||[Apr. 22nd, 2010|11:43 pm]
|||||"Stranded" - Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bono, and The Edge||]|
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for tragic subject matter.
Setting: Léogâne, Haiti—following the January 2010 earthquake.
Summary: In earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a boy watches the unfolding of an extraordinary rescue mission.
Disclaimer: Marvel and Fox create the characters that sell. Only Philippe is mine.
Notes: This story is dedicated to the victims of the Haiti earthquake, and to the rescue and relief workers who responded to their need.
Philippe Angrand had begun to wonder if the darkness would last forever.
He didn’t know how long it had been since the earthquake. No daylight penetrated the tiny space around him. He only knew that the pain in his leg, pinned above the knee by a heavy weight of concrete, was slowly turning to numbness—and that frightened him. His initial struggles had long since proved to him that he was hopelessly trapped, but sometimes he tried to move anyway, just to reawaken that pain; just to assure himself that his leg was not yet dead.
One thing that had not lasted was the cries and moans from other gaps in the rubble. The praying, pleading voices in the dark had fallen silent, one by one. Philippe’s uncle was the last, his voice reaching through the debris with a hymn of faith and comfort, until finally it had faded away like all the others… leaving Philippe alone.
Now Philippe also waited to fade away; and in the face of that, his pain and hunger and thirst seemed strangely unimportant. It would fade, too. It would drift far away from this crushing darkness, and take him with it—taking him where his parents and grandmother years ago, and now his uncle, had gone.
That was the only thing left to look forward to… until Philippe began to hear the voices.
At first they seemed to come faintly from another world altogether, somewhere out beyond the tomb of shattered concrete. Philippe thought he must have only slipped into a doze and dreamed them. Still, just in case, he strained to listen.
And there they were: muffled exchanges of words, heard as distantly as the dead might hear the living above their graves, but very real. They were moving, coming nearer, and they mingled with the grind and scrape of debris as it was shifted aside. Sometimes they took on the pitch of a shout, and Philippe realized they were calling out for a response from the ruins.
He wanted to answer them. He tried to answer them—but he could force no sound from his parched throat and dust-choked lungs. His hands dug for something hard to tap a signal with, but he found no tool, no fragment of concrete small enough to pry loose.
An emptiness spilled out of his heart and filled him. They would pass by without ever knowing he was here, and he would be alone once more, to wait for that final light shining the way out of the darkness.
“Hey… I smell somebody alive over here!”
The words were faint but distinct, and they were followed by a rough scrabbling on the debris, above Philippe and to his left. It seemed to stop almost directly over his head, and the voice came again, more clearly: “Où êtes-vous?”
Philippe drew all the breath his ragged lungs could hold, and tried one more time to cry out. The sound emerged only as a faint whimper—but it was enough.
“Here, come on!” The man was calling to the other voices who were with him. More sounds of movement followed, now filled with a sense of quickness and urgency: the dragging and crashing of heavy slabs, the clang of metal chipping against concrete.
They were coming.
Philippe’s body was too dry for tears, but his heart skipped a beat. He listened with soaring hope to the activity above him, straining to detect any glimmer of sunlight in the blackness.
When the light came, only moments later, it was sudden and blinding; half of the collapsed wall above him seemed to be ripped away at once, forcing him to shield his eyes with his arm. He blinked furiously, eager to see the faces of his rescuers as they continued their labor. That newly carved hole was several feet above him, and there was still barely room for a man to squeeze through the lower layers of debris. They could not yet reach the crevice where he was wedged.
Just as his eyes had begun to adjust, the light was nearly cut off by a dark shape sliding down through the wreckage in front of him, and then he was looking at a man from the chest down—a man so close, Philippe could almost reach out and touch his boots. He was backlit by the late-day sun, and his face was hidden by the ledge that hung over Philippe, but something like a knife seemed to flash in his hand. He began to hack at the concrete with all his strength, scattering sparks from the friction.
To Philippe, it seemed that a mere knife would surely break against such an obstacle… but after a few minutes, it was the concrete that broke, cracking and crumbling into heavy chunks. The rubble went crashing down into a deeper part of the hole beyond Philippe, and suddenly, blue sky opened up beyond the ledge—as did a clear view of the rescuer.
It was not one of Philippe’s own countrymen, but a white man who bent to look down at him. He was a powerful figure, with dust streaking his clothes and face and the unruly ridges of his brown hair, and he didn’t have a knife clutched in his hand after all…
He had three knives, each of them rooted in the flesh between his fingers, as straight and sharp and shining as if they had never even touched the unyielding concrete.
