Having had his fair share of panic attacks since moving to the Bay Area Dustin was familiar enough with them to know when one was coming on. He began to feel nervous. His breath got shorter and ragged. Everything before him seemed to sway worse than it had in the moments after he’d been woken up by the earthquake. Dustin was going to miss his twelve-step meeting and he was suddenly very nervous. He stumbled backwards bumping into the men digging through the rubble of the collapsed building. He said “Excuse me.” and sat down in the middle of the street trying to regain his composure.
“Here.” Said a large man with a thick bushy mustache, bald head and heavy black eyebrows. Gently he pushed the birdcage into Dustin’s hands from his position at the end of the excavation line.
Dustin took the cage and looked at the yellow canaries inside. They fluttered back and forth attaching themselves to the dented bars as they tried to find a perch. Their black eyes fixed on him and they chirped gently in his direction.
“Here.” The large man said again.
Dustin broke his communion with the birds and looked up to see that the man was now holding out a broken cinderblock in his direction. He was waiting for him to take it. Slowly Dustin sat the cage down, stood up, and took the shattered brick from the man. He regarded it as if it were a foreign object. He sat it down next to the canaries and waited for another.
Dustin stood there for the remainder of the night taking bricks, wood, radios, kitchen appliances, clothing and whatever else was handed in his direction by the bushy eye-browed man in front of him. When someone new joined the line, he turned and passed his load onto them. When someone dropped out with exhaustion Dustin picked up the birds, stepped forward and sat them down doing his part to close whatever gap was left open. When a person was found, there was cheering and a change in focus as they would wearily guild the rescuers to other spots in the rubble where they suspected their neighbors might be buried.
Eventually, they’d found and uncovered everyone. An old lady who had been one of the first to be taken from the collapsed building kept an ongoing roll call of her fellow tenants. She walked back and forth down the row of workers naming the missing until she was satisfied that everyone was accounted for. Miraculously no one had been killed. The worst of the injuries that were among them was a cut to a man’s leg which would require stitches and a possible broken arm on a woman who stood on the curb favoring it while barking orders at Dustin and the other members of the team. She continued until an ambulance had finally arrived to take her away.
As the sky turned from black to grey, and the mornings fog began to roll in off the bay high-fives were exchanged all around. “Way to stick it out!” The bald man said turning to Dustin and giving him a big bear hug.
Dustin patted him on the back and said, “Good job.” It had been a long night and he could feel the man’s sweat seeping through the fabric of his sleeveless flannel shirt.
As they released, Dustin glanced down at his own pajamas. Normally pressed and clean, they were stained with dust and soaked with perspiration from his efforts along the line. He frowned as he plucked at them, trying to shake them out the best that he could. His hands were numb and blistered from lifting and handing off wreckage all night long. He suddenly felt very tired and very cold.
Turning, he looked at the two birds sitting inside the cage resting at his feet. No one that they’d pulled from the building during the night had ever stopped to claim them. As the man with the bushy eyebrows wandered off down the debris covered sidewalk to give more hugs to the others, Dustin began to scan the crowd for anyone that might know to whom they belonged. Nearby an ambulance had pulled up and set up an impromptu triage center. They were treating many of the people that he’d helped rescue. He decided to start there.
Picking up the birds Dustin walked over to a row of people that were getting their wounds cleaned and bandaged. The smell of smoke was thick in the air from fires burning all throughout town. Down the road, where the gas pipes flare had shot out over the intersection the night before a house was now engulfed in flames. Police cars had barricaded the street directly in front but no fire engine was present at the blaze. Most likely they were off attending to bigger problems.
Dustin nudged a man seated in a dusty recliner. It had been moved from the debris of the collapsed building by volunteers for accommodating the wounded. It sat now in a spot near the back of the ambulance.
Being a victim of the buildings collapse Dustin had seen the man helping out after his recovery at various points throughout the night. Now he wore a tired expression as he lounged in the middle of the rubble filled lane. He held an ice pack to his head and sipped liberally on a bottle of water.
“Is this yours?” Dustin asked after he’d gotten his attention. He jerked the cage giving it a little spin by the handle to indicate what he was talking about.
The man sat the water down at his side leaning in closely to look at the birds. “Hmmm…” He said thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “They aren’t mine but I think I know who they belong to.”
“Great.” Dustin smiled. “Do you know where they are?”
The man leaned back pulling the ice pack off his head and giving it a quick glance. “They belong to Mr. Moss.” He said wincing at the sight of his own blood on plastic skin of the pack. “I think he rode off in the ambulance with Sheryl.”
Mr. Moss must have been the man with the severe cut on his leg Dustin thought to himself. He’d seen him lifted into the back of the ambulance that had taken the woman with the broken arm away during the night. There was no telling which hospital they were at or when they’d be back.
