Sirens wailed like the moans of the dying, waking all from their deep sleep to the sudden realization hell had risen in a violent uproar from the earth. Rumbles followed the noise, with waves of trembling earth and sky, as if the world fit inside a Christmas box that a little kid had picked up and shook to see what's inside. Then came the tremendous BOOM of an explosion at a nearby chemical plant, that riccochetted through the neighborhood and filled the early morning grim with a blinding light. Darkness followed like a cloak, enveloping the land with a moment of uneathly dead silence. Time seemed to have stopped for a moment, stuck between shock and a reality no one truly wanted to wake up to. Then came the agonized screams.
Bolting awake at the first sound of the sirens, a father of four glanced at his sleepy wife next to him, then at the window where red and blue lights shimmered on the glass. “The kids.” The thought popped into his head even as he was throwing off the covers and reaching for his taclight. His wife stirred awake next to him, startled awake by his sudden movement.
“Jake? What's going on? Where are you going?” Her words were still slurred with sleep but he could hear the anxiety in her voice.
“I don't know.” He answered truthfully. “Something's not ri—” His voice was cut off by the sound of rumbles and the ground shaking beneath his feet. He grabbed at the bed to stead himself as the whole house shook violently. His wife screamed, her eyes wide with fear.
Within minutes, the earth stopped shaking. Jake stumbled over items that had fallen from shelves and a drawer that had come out of one of the mahogony dressers by the door. He was about to reach for the door when an obscenely bright flash of light filled the night sky and his room, followed by an ear-splitting screaching that made him duck for cover. The house shook again with the impact of the explosion, and shards of glass flew everywhere, accompanied by a stinging heatwave. Then there was dead silence, as if nothing existed, as if he was dead. An overwhelming sense of dread and fear reminded him that he was still very much alive.
Screaming from outside his house and the cries of his children from within, brought him out of his stupor. Scrambling for the door once more, he reached for his go-bag as he navigated the fallen furniture. He could hear his wife behind him, hurrying to find their kids and praying out loud that they were all okay. As he swung the door open, he could see a flashlight bobbing down the hallway, where his son usually slept.
“Daddy?” His son was alive.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Jake asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
“My arm hurts a little,” His son said, showing a scratch from some glass that was bleeding a little. “But we're okay...we,” he motioned to two of his sisters standing with him “..we hid under the bed when the ground started to shake.” His voice was trembling, but Jake could tell he was trying to be brave. Two of his daughters peeked out from behind his son, each holding a stuffed animal tightly.
“Where is your younger sister?” Jake asked. “Where is Lily?”
His son looked down, as if embarassed that he hadn't protected her too. One of the sisters spoke up “We woke up to the sirens and got scared when the ground started to shake and we went to find him and ended up hiding under the bed with him. We couldn't find Lily and we thought she was with you and mom and..and..” She started to cry.
“It's okay hunny.” Her mom cooed gently to her, hugging her tightly. The little girl cried harder, and clung to her mom's shirt. “It's okay.” Her mom rubbed her back and looked up at Jake with pleading eyes.
Jake motioned to his son to go back into his room. “Remember those backpacks I made you guys pack a little while back?” His son nodded with wide eyes. “Stay with mom and your sisters, and help them pack whatever food and water you guys can pack into those bags, okay?” Jake ordered, as he approached his youngest daughter's room, already motioning to his wife to take the kids down to the kitchen. He knew Lily had been feeling a little sick the night before and had chosen to sleep with the windows open for the breeze. He was afraid of what he would find and didn't want his wife to see it. After making sure she could get down the stairs safely with them, he opened the door with his youngest daughter's name stenciled on it in pink and walked in cautiously. Glass crunched under his feet and he was glad he'd pulled on his combat boots. Although the windows had been open, they had still shattered all over the floor from the impact of the heatwave that followed the explosion. At first, he looked at the bed where she usually slept but, finding it empty, his eyes moved across the room, searching for her. When his eyes found her lifeless body by the window, his heart stopped. He realized she must have been looking out the window to find the source of the sirens and, because the windows had been open, she would have caught the full brunt of the wave. Dread filled his mind as he stepped closer and reached out to check her heartbeat. Her skin was pale and blistered, with pus oozing out. Every bare inch of skin was covered in chemical burns. Shards of glass were also embedded in her skin and face, and he knew he'd have to take some of them out before he could move her.
