THE END OF THE WORLD

by Joelle Steele

The steady drip, drip, drip of water from nearby was all Annette Leonard could hear, aside from the occasional rush of pebble-sized debris that generated more dust and forced her to cover her nose until it settled, after which she was left gasping for air. It was pitch black. She hoped that she was not blind. Not even a pinhole of light illuminated the tiny confined space. How long had she been there? It was hard to tell. She had fallen asleep — or had she lost consciousness? The last thing she remembered was the horrible roar and the violent shaking that seemed to go on forever.

Her left hand was wedged underneath her and she was afraid to move enough to free it. She examined the area around her with her right hand, feeling pieces of wood, some with nails protruding from them; chunks of stucco and the redwood lath that had once supported it; and sharp fragments of glass. She seemed to be laying on her living room floor, because she could feel the fibers of the old, blue, faux oriental rug.

"Help, somebody!" she shouted.

No voice answered. She didn't even know if they would hear her if they were close by. She lived on the first floor of a four-story building. Did that entire structure collapse in on itself and now rest precariously on top of her? Or did it heave to the side and topple onto the duplex next door? If so, maybe she had just a short crawl to freedom. She tried to free her left arm. She could not raise her body up enough to do it. In the process, she discovered that her legs were also immobilized. She could feel them, could even move them a little. Her right leg was shooting outward at the thigh and was bent at the knee. It was pinned down by a rough piece of wood. She could wiggle her toes, but it hurt to do so.

"Hello! Help me!" she cried out again, trying to yell louder this time.

The small effort it took to raise her voice caused more dust and pebbles to be released around her. She held her breath and then began coughing when the air cleared. The air. Would she have enough air to keep her alive until she was rescued? It must be coming from somewhere because in such a small space she would have suffocated by now. She continued calling out periodically. Someone was bound to be walking by looking for signs of life.

It had started out like any ordinary day in a long series of other similar days. Annette — Annie as her friends called her — woke up at 6:30 a.m. and went for her morning run. The sun was just beginning to peak over the purple hills, and the streets were quiet. As she ran under the oak trees near the elementary school, the leaves released the last remnants of the night's fog onto her head and shoulders. Her usual custom was to plan out the day's activities as she ran, then she would come home and write them down on a daily "to do" list. She had a dentist appointment at 10:15 a.m., she remembered. She had already arranged to come in to work late. She also needed to do a load of laundry, and she would do that as soon as she got home, as long as someone else didn't get to the tiny basement laundry room before she did.

By the time she rounded the curve at the foot of Highland Street, it was 7:30 a.m., the sun was up, her morning paper was piled in front of the building with everyone else's, and she was badly in need of a shower. Two hours later, she was clean, fed, and dressed, with a pile of clothes in need of folding on the edge of her bed. She took the bus to Dr. Squire's office. After the one small filling was completed, she walked the seven blocks to the mall and up to the second level to Rizzo's Fine Jewelry, her home away from home for the past three years since she moved to the Los Angeles area.

Annie liked working at Rizzo's. Stan Rizzo was a talented jeweler who treated all his employees like family. When she expressed a modest interest in the intricacies of watches and watch repair during her first six months as a sales clerk, Rizzo was more enthusiastic about it than she was. He immediately took her under his wing and taught her as much as her mind could hold about timepieces. Annie learned quickly, was promoted to Stan's assistant, and now spent most of her time on repairs, and only an occasional few minutes responding to customers when the other clerks were busy. All in all, after so many years of flitting from one thing to another, she felt like she had found her place. For the first time in her life, she actually looked forward to going to work each day.

When she had returned home from work, she looked forward to sitting down in front of the TV and watching an A&E presentation of Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice." It was a rerun, but she had enjoyed it so much the first time that she wanted to see it again. She changed into her sweats, turned on the TV, sat down on the sofa, and began to sip a glass of ice-cold Coca-Cola as she ogled the attractive Colin Firth in his early 19th century attire.

