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28. Buried & Burned
~ Hiroshima – July 1966 – 9 AM ~
Darkness surrounded Akiko, crushing in on all sides. From somewhere nearby she could hear moans and coughing, and from further away, a high-pitched wail and a persistent droning buzz that she couldn’t quite place. Dust covered her body and choked her lungs; the scent of smoke filled her nostrils.
Fear broke Aki’s dazed stupor, and her eyes snapped open. For a moment she feared she was back in Kure with the wildfire coming for her. She looked around, frantic.
Where am I?
Then she remembered: the industrial complex … the gas tanks exploding … Corporal Hamada sacrificing herself to delay the monster just a few minutes longer … and Goragon, wrathful, breathing fire in every direction … coming right toward Aki as she clicked photos … and their building … exploding and collapsing.
Somehow, she had survived.
But she lay trapped under part of a fallen ceiling. Every inch of her body ached, but nothing seemed broken. She pushed herself up onto her hands, and gypsum board and rubble tumbled off her back. She tried to crawl out into the open, but she couldn’t move.
Her left foot was pinned under something. She pulled on her leg, but it didn’t budge. The odor of smoke smelled stronger, and the crackle of distant fire—growing closer—filled her ears. Unbidden tears streamed down Aki’s dust-covered face as terror clenched at her heart.
She gritted her teeth. “Don’t be an idiot,” she told herself, trying to chase away the fear with the sound of her own voice. “You’re not dead yet! Ganbaro! Brace up!”
Summoning all her courage and strength, she shoved the rubble surrounding her aside and twisted around so that she could reach her ankle and get a good view of the problem.
It turned out that a reception desk from the foyer of the building she’d been hiding in had fallen on her leg. The desk, in turn, was pinned under a piece of fallen masonry wall.
Over the course of ten minutes, by pushing up on the desk and wiggling her foot from side to side, Aki managed to worm loose of the rubble.
But by the time she worked herself free, the distant fire had crept much closer, and the strange wail had grown even louder.
Was Goragon coming back?
I need to get out of here!
Aki stood in what might have once been a corridor and looked around. She didn’t remember how she’d gotten to this place. Had the blast thrown her deeper into the structure where she’d taken shelter? Or had she spent some time dazed and wandering before the ceiling fell in? It hardly mattered. The important thing now was to find her way out, before the fire could catch her.
Ruins of the industrial building surrounded her in all directions. Much of the ceiling had collapsed, as had several walls. In places, piles of rubble taller than the top of her head blocked her way. In other areas, phone lines and live power cables hung down, hissing and swaying like snakes. Flickering illumination filtered through the debris. Some looked like sunshine, some like emergency lighting, and some … like fire.
Aki saw no clear path out, but she felt grateful to have escaped the devastation with just a few minor cuts and bruises. Even the ankle that had been pinned under the desk didn’t feel so bad.
Miraculously, her Pentax still hung from its strap around her neck; even more astoundingly, thought the camera’s body was badly scratched its workings didn’t seem to have been damaged. She brought it into focus and snapped off several pictures while she tried to figure out what to do next.
Which way had the front door been? Would the fire be worse in that direction, since that was where the gas tanks had exploded?
In a flash of insight, she realized the identity of the distant wailing sound: sirens! Ambulances, fire trucks, and other emergency vehicles would be on their way to help her—if only she could let them know her location.
“Hello!” she called. “Hello! Can you hear me! I’m trapped in here! I’m alive!”
She listened, but no reply came, only the mounting crackle of the flames.
Her heart pounded, but she couldn’t figure out where the fiery noise was coming from; it seemed to echo all around her.
Pick a direction and go, she told herself.
Then she heard a new sound, a groan and a cough.
A bit more of the shell-shocked fog lifted from Aki’s brain, and she remembered that she had not been alone when the building collapsed.
Shin and two wounded soldiers had been with her. They might still be alive, too, trapped somewhere in this hellish ruin.
For a moment, Aki didn’t care. To the trapped animal deep inside her, all that mattered was the fire, and getting out of its way.
She cursed herself for a coward.
She had to find the others, had to try to get them out before the fire killed them, too. They’d do the same for her—at least, the soldiers would. Shindo, on the other hand…
It was hard to predict where her ex-fiancé’s self-centeredness might end.
