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Cape DisappointmentA Thomas Black Thriller
By Earl Emerson
Ballantine BooksCopyright © 2010 Earl Emerson
All right reserved.
WHAT I REMEMBERED MOST was the janitor’s plastic helmet bouncing between the open raf ters like a Ping- Pong ball, that and chunks of metal whirring past my ears. I should have dodged the shrapnel, but all I did was stand and watch the flotsam fall out of the raf ters and land all around me. Fortunately, the gym had emptied out minutes earlier, or the explosion would have killed several hundred people instead of a handful of unfortunates.
Pieces of the podium and stage, scraps from the bleachers, and even parts of the bomb itself had flown outward in all directions. Some of it bounced off the walls, some struck bystanders like myself, and the rest dropped out of the raf - ters like forgotten props in a school play. Most of the janitor, who’d been virtually on top of the blast, landed thirty feet from me. We were told the explosion, although executed with a relatively unsophisticated device, had blown out all the high windows in the gym and spewed glass onto roofs a block away.
I remember an amazing amount of dust in the air. Nearly all the inside lighting had been shattered by flying debris or obscured by clouds of dust. I remember therelative quiet immediately afterward, too. I was dazed. I couldn’t have told you what planet I was on, much less the name of the school gymnasium. Or what I was doing besides bleeding. What they don’t tell you about a bombing is that the event itself is probably the least memorable chapter in the book, that 99.9 percent of the story concerns the aftermath.
I found myself standing against a wall, unable to move. With each inhalation, my abdomen throbbed. When I looked down, I found a long metal rod jutting out of my belly, nailing me to the wall, twelve inches of it protruding from my shirt like one of those fake arrows Steve Martin used to wear on his head.
As the bomb went off, hundreds of metal chairs were thrown across the room, knocking people down like bowling pins and piling debris and bodies— some living, some not— at the end of the gym. Across the room a woman whose sweater and shoes were blown off was on her knees, blood dribbling down her face. I was close enough to the center of the blast that I must have had other injuries, lots of them, but the spike protruding from my belly was all I could think about. Whether or not I was going to die against the wall was anybody’s guess.
You read about bombings every day— in Baghdad, or Tel Aviv, or Pakistan, or some other place you’ve never been— and if you’re intelligent and engaged and empathetic, you wonder what it might be like to be involved in one of those attacks, or to have a loved one involved, but the truth is that for most of us, our eyes glaze over before we flip the page or turn the channel, for bombings simply do not happen in the United States. At least, not anywhere nearby.
Some people walked around in a daze, including several bloodied individuals in front of me, but I stood like a guard at the palace, knowing there was nothing else I could do. I didn’t recall hearing any noise when the bomb went off. All I knew was that one second I was talking on my cellphone and the next I was nailed to the wall. Oddly, it didn’t hurt as much as one might suppose, though that might be what all people in my circumstances told themselves, knowing they had no choice but to brave it.
I’D BEEN WALKING across the gymnasium near the west bleachers trying to improve my reception at the moment the blast erupted. If it hadn’t been for the call, I would have been even closer than the unfortunate janitor. The bleachers around the sides of the gym had been pulled out to help seat the crowd, which had turned out to be meager. In those days, that was all Maddox could draw, a hundred or so of the faithful and some of the law- and- order crowd— after all, he was an ex–police officer. I’d listened to the speech from the wings, and after it was over and the main body of the crowd filed out, had gone back inside for reasons it took some time to recall. Had I suspected a bomb? It certainly would have been part of my job assignment to watch for any suspicious activity. If so, why hadn’t I discovered it before the speech, when it might have done some good? And, if I had suspected, what tipped me off? I couldn’t remember.
In the weeks after the explosion, as the ATF investigation progressed, people would learn that the bomb had been placed directly under the podium. They would speculate that had Maddox, the speaker for the eve ning, been on the podium when it went off, he would have been blown into parts so small the medical examiner never would have been able to reconstruct him. As it was, nobody was vaporized, although the janitor came close. Later, I saw his picture in Newsweek among the photos of the dead. He was young, twenty- three, and lived at home with his parents. He had a girlfriend and one child with her whom he’d been doing his best to support. His life had hardly begun. Even weeks later, it was hard to fathom the enormity of the tragedy for his relatives and those of the others who died.
