Tag Archives: Disaster

The Sky Below (Chapter Ten)

It’s been a month since Chapter Nine and again sorry for that. Figuring out a writing schedule with my new work schedule has been a little tricky. I’m getting more sleep which is great, but I’m not always at my peak writing shape in the evenings. Plus I’m moving my office into the basement which will give me about three times the space (and a new desk), but the moving process itself is taking up time and energy (even planning energy). Anyway, hope you enjoy this latest installment. I’m thinking that the next chapter will be an interlude that will interrupt the flow of the main story for a little bit, and then we’ll get back to the adventures of these four.

The story so far:

Bethany, a lawyer just wanting to enjoy a donut and a cheap cup of coffee, is caught in the mall when her world is turned upside-down. She teams up with Claudia, a Dunkin Donuts cashier, in an attempt to find out what’s going on and avoid the roving looters who are using the disaster as an excuse for mayhem.

Bethany has tried and failed to get in touch with her sister Grace, who was trying to call her just before disaster struck. Having narrowly avoided a group of thugs in a sporting goods store, Claudia and Bethany make their way down a service hallway and into the maintenance stairwell. Their ascent is cut short when the thugs discover them…

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CHAPTER TEN

“Kiss your knees, bitch!” the skinhead with the baseball bat screamed at Bethany, while the man with the combat boots, presumably their leader, wrapped duct tape around her hands. Her fingers were interlocked under her knees, a position that forced her to lean forward, exposing the skin on her lower back and hiking the skirt halfway up her thigh. The boots wearing thug ran his hand down her leg, beginning along her thigh and moving slowly down to her calf. He smiled the whole time, his sweaty hands leaving behind a trail of moisture that made her shudder with disgust.

Already she could see he thought of himself as the charmer. Moments before he’d restrained baseball bat and bloody shirt from knocking her senseless after the stunt she pulled in the doorway. Claudia had been a couple of steps behind her when Bethany fell through the door. Bloody shirt had made a move to jump down into the stairwell, but Bethany had wrapped an arm around his ankle, sending his full weight tumbling on top of her. Claudia had taken advantage of those precious seconds and had practically flown up several flights of stairs until she was out of sight.

Bethany didn’t blame Claudia; she would have done the same thing if she’d been in her place. If Claudia had tried to save her they’d both be sitting here tied up. She would come back, Bethany was almost sure of it. She was coming back.

Blood from the boy’s shirt had stained Bethany’s left shoulder, and the crush of his weight knocked the wind out of her. She felt like she’d bruised or broken most of her ribs. She coughed and wheezed for nearly half a minute, while the young man tried to kick his way off her. In the end, combat boots had pulled his compatriot off Bethany, even offering her a hand up, which she refused, even though it meant another half minute of the men watching as she struggled to stand.

Back in the present the leader was finishing his tape job. “There we are, my dear. Isn’t that much better?” he said, the back of his fingers brushing her calf as he pulled away.

“Go to hell,” Bethany spit out through clenched teeth.

“Quiet, whore!” Baseball bat hadn’t settled on a favorite gender slur for her yet, but she was sure he’d get there.

“That’s enough!” Boots said his voice deeper and more resonate than she would have expected from a kid his age. Just as quickly his affect shifted to a low warm whisper.

“You’ll have to forgive him. We’re new at this and are still a little rough on the protocol.”

“Why are you doing this?” Bethany asked trying to sound less scared than she was.

“Because it doesn’t matter anymore,” the young man grinned. “You want me to go to hell? Lady, if we’re not already there, then where do you think we are?”

“We’re wasting our time,” bloody shirt said, “Let’s just kill her like we did the fucking little-league coach.”

The young man shook his head, “There’s such a thing as a sense of proportion. We killed the manager because he refused to give us the end of the world discount. He was holding on to the archaic notion that money or property still had value in this new world. But her,” he took an appraising look at Bethany, “she still has quite a lot of value.”

“She looks frigid to me,” bat-boy observed.

“She’s just getting to know us, that’s all,” combat boots answered, “She’ll warm up to us once we’ve had a chance to get acquainted.”

“Whatever man, we just need to get out of here,” bloody shirt scoffed.

The young man put a hand on his compatriot’s shoulder, “I assure you we will have time for all of our pharmacological errands. The hospital is only a few blocks from here. Even underground we should be able to get there in a few hours.”

‘The hospital,’ Bethany thought, ‘what the hell could they want there?’

“Your friend is right,” Bethany said. “There’s no point staying here. This building wasn’t designed to hang upside down.”

“Did anybody ask you?!” Bloody shirt’s tone had shifted from vague exasperation with his boss, to open and violent hostility.

Boots must have sensed the danger as well, but his tone remained calm. “If you want to move things along, why don’t you find that Latina our friend was climbing with? She can’t have gone far.”

Bat-boy chuckled and grinned back at boots, “You never know, man. Those wetbacks know how to get out of some tight spaces.”

Boots nodded, “Nothing the two of you can’t handle. I’ll take good care of our new arrival; keep her company until you find her friend.”

The two thugs split off in different directions looking for Claudia, leaving Bethany alone with boots. Bethany wasn’t sure if the situation had just become more or less dangerous. Boot’s hold on the brutality of other men seemed tenuous at best, so keeping them occupied was probably in her best interest. But every time he grinned at her, she felt a cold chill.

She needed to keep him talking, distract him long enough for Claudia to do something.

Evidently he was interested in breaking the ice as well. “Well my dear, we haven’t been formally introduced yet, and since it’s just the two of us we might as well be friendly. I’m Zane. What’s your name?”

She’d seen a lot of hostage situations on TV. The general consensus of all them seemed to be that the first thing you needed to do was get your captor to see you as a person. Tell them something personal about yourself, appeal to their humanity. And that started with your name. But even as she said it, the words tasted like ashes. He repeated it back to her, chewing on every syllable. This was a sound-bite that would remain in her memory long after this prick got what was coming to him.

“Bethany. You don’t look like you work in a donut shop. What’d you used to do for a living?”

She hadn’t thought about her job in the past tense yet, though the demand for lawyers had probably sharply declined following the events of the morning. Telling him her particular job wouldn’t do much to humanize her, but she couldn’t refuse to answer either. She had to keep him talking. He would slip up. She just had to give it time.

“I work for Culfe, Holter and Greenwald downtown.”

“Y’know I knew you were a lawyer, Bethany,” Zane said, sitting cross-legged on the ceiling a couple of feet away. From this position he looked like what he was, just a kid, leaning back on his hands without a care in the world. “That building’s just a stone’s throw away from my old church.”

“You went to church?” Bethany couldn’t help the question.

“What’s that old saying, ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’? I sit before you a hooligan, a hustler, a man of violence. Yet didn’t Jesus spend his time with tax collectors and sinners? No, Bethany, I have strayed far from the flock of my redeemer, but I still remember the words that pompous old windbag Father Marcado used to say every Sunday. ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.’ Or put another way, ‘up is down and down is up.’”

“That’s an awfully literal interpretation,” she responded after a moment’s pause. “You think God was always going to flip the world like a pancake?”

Zane grinned again, the longer hairs of his mustache hanging over his pursed lips. “That was the thing I always liked about the good Father. Sometimes he would go on and on about the spiritual meaning behind something, especially when he had a particular axe he wanted to grind. But mostly he just played it straight. The Bible isn’t a metaphorical book; beneath all the poetry there’s a lot of cold hard fact. If God or the Devil didn’t flip the world, then who did?”

