"I grabbed hold of a door or something that felt like a door and just held on for dear life. Everything was just tumbling and rushing around me, and I thought I was going to be killed, only this time I'd be crushed first and then drowned. But as sudden as it started, all of the crap I was surrounded by became still, and the water rushed out from under me. It was still almost totally dark, but there was no more lightning, just that stink of burning chemicals and sulfur. And dead bodies--there was always the smell of death since I'd gotten to Memphis. That was my last memory, being buried in a mountain of trash while the water was sucked away. The whole thing from the first shake to going into the river, to washing up high and dry maybe took ten minutes--but who's counting minutes in the middle of a freaking nightmare from hell? My watch was gone anyway. I was wearing ACUs and combat boots; they were still on me anyway, thank God. My pistol, my wallet, my watch, they were all gone. But I was alive. Freezing cold, soaking wet, but alive. During that entire ride, from the bridge and down the Wolf River, I was sure I was going to die. Positive. So even freezing cold, cut up and bruised all to hell, I was happy. I was going to see another dawn. At some point I passed out. From shock, probably.
"The sun woke me up. I was in a giant tangle of trash and debris. Broad daylight. Lucky for me, it wasn't too cold for January, and I didn't die of hypothermia or something. I was so packed into trash that maybe it kept me warm overnight. Insulation, you know? Otherwise, I don't know how I didn't freeze. When I came to, I was just shaking like a leaf. Shivering. It took me an hour to get myself untangled and work myself loose. I was weak, I had no energy. After I climbed out of my tangled-up nest where I'd spent the night, up on top where I could see a little ways, I saw things I never imagined. Cracks and crevices in the ground that were deep enough to fall into, and too wide to jump across. Huge trees, oaks even, split right up the middle from bottom to top. Half a tree on one side of a crevice, half on the other, just ripped apart like a celery stalk. And all around there were big white sand hills that formed during the quake. I found out later they're called 'sand boils.' It's like quicksand under-ground, then it shoots up like a geyser during a quake. Some of those sand boils were twenty or thirty feet high.
"A lot of the land around there liquefied: houses and cars just sank into it like it was instant quicksand. You might see the corner of a car, or a man's bare foot sticking out, and the mud all around it was just as smooth as a beach after a wave passes over it. I didn't see much of anything during the quake; it was dark and I spent most of it in the river. Afterwards, the next day, I saw plenty. I saw people half-buried in mud, dead. Almost everybody was already in a bad way after the first quake, so it was like the second one came along three weeks later to finish the job. I saw dogs, wild dogs, dogs gone feral, feasting on corpses. Just chowing down on human bodies. That was commonplace. You saw that everywhere.
"I had my uniform shirt and pants and my boots, but that was all. My wallet was gone, my M-9 pistol was gone from my holster, my watch was gone--and I had no idea how far I'd been swept by that flood. I couldn't see the bridge supports, or the bridge. I was dehydrated, I was in pain all over, I'm sure I wasn't thinking straight. I thought I was carried down-stream of the bridge, toward the Mississippi River, so I started walking east, trying to get back to my unit. It wasn't until later I figured out the quake had turned the Wolf around. That flood had already swept me way to the east, so I was just walking farther and farther away from my unit. Or what was left of it.
"And it wasn't easy going. It took all my concentration and effort just to make a little progress, weaving my way over and through piles of debris. I kept running into dead ends and backtracking. The Wolf was running the right way again, toward the west, but the banks were all washed out, and they were covered with every kind of debris. It looked like a picture I saw after the Johnstown Flood. Wreckage on top of wreckage, all tangled together and coated with mud. Eventually I couldn't go any further. The debris had piled up against another wrecked bridge, almost like a solid wall or a dam. I had to try to go around it the only way I could. The river cut through more or less open country, but after I left the river I wandered into the edge of some suburbs, or what had been suburbs. There were survivors, digging into rubble.
