***Rosarita, Baja California, Mexico***
Daniella tried to stand up, but whether it was the way the ground seemed to suck at her feet or the man’s strong arms about her waist, she was stuck. The sensation was new and as shocking as the movement of the earth beneath them. She had never been held like this by a man. Sure, a couple of times when she was younger, her step-father Hector had carried her, but he was not a demonstrative man even with his own children. And Daniella was never one of those.
Was this thing going on longer than usual? Or was she caught in some crazzy time warp? The last few years before…. They had lived in Mexico City as Hector rose in the Procuraduría General de la República. Earthquakes were common enough there. But they had not felt one since coming here a year ago.
Daniella rolled to the side, but the man only came with her. “Let me go.”
His blue eyes darted around the darkened room as he spoke, “We’re safer inside.”
Of course, she had been taught that in the drills at school. She knew to crawl under a desk or table. But Mateo was too young to know that. He’d never been to school at all. Sofia might remember, but even that was questionable, especially given her sister’s fragile mental health. But it was Abuela that she was most concerned with. The woman could not get to safety even if she knew what to do.
They were all so close, only a few feet away on the other side of the tin and cardboard walls. But it might as well be the other side of the city. She considered yelling for them, but between the slight roar of the ground moving and the deafening screams of those in el barrio de chabolas. There were half a dozen translations of shantytown, but Daniella De Leon had never imagined she and her family would die in one. What was left of her family anyway.
Would it never stop? Even here, they had heard of the strange things happening around the world. But when you live on the margins of society, what does the end of the world matter? But it had not always been that way for them. The man shifted again so that his body covered hers. Daniella’s first reaction was fear. He was so big. And hadn’t Abuela always warned her about men. What they wanted from girls like her.
It was funny the things you thought of when you were going to die. Had Hector thought about Mama and them when he stared down the barrel of those guns? Had he regretted the path he took that brought them all to this place? Or had he died in the same smug, self-righteous way he lived? And Mama? Though she knew her mother’s last words, had the woman regretted the burden she placed on the slender shoulders of a seventeen-year-old woman-child?
But it was Mateo she worried about the most. Not because of some ridiculous machismo like her step-father’s pride in his hijo. But because he was so young when it all happened that there was still a resilience about the child that she and Sofia lacked. Still, she was sure he would be afraid now. She only hoped they were together.
“Are you okay?”
The shaking had stopped? How had she missed that? She shoved at the man’s shoulders. “Let me go.”
He rolled over and reached for her hand, pulling her up. “We have to get out of here. Now. How far are we from the beach?”
“About five blocks, perhaps a quarter of a mile,” she tried again to pull her arm away, but he tightened his grip. “Let me go. I have to get my family.”
Long blond hair danced about his face when he shook his head, “Of course, the boy. Where is he?”
But Daniella did not wait to answer his question. Instead, the moment his grip slackened the tiniest bit, she pulled her arm free and rushed through the old blanket that served as a door between the living area and bedroom of their tin and cardboard home.
“Are you alright?” They huddled together on the old mattress that her Abuela slept on.
It had taken all three of them to pull it from the dump and drag it back here. She had even been forced to pull her knife on a couple of men who thought they were entitled to the treasure.
Daniella shuddered to think of how far from her Abuela’s privileged Castillian upbringing, Hector’s pride, hubris, and self-righteousness had brought them all. The old woman nodded her head as the children cried into her bosom.
“We need to get the hell out of here. Now.” She turned at the sound of the deep voice behind her.
“No. We stay. My grandmother can’t walk, and I’m not leaving her.”
“Listen to me. We have to get out of here. That quake was at least a seven. And it lasted for three minutes. Tsunami? Liquefication? Aftershocks? All of those things are possible. Maybe even probable, and you’re sitting in a cardboard box on top of sand close to the beach. You have a death wish, princess?”
She wasn’t stupid. Even if she had been forced to leave school early just to survive. She remembered all those things from her science class. She reached for Mateo, though he clung to Abuela, she pulled him away and passed him to the stranger. Though why she should trust the man who threatened to call the policia on her brother was a mystery. “Take my brother.”
She reached for Sofia, but her sister stubbornly shook her head and clung to their grandmother. “You have to go, Sofia. Go with the man.”
