MASS CASUALTY EVENT
Work, as always, could not have been slower. Therefore, Dean Patrick finished his black coffee, rinsed the mug in the office sink, and threw on his brown leather jacket before walking out into the cold. As soon as he stepped out, the chilly breeze smacked him in the face. He felt a trail of goosebumps crawl up his legs under his jeans. As well, his testicles retracted closer to his body, and his bare hands felt pinched. Dean debated on going back inside, but he stepped farther out and started along the promenade. To his right: several smaller shack-like offices like his; and to his left: a deserted beach and a deafening rocking ocean, a dark blue water in contrast to the light blue cloudless sky. Farther ahead on the promenade, children home from school because of winter break stood beside the railings of the promenade as they peered out at the vast ocean. They oohed and aahed at the sight, then ran off.
“Want a newspaper, mister?” a masculine voice sounded from the right. “It’s half off.”
Dean turned and noticed the newspaper vendor in a makeshift green hut. There were tons of newspapers inside, along with a little space heater seeming to do a terrific job at heating an outside space. Dean felt the heat as soon as he neared the open vendor’s hut and let out a sigh of relief. As he did so, he analyzed the papers in front of him, seeing the big printers and few smaller ones. His eyes scanned over the headlines, most of them having to do with the economy. There were also a couple decrying the Russian war efforts, as well as a couple condemning hate and discrimination. Dean shook his head at the pessimism and tried to find the local newspapers. Finally, he saw it and frowned. The headline:
SEVEN YEARS SINCE COLLAPSE AND FINALLY REBUILDING
Dean fished in his pocket for a dollar bill and handed it to the vendor inside the green hut. “Can I get the Willow News?” he asked, and as soon as it was in his hand, he mumbled a thanks, turned around, and started back to his office. A tear slid down his cold cheeks, and his eyes grew red. Dean wondered how he could forget such a horrific and sad day. He slapped himself on the leg and shook his head at his stupidity. Although he had been hoping to get in a little walk, there was no time for a walk now. First, he found it too damn cold to go walking along the oceanside. Second off, something—it felt a little like he had been possessed by a sudden urge—told him to get back to his office and open Microsoft Word. He would start a new document. The rest, he knew, would come afterward.
Dean Patrick hurried up the walkway towards his little office building. As soon as he got inside, he locked the door behind him, flipped the OPEN sign over so the word CLOSED faced the outside, then shut the blinds as quickly as possible. Tears cascaded down his cheeks. He felt his heart begin to thump harder in his chest. His mind’s eye took him back to the day when it all happened. Vivid images of flashing ambulance lights and people crying implanted itself deep in his thoughts. He struggled over to his desk with the newspaper still in his hand, the headline big as can be. Part of him wanted to throw it in the trash and forget about that horrible collapse, but, of course, sometimes forgetting the past did not solve the issue. Dean sat in his chair. It calmed him a little, but still possessing a writing urge, he reached out and opened his laptop. He wasted no time in getting to Microsoft Word at the bottom of his screen. He opened a file and typed the first thing that popped into his head:
No, he thought to himself. He deleted the title and sat with the cursor blinking at him. It seemed to beg him to continue forward. Hell, everything seemed to beg him to continue with his writing. Dean gazed at the cursor for a minute with nothing coming to mind. He tried to piece a handful of words together in his mind, but nothing came forward. He knew “The Collapse” was too basic of a title. He needed something more, some ominous without giving away the plot of the story. But was this a story? Well, he guessed it was a story. Calling it a plot, though, wasn’t right. Calling it a plot made it sound like a fiction tale. And no, this was anything but fiction. It was real. Too real. He took a deep breath to calm his wandering mind. Dean typed the title:
MASS CASUALTY EVENT
Yes, he told himself with a smile despite the tears still trickling down his warming cheeks and chin. Dean wiped them away before the tears could fall from his face. He set the newspaper to the side of his laptop and stared at it for a moment, searching his mind for every detail of what happened seven years ago. Gosh, sometimes that day felt so long ago, but other times, it felt like yesterday. With tears continuing to crawl down his face, he began writing. It came slow at first, but once he got the intro paragraph on the page, his fingers raced across the keyboard and let his thoughts stream onto the document.
