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The worst part was it was completely dark.
Or maybe the worst part was the throbbing of her head just above her eye. Rolling onto her side, Lily traced with her foreﬁnger the rim of the wide gash responsible for the sticky mess on the left side of her face.
She had no idea how long she had been out of it. This was her fault for asking what else could go wrong.
“I was only frustrated. It wasn’t intended to be a challenge.”
What happened after that was a blur. When the ﬂoor beneath her began to shake, she had reached to brace herself in the doorway. From there, she was ﬂung headlong into the angled mirrors on two walls of the ﬁtting room. As she lay on the rolling ﬂoor, her last thought before blacking out was to wonder if the sales clerk had run her debit card already, since without moving money from her savings account, her check to Judge Evans was going to bounce.
Lily sat up and tried to orient herself to her dark surroundings. She hated dark surroundings. Groping around on the ﬂoor, she located the top she had intended to purchase and held it to her wound, pressing hard to stop the bleeding. Her eye was sore and swollen, and no doubt full of the dust she had seen ﬂying from the crumbling drywall just before the lights went out.
She reached out to get her bearings. Glass was everywhere. The mirrors, she ﬁgured. The ﬂoor—if it was still the ﬂoor— was uneven, and the wall to her right was crooked. She knew it was the mirrored wall, as she felt a few of the jagged fragments still attached. Behind her, the place she remembered as the back of the store was now a bare concrete block wall, and it leaned toward her.
“Where the hell did that come from?” she asked aloud, not expecting but half hoping to hear a reply. It seemed to Lily she was still in the tiny ﬁtting room, such as it was. To her left was another wall and she recognized in front of her the splintered texture of the wood from the louvered door. That meant the way back into the main part of the store was past the door and straight ahead.
But where was the light? Even if the power had been knocked out, there had been an atrium in the center of the mall that should have provided some light. Maybe she had been unconscious for awhile and it was evening already. Too bad she wasn’t wearing her sports watch, the one with the back light. No, that one didn’t exactly go with her court clothes.
“Is anybody in here?”
Louder this time, “Hello! Anybody!” Lily strained to hear another sound.
She struggled to stand, bumping her head sharply on the ceiling, which had sunk to a height of less than four feet. The uneven ﬂoor and the low ceiling made it difﬁcult to navigate the darkness, but she picked her way along the edge of the hallway and emerged on her hands and knees through a doorway into what she supposed was the main store. Again, she called out, “Anyone here?”
From her crouched position, she realized the ﬂoor directly in front of her now sloped downward, and when she slid feet ﬁrst in the direction of what she thought was the entrance, she stopped at the bottom of a crevasse. Racks of clothes had gathered where the ﬂoor had given way, and she lost her balance as her feet tangled in the garments, hangers and metal racks. The odor of fresh dirt was strong, and Lily guessed the ground had literally broken through the bottom of the store. She knew from living her whole life in California—twenty-nine years—that this was a very signiﬁcant earthquake, and she was probably near the epicenter.
She was lucky to be alive.
Reaching forward, her hand came to rest against a wall of earth. The mall had collapsed, she realized, as she wondered what had become of all the people who had been inside. Was she the only one still inside? Or were the others...?
With alarm, Lily acknowledged the truth: The worst part was she was trapped.
“Unnnnhhh!” Anna grunted, struggling against the bookcase that pinned her ﬁrmly to the ﬂoor. She hurt all over. Why hadn’t she run for the door when the shaking started?
Breathing heavily, she regrouped for another push. “Unnnnnhhhhhh!” she groaned again, moving the shelf only an inch or two from her chest. With every effort, more of the books that were bracing the heavy bookcase fell away, leaving her left knee to bear even greater weight under the lower shelf. Her twisting and pulling as she tried to get out had only exacerbated her predicament, and now her knee was throbbing and trapped ﬁrmly in a vise.
Anna had heard nothing since the loud boom. She kept expecting to hear people shouting and screaming, rescuers searching the mall to see if anyone was trapped or hurt. She had to let someone know she was here, but if others were in worse shape, she was all right to wait. She was uncomfortable, but not in danger . . . unless they had an aftershock.
Something had shifted in the bookstore after that last crash, something large enough to block all of the light from the atrium. And without the sound of shouts and voices, she had to consider the likelihood she was completely cut off from everyone else.
This wasn’t Lily’s ﬁrst experience at being trapped in a dark space. Time had a merciful way of stealing memories from her early childhood, but one she clearly remembered was being locked in a dark closet on several occasions when her mother went out. To this day, Lily slept with a nightlight.
