MARCH 1st, 2009
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Memphis was conceived in the back seat of a 1967 Lincoln Continental, while her momma was high on Quaaludes and too much Southern Comfort. Her daddy was gone the next day, hung over with an itch on his ass from the musty old blanket they had screwed on, never giving the girl a thought other than she knew how to party and he’d meet another one just like her when he hit the next town.
Of course when you played in a band, time moved in circles. When he came back to town twelve years later, she came to his gig like the before except now it was nice to throw a couple back with someone who didn’t look like he’d be breaking all kinds of laws by screwing. He remembered her with the shiny blond hair and the smile that was just a little bit on the side of wanton, with the same faded tattoo on her back worn by the great lady herself, Janis Joplin.
They spent the night screwing and drinking at her place, getting high on weed she had stowed in a little chest that looked like it come straight from a bazaar in Marrakesh. It didn’t even occur to him in that run down little house of hers, that they weren’t alone. He was too pissed and too high to care.
Until he woke up the next morning and found that Sandy, that was her name, had gone to work at a diner somewhere and a twelve year old girl was staring at him impatiently, wondering whether he wanted toast or not from the doorway of Sandy’s bedroom. She had Sandy’s hair, brown eyes that seemed all too familiar, though he couldn’t place why at the time, a voice that sounded dusky and smooth like good malt whiskey and a cute little mole that would drive the boys bat shit crazy when she was older.
“Who the hell are you?” He grunted, then remembering Arlene’s boy Jimmy and thinking that this was probably what the kid had to put up with now that he was gone.
“Memphis.” She stated, her lips curling and her eyes narrowed, waiting for him to make fun of the name.
“Memphis?” He croaked. “Your name is Memphis?”
“You hard of hearing as well as hung over?” She quipped. “I said my name was Memphis. Do you want toast or not or do you need to puke first? I’m meant to give you the Sandy Apps morning after special. You better hurry and make up your mind because I’m leaving for school in thirty minutes.”
“What kind of name is Memphis?” He stuttered wondering the child had been in the house while he and Sandy had been…Jesus. She was going to be as fucked up as Jimmy.
“Momma said she named me after my daddy’s favorite blues guitarist.” The girl answered, looking at him like he was a retard.
“What?” He was suddenly very awake.
“Mister, I’m not repeating myself again,” the girl’s patience was nearing the end. “Memphis, my name…”
“Not that,” he growled and started to sit up in bed and realized he didn’t have a stitch on him. Grabbing the sheet strewn haphazardly around him, he covered up. “You said your daddy’s favorite blues guitarist…”
“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes, having seen nothing under the sheet that was new before retorting, “She named me after my daddy’s favorite blues guitarist Memphis…”
“Minnie,” he finished for her feeling his stomach lurch. “Memphis Minnie.”
“That’s her,” the girl nodded, grateful that she didn’t have to elaborate. She didn’t like the name at all and was getting pretty annoyed they were having an extended discussion about it. “Now you want something to eat or what mister?’
“No,” he managed to say, “I need to throw up.”
And thus, hung over and smelling of weed was how Memphis Minnie Summerfield met her father Barry, ex-fill in guitarist for the Grateful Dead, for the first time.
When the Pulse hit, Memphis was in the parking lot of her apartment building in Huntington Beach. It was further than she would like from the heart of Los Angeles and was seriously considering the moving closer to Big LA because of the commute. KLOS ‘Southern California’s No.1 Rock’ Station had given Memphis her own show and the drive was longer than she liked. The show wasn’t much, two hours where she got to feature garage bands that most mainstreams stations would never play. However, she believed in it, believed that for every two bit Clapton wannabe; there was always a diamond in the rough, like the Strokes of New York, the White Stripes from Detroit and even their homegrown Benders.
Her momma had been real proud of her for becoming a deejay though Memphis sensed she wanted her daughter to be a musician like her father with whom she had a somewhat peculiar relationship. Barry had tried to be a dad but he’d had enough experiences with women like Sandy to ever be able to make it work. So he paid for school and they traded letters. When he was in town, he’d come over and try to make up for not being there. He even tried to teach her to play. She did not inherit an ability to play from him. What she did inherit from both her parents was an appreciation of rock music and even though she went to college (because Barry had insisted), the minute she was done, Memphis was trying to break into producing music rather than playing it or being a groupie.
What she ended up finding out was that she did have a voice, a deejay’s voice and that was good enough for her. Being Barry Summerfield’s daughter had some clout too, especially at KLOS and the management who remembered Barry from the old days. He was a good guitarist and being his daughter, gave her a step through the door. After that though, she worked and she worked hard, learning the music business, getting coffee, running errands, learning to use mixers and sound boards.
The first time she stepped into a booth, she was amazed at how easy it was to reach the masses. Hell, her name even helped. Memphis Belle was what they called her show.
On the cusp of success, she’d climbed into the 1967 Lincoln Continental her mother had left after passing of liver cancer, running through her head places she could afford that was closer to LA when the lights flickered in the parking lot. Looking out of the windscreen, she was soon bathed in darkness when the lights flickered and then sputtered out entirely. Suddenly, the car was shaking and shuddering. The building around her started to collapse. She let out a scream and threw herself across the front seat as the windscreen shattered, glass spraying across her back as a deafening roar filled her ears and the pillars inside the lot started to buckle. The hard top over her began to bow in and she remembered screaming, remembered the sound of metal tearing, concrete crumbling as everything became chaos and something hit her, making it all go mercifully black.
