Journal of Dr. Harry Dalton, Ph.D.

It's often said that everyone has, at some point in their lives, one defining moment. A moment that so changes their lives that nothing is ever the same again. That moment came for me in the upper Cascade Mountain Range in a small town called Dante's Peak.

My name is Harry Dalton, and I'm a doctor of volcanology, which is the study of volcanoes. I was born in Dublin, Ireland, my parents died in an automobile accident when I was ten years old, at which time I was sent to live with my father's only brother, Charlie Dalton. Charlie was a geologist, never married, who travelled wherever his work called. Not knowing what else to do with a ten year old boy, he took me along, teaching me about his work, about what various rocks meant, how to recognize formations, even let me help a bit. By the time I was eighteen, there was no doubt that I wanted to follow in my uncle's footsteps, and he sent me to school to earn a degree in the field. During those years, I found myself fascinated with volcanoes, but felt that they were something that I would never have need to study more than my geology courses covered.

Joining Charlie in New Zealand, I found myself recalling things I had learned about volcanoes, and realized quickly that the local mountain was near to eruption. Charlie and his collegues refused to listen to a newly graduated neophyte, and insisted that I had spent too much of my time reading from books, and not enough getting my hands dirty. So they sent me to another part of the site while Charlie remained to inspect an interesting rock formation.

The mountain sent a warning tremor, and I heard rock falling, and tried to get where I'd left Charlie. I wound up waiting until the quake subsided before racing to the rock face. It had collapsed, trapping Charlie and two other men. One survived. Charlie didn't make it.

That experience sent me back to school to get my doctorate in volcanology, after which I went to work for the United States Geological Survey, based out of Vancouver, Washington. I travelled everywhere there was a volcano with an "attitude", New Zealand, the Philipines, New Guinea, Brazil-. So much travel made the possibility of marriage a rather distant thought, and I came to believe that I would end up like Charlie, alone.

Until I met a young woman that I worked with at the USGS. Marianne Hodges. She was a volcanologist as well, still working on her doctorate. We worked as part of a team, sent out to investigate possible eruptions. I was always relieved when there was no eruption, when the mountain would go back to sleep. But Marianne wanted to see an eruption, to actually know what it was like. She was forever asking me about the ones I'd seen, and we even planned a trip to Hawaii to study that island's active volcanoes.

I fell in love with her. She was so full of life, of enthusiasm that was contagious, and I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life. We planned to marry, but were summoned to investigate a possible eruption in Columbia, South America.
Columbia. Even now, I can still recall how hot it was. Hellishly so. We set up the monitoring equipment, and realized quickly that the mountain meant business. Marianne was delighted, excited that she would get to see her first real eruption. I found myself hoping that it would satisfy her, that I would be able to convince her that it was time to settle down, to stop chasing volcanoes all around the world.

I took the truck up the mountain to check out a monitoring station that seemed to be malfunctioning, and while I was there, all hell broke loose. The rain that had been steadily falling for two days became filled with ash, coating everything with a gray and brown sheen. I called Marianne on the radio, told her to get packed up so we could leave, and didn't wait for her response. I needed to concentrate on my driving to get back down the mountain. The villagers, who had refused to believe our warnings, began to evacuate the village, and as I drove through the muddy, ashy streets, I found myself unable to see the road, even with the windshield wipers on their highest speed. Flaming chunks of rock in various sizes began to fall into the streets, blown from the top of the volcano during the eruption, and as I approached the building where we had set up shop, I realized that we might have waited too late to get out safely.

Marianne was in the doorway as I got out of the truck and ran toward the building, telling her it was time to leave. She was filled with the excitement of witnessing her first eruption, and said that we should stay, that the readings were phenomenal. I told her we had to go then, and started packing up, telling Juan and Chico to get the things into the other truck and get to the fort.

Marianne and I led the way, with Marianne still feeling the adrenalin rush from the excitement. She'd never been more beautiful than she was that day, even caked in gray rainwater, her dark hair plastered to her head. I started to tell her that if we got out of that, I was quitting, going to go teach somewhere, in a safe university. But Marianne said that we'd have some stories to tell, still to excited to notice my lack of enthusiasm and very real concern.

A huge rock fell onto the hood of the truck, crushing it, and to this day I have no idea why that truck kept running. Seeing that, Marianne's enthusiasm seemed to waver as she realized the danger we were in. I started trying to keep her spirits up, telling her we were going to make it- when a smaller rock, not much larger than my fist, slammed through the top of the truck- directly above where Marianne was seated.

When I recovered from the surprise, I looked over, asking Marianne if she was alright- only to see her sitting, eyes closed, hands shaking as if she were having a seizure- and blood pouring from the right side of her head. She went limp, and I pulled her to me, not stopping, wanting only to get as far away from that damned mountain as I possibly could, mourning the fact that another mountain had taken Marianne from me just as another had taken Charlie.

I took a six month leave of absence, partially my own idea, partially on the suggestion of the psychologists at USGS. During that time, I taught a class at the university of Oregon in Portland for a friend of mine. While I was there, I met a young geology student named Nancy Wilson, who was considering a change in her course of study. She told me that she hadn't found geology as exciting as she'd hoped, so I told her about my chosen field, about volcanoes, how you never knew which one was going to be the one that gave the show. By the end of the course, Nancy had decided to go for her doctorate in volcanology, and I got her a job as an intern at USGS.