"It was all black people, African-Americans. It was a black area, I have no idea where. Small one-story detached houses, mostly tumbled down in heaps. Some apartment buildings pancaked down, they were probably three- or four-story buildings, but I'm just guessing. I couldn't tell if they collapsed during the first quake or the second. No police, no ambulances, no paramedics, no sirens--no nothing. Just quiet, except for people cursing and crying over their fallen-down homes and their dead family members. And a few random gunshots, that was about it. No cars were moving. Even if you had gas, there was no way to drive with trees and poles and cables all over the roads. And there I was, Mr. White Boy, in my muddy Army uniform and boots. My empty military holster had a flap, so maybe it was hard to tell if I had a gun in it, but it was a weak bluff. I got a real bad feeling that I had better not go any further south, into Memphis. People were looking at me with pure hate in their eyes, or at least it seemed that way to me. Like the earthquakes were my fault, some-how. Or like it was my fault that they hadn't been rescued by the federal government already. I turned around and headed back to the Wolf. It's not as if I was going to get to a telephone and call in to my unit. Who had a phone that worked? There was still no electric power since the first quake, three weeks before.
"I edged my way back toward the river, got around the big debris field piled up against the other bridge, but it wasn't my bridge, it was a different one, with a few big round concrete pilings in a line instead of lots of square pilings in pairs. That's when I finally figured out I must be on the wrong side of my unit, walking further away instead of getting closer. That's when it came to me, the way all the debris was piled up: the flood had swept in from the Mississippi, right up the Wolf River against the regular current. But hell, everything in the whole world was so strange by then that it almost seemed natural that a river could flood backwards. Why not?
"I didn't know if I should turn around and head back west, or what. I hadn't eaten or had anything to drink in probably eighteen hours. I was getting ready to drink straight from the Wolf, and I knew that was a bad idea. Everything from oil and chemicals to dead bodies was in that river. Anyway, I didn't have to think about it long. I was pushing along between chest-high bushes and an old chain link fence, and I ran smack into a dead end. The fence ran right into the side of an old wall from a warehouse or something, and I had to turn around.
"That's when I was captured. It was just casual, easy, no problem at all. I turned around and there were three black guys trailing me about ten feet back. Two teenagers, and one maybe about thirty years old. He had a revolver, and he just waved me out. He was the tallest, my height, about five eleven, with a big pile of dusty dreadlocks bundled together up on top. That made him seem taller, maybe. The other two were carrying machetes, like Mexicans use. These two had spiky dreadlocks and they were very dirty, but they were all dressed pretty well, considering. Nice jeans and jackets, not ripped or filthy like you might expect, not three weeks after the first earthquake. Stolen or looted, probably.
"Anyway, there was nowhere for me to go, and I was too weak and out of my head to try anything. They put me on the ground and tied my hands behind my back so tight that I thought that would kill me all by itself. Then they tied a noose around my neck, and pulled me back up on my feet and jerked me along like a goat or a cow. They kept pinching me and laughing, but I couldn't really understand them. For some reason they seemed glad that I wasn't too skinny, I gathered that much, but I didn't make anything of it at the time. I'd trip and they'd pull me, drag me along on my face, until somehow I'd get back up on my feet. I could hardly understand a word they were saying, but I got the strong idea my problems were only just beginning. Obviously, if they had wanted to kill me where they found me, they could have.
"They led me back along the chain link fence to a gate, down a few weedy paths and alleys, and finally to a concrete slab, next to a big rusty steel warehouse that was half falling down. They had set up kind of a camp there, under part of the warehouse's roof that was still intact, giving them a dry spot. I guess they were used to catching stragglers like me who were working their way along the riverbank. The old warehouse was maybe a hundred yards from the river, all surrounded by weeds and trees.
"And that's when I saw the absolute worst. That's when I gave up my last hope: when I saw the burnt body parts. There were legs and arms hacked down to the bones, and a fire pit, with the big iron grill over it. There were even decapitated heads, set in a row. I was lying on my side, and I looked over and saw a severed head that almost seemed like it was looking back at me. Dead eyes, wide open. The cooking grill was a wrought-iron gate, propped up on angle iron legs that were driven into the dirt. There was a square hole in the cement, where they had built their fire. Now I could understand what they had been talking about. That's why they had been pinching and squeezing me. That suddenly became perfectly clear. Three weeks after the first earthquake, that was three weeks without supermarkets or fast food joints. Hunger makes people crazy, and some people are crazy to begin with. I guess it doesn't take much for the ones that are already crazy. An earthquake will do it, that's for sure. It'll push psychos right over the edge.
