These are my characters and my story. Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.
“You know what the imagination is?” Sarah breathed into the phone, feeling her frustration heighten. “It’s the mind’s perversion that twists things around so what’s real doesn’t seem real and what’s not real seems more real than anything you’ve ever experienced!”
Tamara’s breath caught in her chest. She so wanted to reach through the phone and hug her partner of six years. “Sarah.” She paused, hoping she would find the right words for the woman on the other side of the Pacific. “I know that this part is always the hardest. But, you always get through it. It always gets better. I just wish I was there with you, sweetie. I’d just wrap you up and give you the longest hug of your life.”
The seconds stretched out without any response. Tamara wasn’t sure if the call had disconnected at the most inopportune time or not. She pulled the phone from her ear and checked to make sure the seconds were still ticking away: they were. “Sarah?”
The thirty-four year old woman sniffled and then cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, Tam.” She closed her eyes and imagined she was back in her own bedroom, in her own bed, with her own wife – not lying on top of a few blankets on the floor of a half-demolished shack. “It just gets to me sometimes, you know?”
Tam nodded, not saying a word which could derail Sarah’s much needed emotional confession. She knew the prideful woman just needed to vent. Once she was able to do that, she could work through her emotional handicaps, and get back to the job she went to Japan to do.
“I’m out there all day…seeing things I really have no desire to see….” Sarah’s voice drifted off as she flashed back on her discovery earlier in the afternoon. During low tide, she combs the beaches and tide pools for personal affects. Today she found bits and pieces of one of the residents of the small village scattered behind a handful of boulders. It really doesn’t matter how many times a person sees that type of carnage – if you’re not expecting it, your whole body goes into shock.
“I was just standing there, Tam. Looking at these pieces that I knew probably would never be identified. Part of me thought of burying them right there. Part of me just wanted to throw them back into the water.” A nervous chuckle escaped Sarah’s lips.
“What did you do?”
Sarah rose to her feet and stretched out her aching back, swiping her free hand through her mousey-brown locks. She released a lungful of air and threw her hand up to the dilapidated ceiling. “You know me! I bagged them up and walked them back to Sydney.”
Tam shuddered, knowing she would never be able to do anything remotely close to what her spouse volunteered to do. “Well, that was the right thing. Even with the slightest chance of identifying that person through DNA, it was worth it. Right?”
“Ya.” Sarah paced around her small area she called home for the last five days. She was holed up in what used to be considered a respectable neighborhood in Northeast Japan. But, now, what wasn’t knocked down or torn apart by the earthquake just 9 days ago was wiped out by the Tsunami. She and a handful of survivors-turned-volunteers were using an abandoned home near the top of the southern hill that flanked the fishing village. In any city in America, this home would have been condemned. Here in Minamisanriku, it is a safe haven to rest your tired bones and nearly-defeated spirit.
“I know. I know. I have to keep everything in perspective.” She let out a cleansing breath and straightened a little, feeling more like herself than when she first called home nearly an hour ago. “I love you, Tam.” She smiled into the phone, not going unnoticed.
Tamara smiled back. “I love you, too.” She scratched the black and white cat that chose that moment to saunter up. She scratched Tucker’s chin for a few seconds then asked for confirmation of what she already knew. “You feeling a little better?”
Sarah nodded as she returned to her pile of blankets. “Ya. I always do when I talk with you.”
“Me, too.” Tamara sighed then added the part that she hated the most. “You know I hate this, but I’m gonna have to get ready for work at some point, babe.”
Sarah pulled the phone from her ear and looked at the time. She quickly did the math in her head. “Damn it! I’m sorry, Tam. I didn’t mean to keep you on here for so long!”
“Sarah. Sarah! It’s okay. Ms. Walker knows where you are and is worried about the whole situation, too. I’ll call her in just a moment and let her know why I’m running late. It’ll be okay.”
“Promise me that you’ll tell me if she gives you a hard time.”
As if I’d tell you that when you’re half way around the world dealing with all of that other stuff. “Don’t worry about it. She’s not gonna give me a hard time. She’ll just put an aide in my classroom until I get there. I swear, it’ll be okay.”
“Alright. Sorry, Tam. Try to have a good day at work – don’t be too mean to those kids!” They both chuckled at the on-going joke of perhaps the world’s kindest elementary teacher.
“I’ll try not to make anyone cry today. Honest.”
“Okay. I’ll hold you to that. Give Tucker a hug for me. I’ll call you in a few days. Hopefully, I’ll have better timing next time. Love you.”
“I’ll do that. You better. Don’t worry about it. Love you, too.”
When the phone disconnected, Tamara sent out a silent prayer for the most important person in her life. The reason she loved Sarah so much was the same reason that brought her life so much unease. Sarah saw so much inequality and injustice in the world that whenever she saw an opportunity to right some of the world’s wrongs, she took it. Which is why her partner was away from home more often than she could tolerate.
Tamara pulled up her principal’s cell phone number from her contact list. I hope she’s having a good morning, so far. She pushed the call button, knowing she was going to be put on a guilt trip for inconveniencing half the staff by coming in late.
Sarah and Tam walked hand in hand along the boardwalk. They had been to several that were larger and catered to more affluent shoppers, but there was something about the little Kemah Boardwalk nestled halfway between Houston and Galveston that appealed to both women. They’d come down in the fall each year and at least once during the summer to see the night parade of lighted boats. They always felt at peace in Kemah. And, that’s what the pair was experiencing at the moment, pure peace.
Sarah glanced at her partner, giving her a shy smile. Tam winked in return and squeezed her hand a little, neither wanting to alter the peaceful serenity with spoken words.
A gray and white seagull caught Sarah’s eye. It was hovering a few yards away, lazily riding the wind current coming off the water. She watched it tilt to the side and lean forward and backwards as it tried to compensate for the slight shifts in the breeze. Then, a strong gust sent it starkly to the left, making the bird decide another destination would probably be more comfortable.
A moment later found both women walking barefoot on the sandy beach. Dusk was settling on the small town as restaurants and shops illuminated the quickly darkening scenery. Another gust of wind blew a spritz of salt water at the pair of women, eliciting a squeal from Tamara. The pair laughed it off as they wiped their faces dry with their jacket sleeves, not deterred in the least from enjoying the moment.
Sarah briefly acknowledged the tide lowering before her breath was caught by the site of her companion. Tamara’s golden hair was haloed by the neon sign of a nearby restaurant, making her look ever so much as the angel Sarah believed her to be. Sarah could feel her chest about to explode with the love that grew richer and deeper with every passing day. If she did not kiss this woman before, she knew she would surely die from malnutrition.
Sarah stepped closer, holding eye contact with Tamara, a small grin on her face. She traced Tamara’s cheek with her thumb then slid her hand behind the slightly taller woman’s neck. As she pulled her seraph to her lips, she felt a soft sigh released in anticipation.
Memorized sensations of touch, taste, and smell materialized. Each woman knew the other like the back of her hand. But, each occurrence of physically and emotionally expressed love was a renewal of spirit that both women still craved.
The soft touch quickly escalated. Both women captivated by the surge of emotions and hormones, seemingly oblivious to the incoming tide. Lips parting, welcoming the advance of the other. Hands beginning to wander; feeling, caressing, teasing.
Sarah could feel her heart hammering in her chest as she quickly lost her breath. She wanted this woman. She wanted all of her. Right here. Right now. She pulled Tamara against her, holding her as close as possible, breaking their kiss in the process. Her hands ran up and down her partner’s spine while her mouth latched on to her neck. The sweet and musky scent of Tamara was intoxicating as always.
She could feel the rush of the water at her feet, now. She mentally quipped that the water was similar to her own hormones – certainly flowing freely at the moment. But, it didn’t take long to realize that the incoming tide was not ceasing. In fact, there no longer seemed to be an endless number of waves – just one. And, it was rising.
Sarah felt an immediate sense of panic. She pulled away from Tamara, startled by the quick advance of the water. The single wave was now halfway up her calf with the current increasing.
“We have to get out of here,” Sarah shouted over the increasing roar of the water as she tugged on her partner’s hand. She looked around and saw the water filling the beach, blocking off nearly all paths of escape. “This way!” Sarah yanked a seemingly stunned Tamara towards the boardwalk stairs.
If they could just get up and out of the water, they’d be fine. Sarah was sure of it. But, with each step the strength of the current increased, pulling the sand literally out from underneath them. They fought to stay on their feet, the current pushing and pulling at them as the sand was swept away.
Sarah had only one thought: get Tamara to safety.
Trying to make her way to the boardwalk was like trying to wade through quicksand. It took every ounce of strength she had in her to try to move forward. But, as soon as she planted her foot, the sand would disappear leaving a vacuum in its wake that threatened to sweep her away with it. Sarah’s panic was intensifying. Not only was she fighting the deepening water, but she was also fighting to hold on to Tamara who was also trying to stay upright.
