In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Stacey gets a typical California wake-up call from nature.
She always heard them first. A creak or a thunk, nothing that seemed important, really. The house settling or someone moving upstairs. Except that there’s always something a little different about this creak or thunk. It’s not a random noise. It’s, “Hello! I’m here…”
Then it started.
Now, being from around here, she always did the same thing at first. Nothing. Sit at attention, cock her head to one side, think, “Here we go again.” Try to think nothing of it, but waiting for that magic moment. These things had delineations, after all. They would either decide to stop or, sometimes, like this time, they wouldn’t.
Her second thought was always, “Oh shit,” and she’d go dashing to the nearest doorway. And, usually, just about the time she’d gotten there, she’d notice that it was over, feel her heart trying to elbow her lungs out of the way, then head to the TV, flicking on every light switch she passed, grab the remote and stand in the living room, flipping through the channels looking for the special report.
While she was flipping, she played the guessing game. “Four? No, no, that had to be five. Or a really big one far away…” And all the time in the back of her mind wondering, “Aftershock or foreshock?” How soon would the next one come and how big would it be?
Finally, she found the news, two anchors sitting at their desk, trying not to look scared, because they’d just been through the same thing themselves. “We have a preliminary report that the earthquake was a four point three magnitude — “
“Four three my ass,” Stacey thought as she sat down to watch. Spend a long enough time in LA, you got pretty good at guessing these things, and that one felt like a five, at least. And no way in hell that big one back in ‘94 had been anything less than a seven, no matter what the scientists said. She’d read somewhere that there was a state law that would waive property taxes for a year after an event greater than seven, and she was pretty sure they lied so they wouldn’t have to do it.
Now that had been a nasty morning. That quake had its own personality — they all did. And that personality had been particularly evil. Everything was shaking and bouncing and rolling ferociously and then, right in the middle of it, as if the quake were adding its own personal “fuck you” to the mix, there was another jolt, bigger, and the whole thing got stronger and nastier and Stacey had been sure that this was it, it was The Big One finally come and it wouldn’t stop until everything in Southern California had been flattened.
But, apparently, it wasn’t The Big One, just a big one. It had been her first. She wasn’t even born yet when the big one before that happened, but everyone who’d been around in ‘71 assured her, “Oh, no, Northridge (the new one) was much, much bigger than Sylmar (the old one).”
Why did people name these things? Like hurricanes. Was it some attempt to make them warm and fuzzy and less threatening? It was like the ancient Greeks naming thunder and lightning “Zeus.”
Stacey looked around the apartment. Nothing seemed damaged. No new cracks, nothing fell off the walls. She jumped up, hurried into the kitchen. The cupboards were all closed, nothing fell over in here. She sniffed for gas, smelled nothing. Good.
From the other room, the special report continued. “Oh, joy,” Stacey thought, “Pointless call-in time.” That was an inevitable feature of these things. No real news to report, but the possibility that something horrendous had happened, so these idiots went to the phones, and the conversation was always the same.
“We’re on the line with Wanda from Canoga Park.” Why was it always someone from the far West Valley? “Wanda, what did you feel?”
In the kitchen, Stacey spoke out loud, along with Wanda, who sounded about seventy, “Oh, it was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling, a couple of pictures fell off the wall.” Why didn’t they just record one of these calls so they’d have it to use, over and over?
Stacey took a glass off the counter and put it in the sink, just in case. She’d always been meaning to go to the hardware store and get those earthquake latches, but it would be such a pain in the ass to install them in — how many? She counted. A dozen cupboards. And getting that blue museum stuff to stick behind the pictures. And those straps for the big bookcases. She would do it, one of these days, when she had the time.
Why did these things always happen after dark, anyway? And why was it that the really big ones always came early in the morning as wake-up calls? That was the worst part, really. Knowing that a big enough quake would knock the power out, shake you around in the dark and then leave you there. She opened the junk drawer, fished around for the flashlight, pulled it out. It was silver metal, a real old skool piece of work, something her father had given her a long time ago before she went off to college. She was surprised she still had it. He told her that its main use was to hit any man who tried to rape or rob her over the head. Lighting was secondary.
She flipped the switch. Nothing. Even though it was heavy enough to have batteries in it, she still opened the bottom to check. Oh yeah, it had batteries. Some cheap old ones that had corroded. The whole inside of the flashlight looked like it had rusted. She screwed the cap back on and tossed it in the trash. Mental note, get flashlight. And earthquake latches and straps. She looked at the clock. A quarter to ten. Too late right now, unless she wanted to go all the way to that twenty-four hour place in Hollywood. But how stupid would that be, to be out on the road, in case this little jolt was some kind of foreshock to something bigger? And, anyway, she’d look like a big stupid girl if she went running off to stock up just because of a minor shaker like this. It was nothing, really. Nothing at all.
Her heart had finally settled down, at least. Then the phone rang and Stacey jumped, getting startled all over again. Who’d be calling her this late? Oh, but of course.
She picked up and said, “Yeah, I felt it, Mom.”
“It was a pretty good one, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, it was nothing. The news said four point three.”
“That was at least a five. The whole house shook here. Snowball was running in circles, barking his little head off.”
“Doesn’t he always do that?”
Stacey’s mother laughed. “I think we were closer to it than you. It was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling. A couple of your baby pictures fell off the wall.”
“You still have those things up?”
“They fell down. Didn’t break, though.” Stacey’s mother said this last with a note of triumph in her voice.
Didn’t break. That was one of the fluky parts about really big quakes, Stacey had learned the hard way — what broke and what didn’t. Back in ‘94, she found a tall votive candle of St. Emygdius, which had been on top of a bookcase, across the room, on a table, intact. She’d also found one of her plates, in the middle of a stack in the cupboard, cracked right down the center. Back then, three blocks north of her, hardly anything happened. Three blocks south, an entire neighborhood was condemned.
“I’d still rather go through an earthquake than a flood,” her mother said. “At least a quake is over quickly. Why do you think I moved out here?”
“Yeah,” Stacey thought, “A quake is over quickly if it doesn’t destroy everything you own.” Out loud, she said, “At least you get a warning with a flood or a tornado or something like that.”
“Not always,” her mother said. “You’d be surprised. Well, dear, I’m glad you’re okay. Your father’s calling me. We were watching a movie and he doesn’t want to be up late.”
“Okay, Mom. What movie?”
“‘Twister.’ Did you ever see it?”
“Uh, yeah, long time ago. Talk to you later.”
“Good-bye, dear. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
And they hung up.
The news report was over and they’d gone back to ‘Baywatch.’ Stacey flipped through the local channels one more time. Nothing. This was a non-event, no big deal. She was silly, really, for getting so worked up about it. The upstairs neighbors hadn’t come crashing through her ceiling, her life hadn’t been trashed, the apocalypse hadn’t come. She turned off the TV, put down the remotes and headed back down the hall. But she left all the lights on.
Back in her office, she sat down to finish reading her email. This was a safe room, really. A corner room, a corner desk, no way that could fall over, right? The blinds were shut, so, if the window shattered, the glass would fall straight down. But why was she even thinking this? It hadn’t been that long since Northridge. The really big ones didn’t come all that often, did they?
She was typing an email to an old friend back east when there was a creak and a thunk and it felt like the floor dropped. Then, the shaking started, just a little rattle. She stopped typing, looked over at the antenna on her wireless phone. Then it really started, the big jolt, the rolling, yes — it was another one.
Stacey gave an annoyed look at nothing in particular, just sat there and counted to five and then it was over. Not the big one, not even a particularly big one, just a bothersome interruption. She hit “send,” deleted the old email and went on to the next.