“Maybe it was us,” Bethany replied, the quickness of her answer surprising her.

Zane laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. Phlegm rattled in the back of his throat, and he coughed several times as he regained his breath. “That’d be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it? We didn’t bake ourselves to death, or nuke ourselves into oblivion, we just flipped ourselves off.”

Bethany wasn’t sure why, but she felt like defending her answer, “I read once that if every nuclear weapon ever created was detonated, we could knock the Earth off its axis by half a degree.”

Zane chuckled again, “Maybe, but you and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it. There was no explosion, no flash of light, no whoosh of air, nothing. One moment the world was right-side up, the next it was upside-down. Man can’t do anything that cleanly.”

“You see this?” he said pulling out a small joint. “This is natural, this is God given. Grows out of the Earth and is rolled and lit and brings you to another place. Man only knows how to create highs with chemicals and powders, dark crystals. Those are artificial sweeteners compared to this beauty. Sure we can make powders that knock you down twice as hard or twice as long, but it’s not clean. You worry about buildings pulling out of the ground, but what about plants? Maybe trees with deep roots can hang on, get water from somewhere, but this?” He pinched the tip of the joint between his fingers, “this will dry up and blow away, just like you and I.”

Bethany wasn’t sure if it was Zane’s ‘pharmacological regimen’ or just a delusional personality that was driving these ramblings. Was a man’s sanity like gravity, something that should be solid and dependable, but that can apparently shift without warning? On a different day he’d be saying these things in a Case Western dorm room while getting high with his buddies. But he was saying them to her, and she couldn’t even see him properly. Resting her head sideways on her knees felt too intimate, too relaxed. Yet it was an awful strain to try to hold her neck up. She could always bury her face, but that would be an invitation for him to come over and try to coax her out.

She was angry, not just at the threats and the violence, but that Zane had deprived her of a way to properly express her anger. She could thrash, she could scream, but she couldn’t make him see her fury. She wanted to force him back to reality, not this juiced up pseudo post-apocalyptic fantasy, but to a world with hard truths and consequences for actions.

“She’s long gone, Zane.” Baseball bat said. Bethany looked up with a start. She hadn’t heard either of them return. “Craig found a couple of crowbars in a toolbox. We should be able to get that sewer access open.”

“That’s excellent news, isn’t it Bethany?” Zane said.

“So you’ve made friends then,” baseball bat said, “guess that means she’s coming with us?”

“I don’t know,” Zane said, considering. “You want to come with us, Bethany?”

The glare was worth the neck pain, “And how exactly do you expect me to walk tied-up like this?”

Baseball bat moved swiftly. The knife came out of nowhere and flicked open in a flash. She felt a light scrape and quick downward pressure as he cut the tape. He grabbed her left wrist roughly as he pulled her up, a little trickle of blood already running down her palm. Her other arm was contained and re-taped behind her back before she’d even regained her balance.

Then she was falling forward, the pressure on her wrists suddenly gone. She took a stutter-step and managed to plant her feet in front of her. She turned slowly, expecting to see bat-boy laughing at shoving her forward, but he wasn’t there.

Bethany suspected that even if she had learned his name she would have found a way to derive satisfaction from the sight before her. Names can only confer so much humanity. We give them to animals after all. Whatever his name was, he no longer had any need of it, not with an arrow sticking out of his chest.

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below (Chapter Nine)

Well, better late than never. Finished the last edits on my lunch break, so the eBook versions will be up a little later today. The next installment, Chapter 10, will probably be in three weeks as well since I need to spend next week writing a sermon on the book of Joel. That’s a pretty good apocalyptic book as well, though in that case with millions of locusts.

You can download the full eBook (Chapters 1-9) in Kindle, EPUB and PDF formats. Or you can go to the book’s landing page here.

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CHAPTER NINE

“That’s surprisingly good,” Reverend Marcado said, biting his bottom lip after taking a sip from bottle number two. “I’m surprised this stuff lasted this long with all the boozers in this church.”

“Probably used to be a lot more where these came from,” the young man added, taking the bottle gratefully from Marcado. He took a long swig, brushed his lip and offered the bottle back to the father. Marcado accepted the outstretched bottle and took another long drink. He could feel the last little bit of liquid sloshing around in the end of the bottle and had to push down the temptation to finish it off. Even a drunk has a sense of fairness.

“I knew they were holding out on me,” he said, lowering the bottle and looking at it. “I mean, I did tell them I was an alcoholic, but you’d think they’d at least offer me a sip of the really good stuff. I mean, I can understand keeping a man from drinking the crap wines or Budweisers of the world. But this is some really good shit.”

“There’s no justice,” the young man said, “though I wouldn’t have pictured you for much of a drinker.”

“Well, isn’t that the way? We preachers are expected to know nothing about anything. It’s only the really pious bastards who say they know something about God without knowing anything of the world. Wouldn’t you think it’s the ones who’ve sinned a bit who’d have something to really say about sinning?”

“You’re probably right.”

“Of course I am. We all know that sin is bad even if all we say is that it doesn’t make us very happy. But we don’t listen to people who haven’t been through the same things we have, seen the world the way we see it. We want to, but we don’t. Only a man who knows what sin is can appreciate forgiveness.”

Marcado handed over the last sip, which the young man quickly knocked back before opening bottle number three.

“Take women for example. That’s something else we preachers are supposed to know nothing about right?”

“But aren’t you not supposed to have sex?”

“That’s a common misconception. That’s only certain denominations. My faith has always been okay with sex, since before I was preacher. I’ve got a wife and two kids, and I didn’t get them by immaculate conception if you catch my drift. I know a thing or two about women.”

“By my count at least two things,” the young man said, laughing and handing over the new bottle.

“People think I know nothing about sex just because I wear a collar and some baggy black robes. Those are just clothes. It’s you lot who make them holy. God doesn’t give a damn about the kind of stuff we wear. It’s not in the Bible that I’m supposed to dress a certain way, or keep myself from carnal knowledge. God made the pleasures of the world after all. It’s the uptight Christian assholes who make it a sin just to enjoy God’s design.”

“Is that how you met your wife, ‘by enjoying the pleasures of God’s design?’”

Marcado chuckled, “Sort of. I was in a bar near the seminary. The seminary was in a dry town, but there was a wet one just a couple of miles to the south. My friends and I used to go down there, trying to test our virtue against temptation as it were. The really wise man, he avoids temptation like the plague. God gives us the tools to combat sin if we ever actually encounter it, but you’re not supposed to go seeking it out. The devil is someone you can defeat if he happens upon you, but trying to go out and fight him yourself is still a pretty stupid idea.”

“Anyway, we were at this bar having a few when this really incredible woman walks through the door. I mean Eve to our Adam, like nothing we’d ever seen before. She sits next to us because that’s the safe place to be. I mean, who thinks a couple of divinity students are going to chat you up and try to take you back to the seminary, right? On the other hand some women like the forbidden fruit angle. They want to try and get us future priests to do something we’re not supposed to do.”

“Turns out the rest of my friends were better Christian soldiers than I was. I wanted to see exactly how far she’d go to try and take me off the straight and narrow. It might’ve looked like I was ignoring her, looking straight ahead while a beautiful woman straddles me and nibbles my neck. But she knew where it counted exactly what my priorities were. The body can’t lie about the way it’s feeling, no matter how much the mind might want it to.”