Sarah breathed a sigh of relief when she swiped her damp bangs from her eyes and caught sight of the stairs to the boardwalk just a few feet away. A splash from behind her and a tug on her arm pulled her attention back to her partner. Tamara had slipped and was violently struggling to catch her footing. Sarah turned, squared her shoulders, and pulled with all that she had; lifting Tamara up to her feet and into her arms. Panic-filled determination turned to relief when she felt her wife in her arms. Terror quickly followed when she caught a glance at what was approaching.
Sarah’s eyes grew in disbelief at the sight of the black-as-midnight wall of water that tumbled over on itself. The roar was deafening. The advance was inescapable, but she knew she had to try. She turned and headed for the boardwalk, a vice grip on Tamara’s hand. The water was now knee-deep. Only by sheer will or miracle were they still on their feet. Sarah reached her free hand out and grabbed hold of the wooden railing for the boardwalk stairs. At last!
“We made it!” Sarah shouted as she tried to pull herself and her partner up onto the first few steps. “We made it!” But, the grip on her hand that she anticipated was met only by a violent surge of black water that slammed her against the wooden railing. She heard something crack as a sharp pain shot through her – water now rushing up and over as she fought to try to catch a lungful of air. A thousand tons of water roared as it robbed all breath from her body. She tried to pull herself up, but the force of the water was too strong. She was pinned against the railing. There was no help. There was no hope. This is where she would die.
Sarah shot to a sitting position clutching her chest and gasping for air. Sweat dripped from her damp bangs, stinging her right eye. She tried to get her bearings – tried to settle her racing heart. It took a moment, but she finally remembered where she was, bringing with it a justification for the nightmare. She threw the wool blanket off her sweaty body and rolled on to her feet, slowly bringing herself to her full height. She felt icky. Her pajamas were soaked, not to mention having to live through losing her partner and her own life. She hated these dreams!
She swiped her hand over her forehead and through her hair, pulling the damp locks off her face. She glanced out the window, noting the lightening of the eastern sky. It was morning. There was no need to try to calm herself down and go back to sleep. It was a futile task anyway. After one of those nightmares, she never could go back to sleep unless she was home with Tam.
She stretched out her back, hearing a few pops as her body complained about having to sleep on the floor. “I’m getting too old for this.” She picked up her shower bag and headed towards the kitchen. The main bathroom in the home no longer existed. Or, rather, it was a heap of rubble that was unusable. The home’s kitchen was virtually intact. There was some water damage, but that was mostly confined to the bottom three feet. Everything waist-high or higher was virtually fine.
Sarah filled the sink with water. There was a boil order in effect – no water in the area was drinkable unless boiled for at least 10 minutes. But, all she wanted to do was get some of the drying sweat off her body so she could change her clothing and feel half-way human, again.
Ten minutes later, she was dressed and heading towards the line of portable toilets brought in just for the volunteers. Two weeks earlier, the view before her would have been spectacular. To her right, was the tranquil bay that had provided shelter for dozens of fishing boats. Off to her left were the high school and most of the homes for the elderly residents of the village. And, before her would have been the “valley”, which was made up of most of the farmland and the downtown district. All of the businesses for the village were there. Pretty much all of the new and young families lived there, too. It must have been a beautiful sight.
Now, looking down on what used to be Minamisanriku, it was impossible to imagine anyone could have ever lived there. No buildings or usable structures remained. All the eye could see was lumber, broken up from the hundreds of homes and buildings that used to populate the area. Twisted and gnarled cars poked through mounds of wood scraps and newly-deposited mud. And, if you squinted hard enough, you could occasionally see movement among the rubble. A stray survivor, ignoring warnings from the government to stay away, inched along trying to find something…or, perhaps, someone…that they recognized.
Sarah released a shudder to refocus her mind. She was here to help out the best she could, and she couldn’t do that job if she was focused on the emotional trauma that accompanied these types of tragedies. She rolled her shoulders and then jerked her head to the left and then the right, forcing a few vertebrae back in place. She let out a long breath and then started her half-hour trek down from the hilltop and to the volunteer command center.
Sarah pulled back the dark blue flap to reveal half a dozen Japanese men talking softly and sipping hot, herbal tea. She quickly scanned their faces, recognizing all and remembering that none of them spoke English. She nodded at the group and headed towards the back of the navy tent.
A tall man waved at her as she approached. Sarah gave him a nod and a small smile in acknowledgement. “Ms. Anderson,” Sydney Baker greeted his fellow American.
“Sydney.” Sarah sat in the chair next to the long table. It reminded her of the cafeteria tables that were at Tamara’s elementary school. But, instead of trays of food, this table was covered in maps and zip-lock bags of miscellaneous items. “How are things this morning?”
The middle-aged man scrunched up his nose and shrugged his shoulders. “Still having aftershocks.” He sighed as he folded his arms across his chest. “They want us out of here. Keep saying there’s gonna be another Tsunami. But none of the hunters want to leave.” He eyed the woman to his left. “What do you think?”
Sarah flashed back on her dream, not really needing the extra incentive to avoid any tsunamis. “I don’t know, Sydney. I mean, we’re all here for the same reason. But, if we leave, they’re just gonna bring in the bulldozers to clear everything out – which defeats the entire purpose of us being here. But, I reeeeeally don’t want to be in a tsunami, either.”
Both faces sobered as they acknowledged the reality of the situation. “But, they’ve been warning about tsunamis for the last several days and there’ve been none.” Sydney downed the last of his tea and stood to his full height of just over six feet. “Let’s see what the others say and go from there.”
Sarah watched as the interpreter slash coordinator approached the group of men huddling at the front of the tent. She then followed as they all walked out and headed towards the edge of camp. One of the elders talked with Sydney as they walked. Both men alternated pointing towards the water, which was about 60 yards to their right. Then, they’d point to their left at different areas. A moment later, Sydney excused himself from the group of men and walked back to Sarah.
“They want to stay,” he stated.
“I would expect nothing less.” Sarah replied. “So, what’s the plan?”
“We’ll keep one person on watch while we’re working. He’ll have the airhorn. If anything looks odd, he’ll blow it quick two times, giving warning. If it looks like a real tsunami, he’ll just let it wail. And, then all of us hightail it up to those trees over there.” Sydney pointed at a small group of trees about a hundred yards to their left.
Sarah nodded. “It’s a plan.”
“It’s a plan.” Sydney sighed.
Sarah walked along the beach just as she had done the last several days. Her eyes plastered to the ground looking for anything that could be a personal remnant of any of the villagers that once lived here. She tried to ignore the news reports, not wanting the full realization of the situation to dawn on her, but caught a glimpse of one here and there. The village she was working in was pretty much wiped off the map. There used to be over 17,000 residents here. Last she heard, more than ten-thousand were either dead or missing. She tried not to think about that. But, there was always something that jolted her imagination back into reality. Like now.
A flash of red jarred her numbed mind. She stopped and bent closer, wiping away some of the sand and pieces of shredded wood. Peeking out from the rubble was a little teddy bear, about ten inches in length. He had a black belt with a little red buckle. It belonged to some little boy or little girl somewhere.
Sarah picked it up and brushed off more sand. She tucked it in one of her bags, vowing to return it to its owner. She didn’t allow herself to think of the probability that the owner was dead. In her mind, it wasn’t even a possibility. She couldn’t allow herself to think like that. She had to force herself to believe that all of the personal effects that everyone was scrounging around for belonged to survivors. This was no different. She believed the child was alive and would be delighted to see their stuffed friend returned to them. The alternative would be too much for her to bear.
She straightened her shoulders and continued walking along the beach. Her eyes never leaving the sand. She would spend the next several hours scouring the beach up and down, as the tide came in and out. It was her job to find the memories before they were washed back out to sea and lost forever. She only returned to camp when she was physically exhausted or, as in today, all of her bags were full.
Sarah was hunched over a tub of water, individually washing treasured photos that she brought back to camp, when Sydney walked in. He dropped a heavy backpack on the ground next to her and then dropped his body down on a metal chair. Neither spoke for several minutes. The emotional and spiritual toll this job had was difficult to process for everyone.
“Good haul?” Sydney finally asked after allowing his mind to decompress.
Sarah nodded. “A lot of photos. I found what looks like a diploma… and a teddy bear. You?”
Sydney opened his backpack and started pulling out several items. “Photos, a few pieces of jewelry, some cash, a couple of purses.” His voice trailed off as he pulled out the last item: a baby book.
Sarah stood and clipped the photos she just washed to the line that ran the length of the tent. Photos and other documents were strung up on several lines to help dry them out and hopefully preserve them.
“Why don’t you go and get something to eat. I’ll take care of this stuff.” Sarah took the baby book from the coordinator’s hands, brushing some of the sand off with her palm. The book was a pastel blue with lace trimming the edges. She opened the cover, immediately noticing the water damage. A sad smile appeared when she realized that the inside writing was still legible. Someone, somewhere, would be able to claim this.