"They tied my ankles together, and then they tied my hands to my feet behind my back. They trussed me up like a hog. I was lying on my side then, tied to some kind of a pipe that came up out of the concrete. By then I was way beyond shock. I could only hope that they were going to kill me fast and not torture me too much beforehand, but really, I didn't have too much hope of that. Sometime in the afternoon, two of them left. They said they were going out hunting for more meat. It was like a joke to them. They laughed and said, 'Honky, the other white meat.' Or maybe I just imagined that. By that point, I couldn't tell what was real and what was a hallucination. But I was sure that I was a goner. I had no doubt about that at all.
"The one that stayed to guard me couldn't have been more than fifteen years old. I tried to talk to him. I told him I was in the Army and they'd come looking for me, all of that, but he wasn't buying it. He wouldn't even look at me. I told him he'd get a reward for helping me--nothing, no reaction. He was smoking some kind of homegrown reefer wrapped up in sheets of telephone book paper. He had dead eyes, stone cold dead eyes that looked right through you like you were a ghost. The leader gave him some chores to do while they were gone. His job was collecting firewood and cleaning up, taking body parts and bones down to the river in a wheelbarrow. Heads, hands, feet--he was pretty casual about it. The way he acted, they could have been beef or pork scraps he was picking up and tossing into the wheelbarrow. The whole thing was right out of a grade B horror movie.
"This was January, like now, and it got dark early. The other two came back after sunset with another teenage boy that they seemed to know already, and two black girls about twelve or thirteen. Black or Hispanic, or maybe somewhere in between. They were just numb with fear, it seemed to me. Or maybe they were in shock, almost catatonic. I can only imagine what hell those girls had been through in the three weeks since the first earthquake, and what they thought after another big quake hit. They weren't tied up, but I couldn't tell if they were going to be on the menu with me or if they were going to be on the other side of the dinner table, so to speak. It was about twenty-four hours since I'd had anything to eat or drink, and I must have been delirious. The older guys brought back a big cardboard box, and they were drinking wine from bottles. They must have had a good afternoon of looting. They built up the fire in the hole under the big iron grate, and I thought, 'Well, this is it: curtains. Just let it be quick when it's my time.'
"When the fire was up and burning hot, the two biggest guys came for me and untied me from the metal pole?but they kept my feet and ankles bound. I'd lost all feeling in my hands. I was waiting for one of them to take a machete to my throat. I figured that they'd do it that way, but no, they just dragged me over by the fire like a slab of meat. There was a square hole in the concrete, where they had the fire going, with the grate over the top. The two girls were sitting together on a log a few feet away, getting warm by the fire. They weren't tied up, but they weren't trying to get away either. What else could they do? They were just young girls. The whole thing was surreal: the half-tumbled-down warehouse, the cooking fire, everything.
"Then the leader, the older guy with the dreadlocks tied up in a bundle, he seemed to gradually notice that I was still in my Army uniform. I got the idea that he was comparing his size to my uniform. Staring at me, sizing me up. This presented a problem, because my wrists and ankles were still tied. I think if I wasn't wearing the uniform, they would have just thrown me over that iron grate and burned me alive then and there. Or maybe hacked my arms and legs off with the machetes and just cooked them, I don't know how they were going to do it. I think that he was so drunk and stoned that he couldn't figure out how to get the uniform off of me without burning it up or getting it soaked in blood. I got the impression that this was a serious mental challenge for him, a real puzzle. He'd been smoking weed pretty much the whole time I'd seen him, and drinking wine, a lot of wine. Bob Marley meets Frankenstein--in hell.
"By now it was dark out, except for the fire under the cooking grate. The tallest one, the leader, he pulled me up on my feet, but they were still tied together, like my hands. He was wearing a bright green Urban Corps jacket. He had his pistol shoved in his belt, a machete in one hand, and he was holding me by the shoulder with the other. I was sort of hopping around with my feet tied together, trying to balance, while he held me up and considered his next move. I thought he was just going to push me over the fire. We were nose to nose. He looked like the devil himself, his eyes glowing yellow in the firelight. He said, 'White boy, I'm gonna untie you, and then you gonna get all naked and give me them Army clothes.' I knew that once I was out of the uniform I was a dead man, so I was thinking of something to say, to stall him. I was going to try the 'earn a reward from the Army' pitch again, and see if it worked on him. I knew it was a long shot, but I couldn't think of anything else to say. He was their leader, so probably he was the smartest, and maybe he'd go for it. He looked right in my eyes; I can't imagine what he was thinking.
