the weather, the size of the plane, even the coffee. The degrading memories eventually morphed to bloodthirsty daydreams of running the landing gear over The Dick and parking it on top of his chest. The image made the pilot smirk, and his shoulders relaxed. As the officer continued to rant, I decided that The Dick was a perfect name, although I'd never repeat it to anyone.
The officer's mind was awash in his own desires. I'd only encountered a few other people with thought patterns that selfish. I'd turned my concentration to the young woman when something drew me back. While The Dick was busy berating the airport staff because their car wasn't ready, he was looking at her. In his mind's eye, he was attempting to coerce her into bed, acting as though he had an interest in her romantically. He'd tried before, and it hadn't worked. She'd always managed to outsmart him, getting out of the situation somehow. Now he had her away from the base. If sweet-talk didn't work, threatening her job would probably do the trick. He had three objectives for this trip: resolve his office supply problem, meet the Senator to discuss funding, and get Private Charles into bed. It didn't matter whether she wanted him or not. His thoughts were borderline sociopathic, and I looked her over, wondering if she knew the danger she was in.
Within a fraction of a second, I decided I wanted to protect her. I couldn't explain it, and it seemed crazy, but there was something unusual about her. I'd only seen her for seconds, across a cold, semi-deserted airfield, but I want to protect her.
The Dick had called her Private Charles. It wasn't enough; I needed her full name. I started thinking of ways I could refer to her in my head, but I couldn't come up with anything that would fit.
I wondered if she knew what his intentions were, but I couldn't get any information from her. Her mind wasn't blank. I'd encountered that before with the desperately ill. I tried again, but there was no running verbal commentary as I found in so many people's thoughts. There were no visual images either which I sometimes found when people process information intuitively. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I concentrated so hard that my hands started shaking, but there was nothing. For all I could tell, she wasn't there. The wind picked up a bit, and she pulled the collar of her coat tighter, looking around. She scanned the area slowly before settling on me. I knew it was too far for her eyes to see me clearly, but I couldn't help believing she was staring at me, sizing me up and measuring the distance. Her attention was pulled away when their car arrived.
As the large, dark-blue Lincoln Town Car navigated around piles of snow and pulled next to them, the officer began a new round of abuse. He entered the car first, leaving her to fend for herself, and when she was seated, the man from the airfield closed the door and tapped on the roof, indicating the car could leave.
"Better her than me," the pilot muttered. He was relieved to be away from the officer and happy he'd received orders to head home.
Carlisle had watched me gazing at the young woman, misinterpreting my interest. He looked from me to the car and back again before chuckling and shaking his head.
I'm glad to see you appreciating the beauty God put on this earth.
I made a gruff sound under my breath, cutting off his editorial comments. "We need to leave now," I hissed, walking toward the beat-up red pickup that was ours for the next twenty-four hours. Our only luggage consisted of two small bags, and we didn't really need those, but it was good to keep up appearances. We waved a last goodbye to Steve and walked to the old truck as fast as we could without raising suspicion.
My father would want to know what the rush was about, and I needed to think for a moment. It was time for a distraction, so it was best to go back to his favorite subject.
"You didn't answer me," I said when we were on the road. "What's so important about this particular machine?" I had the gas pedal pressed to the floor, but the truck was barely managing the speed limit, and even then, I had to swerve around a moose in the middle of the road. Between the elk that wrecked Carlisle's shipment and this moose, it seemed the animals in Alaska had a death wish.
"This is the first piece of medical equipment based on radar and sonar technology," he practically gushed. "It's revolutionary. For the first time since the x-ray, we'll have another option to see the structure or damage under the skin without cutting the flesh. We can see how an organ is functioning within the body while the patient is still alive. It's fascinating, and I'm willing to put in extra time and effort to take this home. I can't imagine the lives we could have saved during either of the world wars if we'd had this technology."
"What's your plan? Where will you use it first?" I asked. I'd keep him talking until I could find her again. I pressed the accelerator a little harder.