Sydney nodded as he slowly rose to his feet. “It’s getting late, Ms. Anderson. It’ll be dark soon. You need to get something to eat, too. The old men are gonna shoo you away if you don’t get out of here.”
Sarah waved her arms at the retreating man. “Don’t worry. I got this. Now, go!”
She watched as the older man walked out of the tent then returned to her work. She needed to quickly get the rest of the photos and documents cleaned as best she could and hung up to dry. Tomorrow she would be taking all of these items up to a shop in the next village. The owner had cleared out his entire inventory and donated the space to the group of memory hunters. As new items were brought in, people would come and browse looking for anything that might be familiar.
Sarah let out a deep breath, not knowing which was harder: finding the items or watching people desperately trying to find something that once belonged in their lives. She shook her head and got back to work; her own exhaustion threatening to engulf her.
Light blue skies were peppered with fluffy clouds as a single, white woman inched down the muddy, debris-strewn road. She pulled a two-wheeled cart behind a rusty old bicycle. The cart, nearly overflowing was loaded with memories – all packed into boxes and bags. Sarah nodded at the confused faces that passed her by as she continued her journey. It was her turn to bring the memories to the shop in the neighboring village. It was close, but it was still about a two hour jaunt.
Gasoline was in short supply due to the damage to the infrastructure and the lack of deliveries to the area. Sarah had to laugh at the companies who didn’t want to risk bringing in fresh supplies. The truth of the matter was that the companies were more concerned about the extraneous lawsuits that could arise from gas stations’ tanks that were weakened from the quakes and tsunami than helping the survivors recover. Some oil companies stated they would resume deliveries as soon as the government deemed it safe. Others vowed to not resume deliveries until all tanks and storage areas were inspected and reinforced.
Sarah dropped her left foot to the pavement and paused a moment, wiping away the small bit of sweat that pooled just above her right eyebrow. The bay breeze carried a hint of decay. It was a smell she knew she would never be able to completely remove from her psyche.
She nodded at a passerby riding on an old bicycle. It was an elderly woman who peered back at her, almost in shock, and nearly ran her bike off into a ditch. Sarah caught the laugh in her throat before it could escape. The last thing she needed was some angry Japanese woman chasing her down the street. She checked the ropes that were used to tie the cart to the bicycle and then pushed off to finish the last leg of her trip. The faster she got to the shop, the better she’d be.
Within a block of her destination, Sarah was surrounded by a dozen or so people. Everyone seemed to be talking at the same time. A few tried to step in front of her to halt her progress, but she just barreled through them. A few others tried to reach over the side of the cart to get a better look at its contents, but she didn’t stop. Sydney had warned her that she would be approached. But, he also stated that the people in this area had the utmost respect for the volunteers, and no one would try to hinder what she was doing.
As she closed in on the front entrance to the shop, she began to run through different scenarios of how she was going to fend off the people from the cart to prevent them from raffling through the items and making a mess. Fortunately, just as she pulled up to the front and parked the cart, four men rushed out yelling at the villagers. Most of the villagers scattered immediately. Only a few remained to stand watch.
Sarah didn’t know what was being said and at this moment she truly didn’t care. Her legs and back ached. She was covered in sweat and road dust. All she wanted was some water and a place to sit for a while. Instead, she watched the four men who had already started to haul the items into the shop. She watched until all of the items were inside and then proceeded to walk in. She was greeted in Japanese by an old man, possibly in his late sixties or early seventies. She nodded at him in greeting then shook her head.
“I’m sorry.” She turned her palms to the ceiling. “I don’t speak Japanese.”
The old man rattled off several more words and then waved towards the back of the store. Sarah wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do, if anything, so she waited a moment, viewing the site before her. If she didn’t know where she was, she would probably assume that she was at some trashy flea market on the bad side of town. There were tables lined up with the smallest of walk-space available between them. Most were piled with papers, cards, photos, and other small knick-knacks. Towards the back were larger items like framed photos, books, blankets, and clothing. Pictures and letters were tacked to every wall. And, all the way in the back, near the shop’s office was an unguarded table with all sorts of jewelry spread across it.
Sarah watched as a lone woman walked in. She appeared to be in her twenties, but Sarah wasn’t sure. She was dressed sharply, as if she belonged in a big city not the fishing village. But, the look in her eyes spoke volumes. There was no doubt that she lost someone. There was no doubt that she was looking to find something to help fill her loss.
“Excuse me,” Sarah was startled by a soft woman’s voice, mere inches from her. “Oh, sorry. I did not mean to startle you.”
Sarah glanced at the woman and then smiled when her mind registered the English words. “Oh my gosh. No. I’m sorry for being rude. I’ll get out of your way.”
The petite woman shook her head. “Please, come with me.”
Sarah looked around, as if checking to make sure everything was okay, and then followed the young woman to the back of the store. They entered the back office, but it wasn’t exactly what Sarah expected. In the center of the small room was a wooden table, covered with a white, linen table cloth. There were two benches along the length of the table and a chair on either end. And, the salivating scent of freshly prepared food that filled the air instantaneously caused Sarah’s stomach to growl.
“Please, sit down. It would be our pleasure to have you dine with us.”
Sarah nodded and started to take a seat on one of the benches. “No. Not there. You are an honored guest.” The young woman gestured for her to sit on the end, which she did. A moment later, three men entered the office and sat on the benches; one of which was the elderly man who greeted her upon her arrival.
There was little said during the serving of the meal. She was given tea and a bowl of broth with noodles. She watched the others around the table, copying their movements only after she felt comfortable enough that she wouldn’t insult anyone. She had been in enough countries to know that even a small gesture could cause a huge problem. But, she hadn’t spent any time in Japan, until now. And, these circumstances did not exactly lend themselves to learning about the regional cultures and dining etiquettes.
The meal was divine, Sarah had to admit. Although, after living on cold, dry food for the better part of a week, most anything else would have been Heaven. But, she could tell that great thought went into the preparation. Each bowl was prepared on its own with a specific amount of pork, noodles, and vegetables – not just scooped up from some pot somewhere. The presentation was also thought out, enabling a pleasing of the palette as well as the eyes. Feeling almost satiated, Sarah leaned back in her seat.
“Was this meal to your liking?” The young Japanese woman asked.
Sarah smiled at the woman and nodded. “Yes. It was absolutely wonderful!” She took a sip of her tea, waving to the men who had finished their meals and were leaving the office. The young woman immediately rose and cleared their places.
“What’s your name?” Sarah asked, wanting to have more of a tangible experience.
“Reina,” the young woman smiled as she returned to her seat.
“Nice to meet you, Reina. I’m Sarah - one of the volunteers in Minamisanriku.”
Reina nodded. “We know. There aren’t too many American women around here.”
“No?” Sarah grinned.
“No. In fact, I think you are the only one.”
Sarah nodded. “That would explain all the weird looks I got when I was coming in.”
“I hope no one was disrespectful to you.”
“No. No. Considering everything, they were fine. They just kinda looked at me like I had two heads!” Sarah laughed at the image of the older woman almost driving her bicycle off the road.
Reina watched the strange woman before her for a moment, and then drew more serious. “So, why are you here, Sarah?”
“Oh. Well, it was my turn to bring in the items… the memories.” She took a sip of her dwindling tea.
The younger woman nodded then cocked her head. “I mean… here…in Japan.”
Sarah took a moment to compose her words and then stopped, deciding to get a better feel for the situation. “Is it a problem that I’m here?”
Reina appeared to blanch at the question. “Oh. No. No. I would never say that someone is not welcome.”
Sarah drained the last of her tea. “Are you sure about that?”
Reina nodded. “The…volunteers… are very respected people. It is tradition for the elders to hunt for the memories. And, when you and the other American arrived, no one was sure what you were here for. Now, we know you are here for what the other volunteers are: to hunt for the lost memories.”
Sarah nodded. “That is our only reason…to help as much as we can.”
A curtain of silence fell on the room. Both women were lost in their own thoughts of the state of affairs. Then, Sarah cleared her throat and broke the stillness. “So, Reina, why are you here?”
The young woman seemed to be at a loss for words, leading Sarah to throw her a life line. “I mean, uh, well…you speak English very well. And, I haven’t run into ANYONE else that speaks English here. In Tokyo, it seems like everyone speaks it. But, not here. So, I was thinking that maybe you aren’t from around here. Am I mistaken?”
The younger woman took a moment and then shook her head. “I used to be.” She got up and brought a small carafe to the table, refilling both women’s cups. “My father and I left when I was not even thirteen. We went to the city. And, yes, you are right. In Tokyo, English is taught in the schools. So, everyone learns at least a little bit.” She smiled softly, and then sipped her cooling tea. “I came back after the tsunami. My mother and brothers are all missing.”
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Reina.”
