Under the Gray Skies, page 7
Somewhere in my slumber the car ran out of gas. The silence of a dead engine woke me and I had to depress the side of my watch to light it.
It was dark in the car and it shouldn’t have been. By my watch we should have had some daylight.
I didn’t hear anyone moving or breathing and some instant neurotic moment hit me and I feared Madison and Ruth died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Anyone up?” I called out.
“I am now,” Madison said groggy and sat up. “Is it still night?”
“No,” I answered.
“Oh, God, please don’t tell me we lost more daylight. What time is it?”
“It should be a little light.”
“I know.” I turned to the back seat. “Ruth, you okay, back there.”
“I’m cold.” Ruth sat up, bringing the blanket tighter to her.
“I am too.” I lit the candle. “Maybe we just need to wait it out.”
“No,” Madison said. “Look at the windshield.”
Just as my eyes gazed upon the windshield, Madison opened her door.
“Oh God,” she said in almost a groan.
A hint of dim daylight seeped into the car, and after telling Ruth, I’d be back, I opened my car door. I didn’t need to step out fully to know what Madison saw.
It was cold and I closed my car door to conserve what heat remained in that car. I wanted to scream, but I was in too much shock.
Nothing was recognizable.
It was a tormented winter wonderland. Tiny flakes floated downward at a slow but steady rate, but instead of everything being blanketed under a few inches of glistening white snow, the area was covered in a light gray ash. More was falling.
NOTEBOOK – DAY FIFTEEN
Remember how I wrote last night about regretting that we didn’t think ahead? I made a list of things we need to consider and work on. Although I don’t know how we will ever build a fire because we can’t be outside too long with all the ash. Anyhow, right now, it was like that one time we got stuck in your father’s car and it snowed while we waited for help. When we woke up, everything was covered in ash. So much so, we couldn’t see.
This is insane. It really is. I don’t know what is going on?
SIXTEEN - ROUND TWO
For a brief moment, Ruth wasn’t ninety-two years old and a helpless resident in an assisted living facility. I read that studious look upon her face and she just seemed so scholarly. What a gem we found in her. Who needed Google when we had Ruth? Her mind was sharp and she attributed it to continuous reading and puzzles.
But as she held a pen, my notebook and the map, her frail hand trembled as she wrote.
“How much ash again?” she asked.
“About two inches,” I answered.
“Is it darker or more of a pale gray?”
“Pale,” I answered.
“Weight?” she questioned further. “Was it heavy, light, wet?”
Madison opened the car door again, stepped out and after a moment, got back in. “It’s fine. Lightweight, not wet.”
Madison looked at me and spoke with a whispering voice. “She doesn’t know.”
“I’m old, not deaf,” Ruth snapped.
“Thought those two went together,” Madison said. “Sorry Ruth.”
Ruth flung out her hand. “Okay, so …” She handed me the map. “People don’t know that there are twenty active volcanoes in the state of California. We’re about a hundred miles from the Coso Volcanic range and about two hundred and fifty from Long Valley. They didn’t erupt last night. We’d feel it. Hear it. They’re close. They could be letting off steam.” She shrugged. “Chances are, with this amount of ash we’re either a few hundred miles from a smaller volcano or a thousand miles from a huge one.”
“Yellowstone is a thousand miles away,” I said.
“True, but it’s not a single eruption, we always hypothesized it would erupt for a month straight, eventually burying Los Angeles in thirty inches of ash. If that’s the case, we got another week to get farther south and east or we will be buried and stuck.” She stared down to her hands. “I just … it just doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t match up to what we thought.”
“No one was around when it erupted before,” Madison said. “So no one knows.”
“True,” Ruth nodded.
“Could it be something else?” I asked. “Something we didn’t think of?”
“It could be,” Ruth said.
“We’ll know soon enough,” said Madison. “If Ruth is right and this ash thins out then we’ll probably and eventually run into people. Anyone outside of this area has to have information.”
We had plenty of time to talk, and had already used a good forty minutes of daylight going over the map and transferring our belongings. We took it slow as we drove, it was hard to see and even more gray than the day before.
Hopefully, before the end of the day, we’d clear it.
Sand and ash aren’t a great mix, especially when the road disappears beneath the fallout. The ash wasn’t any thinner the farther east we went, and as we got about fifty miles on Highway Forty, we lost the road. We ended up off the trail and got stuck. At least the ash stopped falling. It was hard to tell if we were in the Mojave Desert, or the Antarctic. Visually, it looked like a frozen tundra, but it wasn’t.
By our calculation we had about two hours of good, sunless daylight left. We had to decide whether to abandon the car and walk, or stay put. For all we knew there wasn’t anything ahead of us for miles, we could walk and have no shelter for the night, or stay put and wake up to even more problems. There was no clear cut better option. Having Ruth with us, we opted to stay put.
We did, however, get some good miles behind us. The only positive thing was the daylight temperature was fifty-five, but night was coming.