Fighting the urge to kick at the dirt and scream, she gathered herself for what she knew might be the strongest test of her life. The situation called for calm and control, not childish panic that no one would ever come back for her.
First, she tried to get her bearings with respect to where the store was situated. She had entered the mall from the garage and taken an escalator to the lower level, where she had walked to the opposite end of the concourse. Remembering the image of the mall from the outside, she ﬁgured Sycamore was in the part that was carved into the hillside, so she was below ground level. That meant there would be no service doors to the outside. The atrium was the only way out.
From what she could gather, the V-shaped crevasse where she sat seemed to be about ﬁve feet deep. One side was carpeted, which meant it was the original ﬂoor. The other side was dirt, where the ground had thrust upward. Most of the crevasse was jammed with merchandise, but that was good since she could balance herself on the overturned clothes racks to feel around the ceiling for a way out.
After what seemed like an hour of groping along in the dark, Lily came to the conclusion that getting to the center of the mall from here was probably impossible with this wall of dirt in front of her. It was as if the back of the store where the ﬁtting rooms had been had fallen into a hole.
She had two choices. She could wait in this protected pocket of dark, damp space until rescuers found her. Or she could follow the crevasse into one of the adjacent stores and hasten her exit. If she was right about being underground, her best bet was to go back toward the parking garage, where the stores emerged from the hillside to sit at ground level.
Anna was exhausted. She had no idea how much time had passed since the quake, but she had been working almost constantly to pull herself from her prison. The shelf now rested ﬁrmly on her left leg, its sharp edge digging into the soft tissue around her knee. Her toes had begun to tingle, and she feared she soon would lose feeling in her lower leg.
Her repeated cries for help had gone unanswered, and she knew she was alone. The orange-haired clerk was the last person she had seen. Had she gotten out safely, or was she crushed beneath whatever fell? Anna shuddered to think what might have happened to the girl, and what surely had happened to others in the mall.
It was too soon to panic, but she would feel a lot better if she knew for certain the people outside were trying to ﬁnd her. She had read somewhere a person could survive for several days without food or water. All she had to do was stay calm and wait for the rescuers . . . assuming they even knew where to look.
“Help!” she yelled again, her voice rasping in the still air.
She calmed herself, deciding she ought to save her energy and voice until she heard someone who might be near enough to help. She had no idea how large her conﬁnement area was, but she had to consider the possibility her air supply was limited. Or worse, that the air was teeming with poisonous gases from ruptured pipes.
This would certainly solve her problems with Scott, she realized grimly, pushing the thought away as macabre. She assumed he was in his second-ﬂoor ofﬁce on the campus of USC when the earthquake struck, just as he probably assumed she was at the dealership. Even though they weren’t talking much these days, she liked to think they would have touched base, provided the phones were working.
At least she had called Carmen and told her where she was. But if this was anything like the aftermath of Northridge, it would be a few hours before people around the city were able to get damage reports. They wouldn’t know right away the Endicott Mall had suffered damage. And while the ground splitting nearby likely meant the epicenter was close, it was impossible to know for sure. The very worst scenario would have her on the fringe of something catastrophic, something that caused thousands of casualties and calamitous destruction to the region’s infrastructure . . . something that rendered trapped shoppers at the mall a low priority.
For a moment she was almost sure she heard a voice, but when she strained to listen it was gone.
After hours of combing the walls in the dark with her ﬁngertips, Lily found herself crawling on her stomach at the bottom of the crevasse where the earth had split. The wall that separated the clothing store from the one next door had remained intact, but she discovered a small gap between the wall and the dirt at the lowest point on what used to be the ﬂoor. With both hands, she scooped the soil toward her until she had made an opening wide enough to squeeze through.
Pulling herself to the other side, she inhaled deeply, instantly recognizing the smell of new athletic shoes. This was the Foot Locker, she recalled. She knew she was still a long way from getting out of this tomb, but even the small lateral progress was exhilarating.
“Could I get these in a six?” she joked aloud. “I’m not picky. Purple is ﬁne . . . orange . . . lime green.” She had lost her own pumps in the ﬁtting room. “Just make sure they’re the same. I wouldn’t want to crawl out of here with all of America watching my miraculous escape, and me wearing two different colors. My mom would be mortiﬁed. ‘No, that’s not my daughter!’” She laughed at the image, feeling strangely relieved at the mock interaction. “Fashion police arrest earthquake survivor. Details at eleven.”