"I'm still not sure. They've been testing it for several years, and I want to review the full research before I decide where to begin. A few of my patients have said that they won't be guinea pigs for anything new. We'll just have to see, but we need to get it home and installed first." He fell silent, then seemed to notice our speed, looking at the road and then at me. "Edward, is there a reason you're pushing this old truck to its limits when we're stuck here for the night?"
"Were you paying any attention to the other plane?" I asked, glancing over at him.
"No, I was concentrating on getting the details of the delivery. I only noticed because you were watching the young woman." He was smiling at me again.
"The officer is her supervisor. He brought her along to make sure she doesn't have an opportunity to ... refuse him," I said. "They were heading into town to check into a hotel. I'd like to meet them at that hotel. Maybe I can stop him or warn her."
"I'm proud of you son. Not many people would want to get involved."
I shook my head, feeling self-conscious about it all. I probably shouldn't get involved in whatever was going on between The Dick and that young woman, but there was something about her that drew me in.
There weren't many hotels in town, and I decided to check the one Steve had recommended first. It made sense that their group would be directed to the same place. It was a well-maintained chain hotel, a bit nicer than some we'd stayed in over the years.
It only took minutes to find them. Private Charles was standing in line at the counter. The Dick was seated in the lobby, reading through a sheaf of papers, muttering. He thought checking in was beneath him. I walked up behind her and waited. She glanced at me and looked away quickly. I could see her tense up, seeming to close in on herself and move as far forward as she could. Watching those actions, it was incredibly frustrating to not know her thoughts.
Carlisle looked from her, to me, to the officer waiting in the lobby.
I nodded slightly.
I'll go keep him busy. See what you can find out.
When she got to the desk, she made small talk with the owner. He was an older gentleman who looked like Marlin Perkins from that animal show Emmett liked. They chatted about the weather, but she was tapping her foot as though she wanted him to hurry. Instead, he took his time, turning on the charm. Within a few sentences, I was hanging on her every word. I must have been gawking like a schoolboy. It was the first time someone had spoken and their words were a total surprise. She kept glancing over her shoulder, not meeting my eyes, but measuring the distance between us. I waited for her to look up, but it never happened.
She was dressed head-to-toe in army green, with neat stockings and small heels. Those outstanding legs were even better up close. Underneath the cap, her hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and I wondered how long it was.
Stuart cleared his throat, and I realized I'd been caught staring again.
Carlisle had engaged The Dick in conversation, but his mind was already drifting back to Esme. His body might be in the lobby making stilted conversation with a blow-hard, but his heart was in a big log cabin in Denali.
As she read and signed the necessary paperwork, Stuart turned to me. "What do you need?" he asked, looking me up and down, frowning.
"Are you Stuart? Steve from the airport sent us. I was hoping you had rooms left."
"We've got one left. With the holiday, I don't think you'll find another vacancy in the city. Do you want it?"
I nodded and pulled out my wallet. While he'd been talking to me, she'd finished signing. Not glancing up, she slid the paperwork back.
He handed her two key rings, one red and one blue with oversized bronze-colored keys attached. "This one is for the suite, and this one is for the standard room. Please let me know if you need anything else."
Pulling on pristine white gloves, she took the keys and slipped past me with her head down. Her refusal to meet my eyes might mean she was timid, but I didn't believe that. There still weren't that many women in the armed services, even in the 60's. She wouldn't be able to compete if she were meek. It must be me. She was probably one of those people who had an unconscious awareness of vampires and kept her distance out of self-preservation. It was plausible, but it still didn't explain why I couldn't hear her. No, there must be more to it.
Carlisle continued talking to the officer, but his heart wasn't in it.
The Dick listened half-heartedly, waiting for Private Charles to return and mentally picturing her naked in his bed.
