Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flash fiction: Temblor

Holly was seven years old the first time she foresaw an earthquake, but she knew what to do -- earthquake preparedness was part of the school curriculum in California. So when the wavy, rippling lines crisscrossed everything in her vision, she stopped working on her fractions page and got under her desk. The kids around her snickered at Holly crouching on the floor, and Jamal, who sat behind her, raised his hand to tell Mrs. Bradbury.

"Holly, get back in your seat, please," said Mrs. Bradbury.

"But what about the earthquake?" asked Holly.

"What earthquake?"

Holly looked up at Mrs. Bradbury, wondering if she were teasing. The rippling lines multiplied, making everything she saw look like a hazy reflection in a pond, and she felt a thick dark tenseness in her stomach, like a weight of earth pressing on her. "There's an earthquake coming," she said. "We should get under our desks."

"Holly, you can play this game at lunchtime," Mrs. Bradbury said. "Right now we're doing math. In your seat."

"But --" said Holly, and at that moment there was a deep rumbling that shook the desks and made the overhead lamps sway in their sockets. Marissa, whose family had just moved in from Ohio, shrieked. The other kids dived under their desks, and Mrs. Bradbury grabbed Marissa and got beneath the utility table.

The shaking grew stronger, at first straight up and down, then sideways with enough force to cause several books to fall out of the bookshelf, crack a window, and shake three white acoustical tiles loose from the ceiling. It went on and on. Several children started to cry. Finally the shaking stopped.

"It's all right," came Holly's high, clear voice. "You can get up now."

The Tierra Quebrada quake registered a 6.5 at its epicenter, made the front page of newspapers statewide and was reported around the world, but there was no story on the grade-school child who had predicted it. Mrs. Bradbury asked Holly how she had known the earthquake was coming, and Holly shrugged and said, "I got ripples in my eyes. Can I go now, teacher?"

When Holly was thirteen, she warned her junior high choir class to take cover several minutes before the Stewarts Point quake hit. No one was injured, but when it was over they wanted to know how she had been able to tell it was coming.

"I don't know, I just had a feeling," Holly said irritably. "Leave me alone." She would say nothing more about it after dark-eyed Corey Almond started teasing her about having psychic powers.

By the time Holly reached her junior year of high school, she'd discovered some of the dangers of sticking out and she no longer bothered to warn anyone else about what was going to happen. She was in the middle of taking the SAT when she suddenly stopped, looked around in alarm, then put down her pencil and got beneath the desk, just moments before the El Sereno quake shook the testing room so hard it broke several windows and knocked people to the floor. Damage cleanup from the quake took weeks, and the SATs had to be rescheduled.

Only a few people had noticed Holly take cover under the desk before the quake happened. One of them was Corey, and he wouldn't let it go. "How do you always know?" he asked her.

"I don't know anything," Holly said, not looking at him. "It was just a lucky guess."

"I've seen you make three lucky guesses about earthquakes," Corey persisted. "What are the odds of that?"

"I don't know. I just... I had a feeling, is all." She didn't want Corey to ask her these questions, like he was a lawyer cross-examining a criminal. She didn't want him to look at her like that.

"You know, a lot of scientists try to predict earthquakes. If you showed them how you do it or you let them study you, they'd probably pay you."

"I don't know anything about it," Holly said. "I couldn't tell them anything. Just stop asking me, OK?"

That evening Holly sat up reading for a long time, trying to drown out the questions in her mind, but they wouldn't go away. When she finally put her book down and turned off the light, questions swirled around the inside of her head like a cloud of angry bees.

She thought about the SATs, how nervous she had been, how she'd realized she wasn't ready to answer the questions. She thought about junior high, and how she'd watched Corey smiling confidently at Madison Seipelt and passing notes to her in choir class. She thought about Marissa in second grade, how she'd said to Holly at recess, "I can play the violin, and Sarah can go upside down on the bars, and Ryoko can make paper animals. You can't do anything. Go away." And she thought about the way the ripples in her vision moved, how they always moved in long circular crisscross patterns out and away from her body, and how the dark tense feeling in her stomach grew stronger with her fear, or her determination, or her anger, until it reached a point where the earth beneath her feet shook uncontrollably.

Do you really want scientists to study you? she thought, and it stung. Do you have the ability to predict these things, to see them coming?

Or do you make them happen?


LDahl said...


Soozcat said...

Thanks so much.

Jaleta Clegg said...

Fun story. Thanks for sharing.

Soozcat said...

Thanks, Aleta.