“This whole dance takes nine, maybe ten rounds of drinks. At some point I black out and wake up back in the dormitories alone. Now I’ve got confessional that morning, and not a lot of time to ask questions, so I throw on my clothes and run to church. All the while my head is pounding, my stomach is threatening to empty its contents and my brain keeps giving me hazy flashes of images and sensations.”

“I was sitting quietly in the box, hoping nobody would come by so I could be alone with my thoughts and my headache when I heard the door creaking. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was her. My memory of the evening and its specifics may have been hazy, but no one could have forgotten that voice. She had no idea I was behind the screen, and it took me a while to really focus on what she was saying. When I did I realized she was relaying the events of the previous evening, in every exquisite and gruesome detail.”

Marcado’s hands went to his throat, “I could barely breathe. It felt like I was still deep-down drunk, where you can’t feel anything but the faintest of sensations, and you have to press down extra hard to be sure you can even feel your own body. I don’t know how long she talked, but suddenly she said something that grabbed my attention. I pulled the screen aside, leaned forward and exclaimed for all the empty church to hear, ‘We did what?!’”

“What happened then?” the young man said, rapped with attention.

Marcado took a long sip and tilted his head back. “I think she slapped me. Or kissed me. Or both. Either way I got a second date, and then another. And the rest is history.”

* * *

One of the hardest things about being hit by a patient is resisting the urge to hit back. Patients hit you for a couple of reasons. Usually, it’s because something hurts, and the attack is an involuntary attempt to fight off that hurt. Occasionally, a patient becomes scared. There are so many tubes and wires connected to them that they just want them all out. Patients can even be scared by the bad things happening around them, like a whole building being upside down for instance.

But some patients are just assholes.

“Get your damn n—– hands off me!”

Kammie and Frank were struggling with an irate Mr. Deckland Thomas, trying to save his life despite his best efforts to convince them it wasn’t worth the trouble. The few stretchers they’d managed to round up didn’t have restraints, so they had to improvise. Patients were being wrapped tightly in sheets, then secured to the stretcher with duct tape. Right now Kammie was thinking about how much better the rest of her day would be if she put a piece of tape over Deckland’s mouth.

“Think about it this way, Mr. Thomas,” Frank said as he grabbed the squirming man by the forearms. “Most of your fellow racists lived in the southern states where there are a lot of open spaces. If you want to keep mindless bigotry alive you might want to stop struggling and let us help you.”

Whether it was Frank’s words or the fact that he’d slammed Deckland down hard enough to knock the wind out of him, the man had at least stopped struggling long enough for Kammie to do her job. Professionalism kept her from wrapping him tight enough to cut off circulation, but not from allowing the duct tape to stick to the hair on Deckland’s arms and legs.

With the stairwell inverted there were no guardrails to keep them from a careless step, only a thin lip of metal a couple of inches high. Grace had hopped down into the entryway to help the patients with IV’s start the climb. In an ideal world these people would have been carried instead of being forced to climb, but Kammie simply didn’t have enough hands.

Ten patients were able-bodied enough to help, though most had sustained some sort of shoulder or head injury when the world went topsy-turvy. Frank had stitched her hand up as best he could, but it was still going to hurt like ten hells to lift anybody. Counting herself and Frank they could carry six beds at a time, meaning they needed to leave two people behind for the next trip.

Frank had suggested they draw straws for the two people who would have to wait, but Kammie shook her head. This was a triage situation like any other. Kammie moved over to Margie’s side where she was still laid out on a couch waiting for a stretcher. Her breathing was slow, but steadier. Pulse was still low, however, and she was unresponsive as Kammie took her hand.

Like it or not there were people with a better chance of survival than Margie. And the shaking seemed to have eased for the moment, so there was really no reason to believe they wouldn’t be back for her. Kammie gave Margie’s hand a squeeze, kissed her on the forehead, then moved on to the next patient.

With the help of the other patients they had eight mummies in the space of about twenty minutes. Margie and Mrs. Rosen, who was in a coma, were laid out in the lounge all set to travel. Frank put a reassuring hand on Kammie’s shoulder. “We’ll get the others up three flights then come back for these two.”

He gestured to the two nearest helpers. “Barry and … I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name?”

A stocky woman in her mid-thirties replied, “Frieda.”

“Frieda, right. You two up for coming back down with us?”

“Depends,” Barry said, “Can you take it out of my bill?”

Frank laughed, “Friend, somehow I think this stay is on the house.”

The patients who were carrying stretchers jumped down two at a time, grabbing people as Frank and Kammie slid them out. Movement was slow, as the people at the front of each pair were being asked to walk upside-down and backwards.

“Feel each step with the back of your heel and just move nice and easy,” Frank called out from the back of the line. “You guys facing forward be careful not to push your partner backwards.”

“Make sure you can make it the next floor before starting each flight of stairs,” Kammie added. “If you need to take a break, wait till you are on flat ground and move off to the side. Don’t be tough or in a hurry. It’s better to take a five minute break then to get the rest of us stuck in the middle of a climb.”

The stairwell was hot and everyone was breathing heavily. Several pairs heeded Kammie’s instructions and moved over for a breather after the first set of stairs, though most were eager to press on. The rumble which had died down was starting up again. A couple of patients gasped as the floor began shaking beneath their feet. The only earthquakes Ohio had ever experienced in recent memory were due to hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, and those had been pretty mild. This shaking on the other hand was getting everyone’s complete attention.

“It’s alright,” Frank called out. “Let’s just keep moving nice and easy.”

But the rumbling wasn’t stopping. It started as a small vibration, like your feet waking up after they’ve been asleep. Rumbling turned to shaking. Shaking turned to rocking. And rocking turned to thundering. Kammie caught the flicker of a blue hospital gown before she heard the scream. It happened too fast for her to see who it was, or to do anything but watch.

“Hug the wall!” Frank shouted.

The world was falling around her. The building was shaking so violently that it was impossible to tell if they were even still attached to the ground above. Kammie tried to stay as far away from the edge, but the walls kept leaping out as if to knock her off balance. There were more screams, one of which was probably hers.

Miraculously the shaking stopped almost as quickly as it had begun. But something was wrong. The air was suddenly cooler than it had been a moment ago. The space that had been cramped and hot was now open and airy. Kammie was simultaneously grateful for the relief, and apprehensive about its cause. She didn’t dare lean too far, for fear of spilling her charge over the side, but she had to know.

The stairs went down for a flight below them, then abruptly cut off into perfect blue sky. She imagined if she stared down she could see the shadow of the top of the building still tumbling down and away from them. The whole floor was gone, as well as the five floors above it. Grace’s mother, Mrs. Rosen, Margie and countless others were right now falling to their final resting place out among the stars.

Some of the patients above her were starting to cry. All Kammie wanted to do was scream. She could have, nobody would judge her. She’d lost her friend, lost her nurses, lost her safe silent space and all the things that seemed to make life worthwhile. But she didn’t scream. She mustered up the most cheerful voice she could manufacture and said, “Alright, let’s keep moving.”

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below (Chapter Eight)

Well the production schedule is back on track. Today we check in with our baseball players in the aftermath of losing one of their number, and Bethany and Claudia go out of the donut shop and into the fire.

You can download the full eBook (Chapters 1-8) in Kindle, EPUB and PDF formats. Or you can go to the book’s landing page here.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Eddie looked down at the dead young man and felt nothing. His act had been merciful, a hastening of the inevitable. And if not merciful, it had at least been just. Franklin still lay in a bloody heap behind Eddie, his blood and brain matter plastered all over the back wall. This young man had shot his teammate. It didn’t really matter if he’d meant to do it, or if Franklin had goaded him into it, the young man had taken a life and so his was forfeit. Accounts were kept short at the end of the world.

