Beth woke up to sounds of tractors rolling off flatbed trucks. At least, that’s what she assumed. She couldn’t see out the window, so she tried her best to conjure mental pictures from the sounds outside. The grinding metal and pulsing rhythms were either equipment leaving the site or arriving. She checked her watch. It was nearly 7:30 in the morning. They were most likely arriving. She tugged the handcuff on her wrist, making sure it had a good latch, then threw the key across the room and out the open window. There was no going back now.
Her only regret was her location. The iron pipe under the radiator seemed like the best anchor point – there was no obvious way to break it off – but now she had to sit in an awkward position in the corner farthest away from the window. She craned her neck, a feeble attempt to get a better view, but it was no use. She closed her eyes to focus on the rumbles and metallic clacking outside. They were now joined by scattered human voices, nothing more than indistinct murmurs at this distance.
A few months ago, the city announced the sale of a block of homes in the heart of the city, part of a citywide effort to modernize and attract more downtown foot traffic. Most homes in the block had fallen into disrepair except one, the McCullough-Douglas House. With its steep, sloped roof and Gothic-inspired architecture, the three-story structure resembled a castle more than a house. It was one of the oldest buildings in the city, and as such, was mired in history, inspiring tales of human achievement, but also serving as a reminder of dark times with past slave ownership. Beth belonged to a fringe protest group called “The Watchers.” Collectively, they fought to keep history alive through newsworthy protests and unconventional (sometimes illegal) demonstrations. The McCullough-Douglas House was their latest project. They vowed to save the structure no matter the cost.
When they learned of the planned demolition date, The Watchers agreed to stage a protest. The hundred members were more than enough to join hands in a circle around the building. The three of them not in the human chain would break into the building and handcuff themselves to immovable fixed objects. The group arrived last night. Beth was one of the people inside the building. They got in without resistance, and she claimed her current spot on the top floor. With hours to wait until daybreak, Beth drifted to sleep. Now awake, she wondered how long she would have slept curled up in the corner if the equipment outside hadn’t woken her.
She checked her watch again. A half hour had passed since she heard the first pieces of equipment show up on site. It then dawned on her that she only heard the equipment – no chanting or shouting. By this time in the protest, The Watchers would be antagonizing, shouting insults, demanding attention. She could hear nothing outside but the grinding of gears and the low hum of a large motor.
She pulled her phone from her back pocket and woke it up by hitting the side button through its bright pink case. Her phone’s lock screen was flooded with text and call notifications. Panic welled up in her chest. A scroll through the messages showed they were all from other members of The Watchers. How did she miss these? Then it dawned on her. At night, her phone was automatically set to go into “do not disturb” to silence all incoming messages and phone calls. She forgot to deactivate it. Scrolling back, she read the first one. It was from their leader Jaime.
PROTEST OFF, it read, EVAC BUILDING. GROUP COMPROMISED.
What followed was a flurry of subsequent replies from other members, mostly asking the same questions swimming through her own mind at that very moment. “What happened?” “How was it compromised” “Are we coming back?”
Jamie eventually sent an answer, still in all caps. A POLICE OFFICER WAS UNDERCOVER IN OUR GROUP. ARRESTED MANY OF US FOR TRESPASSING BEFORE WE COULD TAKE POSITION. THE REST OF US ESCAPED. IS EVERYONE ACCOUNTED FOR?
Each member chimed in with their status. They don’t know I’m still in here, she thought. She tugged the handcuff, then remembered where she threw the key. She shot a glance out the window. She was trapped and no one was looking for her.
She fumbled with the phone in a desperate attempt to send a reply. I’m still in the house! she typed. I’m still handcuffed! The demo crew is here! She hit Send and held the phone tightly in both hands. As she waited for a response, the gentle rumbling of machinery outside steamed to life as something large dropped into gear. The metal scraping got louder and thumped against loose rubble. It was getting closer.
A reply text appeared on her phone with a ding. It was Jaime again. OMG! SOMEONE GET OVER THERE! I’LL CALL 911.
Beth rolled her eyes. Why didn’t she think of that? She pushed the phone icon and typed 911. After a few rings, the operator picked up.
“911 emergency, how can I help you?” asked the voice on the other end.
“Please, this is Beth Robbins.” She took a deep breath, trying to slow her sentences. “I’m trapped inside the McCullough-Douglas House. Please, you have to hurry. I can hear the crew outside, and I think they’re close to tearing it down.” Admitting her situation brought her close to crying. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, where are you?”
Fighting her tears, she focused on keeping her voice from cracking. “The McCullough-Douglas House.”
“What’s the address?”
“I don’t know the address! It’s downtown. The old building a few blocks away from Main Street. Please hurry!”
“Ma’am, please stay on the line. I’m going to dispatch an officer to your area. What does the building look like?”
“It’s about three stories tall and made of brick. There are green shutters on the windows.”
“Anything else that might help?”
“There will be construction crews outside. They’re tearing the building down today!”
