Copyright © 2012 by "Jennifer Jackson" - All Rights reserved.
Disclaimers: This story is fictional. The events, unfortunately, are real. I have tried to represent these events as realistically as possible without being sensationalistic. The characters are mine and do not intentionally represent any real person, dead or alive.
Violence: some - mainly Nature vs. Human
Sex: not in this one. There is a little implied. And, in the later chapters there is subtext, if you look for it.<
This is a story of one soul who travels the globe to try to find the reason for her existence. (Incomplete)
New York City, 2011
A lifetime of tragedies and death had weathered Ariel Leigh, but you couldn't tell by the way she carried herself. She stepped out of the elevator holding her head high. Not for a second did she falter, offering anyone in the news magazine an indication that she would rather be anywhere else at the moment. She stepped up to the reception desk and waited.
A dark-haired, slender man in his mid-twenties was jockeying two phone banks and a small row of computers. He seemed to be short a helper or two, but not in the least bit frazzled. Perhaps he was as good of an actor as Ariel.
"How may I help you?" The man held his finger to the headset on his ear as he shifted his eyes to the new arrival.
"I'm here to see Ms. Mathews," Ariel's voice was light and airy, the direct opposite of her weighted spirit.
The man scanned his computer then lifted his head. "Your name?"
He nodded then pushed a few buttons on one of the phones. "Ms. Mathews? Your 10 o'clock is here."
"She'll be out in a moment." He waved towards a pair of dark brown leather sofas. "Have a seat, if you'd like." He returned his attention to the dozens of calls lighting up one side of the phone making it resemble her uncle's Christmas tree - some lights blinking while others remained solid.
She walked over towards the waiting area. The dark sofas complimented the drastically contrasting white walls, interrupted only by poster-sized editions of the most famous Newsweek covers. Scattered around the glass coffee tables were the four most recent publications of the news magazine.
Ariel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She really didn't want to be here. She really didn't want to have to sit down with a stranger and tell her story. She really didn't want all of this attention. She knew it would only take a moment to walk over to the receptionist and let him know that she's cancelling the appointment. It would take even less time to just walk over to the elevator and leave.
She reached over and adjusted the immobility sling on her shoulder. She had been wearing it for nearly two weeks but had failed to get used to the contraption. "You can't go parading around as if nothing happened," her doctor had scolded her. "You have to give yourself time to heal - physically and mentally."
Ariel knew he was right - she couldn't argue with the extent of her injuries: three broken ribs, fractured humerus, and cracked clavicle. But, she couldn't help but see the sling as a giant billboard for who she was. It just called unwanted attention. And, for that reason she wanted the damn thing off.
"How much longer do you have to wear that?" A voice from behind disturbed her musings.
Ariel turned to find Teague Mathews standing before her. The reporter was in her early thirties, sporting long blond hair. She was dressed formally in a skirted business suit and two-inch heels. She reached her hand out, pausing a moment, then switching hands to compensate for Ariel's injury.
"Two more weeks," Ariel shook Teague's left hand, firm but quick. "Then, I can graduate to a less restrictive one." Ariel braved a disheartened smile, not lost on Teague.
"Well, I'm glad you made it. Why don't we make our way back to the interview room?" Teague motioned towards a pair of glass doors. Ariel nodded and then followed the reporter.
They walked through several rows of desks and cubicles, most filled with men and women rattling away at their computers or talking on the phone. Along the perimeter were offices - some appearing to have studios inside. They continued their trek past two conference rooms, a lounge, and then finally Teague stopped in front of a large wooden door.
"I've scheduled time in our main interview room. Fewer distractions here. I'm sure you won't mind." The reporter knocked on the door and then opened it, revealing a corner office. The west and south walls were almost floor to ceiling glass and joined together to give a startling view of the Hudson River. Teague motioned for Ariel to take a look, closing the door behind them.
Ariel could only gasp as she walked towards the windows. It was a crisply clear spring morning in New York. To the south, Ariel could make out what looked like Ellis Island - the Statue of Liberty just behind it. "Wow," was all the visitor finally managed to squeak out.
"Eh, it's a great view when the weather cooperates. But, that doesn't happen often." Teague watched her guest for a moment then prepared the sitting area. She reserved the room for two hours, but didn't think they'd last that long. She had worked hard to score the exclusive interview with Ariel Rose Leigh, the only American survivor of the humanitarian group, the Memory Hunters. Arial had been elusive - denying interviews with anyone and everyone, even network television. Teague only snagged the interview after convincing the woman's sister to put in a good word and by promising a sizable donation to her non-profit organization.