If Eddie felt anything it was anger, but not toward the young man at his feet. Conesta had been the one to deliver the truly fatal blow. Rather than face his actions and take some share of the responsibility for what to do next, Conesta was curled up in a far corner of the concession stand, rocking back and forth with his head in his hands.

Stankowsky wasn’t acting much better. He hadn’t curled into a ball, but only because his body was frozen in place. His arm had been limp when Eddie dressed it, and now hung uselessly at Stan’s side. Eddie knew the wound hadn’t been that bad; Stan’s arm worked. But Stankowsky didn’t seem to think he had any use for it. He just kept staring at nothing, trapped several inches deep behind his eyes.

These two men had seen the lives of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, all snuffed out in an instant. What did one more matter?

Eddie shook his head. He couldn’t believe the way he was thinking. He wondered if they all could see it on his face. Was that why Manny wouldn’t look at him?

“What are we going to do with the bodies?”

The question had come from Belanchek. He’d been crouched next to Conesta trying to get him up, and had given that up to walk over to Eddie.

“Nothing we can do. We leave them,” Eddie answered flatly. His dead tone snapped Conesta out of his daze.

“What the hell, Eddie? What if that was you lying there?”

“I’d expect you to leave me too,” Eddie replied.

“You heartless…” Conesta had gone from being withdrawn to being on the verge of tears in a matter of seconds. Eddie hadn’t really realized before just how young Conesta was. He was maybe five or six years older than the kid.

“Hell of a time to be talking like that,” Eddie continued. “You and Stan didn’t seem to mind turning this kid into a human piñata. And don’t pretend that any of you would have gotten too sentimental over me if I’d been the one to buy it instead of Franklin.”

Conesta seemed about to protest, but instead looked down at his feet.

“What would you have us do, anyway? Do we drag Franklin and this kid back to the stands and toss them into the sky? We can’t bury them, and we can’t hide them. This stadium is a tomb, and we’re grave robbers trying to grab whatever we can before this place comes down around our heads. Franklin understood that much at least.”

Conesta had shut down, and Stankowsky just kept staring blindly forward. Eddie could feel Manny’s stare without turning around, but he suspected, hoped, even Manny knew he was right.

All of a sudden Belanchek got a wicked grin. “You’re wrong, Eddie. Franklin wouldn’t have left you. He probably would have eaten you.”

Eddie raised an eyebrow, “Excuse me?”

“Better WE eat you than somebody else,” Belanchek replied. “Meat’s not going to be easy to come by.”

Eddie chuckled, “When did you get such a sick mind, Bellie?”

“I’ve always had a sick mind; I just kept it to myself. And it’s Bella, not ‘Bellie’. Y’know, like Bella donna.”

“You’d rather we called you a beautiful woman?” Manny asked.

Belanchek shrugged, “Better than being called a stomach or a tiny bell.”

They all laughed. Eddie should have felt terrible, yet if felt good to get some kind of a release. If he couldn’t laugh he’d become bitter like Franklin, or broken like Stankowsky and Conesta.

He turned to Stankowsky and clapped him on the shoulder. Stan’s eyes refocused abruptly, like a room full of static resolving into a single note. “You okay?” Eddie asked.

Stankowsky swallowed. “Yeah,” He said hoarsely. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The ramps to the skybox seats were about fifty feet out and around from where they were. They had a gun but they were already down six bullets, and they still had little in the way of water or medical supplies. For those things they’d need to go down before they could climb up to whatever safety the sewers offered.

The ramp was smooth cement, lined on either side by tight meshes of rubber coated squares. Long electrical line pipes ran down the middle, broken up by evenly spaced bulbs in cages. The floor above them was rougher, designed for the slow shuffling of hundreds of pairs of feet on their way to the upper decks before making the rest of the schlep up to the nosebleed seats.

Eddie was surprised at how reluctant he was to take that first step down. They’d all felt relatively safe nestled in the cement hallways of the stadium, which looked largely the same right-side up as down. But now Eddie was convinced the floor could crack at any moment. Despite the ramp’s gentle slope, he took every step cautiously with both arms outstretched, and the rest of the team followed his example.

They climbed down three levels before Eddie suggested they take a break, stepping off the ramp and back into the catacombs of the stadium. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he leaned against a wall to try to focus on something solid. His mind was creating all sorts of nightmare scenarios. His hands were tingling, and he told himself it was just his own blood rushing through his palm and not the building beginning its death throes. What if he was right about this being a tomb, their tomb?

Belanchek shouted, and Eddie’s eyes snapped open. Even though they were only a few levels down, the distance between the ramp and the seats was a lot smaller, and he found Belanchek standing right on the edge looking out. Eddie walked up beside him and Belanchek turned, a rueful smile on his face.

“Wives, girlfriends and mistresses,” He muttered, shaking his head back and forth.

“What?” Eddie asked.

“Down there’s the complimentary seats. Y’know, for our families. We couldn’t see them from the dugout, never even saw them go.”

Eddie frowned. He’d given his seat to a woman he’d been dating for three weeks, one of the few moves he had left to impress anyone. And for the life of him, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember her name.

* * *

The service hallway was dark, the only light cast by the exit signs in dim red flickering cones. Several 50 gallon trash cans had toppled over, spilling garbage everywhere. Each step brought another new sound and another unpleasant sensation on Bethany’s stocking feet. She’d left her shoes behind in the donut shop. Heels weren’t very good for climbing, but they were better than bare feet for stepping on half-eaten pizza. Claudia gave Bethany’s hand a reassuring squeeze as they moved slowly down the hallway. Her hands were smooth and felt like they had a permanent thin layer of flour from hundreds of hours of baking.

The service stairwell was about 100 feet down the corridor, but it felt like it had taken hours to reach it. Bethany turned back to look at the small circle of light at the other end of the hall. She told herself that no one could see them even if they were looking, but she wasn’t so sure. Claudia, meanwhile, was examining the double doors to the stairwell before letting out a snort in disgust.

“Locked,” Claudia vented. “We can’t go back out there and look for one of the maintenance guys with those maniacs running around.”

Bethany replied calmly, “It’s alright; let me give it a try.”

“You hiding a crowbar under that skirt?” Claudia whispered, her voice tense and coming out in bursts.

“Not exactly,” Bethany said as she produced two small pieces of metal. The first was slightly curved and flexible, the other firmer and straighter. “Never had to do this upside-down before, but I think the concept should be pretty much the same.”

Bethany inserted the thin piece into the lock, and started probing gently. Claudia’s face was a mixture of surprise and amusement. “That something they teach all lawyers?”

Bethany shook her head, “It’s something you’re expected to know before you go to law school. I learned from my mom, actually, or rather from her keeping a lock on the liquor cabinet. A determined teenager with an afternoon to kill can accomplish wonders in the face of such adversity.”

She smiled as she remembered Grace taking the brute force approach, pulling on the lock until her hands were sore and sweaty. Bethany on the other hand, had been calm and methodical, and had the lock open in less than ten minutes with a couple of hairpins. The memory of what happened afterward was largely obliterated by the quantity of gin consumed, though she did remember her father trying to hold back both of their hair as one threw up in the bathtub and the other in the toilet.

A satisfying thunk indicated success. She pushed the door open triumphantly, only to take in a sharp breath of air as she looked down.

“That’s not a skylight down there, is it?” Bethany whispered.

