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New Fiction: Salvation

March 15, 2002

ABOUT SALVATION: While driving on a sunny Sunday afternoon a few months ago Dianne and I were discussing super-heroes, albeit briefly. I was tossing story ideas around to gauge her reaction. She tossed an idea back at me that blew me away. She was quite specific about the type of ending she thought the story should have and I was in total agreement. I told her I’d develop it into a story, and here it is. I only hope I did justice to her idea...

It was a quiet, ordinary day in the town of Riverside. The waterfront shops bustled with tourists, the town-square market was crowded with lunchgoers, the men and women of Business Row traded stocks and discussed all matters financial, the school teachers read lesson plans to their students, the seniors played chess or Chinese checkers in the park, and life in general crawled by at a comfortable pace.

On June 17 everything changed.

Jim Benson had served with the Riverside police for 38 years before having retired to the less stressful position of desk clerk at the Hendrickson Building in the city’s financial district. The Hendricksons had arrived in Riverside in the 1870s and had made their fortunes in metals and oil. They settled in Riverside and had been responsible for much of the town’s economic growth and development. The 59-story Hendrickson Building, erected in 1908, was a towering symbol of the family’s success. At 3:37 p.m., June 17, the small, hand-made carbon bomb left under a desk on the 22nd floor of the law offices of Biggers & Ward, PC, detonated. The explosion rocked the building to its steel and concrete foundation. The ceramic coffee cup atop Jim Benson’s desk shook slightly, spilling an ounce of Maxwell House’s finest atop a myriad of documents and sign-in forms. The explosion triggered a fire, which activated the building’s fire emergency alarm. Unfortunately, the sprinkler system was not functioning. A cloud of gray-black smoke poured from the shattered window frames of the 22nd floor. Dozens of onlookers stared upward in shock and disbelief. Those who were able to flee the building did so quickly. Others remained trapped inside as the smoke and flames escalated to the higher floors. A second explosion tore through the 23rd floor of the structure. Bystanders screamed and darted for cover as debris and shattered glass raced toward them. The wail of sirens grew ever louder as fire and rescue personnel began to arrive.

In the panic of the moment no one noticed as a tiny blue-yellow streak shot across the skyline and into the Hendrickson Building through one of the windows blown out by the explosion. No one noticed as, one by one, individuals who had been trapped in the building began appearing safely on the sidewalk. No one noticed as the crippled metal supports, damaged and melting, were restored to their former solidity and strength. The blue-yellow streak vanished and on one noticed.

Seconds later, however, they noticed. They all noticed. The sight was something more appropriate for the cover of a 1940s issue of Amazing Stories or Action Comics, yet it was happening in Riverside before hundreds of eyewitnesses. Hovering outside the great Hendrickson Building, between the 18th and 19th floors, a woman dressed in blue and gold held with a single hand a 60-foot railroad boxcar. The boxcar dwindled her tiny frame and to all it appeared that, certainly, the boxcar was being hoisted by a roof crane. But the roof was approximately 35 stories distant and, despite their wishes to believe otherwise, they were witnessing the impossible. The woman arched her neck back and tipped the giant boxcar toward the window frames now devoid of glass. Thousands of gallons of water poured from the metal boxcar into the burning building and the fire was instantly extinguished. Within the blink of an eye, the woman vanished, returning the boxcar to the railroad depot from which she’d borrowed it. Aside from several thousand dollars of property damage resulting from the explosion, fire, and subsequent deluge of water, the Hendrickson Building was intact and structurally sound. An extensive search of the building revealed no further explosive devices. Miraculously, no lives had been lost.

Charlie Gandy, a 26-year railroad technician who was working at the Riverside depot on June 17, made the following comment to the Daily that evening: “I was running tests on a new signal device when all of a sudden I seen a box car--that black B&O car over there--just jump off the tracks and fly into the air. It then dropped outta sight into the Olena River just over the horizon before rising into the air again a few seconds later. I figured I’d lost my mind but I called the police anyway.”