The blades suddenly vanished into his hands as if they had never been there. Perhaps he meant to hide them from Philippe’s sight, but that one glimpse was confirmed by the marks around the edge of the hole: deep gouges arranged precisely in groups of three.
Philippe discovered he had the strength for another whimper then.
The knife man frowned and hesitated; then he bent down, wedging himself halfway into the space under the ledge. One hand went to a pouch at his side, and he took out a bottle of water. He unscrewed the cap, and lowered it to Philippe’s lips.
The knives were instantly forgotten, and Philippe gulped the liquid eagerly… until something even more frightening suddenly loomed over the top of the ledge.
The face was at least somewhat human, but it was blue—a vivid color just a little darker than the sky beyond, framed by a thick lion’s-mane of hair in an even deeper shade. A huge arm covered in fur of the same color reached down, clawed fingers seizing Knife Man’s wrist to pull back the water bottle.
“That’s enough now. If his body has already started feeding on itself, he has to be rehydrated slowly.”
Knife Man looked frustrated at that, but he obeyed. He splashed a little water on Philippe’s face, to wash away some of the caked-on dust; then he put the bottle away.
He spoke carefully in uncertain French. “Êtes-vous—blessé?”
Still frightened and exhausted, Philippe answered only by glancing down toward his leg, swallowed up in the dark recesses of the crevice.
“Okay.” Twisting awkwardly onto his left side, Knife Man slid his right hand past Philippe’s hip, to explore the nature of the entrapment. The hand that hid such an awful secret was now astonishingly gentle, as it probed the rubble pressing in on the boy’s lower thigh.
“Leg’s pinned. Could be broken,” he tersely informed the blue monster up above. Then he eased himself out of the crevice, and stood straight to confer with Monster. “Think Kitty can get him out of there?”
“I wouldn’t advise that.” Monster made a fanged grimace and looked down critically at Philippe, adjusting the spectacles that were perched incomprehensibly on his nose. “There is some small amount of physical shock involved when Kitty phases someone with her. Not knowing what further injuries this boy may have, I don’t think it would be healthy to expose him to that stress.” He gave Knife Man a rather sympathetic look. “No, I’m afraid this has to be done the hard way.”
Knife Man stared back soberly at Monster for a moment—somehow looking uncertain and awkward, rather than dismayed or daunted. Then he crouched down to look Philippe in the eyes.
“We’re gonna get you out of here,” he said firmly in English. He appeared to grapple with his French for a moment, and concluded at last in a much more gentle voice, “N’ayez pas peur.”
Slowly, Philippe blinked his understanding. Whoever or whatever these strange people were, he could hear the goodwill in their voices. They weren’t here to hurt him, but to help him, and that was all that mattered.
With a rather reluctant nod, Knife Man stood up, and the knives came out again—this time out of both hands. He began chipping away once more at the rubble that hung over Philippe, and from above came the sound of heavy debris being moved, as Monster also joined the effort.
After a few minutes, a third figure came crunching over the wreckage: another white man, young and slim, with strange-looking red sunglasses that wrapped around his eyes. Balancing carefully at the top of the debris, he crouched to look down at Philippe, and smiled only faintly before turning to Knife Man and Monster.
“We haven’t found anybody else. Kitty… needed to stop, for a few minutes. How can I help here?”
“You can stay outta the way,” Knife Man replied—and somehow he managed to make the biting words sound not really harsh or hostile at all, as if it was part of some old private joke between them. There was a tired humor in his voice, somewhere under the grimness of the situation.
“It’s too precarious for you to blast any of this rock, but you can get down there and watch the boy,” Monster’s voice replied more earnestly. He let out a grunt of effort that was more of a growl, and a heavy weight crashed aside before he went on, “Monitor his condition, and keep him calm. The slab that has him pinned may shift and cause him more pain before we’re done—and if the crush trauma is keeping him from bleeding out through any open wounds, this could get ugly.”
Sunglasses accepted the suggestion. He slipped down into the hole, squirming past Knife Man’s knees to tuck himself in close to Philippe, and smiled perfect teeth at the boy. “Hey, kiddo… du courage.”
So the work went on… and gradually, the terrible weight pressing on Philippe’s leg began to lighten. Monster was right, for as they got down to the last few layers of rubble, it did slip by a few inches and bite into him even harder—but he stifled his outcry to a sharp whine of pain, and clutched tightly at Sunglasses’ hand. The young man talked to him soothingly, mostly in English, and partly in simple French phrases that he must have learned hurriedly from a book. Either way, the words were unimportant; it was his tone that conveyed the comfort.
