Quake, p.5
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       Quake, p.5
 

           Richard Laymon

  A few times, Wellen made detours to avoid sections of Pico Boulevard that appeared to be completely blocked. He whipped around corners, sped down side streets, gunned his way through alleys. But always back to Pico. Until finally, a few blocks past Western, he drove into a trap. Ahead, all lanes were blocked, a solid row of vehicles side by side from one curb to the other. Wellen cried out, 'No!' and mashed the brake pedal. The Nova skidded. It stopped less than a foot behind the rear bumper of a van. He shifted to reverse. Hit the gas. The Nova jumped backward and bucked, slamming into something.

  'Great move!' Earl yelled.

  Barbara twisted her head around to look out the rear window. 'A bus,' she said. Wellen glanced back. At first, Barbara thought he was just curious to see what he'd bumped. From the way his eyes shifted, however, she realized he was looking for an escape route - a gap in the traffic that would permit him to speed backward and resume his mad rush for the school where his daughter worked. 'No way,' Barbara muttered. She shot her arm out sideways and twisted the ignition key. Wellen didn't seem to notice. He flung open his door, leaped out, threw the door shut and ran. There was a nice, clear path for him between the rows of motionless traffic. Seconds after abandoning them he sprinted past a dump truck and vanished.

  He no sooner vanished than a lean black woman in a uniform - the RTD bus driver? - dashed by.

  'Get him, lady!' Pete yelled. He sounded delighted. Barbara laughed. She couldn't believe she could possibly be laughing, but there was no doubt about it. Her laughter had a certain frantic, crazy ring to it. She looked back at Pete. He was laughing, too. We've flipped out, she thought. Heather was in no danger of laughing. She looked as if might never stop bawling. Earl opened his door. He climbed outside and stood next to the car for a moment, apparently hoping to see the driver catch Wellen. Then he looked to the rear.

  'Did she get him?' Pete called.

  Earl ducked into the car. 'Who knows?' he said. 'He's outa here. And so am I. You guys gonna come along? 'Cos gotta tell you, the car's going nowhere. Traffics backed up to hell 'n gone.'

  'Just leave the car here?' Barbara asked, no longer laughing.

  'It's gonna stay here. Don't matter if we're in it or not staying. Guys're bailing out. Nothing's gonna move for hours, Maybe not all day.'

  Frowning, Pete said, 'I don't think we're more than six or seven miles from school.'

  'Walk it?' Barbara asked.

  'Yeah. A couple of hours, shouldn't take much longer than that.'

  Plenty of people hadn't stuck around at all. Everybody isn't honking, just every jerk still sitting car.

  She longed to shut herself inside the Nova and lock the doors. But I'll never get home if do. This is the only way. Heather had the right idea, plastering her hands against her ears.

  'Let's get outa here!' Earl yelled.

  Without waiting for replies, he swung around and began to stride alongside the line of stopped cars. Pete gestured for Heather and Barbara to go on ahead of him. Heather held back. She didn't want to go second. Not surprising. Barbara wasn't eager to be up there near Earl either. The guy was a major creep. But she knew she better equipped than Heather to handle him. So she hurried forward.

  When she caught up to Earl, she called, 'Let's get from Pico when we can! Take the first side street! Get from this mess!'

  He frowned back at her, nodding.

  At the first corner, they turned to the left. They bypassed the sidewalk to avoid its collection of broken glass and other debris. This section of road had meter curbside parking. All the spaces were taken. They walked in the road, alongside the parked cars. The vehicles to their right were moving no faster than those harbored at the curb to their left. At least twenty were stacked up in the two northbound lanes because of the blocked intersection, but this road was completely jammed. With cars plugging one side and debris from a collapsed building piled in the other, no vehicles could escape onto it from Pico. The rubble was only at the corner, so the southbound lanes were clear. In a fairly orderly fashion, the cars at the rear were backing off, turning around and heading away. All those trapped here would soon be free. The drivers were waiting their turns. Without honking. With every stride that Barbara took, the din of the car horns on Pico diminished. So did the smoke. Several buildings had collapsed along this section of road, but none was on fire.

  'This is a lot better,' Barbara said.

  'Glad thought of it,' said Earl.

