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
Climbing From The Center Of The Earth
The bus engine rattles. Its brakes hiss. Another bus rumbles behind us. I’m squeezed next to Mom. Grandma Benita sits next to my sisters. Bella squirms in Janelly’s arms. Half of Snapers is flopped on my sisters’ laps. Alex and my uncles Reuben and Shaun and Aunt Tanzina sit somewhere toward the back.
“The trip is only about a mile and a quarter. But some of the route is a little steep,” Krishnankutty says. His eyes seem circled with patches of black. If anyone hasn’t slept much, I bet it’s him.
The bus rocks back and forth as we travel into the hills. Glimpses of stars glitter through the windows while shafts of light beam somewhere in front of us straight into the heavens. Soon we take a dirt route that steeply climbs into one of the mountain’s wider ravines. It almost feels like a tunnel here where the cliffs tower on either side. The bus groans upward. The engine cries.
“This is a rough ride,” Grandma Benita says. “I hope it’s easier for those coming out.”
I already know the trapped workers will have it the roughest. Krishnankutty says their journey from the collapsed tunnel to the surface will take an average of about ten minutes. He tells us the rescue carriage, which I saw in a KTLA news exclusive, resembles a space-age Star Trek photon torpedo casing. It’s only a fraction smaller than the bore hole. That means tight quarters, so it has to be taken slow. “Inch by inch at times,” Krishnankutty tells us. “Every dozen feet or so is a new checkpoint . . . Everything about the journey up is carefully monitored, which rescuers can see real-time via a computer-simulated virtual reality of the climb. There’s also a point of no return on the way up.”
“What is that?” Mrs. Andrade asks.
Someone else answers. It’s Betty Jimenez. “If one of our loved ones gets paranoid and wants out, or can’t breathe, then the help is up here, not down there.”
“She’s right,” Krishnankutty says as the bus continues its ascent in the ravine. “The real help is at the surface. They all need to come up. If the lifting of the carriage stalls past the point of no return, we must find a way to bring it up, not let it back down into the hole. That’s the danger of this situation.”
“So then someone might die in the bore hole?” Mrs. Andrade asks.
“We don’t have to think like that at all,” Krishnankutty says. “We have to consider that all obstacles can and will be overcome.”
“Who will be brought up first?” she asks.
“First, the most wounded workers: Jimenez and Andrade,” he says. “Emergency crews will tend to them as soon as they reach the surface. All workers will greet family, then be taken either to the medical tent for a quick assessment, or directly to ambulance transport. I have to confirm but I think Mr. Andrade may be the first. After him will be Sammy Bowser. He’s fallen ill, though I don’t know with what.”
Mrs. Andrade’s lips move but she can’t seem to speak. A woman next to her puts an arm around her. “You’re going to see Eulalio soon.”
“I know. I know,” Mrs. Andrade whispers.
Finally the bus enters an even wider area filled with vehicles and machinery. Every face around me is lit with flashing lights. Giant floodlights tower over the scene.
The bus rumbles and groans. Everyone stares out the bus windows. Someone points to the rescue carriage tube being lowered into the hole. It’s terrifying.
Grandma Benita crosses herself. “Mother Mary. It’s like a coffin.”
Mrs. Jimenez and some of the others gasp. They’re thinking the same thing. “It’s more like a photon torpedo casing,” I say. “From Star Trek.”
“Yeah, well someone got buried in one. I remember the film,” one of Mr. Jimenez’ relatives says.
“Will you just stop?” Mom says. “All of you. No more talk of death.”
A few others agree. Grandma Benita gets a guilty look on her face. “Sorry m’ijo,” she says. I can tell she means it.
“What’s Star Trek?” Maria asks.
A few of the adults laugh.
Maria does too although she doesn’t know why.
It gets really quiet as we pull to a stop and the engine turns off. Snapers lets out a low whine, like he knows something is happening. Bella seems intimidated for the first time in her life.