Freelance photographer Nelly McGrew had captured several images of the mysterious blue-gold savior whose heroic efforts had adverted a tragedy. No one knew who or what the stranger was. Several of McGrew’s photos, upon enlargement, revealed the face of a young woman, blonde, perhaps in her mid-20s. Hers was an average face, but one unknown to any of Riverside’s 47,500 residents. A close up of the mystery woman appeared on the front page of the June 18 Daily along with the headline “Savior Averts Tragedy!”

The following afternoon, Agnes Pulanski, 53-year-old school-bus driver, felt a sharp pain surge from her left shoulder to her wrist. As she turned onto Canal Street, the pain escalated and moved to her chest. She removed her hands from the steering wheel of the bus and clutched her chest as the pain began to overwhelm her. The bus spun out of control and its forth grade occupants bounced about like tiny plastic boats in a whirlpool bath. Drivers in the opposite lane of traffic weaved and turned sharply to avoid the bus as it sped into their paths. Moments later, the bus was safely parked along the shoulder of the road. The impact with oncoming rush-hour traffic had been averted as the bus had been carried off the road and returned safely to the ground below. The blue-gold heroine removed the unconscious Ms. Pulanski from the bus and began to perform CPR until the arrival of emergency rescue personnel several minutes later. Follow-up tests revealed that Agnes had suffered a coronary attack due to arterial blockage. Additional tests revealed a sudden, unexplainable decline in atheroma along her arterial walls as well as several new channels within the wall of the left ventricle. Her heart had seemingly repaired itself.

That evening the attempted armed robbery of the Myers Jewelry Shoppe was foiled by the colorful mystery woman whom, the following morning, was dubbed The Working Girl by the Daily. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, she appeared more and more frequently, and she never failed to amaze the citizens of Riverside with her amazing, larger-than-life exploits. When the Olena River and the Riverside Water reservoir became contaminated by toxic chemicals she purified the water and caught the persons responsible within two hours. When the historic Admiral Theatre caught fire upon being struck by lightning she quenched the fire and undid the damage it had caused. When 8-year-old Carrie Ann Mack wept at the loss of her cat, Mittens, the Working Girl found and returned the feline to Carrie Ann’s doorstep. And when Tom Payer, despondent at life, stepped from the ledge of the Donovan Building, he fell not to the sidewalk far below but into the arms of a stranger whose intervention restored Tom’s faith in humanity. She was everywhere and could do everything. Riverside praised its new champion.

On August 17, exactly two months after she’d first appeared in Riverside, the excitement surrounding The Working Girl and her heroic feats was beginning to diminish. That is not to say that her adventures had become less extraordinary--quite the contrary. It had become common--almost an expectation--to see The Working Girl soaring across the sky with a ridiculously large object--a boat or a huge stone pillar, for example--in tow. However, her mere daily presence undercut the intensity first generated when she’d appeared at the Hendrickson Building in June. Soon her presence was no more special to the people of Riverside than is the common passenger with whom one might share a seat on the bus. Yet those who she saved were, naturally, grateful.

Tim Garrett, a satellite dish installer with Adelphia Communications, had been afraid of heights since childhood. As a dish installer he fought his fears daily. The job paid well, and the financial compensation he received was, apparently, greater than his fear. Tim fell from rooftops on three separate occasions in July. Each fall had been broke by The Working Girl, who saved him in the final moments before he would have perished, or at least would have become severely injured. The sense of caution with which he climbed had faded. Tim no longer felt afraid because he knew and firmly believed she would always be there to catch him should he fall.