As she approached the men, Carlisle stepped back, seeming to fade into the woodwork. The Dick stood up, and I saw him take the key to the suite. He wasn't thrilled when she told him she was on a different floor; getting her into his room would be more difficult now. He'd worry about it later, but first he needed to get the damn meetings out of the way. He ordered her to drop the suitcase in her room and meet him out front. I was surprised how quickly she left the lobby, and it made me wonder if she knew what he had in mind.
"Did you still want the room?"
Stuart's too-loud question and matching smirk showed that, again, I was caught staring.
I'd completely forgotten I was still standing at the desk. I stammered out an affirmative and tried to pay attention to what he was saying. It occurred to me that, while I was stuck there, it couldn't hurt to try to get some information.
"The woman who checked in before me, has she been here before?"
"She looked really familiar, I'm just trying to figure out from where. Did she say where she was from?"
You're going to have to do better than that. You sound desperate. He thinks your intentions aren't honorable. I can tell that without mind-reading. Carlisle watched my failure, and I swore his shoulders were shaking.
It took everything I had not to roll my eyes. It wasn't like I had much experience trying to get information about women. I'd never really been interested in the opposite sex.
No matter what I tried, Stuart stayed quiet. His thoughts confirmed Carlisle's suspicions. He didn't trust me and had no intention of helping me.
As he pulled our room key from the drawer, I could see their organization system. Individually labeled boxes held the keys for the rooms, and each floor had a different colored key ring. I was disappointed when he handed me a yellow key ring. We were on a different floor than Private Charles.
We dropped off our luggage and headed back downstairs. There was no reason to sit in the room, and the family had given us shopping lists. I'd tried to tell Alice we wouldn't have time to shop, but she'd just smiled and said something about 'never knowing when an opportunity might present itself'.
"Well, if we're stuck here, we should at least be productive. I'd hate to face the wrath if we went home empty-handed. We can flip for it," Carlisle said. "Heads shops for the women, and tails shops for the men."
I generally tried to get out of shopping whenever I could, especially for my mother or sisters. The ladies list was full of embarrassing items, and at the risk of sounding selfish, I got no benefit from the purchase of feminine things. I certainly didn't look forward to the looks I got shopping for stockings, lotions, and makeup.
"You're on," I told him, watching as he fished a quarter out of his pocket and flipped it in the air, allowing it to make several loops before catching it and tossing again.
The streets were crowded with shoppers trying to pick up last-minute items before the stores closed. The crush of people made it difficult to block out the near-constant mental chatter. Occasionally, I'd walk past someone who was eagerly looking forward to seeing family for the holiday, but just as often, I'd find someone dreading a similar gathering.
A different set of melancholy thoughts turned my head. A boy about twelve-years-old was nailing a lost dog poster to a telephone pole. There was a description of the animal and a phone number. I would keep watch for it, but most animals hid from us. The odds of me seeing it weren't good.
We stopped walking when we reached Fourth Avenue, and our shoes settled into the slush at the curb. A theater marquee was still advertising The Birds, and I shuddered, remembering the time we'd gone to see Psycho. The crowd was so upset, Jasper practically flew from the theater, and he's refused to ever see another movie.
Carlisle pulled his hat low and nodded at me knowingly while he handed me the quarter. We'd done this a hundred times over the last forty-odd years. I'd only won a few times, and he was sure his luck would hold. I took the coin and rubbed Washington's head with my thumb a few times before flipping it high into the air. It rotated end-over-end before I slid my palm into its path and snagged it. For me, it was as though the coin had been standing still. With a quick flip, I turned it over onto the back of my waiting hand.
"Heads." Carlisle laughed low to himself and held out his hand for the shorter list. "I'll meet you here at six. Good luck." He started in the opposite direction, whistling as he walked.
I folded the longer list and tucked it in my pocket along with the quarter. A sneaking suspicion crept into my thoughts, and I slowly pulled the quarter back out. I didn't believe Carlisle would intentionally use a double-sided coin, but I wouldn't put it past Alice to sneak it to him. I verified that it was just a plain quarter, and this was nothing more than a case of bad luck. I'd simply have to make the best of it. Looking up the street, I saw a ladies dress shop and trudged that way.