It doesn’t matter what Shin might do, she told herself. Stay calm. Be a reporter.
“Hello!” she called again. “I’m here! Tell me where you are! I’ll try to find you!”
So Aki walked in the direction that she guessed the muffled cry had come from.
She pushed broken building materials aside as she went, being careful not to set off a chain reaction that might bring more rubble down on her head. The deeper she pushed into the wreckage, the more dense the smoke grew. Her eyes teared up, and she began to cough.
How much longer could she search?
Then she spotted it … a hand sticking up from beneath a fallen wall.
Ducking around hanging cables, Aki scrambled over to where the man lay buried. “Hang on! I’m coming!”
She couldn’t see his body under all the debris, just four soot-crusted digits. Was it Shindo?
“Hang on!” Stooping, she grasped the fingers. They felt cold and stiff; they didn’t move. As quickly as she could, she cleared away some of the shattered masonry and dust covering the man’s body, revealing the uniform of a JSDF soldier.
The man’s head and upper torso remained buried under several big chunks of concrete. Despite her efforts at clearing the rubble, the man did not move. She took his pulse.
A shudder ran through Aki, and she stood. Then her blood ran cold.
She could see it ahead of her: flames dancing through the ruins, moving her way.
Coming to get me.
The blaze was creeping forward very slowly, but she couldn’t keep going in that direction.
“Hello!” she cried, wanting to be sure no other survivors remained nearby. “Hello! Is anybody there?” She waited a few, agonizing moments.
Then the smoke got in her chest and she began to cough. Even though she couldn’t continue further into the rubble, she needed to do something to keep the smoke and grit out of her lungs.
Kneeling, Aki tore one of the sleeves off of the dead soldier’s clothing. “Sumimasen,” she told the man, apologizing for ripping his uniform … and for not reaching him in time. She wrapped the sleeve around her face, like a scarf, to filter out the smoke.
“Hello!” she called one final time.
When she heard no reply, Aki turned and scrambled back the way she’d come—or at least she hoped it was the way she’d come. Everything looked the same in these ruins, amid the flickering light and long shadows.
She kept shouting, trying to find either her remaining comrades or the way out. Several times, she thought she heard someone else coughing, but, with so many echoes from the falling debris, which continually tumbled down from the building’s shattered upper stories, she couldn’t be sure.
As she went, she found another body, half buried under shattered pipes and wires. The man was dead, his face charred beyond recognition, but once again, his clothing told the story.
The other soldier.
Aki blinked back tears, heart breaking at the fates of these brave men—and Yoko Hamada as well. Had the corporal’s sacrifice been in vain? Certainly, Goragon had left the industrial complex long ago; if it hadn’t, Aki would have felt its thunderous footsteps even now. But had blowing up the gas tanks—which caused the monster to stop long enough to destroy this building—been enough? Had Hamada’s valiant act bought the time Dr. Shimura and the others needed to save Hiroshima?
Aki would never know unless she escaped this nightmare alive.
Every moment she lingered, the air around her grew hotter and more smoke filled. Soon, her makeshift scarf wouldn’t be enough to keep her lungs clear, and then the fire would surround her, and then…
She saw it … Light! Clear daylight pouring through an opening in the ruins, no more than a dozen yards away. Piles of rubble blocked her way, but only the smallest of flames flickered between her and salvation
Heart soaring, Aki scrambled over the wreckage toward the exit.
Then an echo caught her ear.
Had she really heard a faint cough?
You just imagined it, the more sensible part of her insisted. Shin’s dead. Go! Go while you still can!
Yet, she paused and called out. “Hello? Shindo? Is that you?”
“Shindo, where are you? Don’t worry! I’m coming to help!”
Listening as hard as she could, Aki stumbled deeper into the ruins once more. Smoke from the slow-moving fires clogged her lungs and stung her eyes. She coughed, chest burning, trying to draw a decent breath.
And then she saw his dust-covered body lying pinned beneath a toppled filing cabinet, under a pile of concrete rubble and dangling wires.
“Hang on!” she called. “I’m coming.”
It took her only a few moments to reach where Shin lay, but as she did, the fire closed in around them. The flames crept toward the exit as well, threatening to cut off their only escape.