“Okay, please hold.” And the line went silent.
The rumbling outside grew louder; clangs and pops echoed through the empty room.
Then the ceiling collapsed.
Without warning, the deafening crash brought down broken wood planks and a shower of plaster in front of her. The sound was deafening, pushing against her eardrums. She scrambled to tuck herself as far away from the chaos as a yellow metal claw appeared through the new hole in the ceiling and finished its swipe through the room, peeling away the entire front wall with it.
She was lost in a fog, disoriented. Just as she got her bearings, the claw came back for a second swipe. Now falling through the open hole in the ceiling, it slammed into the floor, which was no match for the impact. About 10 feet in front of her, the floor sloped down as a large crack exploded in her direction. She wrapped her hands around the radiator, but now, even that felt loose and without bearing.
She screamed, but her voice was no match for loud grinding of gears and diesel engines outside. From this angle high on the third floor, she still couldn’t see the ground crews outside – the gaping hole revealed nothing but a distant cityscape. Panicked, she could only silently repeat the same phrase over and over. They still don’t know I’m in here.
The yellow arm of the backhoe appeared in her view through the opening where the wall, ceiling, and floor used to be. The claw was too high, obscured by what little of the ceiling was left over her head. She could see the hinge in the arm, leading to the claw somewhere over her head. It was extending up, preparing for another hit. Beth scanned the area, desperate to find anything that could signal her presence to the workers below. All that lay around her was rubble, trash, and debris. If she wasted time throwing those, in the cascade of a collapsing building, a single piece of trash would be ignored. She tugged on the handcuffs once more, again feeling the loose pipe thrash around. It was loose somewhere down below the floorboards, but not enough to give her hope of escape. As she painfully pulled her wrist against the cuff, she caught an object in the corner of her eye. Her saving grace.
There, halfway between the sloped, cracked floor and where she sat in the corner attached to the radiator, was her cell phone, its bright pink case practically glowing against the dark floor. In the commotion of that first hit, she must have dropped it. Considering the slope of the floor beneath it, it was a miracle that the phone was still within view. She took a quick glance at the arm of the backhoe, still moving the claw into position somewhere above her. She needed to reach that phone if she had any chance of surviving.
She scooted flat on the floor and stretched her lower body toward the phone, tugging her wrist against the cuff and stretching her arm to get her feet as toward it as possible. Her wrist ached under the pressure, but she ignored it, stretching her body further than she thought possible. It wasn’t far enough. She craned her neck around to see. The phone was still inches away from her toes.
The backhoe slammed into the ceiling again. This time, it hit the corner opposite her, pulling away at the front corner of the side wall. As it ripped away the last vestige of the front wall, the rest of the ceiling collapsed, falling down in chunks around her. She ignored everything, focusing all her attention on the phone just out of reach. The rafters collapsed in one large section, hitting the front side of the sloped floor and knocking the floor down with it. The rafters fell as a solid piece along the sloped floor and slid down to the ground below, missing her completely. The weight of the rafters weakened the floor, and a second later, it too fell away, slowly enough to allow Beth the chance to grab the handcuffs with both hands and pull herself back to the corner. It took effort, but she was able to get in position just enough that the floor broke off just below her waist. Her feet dangled off the ledge, but her upper body was still supported by what was left of the room. The splintered remains of the ceiling curled down, blocking her view and cloaking her in darkness. She was unharmed, but still unseen. And the phone was lost.
She heard the backhoe’s engine churn to life again, making another adjustment before the next inevitable hit, one that she probably wouldn’t survive. She pulled her legs up, curled into the corner against the loose radiator, and braced for impact.
Beth blinked away her daydream and returned to the present. She was still safe, sitting calmly in the corner of the musty, old room. Soft rumbles of equipment outside echoed around her. In her hand, her phone still displayed that last text from Jamie. OMG! SOMEONE GET OVER THERE! I’LL CALL 911.
There was still plenty of time to make the call. Within moments, the cops would show up, stop the demolition, march upstairs, find her helplessly sitting in the corner, chained to the radiator with a handcuff that would easily snap off with a pair of bolt cutters. She’d be escorted out and then sent home. End of story. No sacrifice. No headlines.
Why was the crew moving so slowly? What she wouldn’t give for that backhoe to take at least one — just one — swipe at the building. Beth had seen the videos on YouTube. Buildings came down fast. But of course, that was once they got started. Oh, how amazing it would be if the cops showed up right as the floor collapsed beneath me, she thought. She didn’t join this group to go home safely at the end of the day. She joined to cause trouble, to take a stand, to get her hands dirty. And that’s what she was going to do. The time for action was now.
She responded back to Jamie: “Nevermind. I got out. Thanks for your help.” She then powered off her phone. Now to wait. Everything would happen just as she imagined. As they peeled the front wall away, she’d simply throw her phone out there to get their attention.
But what if they don’t see it? she wondered. What if my body gets buried in the rubble and they never find me?
A smile crept across her face. Missing-person stories always make the news, don’t they?