The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 8: The Most Terrifying Moment


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

The Most Terrifying Moment

We’re on the front steps to Grandma Benita’s house. The door is open. My sisters are watching, trying not to look like they’re watching. Bella has been allowed back in the house but is growling, guarding a spotted red-and-white ball from Snapers’ playful paws.

“You don’t have to go to school tomorrow if you don’t want to,” Patricia says.

I hardly shrug. “I’ll go to school.”

Patricia tells me again that I can just stay home.

“I’ll go,” I say. Why wouldn’t I go to school? I don’t want to stay at Mom’s more than I have to. I know when I’m not wanted.

“Okay.” Patricia straightens her blazer. “If anything new comes up about your dad you’ll be the first to know. I won’t keep any secrets from you.”

Secrets? How many have been kept from me already? I barely knew anything about Mom. Now she’s suddenly in my life in the worst way. I didn’t know I had sisters, cousins, or a grandma who smells like a rose garden. I’m not even allowed to help in Dad’s rescue.

There’s been nothing but secrets.

After Patricia leaves, Grandma Benita can tell I’m still mad. “Don’t worry about her,” she says. “She’s just doing her job. You just focus on taking care of your father.”

If only I could. I’m trapped with this family. He’s trapped in a tunnel. If I could be there with Dad, I would. I have to find a way.

She shows me the room where I’ll be sleeping. It’s awful. Everything in it looks like a unicorn got loose with rainbow paint-rays shooting out its eyes. “It’s all yours, m’ijo,” Grandma Benita says. “The others can share rooms for now.”

For now? What does she mean, for now? Is she trying to make me stay longer? Am I going to eventually have to share a room with one of my sisters? Or my cousins? Do they all live here? This trap is getting worse by the second.

I know she brought all this food for us to eat, but the first thing I do after she leaves the room is take Snapers into the closet, slide the door closed, and sit with him in the dark.

I’m terrified. It feels like I’m surrounded by giant boulders and they’re about to fall all around me. Will they come crashing any second? Will they trap me here? Where’s Dad? Each breath is difficult to suck in. He’s somewhere in a mountain. Somewhere I can’t go. I can’t touch him. I can’t hear him. I can’t believe any of this. I try to take deep breaths but it doesn’t work. Where am I? Why am I here? I start to cry, holding Snapers close, trying to imagine Dad, but instead of imagining him inside Gabby, I imagine Big Bear and the fire.

. . .

We’d been chopping and pulling a bush from below the windows of the cabin when Dad and David started talking about a refuge chamber attached to the basement.

“It was like Hobbits lived here,” Dad said. “The basement has an escape tunnel that goes deep into the hill. We’ll go in if the flames get too close. The fire will burn right over us.”

“We’ll suffocate in there when the cabin turns to coals,” David argued.

“I don’t want to choke to death,” I added through my bandana.

Dad glanced at me. “I won’t let that happen. We’ll doublecheck to see how it ventilates. That tunnel will be our last hope.”

I hadn’t even seen the tunnel so didn’t really know what he was talking about. I imagined a giant squirrel hole in the side of the hill with maybe a Hobbit door attached.

David still wasn’t too happy about Dad’s idea. Either find our way through on one of the roads or burn up at the cabin were his choices. I didn’t want to burn up. He kept glancing at the truck and then at the fire like he was going to take his chances and race down the hill. I didn’t want to go that way either. I decided right then I’d rather be in a hole than look into flames and ash clouds.

Dad had stopped chopping and pulling. But not for long. He barked at me because I was just standing there. “Get back to soaking everything down.”

I was terrified. The hills were burning and I couldn’t imagine my every cell whirling into a tower of flames. Was this what happened to every creature of the forest? The deer, the rabbit, the fox, the butterfly, the moth, the snake, the owl, when fire comes? Did they turn to ash, to some sort of gas that finds its way to cloudbanks, to oceans, to cities, to the thin line above the atmosphere? If I was to die would I get whisked away like the glowing ash clouds floating up the mountain?

