“Which way are we even headed?”
“Straight on through the trees there. I’ll let you know if you’re going the wrong direction.”
Doug shook his head and they went on into the woods. The path that had seemed like such a terror the night before was now a charming stroll. With the advantage of daylight it took but thirty minutes to reach Wilson’s truck. At first Doug would not get inside the vehicle, but after some brute persuasion he finally climbed in the cab wordlessly like a demoralized prisoner of war. Wilson started up the truck and began making the turns back toward the highway.
Several miles along he slowed to a stop. An alder tree had fallen across the road and would need to be cleared away.
“I suppose you’re gonna make me drag that off the road,” Doug said.
“Now you’re getting it.”
Wilson stood a few yards back as Doug tugged the young alder into the roadside ditch. They were just returning to the truck when Doug paused and aimed his ear at the mountain which was hidden somewhere beyond the trees.
“What’s that sound?” Doug asked.
“Stop stalling and get in the truck.”
“Seriously. Listen to that.”
It began as any shush of wind, and Wilson began to take interest as the noise rapidly grew into what sounded like innumerable pellets being fired through the forest. Overhead, the crowns of the trees were bending and snapping, and above that the scant white clouds were turning crimson and gray. Then the forest was all rumble and roar.
They had finally begun to run for the truck when a hot black raging smog swept them up like puny ragdolls and body-slammed them into the road. Wilson hit chest-first with such an impact that his lungs caved. The cracks he heard seemed to be his ribs, but were in fact the firs crashing around him. He was gasping for oxygen when a tree fell upon his legs to vise him to the hostile earth. Next a scalding brew of mud and ash began to cover him and boil his flesh. He felt his ears stiffen and curl. So hot was the slurry that he could only imagine it was lava. Choking and burning and pinned to the ground, Wilson waited for his life to end as missiles of rock and glacial ice detonated around him in that alpine apocalypse. Somehow he hadn’t even heard the mountain explode.
Death must sometimes play coy, for Wilson was finally able to filter a few breaths from the ash-dense air that coated his mouth like talcum powder. With excruciating effort, he managed to lift himself up to his elbows and twist enough to see the tree that pinned him down. He struggled, but he could do nothing to make the tree budge. His legs may have been shattered. He wasn’t sure. His gun had blown off somewhere and his skin was roasting beneath a foot of fiery ash. Below him the ground shuddered, while up above the sky churned as thickly black as diesel exhaust. What further calamity might the mountain have in store, he wondered. In which torturous manner would he die?
Wilson began to shudder and moan from the agony of his burns when he heard the sound of crunching footsteps drawing near. He shifted and found Doug’s ominous outline clarifying among the dark haze. A thin wind swirled the ash eastward just enough to accommodate some light, and then Wilson could see him clearly, the derelict looking like some wretched clay figure escaped from a kiln. Everything about him was gray, especially his hair which was coiffed up in grime. His clothes were in tatters. The exposed skin of his arms and neck and face was all charred and blistering.
Doug took several more steps and then loomed directly above Wilson. He was either smiling, or grimacing with pain, or both. A long moment of calculation passed between them as Wilson gazed up with morbid patience. He expected Doug to leave him where he lay. Or maybe even brain him with a sizzling hunk of the volcano.
“You look like you’re trapped,” Doug finally said.
Wilson awaited some clumsy coup de grâce.
“Tom? Can you hear me?”
“Yes. I’m trapped.”
Doug surveyed the fallen tree as he gagged on the choking ash. “It’s not so huge. I’ll see if I can move it.”
Wilson still thought it might be some kind of a ruse until the tree began to shift and slide down the back of his seared legs. The pain was astronomical, like a thousand bee stings every instant. Wilson shrieked and begged him to quit.
“Hang on,” Doug said. “I’ve almost got it.”
Doug squatted and lifted as much of the weight as he could manage. Even so, the bark and branches were scraping along Wilson’s calves which caused him to howl and clench his fists and dig his toes into the ash. At last the tree thumped to the ground and Wilson’s legs came free. Doug hunched over to hack out a dozen coughs that became laced with blood. Wilson rolled to his side and his right leg seemed to swing of its own accord. He slumped to the ground in despair. His femur had been fractured, and his knee was utterly demolished.
Doug had finally regained his breath and now he stared at his out-held hands, the skin peeled away and hanging from his fingers like the flesh of some rotten fruit. “My hands are garbage,” he was saying. “My hands are garbage.”
Wilson’s truck lay bent and battered in the ditch. Even if the vehicle had been operative, the road was now intersected by hundreds, if not thousands, of fallen trees. That way was impossible, so Wilson and Doug agreed the best they could do for now was to relieve their burns in the creek. With great effort, Wilson was able to rise to one leg. He began hopping along with Doug’s puzzling support, but it soon became apparent that the ash and debris made this mode of progress impossible as well. Doug went ahead with his ribboned hands flailing, and Wilson began to crawl.