I enjoyed the change that teaching gave me, but at the end of the six months, I was itching to return to the USGS, to get back into the field. I deliberately placed myself in danger, I suppose, waiting until the last possible moment to get out during the next eruption, barely escaping. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I made a fatal mistake- a mistake that would end my life much as Marianne's had ended- in the line of duty. The psychologists began suggesting that I take some vacation time, said that I was near to 'burn out' and needed some time to recharge my batteries.

While I agreed with the assessment, I found that it wasn't quite that easy to walk away. Everytime I would schedule a fishing trip, something would come up, requiring me to put my plans on hold. My boss at USGS, Dr. Paul Dreyfus, the man who had given me my job there, who had taken a chance on a fresh doctor of volcanology, had often been the one to call me back, to insist that he was sorry for my having to cancel my plans, but I was needed.

A month before I was sent to Dante's Peak, the USGS psychologist strongly recommended that I take some time off to relax and get away from work. I resisted the idea, insisting that I was fine, knowing that I wasn't, that I did need the time off. But the psychologist was very insistant, and I finally agreed to a two week vacation. I told Paul Dreyfus that I was going to take the fishing trip I'd been planning for three years, but I'd only been home for two days when Paul called and left a message on my machine to call the office.

I tried to resist the temptation to return his call, even packed a bag to leave, and was set to go the next morning. As I was doing my usual morning routine of fifty pushups, Paul called again. I really intended to simply drive through Vancouver to where I planned to go fishing. But my route took me past USGS, and I stopped in, knowing that the fishing trip would be put off one more time.

After hearing Paul's news that there was some activity around Dante's Peak, I put the chances against an eruption of Dante's Peak at ten thousand to one, but my curiousity had been piqued by the activity that the monitors had revealed. I told Paul that I would go check it out on my way, and then, since I expected to find nothing of interest, continue my vacation plans.

Dante's Peak was a town like many others in America, filled with the atmosphere that went with such towns. The town was celebrating being named the second best place to live in America with a population under twenty thousand. After checking into the local motel, I went in search of the town's mayor, Rachel Wando, who had agreed to show me around the area when contacted by Paul. My first impression of the mayor of Dante's Peak was that she cared about her town. She gave a short speech about the town's good points, and when she was done, I approached her. It took her a moment to place why I was there, but she told the gentlemen who had also approached that she would call them later and said that she could show me around - after we made one stop.

She drove her truck to a closed, locked mine and honked the horn. Her daughter, Lauren, a pretty girl of about eight, began to ask me if I had children, implying that her mother seemed to believe that having children was a bother. I knew that wasn't true, had seen the way Rachel looked at her daughter, and I also saw her frustration as she blew the horn again and called her son's name before getting out of the truck to go the mine. Graham Wando came out along with some friends, and he got into the truck, not wanting to talk. He showed his sister a smoky quartz crystal that he'd found, and I took the opportunity to tell him what it was, that I'd had one like it when I was his age- which I found out later was eleven. Graham asked his mother to drop him at his grandmother's- and she refused, insisting that I had waited long enough to get up to the high lake and get to work. I assured her I wouldn't mind if she dropped the children off at her mother's, not because I felt uncomfortable with the children, but because I wanted an opportunity to get to know their mother better. Rachel told me that the grandmother Graham referred to was her ex-mother in law, letting me know that she wasn't married.

Ruth Wando asked if I were Rachel's boyfriend, and I could have told her that I wouldn't mind BEING the boyfriend, but I had the feeling that the woman wouldn't take kindly to any man who tried to take her son's place in that family. Besides, I wasn't there to become involved, I was there to check the volcano. I kept telling myself that. But the more time I spent with Rachel and those children, the harder it was to remember. Even when Ruth invited herself and the children along on the trek up to the high lake, I managed to take it in stride. While the children were exploring with their grandmother and her dog, Ruffie, Rachel seemed content to remain with me, watching me as I took readings of the lake water's acidity. "Like a pool man," she observed, and I had agreed, hoping she didn't notice my concern over the 3.49 reading I got. It was too high. And there were several pine trees on the far side of the lake that were dead, possibly from the winter storms, according to Rachel.

She seemed to sense something of my worry, because she asked if there was a problem. I told her no, that 98 percent of the checks I did a year were false alarms.
"What about the other two percent?" she asked.

"Let's put it this way. You wouldn't have to worry about moving up on that best places to live list."

We stopped at Twonset Hot Springs for Ruth and the children to go swimming, and again Rachel remained with me as I studied the area. A scream from Lauren sent us racing down to find two dead squirrels, at which time Ruth said that she'd seen several. The children dressed for their swim, and I found myself examining the springs, seeing the water bubble as if boiling. Something wasn't right, and I stopped Graham just as he would have jumped into the water. At the same moment, Lauren screamed upon seeing the scalded bodies of two young people which had been hidden by the steam from the scalding water.

