They had never felt the fall, never sensed their descent.
They had heard only a deafening rumble.
And then there was darkness—only darkness and crushing weight.
by David A. Ross
It was not yet light as Terry Baker slid into the red leather seat of his vintage Porche and turned the key in the ignition switch. Uncharacteristically, the motor groaned then stuttered. He pumped the accelerator pedal a half-dozen times and tried again to turn the engine over, and this time, though sluggish at first, it roared to life. His mechanic, Werner, had been urging him to bring the car in for service, but he’d put off the maintenance call because he’d been incredibly busy at work. Now the car was giving him fair warning. The drive from Marin County into the center of San Francisco usually took about forty minutes, and Terry often left his house early to get a head start on the day’s work. Besides, he was quite fond of speeding his Porche along Marin County’s traffic-free, winding roads as daylight broke upon the eastern horizon. One of life’s small pleasures in a world where his fast-paced business activities often left him oblivious even to the time of day. His high profile real estate development company provided him a more than generous living—a six-figure income, numerous real estate holdings, including a one-and-a-half-million-dollar house in Marin, a top-of-the-line Mercedes and his beloved Porche 911—but free time was certainly not included as a perk. His workdays often began and ended in darkness. Pulling out of his driveway and heading for the highway, Terry noticed that the Porche’s headlights shone dimmer than usual. He dropped the transmission into neutral and revved the engine. The lights shone brighter as the rpm’s increased. Weak battery, he thought to himself, and he determined to telephone Werner as soon as the mechanic’s shop opened for business. Werner would send a caddy to pick up the car—that was the usual procedure—and the necessary maintenance would be performed as Terry passed the day thirty stories high in the chrome-and-glass Globespan Tower, speculating, negotiating contracts, doing deals. As he approached the city, the Golden Gate Bridge was enveloped in fog, and the Porche’s weak headlights today made driving a bit more difficult. No doubt the fog would burn away by mid-morning; the weather forecast on the radio was predicting a bright afternoon. Not that he was likely to be free to enjoy a walk by the wharf or through Golden Gate Park, but just maybe he might be able to sneak off for an hour or two with Nicole, his assistant, for a mid-afternoon Cappuccino. Though married ten years, and with two children, he’d lately taken every opportunity to spend time alone with the stunning girl he’d hired as his personal assistant nine months ago. Nicole was right out of college, big on brains, but short on experience, and certainly not hard on the eyes—porcelain skin, flaming red hair, big green inquisitive eyes, and a knockout figure. He was teaching her the business blow by blow, so to speak. But their relationship had quickly moved beyond the realm of business to a quite casual friendship. They talked easily of personal matters. They joked, teased, flirted. Sometimes they touched one another. He’d given her two pay increases in the past six months and proposed a profit sharing plan for her as well. Of course he’d entertained a sexual fantasy or two, portraying Nicole in the starring role, though so far he’d restrained himself from any obvious advance. These days, sexual harassment laws being what they were, one could not be too careful. Though Terry seriously doubted that Nicole was hypersensitive about such issues. Her nature was overwhelmingly friendly. Reaching the Globespan Tower, Terry pulled into the underground garage and parked the Porche in his reserved parking stall. He locked the car door then took the elevator to the thirtieth floor. Entering the suite where his company’s offices were located, he found Nicole already at her desk. Dressed in a form-fitting, sleeveless top with a low-cut neckline and a casual summer skirt, she was stunning as