By KG MacGregor
The channel 26 news crew was setting up for its live report from the scene for the 26 Noon News. Art Hanson picked up the scene report from the public information officer and scanned the crowd for an anguished face. He found many, including that of a young man in a crumpled suit.
Hanson approached the man. "Hello. Im Art Hanson with Channel 26 News. Would you mind answering a few questions so that our viewers can get an idea of how serious the situation is here at the mall?" he pleaded hopefully.
"Sure. But Im just waiting like everyone else."
"Thats okay." Turning, Hanson yelled "Janie, over here!" and a tall, forty-ish woman with curly brown hair trudged over to the tent, her camera already shouldered for the news spot. Hanson scribbled on a notepad. "Could you tell me your name?"
"Tony. Anthony LeFevre." He spelled his last name for the newsman.
"Who are you waiting for here?"
"Lilian Stuart. Shes a lawyer at our firm. We havent heard from her since yesterday. Her car was found in the garage by the part of the mall that fell."
Hanson briefed Tony on the questions he would ask, and gave instruction on where he should face and how he should use the microphone. As the taped interview was winding down, the reporter squared his shoulders and looked directly at Tony. "Mr. LeFevre its been twelve hours since any survivors were found. What do you think of your friends chances?" Hanson was hoping for an emotional response, and he was not disappointed.
"If I were trapped in there, Id want Lily with me. Lilys going to make it out. Shes that kind of person." Tony's words sounded stronger and more assured than he perhaps felt.
Scott Rutherford listened in to the final remarks. He wondered if Anna were that kind of person as well. How could I not know that about her?
As though reading his thoughts, Kim Philips placed her hand on her brother-in-laws shoulder. "Shell be all right, Scott. Shell fight to hold on."
"I certainly havent given her a reason to fight her way out of there," he said dejectedly. Turning to walk away, Kim pulled him back.
"Youre going to have to explain that comment, Scott."
The pair walked over to the Red Cross water truck and sat on the bumper in the shade. Scott was crying at the end of the awful tale, and Kim had listened intently to every word. It was all coming to light nowAnnas long hours, her moodiness, the way she had avoided the family. Kim wanted very much to slap her brother-in-law senseless, but knew that this was Annas call. Instead, she said, "Im in Annas corner, Scott. Whatever she wants is what I want." It was their Oath of Sisters, a pact they had made when Anna was fourteen and Kim thirteen. Kim pushed herself up and brushed off her dusty jeans. Looking down at Scott, she could see the anguish in his eyes. She patted him lightly on the back and then turned to head toward the public information tent to await the noon update.
"Damn! This thing is stubborn!" The women had been working more than an hour to loosen a ceiling panel near the wall that bordered the next store. The ceiling at this point was just low enough for Anna to stretch her arms up and reach it. Lily had located a standard plastic and metal chair on which to stand, though it teetered precariously on the crooked floor. Each time they pushed, pulled or pounded, it gave a little but always returned snugly to its place. On one occasion, Lily reached through the opening when it was pushed upward and determined that there was about a foot of space between the ceiling tile and the actual ceiling of the shoe store. That would be barely enough room to maneuver, but first they needed access.
Lily, still trying valiantly to keep their spirits up, had been jabbering on about how they could have picked up souvenirs along the way, emerging from the rubble in dirty white wedding gowns with tennis shoes and diamond earrings. "Just imagine what we could pick up in Fredricks of Hollywood!" she joked.
Her companion though, was quiet, lost in thought from their earlier conversation about who might greet them when they exited. "Pardon me, am I keeping you awake?" Lily noticed the womans extended silence and tried to inject some levity into the question.
"Sorry. I was thinking about something. What were you saying?"
"I was saying Why dont you tell me whats on your mind? It might help if you got it off your chest." Lily continued to tug at the ceiling tile.
Anna sighed, and plopped down on the sloping floor. It might help. And maybe it would be easier to talk about it in the dark. "Well, its you see I I learned recently that my husband had a baby with another woman. It happened before we were married, but we were engaged, and we had already been intimate." Well there, that wasnt so hard. She continued, "It was his old girlfriend, and both of them had been drinking. We ran into her and the baby last November, and Ive spent every night since then in the guest room."
Lily considered her companion. Anna's quiet strength and confidence were obvious and Lily realized it must have taken a lot of courage for Anna to admit this betrayal in her life, especially to someone she had known for such a short time. Lily wanted to kick Anna's son of a bitch husband, even though she didnt even know him. "Thats a pretty heavy load, Anna. I can see why youre upset." She didnt want to pry, but she sensed that the woman needed to talk about it. "What do you think youll do?"
