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Teague Mathews sat on the edge of her chair forgetting about taking notes or wondering about her next question. The vivid recollection of the interviewee's experience was mindboggling. All Teague could do was try to keep her own emotions in check as she listened to each heart stopping second of Ariel's account.
A knock at the door startled them both.
“Uh. Damn. Sorry about this. Hold on just a sec, okay?” Teague jumped to her feet and was at the large oak door in three long strides. She whipped the door open revealing the older man from before. “What is it?!?” Her voice was sharp, hiding not one ounce of her disapproval for the interruption.
Ariel could hear a man's whisper but tried not to eaves drop. She was here to tell her story, not listen to others'.
“Ariel?” Teague let out a breath as she gave her guest a pleading grin. “I am so sorry. My son's daycare is on the phone. I need to take this. I'm sure it won't be but a minute.”
Ariel nodded. “Sure. By all means.”
“Thanks. I'll be right back.” The reporter left, closing the door behind her, and leaving Ariel alone with her thoughts. It was fine by her. Ariel knew she really needed a moment to compose herself. The memories of that tsunami were still crisp in her mind. Not only was the whole ordeal traumatic, but it was also life changing.
Ariel leaned forward and allowed the momentum to carry her off the couch and to a standing position. She adjusted her arm and then walked towards the window. Although not as crisp as when she first arrived, the view of the river was still mostly smog and cloud free. She watched as a red and black rusty barge slowly glided towards Ellis Island. She briefly pondered about all the different kinds of goods and trash that were transported to and from the city every single day. Her musings were interrupted by the sound of the door.
“Sorry to keep you for so long,” Teague walked over to the chair where she was originally sitting.
Teague held her breath for a second, debating what to reveal, then divulged her predicament. “My son was running around in his classroom and tripped on his sandal. He hit the bottom of a chair in just the right spot and split open his knee.”
“Oh, no.” Ariel walked back to couch. “Do you need to go?”
Teague shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“You sure? I mean, we could finish this another time.”
Teague knew that her magazine wouldn't be putting Ariel up in a hotel for any longer than was necessary. And, she definitely didn't need to be footing the bill for any unplanned expenses, not when she was taking care of her son all by herself.
“No. They said they would bandage him up – just wanted to let me know. Said I might want to swing him by the clinic later and have a doctor check him out.”
“How old is he?”
Ariel smiled. “That is such a great age.”
Teague allowed a genuine smile to trace over her lips. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“They are so cute then. And, so full of love and wonder.”
Teague checked to make sure her phone was still recording and then picked up her notes, quickly transforming from concerned parent to roving reporter. “Do you have any kids?”
Ariel shook her head. “Uh uh. But, my sister just found out that she's pregnant.”
“Is that good news?”
“Very.” Ariel's eyes twinkled with excitement and then suddenly dulled. “She told me when I got back from Japan.”
“Was she not supposed to?”
“No. It's not that. It's just that I was with her all three times she did the artificial insemination. And, this last time took. Which was great, of course. It's just that she found out a week or so after I went to Japan, but didn't tell me.”
Teague watched as a series of emotions rolled through Ariel. “You think it would have mattered if she told you sooner?”
Ariel tapped her fingers on her thigh. “I don't know. Course, I'll never know. But, there's that part of me that wonders if I would have gone back earlier, knowing how bad her morning sickness was.”
“And, if you went back earlier….”
“Things wouldn't have gotten so bad. Maybe everyone would still be alive.” Ariel turned her head and looked at the warehouse building across the street. The red brick was aged and weathered, turning black where water had dripped down the sides and left bits of pollution. It was a needed distraction that helped to center the blond.
Teague waited a moment, knowing patience was the key when interviewing someone who had lived through a traumatic situation. The trick was to find a balance between rushing the interviewee and letting them dwell. If you pushed too quickly, the person might be jarred and clamp down on their account of the events. If you gave them too much time, they would be trapped in the swell of emotion and unable to continue with the interview. Not many reporters found that balance. Teague fought with herself every time she was in this situation. She wanted to tap her watch and tell the other person that they were on a deadline. But, that would cause nothing but more aggravation and grief, for everyone involved. So, instead, she sat perfectly still, just counting her breaths as she waited for Ariel's attention to return to her.
It took almost three minutes, but Ariel's blue eyes finally found Teague's. “Do you want to talk about Japan?”
Ariel's jaw clenched. “No. Not yet.”
Teague nodded. “Okay. Then let's get back to Sri Lanka.” She looked at the few notes she made and then looked back at Ariel. “What was it like? Compared to San Francisco, which was worse?”