As the dust settled I began to feel more physical symptoms. My left eye was swollen, my vision blurry, and the fingers of my right hand were not functioning properly. My back hurt like hell. After a while, I realized I could barely hear anything— just a constant, low- level background ringing in my ears. I was too dazed to pick up on it just then, but there was the distinctive smell of recently detonated explosives, the iron tang of blood, and the smell of human entrails, as well as the overpowering odor of construction dust. Inexplicably, the worst part during those minutes after the blast was the lack of human voices. I could see people’s mouths moving but could hear no words. Nearby a man on his back had been impaled by two wooden shards. There were maybe twelve or fifteen people within sight of my position, some prone, some on their hands and knees, one couple clinging to each other and weaving around like drunks in an alley. For some idiotic reason— the same reason you always do inane things that count for nothing during an emergency—I glanced around for my cellphone. It was on the floor next to a woman lying in a pile of twisted, metal chairs. I wanted to ask her to slide the phone over to me, but my vocal cords wouldn’t respond. Even if she could slide it over, I wouldn’t have been able to pick it up, nailed to the wall as I was. You’d think I would have had more important things to do than yak on my phone, but I suddenly became obsessed with finishing that last call, even though I couldn’t remember who I’d been speaking to. As I stared at the woman next to my cellphone, it occurred to me that she hadn’t moved an inch, that she wasn’t breathing. “Ma’am,” I said. “Ma’am, are you okay?”
My words sounded hollow and garbled, as if I were talking underwater. It took a long time to realize I was talking to a corpse. Thirty yards away, a group of onlookers appeared in the doorway, led by a firefighter in a white helmet speaking through a megaphone. It didn’t seem possible that enough time had passed for the fire department to show up. Except for the ringing in my ears and my own muffled words, the fire chief’s megaphone voice was the first sound I heard after the bomb.
“Will everyone who can get up and walk out, please do so.” After about a minute, when only one or two of the twenty or so victims had begun to move toward the door, he added, “We have received information that there’s a second explosive device in the gym. I repeat. We have word there’s a second device that could go off at any minute. At this time we cannot allow our personnel to access this site. Anybody who is ambulatory should get out now. If you have the capability, try to help someone else out.”
After his second statement, five men and one woman straggled to the doorway. Three or four others followed at a slower pace, some limping, a man hopping on one foot. A woman got up off the floor where she’d been caught in a tangle of chairs, took two steps and fell, then stood back up, spent a moment getting her bearings, and launched off in a lurching line not much straighter than a bumblebee’s flight. I wished I could help her, but then, who would help me? For some time I’d been feeling something wet in my right shoe, and when I looked down I saw a puddle of blood squishing through the laces like something in a horror flick. My sock was warm with it. I was beginning to feel light- headed. Heaven only knew what would happen if I fainted on this steel rod. I might rip it out of the wall or I might just hang.
After the walking wounded evacuated the gym, I could see four prone bodies, one of whom was calling for help. From the doorway, the fireman motioned for me to walk over to him. I wanted to explain why I couldn’t, but I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to yell. I kept trying to remember what organs were on my wounded side, so that I might discern what the rod, which was about a quarter of an inch in diameter, might have penetrated. The wound was bleeding profusely now, my shirt and the front thigh area of my jeans sopping with it. I could barely keep awake. It was weird that my survival was dependent on a whim of physics, that if the rod had been four inches higher and a little more to the center, I would be dead. It was strange and a bit horrifying to realize I’d missed a coffin by so little. Not that I was out of the woods. Nor anywhere close.
One of the doorways led outside, and it was through this door that I saw Maddox and a redheaded woman, along with several others I recognized from the election campaign— though if you’d asked me to put a name to any of them I wouldn’t have been able to. My brain was scrambled. I did notice Maddox looked very senatorial in his tidy blue suit and slicked- back silver hair. As I watched them, he and the others were ushered farther into the darkness by police officers and firemen. From time to time when the doorway emptied, I could see them out in the darkness.
It was only when I saw the looks on the anonymous faces that appeared now and then in the doorway that it occurred to me how dire was my predicament. I was impaled and I was slowly bleeding out and there was another bomb about to go off. Anybody who came in would be risking his own life. Nobody was coming to rescue me.
Excerpted from Cape Disappointment by Earl Emerson Copyright © 2010 by Earl Emerson. Excerpted by permission.
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