  She looked back. Heather, ears uncovered, was walking beside Pete, pressing herself against his side and clutching his arm as if her life depended on keeping herself attached to him. Give the guy a break, Barbara thought. Maybe he doesn't want you hanging all over him. He didn't look like he minded, though. In fact, he seemed pretty much oblivious to Heather. With a worried frown on his face, he glanced every which way as if he expected trouble and wanted to see it coming. 'Watch where!'

  Barbara couldn't stop in time. Head turned toward the others, she walked smack into Earl, ramming him with her right upper arm and breast.

  'Geez!' he gasped, and shoved her away.

  'Sorry.'

  'What're you trying to do to me?'

  'I said I'm sorry. If you hadn't stopped like that…'

  'What's going on?' Pete asked.

  'We had a little collision,' Barbara said. 'It wasn't anything-'

  'Yeah, right,' Earl muttered. 'Ban-butt tried to flatten with her Flying Tit Express.'

  She was already so hot she could imagine steam rising off her skin. Earl's remark, however, boosted the temperature. lot. 'Jerk,' she said.

  The heel of his hand pounded her shoulder. The blow didn't hurt, but it twisted her torso and she stumbled backward. Seething, she raised a fist. 'Oooo. I'm so scared.'

  'Leave her alone,' Pete said.

  'Leave her alone? She's the…'

  'Let's not fight!' Heather blurted. 'It's stupid! Stupid! We're lucky to be alive, you people. Honestly! Just look around. The quake… Maybe thousands of people are dead, for all we know. We might get killed ourselves before we ever make it back home through all this. We've got to depend on each other. We've got to be friends!'

  'You're right,' Barbara said, amazed by Heather's outburst. The girl was new in school this year, but she'd been in three of Barbara's classes. In each of them, she had cowered at her desk, huddled in isolation. She had rarely spoken. Several times, she had burst into tears for no apparent reason. A basket case. But mostly a silent basket case. Until now.

  'We don't have to be friends,' Pete said, 'but it is pretty stupid to fight among ourselves. We're in this together.' Hugging his arm., Heather gazed up at his face. Wonderful, Barbara thought.

  She met Earl's eyes. 'Anyway, should've watched where was going. I'm sorry.'

  'Yeah, sure. Okay. So the thing is, the reason why stopped - was thinking why don't we cross over to the other side, you know? Maybe we can hitch a ride.'

  'Hitchhike?' Barbara asked. 'Are you kidding? That's a sure way to get ourselves killed.'

  'What? There's four of us. Who's gonna pull something when there's four of us?'

  'It's really asking for trouble,' Barbara said. 'Besides, these cars may be getting out of here, but they won't get far.'

  For a while, they all watched the cars that were peeling away from the tail ends of the jammed lanes, making U-turns and heading south. The road was fairly clear for a couple of blocks. In the distance, however, Barbara could see a backup at Venice Boulevard. Cars going in that direction would be stopped again. About half drove straight toward Venice Boulevard, but the rest turned off, taking their chances on little side streets.

  'Maybe we oughta give it a try,' Pete said. 'If we can get any kind of ride at all, it'll save us time. As long as it's going in the right direction. Even a few blocks would be better than nothing.'

  'I don't know,' Barbara said.

  From the time she'd been a toddler, Mom and Dad had warned her against involvement with strangers. You didn't talk to strangers, you didn't b
elieve anything a stranger might tell you, and you most certainly did not enter a stranger's car. On the subject of what might happen to her inside a stranger's car, Dad had frequently scared the wits out of her. can't even tell you how bad it might be. There are nuts out there who'll do things to little girls that you don't even want to think about. Barbara used to spend a lot of time thinking about it, wondering what Dad had meant by that. He'd never come right out and explained. But Barbara had gradually figured out, from watching TV and listening to her friends, that the men who picked you up took you away and kept you. They made you take off your clothes, then they did things to you. They hurt you where you go to the bathroom. And then they choked you or shot you in the head or cut you into pieces and threw you away. For years, that was how Barbara had imagined her fate if she should ever get lured or dragged into a stranger's car. More recently, she'd read some books about serial killer. And found out, shocked, that her childhood version of the horrors had been almost charming compared to the real thing. You were lucky if all they did was rape and murder you. If you weren't so lucky, they ripped at you with pliers, burnt you with matches or cigarettes, took off your fingers or toes or nipples with hedge clippers, jammed your vagina with screwdrivers or broken bottles or broom handles or God knows-what. All that before you were dead. Dad had been right: you don't even want to think about such things.

