The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 15: Peter and the Mountain

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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 nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter  @teabanks

Peter and the Mountain

The mountain watches me again. From the tent entryway I imagine two rocky orbs like eyes above a ridgeline half-hidden in shrub-covered dimples. The eyes never blink, ever. We stare at each other until I finally turn my gaze to its mouth. The opening is wide and black, hungry for rescuers in hardhats entering in several pairs. Each tiny blip on the horizon is swallowed and gone. I hope they come back with Dad. I hope they come back at all.

All kinds of vehicles and machinery idle on the two-hundred yard stretch of road to the tunnel entrance: cop cars, fire engines, ambulances, news vans . . . Closer to the entrance is a line of digging machines (backhoes, excavators and bulldozers, some with wheels and others with tracks), not to mention worker trucks and a crane. Somewhere up there two drilling machines bore non-stop into the heart of the mountain. They’ve gorged on rock and dirt for more than twenty-four hours already.

I don’t like waiting. Waiting for anything seems to take forever. I used to think waiting the last two minutes before the school bell rang was one of the hardest things in life. But sitting at a desk with your eyeballs bugging out at the clock has nothing on staring at a mountain, hoping for it to do something, anything. It’s awful here in the mist and rainclouds while people and machines come and go in every direction.

Just when I’m finally about to walk over to the food table and shove five cookies in my mouth, Peter’s dad’s eyes brighten. I turn to see what he’s looking at. A portly man wearing round glasses and a Yamaki TBM Company jacket has just entered the tent. Krishnankutty, Mom tells me, is the TBM Information Officer. That means he passes along information about the rescue mission to the families, and then to news people in the Press Tent. He is round and polite, has very dark skin, and smiles constantly. He also nods all the time as if in agreement with everyone. I like him.

“You have new information, Krishnankutty?” Peter’s dad says loudly.

“Yes, Mr. Koh, I do.” Krishnankutty pushes his glasses along the ridge of his nose. “Let me just wait a moment for all the family members to get in here.”

Family members stream into the tent as Krishnankutty holds a hand-held radio and clipboard with papers stuck to it. He nods and smiles. He mouths “thank you,” “hello,” and “I’m glad you’re here.”

Everyone crowds inside and starts talking at once. It gets really loud. Grown-ups bark at Krishnankutty, frustrated and angry. He keeps his composure. Mom says he’s paid to take a lot of heat from the families. I could never do his job. If anyone yells at me, especially Dad, I start to lose it.

All the talking and arguing and accusations makes me feel claustrophobic. It becomes hard to breathe.

“Tell us what’s going on,” Peter’s dad demands Krishnankutty. He’s impatient and wants answers. “You haven’t given us any information in almost twenty-four hours.”

“What are you keeping from us?” asks Mrs. Andrade. Her husband is somewhere in the mountain. She’s been smoking outside more than anyone. I heard someone say she works for a school, though it isn’t mine. I avoid her—she has so much anger in her eyes that I’m afraid she’ll start burning holes in the tent with her gaze.

Another wife of a trapped worker is also unhappy with Krishnankutty. “You said you would tell us something six hours ago.” She has a quiet voice though her face is very red.

Krishnankutty raises both hands pleading for cooperation. “Please, please,” he says. “Let me speak.”

I can hardly see. I stand on a chair and slip my hand on Mom’s shoulder to steady myself.

“Please, everyone,” Krishnankutty continues. “Mr. Tamaki himself wants to let you know that he has arrived to personally oversee rescue efforts. He has inspected the lower tunnel himself.”

“Fine job he’s doing,” Mrs. Andrade says. “Looks like he’s dressed for a dinner party.”

“I know you’re angry,” says Krishnankutty straightening his hardhat, “but you have to understand we’re doing everything possible to rescue your loved ones. No one expected this to happen. The earthquake was an act of god. We’ve taken every precaution . . .”

“So that’s what you wanted to tell us?” Mr. Koh interrupts. “That Tamaki is here? That God is here? I don’t care about Tamaki. I want information about how you’re going to get our families out.”

Others agree. It gets noisy again. I want to cover my ears.

Krishnankutty takes a breath and starts talking. Everyone quiets this time. “At 3:49 p.m.,” he says, reading from one of the papers on his clipboard, “drill site No. 1 broke through to an area of the tunnel where we believe the internal structure of the High-Speed Rail Tunnel to be secure at safe haven two. At 4:27 p.m. we used sound equipment to listen for anything in that area. We believe, although it hasn’t been confirmed, that survivors are attempting to communicate with the surface.”

Voices immediately rise into a loud chatter. Many of the grown-ups bombard Krishnankutty with concerns though one question rises above the rest. “Who have they communicated with specifically?” Mrs. Andrade asks. “Who?”

“Hold on now, please,” Krishnankutty begs. “I understand your concern for information about your loved ones. We’re drilling to the most likely areas based on where each Tamaki employee was last stationed. I assure you, we will account for everyone. At the same time, I must remind you that an incredible effort from multiple agencies is already underway to confirm how we can identify every missing worker and coordinate each potential rescue. We need patience on your part. Information will not come all at once. I do assure you, we will find out who is communicating with us.”

“I think I speak for many families here that we are already out of patience,” Mrs. Andrade says. “We want answers now.”

Krishnankutty clears his throat and speaks slowly as if every word weighs a ton. “I know this is difficult. Like you, we want to know the conditions of those trapped. We want to get everyone out and provide any urgent medical care. We hope to have more information shortly.”

At least someone is alive, I think. This gives me more hope than ever. Dad has to be okay. He has to. I have to trust that someone is going to rescue him.