Forty minutes later, I'd had a shopping bag full of stockings and perfume delivered to the hotel. I wandered down the street trying to figure out where to find the makeup Alice had requested. I was reading the sign for a mom and pop store offering books and special-order office supplies when I saw something through the plate glass window. I couldn't put my finger on what seemed unusual, but I was drawn inside. Entering the store, I walked along the side wall, pretending to be browsing a rack of classics. A raised voice echoed through the store, and the agitated thoughts of several people came with it. I knew immediately who it was.
The Dick was standing with Private Charles. Shameless eavesdropping told me the scared-looking couple with them were the store owners. They were waiting, obviously hoping he wouldn't make a scene. Private Charles was still in her standard army uniform, standing behind him with a clipboard. On seeing me, she glanced down and wouldn't return my gaze. I tried again to get a reading on her. Still blank. It wasn't a fluke or an isolated incident. Knowing this was none of my business, but not really caring, I walked closer.
The officer began to rant and rave about some problem with a delivery of supplies sent to the base. The owners were doing their best to placate him and offering a refund for the incorrect items. While he continued to talk, Private Charles made notes on the clipboard, her facial expression blank. When he paused to take a breath, she looked up for an instant. I'd managed to move into her line of sight, and our eyes met. Almost too fast to track, anger, fear, and wariness crossed her face.
"Private Charles, are you paying attention?" The Dick snapped. She looked away and shook her head slightly before turning back and assuring him she was paying attention. He looked at me and scowled, thinking the handsome young man was the reason his normally attentive assistant was now failing in her duties. His eyes narrowed, obviously seeing me as a threat to his attempted conquest. I smiled slyly. I liked him thinking I was the reason she couldn't concentrate.
"This is a private conversation. Go on about your business," he ordered.
"I'm just looking for a book."
"We'll be right with you," the store owner said. His eyes flicked to me briefly as he thought about how to please the officer and get him out of the store quickly.
I made a show of walking toward the back and browsing through a rack of blank journals. I settled on three to give as gifts: the first was a rich, red leather one for Carlisle, one had an interesting art deco cover design Alice would love to use as a sketch book, and the third was unlined with a cover in Jasper's favorite shade of confederate gray. I was thinking about what I could pick up for the rest of the family when the floor started to undulate.
For an instant, I thought someone was moving large equipment in the back of the store because the vibrations seemed to be moving through the building's foundation. When the shaking intensified, I realized what was happening.
"Everyone into the door frames. Now!" I yelled. This wasn't my first earthquake. Most people were fortunate enough not to experience one. That's part of the price of living a very long life; you experience more of the tragic and unusual. Moving as fast as I could with the floor seeming to roll in waves, I sprinted toward them.
The officer had scrambled for the closest doorway, leaving everyone else standing in the aisle. The owner had fallen to his knees and was having trouble getting to his feet. His wife was pulling on one arm, and Private Charles was pulling on the other. I heard the front window shatter and the owner's wife screamed, dropping to the floor next to her husband. I picked her up and carried her to the doorway, dropping her near the officer. As I turned back to the aisle, I heard a deep, rumbling sound that reminded me of a freight train just before I heard an ear-splitting crack from the floor joists.
I watched in horror as the groaning floor seemed to separate from the foundation and the walls, sections tilting deeply to the right, then splitting into so much kindling. The shelving closest to the rear wall fell first, crumbling into a void below. Knowing what would happen next, I pulled Private Charles and the store owner into the aisle. As the floor continued to tilt, everyone fell to their hands and knees. I dug the nails of one hand into the floorboards, barely managing to stay in place while I held an arm around Private Charles with the other. She held fast to the owner, pulling him toward her and away from the falling debris, and I could see her knuckles were white with the effort. The remainder of the shelves full of books tilted and began to topple, barely missing the three of us. The sounds of cracking wood, people screaming, and rumbling earth made logical thought impossible.