None of them had realized yet that Philippe understood much of their English, but he was rather glad of that. Without knowing, they said things to each other that they might otherwise have kept from him.
He wondered where they came from. They were foreigners, but they were just as obviously not normal, at least in the world Philippe knew. A few times in his life, he had heard whispers about someone who was strange like them, who could do unnatural things… but those whispers were always full of fear and suggestions of voodoo, and bad things happened to those so accused. Philippe wondered why it should be, if they could do the good these strangers were doing.
Knife Man was tireless, chopping and scraping at cement blocks and wooden beams with his knives that never dulled. His face was hard, and there was a kind of harshness in the way he moved, as if he had an anger deep down that helped fuel him. Perhaps he was angry at the earth for shaking people’s houses to the ground—but it seemed a little more than that. Philippe almost thought that if he didn’t have the debris to attack, the anger might have made him hurt someone… and yet there was a kindness in the anger too, in a way Philippe felt but could not explain.
He didn’t know whether minutes or hours passed.
By the time the strangers reached the fallen wall that lay directly on Philippe’s leg, the sky was darkening with dusk. Sunglasses had wedged a powerful flashlight into the rubble to light their work. In spite of the fading sun, his eyes were still covered by their scarlet shades, but Philippe could feel the hidden gaze that watched him intently.
At last, very suddenly, the end of it came: Knife Man struck a few more times at the gouges he had dug in the wall, and there was a crunching, cracking sound as the concrete split in two. Then he and Monster were pushing and pulling at the separate halves, raising them just enough for Sunglasses to seize Philippe under the arms and pull him away. The young man all but fell backward with Philippe in his grasp, and the pieces of the wall crashed back down as Knife Man and Monster let them go.
Philippe was free.
Almost before he could understand that fact, Knife Man sprang down beside Sunglasses, to pick Philippe up and hand him off to Monster. In turn, shaggy blue arms transferred him to a broad, flat slab at the top of the rubble, and there Monster began to look at him and handle his limbs the way a doctor would—being careful to keep sharp claw-tips from pricking him. There was pain when he gently pressed on Philippe’s leg, but he looked pleased by whatever it was his big, rough hands were telling him.
“We won’t be certain until we see an X-ray, but I don’t think there’s a fracture, and these lacerations will be alright as long as we can stave off infection.” He opened a first-aid case Sunglasses passed to him, and for a few minutes, he busied himself taking things from it and using them on Philippe’s leg. Now and then he did something that hurt a little more, but it was alright now, because he was only trying to make it better.
When Monster was finished, he carefully turned his patient back over to Knife Man, who had been prowling restlessly amidst the wreckage. Monster packed up the first-aid case, and Sunglasses shone his light forward, leading the way down to what had been the street where Philippe lived.
Up and down that street, the lights of homes that should have been lit in the twilight were not. There was only darkness again… but if Philippe squinted, he could see the jagged shapes of the dusty heaps those houses had become.
He didn’t want to see, and looked away.
The three men gingerly made their way down across the rubble to solid ground, and a few paces farther on, the flashlight cast a sharp reflection off the side of a big black pickup truck. A tawny-haired white girl, not so much older than Philippe, was sitting on a cinderblock beside it. When she saw them coming, she stood up quickly, scrubbing the back of her hand across puffy, reddened eyes.
“Hey. You okay?” Sunglasses asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, I’m… I’m alright now.” The girl sniffled and shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry. I just—”
“I know.” Sunglasses pulled her into a brief, tight hug. Then he leaned back and put his hand under her chin, lifting her head to study her tear-streaked face. “You know you didn’t have to come.”
The girl sniffed again, and managed a weak, sad smile. “Yeah… I did.”
She was a brave girl, and that clearly pleased Sunglasses. He squeezed her shoulder again, returning a reassuring smile of his own.
The pair were cut off from Philippe’s view then, as Knife Man laid him in the back of the pickup truck. Monster clambered up to join him, to fuss some more with the temporary bandages on his leg. The others exchanged a few words, and then Brave Girl climbed up as well, smiling thinly at Philippe as she settled next to him. Finally Knife Man and Sunglasses got into the cab, and the engine roared to life.