We’ve all seen Drill Site No. 2 on the news. But seeing the giant drill lifted out of the hole, the cranes in the distance, and the machinery attached to the rescue carriage in person brings a chill to the back of my neck. Not to mention the mountain’s rocky crags partly lit from the floodlights feel otherworldly, like this is an exploratory mission, a lift-off rather than a descent deep into a man-made pocket of dust and debris. Huge boulders and jagged ridges dimly light a rough skyline. The word “surreal” whips into my head again and again. For a second I imagine we’re nestled in the heart of an ominous moon station, that a ship is ready to lift into the stars, that maybe Dad is at the helm, and maybe me or an android could help co-pilot the ship out of here.
Nearby, trailers and more tents have been set up. Our two buses and a string of jeeps and other vehicles have made their way up the mountain to join the parade of fire engines and ambulances. We make for a flashing line of vehicles as engines idle, some loudly, though nothing is as thunderous as the engine attached to the carriage lift system that reaches down into the widened bore hole.
When we all start stepping off the bus, Krishnankutty points to an area about twenty-five yards from the drill site. The area is marked with ropes. Some chairs have been brought up for those who don’t want to stand. “We have cots in the medical tent if any need to lie down,” he says. “There’s also an area for water and coffee.”
No one goes to the tents. Everyone lines up along the ropes. We’re each handed hardhats, even the kids. We all put them on. Just in front of us is another staging area, and yet another one to our left where the governor and some other officials survey the scene. We watch and listen. Machinery churns and ka-chunk ka-chunks while the rescue carriage cable is lowered deeper and deeper into the hole. Several long minutes go by before someone yells, “Floor! Stabilize! Lift door open!” Rescuers with walkie-talkies call into them while a sound system broadcasts faint noises from the distant collapsed tunnel.
Topside, this is Cave Two, comes a muffled voice over the system. I’m not sure if it’s Dad talking. We’ve got entry in the carriage. The door is sealed. Clear.
Right afterwards, someone near the bore hole calls out, “Carriage seal confirmed. Commence lift.” Then the machinery comes to life again, rotating around and around, this time winding the cable, lifting the carriage.
“Is it my husband?” Mrs. Andrade asks.
Krishnankutty talks into his walkie-talkie. A few seconds later he turns to her. “Confirmed. Your husband is on board. We can’t hear him though. His mic is only wired into headsets right now . . . His vital signs are stable and the carriage should be to the surface shortly.” He takes some of the rope away and tells her, “Please enter the staging area.” He motions to the other ropes that are maybe fifteen yards from the bore hole.
“Three to go,” I say.
Mrs. Andrade exits our area with half a dozen adults and several kids. She starts praying that the carriage will reach the surface, that she will see her husband again, that she won’t lose him. She prays that she still has faith.
Grandma Benita is already crying. Others among us are too.
“Why is everyone so sad?” Maria asks.
The minutes pass slowly. Snapers and Bella lie in the dirt. Everyone is silent except for the hum of engines.
Finally we see the top of the rescue carriage. Within moments it’s pulled out of the hole. Mrs. Andrade and some of the others cover their mouths as rescuers move to the carriage and unlatch the door. Two rescue personnel are there with a gurney. Then the door opens. A rumble rises from everyone watching as paramedics talk to Mr. Andrade who is still huddled inside. Finally, they assist him out. He falls into their arms as they slip him onto the gurney. It’s hard to see but he starts yelling for his wife. “Carmina! Carmina!”
Mrs. Andrade ducks under the rope and runs to her husband, yelling, “Eulalio! I’m here!” He lies crying on the gurney like some kind of wounded, dirty thing. Though he is clearly weak and in pain, he reaches out. She puts an arm around him and kisses his face. When that happens everyone cheers.
There isn’t a dry eye. Even Maria and Sharon are crying. I can’t help thinking about Dad. Though no one says he’s hurt, I can’t help but wonder what shape he will be in. Will there be any problems? Will he be forever changed?