It was another night in the car with candles as our only light in a dark dead world. We didn’t leave the car running like before. There was no need to, unless the temperature dropped even more.
The ash seemed to be doing a number on my skin, making it feel uncomfortably dry. Despite wearing a facemask, my throat was constantly tickling and all three of us coughed a little more than we did the previous night. I prayed for one of those fluke rain storms so I could go out and stand in it.
One never came.
We needed the rain. While our food held up, it was evident that our water supply wasn’t going to make it much longer. We had to ration our water intake. That alone didn’t help with the dry throat. In my planning, I didn’t believe that we should even spend one night in a car with Ruth, let alone a second.
Our happy little traveling party would turn desperate before long. We all knew it and sensed it. Our lack of conversation that night was evidence of that. No one wanted to talk much. Because of that, we never saw it coming.
The cold crept in, slowly as we slept. The car wasn’t running so there was no way to know how far the temperature dropped. Shivering, despite the covers was my body’s way of trying to warm up and wake me.
It was the beginning of daylight, still dark, but not pitch black.
I was shaking, it was so cold. I reached over and turned the ignition, it cranked but didn’t start. “Shit.”
“What’s wrong?” Madison asked then sat up with a groan. “Oh my God, it’s freezing in here.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Do you think it’s better outside?”
“I don’t know, but we need to bundle up and move. Staying put is not helping. If we could get the heater going we could warm up first.” I could feel my fingers tingle. “Why won’t the car start?”
“I don’t know.” Madison tried to start the car. Again, like with me, it cranked. She shifted her eyes. “Battery’s not dead. Sounds like the starter. Switch spots with me.” She opened the car door, popped the hood and
“Okay,” I replied, then opened my door and looked back to Ruth. She had her covers to her neck. ‘Be right back, we’re gonna try to start the car. Warm up before heading out.”
Ruth groaned, I believed it was her acknowledging me.
I stepped outside and realized how cold it had gotten over night. The ash was hard and crunchy, almost as if ice formed in it. Madison was peering under the hood, a wrench in her hand. “Do you know what you’re doing?” I asked.
“Knowledge by proxy.” Madison smiled. “Go start the car when I say. I’m gonna bang on the starter.”
“Will that work?”
“It can. We just need to get the car hot so we can get warm, right? Worth a shot. Go on.”
I returned to the car and sat in the driver’s seat.
“Crank it. Don’t stop until I tell you,” Madison yelled. “Now.”
I turned the key and not only listened to the crank, but Madison as she banged.
Finally it started.
We both screamed in victory, I cranked up the heater and she hurried inside.
“Won’t be long.” Madison rubbed her hands together. “Keep this running until it gets light enough to move. Be warm in a second, Ruth.” She looked back. “Ruth?”
Ruth made a noise.
“Ruth wake up. Get that heart pumping.” Madison reached back and shook her.
Ruth lifted her hand and swung at Madison. When she did, Madison stopped her mid swipe and grabbed her hand.
“Oh my God. Her fingers are blue.” She said. “Ruth?” Madison said her name, then said it louder. “Ruth!”
While Ruth did reply, it was hard to understand, almost inaudible, a near groaning sound. She moved her hands and tossed off her blankets.
We didn’t know what it was, but something was wrong with Ruth.
We stayed in the car, heater running, until we couldn’t stay in there anymore. I had removed my coat, it was so warm. Our first thought was Ruth was suffering from hypothermia but she was still confused, even after warming up. We didn’t dismiss a possible stroke. Truth was, neither of us being medical professionals, we just didn’t know.
After plying her with blankets, not only did we have the facemask on her, but the oxygen flowed freely into her nostrils. Ruth was breathing, but she was lethargic.
Neither Madison, nor myself wanted to say it, but I could tell she felt the same way I did. We took Ruth with us, took her from her bed, her home, with hopes of making it to a better place, only to have her dying in an ash filled barren world.
Even walking, it was hard to tell when we were on the road, or off. We took turns pushing Ruth in the wheelchair. It moved sluggishly and was weighed down. I still had my metal rod that I used as a walking stick at first, and like a person without sight I scraped the stick left to right as I walked. As long as it sounded like concrete, we were on the road, twice I stepped off.
The ash created a haze, each step brushed up more. It reminded me of the time four years earlier when we went camping. It was so hot and humid that when it rained, it caused a fog so thick I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. This was similar.
It was almost frightening.
There was no sound, just our crunching footsteps and the squeaky wheel of the chair.
We lugged everything we had, and it seemed as if there were no end.
When it was my turned to push Ruth, I kept tapping her shoulder, getting a response, making sure she was still alive. I hoped and prayed that we found medical help soon. It was unfair. This vibrant, spry and intelligent woman was just deteriorating before us.
It wasn’t her time to go, not yet and she was pushing at death’s door because we opened it.
I spoke to her about my family, my kids, my husband and his quirks. I asked her questions that she never answered, but I pretended she did.