"I wasn't sure what you'd like, so I pretty much got everything," the reporter commented as she lined up sodas, coffee and tea carafes, water bottles, and juice on a polished, wooden coffee table. Two lush, over-sized chairs edged the table on one end. A matching sofa sat perpendicular. A more formal meeting area was placed in the far corner, making the room incredibly versatile.
Ariel turned to take in the rest of the space. It was painstakingly decorated explicitly to give a homey feel. Wood was everywhere, from the furniture to the shelves - even the pens appeared to be made of wood. Warm colors complimented the area nicely. There was no overhead lighting. Instead, lamps with linen shades were scattered around to give an even more comfortable setting. Ariel halfway expected to be able to smell chocolate chip cookies baking in a nearby oven.
"Uh, I'm fine, actually," Ariel muttered as she began her advance to the assumed interview area.
"Well, it's here if you need or want anything." Teague smiled as she pulled out an iPad and iPhone from her black, leather satchel.
"I thought we weren't recording any of this?"
The reporter smiled as she sat down on one of the fluffy chairs. "We're not. No pictures. No video. But, I do need to make sure I have a back-up of my notes. Just audio, I assure you. And, it is for my ears only."
Ariel had worked in the radio industry for years. She attended Rice University in Houston and after graduating decided to stay in the market. Within a year, she was a leading sales person at one of the local radio groups. Another couple of years and she was married to the sales manager. While sales and talent rarely mixed, she did see enough and hear enough to know that most talent would be sneaky and deceitful to get what they wanted.
"Can we add that to the contract?" Ariel raised an eyebrow as she approached the couch.
Teague smiled broadly. "Anything you want. I've got it here, if you want to go ahead and jot that at the bottom?" The reporter pulled out the paper contract, all ready for Ariel to sign. She slid the paper across the table and set a polished wooden pen next to it.
"Everything's there, as we already agreed. Just add the footnote and we'll both sign."
Ariel did just that, followed by the reporter's signature. "Mr. Sullivan? Can you come in here, please?" Teague let the button on the intercom release.
A moment later, a middle-aged man entered the room, waiting for instruction.
Teague handed him the signed contract, adding, "The usual."
Mr. Sullivan nodded and then left without a word, taking the contract with him.
"So, was the flight alright coming in?"
Ariel adjusted herself on the lush couch, not immediately finding a comfortable spot. She let out a heavy breath. "It was okay. Lots of traffic coming in to New York. Been through here several times but just can't seem to get used to it."
Teague nodded, absent-mindedly tapping her pen on one of the nearby legal pads. Just a moment later, Mr. Sullivan returned with an envelope and a small plate of warm cookies.
"I know it's early, but I want you to be as comfortable as possible." Teague nodded towards the table and the gentleman placed both in the center. Leaving, again, without a word.
"Your contract's in there. Complete with the new addition. You ready to begin?" Not waiting for her guest's answer, Teague pulled up her notes on her iPad and started recording on her phone.
"So, let's start with a little background info, shall we?" Teague crossed her legs at the knee, propping her pad on her lap.
"That's fine," Ariel adjusted her position one more time, deciding the comfy couch really wasn't all that comfy.
"Great. Um, let's see. You are one of the founding members of Memory Hunters. Let's start with your mission. What's the point of the group?"
Ariel paused a moment, flashing to the mission statement that was prominent on their website, Facebook page, and press releases. All of which the reporter had easy access to. Guess she just wants to warm me up, Ariel mused.
"Well, we focus mostly on trying to help people reconnect with their pasts - the pasts that have most likely been wiped out due to a natural disaster."
"So, you don't visit any sites that were destroyed by people?"
Ariel shook her head. "You mean like war zones or anything like that? Nope. It isn't safe. If 9-11 happened tomorrow, we wouldn't be assisting in that recovery."
Teague sat forward in her chair, practically offended by the honesty. "Why is that, Ms. Leigh?"
"Well, we're here to help people. It doesn't benefit anyone if we're caught up in the middle of some terrorist plot or political battle. Besides, most people can see some logic in those types of atrocities. What is difficult for us to put our minds around is a random act of destruction from Mother Nature."
Teague scanned her notes, chewing on an errant piece of skin on her lower lip. "How long has Memory Hunters been active?"
"This will be our 6th year."
"How many sites have you been to?"