“Go, Cameron,” Dad yelled. “We all have to work.”

I picked up the hose and started watering the house and the dirt around it all over again. I kept the bandana around my face because smoke was sometimes pouring all around us. My own eyes burned and itched. I rubbed them but didn’t stop spraying water. I let the hose run in huge puddles around the cabin. I soaked everything, including myself.

. . .

This is what I think happened to Gabby and Dad . . . Lately, Gabby has been moving along like an inchworm chewing her way through the San Gabriel Mountains. She’s under the mountain because she’s building a tunnel for the California High-Speed Rail, a train that’s going to be the first in America to travel up to 220 miles per hour. Gabby and Dad are building a small part of it, a nearly 20-mile tunnel connecting Palmdale to Burbank. Eventually the entire rail line will connect San Francisco to Anaheim. They’re burrowing close to our house near Branford Street, tunneling all the way to Canyon Country. The California High-Speed Rail is considered one of the biggest tunnel projects in the world. Gabby does all of the underground construction. The front of her is called the cutterhead. That’s the part that looks like a clock face. Round, it has all kinds of cutters that look like giant steel rollerblade wheels. She has 300 of these teeth. Some grinders chomp on rock. Some break up soil. Some collect soil and bring the chomped bits into the machine through huge gaps in the cutterhead. The soil and smashed-up rocks twirl their way up a spiral corkscrew onto a conveyor belt that can stretch for miles. Even boulders can go up the corkscrew.

Behind the cutterhead is the shield. As Gabby digs and eats soil, the shield, which is a long metal tube, inches forward, building sections of a concrete tunnel. Huge pieces of concrete lining-rings automatically get put up around the tunnel, like puzzle pieces for each section, locked in place by a gigantic machine with arms, making a solid concrete ring that gets glued together.

Once each ring is made, Gabby uses another set of metal arms that work like car jacks, pushing herself against the last ring so she can move a little deeper into the tunnel. A new ring of earth and rock is exposed and she does the whole thing over again, building a new concrete ring over the dirt, moving slightly forward each time, just like an inchworm.

In the closet I feel claustrophobic thinking about all of this even though I know I’ve found my refuge chamber. I know I’ll eventually feel safe in here, but for now I’m scared imagining the earthquake hitting across the active faults inside the San Gabriel Mountains. Our science book in Mrs. Lucas class says that a fault is where a giant rock has a break or a gap. An active fault is a fault that geologists say could be the source of an earthquake. That means one or both broken sides of a fault are moving. If there is evidence of fault movement in the past 10,000 years, then it’s active.

I imagine the earthquake when it hits the mountain. Illumination inside Gabby flickers out, then emergency lights flicker back on. The whole earthquake plays in my head like a scary movie. Workers run like crazy, scrambling so they won’t suffocate, drown or get crushed. Dad pilots her until the giant cutterhead comes to a stop. The shaking of the tremor loosens the barrier between the fault and all the water trapped in the mountain, flooding the tunnel and parts of Gabby. Huge portions of earth and rock crash in through the tunnel ring. The cement ring-sections not completely in place smash and crash against metal.

The entire mountain feels like it’s slipping and falling. More water pours in from above, seeping from the walls, shooting up through floors. Parts of the cement tunnel behind Gabby that aren’t stable, crack, sag, then give way, tearing down in a storm of boulders, dirt, and a plume of soil. Stale air and gasses rip toward the tunnel entrance. Another plume, exactly the same, is filled with choking debris. It blows back into Gabby where Dad’s piloting her. He won’t have time to get out.

He has to take cover, find a safe place, a secure chamber. He has to or he’ll die.

This is my Third Rule of Survival:Find refuge.

I have to find one in this closet, and then find my way out, or I’ll be stuck with this family forever.


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