'Preparing for Disaster'

  Photo courtesy of  Russell Tomlin

Photo courtesy of Russell Tomlin

By Pam McGaffin

The earthquake hit a little past midnight while her husband was asleep and Hayley was in the spare room reading about frozen embryos. She didn’t know what it was at first. The deep, throaty rumble sounded like thunder or a passing truck. Then a bow wave traveled through the floor, up her body and into her brain, where it registered: quake. She probably should have ducked under the desk or the doorjamb, but she just sat there, holding her breath. Once the shaking stopped, she stood up, tightened the belt of her robe and walked to their bedroom to wake Bill.

“I didn’t feel a thing,” he said, rubbing his eyes, squinting at the sudden light.

“Let’s turn on the news,” she said.

She switched on the clock radio, expecting that high-pitched tone that signals an emergency broadcast, but instead got one of those late-night call-in advice programs. A woman from Liberty, Mo., stuck in a dead-end relationship. She tuned through the dial, trying to pick out something that sounded like news in that chopped-up calliope of music and voices, but found nothing. 

She wanted to keep trying until they got some information, but Bill was too tired. He was a self-employed contractor, mostly home-construction and remodeling, and was often tired.  Hayley knew from keeping the books the long hours he put in. She reluctantly pressed the radio’s on/off button.

“They’ll know more in the morning,” he said, waiting for her to get into bed before he turned off the light.

In minutes, his breathing fell into a deep, regular rhythm. Lying awake, her thoughts turning and returning, she could have sworn she felt the bed shake. Aftershock? Or body memory, like the lingering sensation of floating you get after you step off a boat? 

If Bill had stayed awake, she might have initiated sex—just for sex. They’d stopped going to doctors, but Hayley still had a pinhole of hope each month that maybe a miracle would give them what years of hormone therapy and treatments had not. There would be no miracle this month. Her morning temperatures had already dropped, a sign her period would start any day.

What a great pregnancy story that would have made, though.

“You could say the earth moved,” she’d joke, patting her swollen belly. But she knew the earthquake babies would be born to other women, women who never had to read up on frozen embryos or in-vitro fertilization, the next step they never took.

 

Hayley woke up late, took her temperature (another drop), got up and turned on the cable news. She had to wait through another suicide bombing in Afghanistan and a nuclear test in North Korea before they got to local news of the earthquake.

“Five point seven!” Hayley yelled to Bill, who was in the kitchen making toast.

The epicenter was forty-five miles away in a foothills town they loved for its cinnamon rolls.

“It was in Granite,” Hayley reported. “Hope that bakery survived…Boy, that’s selfish of me, isn’t it?”

Bill chuckled between bites of toast and sat down next to her on the couch. They watched interviews with Granite people, including a grocer who lost most of his wine aisle and the owner of a historic theater that dropped its marquee. Nobody was hurt. The only quake-related fatality was an elderly man who died of a heart attack. He lived at the end of a road blocked by a landslide. Aid couldn’t get to him in time.  

“How sad…to die afraid and alone,” Hayley said.

“Weak heart.” 

“He’ll be forever known as the man who died of a heart attack in the 2009 Granite quake, if people remember him at all.” 

Hayley didn’t think she’d do very well in a major disaster given her catatonic reaction last night. At least she’d have Bill. He’d help her through it. She saw herself snuggling with him in their army surplus tent, which they’d set up in the backyard of their collapsed home. Sharing a single sleeping bag, sirens wailing all around them, they’d keep each other warm and thank their lucky stars to be together and alive.

“We really should get an earthquake kit together,” she said.

“Sure.” 

Bill picked up the remote and changed the channel to ESPN.

“We should do this while we’re thinking about it,” Hayley said, moving between the remote and the screen.

“What? You want to do this today?” Bill stared up at her, mouth cocked open. “Game 3 starts at noon.”

“Well, if we hurry, you’ll only miss the start.”

“Can’t this wait until tomorrow? I doubt there’ll be a major quake between now and then.”

Bill had a way of making her feel ridiculous, but she persisted. 

“Come on,” she said. “Indulge me.”

He sighed and turned off the television and said, 

“Do you even know what you’re doing?”

 

The survival-supply store Hayley found online took them into the city’s industrial bowels. They had a hard time locating it in all the gray and beige warehouses. Bill was about to turn around and go home when Hayley spotted the nondescript letterbox sign, “Delridge Supply.” In a small display window, a screen flashed through a loop of earthquake scenes: a collapsed freeway; a cracked stucco building; a firefighter with a bloody, dusty child in his arms. 

They sure know how to get you.

When the firefighter and child popped up again, she followed Bill through a swinging glass door into a large room crammed with survival gear.

The masculine smell of rubber and metal assaulted her nose, recalling countless childhood hours spent in the garage watching her father fix engines. From Porsches to power mowers, he could get anything started again. You’d think that, the morning after an earthquake, this place would be overrun with such fix-it men, as well as less dedicated hardware geeks, but only a few customers ambled about. As if to remind everyone why they came, a radio behind the counter was tuned to the local news, traffic and weather station (“Everything you need to know”) for quake updates.