The journey they made was bumpy and slow. Laying down in the truck bed, Philippe could see little; only ghostly images fading behind them in the red glow of the taillights. The rubble-strewn road trailing out in their wake, sometimes almost completely choked off by a flattened pile that had been a building. Here and there, some of Philippe’s people, standing in small groups or wandering past with haunted eyes… or simply lying still beside the road, too few of them covered by a sheet or a piece of cardboard.
Brave Girl was crying again, and trying to hide it; and Monster gallantly pretended not to notice.
It was perhaps twenty minutes or half an hour before the truck finally stopped. Philippe’s rescuers climbed out of the cab and down from the bed of the truck, and Monster carefully lifted the boy in his arms. Then Philippe could see that they were in a large open field—and next to them was a vast white tent from which light glowed brightly. Shadows of busy activity moved against the canvas, and several voices were talking.
Philippe was carried into the cool brightness of the tent, and his eyes widened at the sight of rows upon rows of beds. Nearly all of them were occupied by victims of the earthquake, Philippe’s own people; needles in arms, bodies bandaged, sheets sagging too often over places where limbs should have been. Some slept, and some were weeping, but there was a general quiet among them as they simply sought rest.
A red-haired woman hurried up to Monster and led him over to one of the last empty beds, asking questions about Philippe’s condition. When she stretched out her hand, the sheets pulled back by themselves, allowing Monster to lay Philippe down. Gauze and scissors and other things came floating over as she examined him for herself, and together they busied themselves redressing his wounds and putting a tube in his arm. It hurt a little, and to distract himself, Philippe studied the other strangers tending to his countrymen.
There was another man who was blue—an even more midnight color than Monster, with strange marks on his skin and bright yellow eyes, and a long tail that twitched gently by itself. He held a string of rosary beads in his misshapen hands, and prayed with an old woman.
There was a girl with gloved hands and white-streaked hair, feeding a baby from a bottle and singing a soft lullaby. A blond boy about her age was beside her; he squeezed her shoulder and whispered something, and moved off to the rear of the tent. Philippe noticed for the first time that a nearly-transparent wall was there—but it wasn’t glass, because it glistened wetly, and the ground at its base was dark with dampness. It was ice, and more of it than Philippe had ever seen before. That explained why the air in the tent was so cool. The blond boy placed his hands on it, and a cloud of misty vapor billowed out from the wall as it suddenly grew, replenishing what had melted.
Monster and the red-haired woman had finished with Philippe. In French they asked him questions about his name and his family, and he finally spoke, barely murmuring the answers. Monster wrote it all down, and Redhead gave Philippe a little stuffed dog to keep him company. Then the pair of unusual doctors moved off, to look after other, more badly wounded patients.
Philippe absently petted the stuffed animal, and lay watching his benefactors in continued wonder.
After a little while, he heard the rumble of another engine pulling to a halt outside, and two new strangers came in. The first was a woman, dark-skinned like Philippe’s people, but with beautiful white hair. She was followed by a towering, muscular teenager; he looked around, saw Brave Girl playing with a toddler, and went over to join her.
“We brought up another ten barrels of water,” White Hair announced, massaging the small of her back and looking tired. The blue man with the rosary noticed, and moved to her side with gentle concern.
Monster gave the woman a passing smile. “Evaporating fresh water from seawater—one of the more creative uses of your talents.”
“I only wish we could do so much more…” White Hair sank onto a chair Blue Man had guided her to. For a moment, Philippe thought she might begin to cry, but she only shook her head and sighed.
“We all wish that,” Blue Man said softly. He rested his strange hand on her shoulder, and she clasped it gratefully.
A moment later, the tent flap was pushed open, to reveal Knife Man standing in the doorway. He surveyed the group thoughtfully, and spoke in a quiet, hard voice.
“I’m going out again.”
Redhead gave him a doubtful look. “You’ve barely stopped for half an hour straight in the last two days. Even you need rest.”
“I’m fine,” Knife Man answered brusquely, and half-shrugged. “If anybody’s coming with me, be outside by the time I get the truck fueled up.”
He disappeared from the doorway, and the strange Good Samaritans looked around solemnly at one another.
Monster was the first to go, snatching up a fresh package of first-aid supplies along the way. Sunglasses gave Redhead a hasty kiss, and went after him. White Hair and Blue Man exchanged a look, and followed. Brave Girl hesitated… and then she ran after them, too.
They would bring back alive even more of Philippe’s people. He was sure of that.
Hugging the stuffed dog against his chest, Philippe closed his eyes, and said a silent prayer for them.
© 2010 Jordanna Morgan