“Such a reunion,” Grandma Benita says. “So beautiful. They haven’t seen each other in so long. He’s come from the center of the earth to be with her.”
“Clear the area!” a rescue worker calls as the gurney is pulled away and the carriage lowers for a second time.
“Two to go,” I say as Eulalio is taken to an ambulance and whisked away.
Bella barks for a snack, and the girls, who have a backpack filled with goodies, hand her some treats. Bella barks again after some of her snacks are dropped and Snapers gobbles them.
It’s now Mrs. Jimenez’ turn to be allowed in the forward staging area. Seven or eight others are with her, crammed together, holding hands. She’s way louder than Mrs. Andrade and calls out, “Michael Garcia Jimenez, I love you! Come home! Come home!”
Several of her family members with her cheer and pray loudly. So do some of the people in the crowd we’re in.
It’s thirty long minutes before we hear, “Commence lift,” and another fifteen minutes before the carriage again opens.
“My feet are already tired,” Grandma Benita says. She refuses to sit down when Mom offers her a chair. “I’ll sit after the last soul is rescued,” she says.
This time a bedraggled Michael Garcia Jimenez hops from the rescue carriage on one leg right into a wheelchair. Some kind of splint that had been previously lowered into the hole wraps his injured leg. Someone says he insisted on a wheelchair, not a gurney. “He said he wasn’t going to lie down,” says a relative. By now he’s been wheeled all the way over to where his wife stands crying and bawling. His wheelchair is practically knocked over backwards as his wife hugs him. Everyone claps and roars their approval as the carriage is again lowered into the long descent to the collapsed tunnel.
“One to go,” I say as Michael Garcia Jimenez and his family disappear to the medical tent in a storm of relieved sobs. Maybe Dad will be next.
This time when the rescue carriage opens, a sickly Sammy Bowser comes out. At first I think there must be a snake in there with him, because he runs right into the arms of his wife Marnie, who meets him several yards from the carriage, weeping. After an intense hug, the entire crowd of family and friends escort him to another wheelchair, then to the medical tent.
I wonder if Dad will be so thin. Thinking about him hurts so much. Everything is in slow motion now. Then I remember David. He didn’t follow every rule of survival, while we did. I have no way of knowing if Dad has followed all the rules this time. I don’t want him to do anything wrong. I want him to be safe. I want every rule to work the way they’re supposed to.
“Dad’s turn,” I whisper. I feel my guts flip around and around as Krishnankutty motions that it’s our turn to enter the forward staging area. This is it, I think. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is why I freaked out at school, ran from Mr. Boles, crawled in the mud and touched a rock that made me transport into the dark gloomy underground beneath the mountain. This is why I slept in the closet in what I thought was a stranger’s house. This is why I trekked into the tunnel with my friends and a kid who hates me. And this is why I let all of that stuff about the fire, and the 12 Rules of Survival back in my head. If not, how would I have ever heard of Marina, or got to know Mom’s survival story? Or understand how Dad and I could survive together while being so far apart? I think I know who I am now. I think I know I can make it through this even though Dad isn’t here yet.
Fifteen minutes later I hear, Carriage seal confirmed. Commence lift. The words make me anxious, like something is slowly rising in my stomach, crawling all the way to my chest. Grandma Benita starts whispering some prayer while Mom quietly puts a hand on my shoulder. I think about what this all means to her. I realize she’s sacrificed a lot for me. Everyone has. Mom has taken a big risk by allowing me to stay with her. I guess it could have gone really wrong. It almost did. And when Dad gets here, it still could. Only, now I’m not worried what he thinks about them so much as I just want to see him. Hug him. And never let go.
“One hundred meters,” I hear someone say. The machine is still running, churning. The cable is winding and screeching.
My sisters are holding the dogs like they’re squeezing stuffed animals during a scary movie. “What’s taking so long?” Maria asks.
“Seventy-five meters,” comes a voice.