Hayley watched her step as she navigated around a big center table heaped with pre-assembled survival kits for car, office, and home. She wanted to ask for help, but couldn’t find anyone obviously in charge. The only possibility was a plump, pimply teenager in desert camouflage pants who knew far too much about emergency food.

“The beef stroganoff and chicken parmesan aren’t bad,” he told a man scanning the freeze-dried dinner options.

The boy looked to be seventeen or eighteen, probably an outcast at his school, but a big man here.  Hayley pegged him as the owner’s son. Amazing how some kids imprint on their parents so easily, while others bead up and roll off like water on wax.

On the other side of the room, a little boy pawed through a box of pocket knives. 

Hey, dad, better watch your kid! 

No one else was paying attention. She should probably say something or go over and distract the child. While she debated what to do, the boy dropped the knife, still closed, back in the box. Hayley forced herself to look away. The kid wasn’t her responsibility.

She joined Bill next to a bin of emergency flares. 

“God, this place is overwhelming. Everything looks so necessary,” she said.

“Why don’t we just buy this big kit here and be done with it?”

Bill picked up the price tag: $149.99.

“That’s for a family of four. Besides, I want to build our own.”

Bill sighed and looked at his watch.

“You just want to get out of here so you can make the start of the game.”

“Yeah, so? Why does this have to be a big production?”

Hayley turned to walk away, colliding with the little boy, who ran smack into her legs. 

“Oh!” She said, putting her hand on his head to steady them both.

He backed away, eyes wide.

“Hey there, buddy,” Bill said.

He stuck out his hand for a low-five. The boy smiled shyly, slapped Bill’s hand, and ran over to his father.

She envied her husband’s ease with children. He loved kids. It didn’t matter to him that they couldn’t have their own. He kept talking about adoption, perhaps China, unable to understand why Hayley couldn’t move on. She’d tried to explain, telling him that adoption felt too much like surrender. If they adopted an orphan from overseas, who’s to say what they would be getting? The child could have a whole time bomb of problems passed down by people who didn’t want to be parents. She just wasn’t ready to take that leap of faith.

Bill liked to point out that having your own is no guarantee. He didn’t understand her reticence. Can’t conceive? Then adopt. Plan A. Plan B. The whole thing was too easy for him. Sometimes, during her hospital visits, she wished Bill could step into her skin and feel the torture of infertility: the Clomid crazies; the self-hatred; the humiliation of lying on an exam table with your feet in stirrups while some doctor injects washed sperm through a tube into your cervix. All Bill had to do was look at pictures of naked women, jerk off into a cup and leave.

Those nurses, they always twittered about his healthy sperm count, as if that would make Hayley feel good, as if their comments didn’t remind her that she was the problem. She hated the staff at that hospital, particularly that one nurse, the one who said to Bill, “I hope you’re driving,” that time she momentarily forgot her age. The nurse had been asking her a series of routine questions, and she answered all of them including the date of her last period, but her mind blanked at “How old are you?” She could have blamed the hormones, bought herself a little time, but she got flustered and said twenty-seven, her age when she and Bill got married. She’d missed her actual age, thirty-six, by almost a decade, as Bill pointed out. He could have been more supportive. He could have helped her grace her way out of embarrassment. But he didn’t. No, he and that snotty nurse both stared at her like she’d gone around the bend.

A loud crash.

The same little boy who’d run into her legs stood in shocked awe next to the tower of folding shovels he’d tipped over. Then, like a thrown switch, he started to bawl. His cries drowned out the radio and paralyzed every adult in the room, but the father, who said, “Christ,” and rushed over to put the shovels back. 

Eventually, Desert Storm—Hayley had to give the teenager credit—brought over a finger puppet, a dragonfly with iridescent wings. Captivated by the color and movement, the boy stopped sobbing and actually smiled.

“Parents who let their kids run wild get what they deserve,” Hayley whispered to Bill.

“These things happen.”

“Oh, come on! I suppose you’d think it perfectly fine if he played with those pickaxes over there?”

Bill rolled his eyes. 

“Hayley,” he said, patting her shoulder, “It’s O…K.”

She jerked away from his touch and snatched a yellow and red box off the shelf. She didn’t know, didn’t care what it was; she just needed to do something with her hands.

“Need any help?” Desert Storm said, appearing next to her, smiling. Before Hayley could reply, he asked, “May I?” and reached for the box in her hands.

“Have you ever used this stuff?” He asked, taking it from her. “It’s great. There are no harmful fumes, so you can burn it in the house.” 

He opened the box and took out a squat tin tub. He pried open the lid using a can opener he just happened to have in his pants pocket. Then, with a cigarette lighter from another pocket, he lit the wick, producing a delicate blue flame. 

“Each can burns for at least two hours and generates enough heat to keep food at a safe temperature. You don’t want to risk E-coli poisoning in a disaster.”

