Strong Arms to Hold

Strong Arms to HoldWaddling. That’s one of the things no one told me. I bet they were lying about everything else, too – that it wouldn’t hurt and an epidural is a piece of cake.

I followed Ken down the mall, and tried my damnedest not to look like a duck. And the whole time I was scanning for a café, or somewhere I could go to the loo. Because that’s the other thing no one tells you about being 30-odd weeks pregnant – you pee all the time. Honestly, one glass of water and I was in and out for an hour. So that’s what I was thinking – that it was going to hurt getting the baby out, no matter what anyone said, that I made ducks look sexy and that I really, really needed to find a loo soon. Those were my last normal thoughts. I wish they’d been bigger ones. More important. About love and Ken and looking ahead. About all the things I’m going to miss.

The explosion came from somewhere to the left of me – a bin, they reckoned, packed with plastic explosive and sharp, sharp nails. Designed to kill, and to maim. To cause chaos. They were never sure how much explosive; the figure on the media was a best guess based on how far the damage went, and how far through the air people were sent. Enough, I could tell them. 

It hit me without a sound, a blast that took me off my feet and put me down against the plate window of a café I’d have earmarked for a loo if I’d seen it earlier. There was no pain, not then. Just a vacuum of shock and I-don’t-know-what-happened stunned, slow thoughts.

And then the screams came, from all around. Some sharp, full of life. Others – worse, far worse – wordless and desperate. Rubble came down in front of me, some of it bouncing into plumes of dust and smoke. Fires must have broken out because alarms sounded, over the screams, and the smell of ozone hit me, half-choking. I was both in the moment, aware of everything, and in a bubble, just baby and me trying to survive.

A girder fell, coming at my stomach, to the swell of someone who hadn’t lived yet. It came in slow-motion, too fast for me to scramble back even if my feet had worked, or my legs. Nothing worked except my sight, a crystal-clear view of the girder falling, falling, and my thoughts, knowing this was it, that in a moment I’d be one of the screamers, or worse – the silent dead, sprawled all through the mall.

And Ken. He still worked. He dashed in from the side — “Julie!” — hands outstretched. He couldn’t have stopped the girder, it was too heavy, but somehow it slowed, caught between the awning of the café and the side of an escalator and hung above me, a few feet up, creaking and threatening. I watched it, over me, and caught his eyes, in perfect realisation of what would happen, had to happen, even before Newton added an apple falling to the ground and big trouble together.

Ken stepped over me and reached for the girder, both hands braced against it. Its slide stopped. Sweat broke across his forehead. His arms stood out in tight sinews, his T-shirt stretched against it, and yet, somehow, he managed to smile down at me. “Okay?”

I nodded but I didn’t know. I still wasn’t feeling anything. I put my hand down to the bump and held it just above. I didn’t want to touch it, in case, in case… I met Ken’s eyes and they were soft, and brave, and his mouth had strained from a smile into something worse and we had to know. I touched my belly, waited, and then it came: a solid kick, a footballer’s boot, Ken kept saying.

“It’s okay.” Feeling was coming back, and awareness. Somewhere someone was calling for help, help, oh God someone help. Another person was crying. I turned my head and there was nothing beside me but rubble and a thin trail of blood seeping from under it. I couldn’t think that if I’d been walking like normal, not waddling, I’d have been in that section of mall, crushed. I couldn’t think that the girder was the only thing between me and the baby, and the crush of death. I could only think that I needed to get out, because it wasn’t about me, but the baby.

I turned my head, slowly, carefully, wincing. At the other end of the mall, bright sunlight poked through clouds of debris. That was the way to go, away from the groaning roof and pleading cries. Some people were already making their way, hands over wounds, supporting others, two men carrying another on their crossed, shared, arms. I tried to move, to join them, but pain shot up my leg and then hit in full, taking the last of my numbness away.

I cried out. My leg was dull agony. It hurt to breathe; in my chest, sharp shards of something broken moved and stabbed. My stomach throbbed. I had to get out of here, down to whoever would come to help.

“What’s wrong?” Ken’s voice, a rhythm of fear I couldn’t face.

“My leg. It’s caught.” I braced myself and looked down and a piece of the masonry lay on it. I stared at it, stupidly; how could that happen and me not feel it?

“Hell.” Ken shifted his weight and braced against the escalator run. “You need to pull it out.” He spoke through gritted teeth. “This is going to come down soon. Nothing anyone could do to stop that.” He gave a short laugh. “Nothing human could hold this for long.”

“But it’s trapped.”

He gave me a look, mixed sympathy and frustration. “Honey, be brave. Get that leg out if you can.”

