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Historical Fiction Holiday

REEDSY.COM  28AUG2020

Writing prompt #56

Write a story about two people meeting during unusual circumstances and becoming fast friends.

Disaster Buddies   by clcronan 2020

The entire morning had been monstrously difficult. She felt as though nothing in the world was safe or normal. But finally, Angel boarded the inbound bus, and took a seat next to a woman just slightly older than herself. Angel blurted, “Wow, she has such beautiful eyes!”

“Yes, they are one of her many attributes.”

“How old is she?” Angel continued.

“Three. And yours?”

“Almost four. We’re in from Woodside, just west of Trenton. And you?”

“Weequahic, south of Newark. We are Newark PD, you?

“Civilian volunteer. My dad is a trainer, so we got all of our class time with him. I did all the requirements before I even got Buzz. My name’s Angel.” Angel offered her hand, and her companion shook it firmly.

“I’m Su, short for Suzanne. This is Jo, short for Josephine. We see a lot of Shepherds and Retrievers out on the job, but not a lot of Terriers. Jack Russell, right?”

“Yeah. My dad got him special from a breeder who already had two others in the field. They are great at small spaces, and from what I hear, we can expect to deal with a lot of small spaces.” Angel made a grimaced smile that was meant to say, we are voluntarily going to hell. Su nodded her understanding.

It was only moments before the shuttle dropped them at the Incident Command Post in Greenwich Village, where they would be briefed, assigned to a detail, and geared up, for what promised to be the worst day of Angels life. Su was assigned to the same location, but on a different detail. Angel took comfort knowing there would be a familiar face in the crowd. She phoned her dad with an update on the way over to “Pile 1.”

Disembarking the shuttle at the site where the towers stood so tall, just yesterday morning, was worse than anything she had ever imagined. Her knees buckled. Buzz picked up her vibe and went into ‘high alert’ mode. “O.K. Buzzy, we just have to stay focused. But dear god, what is that smell?!” Her eyes already burned from all the smoke and ash still in the air. She pulled her respirator down from the top of her head, just to see if it helped with the smell. The smoke was unique to the situation, it carried in it a rancid smell that was a stomach-turning mix of pulverized cement, diesel fuel, human waste, and death. It was hard to focus past the nausea.

Her commander waved her over to a blue flag. “This is home base for this team. Radio communication is a friggin’ mess right now so we’ve been ‘asked,’” he gestured the quotations as he spoke, “to keep off the radios until further notice. That means we work harder at keeping track of each other. Everybody put a nice fat stripe of this blue tape on your helmet and your sleeve so we can see who is on our team. We are using the buddy system, while one set is actively searching, the buddy set gets to stand around keeping a sharp eye on the ass of their team member. We will switch off every hour, and take a MANDATORY break every two. If the search team finds anything ALIVE the buddy seeks me out. Until this mission switches from Rescue to Recovery, leave all the other stuff alone. I won’t drift far from our flag. As you can tell, yelling and waving our arms will have do do, because with all this heavy machinery running, we really NEED radios. But ‘time waits for no man,’ right? Watch your footing is an understatement. God speed. Good luck. Don’t become part of the problem. Go.”

Angels’ buddy was Guy, he said it was short for Big Guy, his nickname since high school, and his dog Spot. He said he call him that “‘cuz that’s hiz jawb.” The scene was a horrific nightmare, but being paired up with Guy and Spot gave a hint of levity. Guy’s gear was battered enough for Angel to know he’d been on more than a few jobs. Spot was a good old fashioned bloodhound, drool and all. Guy thought Angel and Buzz were a bit comic too. He said, “Girl, you couldn’t look more green. And that pip-squeak dog of yours, why he’s like nuthin’ I evah seen on this kinda job.” Angel could take the ribbing, and was so relieved that her buddy was a nice guy that she didn’t feel so sick to her stomach for a very brief moment.

Then he signaled Spot to begin. She held Buzz back and observed the first hour.

She watched as a ‘bucket brigade’ was formed to haul small rubble away from the search sites. If big chunks could be pulled safely, the cranes and bulldozers and dump trucks took control of a cordoned off area, with lots and lots of shouting to be sure everyone was clear. When one of the teams found someone alive, every recovery expert in the area descended on the spot and superhuman efforts were made to get the person out. As Angel watched from a distance, she remembered that this was the exact reason she was here.

