By Sam Wong

(Dennis Behm/ Flickr)

You get to the back before you can breathe, which is goddamn impressive considering the span of this building. Micah’s right next to you, stride for stride, something you know without looking because you know by hearing. Her steps sound just as quick as yours and she keeps chanting something over and over again that’s just hopeful enough to be a lie. (She makes a most fretful metronome in disaster).

It never took you this long to get to the band room in middle school, though you were still late for rehearsals, but good thing Micah was always there early to save you a spot in the back before she took her seat in the front row. Micah didn’t have perfect pitch like you, but she did have a mom who could drive her across town for flute lessons. Micah didn’t get scared pissless at the sudden thunder of timpani during her first recital. She never had to stare at her grimy kitchen floor listening to Ma sigh sharply from her nostrils as the disgruntled Medicaid consultant went on and on about sensitivities and syndromes and disorders. And when Ma was working back-to-back shifts, Micah’s mom always sent you home with a pack of cold lunchmeat, a box of clementines, things you usually got for birthday dinner. You always thanked her with something between a mumble and a whimper, then winced as her teeth clashed and mouth mashed as she said at a pleasantly perfunctory decibel: “You’re welcome.”

It’s not like school was ever a perfect haven but today this place is an absolute horror house. The Red Cross has patched it up better compared to the sh*tstorm outside, where black roads have cracked open as if hell was hungry and buildings have crumbled like stacks of saltines, but in these hallways everything reverberates with grating potency. Perhaps the reason why your lungs have taken a backseat is because your ears are demanding more, more than your body can give, more than is humanly possible—there is nothing unheard and everything unmistakable, your livewire mind ready for the final crash—

—then it all comes to silence when you reach the auditorium.

You are now beyond sound, beyond breath. Strange, they all look like long white loaves of bread, or shiny plastic snowbanks arranged in rows.

And to think there are bodies in there.

And to think Ma is in one of those glossy cocoons, thrown into premature pupation by a rod of rebar through the ribs.

You find this out after screaming questions at relief workers, reading an abundance of toe tags and going alphabetically through the missing persons’ list. All the while Micah’s by your side, squeezing your hand, making phone calls until she finally gets a hold of her family. (They were playing golf when this happened. Who knows, someone might have gotten hurt from a toppled birdbath or designer poplar.) She lets go of your hand once someone finally picks up. That someone is saying something that’s making her start to sob, and you find yourself engulfed in sense again—everything bursts raucous and cacophonous all at once. There is sound again, hopelessly, relentlessly, infuriatingly.

Next to you Micah gasping over her cell sounds like she’s hollering at you through a megaphone. She’s crying, too, but with a different species of tears, with a cry that drives something in you to tear her throat out. In that moment you hate her more than almost anything, but most of all you hate how sharply you’re taking this in, how your senses have agreed without your consent to devote this so indelibly to your memory. “Oh my god,” she keeps saying. “Oh my god, oh my god,” the person on the other end echoes. And then— it’s so clear—it’s enough to make you want to die—

—her sister called with good news. You could tell by the sound of her voice.