I called Paul, reporting what I'd found: high acidity in the lake water, enough carbon dioxide to kill wildlife and trees, and two people dead. I suggested that he send the team up to investigate further, and then told Rachel that she needed to call a city council meeting to consider placing the town on alert.

That mountain was going to go up. I could feel it, was certain of it. And I wanted to make sure everyone had plenty of time to get out before it did.

At the meeting, I discovered that the majority of the council was more concerned about the possibility of an investor pulling out of the town than in saving the lives of the citizens. I couldn't give them a definate timeline of when the mountain would blow- and that only served to make the aforementioned group more resistant to the idea of an alert. Rachel calmed them all down, suggesting that they at least look at the evacuation plan. We were doing that, discussing the matter, and Rachel was just calling for a vote when Paul entered the room. When I told him what was going on, he pulled me aside, pointing out that there were any number of reasons for what had happened at the hot springs, and then told the council that an alert would be premature, that there was no hard evidence of a possible eruption. I was furious - not that he'd made me look like a fear monger, but because I was so certain that something wasn't right with that mountain. That the town should have been on alert. Paul told me to take my vacation, and I went back to my motel room, intending to pack and get the hell out of Dante's Peak.

But I couldn't. I kept remembering Rachel, and Graham, and Lauren, and knew that I couldn't run out, couldn't simply leave Dante's Peak to its fate. So instead I went to the local bar and had a couple of drinks before Paul and the rest of the team- which included my old student, Nancy, along with Terry Furlong, Greg Jones, and Stan Takei- came in for a drink as well. Paul saw me and asked why I was still there instead of fishing. I told him, said that the town was in trouble, and that I was the best man he had on the site.

Paul had agreed with that assessment, but said that I still had to learn that there were politics and economics to be considered in those type of situations. He said I could stay, but that if there were anymore council meetings called, it would be his decision.

The next morning, I went to see Rachel, to apologize for causing her any trouble. She offered me coffee, then began a litany of choices. I asked for just coffee, and was asking what else was good when she accidently poured hot coffee on my hand. I said I'd deserved it for blowing her chances for re-election, and then she asked me if I liked eggplant parmesan.

"For breakfast?" I asked.

"For dinner. I'm inviting you to dinner. To say thank you."

"Thanking me for what?"

"For saving Graham's life. And - for caring."

"It's a date," I told her.

Paul hired a local helicopter to take Terry and me up inside the volcano to take readings. We found nothing. The mountain was quiet- but I still didn't believe it. Something in my gut kept insisting that she was only waiting us out, keeping us guessing. And that the moment we let down our guard, she would go.

Dinner at Rachel's was an enjoyable experience. Graham seemed on his best behaviour, and every time I looked at Lauren, I could see what her mother must have looked like at that age. After dinner, Rachel and I sat on the front porch as she told me how much she loved Dante's Peak, that she'd grown up there, gone to school -

"Got married?" I asked, curious about the man who had left this woman and her two wonderful children.

"Yeah. Brian," Rachel said, sighing heavily, telling me that they had been just kids, that she hadn't heard from him in six years, and that she didn't think even Ruth knew where her son was. I wasn't surprised when she asked me if I'd ever been married. I said no, knowing what the next question would be: Why not? I gave her the standard line about the travel, about it not being ideal for settling down. Then she asked the question I dreaded. "Ever come close?"

I picked up my glass of wine. "Yes," I responded, then hesitated. "Once."

Rachel smiled that little crooked smile that I had already learned meant she was uncertain. "Touchy subject." I knew I could drop it, but I found myself telling her about Marianne, about her death. I'd never told anyone about her before, and I wasn't certain why it was so important that I tell Rachel now. Uncomfortable, I looked up at the mountain, told her that if it went, if it did a Mount St. Helens, the blast would get there within a minute.

"I hope you're wrong about our mountain, Harry," she had told me. "But if you're not, I'm glad you're here."

So was I. I just hoped her faith in me wasn't misplaced.

The next morning, Rachel brought coffee for everyone on the crew, something she started doing every morning. On the second morning of our stay, she watched us set up a robot that Terry had built, that we had dubbed "spider-legs". It was supposed to go into the volcano's crater, taking gas and temperature readings so that we wouldn't have to go ourselves. It malfunctioned, and Terry decided that the problem was the added weight of a transmitter box that we were testing for NASA. He removed the box - an electronic low frequency transmitter, ELF, for short - after insisting that all of us turn our heads so as not to see what he was doing.

Terry and I took spiderlegs up the mountain, and for a few minutes the robot worked well - then it stopped moving, and Terry decided to go down to it, while I anchored him on the rope. He got to the metal monster and kicked it, Terry's response to everything has always been to kick it if it didn't work, and when that failed, he decided to go off rope so he could get around better. I warned him not to, as did the others back at homebase, listening in and watching on video. But Terry was determined, it seemed, to redeem himself and get spiderlegs back into running condition.