usual. The headphones from her Walkman covered her delicate ears, and in her hand she held a cell phone, which she was reprogramming. On her desk was a paper cup from Starbucks. “Late again,” she remarked playfully to her boss. “What are you doing here so early?” he asked. “What?” she said as she pulled off the headphones. “I said, what are you doing here so early?” “Brownie points,” she said. “Like you really need to impress the boss.” “Do you ever wake up really early? Of course you wake up early everyday. But, I mean, like you just know that it’s going to be a special day?” “Everyday is a special day. Or so I’ve been told.” “I don’t know what it is, but I’m full of energy today.” “Good! We’ve got a ton of work in front of us.” “I don’t mind that,” she said. “I like the work.” “Guess I hired the right assistant,” he said. She took a sip of her coffee. “What did you do last night? Anything interesting?” “Sandy and I had some friends over for dinner. Mark and Kathy Kramer. Nothing that special—just a pasta dinner—Sandy’s on a Mediterranean cooking kick. But we all wound up in the hot tub, drinking champagne. Turned into a late night.” “Was everybody naked?” Nicole wanted to know. “I only wish,” said Terry. “Kathy Kramer’s got a body that brings married men to tears. I had a woody all night long.” “You poor, poor man! And where was Sandy? Not willing to ease your pain?” “Sound asleep,” he lamented. “That’s married life for you.” “Must be nice to have a hot tub,” Nicole remarked. “Pain in the ass to maintain it,” he said as he shuffled through some papers scattered upon her desk. “The motor’s always running. Sucks energy. Since deregulation, I pay more to PG&E every month than I put into my kids’ college fund.” “Still couldn’t be that much of a burden,” she said in passing. “The hot tub, I mean. Not the kids.”
Terry said, “I had some trouble starting the Porche this morning. I think the battery is going dead. I have to call Werner this morning and have him send somebody over to pick up the car.”
“Funny thing about the battery,” said Nicole. “Why?” “I was just trying to reprogram my cell phone, and the battery is low. Strange because I just replaced it. Yesterday, I think. Or maybe the day before.” “Around here, one day runs into another,” he said. “Tell me about it… I think I’ve got a spare battery somewhere in my desk. Somewhere… Shit, I can’t find anything!” Terry steered the conversation back to personal matters. “What about you? What’d you do last night?” he asked. “Did you have a hot date?” “Ha! I’m afraid it was just me and Tommy and the TV.” “Tommy?” “My cat,” she replied. “He’s neutered.” “Loyal company,” said Terry. “Unthreatening, as well.” “In the absence of a more desirable companion, he’ll do.” “Sweetheart, you could have the pick of the litter. Anyone you want.” “If it were only so,” she said. By mid-morning the office was running full speed; phones were ringing, parcels were being delivered, and meetings were underway. Terry spent the first hour of his day with his longtime employee and colleague, Ralph Smithers. Together they poured over the financing of a new shopping mall in Daly City. The super mall was Ralph’s baby, start to finish, and Terry’s only involvement was procuring financial backing for the project. So the two men talked numbers, boring as it was. And it had occurred to Terry, possibly for the first time in the ten years that Ralph had worked for him, that he knew almost nothing about the man’s personal life other than the fact that he owned a house in Cupertino. When it came to business, Ralph was bright and reliable, and he worked like a dog. No doubt he could have walked out on Terry countless times to start his own firm, but he’d remained through thick and thin. Perhaps race was the issue; Ralph was black. Maybe he thought it better to be a strong player in a well-established ‘white’ firm than to try his luck in an arena where prejudice still showed up from time to time.
Anyway, Ralph made good money. And he never complained. He was always willing to go the extra mile. Terry could have asked nothing more from a vital employee.