Ariel looked down for a moment and then tried to explain. “Both were bad. But, both were seen by different eyes. When I was a kid, the destruction of the quake was like the world coming to an end. I guess, in many ways, it was. But, when you left the city, almost everything was still normal.” She shook her head almost as if she wanted to dispel an image. “But, in Sri Lanka, although it was bad, we really didn't have a sense of how bad until we got back to the States.”
“You were there for several days after the tsunami, right?”
“Ya. And, don't get me wrong. The damage was atrocious. But, personally I didn't know the depth.” Ariel looked at the ceiling in search of the right words. “In Sri Lanka, you could go inland and things were normal. Well, aside from the fact that everyone had lost someone and was frantically trying to find their missing loved ones. But, structurally things were normal. But, along the coast, everything was wiped out. It was like going in and out of a war zone. We all thought that it was the worst thing ever, but didn't know that Sri Lanka wasn't really hit that hard, compared to other areas.”
“Do you remember the count?”
Ariel swallowed, the loss of life still leaving a bitter taste. “The most conservative estimate I've heard of was at two hundred fifty thousand. But, we'll never know for sure. Missing reports put the loss as high as three-quarters of a million. Such an incredible amount of lives lost.”
“So, how do you get through it?”
Ariel took in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then slowly let it out. “The old saying of one step at a time is incredibly accurate.”
A loud screech signaled the separation of the swollen wood door from the wooden frame. The dark-haired American jerked to his right and out of the way of a few stray chunks of the frame that splintered off. A growling expletive indicated that one found its mark.
“Damn it!” James immediately caught the door with his foot and brought his other hand up to remove the offending lumber.
“Let me,” Ariel grasped her husband's arm and gently pulled the small splinter from the top of his hand. The removal of the tiny piece of wood didn't even leave a red stain. But, Ariel rubbed it with the pad of her thumb and then kissed it. “You alright?”
James rolled his eyes in response. “Ya. Let's go.” James pulled the door the rest of the way open, revealing an intensely bright mid-morning sun. The wind was calm. The sky was blue. The air was moist. At first glance, everything appeared as it would after a quick splash-and-dash afternoon shower. But, as the pair emerged from their hotel room and approached the railing of the third floor, even a blind man could see this was no ordinary storm.
Ariel gasped as the mass of destruction hit her with such force she almost fell to her knees. Only James' firm hold on her arm kept her standing. Even he had to get ahold of the railing quickly for fear of his own knees giving out.
Before them, only bits and pieces of the U-shaped hotel remained. On the opposite side of the property, where three floors once stood, only chunks of cement and rubble remained. Scenes of war ravished cities and villages flashed through the young American's mind as her eyes scanned the carnage. A shaky hand found its way to Ariel's mouth when she saw a single metal support beam rising out of the debris, reminiscent of the Twin Towers' destruction just three years ago.
“My God, James,” the words were a mere whisper yet deafeningly loud enough to break the peculiar silence. “Was this all just from the tidal wave?”
James looked at his young bride, pulled her tight, and kissed the top of her head. His own mind couldn't fathom the possibility that this destruction was all from some water. Was it possible that one of the island's feuding factions bombed the resort and the tsunami was just a convenient scape goat?
He continued to scan the remnants of the resort. The cement floor he was standing on was wet. So, the water got at least to the third floor. To his right was the “bottom of the U” or the front of the hotel where all of the windows on the second and third floors were shattered. Some of the doors remained intact, but most were ripped away or broken open. No movement could be seen. No voices were heard.
James could feel his body shutter. They had come close – way too close – to being seriously hurt or even washed away. His own mortality began to make his skin crawl. He needed to get out of here. He wanted nothing more than to get on the first plane and get the hell off this island.
“We need to go.” James walked back to the hotel room.
Confused, Ariel didn't know if she should stay put or follow her husband.
“Ariel!” James hollered from the darkened room. “Get in here and get your stuff packed!”
The young woman looked towards the open hotel room but was unable to see in, the shadows too dark to reveal the room's contents.
“Ariel!” James appeared at the open door, his hands on his hips as if he was scolding his adolescent daughter. “Come on. Let's go!”
Ariel watched him return to the room's shadows, disbelief filling her thoughts. Did he really just talk to her that way? It wasn't like they were both in the middle of a natural disaster or anything, right? How dare he speak to her that way!
But, as much as her mind protested, there was a part of her that was all too willing to go along, and happily as well. Because she knew that she didn't need some man ordering her around – especially a man a decade older – but, subconsciously her mind rejoiced in the distraction. Unable to digest the loss of property and life outside that hotel room, her mind was fully capable of rebelling against the disrespectful tone coming at her from James.