"Personally, I've been to eight. That's if you count the maiden voyage in Sri Lanka." Ariel scraped her nail across the bridge of her nose. "Um, the group has been to about 15, I believe. But, I'll have to get back to you with the exact number."
Teague typed a moment on her iPad then looked across the table. "Sri Lanka. Is that where all of this started?"
Ariel shook her head. "No." She leaned over and grabbed one of the bottles of water on the table. After twisting the cap off and taking a long drag, she continued. "No. To find the beginning, you've got to go back a few more years than that."
San Francisco, California, 1989
A gangly, blond-haired girl climbed the four concrete steps to the door of her family's townhome. A stuffed, navy backpack was swung over her left shoulder as she pulled a chain out from her blouse. A second later, the key clunked the deadbolt free, allowing the rust-colored door to swing open.
"Come on, Tam!" The blond haired girl didn't have the patience to have to babysit her younger sister every single day of the week. But, it was Tuesday. And, that meant Mom would be coming home early. She even promised to take them out for dinner - a rare treat for the single mom of two.
"Mom never talks to me that way!" Tamera, not more than 8 shuffled her feet as she approached the home.
"That's cuz she don't see you like I do." Ariel frowned at her younger sister, as if communicating her displeasure would speed up her sister's footsteps.
The two girls were visual twins, separated by two years. They both were taller than average, thinner than average, and had long golden hair. It was from their dad's side of the family their mom always said, with a dismissive snort.
As Ariel held the heavy door open, she heard the phone ringing inside. "Hurry up, dork. The phone's ringin'."
Tamera ran up the stairs, past her sister's reach, and through to the living room. Not even bothering to reach for the phone, instead reaching for the remote to the T.V. She had cartoons blaring before her sister had locked the door and found the phone in the kitchen.
"Leigh residence," the young voice attempting to raise over Woody Woodpecker's cackle.
"Hey, baby. You get home okay?"
Ariel's heart fell. Immediately she knew the reason why her mom was calling: she was running late. That meant she'd get caught up in the afternoon commute. Of course, getting stuck in traffic did nothing but put her mom in an antisocial, bad mood.
"Why aren't you here already?" Ariel whined, ignoring her mom's greeting.
"Running late, kiddo. I'm gonna be in Oakland another half hour. But, it looks like traffic is gonna be pretty light coming home - everybody's tied up with the World Series. So, we might be able to hit Guido's by six."
"Ya? You promise?" Ariel looked at the clock on the microwave. It was just a quarter after 4 but her stomach was already growling.
"I can't promise, but I'll do my best. Let me talk to your sister."
"TAM!" Ariel tried to cover the handset with her hand, but every decibel of her screech was sent through the phone line, much to her mother's dismay.
"What?!" Tamara yelled over the edge of the couch.
"Mom wants to talk to you!"
Tamara rolled her eyes then rolled off the couch. As she stomped to the kitchen, she gave her older sister the reflection of what she received: the meanest glare that either could muster.
"Is that any way to answer the phone?"
Tamara looked down at her feet. "No, ma'am."
"I told your sister that I'm running late. She needs to fix you two a little snack. I'm still planning on taking us all out for dinner. Sound like a plan?"
"Can we have ice cream?" Tamara's voice rose an octave.
"Most certainly not, young lady. I was thinking more along the lines of cereal or a PB and J."
The young girl shrugged. "Okay."
"See ya in a little bit. Love ya."
"Love you, too." Tamara set the handset back on its base. She turned to her older sister, still hovering nearby. "Mom said you have to fix me a snack! I want ice cream!!"
Ariel folded her arms across her chest, a stance indicative of her mother's scorn, and watched in annoyance as her sister jumped over the side of the couch.
She walked over to the kitchen cabinets. All of which had rubber bands around the knobs to help keep the contents intact during a small earthquake. They had learned their lesson the hard way shortly after moving to San Francisco. Even a minor tremble could send dishes and other items flying out of their normal positions in closed cabinets. Of course, for several hundred dollars, a local contractor could retro fit all cabinets with special anti-earthquake locks. Ariel's mom found out that a two dollar bag of rubber bands did the trick just as nicely.
Ariel took the yellow rubber band off the cupboard nob and opened the door. She reached in and pulled out a box of Lucky Charms, knowing full good and well what her mother most likely said. After setting a fresh bowl of cereal on the table in front of her sister, Ariel sat down at the kitchen table and proceeded to do her homework. The sooner she got started, the sooner she'd be done.