Aki knelt by her ex-fiancé and hissed his name. “Shindo!” Fear clutched at her chest, and she almost wished that he wouldn’t respond, that she’d be able to leave his body and flee before the flames consumed them both.
The man in the ruins was hardly the handsome reporter she’d fallen in love with. He had a large gash on his forehead, blood covered half his face, and he looked pale as death. But when she spoke, Shindo’s lips moved, and he mumbled something she couldn’t understand.
You can’t save him, part of her insisted. He’ll die before you can get him out. You’ll both die!
But she knew that she had to try.
With one eye on the rapidly advancing fire, Aki dug into the wreckage, breaking her painted nails and scraping her fingers raw as she cast the broken concrete aside.
When she’d cleared away the biggest chunks, she grabbed the side of the filing cabinet, and heaved with all her might.
Slowly, the heavy metal box moved; steadily, the flames crept toward them.
Her muscles screamed, and her chest ached.
Aki gave one final desperate shove, and the cabinet toppled off of her ex.
But he wasn’t moving at all now, and the smoke was making Aki cough with every breath.
Could Shin still be alive? She felt for the pulse at his neck.
Yes. His heartbeat came faint, but regular.
“C’mon, Shin,” she said, putting her hands under his armpits and dragging him toward the exit.
It was like hauling a human-sized sack of sweet potatoes. Slowly, painfully, she pulled her ex-lover over the debris.
The fire moved faster.
It nearly had them surrounded now; the heat felt blistering … her lungs burned, choking. At the rate they were moving, the flames would block their only escape before they could reach it.
“C’mon, Shin! Help me!”
He didn’t help. He didn’t respond at all.
Leave him! the voice inside her urged.
And she wanted to. By all the gods, she wanted to.
He deserves it!
Her mind replayed how she’d caught him the previous week, at Rika Tadaka’s party. She remembered how his naked body looked, entwined with the starlet’s. In a rush, the empty, sick feeling of betrayal twisted in her stomach once more.
His infidelity had destroyed her.
But not enough to leave him in this fire … Not enough to let him die trapped and alone.
No one deserved that.
Not even Shindo.
Cursing between her coughs, Akiko kept dragging Shin toward the exit.
The fire cut them off.
Flames sprang up in front of the pair, when they were barely three yards from the opening to the outside.
No way could she fight through the blaze with Shindo in tow. She probably couldn’t do it even on her own.
“Help!” she cried futilely, dragging Shin as far as she could. “Help!”
The fire raged everywhere now. Worse than in Kure.
They were caught in the center of a holocaust.
We’re going to die!
An orange firestorm blotted out her view of the exit. Aki felt as though she were being roasted alive. Smoke and the stench of scorched clothing and burnt hair clogged her nostrils.
She tried to shout one final time, but only coughing came out.
Then, suddenly, the flames died away and daylight poured into the ruins.
Hulking figures stepped between Akiko and the light, and water—blessed water!—sprayed all around her.
The fire retreated.
“Akiko!” someone called.
“Yes!” she cried, coughing. “Yes! We’re here!”
And then, Professor Benten pushed through the smoke and steam to her side, along with a man clad in full fire-fighting regalia.
Together, the two carried Akiko out of the inferno, while another pair of firemen dragged Shindo free of the ruins.
And she could breathe again. And medics came to tend them both. And an ambulance sped away, carrying Shindo to the nearest hospital.
Benten and one of the medics helped Aki toward a second ambulance. As she walked, she spotted the scientist’s Cessna resting on a clean stretch of tarmac amid the devastation. Dr. Shimura stood next to the plane, looking concerned.
“Where’s Goragon?” Aki asked, glancing around fearfully.
“Shimura’s plan worked,” Benten said. “Captain Nixon’s copter lured the monster away from the city.”
“Then why aren’t you following it?”
“We saw the building collapse, and—after the worst of the flames died away on the tarmac—landed to see if we could help. We’ll go after the monster as soon as we get you to the hospital.”
“But I’m not going to the hospital,” Akiko told him, smudging the soot from her face with her makeshift scarf. “I’m going with you!”
Thanks to David, Christine, and Kiff for beta-reading.
All contents © 2014 Stephen D. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.