“What the hell's wrong with you?” Ariel stood in the doorway watching her husband throw clothing into a large suitcase.
“Nothing. Other than witnessing Armageddon!” He zipped up the suitcase and then grabbed another, this time grabbing personal items from the room's desk. After clearing that area he realized his wife hadn't moved from her spot at the door. He took in a deep breath and then let it out. This time, approaching his wife in almost a normal voice and state of mind.
“Come on, babe. Help me finish getting our stuff packed and then we can try to get to the airport. Let's get out of here before things get even worse.”
Ariel's heart melted. All traces of James' anger had evaporated. In its wake, he seemed humbled with a hint of fear. All she could do was close her eyes and nod.
A few minutes later found James and Ariel pulling two big suitcases down the hotel walkway. Did they have a plan? No. Were they prepared for what would greet them once they left their hotel room? Absolutely not.
It had to have been a surreal sight if you had just survived the tsunami, clinging to whatever metal or concrete object you could get your body around. A pair of exhausted and relieved eyes could have opened to see a pair of Americans briskly walking down the railed concrete walk space, almost as if nothing had happened. If those eyes could block out everything else and just focus on the pair, one could imagine nothing DID happen as the Americans wheeled their suitcases around the corner, stopping only to decide who was carrying which suitcase down the stairs.
James stood at the top of the stairs near the front of the hotel. He looked back towards the pool area, trying his best to not see the assault on humanity. Instead, he set his mind to see only the awesomeness of Nature. He willed his mind to only see the incredible power that presented itself in the blink of an eye and disappeared nearly as quickly. Perhaps it was a reminder, James ponder briefly.
He took in a deep breath, wrinkling his nose at the assault on his senses. Already the smell of muddy, fishy, tainted water seemed to permeate everything. “Blayach.” He tried to purge his body of the smell, unsuccessfully. “Come on. I'll take yours. You take mine.”
Ariel nodded as she let her husband pull the larger suitcase over to his right side, lifting the heavy bag just enough to clear the steps as he started walking down. She followed down the same way, neither pausing again until they got to the bottom.
James slowly put the suitcase down, but didn't bother to step off the staircase. Mud and sand and broken pieces of wood were scattered everywhere. There really didn't seem to be any path that they could go. He glanced over his left towards the lobby. The closer view did nothing to ease his fears. It really did look like a bomb had gone off.
“Uh, Ariel?” James turned and looked up at his wife as she stood three stairs higher than him. “You stay here. I'm gonna try to find a way out. ‘K?”
Ariel nodded, seemingly incapable of speech. She sat on the stairs and watched her husband tentatively walk away.
James only knew one way in to the pool area and walkways to the rooms. That was through the hotel lobby. And as much as his mind protested the thought of walking in there, he didn't come up with an immediate detour. So, he gingerly stepped on boards and broken pieces of wood, trying to avoid the sand and mud combination that covered almost everything. There was that part of him that didn't want to get his leather sandals dirty, but the more rational part of him didn't know how deep the muddy concoction was. He most certainly didn't want to get stuck.
As he stepped cautiously from one partially uncovered object to another he could feel the mud and water ooze out with every step. As he neared the lobby, the stillness and silence raised the hairs on his neck. There had to have been over a hundred people in this hotel, so where was everyone?
He placed a hand on the dirty door jamb to the lobby, jerking his hand back at the sudden coldness of the wet wood. Slowly he peaked around the corner. The musty stench was overpowering. Debris was piled up along the entrance, leaving only a small space to walk through. As James bent over to enter the lobby he tried not to touch anything. But, water dripped from every object and from every direction. The fragmented tables and couches that partially blocked the doorway were nearly brimming with muddy water. Any slight movement of air resulted in a cascade of reeking water, none to James' pleasure.
Once inside the lobby's foyer, James allowed his eyes to adjust to the absence of light. Everything was grey. Whether that was from the muddy water, lack of light, or his imagination, James didn't try to understand it. He just knew that the sight before him rivaled anything real or imagined he had ever seen before. The counter that he had visited not even an hour earlier was shattered and only a few jagged, wooden pieces remained – due only to the fact that they were bolted to the floor. The half-dozen employees behind the counter were nowhere to be seen. The plants and couches and chairs and everything else that lined the entryway were all over turned into crumbled messes throughout the giant room. Nothing was left untouched by the water. Even the ceiling remained wet and dismantled in places.
James swiped a sweaty palm through his short hair as he tried to find a path through the lobby. There really wasn't one. He'd have to try to move some of the debris, and it certainly wasn't going to be easy. He stepped back through the narrow opening to the pool area. He squinted at the bright morning sun as he walked back to his wife.