When she woke up, she felt the wet across her cheek and her legs aching in pain. There was something in her hair, scraping at the back of her skull. She could smell gasoline. She couldn’t see anything because it was dark. The steering wheel was pressed so far down it was almost touching the back of her calves. She wanted to scream but the air that rushed through her mouth was hot and dusty. It made her close her mouth, stopped her cries because she didn’t know what had happened. She couldn’t get up off the seat to find out.
She couldn’t do anything because she was buried alive.
There are things worse than noise.
Noise is frantic, alive and animated. Each peal, bump, clang, scream, tic or thud is evidence of something alive, something out there creating cause and resulting in effect. It woke people up, it alerted them, it made ones heart beat just a little faster and when it appeared in music, it lifted the soul to the heavens without ever leaving the body. Noise was good. Noise was comforting even if it was loud and distracting.
It was better than silence.
After the chaos of twisting metal, exploding glass and crumbling concrete had subsided, she was greeted with silence. The silence that came in the aftermath of whatever happened was like the held breath of the dead man who realizes he was entombed. She didn’t dare to breathe, didn’t dare to move. In the wake of it all, she was aware that she was alive but not for how long. As if breathing or calling out would alert Death to her presence, Memphis shut her mouth and held still, waiting for someone to call out first.
She thought that there would be emergency workers, firemen, paramedics and police swarming the building like bees. There would be choppers overhead, their rotors making whump whump whump noise s as they filmed the devastation for the evening news. Sandra Endo would be selling the story on CNN, while heavy machinery would rumble into place to dig the survivors out. If she sat tight and waited, they’d find her eventually. All she had to do was stay alive until then right?
Memphis used this logic as she assessed her situation and reassure herself that help was coming. Panic would do her no good at this moment although her composure was fraying at the edges. The air was hot and filled with dust. Each breath dragged tiny particles of dirt through her nostrils, burning a trail to her lungs. She coughed once or twice and by the second cough, realized that the action was causing the car she was trapped within, to shudder. Glass shards across the ruined dashboard rained down on her back. Her movements had caused her to lift off the seat and her shoulder caught the sharp edge of what she saw to be the flattened metal of her car roof.
Sucking in her breath, she saw that the ceiling of the car park had collapsed upon the roof of her car and only a miracle had kept it from caving all the way in. The windshield was crushed, as was the hood and the door. The door on the passenger side she was facing, had buckled, appearing almost folded in half. And it was dark because the emergency lights had long gone. She couldn’t see beyond the car, as it was, she couldn’t even sit up. She closed her eyes, rested her head against the cushioned seat and forced herself to be patient. Someone would come. She was sure of it.
She wasn’t sure when she’d fallen asleep but she woke up with a start and once again, felt the scrape of metal against her spine, through the t-shirt she was wearing. How long had she been out? The weariness in her limbs and her eyes, told her that it was for a while and yet, there was still silence. Why was there no sound of machinery? Where were the voices of paramedics and rescue workers telling her that they know where she was and were coming? Memphis couldn’t hear anything except her own hoarse breathing.
What if no one was coming?
That thought lanced through her like the thrust of a white hot blade. What if no one was coming? What if she was the only one who knew she was here? Memphis tried to tell herself she was being foolish. Of course, they knew she was down here. The freaking building just collapsed! It would be news across the country! Hell, it might even been on Leno tonight. It was ridiculous! Then she glanced at her watch, an old wind up thing her mom had given her for graduation. It had belonged to her grandmother and was the only thing Stella hadn’t pawned for drugs and booze.
It was almost three hours since she’d left her apartment.
Three hours. She’d been down here for three hours. No one had come in all that time and as Memphis strained to listen in the darkness, she couldn’t hear any indicating that anyone was coming. The panic that she had held back earlier was starting to break down the walls of her composure and she started to weep a little, frightened at the possibility of dying a slow death burie d under all this rock. Desperation gripped her and Memphis called out, even though she knew it was futile. She had been the only person in the underground parking lot this morning. There was no one to hear her.
“HELLO!” Her voice echoed through the pocket of space in the car, bouncing off the demolished walls and returning to her with indifference to her plight.
Like a splash of cold water against her face, Memphis realized at that moment that no one was coming. That she was down here alone..
“God…” she whimpered. “Oh God…”
She lay there crying for a few minutes, feeling the fear lock itself around her, crush her with its weight. No one was coming. She was stuck down here unless she figured a way out. Minutes passed as she wallowed in this realization, trying to decide whether this was a good discovery or not. In the end, it mattered little what it was.
The chord is what the chord is, Minnie. You only think it sounds different because you changed how you play it.
Word of wisdom from dear old dad, Memphis thought, wondering if someone would call Barry up and tell him that his daughter was missing, that she was buried under tones of rubble. Or maybe he didn’t know because no one was trying to ge t her out. He was still in San Francisco, playing the club circuit, getting laid by groupies every time he pulled out the story of playing with the Grateful Dead.
The chord is what the chord is, Memphis told herself. If no one was coming, then she had to get out of here herself.
Stifling her tears, she took a deep breath and ignored how the dusty air felt going through her nose. She tried to push herself onto her knees but once again the obstruction of metal above would not allow her to do that much even. Trying not to be discouraged, Memphis slid across the length of the car seat, extending her arms forward so that she could reach the door. The crumpled door would not open conventionally, she knew that much. However, it had been crushed sufficiently to be protruding outward, providing enough of gap for her to slip through.