Claudia looked over cautiously, “I don’t think they build skylights in maintenance stairwells.”

Bethany looked down, speaking almost absently. “Either the stairs are going to fall out from beneath our feet, or they won’t.”

Claudia frowned, her mouth pulling to the left in consideration, “I guess you’re right. Lawyers first.”

Bethany took a deep breath and sat down on the door jam. The ceiling was low in this part of the building so from a sitting position all she had to do was hop down about a foot. The cement was slick and she almost lost her balance when she hit the ground, but Claudia steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. When Bethany was sure of her footing she stepped to the right, leaned on the wall for support, and put out an arm to catch Claudia as she jumped down.

The floor was definitely moving. One of Bethany’s first temp jobs had been on the second floor of an office building. There was a passageway next to her cubicle and every few minutes when someone walked by, her monitor, the desk and the floor moved ever so slightly. By lunch her stomach was often queasy from all of the low-level earthquakes. This floor felt like a hundred people were running a marathon down that passageway.

She took a tentative step toward the stairs, then stepped back as she nearly lost her balance again. The stockings weren’t going to cut it. She’d never much liked going barefoot as a child, but even she could admit the evolutionary advantage bare feet gave her over slick nylon. She hiked her skirt up around her thighs and tried pushing the material down. She hadn’t realized until that moment how much she’d been sweating, and the nylons were stuck to her like a second skin.

Claudia let out another grunt of disgust and without any warning stuck one of her long fingernails about an inch down Bethany’s thigh. She pointed her finger outward and pulled, the sharp nail tearing a hole about the size of a quarter. She took both hands and tore downward till the material split at Bethany’s foot. Another tug upward and she tossed the stocking unceremoniously down the center of the stairwell.

“Bet Jared wishes he could see us now,” Claudia smirked as she worked on the second nylon.

Still a little surprised, but grateful to be free from the clingy and slick material, Bethany flexed her toes and felt the cool metal and cement beneath her feet. The climb was much easier, her foot almost sticking to the stair with each step.

“Can I ask you something?” Claudia said as they climbed onto the next landing.

Bethany chuckled, doubting an answer of no would actually stop this woman. “Sure.”

“Why donuts? I mean, you don’t exactly have the figure of someone who eats the food of the common man.”

Bethany smiled, “Just something my dad and I used to do when I was a kid. He worked long hours, 12-14 hour shifts to be able to provide for all of us. He’d get off work at one in the morning on a Friday, and be waking me up around 5am to go with him for a donut and coffee. He should have been exhausted, but he was always so excited for the opportunity to spend time with his girls. We’d sit in the donut shop and talk for hours, watching the sun come up.”

“That’s nice. All my dad ever did was sit on the couch in front of SportsCenter. My mom used to say that keeping a constant vigil wasn’t going to give the Browns a Super Bowl.”

“Or the Cavs a national title. I wonder if King LeBron is happy he came back,” Bethany said.

“Miami has too many open spaces. He’d have been a goner for sure,” Claudia answered.

Claudia and Bethany were nearly out of breath by the time they reached the top of the stairs. Bethany leaned against the wall for a moment, taking in air in big gulps before pushing tentatively on the double doors. To her surprise, the doors swung wide open, and she fell forward on her face.

Looking up she could see thick black boots mostly hidden underneath baggy jeans. A young man in his teens with a buzz cut and scraggly facial hair gave her a toothy grin. Flanking him on either side were two equally unappealing characters. One had a noticeable red stain over the whole front of his shirt, and the other was running his hands up and down a baseball bat like he was trying to rub it out.

“Well,” the young man said softly, crouching down so he could meet Bethany’s gaze directly. “What do we have here?”

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below (Chapter Seven)

Well, it’s finally here, and it only took a month. Actually a lot of this was written in the last three days, including some marathon sessions starting at 4am, then picking up again after work. It’s good to be working on this again, and hopefully we can get back to the two week production schedule with Chapter 8.

If you missed yesterday’s post and want to catch up on what’s happened so far, or you need a refresher because the author takes too darn long to write, you can check it out here.

You can download the full eBook (Chapters 1-7) in Kindle, EPUB and PDF formats. Or you can look at all the posts on the blog on this page.

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Kammie’s hand was going to be a problem. By the time she’d crawled to the supply closet for alcohol and some sterile gauze, the blood had run all the way down her arm and was dripping onto her scrubs. She bit down on a roll of gauze and held her hand out as far away from her as possible, hoping distance would somehow lessen the pain. As the alcohol flowed over the wound it was all she could do to keep from screaming. After pouring out about half the bottle, she wrapped her hand quickly and tightly.

The wound wouldn’t close without stiches, but at least she might be able to contain the bleeding, hopefully without cutting off circulation to her fingers. She stood inside the dark supply closet, her former sanctuary, closing her eyes and hoping the faintest hope that when she opened them, all this would be back to normal. Her throbbing hand and the memory of that empty lounge grounded her too well in reality for that dream to last long.

When she rejoined Grace the young woman insisted on looking at Kammie’s hand. Kammie had seen this kind of thing a lot with the daughters and sons of older patients. A fierce protective instinct kicks in, and sticks around for days, even weeks, after the parent has passed on. Kammie waved off Grace’s offer gently with her good hand. She didn’t want the young woman worrying more than she had to, given all they still had to do.

It took another hour to check the rest of the rooms on the floor, though at least twenty minutes of that had been taking abuse from Mr. Thomas and trying to resist the urge to knock him out. Out of the 30 patients on the ward she’d lost four: Grace’s mother who’d likely passed just before the incident, two patients crushed beneath hospital beds including the woman in room five, and a man who’d suffocated after his respirator shut down. Maybe about half her patients could walk if the need arose, and another five might move with assistance, leaving seven confined to their beds, eight if you included Margie who still had not regained consciousness.

A few of the patients on oxygen would need new tanks in a couple of hours, but they could last a while without them until some kind of help arrived. Then again, she’d been wandering around for the better part of two hours and hadn’t seen anyone from the other floors. She doubted they were the only people left alive, but if the other parts of the hospital were anything like hers they probably had enough of their own problems to deal with.

Grace suggested congregating the patients who were well enough to be moved into the lounge with Margie, while the two of them tried to come up with some way to move the others. Even the people who could walk did so with great difficulty, having to lift IV poles above the metal slats between ceiling tiles, all while shuffling in hospital booties. A few of the patients had managed to pull on clothes, though most were forced to wander around in thin hospital gowns. Kammie did her best to help the patients maintain a shred of dignity, though even she stifled a laugh when a particularly wide step exposed a plump 55 year old fanny.

A series of hastened footsteps followed by a loud bang caught her attention. It took her a few moments to realize the sound was coming from the stairwell. The loud bang was soon followed by a series of thumps against the door, punctuated by copious amounts of swearing. Through the small glass window she could see one of the part-time paramedics trying to jump for the door handle. The ceiling, which was now the floor, was about four feet below the door, with another couple of feet between the base of the door and the handle. It would have been a stretch for even one of the taller ride-alongs, and Frank was only five foot two.

Kammie pushed the door open gently and looked down.

“You rang?”

“Hey Kammie, can you give me a hand?” Frank said.

Kammie bent down and grabbed Frank’s arm with her uninjured hand. As she pulled up she nearly fell backward as her calves grazed the ceiling slats. Frank stumbled forward and caught them by grabbing the door frame. After righting them both, he grinned wildly.

“Somehow I knew you’d still be alive,” Frank said.

“About time you showed up,” Kammie shot back.