“Come on.” He stepped over the debris and grabbed the large suitcase. “We're gonna have to move some stuff, but I think we can get through.”
“James,” Ariel stood with a hand on the smaller suitcase. “We should try to see if we can help. There's got to be survivors over there.” She pointed at the demolished east side of the hotel.
James shook his head. He had one mission and that was to get them out of there. “Let's just go.”
Ariel stepped down taking the suitcase with her. “I think we should try to help.”
James shook his head and grabbed the side of the smaller suitcase, yanking it down and bringing his wife with it. The suitcase landed on a broken chaise lounge and Ariel landed in his arms.
“Ariel. We need to get out of here. We could've died. I don't want to risk another tidal wave coming in. I want us to be safe.” He swept Ariel's bangs from her eyes. “I need to know that YOU are safe, baby.”
Ariel closed her eyes knowing she couldn't deny her husband.
“Come on. I'm sure the police will be here soon. If there's people in there, they'll find them. It's not our job, right?” He gave his wife a little tug bringing her all the way down on to the debris where he stood. He picked up the smaller suitcase and handed it to her then started to walk towards the lobby. The extra weight of the large suitcase caused him to sink further down into the gunk surrounding them. It wasn't the smartest idea he had ever had, trying to maneuver a large suitcase through the mud and debris. He slipped and fell twice, narrowly missing a piece of black metal from the surrounding fence the second time. “Shit,” he growled as he slowly rose, now dripping wet.
If the scene had been anywhere else, Ariel would have laughed hysterically. Instead, she merely waited patiently as her husband checked his body and clothing for scratches or tears. A moment later she asked, “are you okay?”
James turned and glared at her. “Ya. Just peachy.” Then he grabbed the suitcase and jerked it towards the lobby.
Ariel followed, taking her time, not wanting to be the second one to slip in the mess. When she came to the doorway, her breath escaped her. Earlier she could imagine the horrific experience of having the lobby fill with water and having no escape. But, she couldn't imagine the aftermath. There were really no words for what she saw as her eyes adjusted. Murky water seeped from the mangled furniture. And, bits and pieces of everything else were interspersed with mud and debris from outside. She slowly scanned the lobby, noticing that indeed the water had made it to the ceiling.
James leaned the suitcase against what were possibly the remnants of a coffee table. “Here, give me a hand,” he gestured to his wife.
Ariel put the smaller suitcase near the other one and closed the small gap to James. “What do you want to do?”
“If we can push this chair out of the way, we might be able to get through.” The chair that James wanted to move was clamped between two piles of debris. It wouldn't be as easy as just pushing the chair. Some of the wreckage from both piles would need to cleared, first.
It took several minutes, but the pair finally cleared enough away to move the chair. James tried to pull it at first but accomplished nothing. Then he pushed, and the chair gave way within a heartbeat and tumbled out of sight. Giving his wife a proud grin, James grabbed the suitcase and walked through the newly opened path.
Ariel followed her husband around the bits and pieces that used to be a respectable resort. She tried not to look too closely at what she was walking past. This only after she caught a glimpse of what looked like a water-logged human hand. James had tried to assure her that everyone got out, but Ariel knew the truth. After that, she kept her eyes up and imagined she was hiking through the woods. Anything that poked out at her was merely a fallen branch. Anything squishy that she stepped on was just a pile of compost. If she had to step up and over something, she imaged that she was scaling some rocks. It was the only way she could get through the lobby and remain sane.
The process was slow for the pair, but they eventually made it to the front of the hotel. The floor to ceiling glass windows and doors had been demolished, but only a few bits and pieces of glass remained. The rest was most certainly washed away with the water.
“You think this happened in the second or third wave?” Ariel wondered as she stepped over a large window frame.
“Mmm. I would guess the third. If it happened in the second, the water probably wouldn't have gotten so high.”
It made sense. It also explained how people could have died in that lobby. If the water was strong enough to break through the glass during the second wave, it probably would have washed through the lobby and kept going. Instead, the second wave just had enough power to fill the lobby like a large bathtub.
Once the pair had exited the lobby, squinting eyes revealed an unexpected sight. A dozen or so tourists were gathered around a handful of trees. James was stopped dead in his tracks. Ariel, however, headed straight for the group.
“Hello,” she waved her hand exaggeratedly in the air as she pulled her muddied suitcase.
Several eyes opened wide at the approaching survivor. One man rushed over and grabbed her suitcase, giving her a quick nod and ushering her over to the group.
“Are you alright?” The older man's accent was think but understandable.
Ariel nodded. “Ya. Ya. I think so.”