At ten o’clock, Terry met with Jenny Kieffer, a features reporter with KTIT TV news. She had requested an interview to preview the new mall in Daly City, and Terry was certainly not averse to free publicity for his firm. Jenny had brought a cameraman with her, and Terry invited Nicole to sit in on the interview too, and in fact to tape record it. Just to ensure accuracy in the final cut. But when they finally got around to shooting the interview, they were interrupted even before they’d started in earnest by ‘technical difficulties.’ “The power seems to have gone dead,” said the cameraman. “Sorry, but I’m going to have to go down to my truck to get a fresh battery pack.” “Sorry to take up more of your time, Mr. Baker,” said the well-heeled and popular reporter, a bit exasperated with the technician. “We’ll endure,” said Terry. “Would you like a cup of coffee while we wait?” “Thank you. That would be nice.” “I’ll get it,” said Nicole. As she reached the door, Terry called out to her, “Did Werner send a caddy to pick up my car yet?” “Don’t know,” said Nicole. “I’ll check on it.” Nicole had brought the coffee, but still the cameraman had not returned with a fresh battery pack. Miss Kieffer apologized again for the delay. “I don’t know what’s keeping him,” she said. “No need to apologize,” said Terry. “We’re thirty floors up. Maybe he had to wait for an elevator. Sometimes they’re exasperatingly slow.” “I know you’re a very busy man, Mr. Baker.” “Please,” he said, “no need to apologize. After the morning I’ve had, this is a rather welcome break.” He raised his cup to take a sip of his coffee, but before the cup reached his mouth, the building shook. He spilled the coffee all over the front of his suit. “Shit!” he exclaimed as he tried to stand. But he could not stand. He fell to his knees as the skyscraper rocked a second time. “What in the name of God is that?” the reporter shrieked. She turned to Nicole, who had only the most puzzled look on her face. “Earthquake?” Terry speculated as he got to his feet. The two women stood as well. “What should we do?” said Nicole. “What if it was a bomb?” said Miss Kieffer. “I have to call my editor immediately.” She reached into her purse to find her mobile phone. But the phone was not there. “Just stay here,” Terry instructed the two women. “I’ll try to find out what’s going on.” He moved toward the door, but before he reached the other side of the room the building shook again. A moment later a loud explosion was heard. “Oh, my God!” cried the reporter. “We’ve got to get out of here!” Terry did not panic, but he realized that Jenny Kieffer was right. They should try to leave the building at once. “Come with me.” he said. “We’ll leave by the fire escape.” “Why not the elevator?” said Kieffer. “That’s the last place I’d want to be trapped,” said Terry. “But we’re thirty floors up!” “Thankfully we’re going down, not up!” said Terry. As they moved through the outer office toward the corridor, Nicole grabbed her cell phone and stuffed it into her purse. At the door they were joined by Ralph Smithers, who was just as confused and concerned as they were. “It must have been an earthquake,” said Terry to Ralph. “But the building rocked three times,” said Jenny Kieffer. “Maybe it was an aftershock.” “Aftershocks don’t come that quickly,” said Ralph. “There was an explosion,” said Nicole. “I just know it was a bomb.” “Whatever it was,” said Terry, leading the retreat, “let’s just keep moving.” Nicole followed Terry, Jenny Kieffer followed Nicole, and Ralph Smithers brought up the rear. As they reached the stairwell, it was obvious that others in the building had felt the shock wave and heard an explosion, and likewise had decided to get out of the building as quickly as possible via the fire escape. As Terry threw open the door he called out, “Anybody know what happened?” “It was a bomb!” one woman shrieked. “Terrorists!” yelled another man. “They’re going to kill us all!” “Nobody panic!” commanded a voice within the file of evacuees. “Just keep moving. Everybody keep moving!” “We’re all going to die!” screamed the first woman. “We’re not going to die! Anybody got a cell phone?” “I have one!” proclaimed Nicole. “Call somebody!” came the command. “Who should I call?” “How the hell should I know?” Nicole fumbled through her purse, trying to find her phone, as the line moved down flight after flight like a long caterpillar. And though she had put the phone into her purse just as they’d left the office, now she could not seem to find it. And it was too difficult anyway to rummage through her purse as they moved down the stairs at a rapid pace, so she closed her bag and flung it over her shoulder. What good would it do anyway to call someone? They simply had to make it out of the building; that was priority one! Suddenly the lights went out and the stairwell went black. Women screamed and men gasped. Somebody slipped on a stair, and those walking ahead fell like a row of dominoes. “Hang on!” called a voice. “Everybody hang on!” A moment later the emergency lights came on, apparently activated automatically when the main power source had failed. “Thank God!” somebody sighed. The fallen were tended to as best as possible under the circumstances. Nobody seemed crucially injured—scraped knees and elbows, a bloodied lip, a contusion or two. The line snaked forward, more cautiously than before, and Terry noticed that Ralph had somehow disappeared within the throng. “Smithers! You still with us?” he called out. But there was no response. Nicole clung to Terry’s shirttail with the tenacity of a bulldog; and Jenny Kieffer had fallen slightly behind, though she was still discernible in the crowd. The momentum of the mass exodus moved along many legs that might otherwise have been frozen with fear. As they reached the eleventh floor, another tremor rocked the building—this one the strongest yet! The file of escapees buckled like a whip, and bodies were thrown violently over one another. Nicole lost her grip on Terry’s shirttail—or at least she thought she had. Terry was no longer in sight, though a piece of material torn from his shirt remained in her vice-grip fingers. “Terry!” she called. “Where are you?” No answer came as the floor beneath them suddenly collapsed. They never felt the fall, never sensed their descent. They had heard only a deafening rumble. And then there was darkness—only darkness and crushing weight. Miraculously uninjured, Terry Baker opened his eyes and thought to himself: I must be in hell.