"Well, it occurred to me more than once that disappearing under a pile of concrete would settle a lot," Anna laughed quietly.
"Dont even say that!" Lily countered angrily.
"No, no! Im not being serious," the tall woman backpedaled. "I told you already. Once you helped me out, I knew I wasnt meant to die in here. I plan on getting out of here. And when I do, I have to decide whats next. Im not going to keep beating Scott up about all of this, or myself for that matter. Well fix it."
Lily relaxed, relieved to see that Anna still had a fire in her. "Im sure you will, Anna. I bet you have no idea how strong you are. I can see it, and Ive known you less than a day."
With a strong jerk, Lily broke off a corner of the sturdy tile, and reached above it. A metal brace in the center was holding the tile each tile, probably firmly into place. To get through, they were going to have to break it apart piece by piece.
"What would you do if you were me?" Anna continued.
"I wouldnt touch that question with a ten-foot pole! I dont really know your history, or how you feel about each other. Besides, you definitely dont want to be taking advice on your love life from someone like me."
"Oh, right. I forgot I was in here with The Heartbreak Kid."
"Noooo. Youre in here with The Heartbroken Kid. I make bad decisions. Repeatedly."
"Why dont I take a turn on tearing that ceiling apart? While you rest, you can tell me your sordid tales."
"Youll think Im pathetic," Lily groaned.
"Me? Who am I to pick on you? Come on, tell me about your heartbreaks, Kid." Climbing up to take her turn at the ceiling, Anna added, "Besides, if youre that pathetic, maybe Ill feel better."
"Great. Im stuck in here with a comedienne."
"Youd have said the same thing and you know it." She was right.
"Okay, but youre going to think Im such a loser." She leaned back on the incline and told Anna the tales of Melanie, Becca and Beverly, leaving out the sex parts so she wouldnt embarrass her new friend.
Lily had never been with a man. Her first sexual experience was during her sophomore year in college, with Melanie, a woman she met at a lecture on lesbian health. The sex was fantastic and Lily was sure she had found her other half on the very first try. But it was not to be. The more experienced lesbian wasnt ready to settle down, and Lily was determined not to wear her heart on her sleeve next time.
Alas, the heart has a will of its own, and at the beginning of her senior year, she fell hard for Becca Silby, UCLAs All-American point guard. That lasted nearly two years, until Becca opted out of the WNBA draft in favor of a more lucrative European contract. It was pretty clear to Lily what that said regarding their future.
After she landed her job at the law cliniclanded is a funny word, since most young lawyers shunned this work in favor of a little prestige and having enough to eatshe met Beverly, a home health care consultant ten years her senior at 35, with a precocious five-year-old son. Lily moved into Beverlys three-bedroom home and immediately meshed her life with that of her new lover. She adored Josh, and the feeling was mutual. Beverly was definitely The One. That is, until two years into their relationship when Lily suggested that they trade rings or some other token of devotion. Beverly wasnt into commitment, but she didnt want to be the jerk here, especially since it might be difficult to explain to her son. So she began to complain about the things Lily did, little things at first, then eventually, most things. She would pick fights, then lambaste the younger woman for losing her temper. In a final act of cruelty, she asked Lily to move out so that her son would no longer be exposed to Lily's mood swings and unpredictable temper. It took a long time for Lily to stop blaming herself for the demise of the relationship and realize Beverly's game.
"So Im a three-time loser," she finished. "If I ever do really fall in love, I seriously doubt if Ill be able to tell if its real. Now you see why I say you shouldnt ask me for love advice."
"Dont be silly. Youre not a loser. Sounds to me like you opened up your heart and some people just took advantage," Anna comforted. "Your turn again, okay? My arms feel like theyre going to fall off." Anna had successfully removed another portion of the tile.
"Sure," Lily said, scrambling up to the lowered ceiling. Taking turns, the women continued to break the tile apart bit by bit. When Anna found a metal shoe sizer in the pile of debris, they were able to make quicker work of their task, and soon, the hole was large enough for each to squeeze through.
Eleanor Stuart drove straight to her daughters apartment, hoping against hope that Lily had somehow made it home. She was met by Lilys two closest friends, Sandy, a social worker who collaborated often with Lily on some of her cases, and her partner Suzanne. Without a word, the three women embraced in the entryway, each shedding quiet tears.
Sandy and Suzanne had been partners for 11 years, and Eleanor loved that Lily had such strong successful role models in her life. Two years ago, she and Lily had vacationed with the pair in Mexico, and she got the chance to really get to know the two, individually and as a couple. There were never any secrets between Eleanor and Lily so Eleanor had known from Lilys high school days that she was gay. Though she would never have chosen such a difficult path for her daughter, Eleanor wanted the kind of happiness she saw between Sandy and Suzanne for Lily.