Yesterday, September 11, 2001, at about 8:45am, the North Tower of the World Trade Center was hit by a jet. People watched in horror, not knowing any details, thinking perhaps it was a freak accident. At about 9:00am, another jet flew into the South Tower. Reports of terrorism filled all the news outlets. Air traffic was cancelled across the country. Everyone was holding their breath, wondering how far reaching this terrorist attack would go. 9:40am a plane crashed into the Pentagon Building. 10:00am the South Tower collapsed, and a plane headed for Washington crashed in Pennsylvania. 10:30am the North Tower collapsed. Around 5:30pm Seven World Trade Center collapsed. 8:30pm President Bush addressed the nation. During the speech, he announces that “terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” So Angel knew where she had to be. It just took a few hours to work out the logistics.

After having put in her first 10 hours on a twelve hour shift, she began to feel like one of the team. Buzz had worked as hard as any other dog. Guy started called her ‘Trooper’ and Su had sought her out to make dinner plans. Camaraderie built fast in that uphill battle with time. The next shift of search teams started to filter in early, anxious to do their part. The 12th hour was a strange mix of determination to stick with it and a desperate need for rest. Buzz looked as worn out as she’d ever seen him, and she wondered if she looked the same to him.

Angel and Su debriefed a bit over a dinner of cheap burgers and cold fries, but fell silent quickly as exhaustion overtook them. They hauled all their gear over to the hostel-like barracks set up in the ballroom of a grand hotel, they had the dogs checked out by a volunteer vet, and dropped heavily onto their respective bunks. 10 hours later, the dogs were tended to, they stood in line for the shower, and went to breakfast. Angel said to Su, “I feel so much older than I did yesterday.” Su gave a sideways smirk and a single grunt and said, “Yep.”

Angel and Buzz had to quit half way through their second shift when he jumped onto a jagged piece of rebar, after having avoided that hazard a thousand times. While he got stitched up by the vet, she sought out Su to tell her she’d meet her for dinner. Su hugged her and said, “There is a part of me that is a tiny bit jealous, but never mind, Jo is in a groove, so we’ll finish our shift. See you soon.”

27 hours after the attacks, the last known survivor was pulled from the wreckage, number 18. Over 2,600 dead, only 18 rescued. 400 working dogs, the largest deployment of dogs in the nation's history, went home. 

*****

“Oh, my dear friend, how glad I am to see you at last.” Su reached out as if to hug Angel, but dipped at the last minute and showered Buzz with affection. Angel rolled her eyes at herself for falling for that gag. They had met for lunch or dinner many times, but this was different. One of their fellow responders had pulled together a mini-convention to discuss the after effects prevalent across the Search and Rescue responders, including the dogs.

A very common complaint for both species was PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,) but as more and more dogs were diagnosed with silicosis from breathing the pulverized cement, more and more humans were reporting unusually high occurrences of pulmonary fibrosis and thyroid diseases, and a variety of cancers.

The key-note speaker for the meeting was a city politician who had joined in with the thousands of volunteers. He spoke calmly but passionately about how this small gathering was part of a larger effort that would lobby Congress for medical cost compensation. 

As he spoke, Su’s grip on Angels hand got tighter and tighter. During dinner that night, Su revealed that she was beginning chemotherapy on Monday for mesothelioma. Angel stared at Su’s eyes in silence. After a while, she reached out to take Su’s hand, and very softy said, “The devil we met that day follows us still.”

*****

Jo and Buzz sat stoically, as if they understood. They sat with Angel in the front row. The metal chair was cold, and the wind was biting. Su’s family had practically adopted her, and were effusive in their words of love and gratitude for the deep and selfless friendship and support Angel shared with Su. Jo was like a godchild that Angle swore to Su she would look after and provide for. She tried so hard to stifle her coughing, but it was no use. She had to step away in order to stop interrupting the service.

After it was over and Angel began packing up her car with her things and the things Su had insisted she take, and the two dogs, Su’s family hugged her goodbye in turns. Each held on tight, as if to say without words, we wish you better health and better luck.

Angel drove home slowly, taking lots of ‘dog breaks,’ because she was in no hurry to get home and take her turn playing ‘patient.’” Still, she didn’t think she’d wish to change the course of things. Su was one of the best friends a person could ask for, and showing up in New York City for the aftermath of 9/11 was how they met.

August 28, 2020 12:11

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