Where the fuck was she, anyway? If Tess were home, Lauren would be hearing Live Through This coming from her bedroom at the end of the hall, but all was quiet. There was no way she overslept—Tess was a strangely early riser for such a partier, and it was already 9:00. Lauren opened Tess’s bedroom door and peeked in, saw a hairy leg hanging over the bed, and closed the door. If she was sure it was Keith, she’d wake him up, but with Tess you could never be sure, and that could be embarrassing, calling to the wrong dude. Lauren hoped the sound of the shower would wake whoever it was and he would be gone before she emerged from the bathroom.
She had just finished rinsing the shampoo from her hair when she felt the blast. The sound had jagged edges that ripped the air like tissue, shook her eyes in their sockets, instantaneously liquefied her bowels. She leapt from the shower to the toilet while her and Tess’s toiletries flew from the shelves. Baby powder, toothbrushes, and two pink birth control cases fell on her head. The medicine cabinet flew open and aspirin and vitamin bottles dropped into the sink. Then it was quiet. She wrapped herself in a towel and turned off the shower. She looked out the bathroom window, fully expecting to see a passenger plane sticking out of the ground in her backyard.
She heard a knock at the bathroom door. “Lauren?”
“Keith. Are you okay?”
“What the hell was that?”
“I don’t know. Where’s Tess?”
“She took my Bronco.”
“She needs a copy of her social security card before she can start the new job today. I’m not sure where you go to do that.”
“Downtown,” she said. “The Murrah building.”
That night it rained. The bombing site was lit up like ten football fields and its light poured down streets and alleyways like a spreading infection. A helicopter thumped overhead. Keith sat in the passenger seat unfolding his rain poncho and wrestling with it as he pulled it over his head. Lauren parked in the empty parking lot behind the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, a few blocks away from the Murrah building. The tall, stained glass windows of its sanctuary had been blown out, and from the sidewalk, Lauren could see the shadowy ceiling of the inside of the church, unprotected. Glass crunched beneath their feet as they walked, jewel-toned shards glittering like a bloody ocean under moonlight. A police car appeared from an east-west road a couple of blocks down and came toward them. They ducked behind a dumpster and waited for it to pass. “We’ve got to be careful,” Lauren said. They peeked out from behind the dumpster and continued on, dashing from parked cars to recessed doorways to stay hidden until they found the perimeter, yellow tape stretched as far as they could make out. On the other side of the barrier, they saw figures on guard. “I feel like a criminal,” Kevin whispered.
“We just need to know,” Lauren said. “If your car isn’t there, we’ll know she’s okay.” Lauren thought of all those times Tess had come close to starting a real job—getting some credit in the straight world, as the song said—only to panic and take off, sometimes for a day or more. One time, Tess had taken the bus to Dallas to see Pavement instead of starting work at a vet clinic. Let it be something like that. All day long, as the body count climbed on the news, and national news crews streamed into the restaurant where she worked, she told herself that Tess had just flaked out again. So they would have a look around, they would satisfy themselves that Keith’s Bronco was not there, and they would go home and wait for Tess to return from whatever wild-hare adventure she had taken.
They rounded a corner and the building came into view a half a block away. “God!” Keith grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her into his chest. She pushed away and turned to look. She had seen it on television a hundred times that day, white and torn and crumbling, like a layer cake that someone has ripped in two with bare hands, and she recognized what she was seeing as the same sight she had beheld all day on screen, but there was no comparison. The addition of depth made the sight hard to take in, hard for the mind to assimilate. The visual field regressed into the bowels of the building, into exposed rooms and dark crannies behind overturned desks and dangling potted plants. What looked like crumbs hanging from cake on television, were car-sized chunks of concrete in real life, straining to fall toward the crater in the middle of the building. Despite the rain, the building still appeared to be smoking. Was it steam? Whatever it was, it gave the wet concrete debris the look of a live animal, a being whose entrails steamed and strained to fall even further from the shattered shell of the body that had held them. Her body quailed as she tried to pick out where the floors had been, looked into the rooms imagining the fate of a tender human body amongst all that hard matter. Tess could be in there. The floors of her mind crashed in on themselves and she bent over and vomited. Keith had turned away from the sight of the building, his hands over his eyes.
“What floor was the social security office on?” Keith asked in a tight voice that she could barely hear over the loud hum of a nearby generator truck.
She wiped her mouth with the bottom of her poncho. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s not do this,” he said. “Let’s go back.”
The building was lit up like the middle of the afternoon. She could see every zit and hair on Keith’s face, his eye sockets cast in shadow. “Come on,” she said.
Through burned air, they walked toward the building, moving through groups of fast-moving people wearing ponchos and other rain gear, FBI and ATF logos everywhere apparent. Police cars, Red Cross, and news trucks crammed the space. A crane towered overhead. The building was writhing. She squinted to understand what she saw. As she drew closer she realized that it was crawling with rescuers, people moving inch by inch through the rubble, looking under every piece of debris. As they approached what had been 5th Street, she began seeing cars. Some were burned out. Some were melted. All were covered with a layer of cement dust, now wetted to mud. She nearly stepped on a big man sitting on a curb, weeping, his shuddering back to her. As they passed him, Lauren felt ashamed for intruding into the work of dying that was going on under that rubble, so private and unexpected, for intruding into the taut and fragile headspace of these rescuers who, on television, seemed like people far out over a mental tightrope suspended above deep space, people who could be knocked off their thin wire of duty and purpose by the slightest disruption to their concentration, and who, Lauren could see now, were victims themselves, in the middle of a catastrophe that was ongoing.
“This way,” she said. Keith nodded and pushed ahead of her, but suddenly she had to put out her hands to keep from running into him. He had stopped. She stepped up next to him and saw what he saw. She couldn’t make out the green paint under all the debris that had piled on top of it, but the boxy shape was right and through the open space where the windshield had been she could see the shark tooth necklace that always hung from his rear view mirror. It was Keith’s Bronco.
They were silent most of the way home. As Lauren turned into her driveway, she said, “She could be alive. They’re still searching.”
Keith nodded. “Remember last week? The one-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, how sad everyone was?” He laughed. “One guy. A suicide. I don’t mean to say it wasn’t sad, but—” he sucked his teeth.
“I know,” she said. Death. Death. Death. “Let’s get fucked up.”
At the front door, she saw a light inside that she didn’t remember leaving on. Then she heard something. Behind her, Keith made a choking sound. She turned the key. Yes. Fucking Hole. Fucking “Doll Parts.” Someday you will ache like I ache. She flung the door open and they rushed into the living room, looking down the dark hallway to the source of the music. Then light flooded the hall as a door was flung open. Tess shuffled into view, scratching her head. “Hey baby,” she said, looking up at Keith. “I’ve got some bad news about your car.”