Crawling on her belly, Memphis heard the metal above her heave, as if her pocket of space was being maintained by the slimmest of margins and any movement on her part was threatening to bring down the concrete wall that had flattened her roof top, all the way down. Shaking in fear but knowing she had little choice, she forced herself through the space, feeling the jagged metal scrape her cheek, then her shoulders as she struggled to push her arms out. Something cut her, she didn’t know what, but it left a trail of sharp pain along the length of her forearm as she wrenched herself free. The car shook harder at the exertion, the sound of groaning concrete grew louder in warning. Memphis ignored it, gritting her teeth hard as she pulled one arm free, using her hand to brace herself against the floor, covered in grit an d glass.
“FUCK!” She cried in frustration as the extraction took longer and longer. Freeing her arms had left her dangling out the side of the car and she was sending more shockwaves through the ruined vehicle as she tried to squirm out. It was so dark and she could barely see beyond the silhouette of wreckage nor could she tell if the ground beneath her was safe to land on. However, she couldn’t remain where she was. It was to get out or to slink back into the car and hope someone would find her eventually.
“Okay…okay….you can do this,” she told herself, chanting the words through her sobs. “You can do this.” With another grunt of pain, she pulled herself through, feeling blood trail the length of her stomach from the protruding piece of metal she couldn’t see. The cut wasn’t deep but it stung and suddenly, she felt the door give way, tumbling forward and letting her fall out of the car in a heap. However, the door had been supporting the twisted frame of the roof and the concrete slab against it. When it gave way, the whole thing came crashing down and Memphis uttered a scream, covering her head while lying on the ground where she had fallen in fetal position as the concrete fell all the way, crushing the cabin of the car where she had been.
For a few seconds, she didn’t move. She didn’t dare out of the fear that she'd dislodged something else and it would come crashing down on her. The ball of dust swept over her and settled and she lowered her arms from her face because she had to cough. Coughing for a few seconds, Memphis let the bout past and then rolle d onto her hands and knees, feeling her way across the darkened floor, past the back tire of her ruined car, until she found the boot that had been pried open by the crash. Swallowing thickly, she rummaged through the contents, hoping to find something useful.
A minute later she was rewarded with two useful finds; a large apple juice bottle she’d kept in the trunk filled with water, in case of radiator trouble and a dolphin torch. Sitting down on the floor, her back against the side of the car, Memphis took greedy gulps of the water meant for her car. Catching her breath after she had sated herself, she reached for the torch and turned it on. The strobe of light gave Memphis a reason to feel a sense of relief…if only for a moment.
“Oh God…” she started to whimper again as she stared at what the torch had illuminated. The ceiling had collapsed throughout the parking lot. The space she had been in was the only one that hadn’t completely caved in. She was surrounded by crushed cars, broken columns and piles of concrete and steel, with no discernible way out.
She was trapped and no one was coming for her.
Don't it make you feel bad?
When you're trying to find your way home you don't know which way to go?
When you're going down south and there's no work to do
And you're going on to Chicago
Crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good
Crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to go
Contrary to popular belief, When the Levee Breaks was not the creation of Led Zepellin. While Zepellin had made the song famous, the original track had been written in the penultimate year of the 1920’s by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, her namesake. When she was old enough Barry had told her that Memphis Minnie wasn’t just some forgotten blues singer, she was an influential force to the greatest rock band of all time. Barry and Stella were never traditional by any means but Memphis knew that Stella held a special place in his heart for naming their daughter after Memphis Minnie.
Of course as a kid, Memphis had no tolerance for the name having been forced to endure nicknames like ‘Minnie Mouse’, ‘Memphis Belle’ and the one she hated most ‘Memfish’. That had come about because of the kids that had trouble pronouncing her name when she was in first grade. As a teenager she had worn the name better, earning her credit as high school with the boys who thought Memphis sounded kind of cool, like she was some wild child just like her mother, which Memphis was not.
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to go
These thoughts were jumbled in with the lyrics of the song for the last hour, since she’d freed herself from the car and realized that she was the lone occupant in a collapsed parking lot that might well end up being her tomb. Feeling the bits of grit and concrete dug into her calves and thighs through her jeans as she sat propped against the ruined Plymouth, holding the torch in one hand, the bottle of water in the other, the lid screwed tight to conserve every last drop.
Her greedy sips had given way to prudence once she realized she had no idea how long she could be down here
It’s already been that Memfish, that insidious voice inside of her snorted bitterly.
Days? The thought made her feel as if the remaining air in the lot had suddenly vanished. It made her chest constrict, her breath hastened. On the verge of a full blown panic, Memphis forced herself to calm down. She shook for a bit, her hands clenching into fists, until her palms ached at being pressed so hard against the plastic of bottle and torch.
Her brain idling like a car stopped at the lights, waiting for the signal to go. That’s what she needed, the mental signal to go.
Go. Go. Go. Go. GO!!!!
The words pealed in her brain like the ringing of church bells until the sound was pounding on the walls of the skull, threatening to escape into the world. The last echo made her sit up and finally, Memphis stood. She picked herself off the ground, dusted the debris off herself almost daintily and swayed a little from the annoying sensation of tingling when one had sat in the same position for too long.