Nicole came to consciousness slowly, feeling first an excruciating pain in her legs, and then her fractured clavicle. Blood ran down her forehead, though for some time she did not realize that half her hair had been torn from her scalp.
Each was trapped inside an air pocket defined on all sides by debris. Mangled steel, fractured concrete. And dust. It was impossible to see, and it was difficult to breath. Neither Ralph Smithers nor Jenny Kieffer had survived the catastrophe. How strange, the things one thought about in the midst of disaster. Terry envisioned his car and felt happy that it had not been parked in the underground garage at the time of the building’s collapse. And he thought about his hot tub: If an earthquake had occurred, he hoped the concrete had not cracked. And what about the foundation of his house? “Terry? Where are you?” The voice he heard calling him sounded feeble, or distant—Nicole’s voice—a trapped kitten. “Where are you, Nicole?” he called. What a stupid question, he thought to himself. “I’m over here. Where are you?” “I’m over here. Are you hurt?” “Terry?” “Nicole, are you injured?” “I can’t move my legs?” “I’m trapped by debris. I don’t think I can reach you.” “I think my head is bleeding, Terry.” “Hold on, Nicole.” “It’s hard to breathe in here.” “Hold on! I’m sure that help is on the way.” “What happened, Terry?” “The building collapsed.” “Where are the others?” “I don’t know.” “There must be other people alive down here,” Nicole surmised. Terry called out as loudly as he could: “Can anybody hear me? Is anyone here?” “I’m here, Terry,” called Nicole. “I know you’re here, baby. Just hold on. I’m sure that help is on the way.” “Terry?” “What, Nicole?” “I have my cell phone.” “You do?” “At least I had it… In my purse… Where’s my purse?” “Do you have your purse, Nicole?” “I had it with me. It must be here somewhere.” “Find it, Nicole! You must find your purse!” “I’m looking, Terry. It’s dark here. I can barely see. And it’s difficult to move.” “Nicole, you must find your purse! Keep looking!” “I can’t feel my legs, Terry!” “Keep looking for your purse, Nicole!” Overhead, Terry heard a cracking sound. What now? Was the wreckage about to collapse upon him? In near blackness he searched for an opening—any gap through which he might crawl. But there seemed to be no escape. “Terry?” “Nicole?” “I have my cell phone.” “Did you find your purse?” “No. But I have the phone.” “Call somebody.” “Who should I call?” “Anybody.” “I can’t see the numbers to dial.” “Try hitting re-dial. Can you find the button?” “I think so.” Terry waited. Another crack. Where had the sound come from? Which direction? What did it matter, anyway? Not yet, he thought to himself. Not while we still have a chance. “Nicole!” “Terry?” “Did you reach anybody?” “Werner’s garage,” she said. Her voice sounded uncertain, her spirit deflated. “Werner’s garage?” “Your car is ready. That’s what they told me. The battery was low. Werner replaced it.” “Who gives a fuck, Nicole? Did you tell them what’s happened? Did you tell them where we are?” “I couldn’t.” “What do you mean, you couldn’t?” “I lost the connection.” “Lost the connection?” “The LED went dark before I could tell them anything.” “But you talked about the car!” “I just thought you’d like to know.” “What the hell’s wrong with you, Nicole? Try dialing again.” “OK.” From above yet another cracking sound… And dust—more dust. Further collapse seemed imminent. Terry tried to move but was pinned down by the weight of the wreckage. In silence, he recounted the terms of his life insurance policy; he tried to remember precisely just what the death benefit was. What curious terminology, he thought to himself. Death benefit… Who was kidding whom? “Have you tried to re-dial, Nicole?” No answer. “Nicole?” “Terry?” “Have you tried to re-dial?” “No.” “Why not?” “The phone isn’t working.” “What’s wrong with it?” “I think the battery is dead.” “That’s just great. We have one chance to tell somebody where we are—one chance!