“Stay with me Lily...please stay with me, baby girl.” Her eyes fluttered open at the sound of his voice, and he could hear her gasping for air. She couldn't even cry in pain because she couldn't breathe from the chemicals that had been in that wave, he realized.
Tears flooded from his eyes and he wiped them away with a sleeve, ordering himself to stay calm so that he could help her. All of his training for this moment kicked in with a vengance, and he methodically did what he could to help her.
Quickly, he swept as much of the glass shards away from her body as he could, then grabbed a one of the thicker blankets from her bed and lay it on the ground next to her. He then carefully rolled her over onto it, making sure there weren't any glass shards in the way. Kneeling down on the edge of the blanket, he pulled his go-pack to his side and grabbed the headlamp from the front pocket and put it on, then grabbed the tweezers out of his first-aid kit. Lily's eyes weren't staying focussed for very long and she seemed to be passing in and out of conciousness. “This is going to hurt a lil baby, but I have to do it.” He told her. No response. She still didn't say anything or even cry when he pulled out shard after shard. The only sound from her was the ragged wheezing.
As soon as he was done, he wrapped her up in the blanket, careful not to touch the blisters which seemed to pop and ooze on their own, and scooped her up in his arms. The stairs were difficult to go down with his daughter in his arms, as a few of the stairs had been warped by the initial earthquake and didn't seem sturdy, but he ran down them anyways, eager to get his daughter to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
“Daddy?!” One of his daughters cried out from the foot of the stairs at the sight of her younger sister. “Daddy, is Lily..is she..?”
“No, hunny, she's not dead but...” Jake looked up at his wife with the same pleading eyes she'd given him earlier. “Get them as far away from here as you can, somewhere safe...contact our friends in Houston. I'm going to take Lily to the hospital.” He told her, even as he was rushing out to the truck. He knew that if he saw the panic in his wife's eyes that he would loose it right there, and he couldn't loose it, not yet...he had to get Lily to the hospital...she had to live.
Between the emergency vehicles going every-which way on the now-uneven road, and avoiding downed trees and crashed vehicles, driving to the hospital proved difficult, but he'd be damned if he just gave up. He loved his kids more than anything in the world, and he had to try...she couldn't die..“Please God, not yet..” He prayed aloud.
Glancing away from the road for a moment, he noticed her eyes were closed and her breaths were coming in short, uneven gasps now. “Lily? Lily, please wake up.” His voice was strained, heart in his throat. He rubbed her sternum, wishing she would open her eyes. “Lily? Baby, please wake up!” He struggled to keep from crying, terrified that he was loosing his little girl. Red flashing lights illuminated the raindrops on his windshield as he pulled into the emergency bay of the local hospital. Not wanting to wait for someone to come out, he turned off the engine, and climbed out, leaving the door open as he rushed to the other side of the truck and scooped up his daughter in his arms. Her skin felt cool against his and the pit in his stomach grew into an ocean, threatening to swallow him from the inside out. “Please wake up...” He begged as he cupped her to his chest and ran through the open doors, into the ER lobby.
Startled nurses took one look at the limp, burned body in his arms and hurried over with a stretcher. A woman with dirty-blond hair and light green eyes covered the little girl's nose and mouth with an oxygen mask, as they begin wheeling her away to somewhere else. Lily's lips and small fingers were turning blue, and she was barely able to breathe. “We're going to have to intubate her.” The woman said, as she motioned to another nurse to handle the terrified father who was trying desperately to stay at his daughter's side.
“Sir,” A male orderly said, as he tried to pull the father back into the waiting room. Two officers stepped forward uneasily, to assist. “Sir, you're going to have to wait out here.”
“Get OFF of me! That's my daughter! You have to let me be with her!” Jake growled angrily, trying desperately to pull free. When he almost punched the orderly, one of the officers bear-hugged him, but let go when Jake collapsed in tears to the floor. The second officer put his hand on the first officer's shoulder and said something to his partner, who backed off and took the orderly to the side to discuss finding a room for the worried father to wait in. TV's flashed in the background with news of what had happened early that morning. Nurses, doctors, and civilians alike pressed close to hear the rumors that were floating around—as if the government would actually tell the truth. The reporters were saying that a massive earthquake that had struck Texas and 8 other states had likely caused the chemical plant explosion, which then blasted miles and miles of houses with a thick, toxic plume of chemical smoke and haze. His daughter had been one of the many thousands of victims. And now...he shuddered. Now she might be one of the hundreds of fatalities. The overwhelming anxiety filled his mind, and he tensed his shoulders, ready to strike out at something, at anyone, who got between him and his daughter. But there was nothing he could do, and that was the worst feeling of all.