The younger woman shook her head. “It is nothing that isn’t shared by everyone else here. We all have family that are gone…things can be replaced…loved ones cannot.” She nodded at the American sitting to her left. “That is why it is important that you are here. You help us find our family. For that, you hold a most respected place in our hearts.”
Sarah swallowed back the lump that was forming in her throat. She certainly didn’t want to tear up in front of a total stranger – that was NOT on her list of things to do. But, she also couldn’t help being caught up in the moment and feeling more insignificant than she had ever felt in her life. “I don’t do anything, Reina. I just help to search though the rubble… try to find something for someone that I will never know. I have no idea if the stuff I find is someone’s trash or someone’s treasure. Heck, I think most of this will end up in the dumpster, anyway.”
Reina shook her head. “I know you know that what you do is important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. I want you to come with me and meet a woman from my village.”
Reina stood and cleared the rest of the dishes from the table and then gestured for Sarah to walk back into the shop. She scanned the area until her eyes fell on a woman staring at a wall full of pictures. “Over there,” Reina pointed and started walking towards the woman.
When they neared, Reina slowed her advance in hopes of not startling the woman. She spoke softly, pulling the woman’s attention away from the pictures. The two exchanged words for a minute, before Reina pointed at Sarah. The American, feeling awkward and ignorant, merely nodded. Then, Reina motioned her forward.
“Sarah, this is Mai. She is from the village. I knew her many years ago.” Sarah nodded again at the woman who appeared to be about the same age as Reina. “Her family was lost in the tsunami. Her daughter was only 8 months old. She comes here every day to find some memory of her.”
Sarah swallowed back the need to try to comfort the woman before her, who appeared so stoic. Only a closer look revealed the slightly puffy eyes from recently shed tears and the lines from many sleepless nights.
“Two days ago, she found a picture of her little girl on this wall.” Reina turned back to the woman and spoke in Japanese. Only a few words were traded this time before Mai reached for her purse. A second later and Sarah was holding a horribly weathered photograph of what appeared to be Mai bottle feeding a little baby. Mai was now pointing at the picture and talking at Sarah and Reina, as if both would understand. Reina nodded and smiled. Sarah could only stare at the photo, acknowledging the huge difference in the appearance of the woman before her now.
Reina nodded a few more times and then indicated to Sarah that she needed to give the photo back. Both Japanese women exchanged a few more words and then Mai suddenly grasped Sarah’s hands. Tears were now streaming down the mother’s cheeks as she uttered several words to the American. Only as they started to walk away did Reina translate.
“She said that if it wasn’t for you her baby would only live in her imagination. It is because of you that her memory lives on in this world. She thanks you with her essence…her soul. And, she only wishes that you will be gifted with finding another memory for someone who has lost family. The last thing she said was to not give up hope. In everything give thanks. Because none of us knows what matters most.”
The two women continued towards the front of the shop, now filled with a few dozen villagers who got word that a new shipment had arrived. All ignored the women as they walked through the doors – everyone intent of finding a reminder of someone they knew.
“So, Sarah, you see you do so much good here. But, you never really said WHY you are here.” Reina turned and watched as the American put her gloves on.
“That is a very long story.” Sarah laced her fingers together making sure the gloves fit snuggly. “Perhaps another time?”
Reina nodded. “You are welcome here, always.”
Sarah smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality.”
Reina merely nodded and then returned to the shop filled with lost memories. Sarah took a moment, as if to memorize the scene. She then straddled the old bicycle and pushed off with her right foot, thankful that her load was remarkably lighter.
Tamara sat nervously in the teal-padded chair. She was pretty sure the doctor was going to come in any second and confirm what she already knew. However, there was always that slight chance that there was an error or something else going on. She forcibly flipped the page of the home decorating magazine that sat on her lap, as if that would speed up time.
A light double knock preceded the entrance of a forty-something year old woman. “You were right,” Doctor Flannigan announced as she took the seat next to Tamara.
“I was?” Tam practically squealed.
“Yep. I’m happy to say that the test is positive.” She scanned her computer monitor, then scrolled the screen for a second until she found what she was looking for. “Your date of insemination was…March 5th? Correct?”
“Alright, then. It looks like we’re looking at around November 26th for your due date.”
Tamara swallowed, feeling the excitement of the moment practically overcoming her. “That’s Thanksgiving.”
Dr. Flannigan grinned. “Yep. That’ll definitely be something to be thankful for, huh?”
Tam blinked, her mind suddenly tumbling to a dead heap as tears threatened to spill.
The doctor noticed the sudden change and leaned closer to her expecting patient. “When does she come back?”
Tamara pulled a tissue from the box on the counter next to her. She wiped her eyes and then shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s only been a week. She could be there for a month or more.” Tears now cascaded down her cheeks.
“Does she know?”
Tam sniffled into the now wadded up tissue. “I haven’t told her. I mean, she doesn’t know that it took.”
“Are you going to?”
Tam breathed in deeply and then released the cleansing breath. “I can’t. I…I know what she’ll do. She’ll hop on the first available flight and come straight home. But, she can’t do that.” She glanced at the doctor who seemed to be in disbelief. “Well, she CAN do that. But, I couldn’t do that to her. What she’s doing is so important to her. This can wait.”
The doctor turned her attention back to the computer, confident that her patient would not completely melt down in her office. She tapped a few keys and then the printer in the corner sprang to life, spitting out two sheets of paper.
“Here. We’re changing your vitamins. Now that you’re pregnant and not just wanting to get pregnant, your body will need a slightly different mix of nutrients. The second one is for a stool softener. Sorry, but sooner or later you’re gonna need it.” She quirked a small grin at her still sniffling patient.
“You know, you need her, too.”
Tamara eyed the doctor for a few seconds and then acquiesced. “I know. I’ll give her a little more time and then tell her.”
“Good.” Doctor Flannigan stood and then extended her hand to her patient. “I want to see BOTH of you back here for your 6 week appointment.”
Tamara nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sure she’ll try her best to be here.”
As the doctor left to see her next patient, Tamara gathered her jacket and purse, replacing the magazine in the rack near the door. A smile slowly spread across her features as she walked down the hall to check-out. I’m gonna be a mama. I can’t believe it. We’re gonna have a baby!
Sarah had walked up and down the beach at least a hundred times over the last week. Since she was a woman AND an American, she was gently advised to keep to the shore and away from the main sources of ruin. But, the last two days had brought nothing new. So, she was finally given permission to scan one of the inland areas of devastation. She was about two hundred yards from the beach and the volunteer command center, and at least twenty yards from the make-shift road.
She was gingerly making her way across a pile of rubble that was at least ten feet high. She paused a moment when she was about halfway across and took a mental picture. Surrounding her on all sides was complete destruction. Wood, cars, trees, and bits and pieces of this and that were practically unidentifiable. Just to her left was a small puddle that held a dead octopus – its tentacles haphazardly wrapped around something that looked like a phone or a remote. When she looked towards the hills that surrounded the village like a big C, she shuddered. The line of water from the tsunami was clearly marked. It had to have been sixty feet high in some places. Grooves were dug into the hills nearly all the way to the top, any trees or vegetation stripped clean.
Sarah swiped a mud-caked hand through her shoulder length hair. She took in a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The smell of decay was overwhelming here. The fish and sea creatures that were carried in by the giant wall of water were slowly decomposing. Even worse, intermingling were the wafts of human decomposition – inescapable, even with the best gas masks available.
“Hey!” Sarah turned to see Sydney making his way up the pile of rubble.
“Things are gonna start getting busy around here. Just wanted to give you a heads up.”
“How so?” Sarah watched as the coordinator’s footing slipped but he managed to pull himself up with no ill effects.
“Well, the survivors are itching to come back and take a look around. Mayor Sato has been trying to keep them away, but he thinks they’ll have a mutiny if he doesn’t let them at least come and see everything.”
“I thought most of the survivors were at the school.” Sarah pointed towards the building that could be seen across the valley on top of the southern hill.
Sydney shook his head. “Last I heard, we have about nine thousand people that got out in time. That school is only holding a few hundred. The rest are scattered in the nearby villages.” Sydney glanced around, noticed the dead octopus, and scrunched up his nose. “It sounds like they’ve cleared enough rubble from the roads so that people can start coming and going.”
Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s good and bad, though.”
“It was Hell trying to get in here. But, at least that helped preserve some of this stuff. With everyone coming in, it’s gonna make recovery more tedious.”
Sydney scratched the gray stubble on his chin. “I know. But, all we can do is stay out of their way. Sato thinks most people will stay away, anyway. Most of the survivors are elderly and there’s not much they can do, anyhow.”
Both Americans stood on the pile of rubble for a moment, lost in thought. “So, do we have a new plan?”
Sydney cleared his throat. “Well, I was hoping to talk to you about some of our options. They’re gonna need help clearing this stuff out… trying to get this place back to some semblance of humanity. Sounds like the Israelis will be coming in and setting up a hospital, so that will help things a lot.”