The next thing Annie knew, there was a loud rumbling sound and the building began to shake. She tried to get up and shelter herself in the doorway that led to the hallway, but the shaking was so severe that the minute she stood up she lost her balance and fell against the door of the coat closet. She stayed on the floor and tried to crawl to the hall doorway. The shaking seemed to go on forever, and she watched as her books fell from their shelves, her plants toppled over, and every one of her blown-glass figurines fell to the floor. Two paperbacks fell on her head and shoulders, feeling much heavier than they were. Fire alarms sounded throughout the building, and car alarms blared in the street and from the 24-hour market's parking lot on the corner. Somewhere a woman was screaming, and Annie realized that the hideous sound was coming from her own mouth. The last thing she remembered was seeing the outside wall of her apartment bending towards her, the windows coming straight at her.

"Hell-ooooo!" she yelled again. Except for the dripping sound, and the occasional rustle of debris around her, it was silent.

The alarms had stopped. It felt like the end of the world had come and she was the only one left alive. What if no one comes and finds me, she thought. What if I am buried so deep in here that they can't hear me any more than I can hear them?

She wished she had a cell phone in her pocket. She had always thought cell phones were so intrusive and so pretentious. Now, she would trade her right arm to have one. That and something to drink. She was very thirsty, not for a Coke, but for a nice tall glass of cold bottled water. She tried not to focus on what she could not have at the moment, and tried again to see if she could move enough to straighten her leg, which was beginning to ache from her body being in such a crumpled up position. But it was held fast.

A million things ran through her mind, but for some reason, the recurring thought of her sister in Ohio was at the forefront. Fran's baby was due any day now. Annie was going to be an aunt at last. She wished she was going to be a mother, but after the two miscarriages when she was still married to Mark, she was beginning to think that was an impossible dream. And now, trapped in a pile of rubble, it seemed more impossible than ever. She hoped she would live to see her new niece or nephew.

Annie strained to listen for the sound of voices. As she did she felt a slight tremor, an aftershock. It grew louder as it shook harder, and she felt her heart sink as something fell against her back and wedged her more firmly into the debris. Gritty dust filled her nose and she sneezed violently as her eyes began to burn and water. She heard the dripping water but now also heard the sound of water spraying out of a hole. She felt something cool on her leg, water running over her ankle and the lower part of her calf.

"Oh God, please, please, I beg you, please don't let me die like this. I will do absolutely anything you ask, if only you will get me out of here safely."

For years, Annie had denied the existence of a god in any form. She thought there was probably a higher power or force of some kind, but not necessarily the God of the Christian Bible. But now that she was so close to death, she instantly reverted to the beliefs of her childhood.

"I will become a nun, God. It was what I wanted to be in the first place, and now I will do it, I swear. Just help me, please."

She whined and cried, her tears of fear mingling with the tears that were already running down her cheeks from the dust. After promising to become a nun, she realized it was a stretch, even for her.

"I don't know if I can really be a nun, God, but I will try to be a better person and do good things in this world."

When she was fourteen years old, Annie told her parents that she wanted to be a nun. She thought they would be happy, since they had been drumming the Catholic religion into her since the day she was born. Both parents were distressed, and the first words out of her mother's mouth were, "But you'll never have children!" Annie had already considered that and decided that the greater good that she would be serving was more important than her own mundane needs to procreate. By the time she was twenty, she had set the nun idea on a back burner as she dated several young men and finally settled on marrying Mark Leonard, a business major, as soon as she graduated from college with her degree in English.

College changed everything for Annie. She went from being a church-going Catholic to a card-carrying agnostic. At no time did she ever completely disavow the possibility of a supreme being. She just didn't think it could be as simple as most religions made it out to be, and she wasn't sure that any human could truly conceptualize a power of such overwhelming magnitude. It was while she was away from the Catholic church that she had divorced Mark. Now she hoped that would not be a black mark used against her on Judgment Day.

"Somebody get me out of here!" she yelled, in a voice far louder than people as soft-spoken as she was never even thought of using. The ruins around her were mute.

Thanks to the aftershock, Annie was now even more securely pinned in the wreckage of the apartment building. She pushed her hair back from her face and then put her right hand under her head to protect it from the rough piece of wood that was under it. She felt so sleepy, but she fought to stay awake. She remembered reading that if you had a head injury you should not go to sleep for twenty-four hours. It had to do with slipping into a coma or something, she thought. She wasn't sure if she had a head injury or not, but she probably did, because she suspected she had already been unconscious for a time. Better safe than sorry. Of course, maybe a coma would be a blessing if another aftershock came.