He had barely gone off rope when I felt a ground tremor- and the rocks began to fall toward Terry, knocking over spiderlegs and apparently burying him. I forced myself to stay calm, reporting that Terry was down and that I was going in after him as soon as the quake subsided. All I could see was Charlie, buried under all of that rubble, and until I heard Terry's voice, calling me, I fully expected the worst. Terry had a broken leg, and several bruises, and I used the radio to have Paul call in the chopper to get us out. I found out later that the pilot had demanded more money before he agreed to rescue us.

Watching Terry put into the ambulance, I told Paul that the quakes had been magmatic, not tectonic, and very shallow. Paul insisted that they hadn't been, and said that we would know more in forty eight hours, suggested that I calm down. I didn't want to calm down. I was still had the feeling that this mountain meant business - and I had to find someway to convince Paul of that fact, to get him to listen to his gut instincts again, and not simply readouts from the equipment.

Terry was fine, and while Paul was reporting the accident to USGS, I asked the others to help me convince Paul that he needed to take the situation more seriously, to put the town on alert. It was then I discovered that they agreed with Paul, that there was no sign of anything serious going on.

A week later, there had still been no sign of anything happening, and Paul decided it was time to pack up shop, that we could watch the mountain from Vancouver. I asked for another couple of days, certain that he was making a mistake- but he insisted that we would leave the next morning. I had no choice but to agree. We went to the local hangout for the evening, and as I was playing pool with Greg, I happened to look up and find Rachel sitting at the bar, watching me. I missed the shot, lost twenty dollars to Greg, and went over to sit beside Rachel.

I had to admit that she was part of the reason I didn't want to leave Dante's Peak. I'd had dinner with her and her kids four times, each time finding myself relaxing as I hadn't in years, and I wanted to find some way to continue the blossoming relationship. I asked if she ever got to Portland, and she said no, that she was too busy. So I asked what she did for fun. From the moment I'd met her, all I had ever seen her do was work, either in the store, or taking care of her kids, or being mayor.

"Fun?" she'd asked. "What's fun? Oh, I know. That's something you have when you don't have two kids, a business, and a town to run." She had laughed, but I could see the frustration beneath that laughter. Paul came up, having had a few extra drinks to celebrate leaving, thanking Rachel for her town's hospitality, saying she no doubt wouldn't be sorry to see us go. He left to go pack, and Rachel decided it was time to get home, to let her babysitter go for the evening.

On the walk across the bridge from town, to the spot where Rachel's store and house was located, she told me that she wished I was staying- and I knew she wasn't talking about the mountain. She wanted to be with me as much I wanted to be with her. To get to know each other better. I very nearly kissed her, but one of the council members drove by, and we continued on to the store. I had made up my mind that I was going to take my two weeks vacation here, in Dante's Peak. I would tell Paul in the morning that I was staying. He wouldn't like it, but I had a right to spend that time anywhere I wanted to. And I wanted to stay there, with Rachel, with her children, to be there for them when the mountain decided it was ready to go.

Rachel sent the babysitter on her way, then came back into the kitchen, obviously nervous, and said she could make some coffee. I put my arm around her, pulling her close. "No, Rachel. No coffee. Thanks."

"I still think I should make some coffee," she insisted.

"I don't know how to tell you this, Rachel, but I've never really liked your coffee," I told her softly, smiling at her reaction.

She relaxed, putting her arms around my neck, and I knew she wanted me as much I wanted her. "I- haven't been with anyone in- a long time," she told me hesitantly.

"Neither have I," I confessed. "But you know what they say. It's like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, you never forget." I was about to kiss her, something I'd wanted to do for days, when Lauren's voice came from upstairs, asking her mother for a glass of water.

Rachel broke away to get it, telling me that she thought Lauren would go back to sleep. As she placed the glass beneath the faucet, I heard her say a prayer to that effect, then she stopped. "What's wrong with the water?" she asked, turning to show me the red, muddy water. "Must be a broken pipe?"

I felt a chill to the center of my being as I smelled the water, recognizing that smell from too many years of experience. "Where's the town's water supply?" I asked her, explaining that it could well be the beginning of an eruption sequence. Rachel woke the kids and we put them into her truck so she could drive me up the mountain to the town's well site.

As soon as we entered the room, I knew we were in trouble. The smell of sulfur dioxide was strong, stronger than it had been before Mt. Pinatuba had erupted. Rachel drove me directly to the motel, where I woke Paul and showed him what I'd found, using a glass of water from his bath.

By daybreak, the signs were beginning to point to an eruption, but I couldn't tell how soon, or how severe. Paul had been on the telephone for hours and told us that the National Guard wouldn't be there for another day. He told me to call Rachel and get the town put on alert while he called the FAA to reroute air traffic out of the area. I resisted the urge to remind Paul that I had wanted to call an alert a week earlier, and made the call, hoping that we hadn't waited too late.

Rachel made an announcement via the small, local tv station, telling the citizens of Dante's Peak that there was a possible danger from the mountain, and that they were all asked to come to a meeting that evening in the high school gymnasium to discuss plans for evacuation . I could already feel the panic, the fear, building in the little town. It was almost a living thing, and I knew how quickly it could turn on a town. Every time I looked up at the mountain, everytime I looked at the readings, I said a silent prayer that she would wait, give us time to get everyone out, before blowing her top.