As abruptly as it had began, the shaking stopped. I kept my place, still spread between my grip on the floor and Private Charles and looked around the room verifying that everyone was uninjured. The owner's wife was still crouched in the doorway, and she was holding her arm, but otherwise, I saw no injuries and could smell no blood.
The officer was in the doorway, his mind blank with fear. He made a small whimpering sound, and I could suddenly smell the acrid scent of urine.
"Okay, everyone hold still," Private Charles said, filling the power void. "We don't know if it's over."
This must have been too much for the officer. He pushed off the doorframe and began looking around. Breaking free of Private Charles' hold, the owner crawled up the tilted flooring toward his wife. When he reached her, they sat, stunned; he wrapped his arms around her, but she didn't move. The glassy look in her eyes worried me. If she was in shock, I'd need to tend to that. Medical school was good for a few things even if I didn't want to practice.
Pulling my nails from the floor, I kept my hold on Private Charles, and moved slowly toward the little group of survivors, trying not to slide too much.
"Is everyone all right?" I asked, not directing the question at anyone specifically.
"That's enough, young man. You're not in charge here, I am," The Dick snapped at me. I looked him up and down, from his wide eyes to the wet spot on his pants, and simply nodded. It wouldn't do any good to contradict him and draw attention to myself.
"Sir, we need to get the civilians out of here before there's an aftershock," Private Charles said.
He made some noncommittal sound, and both Private Charles and I began to move toward the older couple. The tilted flooring made it difficult to stay upright. Occasionally, books or other items would slide down the incline and disappear. Staying on my knees, I gently took the wife's uninjured arm and began to pull her toward the jagged, broken frame where the front door was hanging from one set of hinges. It was slow going, using my nails to ground myself and staying as low as possible. I had an image of trying to rescue someone on cracked ice. You wouldn't make it unless you stayed flat and spread out. The wife followed along behind me in a state of near panic, her feet scrabbling for traction on the tilted floorboards.
Getting her to the front door, I found that the sidewalk was now a good three feet above its previous location. I lifted her up and out of the building. The floor gave a shuddering groan as I moved back to get the husband. He was in slightly better mental shape than his wife, and Private Charles held his hand, moving with him and meeting me halfway. I got him to the door and helped him up, where she was waiting and crying. I was happy to see the tears. At times like this, anything is better than the blank stare of disaster victims.
Private Charles was right behind me, and I grabbed her hand. With the doorway partially blocked, I needed to get her into the right position to lift. A very definite spark moved between us when our hands met. I was just about to comment on it when the shaking began again. This time, it started slow with a few shakes before the rolling took hold. From outside, I could hear unfamiliar voices warning the husband and wife away from the door. Their voices receded. I was thrilled they had gotten to safety. I wasn't so sure the rest of our group would be that lucky.
I felt the final crack of the floor joist just before I heard it. The last of the hardwood started to splinter, and I slid down the incline where the floor was no longer joined to the wall. We tumbled, rolling along with the debris until we landed in what had been the basement; now, it was just a hole in the undulating earth. When we'd finally stopped falling, I could feel her reaching for me in the near-darkness. I grabbed her hand, ignoring the spark and pulling as gently as I could while moving toward her. We met in the middle, and I covered her with my body. Pieces of the roof rained on us, and I did my best to keep her protected. As awful as it was to know the roof was coming down, daylight began to stream in through the cracks. My vision is fine in any light, but this situation will be easier if she's not in the dark.
It was the worst possible timing, but I inhaled. Mixed with the dusty, moldy smell of destruction was the most intoxicating aroma. It was floral and rich and not like anything I'd encountered before. The only explanation for the wonderful scent was the lovely creature below me.
