She was dying.
Her name was Julianna, and she would turn seventeen in eight days. She had emerald green eyes, really beautiful eyes, and long wavy brown hair. Her teeth were straight and white and she had a lovely smile.
He had been holding her for nearly an hour now, his arms wrapped around her as if somehow that could delay the inevitable. She was very quiet. He almost wished she would curse him, would shout and rant and accuse, but she couldn’t know it was his fault she was dying.
She had even thanked him once, in a soft and broken voice that tore at his heart. She had thanked him for being there, for caring, because she didn’t know that if he had been there earlier, none of this would have happened. If he had run a little faster, if he had left a little earlier … if, if, if.
When he first pulled her out from under the rubble, he had hoped to save her still. Maybe, he thought, maybe she isn’t hurt that badly. Maybe I could still get her out. That had been before more of the building collapsed, blocking their only way out, and before she started spitting up blood.
His own injuries didn’t matter — his throbbing head and blurred vision, the ankle that had swollen so much it looked like a balloon. He didn’t care about the blood soaking through the sleeve of his shirt, dripping off his fingers. He had failed, and Julianna was dying.
In the dim light, her face looked so young. She was young, not even seventeen, too young to die like this, in a dark basement with a man who should have saved her.
“Gary,” Julianna said. Her voice slurred softly and she had a Southern accent. The article had said she’d only moved to Chicago last year, from … where? Georgia?
She was cold, too damn cold. He could feel how icy her hands were, could see how blue her lips. He held her closer, hoping to warm her with his own body heat. He had draped his jacket over her long ago, but it didn’t seem to be helping. He was cold too. It didn’t matter, because he was not the one who was dying.
Just in case, he checked the article again; it was still the same, of course. He yelled, his voice hoarse from endless minutes of yelling. No one was going to find them, not until it was too late for Julianna.
“I’m sorry,” He whispered to Julianna. Her beautiful green eyes half-opened and she almost smiled.
“Sorry for what, Gary? For almost getting killed trying to save me?”
I’m sorry that you’re going to die because of me, Gary thought, but he didn’t say it. Maybe Julianna didn’t know she was dying. Maybe she still thought there was hope. No one should have to die without hope.
Damn it, he was going to go crazy just sitting here waiting for her to die. There had to be something he could do, some way to get out or to draw attention to them.
With a whispered apology, he gently eased Julianna down onto the dusty boards and crawled around piles of debris, searching for a way out. It was utterly futile; they would require outside assistance to get out. Outside assistance was something they weren’t likely to acquire.
Moving around seemed to have a bad effect on the situation; not only did Gary’s ankle hurt enough to almost make him pass out, but the boards overhead began to creak ominously. This was far too much like that time in the carpet store. He tried not to think of the events leading up to that; he had failed then, but he couldn’t fail now. Please, God …
When the creaking stopped and the dizziness subsided he oh-so-carefully crawled back to Julianna, who was unconscious but still breathing. As long as she was breathing, he told himself, there was hope. There had to be hope.
He checked the newspaper again and had to look twice to believe what he saw. Oh, boy. He remembered that the article had previously said that the basement would completely collapse only minutes after Gary and Julianna were pulled from the rubble.
All that moving around must have speeded things up, because now the basement was going to collapse before they could be rescued, and 36-year-old bar owner Gary Hobson and almost-17-year-old high school student Julianna Edan were both going to be pronounced dead at the scene.
Gary checked his watch. 5:13 PM. They had nearly an hour left until the collapse. Nearly an hour left to live.
Shivering uncontrollably in the silent twilight, Gary Hobson wrapped his arms around Julianna Edan and waited to die.
Cassandra Levy wanted nothing more than to get home. She’d had a rough day at work, her car had broken down, and she’d seen a man at the store who looked uncannily like John. She had nearly lost it right then and there.
Cassandra, who had been called Cass since she could remember, had been a widow for nearly six months and still something so simple could reduce her to tears. She couldn’t let herself be emotional — she had a job and three little girls to raise but damn it, she just missed John so much. The pain was supposed to fade, wasn’t it? It wasn’t supposed to eat away at her until she sometimes felt that she didn’t have a heart left.
Her little girls, her daughters, kept Cass going when she wanted to give up. Thinking of them now brought a smile to her face. They were all so beautiful — six-year-old Mia, with her chocolate eyes and vivid smile; Callista, three, who was shy and gentle; one-year-old Joelle, just learning to walk.
Cass was half Black, one-fourth White, and one-fourth Hispanic, one of those truly beautiful women with curly black hair, vivid dark eyes and skin the color of coffee with cream. John had been Jewish, and neither of them had cared about the difference in race. They loved each other; that was all that mattered.
On this icy September day, Cass was walking home because her car had broken down. It was running fine until this evening, and then boom, it refused to start. It wasn’t as if she could afford to get the darn thing fixed, but Cass was almost glad it hadn’t started, because when she got out to lift the hood an orange tabby cat had darted out from under her car. Cass had always had a soft spot for animals, particularly cats, and she knew all too well what would have happened had that cat been up in the engine when the car started.
