O   God of heaven! the dream of horror,
The frightful dream is over now;
The sickened heart, the blasting sorrow,
The ghastly night, the ghastlier morrow
—Emily Brontë

The dam broke and Linda looked up and saw the bluff collapse, a waterfall of mud.

She held her breath as the sludge burst from the swamp, as it funneled down the sandstone cliff, down the scaffold of steps, swallowing her. The mudflow slapped her face and plugged her ears, sealed her eyes, stopped her mouth, shoved cold between her thighs. She was a girl of seventeen, now dragged under by the grimy hand of a broken single-arch dam. The dirty water was in her throat, the air stolen from her lungs. A torrent of silt plucked her down to the cove, where her outrigger canoe rested against a rock padded with rubbery laver. Linda tumbled as if wrestled by a wave—no air or light, up turned down, the mud's tide carrying her. It was rocky like the oozy water-bound macadam poured to pave the roads to and from Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea, the gravel and the dust-water devouring the old wagon trails and the weedy surrey routes and the former cow paths. The earthflow rolled Linda, stones attacked her, shredding her workdress, bruising her pale flesh. Linda Stamp, a fishergirl with eight lobster pots at the bottom of the Pacific, was transported in a coffin of mud.

The January rains had swollen Siegmund's Swamp, home of the winter runoff and the red-eyed vinegar fly. The downpour had prodded the dam, while Linda toiled below, nailing the planks into the staircase. She was not alone: Bruder was a few steps above and her mother, Valencia, was next to her, handing her wagon-box nails and brushing the hair from her eyes. There'd been five days of rain, sometimes an inch an hour, flocks of clouds soaring off the Pacific, wings of thunder, a vulture-black sky. The rain had flooded the earthworm holes and the vole dens and uprooted a crooked digger pine.

But this morning the rain had stopped; a slit of pink sunlight pierced the sky. "Maybe we should wait another day," Valencia had warned, but Linda wouldn't listen. They returned to erecting the staircase, one hundred steps up the bluff's seventy feet, from cold-sand beach to the little onion farm: Valencia, her black hair streaked with silver, her tongue clucking ˇJovencita!; Bruder, nineteen or twenty ("Orphan boy!" Linda would tease); and Linda. The three hammered step after step, crossbeams and hand-hewn two-by-fours, into the tarred-wood foundation. They worked steadily in the dry morning, anxious to complete the stairs, watching the sky swell and sag. "The worst is over," Linda predicted. "The rain won't return." Her mother's screwed-up eye disagreed. Bruder said nothing, the nails stored between his teeth, a T-head bolt behind each ear. Linda sang while they worked—O, she was born in the Ocean, and died in the Sea!—as Valencia and Bruder hauled the lumber with the log chain and hammered with the mallet. They worked as the ocean chewed the beach, foam spraying the steps, bull kelp spit from the mouth of the waves, hermit crabs skittering like crumbs across the table of sand. Up on the farm, Dieter shod the hinnies in the barn and sorted the white onions from sack to crate and napped on a hundred-pound bag of scratch feed.

Then the sky reopened and the rain fell again, pecking anew the farm and the sea, and the dam broke and Linda looked up and saw the downpour of mud: mudflow ferrying uprooted ice plant and mica-flecked stones and pale-yellow kangaroo rats and kitchen garbage and everything ever buried in the arroyo. Stewy mud, both liquid and solid at once, penetrated the dam and devoured her in less time than it took to say her name: Linda Stamp!

She said it and she was gone, the landslide pushing her down, yanking her under, pulling her in. Everything turned black, and the mass of moving earth trapped Linda. Valencia, reaching for Linda's hand, was ripped away; and Bruder, too; each gone, each interred.

When the river of mire halted at the beach, Linda was lying in earth as dense as the fresh pavement on El Camino Real. She struggled to raise herself, but the muddy tomb held her. All at once, her past and her future had become sealed together in a dreamless, bottomless cave, everything as cold and quiet as the bottom of the ocean. Linda couldn't see and she couldn't move and she felt only fear. The mud settled like water stilling in a trough, and Linda heard the silence, as if there was nothing left, no one there. In the landslide Valencia and Bruder and Linda breathed mud and darkness, each aware of entering the grave alive.

Yet one, only one, gasped and fought and shuddered and died.

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Excerpted from Pasadena by David Ebershoff. Copyright © 2002 by David Ebershoff. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.