"Oh, God," she cried softly as the shaking ended. I looked down and saw that her eyes were focused off to the right. Following her gaze, I found the officer. His head was bent at an odd angle and his eyes were open, staring but not seeing. I didn't have to attempt to hear his thoughts; he was beyond our help. It was uncharitable of me, but I wouldn't be asking Carlisle to pray for his soul. He did enough damage here. He's on his own in the afterlife.
I pulled myself off of her and worked to get upright on the shifting pile of books, shelving, and broken floorboards. Shaking the debris from my hair and clothing, I watched as she worked her way toward him, cradling her left arm. She reached over and quickly closed his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, she stood and surveyed our situation. The expression on her face darkened, and I dearly wished I could read her thoughts. Chestnut locks had broken free of the bun, and she used her free hand to shove them back.
"We need to get out of here before there's another aftershock," she said, and I thought it was more for something to say, than to give us direction.
I surveyed the room before speaking. "Agreed. The question is: how to get out without you getting killed."
"Don't you mean without us getting killed?" she asked, her lips pursing into a fine line.
"Of course that's what I meant." I tried to insert some panic into my voice. It would explain the error.
She stumbled toward the wall where the front of the store used to be. I knew she was cutting her feet on the rubble as I could smell the blood. There was no way to know where her shoes had ended up.
The front door was still visible, although the sidewalk had moved again, and there was now only about a foot of daylight showing. There was a gap of about twelve feet between us and that sunlight. She made a couple of half-hearted calls for help, before giving up.
Looking around, I realized we would have to fashion something from the debris if she was going to climb out. I searched for anything to use as a frame when a loud pinging noise began, followed by the sound of rushing water. With horror, I realized a water pipe had broken. My odds of getting her out alive had just dropped significantly. It was time to stop thinking about appearing human and just get out of there.
"Okay, this is what's going to happen. I'm going to climb up and out of that hole, and you're going put your arms and legs around me. You're going for a piggyback ride."
"No one can climb out of this, and even if you could, I can't hold on." She held up the arm she'd been cradling. "It's broken. Besides, only one person at a time could squeeze through that hole." She looked around and gave a harsh laugh. "I might be able to climb a ladder, but we're short on those."
She looked at the rapidly rising water and said a word most gently-bred ladies don't use.
"Then we need to think fast. We're about to be covered in near-freezing water," I said as though she couldn't plainly see what was happening.
Moving across the floor, I picked up a half broken shelving unit and balanced it against the wall below the doorway. "No time to make something sturdy. We're going to have to climb using what we've got."
I stumbled back to get another portion of the shelving unit, carrying it over my head as though it weighed nothing. I was beyond worrying about what she thought, and if it seemed strange that I could carry twice my body weight, she said nothing. My only concern was getting her out of there alive.
"We need something to reinforce these," I muttered, trying to think about what materials Emmett used when he fixed things around the house. We stood together, looking around the ruined basement, hoping inspiration would strike.
"Will these work?" she asked, going back and unlacing the officer's shoes. His belt followed. I hated that she was touching his corpse, but the situation required drastic measures.
I took broken slats of flooring and used them as splints to hold the edges of the shelving together, cinching them with the ties we'd scavenged and adding my belt. It formed the crudest ladder I'd ever seen. She wasn't heavy, and it only needed to support her for a few minutes, so I hoped it would be enough. As I set it against the wall and attempted to brace it on top of the debris, I could hear her begin to shiver. The water was now lapping at her toes. It wouldn't be much above freezing at this time of year. I only had a matter of minutes now.
Over the rush of water, I heard the rescuers approaching the doorway.
"We're down here!" I heard her yell. "We're going to try coming up."
One of them answered in a muffled affirmative, and I saw them in the partially blocked light.
"Okay, I think this will hold," I told her. "Let's get you out of here before you freeze." I held my makeshift ladder steady as she took the first few steps. She moved one foot, then the other, before leaning into the ladder and moving her functioning arm up a 'rung'. Her bloody feet were practically in my face, the scent inspiring a hunger I'd never imagined. I held my breath.