"And then he just let me go without the least bit of warning. I hit the ground right by the fire pit, fell on him and rolled off. For a second I couldn't understand why he'd dropped me, but then I saw that most of the top of his head was gone. Smashed apart, blown open by a gunshot, it looked like. I heard thumps and cracks, and sounds I didn't recognize, and all of my captors went down, one-two-three. They were so stoned and drunk they didn't know what was happening, and then they were dead. I wondered what the hell had just happened, and what can possibly happen next? It was three weeks since the first earthquake, and I thought I'd seen it all--but I hadn't seen anything compared to what I saw in the twenty-four hours after the second quake. The horror just kept ratcheting up, like a nightmare that keeps accelerating until you fall into a bottomless well or off a cliff and then you wake up screaming. Only this was no dream, this was all happening. Even as delirious as I was, I knew all of this was for real.
"So there I was lying on the ground, still tied up hand and foot, close enough to the fire pit to feel the burning heat, right next to Mr. Brains Hanging Out, and then I heard a friendly voice behind me. 'Well, soldier boy--this appears to be your lucky night. It looks like your dinner plans have been unexpectedly canceled." A white voice. He had a Southern accent, but he sounded educated. Somebody knelt behind me and cut the rope off my hands, and then my ankles. I could barely tell I even had hands by then, until that pain came ripping back into them. I guess I was wincing or yelling, and the man behind me said, 'That's a good sign. If they hurt, that means your blood is moving again. Do you think you can walk? No offense, son, but this is not the kind of dining establishment that we generally prefer to patronize.' I'll never forget that. I laughed in spite of everything.
"I rolled onto my back, now that my wrists were free. I could look up and see who was talking to me by the orange firelight. There were four guys in camouflage BDU uniforms. Not the regular ACU Army camouflage; the old pattern, like we're wearing now. Woodland, I think it's called. Green and black face paint, not a bit of skin showing, but I could tell they were white men by how they talked. They all had rifles, and different kinds of load bearing vests and magazine pouches. The one who had been talking had a suppressor on the end of an M-4 carbine. It was a flattop rifle with a scope on top, a night scope. They were very well equipped. Everything was first class.
"He hoisted me back up to my feet, and two of them half-carried me down along the riverbank and into a boat. A big squared-off Jon-boat like they use in the South, with an outboard motor. A big enough boat to have a steering wheel on a console in the middle. Then we were out of there, but moving slowly--to keep quiet, I suppose. Plus, I knew the river was full of floating debris. One of the guys had night vision goggles, so I guess he could see well enough to drive, and avoid the debris. It was as black as a coal mine to me, once we were away from the cooking fire.
"They told me they were on a rescue mission. They were coming down the Wolf River the day after the second quake, trying to get to some trapped relatives. They couldn't get past the wrecked bridge that was blocked up with debris. They had to give up on their rescue mission and turn around, and that's when they saw me about to become the main entree. My luck had changed a hundred eighty degrees, just like that. All of this happened in the space of about twenty-four hours, from the second earthquake to my rescue. Crazy, but I couldn't complain about how it ended. Not when I'd been about to be thrown on a fire and eaten by cannibals.
"The only thing that bothered me was that my rescuers shot the two black girls along with the three men. The guy with the silenced carbine was using a night scope, and I thought maybe he couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys, I don't know. Maybe they all looked like bad guys to him in his night scope, except for me, the tied-up guy about to be thrown on the fire. I gave them the benefit of the doubt about those two girls, when they rescued me. Hell, I don't know, maybe they saved those girls from getting gang-raped and going onto the fire after me. Or maybe those girls would have been gnawing on my bones in another hour. I'll never know what would have happened to those two girls if they hadn't been shot by my rescuers.
"But I'll tell you this: a lot of people died after those earthquakes, and most of them didn't die from the earthquakes, if you know what I mean. It's hard to tell who died from dehydration or hunger or disease, from those who were shot or stabbed or clubbed to death. Dead is dead--and dead men tell no tales, right? You could kill anybody after those earthquakes, and who would ever know what really happened? Dead bodies were all over Memphis, and I didn't see any cops or CSI's around them, that's for sure. Just buzzards and feral dogs. Anyway, those two young girls died right there by the fire. If my rescuers had any regrets about that, they didn't show it. Not one little bit."