Frank was young, but already almost completely bald. Kammie had never seen his original hair color, but the bits that were left were dyed a dark red. The “part-time” paramedics usually worked the same shifts as the nursing staff, at least three 12 hour shifts a week, which usually amounted to more like 14-16 hours.

Despite pulling roughly the same hours, there was a definite pecking order between the nurses and the medics, with the medics at the bottom. Most were only asked to start an EEG, or maybe to put in an IV, while the nursing staff took care of the rest. Frank had never abided by this divide, and Kammie had never seen the need to build fences either. Mostly Frank was just happy to be away from the stress of riding in an ambulance, never knowing if you’ve saved a life or merely delayed the inevitable.

At the end of a long shift Frank would sometimes stand on his head, walking down the hall on his hands while balancing a tray of green Jello on his feet. The patients got a kick out of it, as did most of the nurses as long as their supervisor wasn’t around.

Frank looked around at the patients congregating in the lounge and the distinct lack of other nursing staff. “Are you alone down here?”

“Just me and a civilian, what’s happening on the other floors?”

“I’m not sure. It took me forever just to get up here from upstairs. I’ve only been to the floor below this one, but it looks like more of the same. At least now you’re all seeing the world the way I usually do.”

A tremor tipped the ceiling beneath their feet and Kammie stumbled into Frank, wincing as she hit her bad hand. The tremor shook the building for maybe five seconds, then stopped.

Frank shook his head, “I was wondering when that was going to start.”

“What?” Kammie asked.

“We’re essentially hanging upside-down from the foundation. Even the best engineered building isn’t designed to withstand these kinds of stresses. Some of the floors might hold up a little longer since they have connections to other buildings, but we’re going to start losing the upper floors soon.”

“Assuming the whole building doesn’t tear itself loose first,” Kammie nodded grimly.

“I knew there was a reason I came up here. What would I do without your smiling outlook on life?”

They’d already been hanging for several hours, and there was no sign that gravity was suddenly going to snap back to normal. She’d had some hope that she could treat these patients in place until some kind of help arrived, but it looked like Frank was all she was going to get.

“We’ve got to get these people off this floor and into the basement levels, maybe the parking tunnel,” Kammie said.

Frank nodded, “My thoughts exactly. Any ideas on how?”

Grace walked over from the lobby and Frank extended a hand. Grace shook it limply, then turned to Kammie. “I picked a hell of a day to wear sandals. I don’t know how you guys can stand for all those hours.”

“I’m not sure either,” Kammie smiled. “How is everyone?”

“Wondering what the hell that tremor was. I told them it was nothing to worry about. I’m assuming I was lying?”

“Not really. Worrying isn’t going to change the outcome one way or another. Those tremors are only the building beginning to tear itself apart.”

Grace nodded, “I’m glad to hear it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It’s much much worse.”

Frank smiled, “A couple of hours with this one and you’re already Miss Sunshine and lollipops.”

Grace looked about to chuckle, but then her face fell. She looked down at the floor, then back up at Kammie. She looked more exhausted than just a moment ago if such a thing was possible. Then again, she had probably been at her mother’s side for days. Her hair was oily and pulled back, and her eyes were white from exhaustion.

“We can’t take her with us, can we?” She said quietly.

Frank looked about to say something, but Kammie brushed a hand against his side to quiet him. “I’m sorry, Grace.”

“Can I see her?” Grace said softly. “I don’t want to just leave her.”

Kammie looked at Frank who nodded. “I’ll see if I can round up some boards for the patients who’ll need to be carried. You guys take all the time you need.”

Grace and Kammie had skipped her mother’s room as made their sweep of the patients. By now they’d been back and forth across the hall so many times that stepping over the ceiling struts was something they could do almost by memory.

The world is such a small place at the end. Her mother had died in a room maybe 10 feet by 15 feet, with only her daughter for company. Was that going to be the way it was for the rest of them? They’d never be able to go outside, never feel the sun beating down on their faces again. They would have to huddle in small dark corners until they ran out of water, or food, or maybe even air.

The people who had fallen into the sky had died in an infinite expanse. It must have been so quiet and peaceful. Sure you might scream for the first few minutes or so, but then you’re just falling without ever stopping. It’d get harder to breathe at some point, but the cold would shut your body down long before you’d have to worry about it. You would just float upward, rising toward heaven. How many of them would step into the sky at the end, just to feel the sun one more time?

They found Grace’s mother lying flat on her stomach, cocooned under her deathbed. If she’d died half an hour earlier she’d be laying upside-down on a cold metal slab in a drawer waiting for a ride to a funeral home that would never come. Grace took a few tentative steps in the door, then hung back. She’d spent so much of the last few days in this tiny room, yet it still felt so cold and foreign to her.

Kammie knelt down gently, and slid the bars back on one side of the bed. It creaked, and moaned, and threatened but it didn’t topple over. She reached over and grabbed under the body’s thigh and shoulder. She pulled gently and slowly, taking care not to bump the bed. When she had Grace’s mother out, Kammie turned her over slowly, taking care to reposition her gown and smooth out her hair. She grabbed a blanket that had been resting on the floor and pulled it up to the woman’s chest. She didn’t look all that much older than Kammie, maybe ten years at the most, and it was clear even from her sunken features that she had once been beautiful. Her daughter was evidence of that if nothing else.

Kammie turned and extended a hand toward Grace, who moved tentatively. Kammie beckoned gently until Grace sat down on the other side of her mother’s body. Kammie discretely watched from the door as Grace stroked her mother’s hair for the last time, kissed her softly on the cheek, then brought the sheet up over her face.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below – The Story So Far

It’s been about a month since the last installment of The Sky Below so I thought it might be a good idea to catch everybody back up to speed before tomorrow’s Chapter 7.

*SPOILER WARNING – Contains content from the first six chapters of The Sky Below*

The Sky Below follows the immediate aftermath of a world-wide disaster from the perspective of four residents of Cleveland, Ohio. Gravity has gone all higgledy-piggledy and what was down now is up, and vice-versa.

A morning of silent prayer and study is interrupted for Reverend Marcado when the world is flipped upside-down. He rescues a young man who was visiting the historic Old Stone Church, but unfortunately is unable to save the man’s girlfriend, Stacey. Marcado is an alcoholic, who came to the church when the booze wasn’t working for him anymore, but it’s hard to see God’s plan in a cataclysm like this one. The two men are currently wandering through the church basement which is now its highest point, searching for an entry into the sewers and possible survival. Marcado has no idea where his wife and two children are, or whether they are still alive.

Eddie is a baseball player at the end of his career. After striking out at bat he watches from the dugout as everyone watching the game, including the next man at bat, starts falling into the skies. In a matter of minutes Eddie and his teammates watched tens of thousands of people die. It’s unclear how many people were in the inner part of the stadium when the calamity hit, or if anyone managed to hang on out in the stands, but Eddie and his group decide it’s best to act first for themselves. They strike out in search of food and a means to protect themselves when they encounter a young man who pulls a gun on them, demanding food and help for his injured sister. The scene takes a disastrous turn when the young man kills one of their teammates triggering a savage beating that ends with Eddie putting three bullets into the young man’s chest.

Bethany is a lawyer getting a cup of coffee and a donut in the mall when the world turns on its head. Her sister Grace has been living in her apartment for the last three weeks as the two try to care for their dying mother. Circumstance throws her together with Claudia, the woman behind the counter at the Dunkin Donuts and her co-worker Jared who is badly injured. The two women carry Jared into the back offices behind the store while Bethany tries to get a hold of her sister, who was trying to reach her before the disaster struck. Bethany and Claudia are forced to abandon Jared when they witness a gang of looters stabbing the manager of a sporting goods store. They hope to return with first aid equipment and some kind of climbing gear, though they suspect Jared may have to fend for himself.