“Stand down, Soldier.” The second officer said gently to the father, placing a hand on his shoulder and kneeling down slowly next to him. “It's okay...she's in good hands here.” His voice seemed to soothe Jake, who simply wept with his head in his hands. “Shalom, brother. Remember: God has control over all of this.” The officer squeezed the father's shoulder gently.
A woman's cry made both men glance up to see Jake's wife running over. “She's..she's not...she can't be...please please...” The woman cried, looking first at her husband, then at the officer with tearful eyes. “Please, not my baby...”
The officer understandingly shook his head and said “No, ma'am...not dead. The doctors are doing everything they can to save her life. It's in God's hands now.”
“Sam.” The officer turned at the sound of his name. “We have a room for them to wait in.” His partner said quietly. A woman in a pink nursing uniform stood behind him, waiting with a teddy bear in her hands.
Sam looked back at the grieving couple and said “There's a room set up for when your daughter gets out of the OR. You can wait there for her, okay?” He spoke softly, as if the air itself was too fragile for loud noises right then.
Jake simply nodded; the mother spoke timidly. “Okay..” They followed Sam and the nurse down two long hallways, past rows of doors where other critical patients lay with respiratory issues and similar burns, past crying families and bodies covered in white sheets, up two elevator stops to the Children’s Ward, to Room 4.
“You can wait here.” The woman spoke for the first time, her voice soft and soothing. Handing the teddy bear to the him, she said “This is for when she comes out.”
When. The word rang in his head, but it took him a minute to process that there was a “when.” Another nurse, older with streaks of grey in her dark brown hair pulled back into a simple braid, was wrapping his wife in a warm blanket.
“Here you go, sweety.” She had the grandmother-type of voice, the kind that could put any anxiety to rest. She squeezed his wife's hands in reassurance. “She's a tough fighter, your daughter. Have faith.” His wife just nodded, staring blankly at the door as if willing her daughter to walk through at any minute.
“I want my daughter...I want my girl.” She sobbed. The father wrapped his arms around her and held her against his chest as he too stared at the door.
“I know...I know, Jess.” He cooed.
Hours had passed since Jake had brought his daughter in with severe chemical burns on much of her body. Hours. But time had come to a standstill, and the rain seemed to last forever. He hardly noticed as the morning light filtered in through the hallway windows. The hospital had been far enough away from the plant, that the explosion hadn't knocked out these windows.
A squeaking of a hopsital gurney from down the hall startled him, and he had to catch himself so that he didn't wake up his wife. She needed her sleep. He looked up to see the doctor in the doorway, motioning for him to step finto the hallway so they could talk. Jake tiptoed out of the room and gently closed the door behind him. Fear, dread, anxiety filled his head, throat and stomach as he looked into the doctor's tired, sad eyes. “Please...no...” He begged, as if the doctor had more control over it then God.
“She made it through surgery...” He let those words sink in for a moment, before continuing.
A mix of relief for the fact that she was still alive, followed by dread for the doctor's next words, threatened to drown Jake. “B-but?” He was afraid to even ask.
Sighing, the doctor simply said “She may never wake up....only time will tell.”
“How bad is it?” Jake asked.
The doctor hesitated, then answered “She has chemical burns on nearly 50% of her body. It will take a miracle for her to live through that.”
“No! My baby..” A cry turned their attention to Jake's wife who had appeared behind him without their realization. She collapsed to the floor, crying.
“Can we get a bed?” The doctor was saying to a couple of nurses by the station.
Jake knelt next to his wife and held her tightly, rocking back and forth. When the nurses brought over the bed, Jake helped her up onto it, where she immediately curled into a ball and began to wail. One of the nurses helped her drink a cup of some kind of minty-smelling liquid, which calmed her down within minutes.
“She can sleep in your daughter's room for now. It will be a few hours before we can take her out of the Urgent Care area.” The doctor told Jake, who nodded and numbly said his thanks, then followed his wife's gurney into his daughter's room. He knew his kids were safe with friends of the family, but he worried about them as well. He wondered if they were okay, and if they were being fed and kept safe. He wondered when he would see them again. He wondered how others he knew had fared in the explosion. He wondered if anyone he knew was dead. He wondered if his daughter was going to live. He wondered how his dogs were. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind as he waited for his daughter to come back.