The first three steps went quickly, and I was proud to see her go. This was obviously no weak-kneed miss. She knew what needed to be done and was going to make it happen in spite of her pain and fright. The ladder shifted slightly, and I leaned in close, using my body as a brace. My feet were now covered in icy water.
Three things seemed to happen at once. First, I heard Carlisle calling to me mentally. He was approximately a mile or so off. He was fine but was working to stabilize a woman who'd been hit by a falling traffic light. Second, another face appeared in what remained of the doorway, calling to Private Charles and encouraging her on. Third, there was another popping noise and the sound of rushing water sped up, flowing at almost twice the speed it had before; then it suddenly stopped altogether. The absence of the sound of rushing water echoed in my head.
"It's starting again! Go faster!" I yelled. She made it up two more shelving unit 'rungs' before the shaking began. The people above her were holding their hands out, calling to her. I saw Private Charles stand on her bloody tiptoes, holding her good arm high, trying to reach them when there was another ear-splitting crack. The center of the building's foundation split. The rear of the shop rose several feet, while the front fell. More roofing rained down. She held on for longer than I thought she could, but a large section of a rafter broke free and rolled, dropping, falling toward her as though in slow motion. She ducked, and it missed her head, but it hit the ladder just below her legs, forcing me back. The flimsy structure crumbled.
I expected a scream as she fell, but heard no sound, until she hit. The gruesome, tearing sound of a jagged beam pushing through her tender flesh was a sound I'd never forget. The last streams of daylight were now pouring in where the roof had been, and it illuminated the horrific sight in front of me. This beautiful, brave young woman lay atop the newest layer of debris. From the angle, I knew her leg was broken, but the protrusion of broken wood emerging from her chest just below her sternum made me cry out. Surprisingly, she turned her head toward me and gave a small smile.
"I think we're done trying to get out," she said softly, and began to cough. Soft bubbles of bright-red blood emerged at the corners of her mouth.
"Don't talk. You need to save your strength," I told her, crawling close enough to take her hand, noticing that it was almost as cold as mine.
"No reason to," she whispered.
"Don't talk like that. My father's a doctor, and he's on his way. We'll get you out of here." I couldn't bring myself to tell her there was no hope.
Carlisle! He could change her, the same way he'd changed Emmett for Rose. All these years I'd never understood why my sister tormented herself carrying a dying Emmett home, but now I knew. I looked around frantically, and the rescuers were back, watching though the hole, yelling to us. If I pulled her free, she'd bleed to death before I got her to Carlisle. If I tried to change her myself, I'd probably kill her and have witnesses as well. I couldn't find an option that worked, and I was running out of time.
"You're not a good liar." She smiled at me ruefully. "People don't survive this. Please pull me off. It hurts, and I'd rather go fast."
Did she understand what she was asking? I didn't think I could do it. We'd fought to survive together. I'd witnessed her selflessness and her tenacity. I wanted her to survive.
"If I pull you off, you'll bleed to death," I said softly.
There was more coughing and blood ran out of the side of her mouth. I reached out and gently wiped it away with one finger, ignoring the surge of hunger.
"You've tried so hard to save me." She stopped talking and closed her eyes, taking slow and shallow breaths. "It was more than I would have ever expected. Thank you."
"I'm sorry." It wasn't enough, but it was all I had.
There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Remaining on my knees, I moved closer so I was even with her shoulders. Bending low, I placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, wishing I could cry; her death deserved fanfare and a twenty-one gun salute, not dry eyes. I grasped her upper arms and pulled. I felt her right shoulder snap in my grip before she was free of the wood. She closed her eyes, bit her lip and inhaled sharply but made no sound. The smell of blood became overwhelming and tore into my lungs. One side of her mouth curled up in a half-smile before her head tilted to the side, and her eyes went blank.
The disaster went on around me, but everything inside went quiet and still. Sounds were muffled and echoed, like I was underwater.