Swallowing thickly, she surveyed her surroundings before making her way to the half opened trunk of her car, to see if there was anything else that was salvageable other than the prizes she’d already found. There was a tire iron, her spare tire and an old knapsack that had been superseded years ago and left in the corner of the boot to languish. Reaching for it, her nose wrinkled at the musty stench of it and dust that drifted free once she had extracted it from its burial ground. Giving it a quick examination, Memphis realized it could do the job and stashed the water in there.
She needed the torch to navigate through the dark.
Uncertain of what she would find, Memphis stepped away form the comforting circle she had established around her car to the unknown beyond. The tor ch providing her with some light, it wasn’t long before she came up against first obstacle; the fort like piles of concrete and wreckage that surrounded her little pocket of space. It was comprised of collapsed walls, supporting beams, portions of ceiling and to her horror, she sighted the beat up leather sofa that greeted visitors in the lobby of her building.
God, the whole building had collapsed. What about the people?
The thought that in this rubbish could be bodies almost sent her off the edge again but Memphis ignored it, survival instincts kicking in, adrenaline forcing her to look past that until she found what looked like a narrow crack between the pile of debris, large enough for a person to get through. It was the only way forward right now and thought what she might find on the other side could be worse, she couldn’t stay where she was an not try.
Slinging the backpack over her shoulders, she made the climb up, careful in her steps because the piles were unstable in some places and clumped solidly in others. As she climbed up, dust flying up in her face with each foot claimed, Memphis felt debris made up of rock, twisted metal rods that protruded from broken concrete and other sharp things that dug into her palms, all the while trying to keep a hold of the torch to light her way.
The higher she went, the most unstable the pile became until she was struggling every inch of ground gained. Sweat formed against her skin, under her hair, saturating her clothes as the lack of ventilation pushed the temperature up. Breathing was getting hard too, if she wasn’t being choked by dust, the ale was becoming stale.
“Don’t think about that,& #8221; she told herself, the sound of her voice making her feel less alone, “just get to the top.”
She was halfway up when suddenly something gave way with utter finality. She didn’t know what it was but suddenly she was sliding down the pile, the uneven ground beneath her crumbling to join her as a slab gave way and sent her tumbling down to the ground again. The journey down was sharp and painful with Memphis feeling ribs groaning in pain as they impacted against hard surfaces and hissing when something tore through her clothes and ripped at her skin painfully.
“FUCK!” She cursed as her head whacked something hard and everything went black.
When she woke up, an hour had passed. The torch was lying a few feet away from her and Memphis sat up with a start, gripped with the fear that if the batteries ran out, she’d be trapped down here in the darkness. Scrambling to it, ignoring the fact that there was something wet against the back of the skull and the churning in her gut wasn’t hunger but nausea, Memphis snatched the torch and turned off the power, breathing in silence when she was in the pitch black darkness again. She cradled the thing in her arms for a few minutes, like it was some lost child and felt something inside her snap.
“I CAN’T DO THIS!” She wailed into the shadows. “I….I just….can’t….” she started to sob, frightened, exhausted and bereft of hope. “Please….don’t make me,” she said through her tears, wondering to whom she was speaking, herself or God.
Sometimes, all you can do is cry.
Whatever despair, torment, horror, grief, anguish that might wrack the soul, tears is the release. It was healthy to let it pour out of you in its mascara running, puffy eyed red nosed glory. A good cry was cathartic, mother nature’s answer to the pressure valve.
Humans believe they are the only ones capable of it but Memphis Summerfield knew better. . Baby elephants weep for their lost parents, dolphins carry their dead infants for them with days and elks stand watch over dead calves until the survival imperative required them to move on. Memphis believed they wept, that they felt the emotion to cry. However, the length of their anguish would not outlast the need to survive and in that she had to be the same.
She had a good cry but now it was time to stop.
Her head still ached when she wiped the tears from her eyes, drew in one last shuddering breath and let it out along with all the horror of her current situation. The air was becoming stale and the heat of the California afternoon began to wind tendrils of heat through the cracks of her prison. Beads of sweat had formed on her skin and the light sheen of moisture coating her flesh would only get worse as she remained i n place.
Wiping her nose with the back of her arm, Memphis picked up her torch and made a start towards the pile of rubble that had given way so treacherously beneath her earlier. Making her ascent much slower, she tried to anticipate the past foot and hand holds in the chaotic collection of debris before her. As she pulled herself up, holding her breath in places when she thought she’d encountered a loose bit of something that would send her down again, she made it half way without any disaster.
Her hands stung with pain, scraped and prodded by the irregular terrain she was forced to navigate but the lack of use in such strenuous activity. It wasn’t to say she was unfit. Memphis was a jogger. She was running a couple of miles in the morning for work and went to the gym a couple of times a week. Guys at work called her an Amazon, since she came complete with Barry’s height of six feet. Right now, her height was doing her no favors.
Reaching the point of no return, the label she had given the spot where she had fallen down before, a surge of euphoria filled her when she managed to get past it, without tumbling down again. The two foot hole that she had spied beckoned her with promises of escape. Gritting her teeth, feeling sweat and dust creating a unpleasant sheath over her skin which made her long for a bath, she continued ahead, aware that there was blood beneath her palms as they tore under broken concrete and glass fragments.