MASS CASUALTY EVENT
By Dean Patrick
It’s been a long time since the collapse happened, and I have to admit, although I do not like to, that sometimes the mass casualty event seven years ago manages to slip my mind. Now, you must understand I don’t like that it does. In fact, I hate the idea of forgetting, but sometimes it’s in my best interest that I keep it hidden in the back of my mind to keep the memory from tormenting me. As for Sarah, I hope she does it as well so she doesn’t have to live with it every day of her life either. But, in the end, why is she even in my thoughts? She’s living her life somewhere else now, and well… Let’s forget about her. The important part of the upcoming story is this: seven years ago, a terrible day unfolded in which I have to live with the rest of my life. And after a few months of not thinking about the collapse, I was walking along the promenade today and came across a newspaper headline. It reads “SEVEN YEARS SINCE COLLAPSE AND FINALLY REBUILDING.” It’s a good thing to rebuild, but it won’t ever get rid of the horrible story. And, well, I guess this is my attempt to keep the story alive. I felt compelled to do so. Here it is:
It happened on the morning before Christmas break. All the school children were a little bit too eager to finish the day, and lots of them were bubbling with excitement. There were supposed to be parties all day at school—kids sharing candy with their classmates and parents bringing in food so their little ones could have a fun day. Sarah and I took our little one, Matthew Francis Patrick, to school early that morning. Matthew went to a preschool, you see, so he went to the little old church off Piper Road. It was known as St. Peter’s. In the basement of the church, they had a big school room, along with a kitchen and a walk-in closet. Outside, a large field with a playground and other things for kids to do. It was quite a nice place. Terrific, in fact. I think the only time Matthew cried while going to school was the first day. After, he seemed to really enjoy it. No complaint from him at all.
A little about Matthew: he had a smile that would brighten up a whole room, a gentle as can be personality, a contagious laugh, soft hands, chubby cheeks, brilliant blue eyes, and a habit to try to make the best out of any situation. He hardly got in trouble, and if he did, it never lasted for long. Sarah and I could never be mad at him. It was impossible to be. He never got in trouble in school either. Teachers liked him. Along with this, he had an excellent set of friends, too: Fred, Griffin, and Willy. They were fun just like him and liked to build with the cardboard bricks they had at school. Not to mention, everyday at recess, the foursome would play tag and laugh and laugh and laugh. One time, I have to admit, I got the urge to go to school and watch them play. I watched from a distance and smiled the whole time. It’s funny how kids can find enjoyment out of little things like tag.
Anyway, back then, Sarah and I would carpool to work. Although we both owned a car, we decided to save gas. Plus, she only worked like half a mile from me. I was an artist, she an accountant. Of course, she made more money, but sometimes, especially in summer, my gallery would boom. In the months of May, June, July, and August, it was common for me to come home with more money. But I’m rambling on. So, because we took one car, we both dropped Matthew off at school the day before Christmas break. I waited in the car while Sarah took in the food she had made for Matthew so Mrs.
“What was her name?” Dean asked himself after a moment of contemplation. He sighed, then looked up from the computer screen. Across the room, several paintings hung on the wall: a couple beach ones, a few depicting the town of Willow, and one of a lightning storm. Dean glanced away from his artwork and reread the headline of the newspaper. He scanned the article, selecting words as he came across them. The article mentioned a bank being built over the church. He shook his head. Dean would have liked it to be something better than a bank, but at least the new building would somewhat erase the past. He looked away from the article and refocused on the laptop. The cursor blinked, waiting for him to continue forward with the story. He had been doing well, too. Until he had hit a roadblock with the teacher’s name.
Dean got up and walked across his office. He eyed the paintings on the wall as he did so. The beach paintings and the lightning one looked rather unoriginal but still beautiful, and Willow ones looked rather nostalgic. He gazed at them for a moment while he drifted into his past. The teacher’s name was right on the tip of his tongue. Dean had descended the steps of the church to go into the basement many times to meet her. She had been a married woman with curly hair the likes of which he had never seen on a woman before. Sure, he had seen curly-headed women. It was different on the teacher, though. She wore hers scrunched up, kinda like she had a nest built on her head. She had been cute, too. But he had seen her name tag on her desk many—
“Mrs. Barney,” he said aloud just as the name entered his thoughts. “Mrs. Barney.”