Sarah marinated on the possibilities for the devastated community. There was no way that this village would get back to functioning any time soon. “It’s gonna take months… years, even before this place is anything close to normal, Sydney.”
“I can’t stay here forever.”
“We both have lives back in the States.”
“So, what are we looking at?”
“I say we stay in charge of finding and categorizing the personal effects. That’s why we came, right?”
Sarah sighed. “If we get mixed up in anything else, we’re gonna be here forever. Seriously, I want to help, but I really don’t want this to become my mission. I don’t even know if these people truly want to rebuild.”
“That’s just it. Until they know what they want to do, everything’s going to be in a state of limbo.”
“True. So, let’s just keep finding those memories, until they bring in the bulldozers.”
Sarah pulled her rusty bicycle to a stop in front of the Memory Shop, as the locals now called it. This was her sixth trip to the shop in almost two weeks with each haul diminishing substantially. Her cart held only eight crates of miscellaneous items – hardly worth the ride into town. But, she needed a change of scenery and a friendly face to talk to. Sydney didn’t even have to ask her any more to take the items in – she readily volunteered.
Two men exited the shop and nodded in her direction. They immediately grabbed a couple of crates each and took them inside. Sarah turned to grab one of the crates but was stopped by a light touch on her arm.
“Let my cousins get them. You need to come in and rest.” Reina’s voice was both comforting and exhilarating to hear.
Sarah smiled at the young woman now standing beside her and was rewarded with one in return.
“Come on, silly,” Reina tugged Sarah’s arm, leading her into the shop.
Crates and boxes were now piling up along the walls. Several aisles were blocked with overflowing items that no one had come to claim, making it difficult to weave through the maze to the back office.
“What’s gonna happen here?” Sarah asked as she entered the office-turned kitchen.
Reina shrugged as she prepared a hot meal for her guest. “We thought more of the villagers would come. But, not too many can face this, yet.” She placed a bowl of soup in front of Sarah; a cup of tea was all Reina desired.
Sarah eagerly drank her broth, burning her tongue only once. She listened to Reina retell several memory reunions she had witnessed over the last couple of days – a couple were filled with barely controlled antagonism.
“Anger is a good thing, though.” Sarah wiped her mouth with her napkin. “It means they aren’t in limbo – they’re working through things…” She tapped her head. “up here.”
Reina acknowledged the possibility. “I guess. I just think that show of disrespect is unnecessary.”
Sarah sipped her tea and then sat back in her chair, savoring the moment. The number of times she felt relaxed and comfortable in the last two weeks, she could count on one hand. She added a mental tally mark – this was definitely one of those times.
She smiled at Reina, who was quickly becoming a much needed friend. “Last time I was here, you said you heard your family was in Shizuhama. Have you heard anything new?”
Reina offered a broad smile. “It is my brother. He was with friends when the quake hit. They headed up there before the tsunami came. It is truly a miracle that he is alive.”
Sarah nodded, a smile on her own lips. In everything give thanks, didn’t that friend of Reina’s say?
Reina refilled her cup of tea but was waved off when she offered to top off Sarah’s. “You always look so worn down when you come in, Sarah.”
The American sighed in acknowledgment. What she did was back-breaking and soul-changing; it was damn hard work.
“But, a little soup…and, you’re good as new!” Reina beamed.
Sarah chuckled. “The soup is very good. But, I think it’s more of the company.”
“It is an honor to have you share what we have.” Reina cleared her throat. “Have you been able to call home?” Reina knew this was a sore subject for the volunteer. She knew Sarah missed her home. But, she also knew that sometimes it was best to avoid that contact if you want to stay focused.
Sarah’s eyes shifted to the counter and make-shift stove. “Only a few times. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. We’re at that point where Tam and I both know we’re better off not having daily contact. But, she’s not dealing with it too well, this time. I can hear it in her voice.”
“How are YOU dealing with it?”
Sarah let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve gone through this so many times, I’d like to say that I’m numb to it all.”
“But, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not. It’s almost like I’m becoming hypersensitive. Do you know what I mean?”
Reina shook her head.
Sarah looked towards the ceiling, trying to visualize her words. “It’s almost like everything gets to me twice as much as it used to. When I was away from Tam, I would be so excited to hear her voice because I knew I’d see her soon. Now…it makes me… uh…I guess the best way to describe it is sad.”
“You love her.”
“Yes, I do.”
“So, why are you here?”
Sarah looked into the kind, dark eyes that were staring at her. Every single time she spoke with Reina, she always asked the same thing. And, every single time Sarah blew it off.
Sarah looked at her hands for a moment. “I want to help. I never really had that.…” She cleared her throat then continued as Reina silently absorbed the slowly revealing memories. Sarah described how she and her brother survived the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco back in 1989, only to find out that her mother was crushed in the Nimitz Freeway collapse. Their townhome had partially collapsed, and all that San Francisco did was shuffle the two kids off to foster care until family could claim them. They were never allowed to go back to their home – everything was cleared out and eventually demolished. Nothing remained. She spent the better part of her teens locating and begging distant relatives for pictures of her mother and childhood, only able to obtain a dozen or so treasured pictures.
Several years ago, Sarah was in Sri Lanka to celebrate Christmas and a delayed honeymoon when word came of a tsunami. She was on the opposite side of the island when it hit, but witnessed the destruction first hand. “We were trapped there for over a week. There were no planes, no ships, no way to leave. It was awful. Most of the people that survived had nothing - in some cases, not even the clothes on their backs. Just walking around to the horrific side of the island was nightmarish. But, by mere chance, I stumbled upon a bag – a purse, really. And, inside were several personal items: a few pictures, a prayer book, an I.D. We took it to the police and they tracked down the owner. Well, it was the owner’s husband that they found. His wife was one of the missing, but he was soooo happy to have that little bit of her returned. He just broke down and sobbed when he realized what it was. He had to have thanked us a dozen times before the cop pulled him away from us.”
Reina grasped Sarah’s hand and squeezed it lightly, lending support for the emotional confession. “Is that when you decided to start helping people?”
Sarah’s thumb traced over the younger woman’s fingers. “Ya. Pretty much. For the next few days, we tried to help go through personal belongings on the island, but Tam couldn’t take it. The possibility that the picture she was holding was of people that died in the tsunami was too much. But, for me, it was something more.”
Sarah smiled. “Sort of.”
“So, now you do this all the time?” Reina asked, perplexed.
Sarah chuckled, releasing Reina’s hand and downing the last bit of her tea. “God, no. I don’t think I’d be able to do this full time. No. I lead a normal, boring life mostly.”
“You said you sold T.V.s?” Reina asked as she refilled the empty cup with hot tea.
“Actually, it’s T.V. time. I’m the person who gets companies to put commercials on T.V.”
“That’s right. And, which do you prefer?”
“What do I like best? Selling advertising or helping people in need? That’s a tough one.” Sarah grinned. “I like to help out, if I can. The selling advertising just helps to pay the bills.”
Reina gave her guest a truly appreciative smile. Most people don’t go out of their way to help others – particularly strangers halfway around the globe. “You are a gift, Sarah.”
The American blushed, deciding to focus her attention on her tea. Reina paused a moment and then cleared the table of everything but the two tea cups. It was getting late and she knew that her guest would need to head back soon.
“Sarah? Are you planning on leaving us?”
Sarah’s eyes met Reina’s, as if accurately seeing her for the first time. She swallowed the lump that was forming in the back of her throat. She thoroughly looked forward to spending time with this woman. Not until this moment did she consider the possibility that the time would come when she wouldn’t see her again.
She took Reina’s hand in hers. “I’m here now and I’m gonna stay as long as I can. Okay?” She offered a small smile.
Reina returned it, then offered, “You know you don’t have to stay in that camp. You are welcome here, anytime.”
The offer was unexpected and left Sarah speechless. The thought of sleeping in a real bed in a room that didn’t reek of mildew or decay was elating. Then her mind flashed on Reina and all of the complications that accompanied her.
“I don’t think your uncle would appreciate a strange American woman staying in his home.” Sarah grinned, hoping to lighten the moment.
Reina bowed her head and removed her hand from Sarah’s grasp. “You may be right. But, I am a grown woman. And, my offer to the one who honors us is born of nothing more than respect. He has no choice but to accept.”
Sarah sat baffled. She was truly torn. The half demolished home she had been staying in was putting a toll on her. The last time she had a hot bath or shower was before she left Houston. And, the only hot meals she ate in the last two weeks were provided by this kind woman sitting in front of her. If she took her up on her hospitality, Sarah knew that her spirit would be renewed and she’d be able to stay on longer to help out.
Convincing herself it would be for the best, she replied, “If your uncle says OK, then I’ll stay.”
Two days later, Sarah was lying on top of the softest mattress she had ever felt, her cell phone sitting on her stomach having just ended a brief call with Tam.
