By Dave Cline
Tomas Rendillo rented a faded blue cottage on Old Woods Drive in a cozy coastal town in Oregon. Within the home a glass sunroom provided scenic views out over the Little Nestucca River Valley, a valley that ran from the Pacific coast up into the the coastal range. From his favorite wicker chair, one that creaked with every move, he could see across the river’s floodplain to Cloverdale and the town’s hilltop school, its few storefronts and the US Post Office that sat out in the flats next to the river.
Tomas drifted up and down the Oregon coast, writing his travelogues, photographing unique flowers and bird species, and, for the most part, enjoying his early retirement. The bustle of the crowds and the heat of summer had come and gone, and Tomas settled into a comfortable pattern of reading, writing and exploring. But, sometimes the mid-autumn surprised the locals with a warm cloudless day, where a quick drive down to Pacific City and the beach there, would put him in the midst of happy folks frolicking on the sand; folks who lived their whole year in or around town, struggling to make a living in the off-season. During such excursions he didn’t see many birds but the feeling of community revitalized his sense of the place, reminding him why he chose this lifestyle.
However, today wasn’t one of those inviting sunny tokens of summer. The morning dawned grey with moisture dripping from the cedars around the cottage and thick coastal fog lumbering in in great rolling waves up the valley. A breeze managed to intimidate some of the fog to drift away and it was then he spied cautious birds dabbing in puddles and flitting over the tops of the emerald green grass. During the break, Tomas’ keen eyes noticed these fleeting specs out on the field near the river. Using his ever-handy binoculars he identified spotted sandpiper, killdeer and golden-plover; whether the plover was American or Pacific he couldn’t tell. These last pair of birds were some he would add as newly identified in his bird log.
His phone’s attendant chimed next to him as he sipped sugary tea, “An email from the Pacific City library has been received.”
Tomas looked down at the phone, a relentless habit, and spoke, “Read email.”
The attendant continued, “Your reserved list of titles has arrived in full. Library hours will be from noon to eight pm tonight. The library is located…”
Tomas cut off the recitation. “Remind me at four pm to go to the library.”
“A reminder to ‘go to the library’ has been set for four pm,” replied the agent in a voice reminiscent of his late wife Rialla.
Rialla had died from a stroke four years ago. 23AndMe had warned them of her predilection to the possibility, a pattern of blood vessels and inexplicable clotting concerns, but they’d ignored it. What could you do with such information? Tomas had allowed the phone attendant to scan through his videos of his wife and extract the pattern and tone of her voice. Some found it disturbing. For Tomas, the small comfort of hearing her musical voice calmed and reassured him. Her name even provided the prompt to enable his phone’s agent to begin listening.
“Rialla,” he began.
“I am listening, Tomas,” replied his phone.
“Please record the sighting of a golden-plover for this time and date.”
Rialla, the agent, replied, “The sighting of a golden-plover has been recorded.”
“Thank you.” The widower could not help his innate courtesy.
“You are welcome, Tomas.”
Lunch for an older man might often be described as bland. But for Tomas, lunch was an opportunity to enjoy the area’s still vigorous produce suppliers. Greens, peppers, late harvest tomatoes, squash and some delicious Japanese sweet potatoes filled his refrigerator. Tart Tillamook cheddar and pepperjack melted over locally crafted masa tortillas, grilled papas, and homemade salsa made a colorful and aromatic meal.
“Rialla, please add avocados and eggs to our shopping list.” Tomas’ natural acceptance of having a digital personal assistant at his beck and call was testament to the success of such technology. He still drove his own vehicle, an old model plug-in hybrid, but that was because he felt uncomfortable riding with a driver or traveling in one of the recently approved autonomous cars. The thought of a seaside cliff plunge into the churning waters of the Pacific, all due to the error of some automated sensor, dissuaded Tomas from ever using such a service.
The fog had returned to the valley that stretched out before him as he sat back in his chair with lunch in hand and a tall glass of water containing an ounce or two of zinfandel wine to give it flavor.
It was obviously chilly outside. The winds swirled the fog, driving it up the small hill where he sat, tossing the fir and cedar branches about like marionettes. But the glass sunroom remained cozy, its double paned windows receiving the pale light and its dark stone floor storing the heat and radiating it back into the room. Tomas felt content, secure. Outside, the air ran with the scent of the shore and the cries of gulls and terns kiting in the gusts. But inside, as Tomas finished his lunch, he considered himself lucky.