Rachel called Ruth, telling her what was happening, asking her to come down the mountain, to leave with her and the children. But Ruth said no, that she wouldn't leave. I even tried to talk to her, but she hung up, after insisting that she wouldn't leave her mountain, that it wouldn't hurt her. Rachel and I left for the meeting, telling Graham and Lauren to pack a bag so we could leave when we returned.

I could feel the fear in the crowd of people below the podium. They were frightened, uncertain, and ready for one spark to set off the powder keg. It came in the form of a slight tremor, and then another, stronger one. I remained at the microphone, as did the sheriff, calling for calm, asking them to move toward the exits in an orderly fashion. I saw a man go down, and knew he would be trampled to death in the mad rush to escape the building. I jumped down, hoping Rachel was following, pulling the man to his feet. We were carried along with the crowd to the doors, then outside, where I looked up at the mountain- only to have my worst fears realized. The mountain was going. And there was nothing we could do to stop it. We made it to the truck, and started toward the bridge to get Graham and Lauren, then I planned to come back and help Paul and the others pack out. I called on the handheld radio to tell them that, and Paul apologized for not listening to me sooner. I decided that it still wasn't the time for "I told you so"s and started trying to find a way through the town, dodging falling buildings, downed powerlines and other vehicles. Never once did I think about sending Rachel on her way alone and helping Paul and the team, leaving her to get back to her kids and out of town by herself.

As we neared the store, Rachel realized that her truck was gone, and inside we found a note from Lauren, saying that she and Graham had gone to convince their grandmother to come down the mountain. The quakes were more frequent, and the clouds from the mountain had begun to set up a static charge, lighting the area with eerie bolts of lightning. There was no way across the packed, one lane bridge back toward the town- and the mountain, so I took the truck into the river. I knew it would handle it, that as long as we maintained traction, we could get across and back into town. But the truck became stuck in the rocky bottom of the river, and as I tried to work it loose, we noticed other vehicles had seen our attempt and started trying to cross the river from the town side. They couldn't make it, but there was no way I could stop them.

Rachel drew my attention to a car that was coming toward us, and I realized that if it hit us, it might break us free. I pulled her away from the door and as soon as the car rammed the side of my truck, I put the vehicle into gear and drove it out of the water. The gasoline station on the road just before the bridge exploded, and as Rachel and I wound our way back through the side streets to the road up the mountain, I knew that this town was never going to recover, and looking at Rachel's frightened face, saw that she was realizing the same thing. On the outside of town, as I peered through the thickening ash that had begun to fall like a dirty snow a helicopter came out of nowhere, plowing into the ash, and for a terrifying moment, I thought it would hit us. But it bounced once, over the truck, then fell again, crashing into some buildings and bursting into flames. I called it in to Greg on the radio, then told them that Rachel and I were going up the mountain to get her kids. Greg and Terry both said I didn't have enough time, that the mountain was ready to go. I turned off the radio, knowing that Rachel didn't need to hear that, and knowing that it wouldn't make any difference. I was going to find Lauren and Graham, and I was going to get them off of that mountain if it was the last thing I ever did.

Rachel was becoming more distraught and frightened with each moment that passed, worrying about the kids, about how they could possibly have made it safely to Ruth's, when I could barely see the road with the extra lights on my truck. Rachel's truck was smaller, with only the standard headlights. We dodged boulders, trees, and rocks on the drive up the mountain, until Rachel looked back to discover what I already knew: the road was gone. Our only way down the mountain to safety was closed to us.

When we arrived at the lodge, the house was empty and dark, and there was no sign of Graham, Lauren, or Ruth. Rachel's truck was still parked in the drive, however, so at least they had gotten this far. As we called, the three of them appeared from behind the house, saying that Ruffie had run away. Rachel gave the children a hug as they apologized, Lauren saying that it had been her idea to come up as well as it had been Graham's. Rachel glared at Ruth, who hung back as we entered the cabin. Inside, she told us to take the kids and go, but Rachel told her that the road was gone, covered by a landslide. I suggested that the two of them go pack a few things for Ruth, then called Paul on the radio, telling him that we were at Mirror Lake. Paul said that he'd send the chopper to rescue us as soon as he could, but I knew he didn't have that kind of time. I told him to get out, not to wait for me. His response was garbled, so I repeated myself, only to discover that the radio was dead. The battery was gone. I turned it off, giving Lauren a hug as I put it down. No reason to carry it along, I decided. I heard Rachel and Ruth talking upstairs, and realized I was sweating. It was hot- and getting hotter. "Rachel, Ruth, come along. We have to go."

As they came downstairs, Ruth would have said something to Rachel, but the wall behind us began to glow bright red and suddenly the wall was on fire, lava running into the house. I pushed everyone out of the building, only to find the trucks surrounded by the molten rock, unreachable and usuable. Rachel grabbed the kids, pushing them toward the lake and the small metal boat that Ruth kept for fishing. We got into the craft and I got the engine started as the house caught fully. Ruth buried her head in her hands.