It seemed as if we were walking forever, in fact, according to my watch, we had been walking three hours. Nonstop, no breaks, until Madison halted.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She extended the metal rod. “Up ahead. I see lights. A couple orange, and a blinking white one.”
I didn’t see what she described, then again I didn’t have my glasses. Not that I needed them much, or was required to wear them when I drove, my sight wasn’t that bad, but they helped. “I don’t see any.”
Ruth muttered. “Mirage.”
I shrieked with joy at her response. It was a response. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“No, no it’s not,” Madison said. “Look.”
Madison was right. Every foot we moved the lights became clearer.
Without a doubt there was a blinking white light higher in the sky and lower there were orange lights.
My first thought was a rescue center. That the orange lights were headlights and the strobe like one was a beacon.
I was filled with hope. Suddenly, the sluggish ash wasn’t in my way, it wasn’t holding me back. I pushed Ruth’s wheelchair faster and seemingly with more ease. There was a sense of relief that came as well. If there was a rescue center ahead, Ruth would get medical help.
Someone was ahead. Others were alive.
SEVENTEEN – IN PLANE VIEW
When Madison said, “This has to be a sign, or it means something.” I knew exactly what she meant.
As the haze lifted not only did the blinking light grow larger, but also shades of white and blue came into my view. When we emerged through, it struck me that it all had to be part of fate. A puzzle pieced together that I eventually would solve. Maybe it was a sign. First, I was at the airport when everything went down. Second, I found refuge in an airplane after I emerged from that hole. And now I stood, staring at another plane.
A huge Boeing 737 was horizontal in front of us. A single side door was open and from it was a makeshift ladder. Inside were sporadic dim lights, possibly from candles or lanterns. As we made our approach we spotted a man in his fifties, lighting what seemed to be improvised torch lights that perched on a perimeter outside the plane.
He wore a soiled white shirt, his hair was gray, but not from ash. He was remarkably clean in an area encompassed by dirt.
When he spotted us, he immediately stopped what he was doing and rushed our way. That was when I noticed that airline seats formed a fence like circumference around the plane marking off an area that was strangely free from ash. As if they took a broom and continuously kept a clean circle.
His smile turned into concern when he saw Ruth. “My God, let me help you,” he said. “This way.” He took over my position behind the wheelchair and moved it with ease ahead of us.
Walking was easier, too. Not just because the ash was removed, but I discovered somehow in our journey we had wandered off the path, and off the road.
The plane was on the highway … we weren’t.
He moved the wheelchair quickly to the side door of the plane. “Anna,” he hollered aiming his voice at the open door. “Anna, grab Bill, we have an emergency to leverage up to you.”
Madison and I arrived at Ruth’s side.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“Ruth,” I answered.
“How old? Do you know?” he questioned further.
He crouched down and began removing the layers of blankets. “Ruth, we’re gonna do our best to make you better. Anna is a good woman.”
Within seconds, an Asian woman appeared at the plane’s door with another man. Whether he was a medical professional or not, we didn’t know. She was. At least I thought so. Her age was hard to tell, she wasn’t young, but she wasn’t old either. Her hair was pulled in a sloppy pony tail and she wore pale green hospital scrubs. From the door they lowered a chair, harnessed by two straps.
The gray haired man lifted Ruth with ease from the wheel chair and placed her in the chair that had been lowered down. He buckled her in, gave a hand signal
“Got it,” Anna replied as she and the man lifted Ruth up and into the plane.
I stood there watching as they removed her from the chair.
“Give them some time to look her over,” he said.
My eyes were focused on the plane. I stepped back trying to see through the windows. They were so high, it was nearly impossible.
“Did you crash out here?” Madison asked.
“No. We had to land,” he said. “No choice.”
“So you’ve been here the whole time? Two weeks?” Madison asked.
“Seventeen days to be exact.”
That caught my attention, after looking around, seeing how they impressively had their survival act together, I faced him. “Are you’re stuck here?” I asked.
He shook his head. “The plane is. We’re not.”
Madison looked at him with a confused expression. “I don’t understand. Why didn’t you leave?’
“If I had, I wouldn’t have been here to help Ruth, would I?” He forced a closed mouth smile then turned serious. “There’s more to it. Right now, let’s get you settled and we’ll talk.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. A part of me wanted to tell him to talk and explain, but what was the rush? Darkness was fast approaching and there was nowhere else to go. We were there for the duration.
At least finally, I would get some answers to what happened. At least I hoped I would.
EIGHTEEN – DANCING ON THE EDGE
Seventeen days earlier something happened to the United States, maybe even the world. I was buried in a hole while most of the world tried to assess the damage, survive other events. At least that was what I was beginning to think.
His name was Doug and he was the pilot of Flight 2472, Dallas to Seattle. Doug was formerly in the Air Force reserves, but served actively on a volunteer disaster emergency task force. In fact, he had a simulation seminar in San Francisco the day after the event. Obviously, Doug never made it.
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