And then an odd rattling began, like a lumber truck bearing down the road, shaking the cabinets on their hinges. Tomas looked in awe as a physical wave of earth heaved itself up across the field and rippled from right to left, from the direction of the sea, as though a giant was gripping the earth and shaking it like a carpet, causing a thunderous wave to race across the plain in front of him, disappearing up the Little Nestucca River Valley. Then, a tumultuous rumbling began, throwing Tomas to the floor as it heaved and convulsed beneath him. Instantly, he knew he must escape this room of glass. Scrabbling along he managed to make the doorway as the eight large panels of double paned windows imploded into the room. He felt shards strike his covered legs but he remained unmarked. He lay, crying out to Rialla, as the entire cottage beat against itself, tearing siding and lighting, timbers and flooring into shredded pieces of its once picturesque appearance.
“Rialla! Rialla! The earth, it’s thrashing me, tormenting me.”
“Hello, Tomas, I am listening,” chimed the agent from the phone still in his pants pocket.
“Rialla! The house, it will collapse upon me.”
The agent, attempting to interpret Tomas’ statement, replied, “I can notify the rental agency that the home requires repairs.”
“No, no. Rialla, a great earthquake is upon us. It will destroy this house.”
The raging temblor continued to pummel the home. Every window broken, every picture, trinket or feature dashed to the ground. However, the house stuck to its foundation, which helped it combat a common fault of homes destroyed in earthquakes, that of shifting off of their foundations and collapsing.
The agent responded brightly, “The Juan de Fuca tectonic plate sliding beneath the North American plate gives rise to the Cascade Mountain range. Earthquakes along the northwest are expected to be some of the largest on record. If you are in an earthquake along the coast, once the earth ceases shaking, immediately seek higher ground. A tsunami will arrive within ten to twenty minutes and may flood as high as one hundred feet above sea level. Tsunami warning…”
“Rialla, shut up! I need help, not a lesson!” Tomas barked.
The earth shook for another sixty seconds. Four minutes and four seconds after it began, the ground stilled and the deafening noise of renting wood and shattering glass ceased. The calm that descended penetrated the man’s mind making him think he’d lost his hearing. “Rialla?”
“I am here Tomas, listening,” she replied.
“Rialla, mark the time,” Tomas asked softly.
“The time has been marked at one sixteen pm, October eighteenth of the year 2024. Do you wish to label this mark?”
“Yes, please name this mark, ‘Earthquake’,” he announced gravely.
“This time mark has been labeled ‘Earthquake’. Would you like to record a message to attach to this mark?” queried his faithful agent.
“No. I mean, yes. Yes. Begin, It has come. The devastation is upon us. Upon me…”
In his pause, the lonesome wail of the tsunami warning sirens began.
He continued, “I live, but for how long I do not know. The waters are coming and we must save who we can. I will make it down to my neighbors to help if I may. The hill behind the cottage is above the flood and we will be there until, until. I don’t know how long. But I am safe. I will contact you all after the tsunami.
“Rialla, save the message and send it out as an email to all personal contacts. Please.”
After an unexpectedly long pause, the agent replied, “Tomas, network connectivity is unavailable. Should I proceed when connectivity is restored?”
The winds blowing up the valley warbled the sirens blaring song. Tomas was able to raise himself off the floor in the doorway where he remained for the duration of the temblor. The house stood. He looked out the empty windows across to his neighbor’s home leaning over diagonally like it had been pushed over by the giant that shook the land.
“Yes, please. As soon as you can connect, send it. Oh, what’s your battery level?”
“My current battery power is eighty two percent of capacity.”
Tomas breathed a sigh of relief. He’d often forget to set the phone on its power-plate. Last night he’d been true to one of his wife’s nagging requests, “Charge your damn phone, cabrone!”
“Rialla, power down to periodic listening only.” He would save battery power for as long has he could. “Hold on, what time is it?”
“The time is one twenty-two pm. Powering down.”
The man rummaged through his closet and found his hiking boots and rucksack full of basic survival and camping gear and a few days worth of dried food. He donned a wool sweater, his rain pants, slicker and hat. He found his work gloves and walked out of the cottage down the hill, across Old Woods Drive and up to the leaning home of his neighbors Ben and Adina Zamakis. The tsunami sirens echoed across the valley as the entire area waited in fear of the next phase; the worst phase of the catastrophe, the flood.
“Ben! Adina! Are you here?”Tomas shouted loudly.
As in his cottage, every pane of glass, every precariously balanced memento had been shattered or tossed to the ground. The house had folded to the left, like a parallelogram, and had only stopped when its side had encountered the woodshed packed cords full of fir and oak.
Tomas made his way around to the back and glanced west seeking the wave he dred was coming. “Rialla, what is the time?” he asked his assistant.
After a few seconds and no reply he remembered he’d put her into a slow polling mode, one that would only check once every thirty seconds for her trigger name. He reached for his phone, but the agent responded in time. “I am awakening. I am here Tomas, listening.”
“Rialla, what is the time,” he repeated.
“The time is one twenty-five pm.”
He performed a quick calculation. “Let’s see, nine minutes, we have maybe ten before we must head up the hill. Ben! Ben! Are you here?”