On August 23 at 2:45 a.m., two teenage girls lay on the northbound track of the Riverside Rural Rail Transit System. They were dressed in black and rested on the track on an overcast evening through which no moon could be seen. At 2:57 a.m. the track began to vibrate and in the distance the faintest of lights began to slowly increase in intensity. Fifteen miles away, in the second-floor apartment of Marla Cavendish, two boys--ages 8 and 12--sat at a kitchen table, atop which rested a small, black handgun that contained a single bullet in its barrel chamber. The boys took turns with the gun, pointing it in the direction of a sleeping child who rested soundly on a sofa 10 feet distant, and squeezing the trigger once at each turn. Miles away, the teenage girls sat defiantly on the shaking track as the 27-ton locomotive thundered ever closer toward them. The light was blinding but they did not move nor waver. And despite the distance in proximity between these two, unrelated events--despite that they were occurring simultaneously--she succeeded. The Working Girl removed the teens from the track and stopped a bullet in her fingertips before either disaster struck. The gun-wielding boys were arrested and charged with illegal possession of a firearm and attempted manslaughter. Their mother, Marla Cavendish, was arrested and charged with negligence, child abandonment, and child endangerment. The teens who’d sat upon the train tracks were charged with reckless endangerment and trespassing. Robert Tower, defense attorney for the teens, argued that his clients knew no harm would befall them because “The Working Girl would prevent any harm from befalling a citizen of Riverside.” The prosecuting attorney issued a subpoena for The Working Girl to appear in court, but because her identity and address were unknown the summons could not officially be issued. The cases were subsequently dismissed with light probation sentences given to each party involved.

In the months following the courtroom mini-dramas, the town of Riverside changed--rather, its people changed. Their attitudes became cavalier, their manners, arrogant. Dying became a nonissue for many. Carelessness abounded. Drivers took increasingly greater risks. Pedestrians crossed streets with little, if any, caution. Normal vehicle maintenance was rarely performed since Riverside’s citizens no longer feared mechanical failure-related accidents. The Working Girl saved everyone and averted every calamity. The drowning man, the choking woman, the child trapped in a well. There was no accident she could not prevent, no tragedy she could not undo. Unwittingly, through her selfless heroics, Riverside had become desensitized to death.

Over the next 14 months, The Working Girl continued to watch over the citizens of Riverside though the process was becoming increasingly tiresome. On October 21, Riverside’s sewing district began to burn. The cause-and-effect fire had stared after a worker carelessly left a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray atop an end table. A mouse had crawled across the table in squeaky-sneaky mouse-like fashion and had been caught unawares by a 13-pound heather-gray Siamese. In the ruckus the ashtray had been knocked from the table, the result of which now burned brightly and uncontrollably. The buildings in the sewing district were old and most had no functional smoke detectors. On the opposite side of town, the implosion of the Haywick Building--a once-gorgeous 12-story structure that was being demolished due to make way for a shopping mall--was about to commence. The demolition crew was inside the building performing a final check of the explosive devices when one of the devices detonated prematurely, collapsing several floors of the building and trapping four members of the demolition team. The Working Girl’s rescue efforts were hampered by the amount of debris under which the crew was trapped and the caution needed to remove the debris so as not to injure any of the ensnared workers. Although dispatched at 1:45 p.m., Riverside’s Engine Company No. 2 did not respond to the fire emergency blazing in the sewing district. The Working Girl removed the last of the trapped demolition workers from the Haywick Building at 2:14 p.m. By then, the sewing district fire had consumed eight buildings and was in danger of destroying the entire block. However, she quickly contained the fire, and by 2:25 p.m. its flames were fully extinguished. Six died in the inferno.

The headline of the October 22 Daily’s front page was short and direct: “Working Girl Sought for Questioning.” The brief paragraph that accompanied the headline read as follows:

Riverside police detectives wish to meet with the vigilante/heroine known as The Working Girl. Police are hopeful that the good Samaritan will read these words and report to police headquarters today at 3:00 p.m.