Dean scrambled back to the laptop to continue where he had left off.
Barney could have it for when lunchtime came around. I think she was gone for maybe five minutes—Sarah, I mean. When my wife—ex-wife now—came back, we laughed about how excited Matthew seemed about the school day, then we left for work. I clearly remember staring at the church in the rearview mirror as we drove away. I don’t know why, but now that I think about it, it was sort of like I had a sixth sense an event would transpire. What kind of event? I had no idea, but one hour later, I would find out.
To skip unnecessary detail, I dropped my wife off at her work and went to my office across town. Like I said, my work never really picked up much during the winter, so I had the idea I would most likely be painting. When I got to work, I put an orange smock over my nicer clothes and got out an easel, a palette, and set all my painting material in front of me. I had perhaps gotten a twenty-minute start on my painting when I got a call from Sarah. She was in tears, sobbing to the point where I could hardly understand what she was trying to tell me. But I got the point after a minute or so. People were dead. A collapse at the church. Roof caved in. Not sure if anybody made it out alive. At first I was too shocked to say anything. I didn’t cry, and my jaw refused to drop, and my eyes did not tear up, and my legs and arms stayed strong. Instead, I stood there with no expressions on my face. I remember this because in my office at the time, I had a massive mirror nailed to the wall behind my desk. Later, during one of my frustrated fits with having lost my son to a roof collapsing, I would toss a paperweight at the fucki-
“Keep it PG-13,” Dean said to himself and erased the last word.
damn thing. But at the moment I received the call, I glimpsed myself and saw I was a stone. Nothing crossed my face. Instead of saying anything to Sarah, I breathed in. Then, I breathed out. Afterward, I said, “I’ll be at your work in five minutes. Be ready.” And then, I hung up. I threw on my coat, walked out into the chilly Massachusetts air, and started to my car in the little parking lot behind my office. I remember sitting in my car to understand what had just happened. I turned on the hot air, let it blow in my face, then an eerie thought popped into my head: Did Matthew go to Heaven or Hell? Or, do those places even exist? Gosh, now that I think about it, I wonder what the hell got into me as I thought those things. Was it morbid? Or was it a common thing to think during grieving? Was I even grieving at that point? I’m not sure, because I wasn’t even sure my son could even be dead. He might have been alive. But something in my gut told me he died in the collapse. One second he had been playing with his friends, then the next second a giant roof came down on him. I could almost see him in my mind’s eye as I sat in my car.
My wife was waiting outside in the cold when I got to her work. Tears were frozen to her cheeks, and her hair looked messy as if she had been pulling it out of stress. I’ve got a funny feeling she probably made a scene in work, but to be fair, she had an excuse to do so. When she got in the car, she collapsed in my arms and cried. I held her for a second before we got started on the way to the church.
“Why did this have to happen?” she asked me while in tears.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Why couldn’t it have happened during the holidays when nobody would be there?”
“I don’t know.”
There were all kinds of people surrounding the church when we got there. My wife and I parked down the hill from the place because there were so many cars. Six firetrucks were parked in front, along with three ambulances and more police cars than I could count. There were numerous parents outside, too. They were sobbing up a storm. My wife as well. I was crying a little, too. My wife and I made our way as close as we could to the damage. Dozens of men scrambled through the wreckage. Lots of yelling. Gosh, I can still hear them sometimes if I think hard about it. My wife and I joined the other parents in spectating the search. It took them all day. By then, every single body had been accounted for. All dead.
Dean looked away from the laptop with tears in his bloodshot eyes. A few drops were on his cheeks and making their way toward his chin. Writing the brief account had thrown him into the past. It felt as if he still stood amongst the grieving families, watching their kids found in the rubble. He wiped his tears from his eyes and cheeks, then he refocused on the computer in front of him. The last sentence stuck out to him. He sniffled. For the last seven years, Dean had put the past behind, but now, it all seemed to envelop him. He glanced down at the newspaper next to his laptop and frowned. It’s an incredible travesty, he knew, to build a bank over a church, but at the end of the day, whatever it took to erase the memory of the collapse was fine by him. Dean looked away from the article. It would be read later in its entirety, of course, but right now, the story deserved his attention.