Cass was walking with her head down and her hands shoved into her pockets when a meow caught her attention. Glancing up, she caught sight of a dignified-looking cat sitting next to a building, staring at her calmly. It looked a lot like the cat that had been under her car, but that was probably just a coincidence.
Cass felt sorry for the cat — it must be a stray, she figured — but she didn’t have time to pet it, and she certainly couldn’t take it home. She gave it a sympathetic smile and tried to continue on, but the cat meowed more emphatically and started into a nearby building. It then looked over its shoulder, as if asking Cass to follow.
This is crazy, She thought, shaking her head, but there was something compelling about this cat’s pleading “mrow”. She walked over to the building and peeked through the doorway, gasping at what she saw.
Wow. This collapse looks recent — really recent. Old buildings like this should be torn down. They’re nothing but a death trap. Cass looked around for the cat, but it had disappeared.
“Hey!” She called, feeling a little foolish. “Hey, is anybody in here?”
Gary Hobson had nearly drifted off to sleep, and he almost jumped out of his skin when he heard the call from right overhead. “Down here!” He shouted hoarsely; Julianna didn’t stir. Her face was clammy to the touch and she was breathing shallowly. Oh, God, don’t let her die.
“Oh, my God! Are you trapped?” The voice was distinctly female and sounded concerned.
“Yes. Please, just — get to a phone and call 911. This whole thing is unstable and it could go down at any time, so don’t come inside the building.”
“Okay.” The voice sounded slightly farther away now. “I’m going to get help.”
Gary touched Julianna’s cheek; she didn’t respond. Her skin was cold and ashen. “Hang on, Julianna,” He whispered. “Please hang on. Help is on the way.”
It was getting dark, too dark to read the paper. He had to trust that the woman would bring help, and would do so quickly.
He wasn’t disappointed — within fifteen minutes sirens approached. There were yells overhead, instructions and orders and plans to rescue the trapped parties. Gary felt numb; he had been through all this before. Julianna’s breathing was slower and weaker. She was dying. God, no. It’s my fault. My fault …
Sounds of sawing overhead, bits of wood falling. The floor creaked dangerously. If it came down, they’d both be dead.
A hole opened up almost directly over Gary’s head, and someone was shining a flashlight down at him. This basement was much lower in height than the one in the carpet store, low enough that he could hand Julianna up to them. “Taker her,” He said, his voice hoarse and scratchy. “She’s hurt bad.”
The creaking grew louder and someone grabbed Gary’s arm, making him groan when fingers tightened over the still-bleeding cut. He was pulled up through the hole and the rescuers ran, practically dragging him, as the floor began to collapse.
They just made it out before something rumbled inside the building and dust poured out the open doorway. Someone cheered and a camera clicked but Gary didn’t notice. His weight came down on his bad ankle and something grated, and he collapsed forward into the arms of a paramedic.
Beeping monitors. Dr. Jordan to … Someone being paged. That smell, the antiseptic smell hospitals always had.
Okay, he was in a hospital; that had been pretty well established. Now the question was, why exactly was he here?
Opening one eye slightly, he took stock of the situation. Left ankle in a cast; he must have broken it somehow. There was a very thick bandage on his right arm and another on his head, which, come to think of it, was throbbing despite the pain medication he suspected he’d been given. His vision was a little blurry. Not another concussion. What’d I do, get in a fight with Arnold Schwartzenegger?
“Gary?” Marissa’s concerned voice, coming from the chair next to the bed. “Gary, are you awake?”
He opened his mouth to reply, and then it all came flooding back. He had failed.
“Julianna,” He croaked. “Julianna, she — is she — ?”
“That’s the girl who was trapped with you?” Marissa asked gently.
“Yeah.” His throat felt raw, like he’d been swallowing broken glass. Don’t tell me she’s dead, please don’t tell me …
“She’s going to be okay, Gary. She was seriously injured, but they operated and fixed her up and she’s going to be all right. She has already awakened and asked about you.”
“I failed,” Gary said simply, his voice breaking on the last word. Marissa sat in silence for a moment, hardly able to believe what her ears were telling her. Gary was crying. Very quietly, but he was crying.
Marissa reached out for his hand, and automatically, he gave it to her. She rubbed it gently. “It’s all right, Gary. Everything’s okay. You’ll recover and Julianna will recover. It’s okay.”
He didn’t tell her what the newspaper had said during those long, lonely hours of being trapped. He didn’t tell her that he and Julianna should both be dead. Somehow they had been saved despite his failure, and he wasn’t going to complain about that.
Cass Levy’s car started just fine the next morning, and she never had any more trouble with it. Must have been the cold, She rationalized, trying not to think of a very odd orange tabby cat. Yeah, that must have been it.
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