“I don’t see why we have to literally bunk together!” Sydney paced along a cherry blossom rug that lined the small walkway between the mattress and the door.
“Will you keep it down?!?” Sarah shushed the coordinator. “I already told you.”
Sydney stopped and faced his fellow American, hands on his hips.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Reina’s uncle thinks it’s preposterous that a lone woman would travel the world, on her own volition, to help people. That’s why she used YOU to help convince him.” Her voice was a loud whisper.
Sydney threw his hands up to the ceiling, turned around, and promptly sat on the edge of the bed. “My wife ain’t gonna like this one bit.”
“Your wife doesn’t have to know.”
Sydney paused a few seconds. “What about YOUR wife?”
Sarah shrugged. “I think the old man probably knows more about this world than he lets on. MY wife is probably the REAL reason why WE have to share a bed!”
Sydney quirked a grin. “His niece has the hots for you, don’t she?”
Sarah shot the coordinator the ugliest glare she could manage. “Doesn’t matter if she does. I’m married. And, she knows that.”
“Ha!” Sydney shouted and was promptly swatted.
“Keep it down!”
Sydney leaned closer so his counterpart could hear his whisper. “You just better keep your hands to yourself, missy.”
Sarah shook her head. “It ain’t gonna happen. Reina and I are just friends.”
“I’m talkin’ about ME!”
“In your dreams, Syd. In your dreams! And, you better be staying on your own side of the bed, unless you want to be singing in the soprano section of your church’s choir!”
“Broth again?” Martha walked into the teacher’s lounge, pulling her insulated lunch box from the fridge.
“Ya,” Tamara dipped her spoon in the cup of soup, swirled it around, and then let go. She sat back in her seat and watched the second grade teacher pop her entrée into the microwave.
“You okay?” Martha asked, truly concerned after seeing her coworker in the same condition all week.
Tamara shrugged. “Just have a little bug, I guess.”
“Have you gone to the doctor?” Martha laid out a napkin and arranged her fruit cup and diet soda around it.
“Mmmhmm. Nothing much to say. Should be over it, eventually.”
Martha watched her coworker in silence. When the microwave dinged, she got up to retrieve her meal of chicken enchiladas. When she sat back down, her coworker had turned an odd shade of green. A second later, Tamara darted to the bathroom, involuntarily calling forth her lunch.
Martha waited for the fourth grade teacher to exit, her arms folded across her chest. When Tamara came out of the bathroom, she laid in to her.
“What’s going on with you? Can you keep ANYTHING down? How long have you been getting sick? You need to go home. You don’t need to be contaminating everyone!”
At the last comment, Tamara felt a need to reassure her soon-to-be-retiring coworker. “I’m not contaminating anyone.”
“How’s that? You’ve been sick all week – throwing up almost every day!”
“It’s not contagious, Martha.” Tamara grabbed her cup of soup and dumped it down the drain and then immediately washing the cup.
“So, are you reeeeally sick, then? Is there anything I can do?” Martha’s mind started to scramble, automatically thinking the worst: cancer.
Tamara released a deep breath, knowing that unanswered questions were the sure-fire way that rumors got started in this building. She dropped her cup in her padded lunch bag and the sat down in front of Martha. “I’m not sick,” she whispered, using her fingers to make quotation marks when she said the word ‘sick.’
“Then, what is it? Something bacterial?”
Tamara shook her head. “Nothing like that. It’s just something that’s gonna take about eight more months for it to work through my system.”
Tam sat back and waited for the lights to come on in Martha’s eyes. Several seconds later, she saw realization dawn.
“When did you find out?” Martha’s voice inched up in volume and pitch.
A genuine smile spread across Tamara’s face. “Two weeks ago.”
Martha digested the information, now grinning from ear to ear. “That is such wonderful news! Wonderful news! When are you going to tell everyone?”
Tamara started to fiddle with a stray napkin left on the table. “I’m not sure.”
Martha’s heart sank. “Have you told Sarah?”
Tamara’s eyes closed as if she was trying to fight back unshed tears. “No. She’s still in Japan.”
“Stop me if I’m overstepping, here, but…were you trying…?”
Tamara opened her eyes long enough to roll them at Martha. “It’s really okay. It’s not a secret. We decided at Christmas that we wanted to start a family.”
“Just like that?”
“Kinda. Ya. I mean, we’ve been together for EVER.” Tam laughed out loud at how silly that probably sounded to the sixty-something year old sitting across from her. “It’s just… well…you know, it was just time.”
Martha began to eat her enchilada, freezing mid-chew on her second bite. “So, how do you… uh…?” She waved her fork in tiny circles, a dark shade of red creeping up her cheeks.
Tamara smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know, Mrs. White!”
The look of shock was precious to Tamara, who laughed out loud once again. Deciding to throw her coworker a lifeline, she offered, “It’s not a big deal, really. We go to the doctor like any couple who is struggling to have a baby.”
“Just like that?”
Tamara shrugged. “Not really. They did some tests back in January and said it would probably take a half dozen attempts until one took. And, the doctor gave us a year of trying before we would go on to more intrusive methods.”
“What do you mean by more intrusive?” Martha had practically forgotten about her lunch, now totally fascinated by the conversation.
“Welllll, we’ve been just getting a little extra help in the making-babies department. You know…”
“Ya. Well, this was just the second time we’ve tried it. And, surprise surprise. It worked!” Tamara smiled.
“I think that is just really wonderful!” Martha beamed again, taking a bite of her lunch. “So, is it okay to talk about? Or are you trying to keep it a secret?”
Tamara rested her chin on her upturned palm. “Sarah doesn’t know. No one does. Well, except for you.”
“Oh. Don’t you worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”
“I appreciate it, Martha. Really.” Tamara gave her coworker a valiant smile.
Rain clinked and clanked down on the reinforced metal roof; a strong gust of wind pushing against the modest house, hoping to gain some ground. It was a futile effort for this negligible tropical depression. It would take far greater winds to get a solid enough hold to cause damage. That wasn’t lost on the home’s inhabitants. Still, that realization did little to calm hypersensitive nerves.
“I don’t know why we have to stay here,” Sarah’s loud whisper carried to a half dozen sets of ears, only a couple were linguistically trained to understand her words.
“You know the deal, Sarah.” Sydney was mindlessly sipping a cup of cold tea, more to keep his hands busy than to quench his thirst.
“It doesn’t make sense. We have all these survivors scattered around, and the last thing they need is to be washed down some random gulley and swept out to sea. We need to get out there and check on them – make sure everything’s holding up.”
Sydney stared at his dwindling tea a moment before letting out an exasperated breath. “You and I both know what would be best. But, they keep blowin’ those damn sirens and ain’t nobody supposed to go nowhere.”
Sarah folded her arms across her chest with a huff. She glanced across the main living room to see her friend exchanging a few words with one of her cousins. A moment later, Reina retrieved the luke warm tea kettle and approached the segregated Americans.
She bent down in front of the pair and offered a refill on their drinks. Sarah declined. Sydney happily accepted. As Reina filled the small cup she also filled the pair in on some new information. “There is radiation blowing in.”
“What?!?” Sarah almost leapt from her seat on the wooden floor.
Reina nodded solemnly. “That’s what the horns are for. They fear Fukushima’s radiation is in the storm. That it picked it up as it headed north.”
Sarah’s eyes grew wide. There had been various radiation warnings since she first arrived. Her trip to the village was delayed and rerouted mostly due to extreme damage from the earthquake and tsunami, but also because of radiation leaks from two of the nearby nuclear power plants. But, once she got to the village, it was a different story. Since the winds blew mostly West to East this time of year, nearly all of the radiation had been blown out to the Pacific. So, no one had been seriously worried about contamination this far north. Now, it seemed to be a genuine risk.
Sydney glanced at Sarah, his concern evident in his clenched jaw. “So, what do we do?”
Reina looked at her cousins and then back at the Americans. “You stay here. The police say that we cannot go out in the rain unless we have special suits. But, no one but the scientists have them.”
The thought of trying to check on the village survivors was quickly taking a back seat to their own safety. Sarah certainly didn’t want to unnecessarily expose herself to any radiation. And, one look at Sydney told her that he felt the same way. It looked like the pair was going to ride out the rest of the storm with Reina’s scarcely tolerant family.
Sarah sent out a silent prayer for a hasty retreat of the spring storm.
Tamara growled as she tossed her phone on the bed. Her nausea was getting worse as was her sense of isolation. She really just needed a hug as she talked about her excitements and worries about her pregnancy. Normally, Sarah would be there for her – no need to even ask. But, since her partner was literally on the opposite side of the world, she had to turn to family and friends. The downside to that is she couldn’t tell them about the pregnancy. She knew Sarah would try to understand if she wasn’t the first one told. But, in her heart, Tamara knew that Sarah would be crushed.