Those pleasant memories were far removed from the moment. The women saw the dark circles under Eleanors red-rimmed eyes, and knew how hard this was for her. They pulled her into Lilys apartment, and filled her in on what they had learned from Tony after the six oclock briefing.
Search crews using dogs had entered the mall shortly after ten this morning. As of six oclock, they had removed the bodies of nine victims. No survivors had been found. The search was continuing, though the FEMA task force was no longer optimistic.
Tony had been sickened by what he saw, but he was relieved to report that Lily was not among the dead. Eleanor knew Tony from having visited Lily several times over the five years that her daughter had worked at the clinic, and she had passed on through Lauren her appreciation for the role he was playing in learning Lilys fate.
"I need to go down there," said Eleanor, looking around to retrieve her car keys. "Its my job to wait, not Tonys. Hes done enough."
"Not now, Eleanor. You need to rest." Sandy put her hands on Eleanors shoulders. "Ill go down there with Tony. Suzanne will stay here, and you can come tomorrow morning." She searched Eleanors eyes for agreement. "Really, you need some rest."
Eleanor acquiesced, and walked out onto the small patio for a few moments of quiet contemplation. "You need to come back to me, baby," she said to the night, hoping Lily would somehow hear her.
Suzanne brought the womans bag in from the car and placed it in Lilys guest room. Hugging her partner, she instructed, "Call me on my cell phone if you hear anything. Ill have it on vibrate so it wont wake her up."
It was well past midnight, but the trapped women had no way of knowing. Both were tired, sore, hungry and thirsty, but they resolved to keep moving as long as they could. Dehydration was their biggest worry now.
Over an hour ago, they had climbed into the narrow crawlspace above the ceiling. The support structure, a series of metal frames and braces, was difficult to navigate, especially in the dark. Anna in particular was struggling, her long legs constantly scraping against the bolts that stuck out from the frames. Progress was slow in the limited space.
When they reached the wall, they were frustrated to find that the metal frames were laid out like a maze, preventing them from moving forward toward the gap in the ceiling. In fact, it seemed that the only avenue for moving from the back of the store to the front was along the row that held the light fixtures. That meant backing up about ten feet and crawling toward the front of the store. They would have to guess which alley led to the gap in the wall.
Two hours later, on the fifth try, Anna found the opening. "The wall is crumbling here, but it still isnt big enough for us to get through. I think were going to have to break it away like we did with the tile," she reported.
Lily was behind her in the narrow corridor which housed the light fixtures, and opted to return to the store for the shoe sizer. There was no way they could break through the wall with their bare hands.
The crawlspace was filled with dust, bugs and rodent droppings, though these elements were fortunately hidden from view by the darkness. For Lily, the stagnant air and exertion had combined to produce a tickling cough that was always bad news. Prone to asthma attacks when she exercised or encountered certain allergens, Lily carried her emergency inhaler wherever she went. Almost everywhere, she lamented, knowing it was in her briefcase under the drivers seat. Who knew?
Anna napped while Lily retrieved the tool. She awoke to the sound of violent coughing. "Lily! Are you all right?"
"Ill be fine," Lily wheezed as she crawled into the narrow space beside the tall woman. "Im having a little trouble with my asthma, but I dont think its going to get any worse."
Anna took the shoe sizer and began pounding at the edges of the crumbling drywall. Lily insisted on taking over after a few minutes, but it was obvious to both women that she was in acute distress.
"What can I do?" asked the tall woman anxiously.
"Nothing." She drew a shallow raspy breath. "I just need to get out of here and get some fresh air."
Anna took the sizer and began to work feverishly on the wall. She refused Lilys attempts to take a turn, sliding ahead of the smaller woman so that she blocked the wall from her reach. When the hole was finally large enough, she started through head first. Lily strained to hold her feet as Anna lowered herself to the floor of Lawsons Jewelry. Immediately, she noticed the broken glass. First her hand, then her bare foot met jagged shards that drew blood. Quickly, she turned and helped the blonde through the opening, guiding her up the sloping wall to avoid the danger. Lily was taking rapid shallow breaths and coughing profusely.
"Its okay, Lily. Were almost out. The airs better in here. Youll be okay." She desperately hoped that what she said was true.
"I need to prop up breathe better."
Anna hurriedly scooted behind her new friend, pulling the young woman onto her chest. She smoothed short strands of hair from Lilys face, and rocked her gently.