  But there are four of us, Barbara reminded herself. Al this is an emergency. And these are mostly just morning commuters. And…

  'Okay,' she said. 'We can try it. But won't get in a car unless the driver's a woman.'

  'Yeah, right,' Earl muttered. 'Like women are a bunch of saints?'

  'They're rarely homicidal rapists,' Barbara pointed out. He huffed.

  'Why don't we just ask somebody who's waiting?' Heather suggested as they walked alongside the line of cars. 'Wouldn't that be easier than trying to hitchhike?'

  'Nobody's gonna go for it,' Earl said. 'Too many of us. Not a chance. It'll scare 'em off. What we gotta do, we gotta use our heads.'

  He led them to the end of the line. They waited while a couple of cars turned around. Then they hurried to the other side and headed south. While they walked, several cars sped by. Two turned right at the first cross-street.

  'That's where we'll get one,' Earl said. He raised his eyebrows. 'You wanta be the bait, Heather?'

  'Me? Huh?'

  'Bait. You stand out in plain sight, charm a driver into stopping. The rest of us hide. You open up the door, and we all run out and jump in.'

  'Cute,' Barbara said.

  'I don't see why we need to be sneaky about things,' Pete said.

  'Depends. Do you want to ride or walk? If you want to ride, this is how it gets done.'

  They reached the corner. To the right, 15th Street stretched into the distance. This didn't look like a good place to be. On both sides of the street were two-story, woodframe houses with gables and bay windows and front porches. They looked as if they'd been uprooted from a quaint, midwestern town back in the days of the Great Depression, planted here in Los Angeles, and left to rot. About half of them were down. Barbara was surprised that any had survived the quake. Every yard was enclosed by a six-foot chain link fence. Protection against marauders. Except for a lone derelict pushing his shopping cart down the sidewalk at the far end of the block, nobody seemed to be around. No trees. No people.

  'Where is everybody?' she asked.

  'Maybe dead,' Heather said, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

  'Dead, my butt,' Earl said. 'They're probably all off on a looting spree.'

  'At least the cars are getting through,' Pete pointed out. 'Yeah!'

  For as far as Barbara could see - perhaps three blocks - the few cars traveling this street seemed to be moving fast. We could make fantastic time. Who knows? If we're really lucky, maybe the driver will take us all the way home. But even a mile… Dad probably won't be there, but Mom… She might need me. Maybe just a few minutes could make all the difference.

  'I'll do it,' she said. 'I'll be the bait.'

  Heather looked greatly relieved.

  'Fine,' Earl said. 'Just don't be picky. You don't gotta marry the guy, just ride in his car for a while.'

  'No guys, remember?'

  'Just do whatever you think is best,' Pete told her.

  An old green pickup truck was parked at the curb. Barbara positioned herself beside its driver's door. The others ducked out of sight by the front bumper. Seconds later, a white Honda rounded the corner. The woman behind its wheel was middle-aged, chubby, and wore rollers in her hair. Perfect. Barbara stepped away from the pickup's door, turned toward the driver, and waved her hands. 'Could you help me?' she called.

  The woman gave her a glance, then turned her head forward very fast. As if afraid she might be caught looking. It's the way people act with bums, Barbara thought. I'm not a bum! She supposed her hair might be a little messed up, but otherwise… She looked down at herself. Her short-sleeved white blouse was clean, neatly pressed, buttoned almost to her neck, and tucked into the waist of her pale blue shorts. She fingered the zipper of her shorts. It was shut, of course. So the driver hadn't been put off by an open fly. Her shorts were clean. They weren't skin-tight short-shorts, either, but baggy-legged things that reached almost down to her knees. Bending forward slightly, she inspected her socks and shoes. White crew socks, white athletic shoes. And a very nice tan between the tops of her socks and the hem of her shorts. look terrific, she thought. Maybe the creepo just doesn't like teenagers. Maybe she's afraid I'm a serial killer. Like maybe I've got a chainsaw in my purse. The next car to turn onto 15th Street was a Mercedes convertible driven by a man. His hair was mussed. He wore sunglasses, a blue sport shirt and a necktie. Barbara settled back against the door of the pickup. She folded her arms and gazed away. The Mercedes stopped.