The space to let her through was no bigger than the fissure that allowed her to escape her car before the ceiling came down on it but it was enough. Forcing herself through, she was panting as she tossed her bag back through and even the torch because she needed all the room she could get. Extending her arms above her head Superman like, she thought absurdly, Memphis forced her head through and used her arms to get purchase to wriggle the rest of her through. She scraped the lower half of her back as she dragged her hips and as her legs cleared, realized she was face down on an incline.
“Shit.” She muttered when she felt something give and then she was tumbling head over heels, like a wheel before landing hard against a parking column that hadn’t been decimated. The column halted her tumble in mid sternum, causing her to cry out when she heard something snap and was certain it was bone.
“Oh shit....oh shit…” she half groaned, half sobbed in pain as she curled into a ball, holding her knees to her chest as if that would do anything to help.
She lay like that for a few more minutes in the dark, panting a little as she tried to use regulate her breathing to cope with the pain before sitting up and searching for the torch that had become dislodged in her hand during the fall down. Fortunately, it was still on and the strobe light beaming through the black allowed Memphis to find it quickly.
Shining the torch around her new environment, she saw little to give her hope. With the exception of the column, nothing else was standing and she was surrounded on all sides by walls of rubble and concrete. There was no way out save the orifice she had climbed through.
No. It couldn’t end like this! It couldn’t. She refused to believe it!
She kicked out her foot, in an immature, temper throwing tantrum to say the least but at this moment, Memphis felt she was warranted. Suddenly, her heel of her sneaker connected with something hard that moved underneath her foot. Stopping short, she wiped the sweat from her face and went to investigate. Crawling on her fours, her palms brushed aside the debris and gravel across the ground and hit something hard and cold.
Flashing the light at it, she found herself staring at a grate, a drainage gate that was no more than three feet deep. Her stomach hollowed at the thought of climbing down there but what choice did she have? The grate led to a drain and the drain had to go somewhere right? She was clinging at straws but with the choices before her, she knew it was this or nothing. Swallowing thickly, she hooked her fingers through the metal bars and pulled up tentatively. It moved but not enough. Years of dirt and grime kept it struck to the concrete.
“Come on!” Memphis hissed as she tried again, putting her back into it, ignoring what was almost certainly a broken rib but her adrenaline was coursing and the desire to survive in her was fierce now that there was a possible way out.
Without warning, the grate came suddenly free and Memphis felt back with a start, losing her grip on the metal cover that managed to clatter noisily against the floor. Letting out a sigh of relief at her success, she wasted no time scrambling to her torch and making her way to the opening. As she stood poised over it, she could feel the stench of fetid water assaulting her and knew that no matter how disgusting she might find it, she had no choice. This was her only way out.
Bracing herself, Memphis lowered herself into the drain and noted that it was barely three feet high. Her sneakers splash in a puddle of water, as she shone the light of the torch down its length. The illumination sent a number of insects scurrying about and revealed the drain system hadn’t collapsed. Memphis swallowed thickly, knowing that she had to ignore her revulsion to survive. Switching off the torch in order to conserve battery power, Memphis put it into her back pack so she wouldn’t lose it. Besides, it was probably best she didn’t see what she was crawling through, lowered herself unto her hands and knees and began crawling.
The stench was stronger this time and Memphis tried to breathe through her mouth so she could stand it. Wincing every time she felt the wet beneath her palms, Memphis ignored the stench, the insects that skittered over her skin before she quickly brushed them away in horror, the sickening feeling of putting one’s hand into something slimy that was rotten or worse, shit. She wanted to scream, wanted to crawl back out even if it was back into that ruined parking lot. However, she did not because she had to get out. She was wet, in pain and bleeding but she had to get out of this hell, she had to find the light again.
To distract herself, she started singing, concentrating on the words so she wouldn’t remember where she was or what she was doing.
“A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died…”
Suddenly, her hand was flaying the space in front of her, trying to find ground to rest on. Memphis stopped singing and immediately reached for her back pack to retrieve the torch. She didn’t know how long she’d been crawling but it felt like hours rather than twenty minutes. Switching on the torch once it was in her hand again, Memphis shone the light ahead and saw that the drain she was been crawl through had come to an end. She had almost gone over the edge.
Fortunately, the drop to the bottom was no more than six or seven feet and Memphis manage to turn around in the narrow space to dangle her legs over the edge. Slowly, she let herself drop and barely managed to retain her footing on the slippery floor. Grabbing the equally slimy walls for purchase, she steadied herself and let her limbs get accustomed to being upright again. The dissipating ache in her limbs however, only reminded her that she had other hurts and she needed to get out of here to find a doctor to deal with those.
Walking along the surface, she ignored the squeaking of mice running past her and wiped her hands on her jeans though it wasn’t much cleaner than the rest of her. She dreamed of a hot shower, of curling up in a comfortable bed somewhere (after the doctors checked her out of course) and falling asleep for the next day. Sighting the rungs of a ladder against the wall, leading to a manhole cover through which pin pricks of light beckoned, Memphis almost wept in relief.
Ignoring the pain of her broken rib, the wounds on her back and the wet patch on her skull, not to mention the cuts and scrapes she’d suffered since this ordeal began, she ascended the ladder quickly. Being so close to freedom had lifted her spirits and made her put that extra effort into getting out faster. She reac hed the top of the ladder in no time and flattened her palm against the manhole cover sealing away the world above. Giving it a strong push, she dislodged the cover and shoved it aside, with a loud clang against the tar road.