Kammie is a nurse at a downtown Cleveland Hospital, taking a break in a supply closet after a 13 hour shift. She encounters Grace, Bethany’s sister, and learns that their mother died shortly before the disaster struck, a fact of which Bethany is unaware. Grace helps Kammie take care of Margie, a nurse and mentor, then the two sweep the rooms of the floor looking for survivors. While some have been crushed beneath falling debris or other injuries, there are at least half a dozen patients alive and well on the floor. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the other nurses, who died falling through a hole in the skylight of their break-room. Kammie cut her hand crawling from room to room, and will probably need to stitch it herself if she can find the supplies. She worries for her cat Alomar, though suspects he’s probably better able to take care of himself than her.

Chapter 7 continues Kammie’s story as she looks for a way to get the patients to safety. Tune in tomorrow!

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Writing Violent Fiction

*Spoiler Alert*

Some post-apocalyptic stories involve people not being very nice to each other.

Working on Chapter 6 of The Sky Below last night I got to thinking about the role of violence in fiction.

I tend to take the Agatha Christie approach to violence typically. She wrote something like 70+ murder mysteries but very rarely was any blood spilled (usually poisonings and the like). Ironically, one of her more violent (and bloody) books was Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

But different works demand certain circumstances. Much as I’d love to believe that everybody would be decent in the face of the world-wide disaster, there’s too much evidence to the contrary. And truthfully I’m not sure how many of you would want to read a book about everyone being nice to each other all the time. I am not writing the My Little Pony of disaster narratives.

When thinking about how violence is portrayed in the story you have to think about three audiences. The reader, the writer and the character.

Most readers have a threshold for violence they will tolerate. This is on a sliding scale, of course, based in part on exposure, context within the story, and particular hot-buttons. A more whimsical example of this is a guy being hit in the groin. To at least 50% of your readers, that might trigger a visceral reaction (i.e. ‘that’s gotta hurt’). My general rule here is to not dwell, to be economic but clear with words and not to describe things about how the blood is spurting, the bone is breaking through the skin, the colors of bruises, etc.

Which brings me to the writer. Writing violence requires thinking about violence, and to a certain degree, imagining or reenacting violence in some small way. Case in point, I was trying to figure out where would be the best place on the forearm to strike to break someone’s grip, and admittedly I hit my own arm a couple of times just to get a sense of it (no bruises, just checked). Occasionally I act out a maneuver in a fight just to get a sense of whether it is physically possible. Even writing this I worry that some of you might be freaked out by this notion. Let me assure you I’m a very peaceful guy. I don’t particularly like violence, I just feel occasionally it’s narratively necessary.

Writing about violence from the character’s perspective requires a sense of that character’s reaction to violence. Some are appalled, react physically, vomiting, etc. Some react coldly. Some react cruelly, and some just fly off the handle while others are pragmatic. Getting a sense of a character’s capacity to inflict and observe violence helps to make those scenes real and not glorified. A character can, and sometimes should, have a viewpoint that conflicts with the writer’s and good authors let the reader decide who is right.

How do you write about violence or do you avoid it altogether?

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The Sky Below (Chapter Five)

In this chapter of The Sky Below a nurse tries to help the people in front of her and a lawyer makes the tough call. If you haven’t read chapters 1-4, don’t worry. You can download an eBook of the whole novella up to this point, or download individual chapters from this page.

Like what you’re reading or have a question about the physics of all of this? Be sure to post them in the comments!

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CHAPTER FIVE

Kammie was beginning to wonder if she was the only nurse still alive on the floor. She could hear the groans of maybe half a dozen patients, but nobody answered them except her. She’d gotten Margie stabilized for the moment, and with Grace’s help Kammie had been able to lay her out on one of the couches in the visitor’s lounge. After crying on Kammie’s shoulder for a couple of minutes, Grace had pulled herself together enough to actually be of some use, not that Kammie could be picky.

Kammie’s brain had given up trying to provide a wider context for what was going on, choosing instead to focus only on what was in front of her. Kammie felt a familiar tension at the base of her skull, a combination of sleep deprivation, stress and too much caffeine. Still, she was happy to find that several of the nearby vending machines had spilled their contents all over the ceiling. She grabbed a couple of diet sodas and tossed one to Grace before resuming her crawl to the next room.

‘There’s no such thing as too much caffeine,’ she thought to herself.

A rumble from behind her grabbed her attention and Grace blushed as she twisted the cap back on the bottle. “Must’ve been the building settling.”

Kammie’s smile lasted for the briefest of moments, vanishing completely as she opened the door to room five. A cheap hospital bed, like the ones used for patients receiving in-home care, weighs about 450 pounds. In a hospital like this one, the average bed could weigh upwards of 700 pounds. With the head tilted up and the railings raised, a patient might be trapped if the bed fell on top of them, but they wouldn’t be crushed. But if one of the railings was lowered, or if the bed tilted to the side as it fell, then even a fall of only a few feet could be deadly.

The depression in the back of the old woman’s skull indicated it had at least been quick. Grace had been hot on Kammie’s heels, eager to help in any way she could, but Kammie held out a hand to stop her before she could get to the door. Kammie did a five-second sweep of the room with her eyes to check for any visitors or nurses, and upon finding none, silently close the door and started toward room six.

The patient in room six had been in the bathroom when everything hit, and from the looks of him hadn’t had the chance to flush away the morning’s constitutional. This at least, was nothing new. Kammie sent Grace to the closet for a fresh gown and some towels. The man was in his fifties and kept insisting he could do it himself, despite the fact he’d probably been lying there for the better part of an hour. His right collar bone was obviously bruised or broken, as even a slight graze triggered a grimace of pain across his face.

When she’d gotten him as clean as she was able to, she sat him down in one of the chairs, figuring if gravity flipped again that the chair probably wouldn’t crush him. She pressed his skin gently asking him to rate his pain from 1-10 with each touch. The bone felt solid, but the tissue around it had been badly banged up.

“I’m afraid the best I can offer you is a sling at the moment,” Kammie said sympathetically, “Grace, can you take care of that while I check on room seven?”

Grace nodded and Kammie got back on her hands and knees, relaxing her face as soon as she was out of sight of the door. It was difficult enough to maintain a cheerful and professional demeanor after a long day without all of these added excitements. Kammie genuinely did want to help people, to care for them in some of the scariest moments of their lives. She tried to make the whole thing feel safe and comforting, like a stay at a luxury hotel where your every need and desire is met. But that level of charm takes energy, and she had very little in reserve.

This was why most of her time off was spent in silence; that and it’s a bit weird to carry on a conversation with your cat.

The thought of Alomar alone in the apartment caused a brief pang of guilt in Kammie. There was plenty of dry food, but all of the water had probably spilled out onto the floor. And it was going to be a while till Kammie could spoil her with tuna again, assuming she could even get home. On the other hand, Alomar probably had landed on her feet, unlike her master, and could be pretty resourceful when she wanted to be. Several times Kammie had to replace one of the neighbor’s fish when Alomar got the craving for raw sushi.

“Ow! Dammit!” Kammie swore as he slid her hand over something thin and sharp. She pulled back instinctively, but whatever it was had already dug in deep. In the flickering dull light she could see a thin shard of glass, maybe an inch on a side, sticking out from where it had embedded itself in the fatty part of her hand.

