The end of the world. At least, that was what it looked like. All around there was nothing but homes and buildings leveled. Belongings once safely tucked away in a bedroom were strewn across the open grass along with the wood and drywall and insulation that had kept the harsh winds out. But the harsh winds had turned into fury, and now there was nothing but debris and death strewn across the once pleasant patch of earth. The town that once existed was broken and tossed across a few square miles.
Anthony had volunteered. He’d been a paramedic for fifteen years and was no stranger to disaster or death. He’d seen things first-hand that he would never wish upon another human being, which is one reason he volunteered. He felt an obligation to do what was needed to not only help those in danger, but to spare his colleagues the surreal experience of what had to be done. He drove six hours straight through the night after hearing the potential damage the storm would bring, but no one could have predicted this.
He stepped out of the truck, pulled the mask over his mouth and nose, and began walking. Starting sooner was better and it was always best to start at the most populated area. This meant where the hospital had been. He shouldered his backpack of tags and started on the southern end of the foundation.
His bag contained little medical equipment because he wasn’t here to save lives. He was here to determine which lives could be saved.
Anthony tried to prepare for the task ahead knowing he could never really be ready. The first two corpses he came across were still in their hospital beds. He dutifully placed a black tag on each of their bodies in a visible location so those who came to provide medical assistance knew they were deceased and no valuable time would be wasted trying to reanimate the dead.
The third body he discovered was below a pile of boards. He shifted them aside. It was an older man, maybe sixty. He was unconscious but breathing. No external wounds aside from some nasty forming bruises. Anthony thoroughly assessed him and pulled a tag out and placed is on the man’s wrist. He ripped the green label off leaving the yellow “Delayed” tag. The man would live without immediate attention.
Anthony moved on, searching. He came across a young girl. Her gown was dirty and soaked through. He assessed her breathing and checked her pulse. A nasty cut on her forehead matted her hair with blood. It hadn’t yet clotted so he pulled a packet of gauze from his pack and applied it before wrapping a tag around the young girl’s wrist. Delayed. She would live. He grabbed a torn blanket from several feet away and covered the girl so she could retain some warmth. It was also wet but it was better than only the gown against the open air.
An hour passed and he tagged fourteen more bodies. Seven black, two green, five red. Red needed immediate attention. The young man he’d tagged red he wasn’t sure would get help in time but had given him a chance.
“Help,” a weak voice called, “help….”
Anthony made his way toward the sound. He lifted a mattress and found an old lady underneath.
“What’s your name?” he asked as he carefully laid the mattress next to her.
“Alright, Ruth. I’m going to look you over, okay? Help is on the way but I’m going to make sure you’re alright.”
He was surprised to discover she was fine except for a peripheral edema she informed him had been present for a few days.
“Ruth, I have to go now. Hold onto this,” he said as he placed the tag around her wrist. He would have left it green had she been able to walk, but considering her mobility, he had designated her as yellow.
“But, why won’t you help?” she asked as he walked away.
“Help is on the way,” he called behind him fighting the urge to sit with her longer. He knew if he stayed any longer, she would try roping him in to staying with her until the others arrived. It was human nature to mass together during times like this. No one wants to be alone when there is nothing else around for comfort.
The hours passed and his bag became lighter as he tagged each body crossed. He was glad to leave more green than black the further he went from the destroyed hospital. He convinced himself it was logical, but he knew there was more to find. All around him he could see nothing but the aftermath. Somewhere within all the remains before him was the real reason he had come.
The sky remained overcast and the sun was nearing the horizon when he finally found his answer. He thought it was another stranger’s body. He knew she was dead. A splintered two-by-four protruded from her back. It wasn’t until he stepped around and saw her face did he realize it was his wife. Her brown hair tainted black by dirt. He knelt by her and reached for her face. Wiping the wet hair back from her face. Her once vibrant eyes stared at him vacantly. They were supposed to be at the hospital. They had been admitted two days ago. They….
Anthony finally pulled his eyes away from his wife. Wrapped in her arms was their two-year-old son. His young face was pale and his eyes were closed. As if he were sleeping back home on the couch. Minutes before being picked up and put to bed. Anthony quickly checked for breathing but knew deep down they were both already dead. They had been for some time.
He stared at them. The exhaustion of working through the tattered landscape wore down on him. He was too tired to cry. Too tired to think. His heart beat but no longer felt. He knelt in front of them and stared. His mind trying to comprehend his new reality. A noise broke him from his trance of memory and dread. He hadn’t realized he was muttering or even what it was he had said.
“Somebody,” a voice called in the distance, “Help.”
Anthony took in his surroundings as if for the first time.
“Help.” The call came again.
He tore his eyes away from his family and looked toward the sound. It was coming from behind a refrigerator half stuck in the ground. He turned back to his wife and son, reached in his pack, and pulled out two tags. He carefully attached them.
He made is way toward the sound. Leaving behind the two black tags. His pack was nearly empty. He pulled out his flashlight and clicked it on. He rounded the refrigerator and found a boy maybe eight years old. The boy’s eyes were wide and red-rimmed.
“It’s okay,” Anthony said. His body wanted to shut down almost as much as his mind tried to. He knew when rest came, he would deteriorate into uselessness, so he continued on. He kneeled by the boy. “It’s okay. I’m here to help. What’s your name?”