The sunlight above made her blink as she looked away, trying to accustom her eyes to the light after so long in the darkness. Nevertheless, Memphis climbed out of the opening, relishing the heat against her skin and taste of the salt borne on the wind coming in from across the ocean. Pulling herself out of the manhole, she got to her knees and stood up.
What was before her extinguished any euphoria she might have felt like someone had splashed cold water in her face. A strangled gasp escaped her lips as she saw the landscape before her and understood why no one had come to save her. The devastation was as far as she could see. Buildings that were three to four storey high were flattened. Smoke rose from the embers of the destroyed structures, a water main had burst and was sending a rainbow cascade of water into the air. Cars were lying on their backs, like upturned turtles and if there were bodies, she couldn’t see them. They were buried under the rubble.
And hanging in the middle of the sky, over what was Los Angeles City was a Visitor mothership.
Was she one of the dead, dreaming she was alive or was she one of the living, dreaming that she was dead.
At this moment, she walked the space between life and death, uncertain which realm was real, which one was fantasy even though the vista before her bore all the hallmarks of a nightmare in the making. The fleeting moment of fresh air when she stepped into the light after crawling through the gutter to escape her tomb below, was only a brief respite for what was to come next.
She stood in the middle of the street, oblivious to the heat that was penetrating the rubber soles of her sneakers from the liquefying tar beneath her. Some trees were still burning, lighting up the sky like candles in the daylight while others had burn themselves out like extinguished matches. Smoky trails rose into the clouds, swept deeper inland by the ocean breeze.
Memphis didn’t realize she was shaking as she stared at the landscape before her. There was no one around to point this out. Later on, she would realize that there was no one left alive, that is. She stood there, fists clenched at her sides, her eyes glassy, seeing and yet unseeing all at the same time. She had an unobstructed view for miles because there was nothing standing in front of her to do so. The building she had lived in for the last three years was flattened. It was little more than a pile of rubble. Just like every other building on her street.
In the distance, the local landmark, the pier where so many residents spent week ends walking, were little more than struts protruding from the ocean. The boardwalk it held no longer existed. Just like the charred stumps that remained of telephone and power poles and the ruined cars left smoldering, their windscreens shattered as they lay on their backs, like upturned turtles. She didn’t look too closely inside because the smell of burnt flesh was telling her more than she wished to know.
The breeze still came in from the sea and it brushed her cheek like a mother’s soothing efforts to wipe a child’s tears away. She didn’t even realize she was crying but it wouldn’t have mattered any way. There was no one alive to notice.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
The worst of it was the mothership that hung in sky where Los Angeles used to be, the Los Angeles she could not see. Somehow, she knew it was gone. Without even being there, she knew that this carnage around her was not the epicenter of the devastation. This was merely the fallout.
The ship lorded over the dead city, seemingly smug over the destruction it had caused. Even from a distance, it looked as if it ruled sky, a new god in the heavens taking possession of the Earth. Memphis had seen pictures of the mothership in books and magazine. Every now and then, there would be documentaries about the Visitor Occupation of Earth. 60 minutes did a retrospective not long ago, she recalled.
She was only two years when the Visitors arrived and had almost no memory of them. What she knew of them, she learnt in school and from what her mother had told her about them. Not that Sandy had much to impart to her on the subject because the Visitors didn’t really get out much to Indiana where she’d been born. But they were gone! The Earth was poison to them, right? She knew the facts that she had been taught since a school child but that didn’t change the fact that they were here. Now.
And she was alone.
That stark realization shook her out of her muted horror. Was she alone? Was she the only left alive? Memphis refused to believe that even though her present surroundings seemed to indicate otherwise. Returning to the reality of her situation brought new imperatives to her thoughts. She had to get away from that ship. It was people with Visitors, aliens who ate people. People like her.
And she was alone.
Uncertain where she was going, Memphis started running. It didn’t matter that she was injured or severely dehydrated or that she had no destination in mind. She started running, ignoring the pain, ignoring the sharp dull ache in her ribs or the warmth slick of blood on her back. She just ran. Driven by adrenaline and terror, Memphis raced past the burning buildings, the cindering trees and the cars destroyed by the shockwave of what the mothership had done. She just ran.
She ran hard, like she was running a marathon. Her heart began to pound in her chest and her legs ached. Memphis continued to run as if the Furies themselves were pursuing her across the Earth. As long as she ran, as long as she kept out of their reach she was safe. Beyond that, Memphis had no idea what to do or where to go. She thought fleetingly of Barry, wondering if she could reach him in San Francisco.
But what if San Francisco was gone too?
What if all the cities were gone and there was no safe place left anywhere in the world?
The despair at that possibility frayed at the edges of her composure, threatening to rip it asunder. She had thought crawling through the darkness was bad enough but this was worse. What was she to do now? She wasn’t the heroines in one of those movies who thrived in adversity, who rose above their situation to kick ass. All she knew how to do was talk about every rock album put out in the last fifty years which in the hear now was next to useless information unless they were being invaded by the evil forces of Styx or worse yet, Starship.
When her legs gave out, she had no idea where she was. All Memphis knew was that she couldn’t run anymore and the injuries she’d sustained refused to allow her any further. She collapsed on a still intact bench by the street, unable to go on. Beyond hope and beyond exhaustion, she gave in to the limitations of her body and decided if death was coming then so be it.
She just didn’t have it to fight anymore.