Prior to October 22 The Working Girl had not “met” with the public. Her responsibilities in Riverside had escalated as fewer and fewer of Riverside’s residents assumed responsibility for their own personal safety and well-being. The Working Girl appeared at police headquarters at 3:01 p.m., having used the sixty-second interval between 3:00:00 p.m. and 3:00:59 p.m. to contain a structural breach at the Riverside Nuclear Power Facility. The meeting occurred in room 21-B of police headquarters. In attendance were The Working Girl (WG), police chief Blake Clarke (BC), detective J. S. Sebastian (JS), and Riverside’s mayor, Cullen Wilson (CW). The following is an excerpt transcribed from that meeting:

BC: …and you’ve performed multiple rescues in the past, haven’t you?
WG: Yes. Often.
BC: Yet, you were unable--or unwilling--to prevent a fire that destroyed eight buildings and killed six residents.
WG: I was preoccupied.
JS: Is there a reason why you couldn’t rescue the trapped demolition workers in less time? Our sources indicate you were present at the demo scene for nearly 30 minutes. Were you unaware of the fire burning during that time?
WG: I was aware of it. People were trapped in debris. I had to move the debris cautiously to ensure their safety.
CW: You must understand. We’ve come to depend on you to be there when things go wrong.
WG: I understand that you and the members of your community are looking for a full-time baby sitter. Why didn’t the fire department respond when summoned at 1:45? That is their job, isn’t it?
BC: We’re, um, checking in on that. However, you’ve assisted the fire department many times before. Why should they think that yesterday would have been any different?
WG: That’s really irrelevant to the matter at hand. I arrived in Riverside because I have the ability to make a positive difference from time to time. You’re all under the assumption that I’m some sort of all-seeing deity. I’m not. I wanted to show you that one person could make a difference. I wanted to inspire each of you to do your best, but I see that that plan has horribly backfired.
BC: Just a moment, Working Girl, I--
WG: My name is Carol.
BC: I wasn’t aware of that.
WG: You never asked. You merely took and took and demanded more and more. And I gave it. I gave all I had, but to you that still wasn’t enough. And why? You’ve become sheep. I saw the bodies from that fire--the looks on the faces of those charred corpses. Those people didn’t die afraid. They perished all the while believing their salvation was at hand--that I would surely be there to save them. Four of those who died were on the first floor and could have simply walked out the door or crawled out a window. But they waited. For me.
JS: No one is accusing you of--
WG: Shut up. Regardless of my actions--whether I’d responded first to the fire or to the implosion site--lives were at stake. Lives matter--to me. It’s time they started mattering to you.
BC: Just a second. This interview isn’t over.
WG: It is for me. I’m through talking to you and I’m done caring about this little town.
CW: Don’t be so reactionary, Working Gi--uh, Carol. Look, what if--what if we put you on the city’s payroll? We pay other rescue personnel, we could--
WG: I’m not interested in your money. I don’t do this for financial gain. You’re on your own again--your town and its people will have to deal with life and death just as you did before I arrived. I really hope you can remember how it’s done.

She vanished. A blue-gold streak shot through the station and across the bright afternoon sky one last time. At 5:02 p.m. a four-car collision occurred at 4th and Vine; amidst twisted metal the injured drivers waited for help to arrive. At 5:17 p.m. the Trust Bank on 21st Street was robbed by two men wearing ski masks and carrying rifles; a teller was shot and killed during the robbery. At 6:33 p.m. a blind pedestrian was struck and killed by an elderly man who had fallen asleep behind the wheel of his sports-utility vehicle. At 7:08 p.m. a trashcan fire started by a disgruntled employee of the Pfizer Engraving Company caused the Crislip Building to burn, and burn, and burn. Throughout Riverside the citizens waited and waited, knowing that their salvation was must certainly be close by.

Several thousand miles distant a woman whose name was Carol sat on a sandy beach and watched the sun as it slowly disappeared beneath the ocean. She’d lived more than a year of her life for them. Now she would start to live for herself.

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