"So it was just the two of you?" Teague ran her hand through her long strands. "That must have been hard."
Ariel shrugged. "You do what you gotta do."
"Was your mom gone a lot?"
"Naw. She worked across town for the city. Two days out of the week she'd work off commute - she went in late and stayed late. The rest of the time she was home by five."
"But, you had to babysit your sister or did you have someone watching you both?"
"Mom was single. Living in the most expensive city in the States. She didn't have money to pay a sitter. It was just me and Tam, but never for too long."
"Did your mom get home in time?" Teague knew some of the backstory, but not all of it. She knew Ariel's world fell apart that October afternoon twenty years ago. But, what all she saw or what all she witnessed, she had no clue.
"No. No, she didn't."
Catherine Leigh opened the door to her aging Honda. It was small. It needed a good paint job. But, at least it still ran. And, it was paid for.
She tossed her attaché case over to the passenger's seat and settled down ready for her hour commute. It was just after 4:30. She was mentally exhausted after having to crunch numbers most of the day with one of Oakland's city planners. The Oakland Bridge, the main commuter artery between the two cities, would need some medium level maintenance soon. It was part of her job to help coordinate financing between the two city governments - to make sure Oakland was paying its fair share, really.
As she started on her way towards the bridge, traffic started to pick up. It was true that in some areas it seemed almost like a ghost town since traffic was practically nonexistent because of the World Series. But, here on the 880, it was packed - more so than usual.
Catherine scanned the local radio stations hoping to find something to lift her spirits and ease the tension that was creeping into her bones. But, it seemed that all of the DJs were talking about the Battle of the Bay and none had any desire to play any music. With a grunt, she leaned over to her glove compartment and pulled out a cassette. She decided the B-52s would be eclectic enough to get her home today. She popped the cassette in and tapped her thumbs to the beat of Love Shack, not knowing that it would literally be the last song she would ever hear.
A few miles away from the Nimitz Freeway, Ariel was returning her textbook and papers to her backpack. She was done. It gave her a sense of completion and finality that she loved.
She looked over at the TV. Cartoons were still playing; Tom and Jerry this time. Her sister had finished her cereal and had left the bowl and spoon on the coffee table. Her mom would certainly notice that first as she walked in the door - yelling at the two of them to clean up after themselves. Ariel got up from the kitchen table and walked over to her sister to get the bowl. She knew the fewer complications there were when Mom came home, the better chance they had of going out for dinner.
The first jolt came before Ariel made it to the living room, nearly knocking her off her feet. The two sisters only had a split second to make eye contact, as they instinctually waited to see if anything else happened. When the rumbling began next, Ariel yelled at Tamara. "Earthquake! Let's GO!"
Ariel ran towards the front door, grabbing her sister's arm as she went. The noise was deafening as the house shook and bounced with the earth. Rubber bands in the kitchen snapped and dishes crashed to the floor. As she reached the front door and fumbled with the locks, she glanced back to see the TV set crash down, screen first, shooting out a handful of sparks before it went dark.
"Ariel!" Tamara started to cry. She was standing directly behind her sister as the earth jumped and swayed under her feet. The small girl was having a hard time standing and hanging on to her sister's shirt for dear life.
Ariel swiped at her sister's vice grip. "Stop! I need to get this!" She turned the small knob on the security door three times to the left but there was too much noise to hear the click. She tried to yank the door open, but nothing happened. A scream lifted above the earthquake's din. Ariel was at her peak of frustration and fear. Her own footing was slipping, and her sister's grip on her clothing was making everything worse.
She propped her left foot against the wooden baseboard and tried the dead bolt and security knob again. She turned both hard to the left and yanked with all her might. The door popped open, knocking the two girls to the floor. They weren't even on the floor a second, but it was enough for Ariel to feel her stomach twist and turn as the rumbling continued. The nausea was immediately overwhelming and she knew she was going to get sick. She pulled herself to her feet, dragging her sister behind her. She scrambled down the steps of the townhome, being jerked left and right.
At the foot of the stairs, she lost her stomach contents. But, there wasn't enough time to worry about it. Deafening pops and cracks were heard behind her even as the violent rumbles turned to more mild vibrations. Tamara screamed and pulled on her shirt. Ariel looked up just in time to see the roof overhang start to come down. She fought to gain traction - her feet slipping out from underneath her as if she were in the middle of a skating rink. Tamara tugged on Ariel's arm, pulling her towards the street just enough that the heavy overhang narrowly missed the older girl's feet. Both girls screamed but were unable to move - shock and terror making them immobile.