Graham called our attention to the fact that the fish were dead- and for a few minutes everyone pointed their flashlights into the water. My attention was caught by something inside the boat. The metal was hot, and was beginning to smoke. Graham would have reached out to touch to water, as if to see how hot it was, when I stopped him, telling them all to put their feet up, to keep them off of the bottom of the boat. The volcanic activity had turned the lakewater into acid.
"And acid eats metal," Rachel said, her expression asking me what we were going to do.

Lauren asked if the boat were going to sink, and I tried to reassure her that we'd make it across before that happened, but she was still shivering, frightened, as she sat beside me, my arm around her. Graham pulled out his smoky quartz crystal, and held it out to his sister, offering it to her. I wasn't certain that I had told Lauren the truth. The other side of the lake seemed awfully distant, and the level of water was rising steadily. Hoping to divert the children's attention, I started singing "Row, Row, Row your Boat", my eyes sending a message to Rachel to take up the round. Before long, all five of us were singing loudly, as if the noise would drown out the fear we were all feeling. Then the engine stopped, and I pulled it up, thinking that the prop had become caught on something- but there was no propellor left. The acid had eaten away at the moving metal, leaving only the shaft. I had to do something, so I sent Lauren up to sit with her grandmother, and took off my jacket, wrapping it around my hand to protect it from the acid, and began to use it as a paddle. The boat moved slightly, but not enough. I knew it wouldn't be enough. Rachel tried to start the motor, in hopes of providing SOME forward momentum, but it refused to start. Graham began to panic as the water came closer to the benches where we were seated. Realizing that the coat was becoming soaked through, I managed to unwind it from my hand, then dropped it into the lake as Ruth made sure Lauren was safe before jumping over the side into the water. I went forward to try and grab her back into the boat, but she pulled us in to the dock, then staggered, screaming toward shore as I got Rachel and the children onto the dock and to safety. Ruth collapsed into my arms, whimpering, in great pain from the acid burns that covered most of her body. Rachel told the children to give us some room, but they were too concerned for their grandmother to listen, so I asked Graham to take his sister away for a moment, to take care of Lauren. He moved off, and Rachel told Ruth that we'd get her down, that she was going to be all right, then went to comfort the kids, leaving me holding Ruth's shaking, battered body, praying to God for a miracle that would get us all off the mountain. Rachel came back a few minutes later to see how she was doing.

"She's unconcious. We can't stay here, Rachel," I told her. It wasn't safe. The lake might keep the lava from us, but there were other dangers. And I wanted to get off of the mountain itself before the top of the thing blew off.

"There's a ranger station about seven miles from here," Rachel said.

"Seven miles. That's quite a hike."

"I know. And we don't have any way to carry Ruth," she said.

I almost told her that Ruth wouldn't make it, that she was too badly burned- but I couldn't. Ruth had sacrificed herself to save all of us. If there was any way to get her to help, I'd have to try. "Get the kids." I bent to lift Ruth's body across my shoulders, and we set out for the ranger's station.
Ruth was in and out of conciousness during the first five miles of the hike, alternating between begging me to stop and put her down and soft sobbing.
After the dimmed sunrise, I put her down, needing a break as much as she did, then stepped back as Rachel and the children circled around her. I'd smelled the stench of death before, and I could smell it now. Ruth was dying, and there was nothing I could do for her. She and Rachel talked, Rachel apologizing for never giving Ruth a chance after Brian left, Ruth for Brian having been foolish enough to leave in the first place. Lauren offered Ruth her crystal, but Ruth turned it down, telling her to keep it for her own luck. Graham begged Ruth to hang on, that it was only two miles to the station, but Ruth had nothing left. She was in pain, tired, and she said she needed to stay on her mountain. It was the last thing she said. I stood there, watching Rachel, Lauren, Graham grieve for the woman, remembering her courage, and I promised myself that I'd get Ruth's family off the mountain. Somehow.

Rachel looked up and saw me standing there, looking up the mountain, and there was another slight tremor, and we could see more ash coming from the top. So she wiped Lauren's tears. "We have to go, kids," she said quietly. "There's nothing more we can do for Grandma now."

I lifted Lauren onto my back. "Let's see if we can find a truck at the ranger station," I said, leading the way.

It seemed forever before Graham pointed ahead of us through the ash that had begun to fall heavily again. "There it is!"
I put Lauren down and found that the chain link fence had buckled in one of the quakes, giving us access to the station- and there was indeed a pickup truck sitting there. It was unlocked, but no keys, so I hot wired the ignition and we got into the truck. I knew we would make it back to town with transportation- if we could find a passable route.

We were lucky until halfway back to town when we came up on a lava field. The blackened rock was still hot, still dangerous. But there was no way around. We had to go through. Rachel put the kids in the back seat of the double cab truck and I backed up to get a good run - Immediately, I knew we might be in trouble. I'd driven over cooling lava before, and knew that the tires wouldn't handle it. They blew within seconds, the rubber melting, burning. Suddenly the truck stopped moving, one of the tires in a pit of hot molten rock. I refused to believe I'd gotten them that far only to be stopped. Graham saw more lava coming down the mountain toward us, and I redoubled my efforts- and they paid off as the truck began to move forward again. Graham spotted Ruffie on a nearby rock formation, and Rachel climbed through the back window, calling the animal, urging her to jump into the truck. When she did, we cleared the lava flow with inches to spare, and I pointed the truck toward toward town. Even with four flat tires, I knew we would make it, and smiled.

