When everything else is gone
On that day, my sister Shirya and I took mom’s car on a shopping trip to Roseville. One thing led to another, and we left an hour later than we had planned.
“If you girls don’t hurry up it will be time to come home before you leave.” It was after nine in the morning before mom managed to shoo us out, and the two-hour drive began.
Our tiny town didn’t have much to offer when it came to shopping. Roseville by comparison seemed a metropolis, though it was only a suburb of Sacramento. I was hesitant to drive in Sac’to, but I wanted a new dress for my High School graduation, so Roseville it was. The sun was hot in the bright blue sky. A few clouds raced from West to East in the high wind as we sang to the Christian songs on my ipad.
We wound back and forth through the coastal mountains. As we crested the last hill we could see the Sacramento valley and the outline of our state’s Capitol city in the distance. The next moment, a blinding flash filled our eyes. Boom! A deafening rumble assaulted our ears and a mushroom cloud took the place of the Sacramento skyline. In an instant, it was all gone.
I turned mom’s car around. Surely it was better to be on the other side of the hills. Maybe there would be less fall out there. But as we traveled toward home, we saw smoke. A fire had begun somewhere between us and home. We took a side road to a cave we knew. Once the road narrowed, we had to leave the car and walk. The air was smoky. I held my long ponytail over my nose to filter the air. Shirya did the same. The air inside the cave became less smoky the farther we went in. The cave wound downward. Perhaps that helped keep the smoke out. I used a tiny key ring flashlight when the cave got dark. It was enough. We each had a bottle of water and we made it last as long as we could. We fasted, prayed and slept. On the third day, we tentatively approached the door of the cave.
The smoke was still bad, but we needed to find water. We pulled our ponytails across our face and the neck of our tee shirts up to cover our noses. It’s a good thing we had planned a lot of walking. We both had on our tennis shoes and jean skirts. Everywhere we looked was devastation. Mom’s car was a melted blob, so we began walking toward home. An hour in the car turned into four hours by foot. We checked each creek ravine but found only ash-covered rocks. Other cars we passed along the road had melted glass and tires and burned-out frames. Ash hung in the air and covered everything.
I was more than thirsty. It was hard to swallow without any spit.
The hills were covered with black spiks of burned trees. A fireplace here and there testified of where a home once stood. The sun was an orange ball in the sky. Talk about a depressing landscape.
Then it hit me. "Hey Sis, do you realize that if we had not been an hour late, we would have been right in the middle of that mushroom cloud?"
She stopped in her tracks. "Or if we were later, we would have gotten trapped in the fire."
"Wow. God put us in just the right place to survive."
“Do you think,” Shirya began and couldn’t complete the sentence.
“Mom and Dad?” I asked. She nodded. “I don’t know.” I looked around and got choked up. “We have yet to see another living person.” I willed myself not to cry. “It looks really apocalyptic, but we are still in God’s hands.” Shirya nodded her agreement.
We walked on in silence. Then I pointed. “Look at that! The fire jumped right over that patch and left it green!”
“I hope it jumped over our house,” Shirya said.
“Me too. In fact I hope it missed” together we said, “our whole town.”
We gave each other a hug before continuing. We trudged on, mile after mile and hill after hill. Finally, we came to the place that used to be home. The glimmer of hope fizzled out. There was nothing left. I mean really nothing. Not even debris to sift through. A small, charred rectangle of cement was all that was left of the place we once called home. Mom and Dad had been home when we left. There was little hope they could have survived. We had not seen a living soul. Shirya and I hugged and allowed ourselves a good cry. We thought of school friends and neighbors. How could they all be gone? I thought of Jeremy, the boy in my math class that I had hoped to get to know better. Fat chance of that now.
There were no tissues. For some crazy reason this made us laugh. Maybe it was hysterical laughter, I don’t know. We used our ash covered shirts which smeared ash on our faces. Looking at each other made us laugh again. We must have been getting delirious. “Come on, we need to figure out what to do. What were we going to eat? And where were we going to sleep? And I really needed some water.”
We held hands and prayed then began our search. The neighborhood was a total loss. We continued toward the lake in hope of a drink. Bits of hope came along the way. Little untouched spots were here and there. We saw a bird and it seemed miraculous. How had it survived? Perched in a madrone bush that still had a few leaves, it sang with gusto. I felt God was with us. This was a gift. I started to count my blessings. 1. We were alive. 2. The bird was alive and cheered us. 3. I was not alone. My sister was with me. 4. Hmm. I will work on that one. Boy was I thirsty. My throat was burning.
Up ahead was a green spot. Could this be blessing number 4? We entered a shady cove by the lake. Then we saw it. A little vacation cabin tucked under the trees. It was one of those spots that the fire missed.
We knocked. When it was apparent no one was inside, we looked for a key. I lifted a decorative rock near the front door. Bingo.
We went inside. I looked around and said, “Thank you Jesus!” Now I had many things to be thankful for.
“Out of all the places God could have saved for us, he chose this one. I wonder why?” Shirya mused.
The place was small, old, and out of date, but it was shelter -- #4. We explored. The small living /dining/ kitchen area was one cozy room. An old braded rug covered the wood floor, surrounded by two easy chairs, a small couch and a wood-burning kitchen stove. I counted blessings 5 through 10. To one side, by a window, was a small table with four chairs. Blessings 11 & 12.
