Lauren Cantin is fighting a case of nerves as she steps into the spotlight at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. In just a few moments she will launch into her second number as a contestant in "Teen Star," a local "American Idol"-like competition, singing for 2,000 people. She is hoping her night will end with a crown.
Dressed in a chic red jumpsuit, the baby-faced 15-year-old, one of four finalists, looks out into the darkened theater.
There's a knot in her chest as she thinks about her father and brother, both of whom died in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018, when mudslides tore through their Montecito home. She scans the audience for a glimpse of her mother, who after the slide had been found atop a debris pile, suffering from massive gashes in her right leg and arm. Lauren pushes away memories of being buried alive for six hours.
Fifteen months after the disaster, those memories can resurface at any time, and she knows she needs to avoid the emotional black hole that opened during her trauma.
Lauren breathes deep and hits her first note, showcasing the voice that continues to be the instrument of her salvation. Singing has allowed her to move on with her life. Even if the specter of the hole never quite goes away.
It was cold and wet and musty in the hole.
Mud had been rising all around her, some of it seeping into her mouth and lungs. Somehow, a breathing pocket the size of a volleyball had formed in front of her face, but she was entombed under 4 feet of muck, invisible to anyone.
Just a few minutes earlier, Lauren had been in her bedroom, pulling on rain boots as her family prepared to flee a worsening downpour. The Thomas fire, which raged across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017, had stripped the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains of brush, and the heavy rains prompted authorities to warn residents to be prepared to evacuate. The Cantins didn't live in a mandatory evacuation zone, but their bags were packed.
Around 3 a.m., as the rainfall rate hit half an inch per hour, Kim Cantin peeked outside the front door and noticed that the sky had an eerie yellow glow. She told her husband, Dave, who went to the door and immediately slammed it shut. "Back door now!" he shouted.
Lauren and her 17-year-old brother, Jack, were in their bedrooms when an avalanche of mud – carrying trees 50 feet long and boulders the size of a refrigerator – came crashing down the mountains, picking up cars and houses as it rushed forward. A river of debris slammed into the house, tearing it apart and sending Lauren, Jack, her parents and Chester, their beloved red setter, tumbling down a raging current.
Lauren inhaled mud and then threw it up as her body twisted and rolled with the flow. Suddenly she banged to a stop.
She was freezing. Her flimsy jacket and pajamas weighed her down like concrete, pinning her arms and legs in awkward positions. She couldn't raise her head. She was shaking from the cold but that slowed and, eventually, stopped.
This is what it's like to be dead, Lauren thought.
She tried screaming but the blackness swallowed the noise. So Lauren, who'd played the lead female role in a recent production of "Les Miserables," tried something that had always brought her comfort. She began to sing. Her selection? "I Dreamed a Dream," one of the musical's signature numbers.
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong.
Lauren stopped singing. Alone, cold, buried alive, she started to sob.
Kim divides her life into chapters – "before" and "after" the mudslides, which killed 23 people. In the first chapter, she and her husband of 18 years were living a life they had worked hard to achieve. Both parents were high-powered business executives, working first for Johnson & Johnson in Cincinnati, and, later, smaller companies selling sophisticated medical devices. Dave Cantin had earned a name for himself as "Mr. Harmonic Scalpel" for increasing sales of a medical device – that simultaneously cuts and cauterizes flesh – from $10 million to $100 million, Kim says.
In 2010, after the Great Recession had sent home prices plunging, the Cantins moved from Ohio and bought a cottage-style ranch with a pool and a red brick patio in Montecito.
"I loved it," Kim said. "I told everyone it was my forever home." Their children were flourishing in school and an area rich in cultural offerings. Lauren quickly found a place singing in musical theater. Jack, a computer nerd who also loved the outdoors, earned his Eagle Scout badge under the watchful eye of his father, a Boy Scout leader.
Before the mudslides, Kim had been spending two days a week in Pleasanton, for a new job selling urologic devices. Her eyes glisten with regret when she thinks of the long commute and the time it took away from her family.
"I could have spent more time with them," she said.
After her rescue, Lauren was hospitalized for seven days with sprained knees, a broken rib and multiple cuts. Her mother, who was struck by rocks, furniture and "who knows what" as the mudflow tossed and tumbled her into the dark, wasn't released for another two weeks.
The rebuilding process has been slow and sometimes bewildering and painful. For a while, mother and daughter moved from one rental to another. Kim eventually bought a home in Santa Barbara, one that faces the harbor and the Channel Islands beyond – anything to avoid a view of the mountains.
Kim briefly considered returning to work. But after months of medical and insurance paperwork, tending to Lauren and looking for Jack – whose body was never found – she decided to stay home. Today her life revolves around Lauren and her busy calendar.
Kim faithfully goes to therapy to help sort out her new life. Lauren attended therapy appointments every other week for a while and, upon occasion, goes to Hospice of Santa Barbara for grief counseling. Neither of them likes to be apart from the other, although Kim still searches for her son every week in diminishing debris piles along Montecito Creek. Lauren doesn't go – it's too much for her.
For months after the mudslides, searchers found scattered remnants of their "before" life – items of clothing, photographs, documents, even Kim's underwear – in a debris field that stretched all the way to the ocean.