As it turned out, death didn’t come for her but the rain did.
Tiny splatters of water roused her from her exhausted sleep and Memphis opened her eyes to see droplets of water falling to the Earth. Storm clouds had rolled across the darkened sky and though she couldn’t see the stars, the sparkles of water splashing against her skin and the cool wind that followed comforted her in their absence. She didn’t move from her spot agai nst the sidewalk, letting the rain turn her clothes wet as it seeped through her hair, soothing her untreated wounds.
Tilting her head slightly, she opened her mouth and to taste the teeming rain, allowing it to cool her throat. She had water in her backpack but the rain felt fresher, more invigorating, like the wind cooled by the rain. Memphis lay there for a while, letting the rain apply it salve to her broken spirit until she let out a breath of acceptance and forced herself to sit up. A slight groan escaped her at the pain in her broken ribs but she allowed it no more pain than that.
In the distance, the mothership still remained, proving she hadn’t dreamed it. It was there, a hazy shape through the rain and cloud, a myriad of lights circling it like a ring of light. She stared at it for a moment, wondering how long it would be before they came for her. It would be so easy to stay in place but she didn’t have time, she had to move. She didn’t know anything about the Visitors didn’t come from television or books but she knew enough to not stick around to let them catch her.
She stood up shakily, her leg still cramped up from her uncomfortable positioning and hobbled forward awkwardly through the rain. The pitter patter of water followed her as the rain intensified and she heard the distant rumble of thunder behind her. Cupping her hands in front of her, Memphis let the water collect in her palms, drinking the small pool.
She was almost near Newport Beach, recognizing the road she was on to be Seashore Drive. The buildings on her left were flattened, the road before her and the parking lot beside her covered in cars, blown across the place in the shockwave of whatever had happened. The rain had doused the flames and the landscape was now dark and grim. The rain against the pavement gave her some respite from the silence.
Memphis tried not to look at the cars, tried not to stare at the ruined buildings. She didn’t want to look closely at twisted, gnarled corpses that were protruding from bushes, through windows, across the ground like a badly hidden scavenger hunt. The urge to scream was great but she held it out of fear and anguish that she might be alone in all this. Closing her eyes every time she came across a body, Memphis wanted to know why she was so lucky. Why she was alive and so many were not.
Suddenly, she saw someone sitting on the charred grass up ahead. It wasn’t someone who was dead or burnt. She could see their head canting forward, like they were nodding at something. It was hard to make out in the darkness and Memphis hobbled forward faster, not even thinking if they were dangerous or not, only relieved that she was given evidence that she wasn’t completely alone in the world.
“Hello!” She called out and saw the head lift slightly beneath the dark grey hood of a sweatshirt before returning to its earlier motion.
As she stepped onto the ruined patch of grass, she realized that the person was rocking back and forth, holding something in their arms. She slowed, instinct telling her caution was needed.
“Hello?” She said again, quietly this time.
A face looked up at her. It was an African American girl, no more than seventeen years old she guessed, with full brown eyes and fuller lips. Her expression was one of numbed despair.
It was only when Memphis closed in that she saw the girl was cradling a boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. He didn’t move in her arms and in the moonlight, Memphis saw the wounds across the side of his skull, running from temple into his hair line, the split in the skull that probably came from being hit or thrown hard against something. Either way, the look of peace on his sweet, youthful face told her that it was too late for him.
“Oh honey,” Memphis whispered softly, dropping to her knees next to the girl, reaching for this stranger whose name she didn’t even know, brushing her fingers against the girl’s slender shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
The girl’s lips quivered. “I couldn’t wake him up…” she whispered. “When he was thrown from the car…” he gaze shifted to small hatchback that had wrapped itself around a telephone pole not far from them. “I was supposed to take him to school...” the girl gritted her teeth, her voice cracking into a sob.
“Its okay,” Memphis sat next to her and draped an arm about her shoulder “You just hold him, you just let him sleep.”
IST MARCH 2009 - EVENING
His name was Rashan.
He was seven years old and had just started first grade last fall. His favorite movie was Finding Nemo, his favorite character being the royal blue tang named Dory voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. He loved the movie so much that his mother bought him a snorkel which he used at the beach and in the bath tub to simulate the diving depicted in the film. Rashan wanted to be a marine biologist after his sister Shauna told him that’s what people who studied fish were call. He loved to swim and was hoping to get a clown fish for his eighth birthday.
They buried Rashan at a secluded spot near the beach, overlooking the ocean he loved so much.
It seemed an appropriate place as it was the only part of town that was not devastated this day. The tides still rolled in over the shore bringing its salty air to their lungs as they dug in the soft white sand, a hole deep enough to put Rashan. Memphis knew nothing of the child she helped bury but she needed no introduction.
There is something taken away even from the most casual of observers, when a child’s life is extinguished. It reaches into the core of one’s heart, hollows out the calluses of age and leaves a void that is not easily healed. It is more than just the death of someone so young but the end of all the possibility that child might have brought to the world.
As she listened to Shauna speak brokenly about her little brother, Memphis too, mourned this child she had never me who wanted to be a marine biologist and would now never have the chance.