In the kitchen we found canned food. Hallelujah! #13. Now, where was a can opener? We checked cupboards and found plates, glasses, pots and pans. And bottled water! Wahoo! We both dove for it and ripped open a bottle.
“Thank God!” We shouted before we gulped it down.
In the bedroom, an old bare double bed graced a wooden wall. A closet had sheets, blankets and pillows. “God has provided everything we need!” I said.
“I feel like I am walking in a dream,” Shirya said. Then she motioned to a door, “What do you think that is, Teela?”
“I hope it’s the bathroom. Let’s take a look.”
There was a funny-looking toilet with instructions posted above it. I began to read. “This is a compost toilet.”
In place of a sink was a table with a pitcher and bowl. Against the other wall was a small clawfoot tub. We looked at each other. Shirya said, “Can you believe this place? I feel like we are in a time warp. There’s no running water.”
Through the window, I saw an old-fashioned hand pump. “Look! Let’s try it out,” I said.
It took a lot of pumping, but we finally got water, only we had forgotten to bring a container. Water splashed in the dust and ashes while Shirya ran inside and got the pitcher from the bathroom. I filled it while she went back for more containers.
“Let’s see if this is good to drink,” I said. “This pumping and the smoke is making me thirsty again.”
“OK, you get glasses while I fill another pitcher.” When I came back, I put the glass under the spout. The water ricocheted out of the glass and splashed all over us.
“I guess that’s not a good idea,” I said as I wiped the water off my face. It felt kinda good to wash my face and it made me wonder how much water I would need to use that bathtub.
While we carried the water inside Shirya said, “Now I know why God chose this place.”
“It has everything we need!”
We found the can opener and had an interesting meal of green beans and tuna fish. Thus revived, we wanted to check out the town to see what we could see.
Our School was gone.
“Well, I will not miss going to class, but I will miss my friends,” Shirya said.
“So much for graduation,” I said. “This smoke is making my throat feel raw. Why didn’t we bring a bottle of water?”
“Let’s check out the lake over here,” Shirya suggested.
On the way we each found an oak groat to use for a cup. We rubbed it on a large bolder until there was an opening. “Guess that will do. Now we can get a drink at the lake.”
We walked through the bleak terrain to where the creek used to be. We followed the dry creekbed toward the lake.
Then we heard something and turned our heads.
“Maybe there are still some animals left,” Shirya said.
Ash continued to fall. Like our surroundings, we were covered with ash. I watched Shirya’s filthy form ahead of me. We were a mess. I’m glad there’s no one to see us like this.
“I’m getting a little creeped out,” I admitted.
Shirya looked upward, “Help us, Jesus.” Then, “Come on, Teela, we’re almost there.”
We walked faster and came to where the lake used to be. Our mouths dropped open. “Where’s all the water?” Shirya whispered.
“Come on,” I said, “there has to be some water here somewhere.” We walked a few feet and saw a glint of light far ahead. We traipsed across the pebbles and dried out lake bottom to the mud. Squish, squish, squish, then it got wetter. We had to hold our skirts up to keep them from getting muddy.
Shirya stopped, “I’m taking off my shoes.”
I took another step and heard a sucking sound. “Too late for me. Mine just got stuck in the mud. I don’t know if I can get it out.” I peered down into the hole my foot had made as I balanced on one foot.
A voice! We froze. Our heads slowly turned toward the voice.
It was a guy, standing on the bank about 100 feet away. The sun was behind him and in our eyes. But, it was a guy! Another human being!
Shirya and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “What should we do?”
We tend to do that--speak at the same time. She is only ten months younger than I am -- we say we are almost twins.
I reached down to get my shoe out of the mud when he called again.
“You can get water from here without getting muddy. Come and see!”
Shirya and I looked at each other again. The voice was familiar. I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, if there is only one other person alive, we may as well meet him.” I gave my shoe a tug and it gave way, sending me backward. I waved my arms trying to get my balance, but this only slung mud everywhere, and I still fell on my bottom.
I sighed. Great first impressions. The only guy left in the world as far as I know, and I get to meet him covered in mud.
“Are you OK?” my sister and the mystery guy both asked in unison. Now they were doing it!
“Just peachy.” Sarcasm runs in our family.
His name was Rocky. He was young, close to our age, and Shirya was instantly gaga over him. I think he was a year or two ahead of me in school. Rocky knew the lake pretty good. After we all got a drink of water, he showed me a deep area beyond some rushes where I could get in and wash off. Shirya joined me in the water. It felt like forever since our last bath. Rocky went off to look for berries while we cleaned up. We washed fully clothed. It felt so good to be clean. It was still hot enough for our clothes to dry quickly. We got out and began to drip dry.
“Are you girls ready?” called Rocky.
I couldn’t see him anywhere. I called back, “We are out of the water. Where are you?”
He stepped out from behind a redbud bush. He held our oak groats now filled with blackberries. “Just let me wash off the ash and these will go down real good.”
“Where did you find so many?” Shirya gushed as her stary eyes gazed at him.
“There’s a spot around the bend that was untouched.” He smiled at us, “God is good!” He looked sheepish, “And, my buddy helped me.” He motioned toward the bush, “Girls, meet Jeremy.”
My mouth dropped open. God, you really do supply all I need!