The Big One by Ashley Hermsmeier

photo of lit candles

“Candle” (image via Flickr user Moyan Brenn)

Day 1

It’s hot, even at night. We sleep on top of our duvets and sweat under rattling ceiling fans. We live too close to the sea to be an air-conditioned city—that’s what we tell ourselves.

Most of us are asleep when it happens. We roll over and some of us sigh a little and some of us mumble, Did you feel that? Some of our dogs growl or whine or bark, but that’s nothing new to us.

In the morning we hear about the 3.2 on the news. We see the pictures now slightly askew—proof it happened even if we don’t remember. We straighten them and are glad we use stud-finders. We make coffee. We have breakfast. Those of us with kids beg them to get ready because, No, school does not get canceled for earthquakes in the night. Some of us kiss each other and go to work. We all get on with our day.

A water main bursts on Broadway that afternoon. The courthouse will overlook a river for a while: Parked cars for riverbanks, streetlights for trees, cigarette butts for bubbles in the eddies. We watch it on TV, the fire crews and flashing lights and city workers in waders. We shake our heads and say, Look at all that water.

Our kids come home from school shouting, Did you feel all the aftershocks? and we say, Didn’t feel a thing—you kids and your imaginations.

The men and women on the nightly news show us pictures and videos of structural damages throughout the city so slight we laugh. Why do they bother? We’ve seen it all before.

Day 2

Our dogs are acting strange. They bark at curbs and walls and mailboxes on our walks. They tuck their tails and slink away from fire hydrants, from manholes, from storm drains. We can’t make sense of it. The Big One is coming, a neighbor says. We nod, Probably. It’s been on its way for as long as anyone can remember.

We turn on the TV and are told by scientists that the quake isn’t over. That the instruments with all those lines and needles say the earthquake is still going. We look at one another. We hold our hands out in front of us; we squint our eyes and cock our heads and listen for the rumble that must be there, for the vibration that should be felt. We hear nothing, we feel nothing, but our dogs are pacing; they look out the windows as if someone were coming up the walk. We are told to keep our earthquake kits available, but responsible fault-liners like us keep them close always.

A car alarm goes off in the middle of the night. The wail of distant sirens seems to have no end. A dog is howling somewhere. This is new to us.

Day 3

At night we kick at sweaty sheets and curse the heat that binds us. Can’t breathe, we say. The air is so heavy. Our children complain and cry. Isn’t it fall yet, we say in the dark. It’s October. It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and candied apples and scarves. It’s not oscillating fans and ice-soaked rags and “Don’t touch me it’s too hot,” except, it is. We kick at our sheets some more. This feels like the end of the world, we say.

In the morning we gather in front of our homes and apartments. We look at each other, at the streets, at the sidewalks, and we point. Was that crack there before? Do you feel anything? Some of us, even those with creaky knees, press our ears to the earth and say we can hear a hum—can hear Her belly rumble. Some of us say, No, She’s always sounded like that.

We go about our day.

At lunch, the water in our glass ripples. The fork resting on our plate buzzes. Some of us feel like we stood up too fast.

The talking heads say seismologists are baffled—it’s the same quake and it’s still not done. They tell us to stay home now, to avoid driving over bridges or stopping under overpasses for now, just in case. Just in case of what, we ask. But we know.

We walk gentle. We talk quiet. We move with apology and ask the ground to stay right where it is.

Day 4

A sinkhole has opened up at the ballpark and it’s full of water. The game is canceled. The heat continues and children ask if they can go swim in the Centerfield Pond. It’s not safe we tell them, It might swallow you whole. It might spit you out in China! We joke but we don’t laugh.

Business owners near the ballpark are interviewed on the evening news; they show us cracks in walls, doors that stick, windows that won’t open. The city is sinking, one man says to the camera, and we look at each other and shake our heads, The city can’t be sinking.

They would tell us if the city was sinking.

Day 5

The earthquake continues—so they say. We can’t feel it, but it is there below us, happening. Stay at home, they tell us. More sinkholes have opened in the night: one on westbound 8, another one downtown, and one in suburbia that swallowed a Volvo.

We are restless. We mill around outside. We look up at telephone polls and wonder what direction they might tip. We look at the trees and wonder at limbs we never noticed before. We estimate and gauge our distances; we calculate and plan our options. Garage doors are open and for a while we peer into each other’s lives. We pull weeds out front, we squat over cracks in our driveways, we walk our shaking dogs and some of us ask… about the Ehrenfelds? Their house has a low spot—pencils roll right off the coffee table. The Vandervorts? Yeah, it’s their ceilings—floors are covered in dust. And the Logans, yes, their front door won’t open—they have to go around back for now.

If only it were cold. If only we didn’t need our ceiling fans and windows open we could curl up under our blankets and feel in some ways less exposed. We might not hear the cracks and snaps of homes shifting off foundations. We might not hear windows shatter under all this tilted pressure. We might not hear the car alarms, the sirens, and the howling dogs.

We rest as best we can knowing tomorrow we’ll get up to measure some more.

Day 6

Today someone wakes with a headache. With a stiff neck. With a cold. Someone digs a grave. Patches a hole. Sews a stitch. A girl asks a boy to dance.

A child goes down a slide. Eats lunch alone. Walks to the principal’s office.

A man is fired. Gets promoted. Orders a drink. A man says to his wife, “I’m leaving you.” “I love you.” “Where are my socks?”

A woman is laid off. Gets hired. Orders a drink. A woman says to her husband, “I’m leaving you.” “I love you.” “Where are your socks?”

Some shake cans on street corners. Sleep next to shopping carts. Shout at no one. At everyone. Fall down while crossing the street.

Today the earth wakes up and swallows a man.

Day 7

The power has gone out. The mayor says, Hang tight, and in the next breath, but if you have family to stay with, consider evacuation. It’s temporary, he says. We’ll get through this, he says.

The neighbors’ wives and children are leaving. We’ll be back when everything has settled, they say. The fathers stay with the houses and pretend it will be over soon. Tears leak from their eyes, from the eyes of their children, and the mothers drive away in cars packed with clothes and bedding and the things they can’t live without.

Water seeps from the cracks in our roads like bleeding wounds.

It looks like the earth is crying, someone says. Aren’t we all, we say.

We light candles at night despite the heat. We set them on tables made steady with books and coasters. The radio tells us of homes burned down by candles that slid from mantels.

We blow out the candles.

We stand in the street together. We smell the smoke. We hear the sirens. The dogs have all gone quiet.

We point at our new sky—so many more stars than we ever thought possible, so we set up lawn chairs on tilted driveways and sidewalks, and we talk to each other with tight voices and wonder if we should worry about looters. They say it’s begun in East County. We share the food our refrigerators can no longer keep cold and listen to the water that bubbles up and heads west—our city’s reserve runs toward the sea. We sip warm beer and say, So this is the Big One, huh?

Ashley Hermsmeier has an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and is currently an English and writing instructor in San Diego. Her short story “When the Bees Come Back” was the winner of Gemini Magazine’s 2015 Flash Fiction Contest and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared, or is set to appear, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Funny in Five Hundred, and Weber—The Contemporary West.

One thought on “The Big One by Ashley Hermsmeier

  1. Ashley Hermsmeier is a master a building suspense, fear, even terror — gently, quietly, directly in a way that seems simple but is complicated, detailed and perfect.You can’t stop reading and you don’t know where you are going. Thank you.

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