For Lily, this was familiar relief. When she was younger, Eleanor had held her close and rocked her while she wheezed. Lily knew she was in big trouble here. Without her inhaler, the attack could get worse. Anna needed to keep moving.
"You need to go on," she rasped. "Send someone back."
"Not a chance, Pygmy. Like you said, were going out together." Anna hugged her loosely. "Get some rest. Youll get better."
Eleanor arrived at the mall at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Tony had brought his car to the family parking area, and was asleep in the back seat. He had been at the site since Thursday afternoon. Sandy led the woman to where he slept, opened the backdoor of the car and nudged him gently. "Tony, Eleanors here."
The young man sat up, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. His sorrowful look as his eyes met Eleanors nearly broke the older womans heart. "Thank you, Tony. I appreciate what youve done more than you could ever know." She took the man in her arms as he broke down and sobbed.
The crowd had dwindled this morning to fewer than three dozen. At last count, searchers had removed 18 bodies from the rubble, and no survivors had been found since mid-afternoon on Thursday. The list of missing was down to 11, including the wife of the haggard young man who had come to the mall with Tony. All were concluded to have been in one of the six stores on the lower level, as every other inch of the structure had been searched.
At the seven oclock briefing, it was announced that engineers were going to come in today to determine the safest way to excavate the lower level. Sound technicians were setting up to scan for stray noises underground. "Ill be honest with you," the site coordinator said. "Were running out of time to help anyone who may be trapped underneath the structure. We dont know what kind of air pockets there might be, or whether there was any gas or hazardous materials in the area. And at this point, dehydration is going to be a problem."
The families looked at one another grimly.
"But be assured that were going to do everything we can."
Something was different. Anna awoke to Lilys vicious coughing spell. She helped the younger woman sit up and rubbed small circles on her back to comfort her as she gasped for breath. Anna looked around the jewelry store. There! A small but definite glow was evident at the back edge of the wall going into the next store.
"Lily! I can see daylight! Look!" Anna turned her friend in the direction of the patch of light. "Lets go!"
Lily was unable to move. Without treatment, her asthma attack had left her depleted of the oxygen needed to make her body work, her muscles move. Between rapid shallow breaths, she pleaded, "Go, Anna! I cant."
Anna was frozen with fear. She couldnt leave her friend. This woman had saved her life.
Lily made it clearer. "Get help." She gasped for breath, then coughed violently. "I have .to get .an inhaler " Lily stammered. Or Ill die.
With that, Anna squeezed Lilys hands and kissed her bloodied forehead. "Ill be back, Lily. Itll be okay, I promise." Anna stood and hurried toward the faintly lit crack in the wall.
The dividing wall had separated from the concrete blocks that lined the back of the store, but the opening was too narrow to get through. Anna retrieved the shoe sizer and pounded fiercely on the wall until it crumbled and tore away. She easily scrambled under the fallen ceiling into the lingerie store and was elated to see a solid beam of light coming in from a quarter-sized opening at the apex of the room, about nine feet above the floor.
"Help! Help!" She screamed louder than she ever had. Looking about, she spotted an extension rod that clerks used to reach items on the higher displays. Stretching it to its full length, Anna poked it through the hole to the outside. Up and down, side to side. She needed to get someones attention.
After fifteen minutes, there was no response. She yelled again, but still no one heard. No one came.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light, and she spotted a mannequin at her feet, dressed in a red satin teddy. Anna pulled the extension rod back inside, and tied the teddy to its end. Pushing it back through the hole, she again waved it up and down, side to side, screaming for all she was worth.
Scott had been staring dejectedly at the crumpled mall as the searchers went about their work. He had asked for the fourth time to accompany them, and was told for the fourth time that he was not properly trained.
Suddenly, a movement caught his eye. "What the hell?" He squinted and walked toward the mall, gradually making out what looked like a red cloth no, it was lingerie. It was definitely lingerie and it was waving back and forth. "Hey!" he yelled to the site manager, pointing to the spectacle. He started to run toward the spot, but was stopped by security.
By this time, a crowd had gathered around Scott and people were straining to see the first sign of life at the mall in almost 40 hours. Their view was obscured as rescuers rushed to the area.
The pole suddenly stopped moving as someone grabbed it from above. Anna pulled it back through, and yelled again. "Can you hear me?"
"Were here. Were going to get you out. Are you hurt?" the rescuer shouted.
"Im all right. My friend needs help. Shes having an asthma attack. Please hurry."
"You need to stand back. Were going to make the hole bigger. Get as far away as you can. Tell us when youre ready."
Anna hurried back to the passageway. "Go ahead! Im ready."