—and you call Werner’s garage.” “Your car is ready, Terry. All it needed was a new battery.” “Who gives a fuck, Nicole?” “I’m sorry, Terry.” “I think there might be another collapse.” “I can’t see a thing. It’s too dark. And I can’t move. I can’t feel my legs, Terry. And I’m having a hard time breathing.” “Try the phone again, Nicole. Call Werner back!” “OK, I’ll try.” Why did he not hear sirens, Terry wondered? Why was nobody responding to the emergency? Perhaps the entire city was in peril… Perhaps not only the Globespan Tower had collapsed… Maybe everything was in ruins… But that wasn’t right, was it? Werner’s garage had not collapsed. Werner had replaced the battery in his Porche. His Porche… What a splendid automobile! He pictured himself behind the wheel, driving just this morning through fog along Marin County highways, over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the city. He recalled how the lights had brightened as he pushed down on the accelerator pedal, and how they had dimmed as the rpm’s decreased. It was important to keep the rpm’s up; it was important to keep going. And it was important to keep one’s eyes on the road while driving through fog. He’d done it a hundred times. He’d done it a hundred times without an accident. “What’s happening, Nicole? Were you able to get through?” “No.” “Maybe if you wait awhile the battery will recharge enough to make a call…” “I think I have a spare in my purse.” “Where is your purse?” “Terry?” “Nicole?” “I can’t feel my legs, Terry.” “Hold on, Nicole!” “It’s so dark here…” “Hold on, Nicole. Help is on the way.” “Terry?” “Nicole?” “I can’t find my purse, Terry.” “Keep looking, Nicole.” “I’m bleeding, Terry. From my head.” “Hold on, Nicole. Help is on the way.” “Werner said that all your car needed was a new battery. Simple as that.” “Never mind the car, Nicole, try to find your purse.” “I don’t know where it is, Terry. It’s so dark here.” “Hold on, Nicole.” “I can’t move. The weight! I can’t breathe very well. I wish I could find my purse.” “Keep looking, Nicole. Keep looking!” Insurance policies… And savings accounts—money put aside for the kids’ college tuition. And Mediterranean cooking… The Porche, the hot tub, his business, the feature story on KTIT… Abstractions in this darkness: buried beneath the weight, the crushing weight of total collapse. “Terry?” “Nicole?” “I have my purse.” “You found it?” “Yes.” “The battery, Nicole… Did you find the spare battery?” “Yes,” she gasped. “I’m putting it in now.”
Observations from the author
or thrillers, or romances. I truly love the novel as a literary form, and I particularly love what is termed the ‘literary novel.’ I suppose that designation refers to novels dealing with one aspect or another of the human condition―that is to say, the real conflicts and challenges that face us all as human beings in this century and every century. I embrace universal themes, and I create characters to expose my particular point of view concerning life’s most basic questions and concerns.