Then another lady speaks up. Marnie Bowser is short and fierce. Her red-brown hair is tucked under a baseball cap. She points right at Krishnankutty. “How do you know it’s one of our family members making the sounds? Can’t it just be machinery? Some kind of false hope?”

I nervously gulp air as Krishnankutty wipes the sweat beading on his face. All the noise in here is squeezing my lungs. I don’t know how anyone can breathe.

Krishnankutty wipes his face as he addresses Marnie’s questions: “Not long after breaking through and deploying sound equipment, rescuers heard a clear and distinct pattern they said could not be caused by machinery. Various tools striking within feet of the bore hole. Now, we have to get a line in there to establish contact. We also need to make sure that survivors have enough air to last the duration of the rescue. We plan on inserting video communications, food, water and any medicine that’s needed. We’re also still drilling into another part of the tunnel at site No. 2. We need to know where everyone is. We’re working hard to get you that information. Rest assured we plan on telling you as much as we can before alerting members of the press.”

Mrs. Jordan can’t seem to calm down. “This is insane. There needs to be a breathing tube down there now! What if they’re running out of air? You have to do something.”

“We’re doing all we can,” Krishnankutty says.

“But what if you’re not?” she counters.

Someone else says matter-of-factly: “My husband is down there.”

Mr. Koh is vocal as well. His eyes are tired and scared. “My wife is trapped,” he says. “I need answers. You can’t just let her suffocate. What if she can’t get to her breathing apparatus?”

He’s right. Survivors need to have air. That’s why the Sixth Rule of Survival is Breathe. You have to find a way to get to air quickly. No air means no ability to eat or access food, no communications, no escape, nothing.

. . .

At Big Bear Dad checked the ventilation in the safety corridor beneath the cabin. We sloshed through the water we’d flooded down there and found an air hole that went out the side of the hill where there was nothing but rocks. No forest canopy at all was there, which Dad said meant no cinders would fall into the shaft. He knocked some dirt out of the way and an old bird’s nest before he was satisfied.

David wasn’t assured by the discovery. He was convinced that our idea of a breathing tube wasn’t going to work once the fire reached us. “We’re just going to cook,” he said. “Are you even aware at what temperatures a forest burns? Trees burst into flame at nearly 600 degrees. Surface fire temperatures can be more than twice that. And those big trees? Try flames more than fifty feet high that can reach even higher temps. You really think this tube can withstand 2,000 degrees if it gets that hot?”

. . .

I feel suffocated by everything. There’s so much noise in the Family Tent from everyone arguing with Krishnankutty that I get off the chair and start forcing my way through all the arms and bodies and legs.

It’s the terrifying weight of the mountain, the way it must have come down on Dad, trapping him and the other workers like some kind of giant creature swallowing them all. You ever see the famous photo of the carnivorous Australian green tree frog swallowing a snake? In the image the snake takes one last gasp of air just before it completely slithers down the frog’s wide throat. When I think of that image I can hardly breathe. Poor snake. Poor Dad. Poor everyone.

I stop near the entrance trying not to imagine snake-eating frogs. The mountain towers above this small tent city.

Suddenly Peter taps me on the arm. I guess he said something, but I wasn’t listening.

“What?” I ask. I’m a little mean and immediately feel bad.

“Do you want to go outside?” he asks anyway.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Let’s get out of here.”

Peter and I slip around the side of the tent and plop ourselves on some boxes. He pulls something out of his pocket. “Here, check this out,” he says. He’s taken the biggest cookies from the tent and a soda.

“Oh, man, I’m starved,” I say, realizing I needed a recharge. We start chowing. The cookie is delicious. It’s quiet for a minute or so.

“I had to get out of there,” he says. “Dad’s driving me crazy he’s so scared. He thinks worse things than just about anybody.”

I take another bite and talk with my mouth full, trying to swallow at the same time. “Aren’t you scared too?” I ask.

“Not as much as him. Mom always talks about safety. I know exactly what she would do in an earthquake. She would have a breathing mask close at all times. She knows the safest places to hide, Safe Havens 1, 2, 3, or 4, and how to stay alive. Those shelters are in parts of the tunnel that have been more heavily fortified. They have emergency supplies in case of collapses. It’s sorta my fault I know this. I ask about earthquakes all the time. She’s safe though. I can feel it.”

“You can?” I’m starting to feel a little better about everything. Somehow talking to Peter is helping me to calm. I guess it is good to be at the camp as long as you can find someone to talk to.

“Yeah,” Peter says. “She and some of the other workers were on their way to Safe Haven 2. I bet that’s where Drill No. 1 broke through. Anyone who made it there will be safe. She says tunnel collapses these days are rare and wouldn’t include the entire tunnel anyway if it did. Just some cross sections outside of the safe havens.”

“Really?”

“She says the main worry in tunnels is fire. That’s the real danger and can suck out all the oxygen. That only happens when there are trains and cars using the tunnel. Only a few cars and machines are ever under the mountain. It’s not like a whole section of freeway traffic is in there.”

A flash of Big Bear comes like lightning. I don’t want to think about fire. For once I’d rather talk about earthquakes. “Then why is your Dad so worried?” I shove the last bite of cookie into my mouth while Peter opens the soda, takes a drink and offers me some. I slurp down a good portion.

He doesn’t answer my question. “Save some for me,” he laughs.

“Oh. Sorry.” I hand him the rest.

Peter takes a few sips and I feel better. “I wish we weren’t here,” he says.

I nod, nervous about the mountain’s eyes on me again. “Me either.”

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