James approached and let his suitcase fall next to his wife. He reached his hand out and shook the older man's firmly. “You all come from there?” He jerked his thumb at the resort behind him.
Almost everyone in the group nodded. The older man eyed the pair and their baggage. “Did you think you were still on vacation?”
Ariel glanced at James waiting for his explanation.
“Uh. Ya. Well, we wanted to try to get to the airport.”
“Well,” the older man paused a moment.
“James and Ariel,” the young American woman volunteered.
“Well, James, it seems everything is pretty much washed out. You did notice the tsunami, didn't you?”
James frowned, feeling as if the older man was trying to belittle him. “Of course. We just thought the sooner we got out of here the better.”
“Unless you want to walk the fifty miles to Kankesanturai, you're outta luck. That's even assuming Elephant Pass is open and the airport is serviceable. Otherwise, you're gonna have to hoof it to Anuradhapura or all the way down to Columbo. That's gonna take ya days, mate.”
“What about the police?” Ariel's voice trembled.
“Now, that's a good question.” The older man turned to the group and swung his arm towards the young woman. “This young lass wants to know about the authorities.”
A woman leaning against one of the trees piped up. “There ain't no authorities. At least not now. Phone lines are down. Power's out. Can't even get a cell signal.” She walked over towards Ariel. “One of the guys has a sat phone in his rental, but that thing's been washed back there.” She pointed to a stand of trees about a half mile in. “He went to try to find it. With any luck it'll still work.”
Relief and remorse washed over the young American. They had made it through the tsunami, but how many others didn't? She looked back at the half-demolished resort. “What do we do now?” Ariel asked softly to anyone that could hear her voice.
The older man answered, “There's not much we can do. We can sit here. We can go back in. We can walk until we find someone that can help us.” He shrugged, his own frustration getting the better of him.
Ariel let out a long breath. She knew her husband was deluded when he thought they could just walk out of the hotel and be whisked away to the airport and back home. And, right now, that tiny little part of her that believed James was waging a war with the rest of her. Sensing she was going to lose her composure, she grabbed the handle to her suitcase and walked over to one of the trees. She let her bag drop to the ground and then promptly sat on it, leaning against the base of the palm tree, shaded from the intense late morning sun.
James followed suit, but not without displaying his agitation. “What are you doing?” He admonished.
“I'm sitting down, James. What does it look like?”
“It looks like you're about to have a picnic. We need to get a move on. Let's go.” He made a gesture of taking a few steps towards the road but stopped when he realized Ariel wasn't following him. “Come on!”
Ariel stubbornly folded her arms across her chest, shaking her head. She looked all of about four years old, not willing to give an inch.
James closed his eyes, trying to calm his growing agitation. He had just survived the most harrowing event of his life. He most definitely didn't need to have to deal with a stubborn wife disobeying him. Not now. Not ever.
“Ariel…” James' voice took on a sharp tone.
“Go, James. If that's what you want to do. Go!”
“I'm not going without you. Now, get your ass up and let's go!”
Ariel shot him a look that could kill. She wasn't going to budge, not one inch, even if her life depended on it.
“Ariel,” James stepped into the shade, his temper building. “We're going to get out of here. Now. Do you understand? Let's go.”
Ariel glared at her husband and then stared at the group of survivors who were discussing their immediate needs and strategy. There didn't seem to be any reason to leave. A group of people would be a better survival strategy than going it alone with her husband. Not that she feared the man in any true sense. However, if they started out towards the airport, there was no telling what they would encounter or who. What if there was another tsunami? What if they encountered thieves or rebels? Ariel didn't want to take that chance.
“James, I'm not going. There isn't anything you can say that will change my mind.”
James hovered over his wife, flabbergasted that she was talking to him this way.
“We need to stay here. First, this is our last known location. If anyone comes looking for us, we need to be here. Second, this might not be the best place in the world, but if another tsunami comes in we have shelter. Out there, we don't!” She waved her hand towards the washed out road. “Third, we can't do it alone. No matter how much you want to. We need help. And, they seem to have a handle on things, at least for now.” She pointed at the small group of people not but five yards away. Then, she looked at her husband. “I don't want to die here. And, everything in my gut is telling me to stay with these people.”
She was right. James had to admit that to himself. But, he'd be damned if he was going to admit that to her. “Fine. But, the first chance we have of getting out of here, we're taking. Got it?”
Ariel merely nodded. It felt good to stand up to James, she mused. Just because he was older didn't mean that he was always right. And, she relished in the realization that he actually backed down. Perhaps she'll have to take a stand more often, she thought. A tiny smirk etched its way across her face, unbeknownst to her husband.
(Continued in Part 4)
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