The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 14: The Tent


Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.

He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.

Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him at or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks or on Twitter  @teabanks

Part Six

Sixth Rule of Survival: Breathe

The Tent

The tunnel opening is dark and scary. I can see the gaping mountain entrance from the rescuer camp that’s been set up nearby. I know the tunnel goes on for a few miles. Dad’s told me about it a bunch of times. We even updated a map that we kept on the refrigerator marking Gabby’s path through the mountain.

My heart races all over again. I feel smothered as we walk into a tent, as if not much air fills the spaces in here.

At the same time I’m glad Mom brought me to the camp. Before school I would rather Patricia had brought me. But Mom standing up to Mr. Boles like that? I can’t believe it. I never would have thought she’d care so much.

Along with Mom and me, about two-dozen grown-ups and several kids occupy a huge green tent. I hover around the opening and keep glancing toward the mountain finally in dry clothes. Mom and some of the others call this the Family Tent. Inside I find two television monitors, lots of chairs, and some cots. Food tables hold sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, muffins, crackers, water bottles, sodas, and coffee. Mom tells me to wait in here with her, that there might be some information soon. She also says it’s not a bad idea to be near the other families for a few hours. I feel anxious because everyone here is a stranger. Then again, they all probably feel the same as I do: terrified and lonely. One thing does make me feel a little stronger—not everyone has ever been through something where they made up rules of survival. Somehow that makes me feel a little better, because even though I feel short of breath, I think, if Dad and I could survive a fire, then maybe we can survive this.

Mom offers me a cookie. I mumble that I’m not hungry and start checking out some of the people. Only one kid here is about my age. He’s across from me. His face is full of worry, like mine. When we see each other he tries to hide his fear. To be honest, I’m doing my best to hide some of the same feelings. I take a breath, swallow a mouthful of fear and ask him his name.

His jet-black hair flips in the front as he says his name: Peter Koh.

I tell him mine but his attention is on his dad who interrupts us to show him something on his smart phone. “I want you to see this,” his dad says. “See the CNN graphic? It shows where they think the drilling is taking place in two areas.”

I have no idea what Peter is being shown. Either way, Peter doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. He keeps nodding and looking away.

One thing I do notice is the purplish bags that hang below his dad’s eyes. A lot of the grown-ups in and around the tent have the same tired expression. I wonder if any have gotten much sleep. Their eyes are sad and hollow. Some grimace as they pace outside, or when they hover in place like statues, stand motionless, like me, staring at the mountain. Sometimes the only thing moving are their hands that slowly move cigarettes or coffee cups from fingers to lips.

The Family Tent isn’t the only structure. It’s like a little city here. Next to ours is the Press Tent. Reporters, their news cameramen, radio and newspaper journalists with pads of paper and hand-held recorders, and vans called “live trucks” with big pole antennas are all stuffed in and around the camp. They’ve come from all over the country. CNN, Fox News, BBC, KTLA, LA Times, New York Times. I don’t know what they’re all called but they’re all here and not allowed in the Family Tent. Other tents have been set up for the rescue teams, Yamaki TBM Company teams, food & supply teams, and more. So many people are here, and so much commotion is outside that it kind of jolts my senses. I guess when you’re organizing a rescue mission it takes a lot of people and effort. As for me, no one asks me to do anything. I’m utterly helpless.

While I’m watching Peter and his dad, Mom says she’ll be right back and heads outside. I sit back in a chair, miserable.

One of the news crews is broadcasting live from a section of the mountain close to here. Someone on the TV, a reporter for CNN wearing a hard hat, talks to Mike Hoffmer, the Rescue Drill Team Supervisor. Behind him a drill tears into the earth. He talks over the noise. I listen to bits and pieces of what he’s saying:

I can’t say this enough. This is not a recovery. We are treating this as a rescue operation . . . We’re confident that not only will we hear signs of life, but hope to rescue all those who are trapped . . . Yes, we do know how far deep we have to drill in order to anyone trapped in what we think might be two separate pockets within the tunnel . . . Our maps are accurate. Our drills are operated by experts in the field . . .The first step? Establish contact, pipe in air, bring in a video line for communications and assessment, then widen the hole for food drops, equipment drops and eventual rescue.

Two separate pockets? I’m not even sure what that means. Pockets of what? Water? Air? Is there a giant kangaroo pocket with people inside? I have no idea.

Then I hear the news reporter say how many workers are missing.


It feels like a squirrel is running around in my stomach. Maybe a flock of rock pigeons.

One of the missing six is Dad.

My dad.

I wish someone would shut off the TV.

I get up and move to the opening of the tent and start staring at the mountain imitating the stares of some of the grown-ups. Feels like all I can do is will the mountain to open up, tear and split along a giant invisible seam, so all the workers can just climb out and go home. Why is it when I try Jedi mind tricks, nothing happens?

My eyes drift to a big German shepherd that I hear someone call a sniffer dog. The dog laps water from a man’s hand. Its owner, like the dog, is covered in dirt and about to pass out from exhaustion. The man wears a blue hardhat that he takes off and tucks under his arm. Dad’s immediate boss, Royce Jenkins, is next to him. The rescuer says that he and the dog will pick back up after some rest, but not to worry, there’s another dog in the tunnel. A Japanese man wearing a suit towers over Mr. Jenkins. He has on a white hardhat with the Yamaki TBM Company logo on it.

“Get what rest you can,” Mr. Jenkins says to the rescue worker and pats the dog, now lying down. “Ain’t gonna get much sleep until we find where these people are.”

“Thank you for what you and your dog have done so far,” says the Japanese man, who I suddenly recognize as Mr. Yamaki himself. I’ve never seen him in person. Just in photos Dad has shown me. But here he is, lanky sort of like a big version of me, and in a grey suit. He takes off his hardhat. His dark hair is streaked with white. I really like him because he helped design and build Gabby. He knows how every bit of her crunches and munches rocks and dirt, and if anyone knows where Dad might be in the mountain, or inside Gabby, it’s him.

“We’re trying,” the man with the dog says. “We’ve got to navigate a lot of debris. So much is unstable or blocked.”

Then Peter’s dad says something to a nearby woman that makes me panic. “That might be a cadaver dog,” he says.

“Are you serious?” the woman replies as I glance over my shoulder. She’s horrified.

“You mean, it’s just looking for dead things?” Peter asks his dad. He looks like he’s been crying. I wonder if I look the same.

His dad seems annoyed. “Stop that. Your mother isn’t dead. She’s alive. Okay? You got that?”

“But someone said . . .”

“Just forget what she said. Now wait here. I’m going outside. I have to think.”

His dad brushes past while Peter sits angrily in the chair. He catches me watching him and turns his eyes to the floor.

I stare at the mountain again. All that stuff about cadaver dogs really scares me. I can tell it scares Peter too. We can’t think about that, I want to tell him. We can’t.

The reality is there are all kinds of sniffer dogs. Some dogs search for mold or termites. Some sniff for frog poop. Some for types of mussel shells, or other kinds of animal poo from killer whales or salamanders. That’s called wildlife scat detection. Others search for cell phones or bombs. Sniffers can do all kinds of things.

But cadaver dogs? I don’t want to think about what that kind of sniffer dog might find. And neither should Peter. If only I weren’t so terrified to say something reassuring.