So, here she was, sitting on the edge of her bed, eyeing the bathroom door, wondering if she’d be able to get to the toilet in time when the next wave of nausea hit her. If Sarah was here, Tam knew that she’d be coddling her – making sure that she was getting enough fluids and staying home from work when she didn’t feel well. Sarah would be giving her a shoulder massage or running her a hot bath – whatever she thought would make Tam feel better. And, right now Tamara wanted that, damn it. She needed a little TLC and was becoming increasingly frustrated that her partner wasn’t home.
She glared at the phone. “Where are you?” She let out a deep, cleansing breath – hoping to shed some of the worry that was creeping into her bones. “I don’t know why you won’t answer your phone. But, we really need to talk.” She blinked back two unshed tears, then brought her hand to her mouth. She then launched herself from the bed and barely made it to the white basin before her breakfast resurfaced.
Sarah sat on the back of an old scooter, arms wrapped around Sydney’s waist. The storm broke in the late afternoon, leaving only a couple of hours of daylight to investigate. When they left Reina’s family’s home, they saw a lot of leaves and scattered tree limbs littering the area, but no major damage. But, Reina lived in a nearby village, not in Minamisanriku were the tsunami had stripped most vegetation from the landscape. Even a little rainfall could equate to a giant amount of erosion. And, the handful of damaged homes that lined the hills surrounding the devastated village would be in jeopardy of finally succumbing to Mother Nature and falling to the valley. Unfortunately, there were people, like some of the volunteers, who were still using those homes for shelter.
Sarah’s stomach was twisting and turning. She knew there was something not right. And, even though everyone thought she was crazy to want to go check on things, Sydney agreed to go with her. So, here they were, dodging and weaving through debris as they headed for the main survivor refuge: the high school.
Everything looked to be in good shape as they pulled up. Sydney, hopped off the scooter and headed towards the front entrance. He tried the door, but it was locked. He knocked on it three times and waited. A moment later, an elderly man opened the double door and exchanged words with the volunteer coordinator. The pair took a few steps out towards the parking lot, both seeming to investigate their surroundings. Then, Sydney nodded and shook hands with the elder and walked back to the scooter.
“What’d he say?” Sarah asked, still sitting on the bike.
Sydney shrugged. “Nobody’s really come out of the school. Everyone’s pretty much huddled in the cafeteria. He wasn’t aware of anyone missing or any damage.”
Sarah breathed a sigh of relief. “I guess that’s good.”
“Yep.” Sydney straddled the front of the scooter and started the engine.
“We still need to check on the volunteers. That shack was falling apart even BEFORE the storm!”
Sydney looked back. “I know. Just for peace of mind, if nothing else.”
Sydney revved the tiny engine and turned the scooter around, heading for the overlook.
Bits and pieces of reddish sky peeked through the departing clouds. The sun was setting – they would only have an hour of light, at most. Sydney pulled the scooter up to one of the abandoned homes being used by some of the volunteers. The half-demolished home appeared to be in the same shape they left it.
Sydney shouted something in Japanese as he lifted himself off the scooter and approached the home. Sarah scrutinized her surroundings, then followed Sydney, taking care of where she stepped. Between the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, the tsunami, and now the tropical depression she didn’t trust her footing anywhere on this hilltop.
Sydney shouted out the names of the three volunteers he knew still stayed here. He looked at Sarah after a few seconds of no response. She raised her eyebrows and gestured towards the door. Sydney walked up to what was left of the front porch and rapped on the door. Again, no answer.
He pushed the door open and quickly scanned the main living space. Everything was drenched. Puddles formed where the floor had warped. The few blankets and sleeping bags that littered the area were soaked. Nothing seemed to have escaped the torrential downpours of the spring storm. Except perhaps the volunteers.
The pair walked in and looked around. There was no sign of the volunteers.
“Maybe they went to the school?” Sydney suggested.
Sarah shrugged. “The Church is closer. Maybe they went there.” She moved a saturated wool blanket with her foot, trying to spread it out so it would dry faster.
“Hey.” Sydney snapped his fingers at his volunteer to get her attention. “Don’t mess with that. We’ve been exposed enough as it is. Let’s try to keep it to a minimum. We have to assume all of this is contaminated.”
Sarah scrunched up her face.
“Better to be safe than sorry. Right?”
“Eh. I guess.” Sarah shuffled her feet as she walked towards the front door. “It’s starting to get dark. You wanna check out the church before we head back?”
Sydney followed her out towards the scooter. “I think we need to assume they’re safe, for now. We can come back in the morning and see if we can find out where they went.”
Sarah nodded, looking around for any signs that the volunteers had walked towards the church. The rain had been heavy and could have washed away any footprints, but her gut kept twisting – egging her to keep looking for something.
Sydney hopped on the scooter, watching his counterpart for a moment. “You comin’?”
Sarah glanced at him. She just didn’t feel right about leaving.
She shook her head. “I wanna look around a bit more.”
Sydney started to protest but was cut off. “Just stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Sarah didn’t wait for him to disagree. She walked around the dilapidated house and was amazed by what she saw.
“Sydney!” She called, concern filling her voice. A few seconds later Sydney appeared at her side, mud sloshing with his rapid advancement.
“Oh my god,” Sydney managed to whisper as he looked in the same direction as Sarah.
In front of them lay the devastated valley. Since the tsunami had stripped away all of the trees and vegetation three-quarters of the way up the hills, the rain had nothing to prevent it from washing away all of the loose soil and rocks. The mud and debris from the hillside was now intermingled with all of the wreckage from the tsunami, making it near impossible to tell what was what.
To make matters worse, peaking out of an ocean of mud was the top of the blue tent for the command center.
“Shit!” Sarah growled as she started to run towards the path she had used dozens of times to make her way down to the beach. She had noticed almost too late that it had been completely washed away, but managed to slide to a muddy stop by landing on her side and grasping at the little grass that was left.
“Damn it,” Sydney shouted as he rushed to help Sarah up. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that all of our hard work is getting washed away!” Sarah pointed at the blue tent, or what was left of it.
Sydney ran his muddy fingers through his graying hair then shook his head in defeat. The area’s devastation was hard to deal with anyway. But, you could tolerate it knowing that you were making progress and making things better for the survivors. But, now? The last several days of rediscovered items were lost. All of their records and maps and personal items were lost, too. It was too much take. The aging man cursed the Heavens and then sat down in the mud, tears now streaming down his cheeks.
Sarah blinked back her own tears, feeling an unbelievable rage building inside her – not sorrow. “This is bullshit! This is absolutely, god-damn, fucking bull shit!” She clenched her fists repeatedly.
“That’s it,” Sydney murmured in defeat. “I’m done. We can’t keep having to start from scratch – we’re gonna be here for EVER!” He wiped the moisture from his cheeks. “I’ve got my own family to take care of. I can’t keep doing this.”
Sarah squared her jaw. “Me, too, Sydney.”
She looked down towards the new mounds of sludge, not sure what to do. Then, something caught her eye.
“Oh, shit. Oh, shit!” She started to scramble down the edge of the hill where the path used to be. Her footing slipped immediately. She slid down at least ten feet before she was able to hook her foot onto an exposed rock and stop her descent. She looked around trying to find a sure way to get down the lost trail when her thoughts were interrupted.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Sydney shouted from a dozen feet above her.
“Look!” Sara pointed down towards one of the new debris piles.
Sydney squinted and could barely make out a moving figure. It was one of the volunteers. He was standing on top of the pile of mud and rock, waving towards the Americans. Sydney couldn’t make out much of anything else, but he thought there might be another of the volunteers laying on top of the pile.
“Go get help!” Sarah shouted, knowing she wouldn’t be able to climb back up, even if she wanted to. “Go!” she shouted one more time before continuing her way down. She glanced up a few seconds later, satisfied when she didn’t see the coordinator. All she needed to concentrate on right now was climbing down the deteriorating hillside.
She turned so that she was practically sitting on the side of the hill and scanned the dozen or so feet immediately below her. There didn’t seem to be any solid footholds and those that she could see were comprised of mud. There was no doubt that they wouldn’t hold. She continued to scan her surroundings and caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a tree root, just off to her right. It was a gamble any direction she took, even when everything was dry. But, with the saturated soil and expanding gulleys, Sarah knew she was in trouble. She took a deep breath, sent a silent request for help to The Powers That Be, and then hurled herself towards the protruding root.
Mud splashed everywhere as she lost her footing and tumbled down the hill. She narrowly missed the tree root and had instead come up with a handful of slimy mud – which did nothing to sustain her position. She was now sliding down at an increasing rate of speed, twisting and rolling as she fought to find something to grab and hold on to. A loud grunt escaped her lungs as she caught the jagged edge of a piece of limestone. It hurt like hell, but the force of hitting the rock was enough to stop her near freefall.
She blinked a few times, unsure of her position. Mud-caked hair clung to her face, obscuring her eyesight and making it difficult to breathe. She brought her right hand up to wipe away some of the mud and immediately thought otherwise. The pain that shot through her body took her breath away, nearly claiming her consciousness as a casualty.