“Could you take these and give them to him when you see him?” Dustin asked lifting the birds in the man’s direction.
The man sighed putting the pack back on his head. “I wish I could.” He said sadly. “The thing is I don’t even know where I’m going to be staying at tonight.”
Dustin lowered the cage. “I understand.” He replied, then turning to the others that were gathered there for treatment he asked. “Could anyone take these?”
His question was met with only blank expressions all around.
Dustin regarded the crowd for a moment before giving up and walking over to sit down on a curb nearest his own apartment. There, he positioned the cage between his bunched up knees and watched the canaries fluttering back and forth chirping their good mornings to the rising sun. He really wanted to change his clothes.
As if in answer to this, the front door suddenly opened behind him. Stiffly he pivoted his body to see James and Alexis wandering down the stoop. James carried a plastic garbage bag and a suitcase full of clothes and possessions while his wife still held the fish. Dustin could see that the bowl had at sometime been filled with fresh water and the wound on James’ forehead was now bandaged. They were no longer wearing their ratty old sleeping clothes but were presently dressed in workpants, jackets and women’s maternity garb.
James saw him and waved. “Hey, Dustin!” He called bounding down the steps and extending his hand once again. “I thought you’d already left the neighborhood.”
Dustin gave it a quick pump. “No.” He answered turning back towards the canaries “I sort of accidently got involved in helping.”
As his wife came to his side, James squatted looking at the cage. “Great birds.” He said approvingly. “I didn’t know you had any pets.”
“I don’t.” Dustin replied. “These belong to Mr. Moss from across the street. I guess I’m keeping them for now.”
James lowered his voice. “Is he the dead guy?” he asked motioning to a body lying prone on the sidewalk not more than ten feet away. A sheet covered the corpse. Dustin hadn’t noticed it before.
“I don’t think so.” Dustin said, visibly surprised. “Who died? Everyone I saw was alive!”
James shook his head. “I don’t know.” He said rising to his feet and putting an arm around his wife. “We heard it was a heart attack. Someone told us that this guy just keeled over in the middle of the road last night and died. No one knows who he is.”
Dustin thought about that for a moment as he regarded the form underneath the sheet. Outside of the business that he ran and the workers that they employed, he had no real friends or people who looked out for him. True, he had his sponsors and the other members of his twelve-step program. Beyond their weekly sessions however Dustin tended to avoid their company.
Together the people in his program offered one another support and commiseration for past regrets. Dustin had a strong desire to keep those feelings and those people in their proper place. That place for him, was at the community center where his meeting was held every week. The one he would be missing tonight.
It wasn’t that Dustin was antisocial but rather that he hadn’t felt comfortable around people ever in his whole life. He’d always assumed that they were judging him in some way or another when he was around them. Since he’d moved out here three years ago he’d cut all ties with his old life living a monkish existence. He was happy that way.
If his neighbor James hadn’t introduced himself and his wife during those first scary moments after the earthquake, even they wouldn’t have known who he was. Dustin could have easily dropped dead in the middle of the street and died with complete anonymity. It seemed like a very peaceful way to exit the world with no embarrassment or history to follow you through to your last moments.
Dustin turned back in the direction of the couple. He made a conscious effort to break free of the direction that his morbid thoughts were taking him. “Did you guys just come down from your apartment?” He asked them both.
“Yeah.” James replied happily. “The fire department came by about an hour ago and said that they would allow people back inside to grab whatever things they needed just so long as no one stayed in too long. The superintendant and landlady are keeping an eye on things for them.” James said as he nodded in the direction of the pair. They both stood smoking and arguing about something next to a dangling flowerbox outside of one of the foyers huge bay windows. “We went in to get some clothes and grab our cell phones so we could call Alexis’s mom.” He continued. He lifted the garbage bag so Dustin could see the evidence of their hasty packing. “We’ve got a couple of changes of clothes in here and Alexis was able to save two more fish!”
The woman extended the fishbowl towards Dustin. Sure enough three fish were swimming inside it now. “It was the dandiest thing!” She exclaimed. “They were just swimming around in a little pool of water that hadn’t spilled from the tank when it broke!”
“Too bad my picture is ruined.” James cheerfully quipped as he used the hand that he held the garbage bag with to point at his head. “My hard head somehow ripped straight through the canvas and it’s all wet now from lying in the floor all night long with that fish tank water.”
Dustin stood up grabbing the birdcage. “Well I’d like to get a change of clothes and grab my iPod.” He said as he maneuvered past them and up the steps.
Noticing him, the landlord turned and pointed to her watch. “I’m timing you!” She said, her eyebrows rising up so high with emphasis that they threatened to become lost in her thick mat of curly grey hair.