Shortly before Christmas of last year, searchers found a quilt Kim had made as a gift for her husband. It depicted Dave and Jack standing next to each other in silhouette right after they had gone scuba diving. Four hundred and ten days after the disaster, someone found a sonogram of Kim, who'd been pregnant with Jack, on a rocky outcropping at Butterfly Beach, a mile and a half south of the Cantins' home. Kim heard about the discovery on Valentine's Day.
"Maybe it's telling me that Jack is still with me," Kim says. "Part of me thinks it was a Valentine's gift orchestrated by my husband and son."
Lauren and Kim's "after" chapter has included opportunities for them to speak about their experiences and for Lauren to sing. They appeared on national television, thanks to an invitation from Ellen DeGeneres (who has a home in Montecito) to appear on her daytime show.
The Cantins recalled the night their lives unraveled in a manner that conveyed strength and resiliency, and, upon occasion, a certain detachment. That is normal, mental health counselors tell them; detachment can shield them from their deepest wells of grief.
Their appearance included a performance by Lauren, who sang "Rise Up," an anthem of empowerment.
When the silence isn't quiet
And it feels like it's getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we'll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
We'll take it to its feet
And move mountains
After Lauren sang on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," representatives from "American Idol" came calling. Kim turned them down, believing that "Teen Star" would be a less stressful but still challenging alternative. But the Cantins said yes to several fundraisers. At a concert for mudslide victims headed by Katy Perry, Lauren sang "God Bless America." She performed with Brad Paisley at another event and received performing tips from Kenny Loggins.
Earlier this year, on the first anniversary of the mudslides, Lauren had agreed to sing for 1,000 friends, neighbors and first responders gathered for "An Evening of Remembrance" in Montecito. Throughout the night, friends and neighbors came forward to hug Lauren and her mother. Several had heard that Lauren had qualified for "Teen Star" and wished her well. On stage, speakers touched on grief and loss. A group of Native Americans chanted about healing. Then Brian McWilliams, headmaster of Lauren's middle school, introduced her.
"Lauren Cantin has taught me about courage and beauty," McWilliams said. "About grace ... she's taught us all that miracles do exist."
The chattering crowd grew silent when Lauren stepped to the microphone for an a capella version of "Amazing Grace."
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
T'was blind but now I see.
It was cold and wet and musty in the hole. Three hours after crashing to a stop in the muddy darkness, Lauren was still unable to budge from her squat position.
She thought about her friends and family. At home, she'd loved to sing in her bedroom. Jack, immersed in homework on the other side of the house, would yell "Shut up!" and then critique her performance as only a brother can: "That wasn't terrible," he'd say.
She tried screaming again, but no one responded. Then she heard voices so low they sounded like whispers, but no one responded to her cries. When the whispers went away, she thought to herself, "Oh no, I'm alive. And they didn't hear me." Then the whispers returned.
"I screamed so much for so long," Lauren recalled. "And finally I heard someone say, 'We hear you, we hear you.'"
Her voice would be gone for the next three weeks. But it had saved her.
It took three hours to dig her out. Rescuers couldn't use power tools because they were close to a broken gas main. Montecito firefighter Andy Rupp said they removed a truck, a tool box, a refrigerator, a transformer and a 25-foot tree to get to Lauren.
Finally, about 4 feet below the surface, Rupp grabbed hold of something, wondering if he was touching a bunch of twigs. When Lauren yelped, Rupp realized that he was touching the top of her head, that her hair was caked with mud. When he asked if he could cut it, Lauren had the presence of mind to cry out: "No!"
News cameras captured Lauren's wide-eyed expression as she emerged from the muck and, for the first time, saw muddy channels, gigantic boulders and oak trees – but no homes. "I realized what had happened," she said. "Everything was gone."
Lauren steps to the microphone at the "Teen Star" show. She begins "Shallow," the song from the soundtrack of "A Star Is Born" made famous by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. This is the moment. The knot in her chest releases. For the next few minutes, the trauma of the past year recedes. At 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, she is free.
Tell me somethin' girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin' else you're searchin' for?
The other three finalists sing their second number, and the wait begins. Lauren huddles with the finalists and nervously waits for the audience and the three judges to vote. Finally, emcee JJ Lambert steps to the microphone with the results.
"'Teen Star' 2019 is ... Sofia Schuster" of San Marco High School.
Lauren puts on a brave face, congratulating Sofia. She really wanted to win. But within a day or two, she's become circumspect.
Kim is looking ahead by making a quilt for her son with fuzzy orange material on one side and the family in silhouette on the other. She will wrap Jack's body in the quilt if he is ever found and bury him next to his father.
Lauren will try out for next year's "Teen Star," she says. She has singing gigs on the calendar in Santa Barbara, one with her friend Jackson Gillies, the "American Idol" contender. And this month, a new theater group called Lights Up! will be putting on a production of "Big Fish: The Musical." Lauren will play Sandra, the lead female.
Yes, she's disappointed. But she says it's not only about winning – really. It's about having the courage to move forward, to face that darkened audience, to confront the hole.
It's about letting her voice save her, again and again.
(Saillant is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)