The sound of boots crunching over broken concrete and distorted steel reinforcements was largely lost in the ambient cacophony. On all sides there was the clatter of rubble as shattered bits of buildings playfully chased one another down cracks and crevices in pursuit of gravity. Somewhere underneath the new landscape, the horns of a handful of automobiles played a tuneless fanfare to usher the sun behind the horizon once more. A betting pool had opened up among the rescue teams regarding how long it would take for the batteries to run out.
Search efforts had been going on for two weeks. The current evening crept in to banish a day of high tension; the last day of search and rescue. Sunrise would open the phase of search and recovery. At some vague point after that, it would just be clean up, then rebuilding. That was the thing about earthquakes and other disasters, eventually you just couldn’t really tell that they had happened. Not unless you looked inside yourself.
A figure sat silhouetted against the reddening western sky on a tall hillock of rubble that had once been a block of flats. His short stature was emphasized by a heavy slouch that made it look as though every ounce of that debris field sat squarely upon his shoulders. Tawny elbows, streaked with grit, grease, mud, and blood, rested against knees whose trouser legs had worn through, as had a great deal of the fur beneath. His boots, crusted with mud, were rooted to the ground beside his discarded work gloves; a point of stillness above which every limb trembled slightly. The past week had taken its toll on the puma. His whiskers were drawn back against his cheeks, and his dark ears folded back against his skull. The tip of his tail twitched at odd intervals, resting against the ground.
He had arrived halfway through the rescue phase, hoping to make a difference amid the chaos. Now, he sat shaking in the heart of a one hundred and thirty acre scrapyard beneath which lay some fifteen thousand men, women, and children who had yet to be accounted for. The shaking was largely muscle fatigue. He remained behind to gather himself when his team withdrew to camp.
Vacant, yellow-green eyes stared into the middle distance, not really seeing anything around him. They watered, not from crying—he had run out of tears on his second night—but from something acrid that permeated the ruins and drifted with the breeze. His bruised, dusty paws worried absentmindedly at a small stuffed animal; the thumb pad of one described a slow, repetitive arc across the soiled fabric of the plush’s belly while the finger pads of the other paw softly stroked the tuft of longer fibers that sprang from the top of its head. It might have been a bear or a cat, or anything, really. Two-and-a-half tons of stone had robbed it of a discernible shape. It was a souvenir of his second day ‘helping’. If it could be called that. It was the sort of experience that could really fuck up a young cat.
He was not a young cat. Granted, he wouldn’t have accepted the title “old” either. His muzzle was a bit lighter than it had once been and the odd light hair sprang up in his pelt to taunt him in the mirror. After all, the years that stretched behind him had borne their fair allotment of heartache. All of that notwithstanding, he wasn’t so hardened by life that the last week hadn’t worn on him. He wondered how much more of it he could stomach. Especially now that they would be going forward with the expectation that every person they found would be an ex-person. Back home he’d be talking things over with friends over a drink. Here, on another continent in another hemisphere, he hadn’t met anyone with whom he felt close enough to feel comfortable talking. So, he took the next best thing: solitude and quiet contem—
“…was still out here,” filtered into his consciousness from somewhere behind him to the left. His tail jerked and his left ear twitched and swiveled in the direction of the sound.
The sound could have been just another tumble of stone, but he turned anyway. It took him a moment to focus on the source of the voice in the growing dusk. The new figure resolved itself into dark-furred rabbit, about shoulder height to him if he were standing. (Not counting the ears, of course.) She was dressed much as he was: beleaguered work trousers, steel-toed boots, t-shirt. If it weren’t for the light colors of her shirt and the reflective tape on the high-viz vest that draped off of one shoulder, she’d have been tough to see in the dwindling light. One of her gloved paws gripped a dark flashlight, while the other was tucked into her back pocket. She was looking at him as though waiting for a response. Realizing that he probably didn’t hear her, she dropped her ears and repeated herself.
“I saw ye as I was passing by on the way back tae camp. I didnae realize anyone was still oot here.” Her accent sounded like something from the north of Britain, sing-songish and high. Not like the nasal twang of the Aussie locals or the slow, rough drawl he’d been used to, growing up in the southwestern United States.
He shrugged with a quiet grunt. “You seem to be, too.”
A nod. A mirthless chuckle. “Aye. Curfew’s coming up quick, though. Need tae get back.”
“Yeah?” His low voice faded as he turned his head forward again, gazing back down the slope and across the waste.
She frowned and flicked one ear. “Yeah. You, too.”