It was a mere thirty yards to the creek, but the way was continually blockaded by an epic tangle of shorn and uprooted trees. The volcano had produced such an awesome lateral blast that even this many miles away only a handful of blackened firs remained standing in all the smoldering wasteland he could see. The air smelled like sulfur and the cinders of burnt fir needles.
Wilson kept pulling himself along, inch by agonizing inch. His movements were stirring up the ash so much that his windpipe kept clogging and he would stop and gasp for any air. Halfway along he reached a cluster of downed trees that had to be traversed, and it was only the most profound desperation that kept him going, for the pain of it all was beyond reckoning. As he began to crawl over yet another tree, the touch of his hand caused the bark to ignite in flame. He reeled back as sparks rose from the log like nature’s black magic.
When at last Wilson reached the creek, he slithered down the bank and into the water like some broken lizard. What had only minutes before been a cold clear stream was now a lukewarm ooze the color and consistency of sewage. Though the water was not nearly as refreshing as Wilson had hoped, it did help to soothe his tormented skin. He arranged his body as comfortably as he could and then looked for Doug. Instead he spotted several elk fifty yards upstream that were also bathing their burnt hides. One of them was clearly dead. The others seemed well on their way. Wilson lay there in that riparian ruin watching endless debris floating past. Pumice, chunks of wood and trash, many dazed and floundering birds, a dead beaver. All the lifeless shards of the forest being conveyed in a muddy seep to sea.
Wilson began to hear Doug hollering at him from somewhere downstream. He wondered why he should even bother answering, but he finally shouted out his location. In a few moments Doug came gimping around the creekbend. He’d cleansed himself of much of the ash, and now his wounds showed all the starker. His forehead hung open as if it were some frowning second mouth. His arms looked like two limp sausages left to blacken and shrivel in the pan. And his hands were indeed garbage. He splashed down next to Wilson in a silty pool and gazed heavenward.
“Look at that,” he said.
Half the sky was alive with sheets of red lightning that zapped and zizzed through the ash plume, a continuous pyrotechnic display that could out-awe a thousand celebrations of independence.
“I can’t believe it really blew,” Doug said as the ground again shook and rumbled.
Wilson coughed out half a laugh. “What the hell did you expect was going to happen?”
“I don’t know. Just didn’t think it would be like this.”
Neither the air nor the water was cold, but as they continued to bathe they each began to feel chilled. Soon enough their teeth were chattering, and then their whole bodies commenced to shake.
“What’s happening to us?” Doug asked.
“We’re going into shock.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means we won’t last long if we just sit here.”
Doug looked from Wilson to the outgoing flow of the stream. “This creek could be a way out. If we follow it down it’ll lead us to the Toutle River and into town. You can float or crawl as far as you can, and I’ll go ahead and get some help. I think that’s our best shot.”
Wilson was surprised to find himself in agreement. They decided to rest for a while and then try their luck with the creek. When they were ready, Doug stood and Wilson prepared himself for the grueling slog ahead. Then they heard a new sound, a growing rumble like that of an oncoming freight train. They shared a look of terror and began to instinctively claw back up the side of the bank, each of them stumbling and faltering in his own ragged fashion. And then it came growling around the corner, a turbulent mudflow unleashed by the mountain itself to remake the landscape as it gargled boulders and devoured whole stands of trees. Wilson and Doug were each bloodying themselves as they fought their way uphill, and it was by a margin of some few feet that they escaped the rush of the lahar as it snorted onward in steaming locomotion.
Afterwards they lay in the ash straining to breathe. Both of them were whimpering and fidgeting about in vain for a way to make the pain more bearable. Ash continued to dust them in their suffering, as though they were already inside that final crematorium. Both knew they could not endure.
“Of all the ways to die,” Doug said. “There’s no way we’re getting out of here alive.”
Wilson was not listening. He lay with his head in the crook of his arm envisioning Ellen and Maggie and his baby boy. So much joy that they would never share together. The years would pass and the memory of him would fade. Already he was fading.
How fragile this shell keeping death at bay. And what manner of emptiness awaits on the other side? He scolded himself for his resignation, but the will to live was ebbing away with every excruciating wave of pain.
Doug gazed at him through his enflamed and ghoulish eyes. He too looked ready to die. “You were right. I did shoot them.”
Wilson had no strength left for anger. If this was the world, he thought, then maybe it was best to leave. “Since this is it, I thought you may as well know that you were right.”
“How?” Wilson rasped. “How could you do it?”
“I wanted to save them from their suffering.”
“You’re a liar. You’re a murderer and a liar. You did it for money somehow.”
“Not for money. It was mercy.”
“Mercy? Mercy?” Wilson repeated. “Who do you think you are? God? She might have gotten better. She might have been cured.”
“Someday maybe. But not now.” Doug paused to clear his windpipe and gather more breath. “Pops always said that he didn’t want to grow old without Nana. He told me once that he couldn’t bear to watch her lose her mind. To wither away like that. He talked about doing it himself. He showed me the gun he would use. But he couldn’t do it. He wanted to, but he couldn’t do it. So I helped him.”
“He asked you to?”
Doug shook his head.