Dean set his eyes back onto the laptop screen and reviewed the last couple sentences. He wondered where to go from there. Well, he guessed he could go anywhere as long as he wrote it exactly as it had happened. Did he want to go into detail about the funeral? Not really. It was a funeral. Not much to it. Did he want to go into how his wife left him not long after the collapse? No. Sarah was somewhere in the world doing her own thing and trying to forget about it all. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to start anew. Dean knew he could not stop where he left off. The last sentence “All dead” did not sound like such a happy ending, but it put an interesting thought into his head: life never had happy endings. At the end of your time, you die. It happens to us all. Matthew Patrick found that out a little early, hadn’t he?
Dean sighed and put his elbows on the table. He dug his face into his hands which smelled a little of paint. His thoughts soared in all sorts of directions. Where would this story go if he finished it? Was it just for himself? Sort of like one of those things you write then throw it in the garbage afterward? No. Although there would have to be edits to remove his ramblings, the story itself was okay. Maybe he could send it to the newspa—
Yes, he thought and lifted his head out of his hands. I’ll send it to the newspaper.
But if that was the case, then he had to give it a good ending, something a little better if it would be put in print, something better than “All dead.” He scooted his chair closer to the desk.
Funerals took place after the incident. Every family mourned the loss of their child. There were a few attempts to understand what had caused the collapse, but nobody was for sure. In the end, it was said the church was just getting old and needed to be erased. I don’t know about that myself. It seemed to be steady, but who am I to say? I don’t think it came down to foul play, though. I just want to know the exact reason for it falling down. It remains a mystery, however, and I guess that’s all right. All I know is my son died a young boy with his friends. It was quick and painless—at the least that’s what the cops and fire department said, and I’m rest assured it had been.
Sarah left me not long after the collapse. We stayed together for a year, but one day she told me she was going to get groceries and never came back. Aren’t people funny? It’s funny how people come into your life then just depart it. Matthew did it, then Sarah did. I don’t blame her, though. I’m guessing she wanted something new. Hell, I guess I do, too.
Like I said at the beginning of this short little story, I sometimes forget the collapse. I forget it for my own good. I wish I didn’t have to forget it, but I do. And I’m glad I saw the Willow newspaper today to help me remember, because without the newspaper, I would not have written this. Although I wish something else would be built over the ruins, I am glad at least something is being built. In a way, it’s helped me move on. An older man like me must move on eventually, and I think I am now. I’m not sure where to go next. I’m not sure if there’s a next stage in my life, but for the time being, I’m going to remain in my office next to the promenade and stare out into the Atlantic.
Dean leaned back in his chair and let out a massive sigh of relief. It seemed finished. An awful lot of words were put onto the page. The ending, like the rest of the story, was written okay—not good, not bad, definitely in the subpar range. But what could he say? If he said he was doing great, that would be a lie. If it seemed like he was still in the dumps, that would be a lie, too. He was doing okay, and once he typed the last word, he felt as if he had moved on a little. He was ready for something more. Yes, a new adventure awaited him. He clicked on the word “File” at the top of the page, clicked on “Print,” clicked on another “Print” button, and heard his printer start. Once printed, he put on his leather jacket again and stepped outside. The unbearable wind slapped him in the face, but he did not care. He started for the newspaper office half a mile from his art office. He ran the whole way.
Mason Yates is from a small town in the Midwest, but he currently lives in Arizona, where he is studying at Arizona State University. He has interned with the magazine Hayden’s Ferry Review and has served as the fiction editor for ASU’s undergraduate literary magazine Lux during the 2021-2022 school year. His works can be found in magazines/webzines such as Land Beyond the World, Scarlet Leaf Review, Fabula Argentea, Idle Ink, Pif Magazine, and others. To read more of his publications, go to linktr.ee/masonyatesauthor.