It was a nice Friday night. Natália was exhausted but she couldn’t let her best friend down on her birthday. Jennifer was hosting a dinner party at her house, only for close friends. She would go, stay a couple of hours, find an excuse and go home.
She had already bought her friend a gift, but stopped on the way to get a bottle of wine as well. It was her 29th; they only wanted to have a pleasant and relaxing evening, saving the crazy celebrations for next year. She rings the bell and Jennifer opens the door, looking very excited.
“Happy Birthday! You look fabulous!” Natália said, handing the wine and the gift to Jennifer.
“Thanks. God, you look so tired!” Jennifer has never been a subtle person.
“Well, you know, long hours at the bank, Pablito’s been sick, uncle Tony is visiting… too much going on.”
“Let’s have some fun, then. Forget about all that for a night.”
They ate dinner, drank, laughed, drank, danced and drank some more. It was later than Natalia was planning to stay and she drank more than she should, so she called a taxi and went home.
Carlos came home from the funeral of a little girl who had drowned in the pool club. The family was devastated and so was he. He was too used to his job to get emotional or attached to people’s stories and family tragedies, but a little girl dying like that was… wrong.
He thought about his grandson all day. Same age as the little lifeless body he was forced to handle. When he learned his daughter was pregnant he got furious at her, but after the baby was born Carlos simply fell in love with him. Pablito and Natália were the most precious things in his life.
Every night he sat on Pablito’s bed, watching him sleep. There was an irrational fear that they were going to lose him. As Carlos watched him, he woke up crying, saying he had a nightmare.
“And a big monster ate the house…”
“Shh, shh, it’s ok, it was just a dream, papa is here.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re safe.”
“Mama will be home soon. We’ll all have breakfast together. Does that sound good?”
“Ok, now back to bed. Good night, boy.”
“Good night papa.”
When he left Pablito’s room, his brother had fallen asleep on the living room couch, with the newspaper on his lap. He tried to wake him up, but he was very deep asleep, so he just put a blanket over him and went to the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea.
Antonio hasn’t had vacations for years. Although he was now almost 70 years old, he enjoyed being active in his faith. He went on missions in poor countries, helped the needed communities near Santiago, taught English and soccer to the children in his parish. He had been very busy his whole life as a priest. But now it was time to rest. And see his family.
His only brother lived in Concepción with his daughter and grandson. They spoke often on the phone, but rarely visited each other. They got along well. For Antonio it didn’t really matter that his brother was an atheist and his niece a single mother. When he met the boy, he was delighted. Pablito was such a sweet and funny child! Natália was doing a great job as a mother – working hard at the bank, but spending all the time she could with her son, playing with him, teaching him, taking him to parks. Carlos also helped a lot and you could see he was proud of his family.
It had been a great week, but also tiring. It was Friday, the babysitter called early in the morning saying she was sick and Antonio insisted he could take care of the boy. Natália was worried and called a dozen times that day to make sure Pablito had his medicine, his nap, his bath. Uncle Tony was surprised at his own ability to handle the boy. As he was feeling better, they played cars, kicked a ball around the backyard, finger painted a picture of mommy. By the end of the day, Carlos came home acting weird and too quiet and put Pablito to bed. Antônio was so exhausted that he fell asleep on the couch.
Natália struggled to find the keys in her purse, took her shoes off, opened the door and walked in quietly (or so she thought). The house was all dark except for her son’s nightlight and before reaching her room she bumped into the coffee table and knocked off a picture frame from the shelf. Everybody was sleeping (Uncle Tony on the couch). It was 2am. She took a shower, brushed her teeth (ingrained habits she would never get rid of, no matter how wasted she was) and collapsed on her bed.
She thought she was having a nightmare or the worst hangover she ever had. The room was shaking so hard, the furniture was falling, and she heard so many different noises it was hard to identify. Screams, alarms, things falling and breaking. Her maternal instinct immediately flooded her and she was feeling awake and protective. She ran to her son’s room, he was crying at the top of his lungs, but at first she couldn’t see him. There was a lot of dust in the air; pieces of their roof were falling. As she got closer she saw his bed had been turned over and Pablito was sitting on the floor, a thin line of blood running down his face.
“Come here baby, mama is here, everything is ok.” Natália said as she scooped him up the floor and went looking for her father and uncle.
The earthquake lasted about one minute. Her house was still standing, but pieces of the roof were falling. She found her dad in the living room, trying to lift a shelf, but it took a moment for her to understand why – her uncle was under it.
“Get out of here! Quick! Take Pablito out of the house!”
“Is Uncle Tony ok?”
“I don`t know. Go get me help.”
“You have to get out of the house, it`s going to collapse!”
As she ran out to the street, chaos was taking place. It was dark, houses were collapsing, and people were crying, screaming and looking for their relatives. She was trying to find someone to help her dad, but all her neighbors were too busy.
“Help me please! My uncle is trapped under a bookshelf!” Someone had finally stopped to listen to her.
“Is that your house?” The man said, pointing at the yellow house on the corner. As she turned, she saw half of her house falling, all bricks and roof pieces.
“My dad and my uncle are in there! Please help me!”
“It`s too dangerous!”
“Please! They`re my only family!”
“Ok, you stay here, I`ll get some help.”
She waited, holding her son in her arms, while the men went into her house. She waited, and waited… praying that her father and uncle would be alive. Finally they came out of the mess that used to be her house. The two men that went in to help, and her father. She met Carlos eyes and she knew her uncle hadn`t made it. They hugged and cried silently for a moment.
Carlos had seen hundreds of funerals in his life, but he was never truly prepared to say goodbye to his loved ones. His father, in the biggest earthquake in history, that shook Chile in 1960; his mother, who lost her war against cancer; his wife, a few days after Natália was born. And now his only brother, a survivor, like him. Two quakes came and took a member of his family. And twice he survived. Something was starting to shake inside him.
For the next few days, there were several smaller quakes and people were spending the night on the streets or in the cars. Every day the number of deaths increased, there was no running water, no power, no food. The airports were closed, the roads cracked and some highways and bridges had broken and fallen down.
Natália, Carlos and Pablito were staying in a friend’s house.
“(…) one of the worst tragedies in the last 50 years. Chile is in state of catastrophe.” Natália saw President Michelle Bachelet saying on tv.
“What are we going to do, dad?”
“We start over, kid. That`s what we do. We start over.”
(Ana Elisa Miranda)