“You all will go, Daniella,” her grandmother prised her sister’s fingers from around her neck and pushed Sofia towards her.
She held her sobbing sister as she too shook her head, “No, Abuela, I can’t leave you.”
“Can you carry the boy?” The man spoke in Spanish this time so that her grandmother could understand. Daniella nodded her head as the man tried to pass her brother back to her.
“No, I will just slow you down. Take the children and go. Now.” Her Abuela spoke to the man before turning to her, “Nieta, por favor, you promised your mother that you would look after them. They are what matters. Not an old woman.”
Daniella felt as if her heart were being ripped in two. But death and grief had become almost second nature to her these past three nearly four years. First Hector and her Abuelo, their tios, tias, and primos. A victory party turned massacre. Her mother had never fully recovered from the gunshot wound she had sustained that day. Maybe if they had dared to seek proper medical treatment instead of all the curanderos. But her Abuela was the last tangible link to that other life. She wasn’t sure if she could….
“We have to go. I’m sorry,” the man’s voice held command laced with compassion. “Once I get them to safety, I’ll come back for you. I promise,” he told her Abuela.
“No, get them far from this place. Somewhere safe. Promise me this, and it will be enough.”
The man nodded; Daniella almost thought she saw tears glistening in those eyes, the color of the ocean on a sunny day. He tried to reach for her again, but there was one thing she had to do first. She threw herself in the old woman’s arms. “Te amo, Abuela.”
“Find her,” the old woman brushed tears from her eyes.
“Find who? I don’t understand.” She knew that they were wasting time. Time they might not have. But something kept her there.
“Your other mother. Your Mama hardly ever spoke about her. But I know that she loved the woman. Deeply.” Her withered hand reached for the old cigar box that contained what little was left of their old life. She passed it to her. “Take it. There is an old photo there. But maybe…. Via con Dios, nieta.”
Her grandmother practically shoved her with strength that shocked Daniella. But the man caught her somehow. She wasn’t entirely sure how since he held a crying Mateo in one arm and had his arm wrapped tightly around Sofia with the other.
Daniella righted herself and shook her head. She pulled Sofia from his grasp. She knew better than to turn around and look back. If she did, she was not confident that she would have the courage to do what must be done now. The streets were utter and complete chaos, with women and children crying. Screaming. People running everywhere.
“Which way is the beach?”
His question surprised her. She thought the object was to get as far as possible away from the ocean. Mateo raised his dark head and pointed. The man nodded and smiled, “Good boy,” then he took off in the opposite direction. His hand around her wrist practically dragged her along behind them.
The screaming got louder behind them. She started to turn around, but he shook his head and pointed towards an old three-story garage. They ran for it. But they were not the only ones as people pushed and shoved to get to the higher ground. Daniella wasn’t sure how they made it. But they did somehow. The second level was more than good enough. The waters weren’t that high. But it was debris in them that was most dangerous.
The man pushed them up to the top. Daniella’s stomach and heart dropped when she looked out to what she was sure had once been their shanty. But there was nothing there. Just floating sheets of tin, cloth, and the remnants of life.
Sofia shook in her arms. The girl had been barely hanging on to sanity before this. The loss of her father, mother, and the privileged existence they had once known had taken their toll on her sister. This should have been the girl’s quinceanera, the beginning of her life as a woman. Instead, it was….
“We can’t stay here. This should start to clear in a few hours. We need to get moving then.”
“Where? Where do you think we’ll go? In case you haven’t heard, the whole fucking world is coming to an end?” Daniella had never said that word before. But what did it matter now? Her last tie to that old life was gone now. And she had no idea what laid ahead if anything?
“Los Angeles. We need to get to LA. My brother will send a plane for me.”
She shook her head as she held her sobbing sister, “News flash, dude. LA is probably just as screwed as we are.” Though she was one to talk, considering she had no ideas. No plan. She had learned that those never worked out very well anyway. Look at where all Hector’s grand schemes had gotten them.
“Then Texas. We head to West Texas.”
Like that made a hell of a lot more sense. But this time, Daniella wasn’t in a mood to argue. His plan seemed as good as anything else at the moment. It wasn’t like she had anywhere to take her brother or sister. “Whatever.”