The failure I address in Stones is the failure of art itself. It is simply portrayed through one artist’s experience. The very idea of trying to create art, which is by definition a symbolic representation of our life situation, or of our feelings toward our situation, is an approximation at best. Art is an exercise of trying to capture that which is impossible to capture―like trying to freeze a moment in time, or holding a feeling inside a closed bottle. Art is an attempt that by nature must not fully succeed. The closer one gets, I think, to freezing that moment or holding that feeling, the better the art. In Stones, Cornelius attempts a sculpture that every learned sculptor might deem impossible. But isn’t that the true condition of each life? Aren’t we all attempting the impossible? If we could achieve perfection―in the creation of art or in any other endeavor―then we would not be mortal, we would be divine!
About Calico Pennants...
I conceived of the book during a month long visit to Hawaii. For me, there is not a more physically beautiful place, and yet it is the most remote place on earth. Everything that exists in Hawaii (or at least this was once true) exists no place else. Therefore, I reasoned, no rules really applied there. What might be utterly impossible in, say, California, might also be the rule of thumb on Maui; hence, a parrot that talks philosophy, a siren who seems to be the reincarnation of Amelia Earhart, a fountain of youth, dragonflies that turn into 1930’s airplanes, a deceased American president that governs from the grave, and a rather absurd approach to the science of mechanics. I must confess that Calico Pennants is one of my favorite books.
About the future of the novel...
Unfortunately, the novel as a genre is fighting for its life. As a literary form, it's not really that old―only a couple of hundred years―but it is already showing its age. There are many reasons for its decline. Commercialism is one of the biggest reasons. Other media, too, are taking a toll. Humans will always need stories, or myths. They are the true foundation of culture―not money, or science and technology. Whether we convey those myths through novels or by some other means remains to be seen. The novel offers the opportunity for deeper insight than many other forms of storytelling, so I hope it survives. Presently, it’s gasping for breath, I believe. I truly hope that there is something in the future to resuscitate it. We need good novels.
About ebooks and self publishing...
Without a doubt, a certain amount of luck is involved when a writer signs a contract with a major publisher. Many aspire to such recognition (worthy or not), because what artist does not wish his work to be exhibited to a large audience? In this age of high budget promotion, mass media, and instant gratification, it is easy to forget that such works as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen were originally private publications for the benefit of the authors and their friends and families. In fact, the list of self-published titles, and writers who acted as their own publisher, is quite longer than one might expect.
Internet publishing now offers any writer a venue for his work. What’s more, the web enables anyone to promote virtually anything till the cows come home. Infinite low cost space, the possibility of infinite connections with like-minded and other interested individuals worldwide, virtual retail space and virtual meeting places, media synergies, and cheap technology all combine to provide not only writers, but artists in every discipline, with a new venue – one with seemingly endless possibilities, and one available to everybody at a cost so low it is incidental. The field is wide open, and it is vast, and it is egalitarian. Place like YouTube and Second Life offer both new artists and those long ignored a showcase for their work and their talents. The potential audience is worldwide, and it is also seemingly eager for something more than the all-too-often mediocre offerings of monolithic profiteers. The Internet is the venue of the people, and art has by its very nature always been a local expression. Except now the concept of local has been expanded – exponentially!
It’s a brave new world in the history of publishing, nothing less, and possibly infinitely more significant, than the invention of the printing press (which replaced the hand-tooled scroll), or the use of parchment (which replaced the stone tablet). Of course those in the conventional publishing industry will try their best to deny the impact of Internet publishing, but try as they might, they will not be able to preserve the status quo, nor will they be able to hold back the future. Some will recognize the inevitability of this transformation and try to adapt. Others will cling onto the past even as their sales figures (and their influence) steadily decrease. But whether one is an old hand at publishing, or whether one is a relative newcomer, the fact is that in Internet publishing the playing field is level, and nobody enjoys a distinct advantage simply because he is well financed. In fact, money may well be out of the picture altogether…