He reached down with his left hand to find the large pocket halfway down his trouser leg. The plush toy resisted limply before he managed to nudge the pocket open with a finger. Once it was secured beneath the buttoned flap of the pocket, he stood shakily. Turning to the rabbit, he stretched his shoulders and neck. The blistered pads of his paws—damned gloves were next to worthless—slid from his forehead, across his eyes, and down either side of his muzzle, dropping off his chin. He shuddered, retched, and stumbled, just barely stopping himself from sliding down the mound of debris. Somewhere during the day, either from a piece of rubble or one of the bodies that they retrieved from the last pocket of space that had been a hallway or a bedroom, or who knows what, blood had soaked through the cheap cloth of the gloves and into the fur between his pads. The light was weak enough that he couldn’t see it, but the scent was there. Canine, young, female…pregnant. Fucking nose.
“You ok, man?” The rabbit had taken a half-step forward and reached with the paw that didn’t have a flashlight.
He waved her off. “I’m not. But, I’m ok enough. Lead the way down, if you don’t mind.”
“No torch?” She waggled the flashlight, still switched off.
“Lost it,” he mumbled, “this morning, yesterday, dunno. It’s gone.”
“Thought cats had great night vision.”
He scoffed, motioning to his awkward position, “Yeah, and we’re supposed to be graceful, and agile, and always land on our feet. I’m not exactly in top shape right now, lady. I’m tired, sore, and something in me or in the air is making me dizzy.”
“Fair enough,” she said with a nod and switched the light on, making sure to direct the beam downward before hitting the switch. With careful strides she started off down the slope. The puma glanced down at his gloves, shook his head and picked them up before following. As they picked their way down the slope, the rabbit plied him with small talk.
“So,” she called over her shoulder, “what’s yer name?”
“I’m Cat,” she grunted, shimmying down a block wall that was within forty degrees of passing for a floor. “That first or last?”
Alder found his footing slightly better than the rabbit’s and walked down the incline instead—a perk of being a mountain lion, even a deeply fatigued mountain lion.
“First or last what?” he asked, offering a paw to help her up.
She accepted with a now. Back on her feet, she carried on through the ruins and her line of inquiry. “Name. Is Alder your first or last name? Sounds like it could be either.”
“Tell me about it,” he huffed with the exertion of walking across the uneven, shifting terrain and silently begged his muscles to at least carry him back to camp. “First name. My mother had a thing for trees.”
“Huh.” She didn’t let up. “So, what’s your last name?”
“What else do you want,” he asked with an impatient growl, regretting the tone as soon as the words tumbled out, “my PIN and pad prints?”
To his surprise, she laughed at that. “Fuckin’ hell, man! Calm your tits. I’m just trying tae fill the silence until we get ootae here. This place scares the shit ootae me when it starts getting dark.”
“Sorry,” he said, raising his paws. “Let me try that again.” He stopped, prompting her to stop and face him. “Alder Matsubayashi, nice to meet you, Cat…?” He trailed off, recognizing that she hadn’t provided her surname before.
“Caird,” she allowed with a grin and a pawshake that was easily twenty percent more enthusiastic than Alder felt he could tolerate at the moment. “Cataría Caird, but hardly anyone calls me that. Cat’ll do.”
The breeze that whisked across the ruins momentarily rose into a stiff gust, causing the rabbit to shudder and shake bits of blown dust and grit out of her ears. Scraps of paper fluttered around them in lazy vortices, like whispering ghosts built out of the tattered remnants of thousands of lives. Utility bills, refrigerator masterpieces, and department store advertisements described a lazy spiral before tumbling off into the darkness. One flyer stayed behind, wedged helplessly between a clutter of masonry and some unrecognizable bit of steel. Mud and shadow obscured some of the words, leaving only “The…END…Everything must go!” to be seen. Cat caught him frowning down at the twitching paper, the corner of his muzzle quivering with a stillborn snarl. The light of her torch fell on the paper, dispelling the shadows to show more of the text.
“The home…something starting with E…experts, maybe? Store closing liquidation sale…ends soon,” she read aloud. “Everything must go….”
Alder shook his head. “Guess they were right. Everything had to go….”
Cat switched off the torch, throwing them into shocking darkness. Her voice came from his right, soft but stern. “Fuck off, pal. Everything didnae go. Look.” The outline of her arm directed his gaze to the distant periphery of the destruction. Lights shone in the buildings that stood outside. “Shake off the tunnel vision. There’s enough broken out here without you letting yourself break, too.” Then the light was back, shutting out the wider devastation and narrowing their focus to the path out of the rubble. “Come on.”
He only nodded and followed her silhouette as she picked her way down to the open street below them.