We pulled into what was left of Dante's Peak to find it deserted, everything covered in a dirty blanket of ash. Rachel talked about how much of a struggle it had been to get the town on its feet, to get it where it had been just a week ago, with a bright future ahead. Now, it was a ghost town. A ghost town that I knew we had to get out of as soon as possible. If the mountain followed the same path as others before it, we didn't have much time.

As I approached the river, I knew we had another problem. The only bridge out of town was gone- as was Rachel's house that had been on the other side. Both had been washed away when the river rose rapidly due to the melting snow from the mountain. There was only one other place that I thought safe- but the question was, did we have the time to get there?

I drove back into town, to the motel conference room, hoping that Paul and the others had left just one peice of equipment. They had left everything, it seemed, and I realized that they hadn't been gone very long- the portable generator was still operating. I found the ELF easily, and picked it up before pausing to turn on one of the computers. What it showed wasn't good. The final blast was imminent, and I tapped the screen. "Wait," I pleaded softly. "Wait."

Returning to the truck with ELF, Rachel asked why I'd gotten it. I told her it might come in handy, then we started off again. Rachel seemed to sense my urgency, because she looked back at the mountain with worried eyes. Suddenly it seemed as if the entire world exploded. I glanced back, but I didn't have to. Rachel and the children turned, and saw the cloud moving rapidly toward the town. "What is that, Mom?" Graham asked.

Rachel turned to me. "What is that?"

"THAT is a pyroclastic cloud," I told her grimly. I could see it in the rear view mirror now, rolling, red clouds of fire mixed with the black, its force destroying everything in its path. "Don't look back," I warned. "Whatever you do, don't look back!" The cloud was gaining, and I pressed full on the gas, hoping to beat it. I could feel it, pressing down on us as I saw the entrance to the mine and told the kids to get down. I heard Rachel screaming as we hit the thin metal doors and broke through, hurtling into the tunnel as the cloud wreaked havoc outside and everything went dark.

When I opened my eyes, I looked around, hearing soft moans as the kids moved around. We had to get out of the truck before the roof collapsed, so I began to kick at the windshield as Rachel woke up and turned to the children, making certain they were all right before lifting them out of the front of the truck to me. Rachel came next, then Ruffie followed, barely missing being hit on the head by a rock. I told Graham to show us the way to his hide out, and we followed his lead to the main room of the old mine.

Graham lit a lantern, handed out flashlights and told us that he had drinks, chips and crackers stashed in the cave. I inspected the walls of the small room, checked the floor. The walls were still solid, no signs of cracking. And there was very little debris on the floor itself. The room was as stable as I had hoped it would be. We would be safe here until they came for us - But they wouldn't come. I'd left ELF in the truck, and told them so, explaining that I hoped that it would alert someone that we were down there, and decided to go and get the box. Graham wanted to come with me, but I told him to stay there, to take care of his mother and sister, then started back into the tunnel.

Lauren was frightened that we'd never get out, and Rachel tried to comfort her. Turning back, I pulled Graham to the floor beside me, and asked if they had ever gone deep sea fishing. When they said no, I told them that when we got out - and we WOULD get out - that we'd go to Florida and get a boat, and stock it with all the nicest, yummiest things we could think of, and then go catch ourselves a big, fat fish. Graham and Rachel smiled, agreeing, and I told them I'd be right back with ELF.

Not ten feet into the tunnel, there was another tremor, and the roof behind me came crashing down, blocking my return path back to Rachel and the kids. A rock struck a glancing blow to my left hand, but I continued on down the tunnel.. I decided the best thing to do was to get to the truck and retrieve ELF, then I could dig my way back toward Rachel. I could see the lights from the truck, shining down the tunnel, and started toward it, when the unstable roof began to fall in again, and this time a beam fell on my left arm. The pain was excruciating, and as I lay on my back, I lifted my arm, shining the flashlight in that direction, the beam revealing a peice of bone jutting from the skin.

For one moment, I considered just giving up, letting the mountain take me. But the memory of Rachel's face, of Lauren's, of Graham, and the knowledge that they were counting on me forced me to get painfully to my feet and move the last few yards to the truck. As I slid into the front seat, rocks fell heavily on the hood, blocking any chance of getting out. And the roof began to groan ominously. I reached down to find ELF, only to freeze as the tunnel's full weight fell on the roof of the truck, breaking the rear side glass, leaving me precious little space. I waited until the roof of the truck stopped moving toward me, then managed to wedge myself between it and the seat to reach the yellow box that I hoped would save the lives of Rachel and the children, if not mine. Clearing the rocks away, I pressed the switch, listening for the regular beep that would tell me that unit was transmitting. Nothing. I flipped it again. Still nothing. Angry that I had come back for a box that didn't even work, I lifted my leg and began to kick the thing. Suddenly the steady beeping came, and I laid back. They'd find them now. Rachel and the kids would be fine.