“Everything is stable,” Krishnankutty says. “It’s taking longer, but the lift is working. Just a few more minutes.”
I think about the last time Dad and I saw the sky together. We were heading to school that morning of the earthquake. Funny thing is, I can’t remember much about the air or clouds that day. I bet he does. Right now the stars and moon are washed out by the floodlights. The machinery hums. A lot of us are here in the forward staging area—some of Dad’s friends I didn’t realize—including Rudy Perez and others. Everyone is quiet. I bet they’re praying. In a way I do too. This is mine: Dad, please come up through the ground in the photon torpedo, all the way up, and remember that while you do, we’re always together. I’m there too. Every slow second. I’m there with you.
Suddenly Snapers whines the same way just before he chases a robin in the backyard.
The top of the carriage
pulls out of the hole.
My stomach is in my throat. “What is it?” I say to Snapers. He let’s out a sort of whiney bark, then a few more.
“I can hardly hold him,” Sharon squeals, and just like that, as the carriage is pulled the rest of the way out of the ground, Snapers breaks free.
“Oh no,” Grandma Benita says as I take off too.
Bella isn’t going to be left out and leaps out of Maria’s arms. She’s after Snapers who heads straight for the carriage.
As I fly across the dirt I quickly realize I’m not running after Snapers at all, who puts on the brakes near the carriage, barking crazily. I know where I’m going as I’m pulled along by this intense love that all comes pouring out at once.
As soon as the door opens, a thin, dirt-covered man wipes at his face and beard and stumbles into the bright white floodlights. He squints into the vista of machines, barking dogs, cheering people, and me, scrambling as if running from invisible hands. And he’s wearing a dark blue Dodgers cap.
“David,” I think for the tiniest moment, then realize that it’s Dad, that he kept David’s hat all this time. That somehow he had a secret friend help him under the mountain the way I had old and new friends help me up above.
Dad grins a kind of smile I’ve never seen in my life, and though it must be hard, he steps forward a few more paces and practically gets tackled by Snapers who licks at his face and runs in a circle, whimpering the happiest whines a dog can ever make. Bella is there too, racing around, yapping and howling. Dad greets her too, happy to be met by such joy.
Everything else is slow motion. Dad hardly has time to reach out as I throw my arms around him. “I missed you, Dad! I missed you! Don’t ever leave me again!” I yell and cry as we’re all one big smelly ball of fur and grubby tunnel-worker clothes.
Dad laughs and cheers as if I’m the one being rescued. “You were with me in there every second.” He cries and strokes my face as if to see if I’m real. “I even thought I saw you once. I heard your voice.”
I can’t even answer and just keep hugging.
The news cameras, which have been rolling during every rescue are filming leaping dogs, my embrace with Dad, all the crying rescue workers tired from lack of sleep, like Krishnankutty, who wipes his eyes and nods, and Mr. Tamaki, who like a ghost drifts at the edge of the flood lights. Within a few seconds Mom is there too. My sisters are chasing Bella, trying to get a hold of her, and Grandma Benita is a bawling mess, saying, “M’ijo! M’ijo,” to Dad, “How much your son loves you!”
Dad doesn’t say anything about Mom but smiles at her as if he somehow knew, and grins at all the children, and uncles, and friends, and everyone who is there, who are doing exactly what Maria said it would be all along, a celebration. Dad’s not mad at all. He looks relieved, dirty, thin, worn-out, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.
Finally, even though I know it’s because he was the most healthy of the trapped workers, I say, “Dad, why did you have to come out last?”
He laughs as medical personnel lead all of us toward the medical tent. “Someone had to turn out the lights,” he says.
Snapers barks again. Bella snorts.
Then Dad turns to Mom. “Thank you,” he says. He grabs her hand in both of his, then hugs me again and again as we walk. Mom has tears in her eyes.
I hang on tight then turn to see who is following us. For now, everyone is with us—Mom, cousins, sisters, uncles, aunt and Grandma. They’re all still here.