And I looked at him and saw how his temples were corded with strain, and how he wasn’t complaining that his arms were sore, but was only looking at me and not saying what I was thinking – that there was no way to get out once he let go. That even if I got my leg free and could get down to the light, he couldn’t come with me. Because the minute he let go, the girder was going to scrape down the last few feet, and it was going to come quicker than he could run.

That made me braver. It wasn’t just my leg. It wasn’t even just about baby. If I could free myself, I could get help for Ken and we’d go on, the way we were supposed to, a family, not people caught in this day, this mall, the wrong place and time. We’d get things back on track.

My stomach was cramping, sore, sore, and I could feel wet between my legs and it was too much wet for the wee skittery pee that came out when I went to the loo, and it was too thick, and warm and sticky.

“Please, lady!” The screamer was louder than ever. “Please, lady, over there, under the roof. Help me!” She was looking right at us, her face streaked with blood, eyes white and round and scared through it all.

“I’ll get help,” I muttered. “For all of us.” I sat straighter, and the pain in my chest brought tears to my eyes. Other shouters were still pleading for help and I’d have told them to shut up, that we all needed help, and I was doing my best but I couldn’t speak.

I managed to get my hands on the broken piece of masonry, just around the edge and levered it an inch or so. I wriggled my leg, and I cried, and I heard someone yell and knew it was me, and I wriggled my leg again and again until, with a sucking noise, my leg came out, shoeless and red.

“Good girl.” Ken jerked his head. “Now, get out of the way.”

I scrambled back. I couldn’t walk – I could see the white bone of my ankle through the skin. I could barely think through the pain, but I knew enough – that if I left, Ken would let go. That he was already barely holding on, and he was only doing it for me, and I shook my head: once, twice, and said, “No.”

Baby kicked then. I scrambled back again, and Ken’s eyes met mine and he knew, and he was telling me to go. And I did. I crawled for the light. I ignored my chest, hitching and begging for breath. I put a hand on my tummy and willed the baby to hold on, that I was going to get help but I needed to be quick and get it for Daddy too, and I crawled and crawled, leg dragging behind me, and I sobbed and I bit my lips to stop from yelling and then I crawled some more.

“Here!” The voice was close. Hands took my shoulder, stopping me crawling.

“Easy, easy, we’re going to get you on a stretcher.”

I shook my head. Pointed back, down the mall. “My husband.” The crash came as I said it, and a rumbling, and I knew I’d taken too long.

“Away!” A firewoman was holding the lead line. “Keep back. The structure’s not safe!”

I fought her. “He’s back there. You have to try to get to him!”

“I will.” She had my shoulders, and she looked me in the eye and was steady and strong, like Ken. “I promise. I’ll come back and look, just as soon as you’re safe.”

She got me to my feet and led me away, carrying me mostly, and the medics strapped me onto a stretcher and started to check me, and I worried about Baby and I couldn’t think about Ken. It was like the pain that didn’t hit, the silence that didn’t hold. It was something that would come soon, the grief and the knowing that it was because of me he was gone, that if I hadn’t got trapped we’d have been safe and sitting outside talking to the cameras about how the rumble had been huge and how we had a baby due and how we’d been saved.

Baby came that day. Born in the ambulance, flashing lights in time to his cries. He was small, not full grown, and his lungs needed building up, but he was just about big enough to make it. My Ken. Like his dad, a fighter. And later, the firewoman who rescued me came, like she promised. She was grimy and tired-looking, her face sweat-lashed into running lines, and she carried her hat in her hand.

“Lady,” she said, and it sounded like she was picking her words. “We found your husband.”

“Was he…?” My voice tailed away, knowing the answer by her quick glance away. I swallowed fear. I’d been scared enough. “Was it quick?”

She nodded. “He was under the first section of the roof. He must have been killed in the first seconds after the explosion.”

I shook my head. “He was with me. He held the roof from me.”

She looked immeasurably sad. “Ma’am, you’re mistaken.” She took my hand and squeezed it. “I know it’s hard, but he was killed outright. We spoke to an injured woman, not far from you.”

The screamer, no doubt. I nodded my head. “She spoke to him. She can tell you he was there.”

“She said there was no one there but you and her.” She let go of my hand. “I know it’s hard. But he’d have known nothing.”

She left and I stared at Baby. Baby who’d have died under the girder, who shouldn’t be here, and, finally the wall in me broke and I cried for Ken, who was lost, and Ken who’d been stronger than death itself, and who’d given our baby the gift of a life.

© Jo Zebedee

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