A muffled barking rose from within the fallen home. Tomas stood at the back of the house, the door had burst into pieces from the pressure and the entrance to the home was a dark hole from which a dog’s whining could now be heard.
“Chief! I’m coming.” Tomas set his backpack down, retrieved the flashlight and crawled into the now Seussian home. Through the kitchen with its fallen chairs and shattered decorative plates, he heard the dog’s pleading to his left and followed it into the short hall to the master bedroom. At the far side a tall dresser had fallen across the queensized bed and drawers were pinning down Ben Zamakis, who lay struggling. Adina, in her attempt to reach her husband, had been struck by a falling book shelf, she lay on the floor unconscious.
“Ben! It’s Tomas. I’m going to try to pull you out from under the dresser.”
Ben, exhausted from his attempts to free himself, begged his neighbor, “Tomas, oh, thank God. Addy, where is she?”
“She’s here Ben, on the floor, I think she’s hurt. But I can’t move her without your help. So help me free you first.”
Between the two of them sliding scattering drawers Ben was able to shimmy over to the close side of the bed. “Oh, Addy, what happened?”
“Ben, we must drag her from the house, the wave is coming; Rialla, what is the time?”
“The time is one thirty-one pm.”
“Oh, geeze, we have just a few minutes. Pull Ben, pull!”
The two older gentlemen rolled the unresponsive woman onto the bed’s comforter and managed to drag her through the kitchen and out into the grey, windy day.
“Ben, you have sixty seconds, fetch shoes and heavy clothing for you and Adina. Don’t ask questions, just go!” Tomas’ nervous looks across the field to the west filled the other fellow’s mind with fear. He, too, knew what followed such an earthquake as they’d just experienced.
“Damn it, Ben! Adina is not coming around and we must carry her up the hill.”
The older fellow emerged on his hands and knees dragging coats and boots. “We can use the wheelbarrow. It’s in the woodshed,” Ben told Tomas as he stood up from his crawl.
The pair of them managed to lift and settle Ben’s wife and their gear into the deep bucket wheelbarrow, and Tomas slung his rucksack and took the first turn at maneuvering the cart around the house, across the soggy lawn and onto the gravel up to Old Woods Drive.
“Chief! Chief come on, boy!” yelled Ben.
“What’s wrong?” bullied Tomas.
“I don’t know. But I can’t leave him.”
“Rialla, the time?”
“The time is one thirty-five pm.”
“Thirty seconds. Go! I’ll push Adina up the drive. Go! Don’t look at me!”
The top of the drive, with the slight woman, her legs hanging out the front of the wheelbarrow, her arms tucked onto her chest, proved too much for Tomas to achieve in one long push. Nearly to the road he turned to wait for Ben.
The cracking snap of a huge timber, like the sound of close thunder — near enough to raise your arm hair — brought Tomas out of his gasping pause for breath. A half mile distant he could see trees whip down, like the Devil himself grabbing their roots and tugging them under. Then the double story hay barn, three fields over, shifted to the left and started to melt, shrinking in height until it disappeared from sight below the brush along the road. “Ben! It’s coming. Get OUT OF THERE!”
The barking dog burst around the side of the house running up to Tomas. “Chief, where’s Ben, go get Ben!”
The dog, sniffing the stockinged feet of Adina, held fast to the side of the wheelbarrow.
“Damnation. Damn, damn, damn!” Tomas watched as first the shooting face of the front wave blasted the water from the river, flooding the fields. It was followed by a twenty-foot tall monstrous wall of unstoppable mud, water and debris. To his right, down past the second curve where the road vanished around a hill, the hoard of flailing timbers and tumbling chaos pushed up and over the road encroaching the land forty or fifty feet above sea level. Tomas realized he was much too low. “Damn,” he said, one last time.
Tomas grabbed the handles of the cart and pushed with all his might up over the tarmac road, along the twenty yards to his own drive and then up toward his house. He looked back when he reached a few steps on his path, his breath incapable of keeping up with his exertion. Ben was just coming around the woodshed and making his way in a half trot that few of his age with a bum leg could manage. The brown tumbling beast of the massive tsunami, consuming every live or dead thing in its path, rolled over the tilted house as if it owned it. Tomas was still too low.
The edges of the colossal wave of sludge pitched up at times in the uneven dips and crests of the land beneath it, forcing itself up much higher than an observer would expect possible. Tomas made the level on which the cottage was built, but even that, he surmised, might not be high enough. He turned to look back, remorsefully, knowing what he would not find. The heartless wave had consumed all of the green, the land, the pasture, the buildings and farms and barns and livestock. The gritty foul beast had taken Ben without a sound from the old man as he had, no doubt, watched his friend and neighbor, Tomas, wheel his wife and dog up the hill to safety.