Lily rested a moment when she reached a pile of what seemed like sweat suits and T-shirts. She was tired, but she knew she needed to keep moving. Two things worried her. One was the possibility of aftershocks, which might bury her deeper. The other—just as dangerous—was that her exertion in the damp, dusty air would trigger an asthma attack. Prone to breathing difﬁculties since childhood, she always carried an emergency inhaler, but it was in her briefcase.
She took another deep breath, and was relieved to feel no sign of the tell-tale wheezing that precipitated an attack. If it came on, she would just have to take it easy and hope it subsided.
Best she could tell, the Foot Locker was just like Sycamore, where the back of the store—about a third of its depth—had fallen into some kind of gaping hole, with the front two-thirds apparently ﬂattened against a fallen ceiling. In the dark, Lily envisioned a triangular-shaped tunnel, bound by the dirt wall on her right, the fallen ﬂoor on her left and the ceiling. The ceiling seemed about a foot higher in this room, and she took that as a sign she was one room closer to ﬁnding a store that had held up in the collapse. Apparently, the back wall of the mall had simply given way on the end that was built into the hillside. She was lucky the ﬂoor had dropped into the crevasse, or she would have been pancaked. Had she not been stuck in the ﬁtting room, she would have dashed out to the atrium and crouched beneath the stairs. She hoped the woman who had helped her in the store had done that.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, and there wasn’t even a speck of light coming from anywhere. Of course, she had been knocked out, so it was possible it was dark outside by now. Her stomach seemed to think it had been ages since she ate.
She groped around the perimeter at the top of the dirt wall, ﬁnding nothing but earth and ceiling tiles. With no way to access the atrium from here, she had to keep moving. She hoped the narrow crevasse she had followed this far extended into the next store.
In Sycamore, she had wrestled with the twisted piles of clothing and metal racks that had fallen into the deepest part of the hole. Here, that same gap was ﬁlled with what seemed like hundreds of boxes of shoes. Lily had never worked in a retail store, but like everyone, she envisioned endless piles of stock in a place always referred to as “in the back.” That’s where she was now— in that mysterious place called the back of Foot Locker.
She stumbled several times as she picked her way along the piles of boxes. Still ﬁghting the urge to panic, she cheered herself with a running monologue. “Only someone with my luck would have trouble ﬁnding her footing in a shoe store.”
Her efforts to remain upbeat and hopeful suddenly faded when her hand brushed against what was unmistakably a human arm, and she nervously traced it to the cold, stiff face of a man pinned on a ledge by the fallen ceiling. A wave of nausea passed through her at this stark evidence of what had happened. People died here. Overwhelmed with both horror and guilt, she knew this man was someone’s loved one, and he deserved a ﬁnal digniﬁed brush with humanity. With her hand on his shoulder, Lily fought back tears as she soulfully paid her respects.
“Peace, my friend.”
On her belly again, Lily felt along the far wall for an opening to the next store, now wary of what carnage her hands might ﬁnd. She didn’t ﬁnd the opening at the ground that had been in the last store. This wall extended all the way to the bottom of the crevasse. That meant she was in for some serious digging, unless . . . Maybe if the wall had sagged along with the ﬂoor, there would be an opening at the ceiling.
Hiking up her skirt, she tried ﬁrst to crawl up the incline that had once been the ﬂoor, but she couldn’t get traction on the tile. That left scaling the dirt wall on the other side, which proved slippery as well, since the earth was crumbly and moist. When she ﬁnally reached the ceiling—about seven and a half feet from the bottom of the crevasse, she guessed—she was able to hold on to a light ﬁxture with one hand while she felt for an opening with the other. Just as she hoped, the opening was directly above the lowest point of the ﬂoor, but it was narrow. She would have to ﬂatten herself to squeeze through.
On her ﬁrst attempt to pull herself up to the hole, her hands slipped and she fell clumsily into the pile of shoes. Again she tried, this time scraping her wrists viciously when she lost her grip. Now more determined than ever, she tried a third time, ﬁnally getting her head and shoulders through the hole. “Yes!” She inched her shoulders, chest and stomach through, at which point she fell forward, tumbling in a heap into a pile of books at the bottom of the crevasse on the other side.
“Shit!” she cried as she clutched her shoulder, which bore the brunt of her fall.
“Please, help me.”
Lily was stunned by the sound of a woman’s weak voice and she twisted in the dark to try to determine where it was coming from. Before she could react to the sound, the earth began to quiver again. Fearing the worst, she curled into a ball at the lowest point of the angled ﬂoor and covered her head with two books. The shaking grew stronger, and she could hear things falling around her as the ceiling threatened to give way once and for all.
Then it stopped.