Sarah tried to stay as still as possible, hoping the shooting pain would dissipate. A few seconds later, she took some quick breaths, testing her lungs, and trying to get a grasp of how badly wounded she was. It didn’t seem to hurt to breathe, which was a good sign. Daringly, she inhaled a deep breath, but that proved to be too much. Intense pain radiated from her right side like lightning, temporarily immobilizing her, once again.
A minute later, or ten minutes for all Sarah knew, she dared to open her eyes. Blinking through bits of muck, she could see that she was now only about twenty feet up from the muddy valley. The sun had set off to her left and the small amount of remaining light was nearly obscured by the hillside. Darkness was dropping rapidly over the valley, which meant she had very little time to get to the bottom.
Before proceeding, she decided to do a check of her extremities. She still wasn’t sure of the extent of her injuries, but she knew she had to have at least a minimal assessment. So, she took a quick breath and began with a few wiggles of her toes. No pain. “At least my toes still work,” she grumbled. Next, she made small circles with her feet and then attempted to move her legs the best she could without losing her nominal footing. Both legs seemed to be in good, working order – another very good sign.
Gaining confidence, she clenched and unclenched her fists. Her left hand felt fine, but there was a dull ache in her right. She lifted her left arm, half expecting an intense pain, but was quickly relieved when there was none. She swallowed and mentally prepared herself for the next step. Living up to her expectations, extreme pain exploded through her body when she barely moved her right arm, eliciting a guttural cry. The pain was so intense that it took a moment before she could calm her speeding heart and rapid breathing.
She groaned as she adjusted herself to get a slightly. The volunteer that she saw earlier was about a hundred feet away. She chastised herself as she took a few minutes to rethink things. “This is so not good, Sarah. Why you thought you needed to rush down to help that guy, is beyond me. What did you think you were going to do? Save him? And, then what? Go dig out the tent? Dumbass!”
She rolled her eyes at the fading light and cringed when she saw tiny dots of white springing to life in the sky. “Of course it’s gonna be a beautiful night.” She groaned again when her body protested against a slight shift in her position. “Ugh. It’ll be my last if I don’t get my ass down from here. Lord… aren’t I the overly dramatic one!” She started to chuckle, but was quickly reminded of her injuries as pain shot through her body once again.
She blew out three quick breaths and decided it was now or never. She was going to make it down the rest of what was basically a mudslide if it was the last thing she did. She clenched her jaw as she lifted herself up and started to work her way down. The slope wasn’t nearly as steep on the bottom part of the hill, so she was able to lean on her left side and scoot down. The pain only incapacitated her once when she lost her footing and was slammed down to the ground.
When she finally reached the bottom, she had to wonder if the descent was wise or if staying halfway up would have been better. She had, in essence, dropped down into several feet of mud, making any progress towards the stranded volunteer impossible. “This is just fucking great!” She shouted into the putrid air.
Her sense of panic when she fell several stories down the hill was now replaced with anger. She was down-right pissed. She was pissed at herself; pissed at the volunteer; and, pissed at the world. She’d give anything to be back home right now and lying in bed with Tamara, listening to her steady breathing as she slept and wondering what she was dreaming about.
Her brief mental wanderings were interrupted by a rough voice. She cocked her head to the left to see one of the volunteers struggling through the mud, trying to pick out the best path to reach her. Sarah held up her left hand, “No. No. No. The mud’s too deep. Stay over there!”
The thin man, who was probably in his late 50’s, sounded gruff as he responded to her in Japanese. He waved his hand at her, but continued his slow trek. A moment later he decided to stretch out on top of the mud. It was a wise choice as his progress was increased ten-fold. A couple minutes later he was next to Sarah, gesturing her to crawl onto the mud.
“I…I don’t think I can,” she nearly cried as she pointed at her arm. The man shook his head and then leaned close to her, pulling her up by her left arm. Sarah fought the pain and the mud, but finally succeeded in flattening her body on top of the muck. The man rattled off some more words that Sarah didn’t understand, and then started to head back the way he came. Sarah followed, staying on her stomach as best as she could. When they reached more solid ground, the volunteer helped Sarah to a standing position so they could walk back to the pile of debris he had been standing on.
When they reached the pile, Sarah finally realized why the man was staying there. Another man, probably one of the other volunteers, was lying near the top. He was covered in mud and absolutely motionless. Sarah wasn’t even sure that he was still breathing.
A chill ran through her body as she realized that she would be stuck here for a while – possibly hours – before they would be helped to safety. If the injured man was alive, he probably didn’t have long to live. And, her own assessment wasn’t looking good, either. Her arm was hurt and possibly some ribs, which could mean internal bleeding. If she didn’t get help soon…well, she seriously didn’t want to think about that part.
She situated herself in the most comfortable position she could on top of the debris. A long period of silence passed before Sarah felt a need to try to communicate with the other volunteer. She pointed at the man and held up a finger. She pointed at the other man and held up two fingers. Then, she held up three fingers and faced the palm of her hand to the sky as if in question.
The older man eyed her for a moment, as if trying to decipher her sign language. Then, as realization crept in, the volunteer shook his head and closed his eyes. He pointed towards the hill and then the buried tent as he spoke. Sarah was able to understand the gist of the man’s tale – the third man was lost in the mudslide. Sorrow overtook the man and he buried his face in his hands. With shock now starting to settle in, Sarah sat shivering in silence, waiting for rescue.
It took three days, but Sarah had finally arrived in Texas. Sydney flew with her all the way to L.A., making sure she was in good hands during her return. But that’s where they separated ways. He continued on his way to Chicago. And, she took the last leg of her trek, that took her to Houston.
When the plane arrived at the gate, Sarah unbuckled her seatbelt and rose. Her arm was in a cast and strapped to her chest to keep it immobilized. Her three cracked ribs and fractured humerus would take upwards of eight weeks to heal, and she was looking forward to it. Or rather, she was looking forward to being home and taking it easy with Tam as her mind and body healed.
She pushed the button to release the door to the overhead compartment and was quickly chastised. “Oh. You shouldn’t be doing that in your condition! Please, let me.” A flight attendant was by her side and retrieving her carry on before she could protest.
A few minutes later she was walking off the plane and into the terminal. Already she could smell the warm, humid Houston air and briefly marveled at the differences in the Japan air. Without her consent, her mind flashed over the scenes from the last few days. It took just over fourteen hours for Sydney to get a rescue party together and down to the stranded volunteers. Only Sarah and the older man who helped her from the mud survived. The other two volunteers perished during the mudslide – the third man was recovered near the command center’s tent the next day. Eventually, Sarah was taken to a make-shift hospital near the high school. A team of Israeli doctors took over her care and stabilized her enough to get her back to the States, warning her to go to the doctor as soon as she got home.
She released a cleansing breath as she followed another woman through the terminal and down to baggage claim. She looked around, trying to find the carriage that would soon be sporting the luggage from her flight, when a familiar voice brought her to tears.
“You sure are a sight for sore eyes.”
Sarah turned to see Tamara’s concerned face. “Tam!” Sarah closed the short distance and immediately wrapped her left arm around her, the pair reveling in the sorely missed contact. When the couple pulled apart several long seconds later, tears were streaming down both cheeks – neither woman caring.
“I’ve been so worried about you!” Tam grabbed Sarah’s carry on and hoisted it on her own shoulder. “Are you feeling okay? Do you need to sit down for a moment?”
Sarah smiled, taking in all of the minute changes from the last month. “I’m fine. At least, I am now. I’ve missed you.”
Tam pulled Sarah into another hug, this time lingering long enough to inhale her partner’s intoxicating scent. She cleared her throat, overcome with so many mixed emotions. “Promise me you won’t stay gone so long, again?”
Sarah grinned as they walked towards the luggage carousel. “You got it. But, I, uh, somehow don’t think I’m gonna be goin’ anywhere anytime soon.”
Tamara frowned. “No shit. You aren’t going anywhere but home, for now.”
Sarah’s smile grew wider. “That sounds like a wonderful plan.”
Tamara recognized Sarah’s suitcase and grabbed it, quickly letting it drop to its wheels. The pair walked towards the airport exit, both lost in their own thoughts for a moment. Before they reached the doors, Tamara stopped and turned to Sarah. “I have some interesting news.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow, ignoring the grumbles from passersby. “Okay. Is this good interesting or bad interesting?”
Tamara blushed, instantly afraid of Sarah’s interpretation of the news. “Well, uh, I think it’s good.” She shuffled her feet, unsure of how to proceed. Then, she cleared her throat and decided to just be quick about it. “Uh, well, you know how we’ve been trying to start a family? And, how right before you left we did a second insemination?”
Sarah nodded, her heart kick-started at the anticipated news.
“Well,” Tamara patted her lower belly and smiled. “Say hello to my little friend.”