“Then you had no right. Even if he had asked, you had no right.”
“I see that now. And I know I’m going to Hell for it.”
“But you won’t. You’ll just die like everyone else. Without punishment. And Elmer will rot in prison for what you did.”
“He’s better off there than where he was.”
Wilson wanted to cry, but there was no energy for that either. “Goddamnit. God damn you. I loved them so much. I loved them, and you took them away from the world, and now I have to die here next to you.”
“I’m sorry, Tom.”
“God damn you.”
Doug tried to continue his confessional, but Wilson would not respond. And so they just shivered in the ash, waiting for their organs to fail. All was silence except the muted slurp of the mud below and an occasional fir cracking to fall amongst the others.
Wilson’s pain was still intense, but the worst of it all was the chill that had frozen its way into his very bones. He would be happy enough to die now if only he could find some heat. A fire, an extra jacket. He’d give anything to have but a little warmth. Finally, he began to drift in and out of consciousness as feverish dreams blurred the line between real and unreal.
He imagined he was at home, in bed with the flu. Blankets were up to his chin, but he was still too cold for someone had left the ceiling fan on high. Around and around the fan blades rotated, but he was too sick and weak to stand and pull the string. Whomp. Whomp. The sound was maddening and growing louder. How he despised this chill. He must reach the fan. Must rise and make it stop. He was lifting himself, straining to grasp the fan’s chain when he began to inhabit the actual world again and saw two dark-green military helicopters advancing above the other side of the creek.
Wilson waved pathetically and shouted out a long and hollow plea for rescue. The National Guard hueys passed and continued whirling down the valley. Wilson watched the helicopters recede until they had the sound and appearance of horseflies. Then he slumped back into the ash. Doug had made no effort to flag down the pilots.
“They can’t see us,” he said. “They’re too high and we blend in too well.”
Some minutes passed and then one of the helicopters could be heard returning. It flew on their side of the creek this time, much slower than before. With the last of his energy, Wilson removed his jacket and swung it over his head in weak circles. The helicopter drew near, paused, and made a tight hovering loop. Wilson watched the pilot point at them, and then the helicopter began to descend as its raucous blades churned up a flurry of ash. The skids made unsteady contact atop a balded knoll and two crewmen, one white and one black, jumped out and came tromping over.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” the white crewman shouted.
“I can’t walk,” Wilson said. “What?” “I said, I can’t walk.” The black crewman was as tall and powerful as a heavyweight prizefighter, but even so Wilson was astounded to find himself scooped up and carried over the man’s shoulder. As they were heading back to the helicopter, he watched Doug scuffle with the other crewman.
“I want to stay, I want to stay,” Doug was screaming.
“You’re okay now,” the crewman hollered. “Stop fighting me. You’re going to be okay.”
“Let me die here.”
“Murph. Hey, Murph,” the white crewman called. “This one’s delirious. Find those restraints for me, will ya?”
When everyone was loaded, the helicopter lifted and buzzed down the valley. Doug had been strapped to his seat and he was glowering at the crewmen who were vigilantly searching for more survivors. Wilson looked like he’d been exhumed and resurrected and was dying once more. His vision kept dissolving into a blizzard of white, and between cycles of blindness he saw that the black crewman had leaned toward him to ask how he was faring.
“Water,” Wilson muttered.
The crewman helped him to take a few sips and then pointed out the window.
“You oughta see what almost got you.”
Mount St. Helens had been decapitated, and from its jagged neck bloomed a deathly gray cauliflower of ash and gas and pulverized rock. The stalk now stood twelve miles high and it was flickering with streaks of blue and purple lighting. A slight wind had commenced to scatter the ashplume east, and the fallout was already darkening distant lands with what would soon become fertile new soil. To the north, Spirit Lake had been buried under two hundred feet of debris and then refilled with superheated pyroclastic sludge that simmered like the broth of a new beginning. Beyond this so many trees lay in immense comb strokes that all of Portland and Seattle could be burnt and rebuilt and still there’d be timber left to spare. Overall, this previously green paradise now stretched mile after drab gray mile in monochromatic destruction, the only color provided by the occasional small fire.
The helicopter banked and the pilot picked up the Toutle River which was galloping at double-speed and looked like a flood of wet cement. The astonished crewmen pointed out homes that had been ripped from their foundations forty miles from the mountain and become newly mobile. There were barns and garages and livestock racing along, tractors and bulldozers and logging trucks drifting sideways or upside down. Two crazed horses were straining to stay afloat and they watched as one of them disappeared, resurfaced, and then vanished for good. Throughout the river, hundreds of salmon were constantly leaping in silvery flashes to escape the now scalding water, and as they approached the Cowlitz, a bridge became so overwhelmed by a logjam that it finally snapped and swiveled and flowed along like a surfboard with the rest of that unlikely flotsam.
“I never thought I’d see something so crazy as this,” the black crewman said. He turned toward Wilson and saw that he had slumped over and nearly fallen out of his chair. “Hey, buddy? Hey? Oh, man. Don’t go on us. Hey, buddy? Hey—”
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