After the last clump of sand had been pushed over his grave, Memphis had knelt there next to the girl, she only knew as Sauna, feeling her sorrow though nowhere as acutely. The rain had abated and she felt drenched to the skin but she could not prompt the girl to move, at least not yet. She considered leaving, make her own way forward, leaving the mothership behind but something in her refused to abandon this girl, this child whose wound ran so much deeper than Memphis could imagine
“I didn’t check his seat belt,” she whispered. “I should have checked it. He said he knew how to do it now, that he was grown up…” the last two words made her choke. “I…should have checked it.”
Memphis reached around the girl and squeezed her shoulder, “Its not your fault,” she said gently, leaning down a little. “I don’t know what happened…” she lifted her gaze towards the ruin town and the mothership in the distance, “but no one saw this coming.”
Shauna didn’t answer but nodded slightly to acknowledge the advice.
The rain had abated and they were both soaked through, the cold wind biting into their skin somewhat. Memphis held onto the girl because she needed the comfort but also to steal a little body heat. They couldn’t stay outside like this. They either had to move on get indoors until daylight. With the mothership hanging above Los Angeles, Memphis didn’t know if they could afford to stay in one place for very long. She didn’t remember much about Visitors from school but if they were here in the ships, then it would not be too long before they were on the ground too.
“We have to go,” she said to Shauna. “We can’t stay here.”
Shauna blinked, fresh tears rolling down her flawless cocoa colored skin which she promptly wiped away with the back of her hand. “Did…did you see anyone…else?” She stuttered a question at Memphis.
“No,” Memphis shook her head “I was in the underground garage of my apartment building in Huntington Beach when it happened. When I got out I saw the fires. I didn’t see anyone alive until I found you and…Rashan.”
“You walked here for Huntington Beach?” Shauna exclaimed. “That’s like five miles.”
“Yeah,” Memphis nodded, “ran some of the way. I just saw that ship and freaked out. Started running, didn’t even realize where I was until I couldn’t run anymore and had to stop.”
Shauna looked at the ship in the distance, obscured by rain clouds and the descending sun in the horizon. “I read about them in school,” she remarked, eyes still fixed on the vessel. “They’re supposed to be gone. We poisoned everything didn’t we? So they couldn’t come back?”
“I thought we did,” Memphis replied, having no answers for her. Shauna thought she knew because she was older but the truth was, Memphis was two years old when the Visitors came and her knowledge of them was probably more out of date then Shauna’s. “Come on,” she tugged at the girl’s shoulders, “we have to start moving.”
“Could we go home?” Shauna asked, “We’re not far from my house. My mom had an early meeting today, that’s why I had to take Rashan to school. Maybe she went home to look for us.”
Memphis wanted to keep moving away from Los Angeles, but she was tired, hurt and cold. Her own reserves were dwindling but Shauna needed to go home, needed to know if her mother was there. Besides, Memphis would rather find shelter in a place that was familiar, then simply break into someone’s home and risked getting shot at or something, not that their chances of finding anything standing to break into was at all good.
“Okay,” she acquiesced to the girl’s pleading eyes and patted her shoulder. “Let’s find your place.”
They walked further down Seashore Drive, surrounded on either side by collapsed buildings. It was like watching the path of falling dominos. During the walk from Huntington Beach, Memphis had spied the ruins of buildings that had been flattened and then incinerated. Anyone in those structures would have died in the first few minutes of the attack. Those who didn’t, who were crushed and buried in the rubble would have been burnt to death.
The fear hours she had spent trapped in the parking lot beneath her building had been a minor miracle. Memphis didn’t know why the smoke hadn’t reached her but she was grateful that she had been given the chance to make her way to the surface, as terrifying as that ordeal had been. At least she made it out. In the five miles between Huntington Beach and Newport, Memphis realized that there were thousands who didn’t.
In Newport, the fires had died but the buildings were no less flattened. The streets were lined by differing heights of rubble. Cars that had been on the road at time the initial blast had been launched like projectiles, Memphis and Shauna saw some of them planted amongst the debris of bu ildings, one had smashed into a tree the way Memphis had found Sauna and Rashan. She hoped that the survival of one sibling had not been a freak that others had managed to walk away.
However, upon investigation, she realized how lucky Shauna had been because most had been left trapped in their cars, following the crash, languishing in a slow death. Memphis had seen imagines of town hits by earthquakes and tsunamis and none of them bore the level of destruction she saw at this moment. It made it hard for her to breathe; hard to imagine that there was any tomorrow after this but she kept a brave face, such as it was. Having Shauna there, made it easier somehow, gave her the strength to hold herself together.
It took thirty minutes to make it up to 38th Street and another twenty minutes to get to the apartment building on Balboa Drive. Memphis wished she could have told Shauna that she was surprised by what they found but she could not. The evidence prior to that had been too strong and to assume that Shauna’s home had remained unscathed was not only unrealistic but in the reality of it, simply impossible.
The building was crushed by the force of an alien weapon, neither of them understood. It was building with Spanish style architecture that was all but destroyed as the five levels of itself collapsed upon each other like a house of cards. There had been some kind of garden around it but aside from patches of burnt grass, it too had been decimated.
Shauna had stood there staring at the destruction, saying little a nd Memphis feared that the girl was withdrawing into herself. If her mother had tried to reach home, she would have found this but Shauna’s mother worked in Los Angeles City and Memphis suspected that if that was ground zero for all this, then there was no way she could have survived.
The girl didn’t cry, she just stood there and saw her life change just as Memphis realized too, that everything was different now. Whatever they expected their lives to be, from this moment on, it was all over.
Their future was this.