  'Do you need a ride somewhere?' the driver asked.

  'No. Thanks, anyway.'

  'Are you sure? don't normally give people a lift, but under the circumstances…'

  'No, that's all fight. I'm waiting for someone.'

  'Is everything okay?'

  'Yes. Fine. Thank you for stopping.'

  He shrugged and drove on.

  He looked like a nice guy, she thought.

  Yeah, and so did Ted Bundy.

  'What's the matter with you?' Earl called from the hiding place.

  'I told you, no guys.'

  But the next two cars that passed were driven by women, and neither stopped.

  Earl yelled, 'Hey, got a great idea! Why don't you lay down in the road?'

  ***

  After trading seats with Mary and strapping himself in, Clint had reached out to turn on the radio. He'd needed news of the quake. And of traffic conditions. Where a radio should've been, there was an empty space in the instrument panel.

  'Where's your radio?' he'd asked.

  'Gone.'

  He had shaken his head and started driving.

  He'd really wanted to hear some news! The Valley had been hit hard, that was obvious. But what about the rest of Los Angeles? If the epicenter had been somewhere near here, maybe L.A. got off easy. Maybe at home there was nothing but a minor tremor, the sort of thing you might mistake for a big truck driving by the house. Maybe Sheila didn't know it was a quake until she saw the chandelier above the dining room table swinging. The chandelier, their home earthquake meter. Yep, that was a four-point-two on the Chandelier Scale.

  'It's the fourth,' Mary had said. 'What? What're you…?'

  'I've had four stolen. And they always break a window.' Oh. Car radios.

  'I even tried not locking the car at night. But they broke a window anyway. So just gave up. stopped buying new ones. After the fourth. They'd just get it, anyway. Why waste my time and money? Now don't have a radio, but my window got broken anyway.' She'd glanced at it, but looked away fast. 'I love this car,' she'd murmured. 'And people keep… hurting it. Why can't people be nice?'

  'People are fine,
' Clint had said. 'Nine out of ten.' Two blocks ahead, the road had appeared to be jammed with traffic. Clint could avoid the mess with a detour. But which way to go? Probably right.

  'Trouble is,' he'd continued, 'nine out of ten adds up to ten in a hundred who are jerks. They foul up the works for everyone else. Which is why my car's locked away in a parking lot and why you don't have a radio. I'd really like to know what the hell is going on with this quake. I've got a wife and kid over in West L.A. I'd really like to know if there still is a West L.A., damn it!'

  He'd turned right.

  'Where are you going?' Mary had asked.

  'Laurel Canyon. hope. You wouldn't happen to know how we might get there from here?'

  'We need to get onto the Golden State, and…'

  'Not today.'

  South on the Golden State Freeway was Clint's usual route home. The Golden State south, then west on the Ventura Freeway to the Laurel Canyon Boulevard offramp - about a ten-minute drive on the freeways. Ten minutes to cover ten miles through smoothly moving traffic in the early afternoon. But the quake had struck at eight-twenty when the commuter rush was at its peak. Even without an earthquake, every freeway in the Los Angeles area was usually crowded at that time of the morning with bumper to bumper traffic that barely moved at all. The quake had probably turned the freeways into parking lots. Clint knew enough to stay clear of them. But he wasn't sure at all about which surface streets to take, so he'd picked his route at random - trying to avoid areas where the traffic appeared heavy, trying to keep a course that carried them south and west. Some of his choices worked fine. Others didn't.

  After swinging into a road that dead-ended, he turned the car around and asked, 'You aren't at all familiar with the streets around here?'

  'Not really,' she admitted. 'Do you have a map?' She shook her head. 'Are you sure?'

  What kind of person doesn't have a map! 'It's just that… don't normally go places when don't know where they are. I'm sorry.'

 
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