I turned off the flashlight, and started to close my eyes, only to open them again as I realized that I couldn't give up. That if they found me here, they might not go farther into the cave, might never know that Rachel, Lauren and Graham were trapped down there. I had to stay alive to let whoever rescued me know about them.

I wondered what was happening outside. If the cloud had disappated yet, how much damage it had done. I remembered the scene at Mount St. Helens. It had looked like an atomic bomb had gone off, destroying everything in its path, twisting metal into unrecognizable shapes - God, I hope Rachel and the kids hadn't tried to follow me into the tunnel and become caught in that cave in. If we get out of this, I thought, I'm never going to let any of them out of my sight ever again. I turned on the flashlight to look at my watch, only to find that it was broken, damaged when I'd broken my arm.

The flashlight batteries gave out finally, leaving me in a darkness broken only by the dim, flashing light on the ELF unit. I noticed that the space between the doors was high enough for me to get through, so I slipped into the back seat of the truck, pushing rocks and debris to the floor. I had more room now, but the effort exhausted my reserves and I must have drifted in and out of conciousness, because several times I thought I heard Rachel or Graham's voices not far away, and I wanted to call to them, to tell them it was all right, but I wasn't certain that I'd really heard them at all or if they'd been part of my nightmares of that trip up the mountain, or the boat ride across the lake, or the transversing of the lava bed.

How long had it been, I wondered. How long could I last without food, water. I couldn't feel my arm anymore, thank goodness. It was numb. Of course, that probably wasn't a good sign. I heard rocks moving,and froze again, fearful of another quake. I hadn't felt one in what seemed ages, but- I had no idea how long that had been. Anywhere from hours to days- Another sound- the rocks were moving- being taken away-

"Dr. Dalton?" A voice called. "Harry Dalton?"

"I'm here!" I called out. "There are others- back in the mine-"

"We'll get them as soon as we get you out, Dr. Dalton," the voice said as the rocks continued to be moved. "Shouldn't be long now."

"How long have I been here?" I wanted to know.

"Two days. Do you have any injuries?"

"My left arm is broken," I said. "Don't worry about me. Just get Rachel and the kids-"

A fine dust fell as the final rocks were moved from the driver's side of the truck, letting light into the cab. It was dark again, and I looked up to see a dark haired man smiling down at me. He was wearing a paramedic uniform. Workers slipped past him to start clearing the rubble from around the truck. Air hoses were put in place, and I was given a bottle of water and a splint was put on my arm. "We'll have you out in soon, Dr. Dalton. We have to get you out so we can move the truck before we can go farther into the tunnel."

It seemed forever before the paramedic, who identified himself as Sam, told me they were ready to get me out, and started to call for some help. "Just give me a hand," I told him, almost regretting the words as every muscle in my body ached from two days of non-use.

At last I was free, walking unsteadily up the slope that I driven the truck down two days before, a blanket over my shoulders. I was still telling Sam that they had to get to Rachel and the children when I heard Greg Jones' voice calling my name. I was glad to see him, and Terry, Stan, Nancy, but my first words to them were that Rachel and the children were still in there- and then I noticed that someone was missing. "Where's Paul?"
"He didn't make it," Stan told me.
"But at least he got to see the show," Terry commented.

So Paul hadn't made it. I'd had my disagreements with him, but he'd been a friend, someone I never thought would have been taken by nature's vaguaries. I thought of his wife, Marge, wondering what her reaction would be, then I thought of Rachel.

They gave the word that they were going to move the truck from the mine tunnel so they could try to reach Rachel and the children, and as I moved closer, followed by the paramedic, Stan, Greg, Terry, and Nancy, I said a silent prayer, promising that if she were all right, I'd never want to see another volcano again. It seemed an eternity before the call came back that there were survivors, and I held my breath, waiting, watching.

When I saw Graham leading Ruffie on a rope, followed by Lauren and Rachel, my knees very nearly gave out, I was so relieved. I could tell Graham was surprised by the number of people, his eyes searching the crowd until I called his name, drawing his attention. When he and Lauren reached me, I wanted to hug them so tight, to never let them go ever again. And I could see that they felt the same way, especially Lauren.

Then I looked up and met Rachel's eyes, saw her approaching slowly, steadily, tears in her eyes. I wanted nothing more than to run to her, to hold her- but I couldn't move. So I smiled, hoping she could read everything I wanted to tell her in that expression. How much I admired her, how glad I was that she was alive, how much I loved her. Her answering smile almost made everything we'd gone through worthwhile, and she ran toward us, holding me as tightly as I was trying to hold her, kissing me as I was kissing her, not caring that the children were watching, that we had an audience of hundreds- perhaps more, considering the media. When the kiss ended, I brought the children back into the circle, feeling that I'd finally found what I'd been searching for, what I'd been waiting for all of my life. A family of my own.

Rachel and the children were cursorily checked out be the paramedics, and I told my friends that I would see them later before getting into the helicopter that was to take us to the hosipital in Portland. Graham asked if I had meant it about going fishing in Florida, and I told him I had. I wanted to tell him that I didn't care where we went, as long as we were together. Rachel seemed to understand. She reached out her hand and clasped mine, holding on tightly, as if I were some kind of lifeline. I know she certainly was- and is , and always will be -mine.

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