The next 15 minutes seemed like hours, but finally, the searchers had widened the hole enough to illuminate the entire room. "Its going to be a few more minutes. Well need to use some machinery to break through this asphalt," he assured.
"My friend cant wait," she pleaded desperately. "She needs an inhaler now for her asthma. She cant breathe."
A few minutes later, a head emerged through the hole. "Where is your friend?" the emergency medical technician asked.
"Shes in the next store, back there." Anna pointed toward the hole through which she had previously climbed.
He disappeared, but soon the hole in the ceiling was filled by another man. "We want you to stay here. Its too dangerous for you to go back there. When we get the hole widened, well pull you out and send in one of the firefighters."
Anna was incredulous. What part of she cant breathe dont they understand? "Give me the goddamned medicine!" she screamed. "Now! Shes dying!"
The man retreated and the EMT reappeared. "Im going to pass it to you in a pouch. Do you know how to use it?"
"Yes," she lied. She was certain Lily would know, and she didnt want to waste another second.
Moments later, a red pouch dropped through the hole to the floor below. Anna hurried to pick it up and shouted, "Im going back. You can work on the hole. I wont be in the way." With that, she was gone.
Lily was only vaguely aware of the commotion in the next room as she teetered on the brink of unconsciousness. She felt the tall woman scoot behind her and pull her into her lap. "Ive got it," she heard, "the medicine. I need your help Lily." The EMT had assembled the inhaler for immediate use, and Anna figured out how to hold it to her friends mouth. Lily wrapped her hand around the instrument, and pumping it once into her mouth, breathed deeply. The reprieve was instant. She took three or four deep breaths, and pumped the device again.
Anna smiled widely with relief when she felt Lily sit up. "Were about to get rescued. You ready?"
"You bet," whispered the blonde.
Together, they ambled to the passageway. As they crawled into the lingerie store from underneath the fallen ceiling, they were overjoyed to see a firefighter descending a ladder, carrying blankets and first aid equipment.
"Anna!" Scott shouted as he watched the tall dark-haired woman emerge from the hole in the ground. He pushed past the security guard and broke into a run. Half a minute later, he was holding the bruised and exhausted woman to his chest, feeling a convergence of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him completely. "Thank God, Anna. Oh, thank God!" was all he could say as tears streamed down his cheeks.
Anna returned the hug, crying as well, and raised her hand to take that of her sister, who joined them seconds later. "Im okay. Its all okay," she murmured.
Their joyful reunion was interrupted by the EMT, who was directing Anna to a waiting ambulance. She turned back to the rescuers to see them bring her friend through the opening on a stretcher, a ventilator affixed to her mouth and nose. Lily was slender and blonde, with cute features that belied her toughness. A nasty gash crossed her forehead above her left eye, which was swollen and black. "Scott, write my phone number down on something. Quick!" Anna ordered.
Anna crouched low to the stretcher and took her friends hand. Lily opened her eyes to behold the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Annas sparkling blue eyes leapt out from her dirty face amidst a cascade of shoulder-length jet-black hair. She smiled down at Lily and it melted her heart. Lily reached for the mask and pulled it aside. "Thank you, Anna. I couldnt have made it without you."
"And I wouldnt have made it without you. You saved my life, Lily." Taking the paper scrap from Scott, she said, "Heres my number. Call me when youre better. Were going to be great friends, Pygmy." She stuffed the paper into Lilys skirt pocket.
"Is she going to be okay?" Anna asked anxiously as the EMT inserted a butterfly clip into Lilys forearm.
"Yeah, she looks good. Were just going to get some fluid into her as soon as possible. This is the best way to do it." His voice was reassuring. "You should probably have some too," he added.
"Will I see her again at the hospital?" she asked as she limped toward the waiting ambulance.
"Probably not," the EMT answered. "Youre going to Sinai and shes going to Central. Central is closer and they need to treat her asthma right away."
Anna turned back to watch Lilys departure. An older woman now crouched over her friend, crying and smiling, obviously joyous to have her loved one back. Anna liked knowing that Lily was loved.
"Scott, Kim? Will you meet me at Sinai?" Anna stepped up gingerly into the back of the ambulance. She had wanted Kim to ride with her, but she knew that such a request would have been hard on Scott, so she opted just to go alone.
"Of course!" they blurted, as they turned and ran for the car.
The radio crackled inside Lilys ambulance. "Change of plans, Dean. Were taking her to Valley. Centrals full."
When the ambulance arrived at Valley Hospital, the triage nurse carefully removed Lilys soiled clothing and tossed it in a trash bin. "She wont be wanting any reminders of this, I bet," she told her co-worker.
Wait, theres more! Part 5
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