The muscles in her hand twitched uncontrollably, sending sharp pains down her fingers and into her wrist. She rolled over onto her side holding her hand above her head. She bit the bottom part of her lip and grabbed the shard carefully with two fingers, easing it out slowly so as not to make the cut any worse. The spasms seemed to trigger with every tiny movement, and she could feel every millimeter of the shard as it slid out. The last quarter-inch slid out quickly followed by a pulse of blood that began to run down her hand. She tossed the shard away angrily and began wrapping her hand with an ace bandage she’d found in room three.

The cut bled slowly. Somehow she’d managed to avoid the artery, but from the twitching she’d definitely done some muscular and possibly nerve damage. She looked in front of her to see dozens of tiny shards from one of the blown out ceiling lights. All things considered, Kammie was fortunate she’d only gotten stuck with one of them. Still, she was probably going to need stitches to properly close the wound, something she didn’t particularly want to do herself.

‘Where the hell are the other nurses?’

She stood tentatively, holding her throbbing hand above her chest to try to slow the bleeding. Each step was careful and deliberate, moving her past her original objective of room seven in favor of the nurses’ lounge just around the corner. Even if they’d been knocked unconscious by the fall, someone should be awake by now.

‘Maybe they just can’t get out,’ she thought.

It took an age to reach the door, and another to push up on the door handle and inch the door open. No sooner had she opened the door six inches when something tore the door out of her hand. Her face was struck by a cool breeze which kicked up the dust and debris around her in a low cloud.

The hospital had been surprisingly generous with its nursing staff. One of the few reasons Kammie spent any time in nurses’ lounge at all was the sky light and floor-to-ceiling windows which featured a great view of downtown. Glass was a funny thing. This building was built to withstand the worst tornadoes and snowy conditions with barely a scratch. But drop a half dozen chairs and a couch on that ceiling, and you’ve got yourself a big gaping hole.

Kammie stared at the hole blankly for a few seconds, then picked up a length of metal framing from the ceiling, bent the end into a hook using her thigh, and pulled the door closed.

* * *

“I have half a mind to sue this place,” Claudia said as she and Bethany dug through cabinets and drawers searching for a first aid kit. “I can understand not having the materials for a splint. I mean, who’s going to break their ankle making donuts, but I can’t even find a damn band-aid!”

Jared was still hazy. He obviously had some kind of a concussion but neither Bethany nor Claudia had any idea how to deal with it other than to try and keep him awake. This proved difficult as Jared seemed to be making every effort to disconnect from reality.

“There’s got to be something out in the mall,” Bethany offered. “They should have a first aid station somewhere.”

“You’re right, though if I remember correctly it’s on the first floor, which is a couple of levels above us now.”

The elevators, assuming they were even working at this point, were glass encased prisms with no floor. The escalators were out as well, unless Bethany could piton her way up through every groove. She vaguely remembered falling off halfway across the monkey bars as a kid. There the worst possible outcome was a few splinters. Here there was no telling how far she’d keep falling if she lost her grip.

Bethany shook her head, “Even if we could get up there, there’s no way we could get Jared up in his current state. What about service stairwells?”

Claudia shrugged, “Someone on the maintenance staff might know. Me, I go in and out the front door just like you. I don’t even use the employee parking, I take the RTA.”

Absently Bethany pressed the call button on her phone, hanging up and trying again as soon as she heard the three-tone alert message.

“You’re just going to drain the battery doing that. The system’ll probably be down for hours,” Claudia offered.

Even as she pressed the call button again, Bethany knew she was right. Why hadn’t she picked up the phone in the first place? What was so important about a damn cup of coffee?

Frustrated she slammed one of the cabinets shut, the force tearing the door off of one of its hinges, leaving it swinging loosely from the other. Claudia assessed the damage with a raised eyebrow.

“Good a solution as any I guess,” she said, tearing the rest of the door away from the cabinet. She put her foot on the seat of one of the plastic chairs and slammed the board down hard against the back. The board cracked and split, and after a couple more whacks broke into two roughly even pieces.

“Hand me some of those uniforms from the back closet over there. We’ll wrap these so Jared doesn’t get tetanus, and use whatever fabric we’ve got left to tie them together.”

The splint was crude but succeeded in keeping Jared’s leg straight, though Bethany had to snap some loose shards of wood so he could put his foot down on the floor.

“He’s still not going anywhere for a little while,” Claudia said. “We might as well see what else we can…”

The sound of gunfire is distinctive. Most lower caliber hand guns don’t set off the loud boom that everyone expects. The real noise is closer to a balloon popping, which in some ways is more frightening. Gunfire sounds more innocuous than it is.

“What the hell is going on out there?” Claudia whispered angrily.

The shots were soon followed by the sound of smashed glass and angry yelling.

“C’mon,” Claudia gestured, crouching low.

With the counter above them, the front of the store offered little in the way of cover. Their only real protection was the fact that a donut shop wasn’t usually the first on anyone’s list when it came to looting.

The shouting was clearly coming from their floor. Claudia and Bethany moved slowly across the aisle and up to the corner. If they were caught, Bethany didn’t have much of a plan beyond screaming, as running back to the donut shop offered fleeting safety at best.

Bethany leaned her head around the corner, then quickly pulled it back, burying her head as close to the wall as possible.

“What do you see?”

Bethany didn’t want to answer and just kept trying to bury herself in the wall. Claudia pushed her back gently and took her own quick look before pulling back as well.

Lying half out of the store window was a young man wearing a store manager’s uniform. He had a thick mustache and was wearing a tie and a whistle like the high-school coaches in movies from the 80‘s and 90‘s. His eyes were open and glassy. Most of his forehead and temples were covered in blood from a deluge of small cuts from the window, and one or several large blows to the head. His chest was dark crimson, the material too wet with blood to show any wound.

Bethany had regained some of her composure just as Claudia was losing hers, “Did you know him?”

Claudia brushed a tear away with her hand and spoke in a whisper, “Not really. I saw him around. He usually liked Boston creams, though who doesn’t like a bit of custard?”

Bethany shook her head, “Sporting goods store, that’s surprisingly smart for a mob mentality. That place has the climbing equipment to get out of the mall and to anywhere else you might need to go. From their attitude toward the store manager I doubt they’ll be too willing to share with us, though.”

“What do we do now?” Claudia asked.

“We’ve got to get out here before those goons start sweeping the rest of this floor. Maybe the emergency exits will work.”

“But what about Jared? There’s no way we can bring him with us,” Claudia said.

Often Bethany suspected that the people around her knew the answers to their own questions, but needed her to say the answer anyway. Her parents were getting a divorce, but they looked to her to make sure they were doing it right. Grace kept fighting with nurses and doctors, but all the while she was waiting for Bethany to say it was okay to let go.

“We have to leave him, at least for now,” Bethany said. “Maybe since he’s hurt they’ll leave him alone.”

Claudia clearly wanted to object. It was part of the social contract of being an uncaring heartless pragmatist that other people get to yell at you about it, before ultimately going along with your plan. Claudia seemed too drained at the moment to care.

“You’re probably right. We can come back down and check on him once we’ve found some supplies and these gangbangers have taken off.”

It was unlikely they were ever coming back to this store again, but if it helped the fiction of their reason for leaving, then that was alright.

Bethany dialed her sister one last time. When again she heard the three-tone message, she held the power button down to turn off the phone.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

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Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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