I sat alone, breathing in the scents of blood and destruction mingled with her gentle floral sweetness. My hand shook as I reached out and closed her eyes.
The rescuers were back, shouting through the hole above me. I looked up, wondering how they could possibly still be functioning. Didn't they know someone extraordinary had died?
"Edward," Carlisle called from the hole. "Are you okay?"
I peered up at him, cocking my head, but not figuring out how to respond. I turned back to her and simply stared, trying to understand how she'd gone from being alive one minute to dead the next. A tiny part of my brain realized this wasn't rational; I'd been around death countless times.
"Edward, look at me, son," he ordered.
I rubbed my finger gently across her cheek.
Edward! You're in shock of some kind. Nod if you can hear me.
I nodded, but I didn't look at him.
I'll send the rest of them away, and you can jump up to me. Do you understand? He talked to me in that overly-cautious doctor's voice he reserved for trauma victims. Is that was this was? Had I been involved in a trauma?
"I won't leave her, Carlisle. She deserved better," I whispered, knowing he could hear me. I knew I was being irrational. This was a young woman I didn't know; I'd barely spoken to her, but I had to do the right thing for her.
"Edward, I'll make sure they take good care of her, but right now you have to come up here. There are survivors. I can help them, but I need you with me. I need to know you're okay." He was speaking vocally and it wasn't his words, but his tone that snapped me out of my reverie.
If we'd gotten out, she would be the first one running into those buildings looking for survivors. She couldn't help them, but I could.
Reaching out, I brushed a stray lock from her cheek. As I walked, the debris shifted under my feet, but it didn't take long to reach the front wall. Carlisle claimed to hear someone calling from the building next door. When the rescuers went to see, I scaled the wall and shimmied out of the tiny doorway hole. After the tight confines of the basement, the street felt open and exposed, and I wrapped my arms around myself and sat down on the cracked pavement.
With disbelieving eyes, I looked right and left, surveying the damage that extended as far as my vampiric eyes could see. Great sections of Fourth Avenue seemed to have fallen a dozen feet or more, with one side of the street sinking into the earth. The death and destruction weighed on me, and I lowered my head to my knees.
Carlisle crouched beside me for a few seconds, giving me the reassurance of his presence, but not pressing. I didn't stop him when he ran off toward a man they had just pulled from a collapsed two-story building down the block.
My conscience wouldn't allow me to sit and wallow when there were so many people in need, and when I showed up at Carlisle's side, he gave me a nod. We worked all through the night, going from building to building, searching for survivors and caring for them. So many people shared the same shocked, vacant expression I knew I wore.
By morning, searchers from other cities had arrived. While Carlisle and I would have preferred to keep going, we knew that it wouldn't look right to keep working without food or sleep. It was torture to pretend to choke down the soup and lie still for hours, knowing there were more people we could help. When the appropriate amount of time had passed, we went back out.
Two more days came and went that way, until we decided there was enough help and we were beginning to attract attention. We managed to contact the trucking company and found out Carlisle's ultrasound machine was destroyed when the road buckled. Thankfully, the driver was safe, but the machine was a total loss. There was damage at the airport, so flying out was not an option. I bought us a shoddy car, and we left Anchorage with only the clothes on our backs. We had a map of the damaged areas of road, and with luck, we could get home in a matter of days.
A few hours into the drive, I stopped in a small town, far enough from the damage path to know they still had phone service. Carlisle got out to top off the tankm and I walked to the pay phone across the lot.
It took two rings before Alice picked up. She didn't have to speak, and we each waited with the connection open between us.
"You saw." It wasn't a question.
"I did, just before it happened, but I'm not sure I understand it all. Come home and tell me all about her."
Well, we have a beginning. Chapter 2 is on the way.
Raum has made me a lovely banner, and I'll put an address for it on my profile. I'll also add addresses for links with historical details on the earthquake and Bella's uniform.
Thanks for reading!