Ariel didn't know who, but someone ran over and hauled her to her feet. The man then pulled both girls to the middle of the street - the only place in the neighborhood deemed safe as house after house crumbled with the Earth's wrath.
She stood there in silence. A crowd now gathered as the shaking began to subside. She heard crying from all around her. People yelling. People swearing. Panic hung heavy in the air as everyone tried to figure out if their loved ones were safe. Ariel just stood in the middle of the street watching in astonishment as more and more of her home caved in on itself.
Ariel sat a moment in silence. It was nearly twenty years ago. But, under the right circumstances, if she allowed herself, she could remember everything as if it all happened just a few minutes ago. Her mind flashed on the sounds - an infinite amount of car alarms blaring, men and women crying, inconsolable children yelling for their moms or dads, and the eeriness of the crunches and pops of the surrounding buildings giving way. But, the smells were the most pungent. Dust was everywhere. So was the scent of burning rubber and wood. Vomit, feces, and urine also filled the air as everyone congregated - so many had messed themselves during the chaos.
"It sounds horrific," Teague uttered after a full minute of waiting.
"Your home was destroyed?" The reporter needed to get her to start talking again. A clammed up interviewee doesn't make good copy.
Ariel let out a deep breath. "Basically. It took a few days, but most of the houses on our street were condemned."
"What did you do?"
"We waited there. We were just kids. The city was out of control. You could smell the fires and nobody was sure that they wouldn't spread. The phone system was out. Water pressure was gone." She paused a few seconds. "We couldn't do anything. We couldn't go anywhere. After it got dark, a neighbor pulled us over and made sure we didn't get lost. We all stayed there that night, sleeping on blankets and in tents. It was bizarre."
"What happened to your mom?"
"We didn't know. She just didn't come home. People questioned us so many times about where we thought she was, and I had no idea. I was just a kid, you know? We tagged along with a neighbor to a temporary shelter. It took three days for them to dig out my mom. After that, they shot us over to a foster home."
"Where was she - your mom?" Teague knew Ariel wanted to avoid the question, but the reporter was determined to get her to answer it.
Ariel took a sip of her water and looked the reporter in the eye. "She was crushed."
Teague looked away, nodding with the confirmation of her assumptions.
"She was coming in from Oakland on the lower deck of 880. When the quake hit, the upper deck collapsed. The worst part is that her car was right at the edge. Just a half second later and she would have been clear."
Teague made a few notes, pausing to give Ariel another moment. The worst thing that could happen was that Ariel could shut down with the revelation of the intense memory. Then, the interview would be over. That wasn't an option for Teague.
"You ended up with an Uncle, right?"
Ariel leaned over and put her water bottle on the table and nodded. "It took a few weeks, but we eventually did, ya. He lived in Petaluma. Very nice up there."
"Did he adopt you? Or how does that work?"
"Naw. There was a big settlement over the freeway collapse and Tam and I got a big chunk of it. We also had a bit from the insurance from mom and on the house. If he adopted us, he'd have control over that money. Probably the best thing that happened with us is that we had an advocate appointed by the city. She kept our Uncle as a foster parent, which meant he got his monthly check for giving us a place to live and we kept the settlement."
"How much was it?"
Ariel shook her head. "The city settled for something like seventy-one million dollars in wrongful death claims. Tam and I ended up with a couple million between the two of us."
"That must've helped, right?"
Ariel eyed the reporter. Was she really so callus as to think money could help with everything? "Money certainly can't replace a mother."
Teague watched the woman before her begin to fill with irritation. Quickly she moved to try to rectify her foe paw. "I am so sorry, Ms. Leigh. I can't imagine how hard it was for you. I just thought that the money would have made moving on easier."
Ariel shrugged, trying to dispel her annoyance. "It helped us get out of California, if that's what you mean. It helped us pay for school. But, it didn't help us move on." There was a long pause then Ariel added: "No, I don't know that money can really do that."
Teague nodded, not sure that she totally understood. Having lived a life of luxury, everything came easily to her. Perhaps that's what made her such a good reporter. She didn't know struggle or loss personally. But, she was fascinated by it and how it changed people. And, she was determined to get in the mind of this woman before her and discover her true motivation. Why did this woman who had lost so much travel around the world to help total strangers? Teague ran her hand through her long hair, pulling a foot up to settle in her chair even more. She knew there was so much more to this woman's history.