“Come on Chief, you owe your life now, time to earn your keep. Find us a safe spot up above all this destruction.”
Tomas pressed forward, aware that a second and potentially a third wave could push into the valley tearing into the cottage and areas even higher than he currently stood. He knew of a small glade a few hundred yards up from the faded blue cottage. After numerous pauses, each one getting longer than the last, he eventually made the site and, without Ben’s help, awkwardly tipped Adina out onto a tarp he’d spread. She stirred at the rough treatment, moaning out her husband’s name. Tomas assumed, rightly, she’d incurred a concussion. So he spent the next hour setting a camp, tending to Adina and listening to the sirens and the creaking and unholy cracking of large trees, the low rumble of hundreds of buildings, machinery, cars and fuel tanks all being ground down and mixed into the morass of total destruction that was happening from Pacific City all the way up to Hebo; miles of low coastal valley wrecked and ruined in minutes.
“Oh my Lord, not another one!” wailed Adina as she lay under a second tarp Tomas had rigged as a lean-to. The third aftershock wracked the forest around them, doing little further damage; what had survived the first tumultuous shaking would survive these five and six Richter-scale temblors.
“There’s no more danger Adina, we’ll be getting these for days. They can bring down damaged buildings and bridges, but where we are, there’s nothing to hurt us.” Tomas’ steady words calmed the woman back into her strange euphoric state. She thought they were camping at a local state park, the intermittent aftershocks forcing her mind to bubble up into reality for a few seconds, after which she returned to her fantasy. Tomas had determined that her injury was non-life threatening, the swollen bump on the side of her head had begun to subside and she was without lacerations.
“I told Ben, ‘Ben, that bookcase is going to come tumbling down when the big one hits.’ I said, ‘You need to get some of those angle brackets and nail that dark ugly thing to the wall.’ But did he listen? No. And now look at me. I, I… Are you camping with us Mr. Rendillo? Where is Ben?” The poor woman had been babbling like this for an hour after she awoke. Ben figured additional waves had come through by now and the sounds of helicopters had been constant, flying up and down the valley doing what Tomas knew was more important than rescuing a couple of old folks on a hill.
“I’ll get a campfire going, what do you say?” Tomas asked encouragingly.
“I do like campfires. Chief likes campfires too, don’cha boy!” The dog had remained loyal to the woman and had only left her side when Tomas offered him a strip of dried jerky.
Tomas was unwilling to explain their situation until he knew the woman would remain lucid. Even then he was reticent to traumatize her further with the knowledge of the loss of her husband. So he pushed off the task, hoping that perhaps tomorrow she would wake stable, but still confused as to their surroundings.
“I have jerky and curried rice and raisins for dinner. It’s one of my camp-cook specialties. Are you getting hungry, Adina?”
“That’s a nice fire you’ve got going there, Mr. Rendillo.”
“You can call me Tomas.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, not without my Benjamin around.” She took the offered aluminum bowl of food and began to eat heartily. Nearly done she looked up with the spoon halfway to her mouth, “Tomas? Where is Ben?”
“Oh, he’ll be along. I’ve got chocolate and granola for dessert. But first how about some herbal tea?”
“Oh, that would be fine. And this is delicious camp-fare. You are a good cook, Mr. Rendillo.”
“Why, thank you.” Tomas busied himself with clean up and tea preparation. He’d rigged a buried “Y” branch and a long stick as a tripod for heating water, which fascinated the woman as he had set it up.
“Here you are,” he said as he handed the woman a cup of steaming tea. “It’ll be dark soon and in the morning we can talk, all right? But tonight we’ll just focus on trying to get some sleep.”
Adina received the cup, nodding her thanks, “I always sleep so well when we go camping.”
Tomas crossed his fingers that the spell of the outing would last through the night. If it weren’t for the constant drone of the helicopters his wish might have worked. That, and a severe aftershock that occurred in the middle of the night, waking them both, made Adina scream in fright and confusion. She was back, fully cognizant of what had happened until her injury, and Tomas found himself compelled to describe the full story of their predicament. He held her in the soft glow of the campfire coals as she sobbed uncontrollably to learn of the the last few moments of Ben’s life. Chief came to sit next to her, laying his head in her lap. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” she fretted as her mourning tears streamed down her face.
“Adina, for now, and for some time to come, we will just have to live one day at a time. Tomorrow will bring overwhelming challenges and we must be up to the task, or we will not survive this calamity.”
“Oh, Tomas, I know I should thank you, but I don’t know if I can go on without my Ben.”
“Let’s just focus on sleep, food, water, shelter, warmth. Those are simple things that can keep us occupied while we work things out.”
“I’ll try. I’ll try,” she whimpered.
“We’ll both try. We’ll find help tomorrow. You’ll see, the country will reach out in our time of need.”