Saturday, September 1, 2012

Run Like Hell (repost from Oct 2011)

Another short story:

I was helping a young woman find book in the town library. Mind you, I wasn't the librarian, but since I handled all the reshelving and finding of books it was my job. She was looking for an old edition of a magazine and I knew we had bound volumes of this journal on our third floor. Rather than send her up to find it, I told her I would bring it down when I finished my final reshelving for my shift. She wasn't in a huge hurry and sat down to read some of the books she had already amassed.

A quick jaunt up the staff stairwell and I found my booktruck right where I left it. I finished reshelving a dozen or so books and then found the volume of Craft Horizons that she had asked for. Flipping it open I was greeted with a flood of memories. I could see my mother opening the January 1977 issue, all of the clay dust on the cover and the red iron oxide stains on the pages with glaze recipes. I saw potters long-dead that I had never met but knew from our shared history. I saw woodturners whose woodwork had inspired me along the way.

Closing the cover of the hardbound journal, I felt my heart stop for a moment. Unsure why, I quickly raced down the stairs, hoping that the young lady was still waiting. Reaching the first floor, I quickly scanned the reading tables and found her at the main desk, checking out a small stack of books. I brought over the journal and laid it on top of the rest of her selections. She was very curious as to how I could find it so quickly and I explained that I had spent a lot of time going through that section due to my interest in ceramics.

She and were talking about clay and glazes and other potters as we made our way out towards the entrance.  We were just under the threshold when the floor shook. It shook and throbbed. The walls vibrated and rippled. The ceiling over our heads twisted and tore like old parchment.

With a sudden shock, she looked up into my eyes, as though I should know what was happening. At that moment, the floor lurched and I was tossed back into a supporting pillar. The floor beneath us dropped away. The space that moments earlier had been century old hardwood flooring with oak and elm framing was suddenly gone. Rotting earth stared up at me with an open maw.

The next few moments took years to pass. My arm reached out to pull the young lady to the firmament I was planted on adjacent to the pillar. My hand, fully outstretched... her fingers so close. And that look in her eyes. There was no chance. Even if I had reached out sooner, there was no way to reach her. I watched her fall twenty feet or more before being lost to me.

I held tighter to the column, hoping that the rolling tremors would stop and that somehow everything would be okay again. The shaking stopped. Then the floors above me began to give way and suddenly the air around me was filled with huge walls of books from the second and third floors crashing through the floor and passing right beside me.... anxious to choke the gigantic opening in the earth.

Between the smell of decaying wood, of mold and mildew, of old wood dust, of wet earth... between all of these ripe raw smells that assaulted me, my own imminent fall to my death... and all I could think about was that I didn't even know this young lady's name.

As the dust cleared and the books and shelves stopped crashing, the sheer magnitude of the event was made clear. The entire structure had been undermined. It was gone. No floors, no walls, no people. Just the outer shell of the building. This library had been a large barn in its first incarnation and as a result the outer shell was incredibly strong. The subsequent additions had made the barn into a library. Rooms for offices, storage and of course storage for books.  Looking around me, it seemed like somehow the building had shrugged off the last hundred years and emptied it into this gigantic earthen trash can beneath me.

In a desperate act of self-preservation, I started making my way across the rubble, clinging to structural members as best I could. Outside of the library, people were doing their level best to reach those trapped inside. Cars, trucks and tractors were all shining their headlights into the now-empty shell. The glare from their high beams made it impossible to see where I was going. It was worse than the sudden darkness from all the falling debris. I had to get out.

Each time I moved I had to check my feet to ensure that I was on solid ground that would bear my weight. When the soft roiled earth started to move under my shoe, I was sure the upheaval had begun again. Imagine my shock when I could finally see down into the cloudy debris... and through the dust, through the beams of light cast by the townsfolk, I could barely make out the bodies. Dozens of them. With layers of fallen wood, timbers, earth and years of books... these bodies were crumpled under the massive weight. No one made a sound. There were no cries for help.

With only a few feet ahead of me, the only thing blocking my way out was a huge rift in the ground. Perhaps only five or six feet across, with those bright lights in my eyes, it may as well have been a mile. I couldn't take the chance. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a clearer, safer path. With the light behind me, I could see to either side of my shadows. Bit by bit, I reached, clawed and cried my way to the farside of the building. Just a matter of inches away from the staff entrance, I saw that exit completely blocked with piles of timbers and fallen shelving. I could hear the townspeople just outside the way. All of the plaster and lath had cracked away in the upheaval. As a result, I could see cracks in the outer shell of the structure.

Like any old barn, those boards and battens were held in place with old nails. A few swift desperate kicks and I had one board loose. Enough room to get my head part-way through so I could breathe and scream for help. No words came out...just spittle and desperate whines. There was no way I could wait any longer. With one huge push, I shoved aside the adjacent boards and with a loud creak and then snap... I was free. I was outside the building. All the action was happening on the other side of the library, but I was outside at last. The cold gravel from the driveway felt like soft summer grass as I laid there and thought about what had just happened.

Sleep found me long before the searchers did.

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