California was notorious for its earthquakes, and Annie had lived in the state since birth. She had been in several quakes during her twenty-nine years. The last one was just a small shaker when she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dishes had rattled in the cabinets, but that was about all. Prior to that, she had felt many small tremors, but none of the magnitude she had just experienced. In fact, she had never worried much about earthquakes at all. The really devastating ones always seemed to happen in third world countries where mud huts and poorly constructed buildings collapsed, often burning to the ground. Of course, there had been the 1906 quake in San Francisco, but that was so long ago, and buildings were so different then.

The age of the apartment building she was in suddenly struck Annie. I'm in a 1903 building, she thought, horrified. No wonder it collapsed.

"Oh God, please don't let it catch fire too!" she prayed, thinking about the gas lines that served the stoves and wall heaters in the building. She didn't smell any gas, and that surprised her. She couldn't be more than about fifteen feet from the kitchen and its rickety old gas stove.

Now she could worry about burning to death, a horror beyond all horrors. She had heard that people usually died from smoke inhalation long before the fire got to them, and while she prayed there would be no fire, she also prayed that if there was one that she would die from the smoke before she caught fire.

It was getting cold and she was still thirsty. Her jaw had begun to ache from where the dentist had injected her with whatever it was they used to numb her up for a filling. On top of everything else, she had to pee. She could hold her bladder, she was pretty sure. Getting warm was not a possibility. Neither was getting anything to drink.

She longed for the simple things in life that she had once taken for granted. Using an indoor flush toilet. Having running water in the kitchen and the bath. Forced air heating and air conditioning. A soft, comfortable bed to sleep in. Common, everyday things to people in Annie's part of the world; luxuries to others less fortunate.

I am so grateful, God. I am so grateful for being alive at this moment. I am so very, very grateful for every breath I take."

Somewhere in the distance, Annie heard the very faint sound of a fire engine. It faded further into the distance, and she was just beginning to think that it was a dream, when the ground again shook beneath her, less severely than the last aftershock. She held her nose and closed her eyes until the dust settled. At the same time, she realized just how much pain she was in. She hadn't realized it before, and now it was either just becoming apparent to her or it was getting worse. She wondered what the true extent of her injuries was. Could her back be broken, would she be a vegetable for the rest of her life, if she was ever rescued, that is? She could not keep her eyes open to wonder about anything any longer, and she fell asleep.

"Hello! Can anybody hear me?" she yelled, after waking from minutes or hours of sleep. There was still no light to tell her what time of day it was and how much time had passed.

Again, no one answered her call. What had happened to her neighbors? Did they all get out of the building somehow? It seemed unlikely since she was right on the first floor and she couldn't get out. How would anyone else have escaped any more easily than she did? Maybe they didn't. Maybe they were trapped like she was, maybe more badly injured, perhaps unconscious ... or dead.

"Please God, please send a rescue team. Please, please, please!"

Annie's worst fears were now so acute that she was panic-stricken. She was convinced she was going to die in the wreckage. She could no longer hold her bladder and felt the warm fluid soak into her sweat pants. She began to cry again, this time more violently, the tears wracking her body as she continued trying to call out for help. A cold silence was the answer to her calls.

She finally stopped crying when her nose became so stuffed up that she could hardly breathe. She used the cuff of her sweatshirt to wipe her nose and face. She listened, hoping for just the tiniest sound that might be someone walking by who could go for help. Then she noticed that the water was no longer dripping or running down her leg. Somewhere near her, something was making a crunching sound, as if someone was walking in the debris.

"God, please let that be a rescuer, and please don't let them step on top of me." She sniffed and snorted, trying to clear her airways. The crunching sound stopped. A dog began barking excitedly.

"Over here," yelled a voice.

"Hello! Somebody help me!" yelled Annie.

"Come on, Skipper," yelled the voice, and the crunching sounds of a dog running through the ruins resumed and then faded away. "Jack, someone's under that wall. Go find Larry and get a crew in here."

Then to the pile of wreckage in front of him he called out, "Don't worry, we'll get you out of there."

Annie wept again, softly this time, with tears of relief. It was not the end of the world after all.

She smiled to herself, as she heard more voices around her and the sounds of wood and drywall being lifted and tossed aside.

"Thank you, God."