Bill murmured and checked his watch. Hayley wanted to slap him. He wouldn’t be so cavalier if he’d felt the quake, not knowing if it might be The Big One. She imagined him buried in rubble and clinging to life. Being the one to find her husband’s bloody exposed hand, Hayley would summon the search and rescue people and shout encouragement down into the heap, where she could just barely hear his feeble tapping.

Or maybe the earthquake would swallow them both.

She decided to buy a package of canned heat out of politeness to Desert Storm, who tried so hard.   

“Is that it?” Bill said staring at the box on the counter. “Is that all you’re getting?” 

“Yes.” 

She handed over the exact amount: $6.82.

Walking to their car, Hayley felt a drop of rain. A couple parking stalls over, the father of shovel boy was buckling his son into a car seat. 

At least he uses a car seat.

She opened the passenger-side door of their Honda Accord and tossed her purchase in back. Bill started the car and tuned the radio to the game, which was well underway.

The rain picked up. Big drops pelted the windshield, but Bill didn’t start the wipers until the glass got good and wet. Hayley cranked up the heat and turned the fan on high. She liked it warm. Bill always turned the heat down way too soon.

As they drove, she stared out the window at the rain and warehouses. The color commentator remarked on the irony of the team missing the earthquake back home by playing an away game in Oakland. Bill’s chuckle made her turn to look at the profile she knew so well, the tumble of gray-blond curls, the long, straight nose. She waited to see if he would feel her stare and turn, but he kept his eyes on the road and his ears on the play-by-play.

“I hate it when you treat me like that.” Her voice sounded so grave over the muffled cheers of the California arena.

“What?”

“I hate it when you patronize me,” she repeated, sure that he heard her the first time.

“What are you talking about?”

“In the store.”

“The thing with the kid?”

“You were being patronizing.”

“Hayley, not now.” 

They stopped at a red light. Bill waited for traffic to pass so he could turn onto the main arterial to the freeway.

“You’re so damn oblivious!” 

She turned away and fantasized escaping. Just open the door, jump and run. She could get lost in the thicket of warehouses.

“Damn!”

Bill slammed his hand on the steering wheel. Hayley turned and saw him glaring at the radio, mouth open. It took her a second or two before she realized his anger had to do with the game, not her. He could care less if his outburst gave her a heart attack. She reached over and switched off the radio. The windshield wipers squeaked. They got on the entrance ramp to I-5.

Before they reached the freeway, Bill turned the radio back on…loud. The game flooded her ears like an insult. She turned the radio off again just as they started to merge into traffic. Bill immediately reached for the knob. Hayley moved to block him. They banged hands.

A driver in the right lane blared his horn. Bill cranked the wheel to the right. The Honda fishtailed, glancing off the right guardrail. When it stopped sliding, their car straddled two lanes.  Hayley saw herself scream in her mind’s eye, but nothing came out. Beyond the silhouette of Bill’s head, through the driver’s side window, she saw a blue pickup truck shudder towards them, unable to stop. The truck hit the back of their car with a sickening crunch. The impact whipped her body sideways.

Now traffic rushed towards them head-on. Brakes squealed. Cars swerved. Some drivers got stuck with their turn signals blinking. Eventually a traffic jam built up behind them, protecting them. 

Hayley’s legs shook. A million adrenaline needles pricked her skin. Her tongue was so dry and rubbery she didn’t think she could talk, but she managed to croak out,

“You okay?”

Bill sat hunched over, his forehead on the steering wheel. Seconds passed before he lifted his head. His face had gone bloodlessly white, except for the red imprint on his forehead from resting it on the steering wheel.

“I’m okay,” he said. “Are you?”

“I think so.”

 

When Bill spoke to the state trooper, he said he slid on the wet pavement and over-corrected. He didn’t mention their spat.

They took a cab home. Without the car, Hayley felt stranded even though she had no desire to go anywhere. She wanted a bath and a drink. She also wanted to talk, but was afraid that, given the opportunity, Bill might just tell her to go to hell. Without pause, he’d walked downstairs to catch the end of the game on TV. Hayley stopped in the kitchen, poured herself a generous glass of Scotch, leaving the bottle on the counter as an invitation. She carried her drink into the bathroom and turned the hot water on full, drowning out the TV and Bill’s weighted silence.

She set her glass on the tub rim and slid into the water up to her neck. The Scotch went down warm and sharp, spreading from her throat into her chest.

Under water, her body appeared magnified—breasts, belly, pubis. For years now, she’d been living inside of herself, noticing every twinge and ache. She relished the pain of the egg before it popped out of the follicle to travel up the fallopian tube. There, it would await the onslaught of sperm and the lucky one that would penetrate and merge.

In less than two weeks, she’d feel the first cramps and see a brown spot on her underwear. She’d tell herself that a little bit of cramping and bleeding is normal if you’ve just conceived. But the cramps and bleeding would turn into her period and another month’s failure. Hope turned to defeat turned to hope, over and over again. Bill rode sidecar, never able to anticipate her ups and downs because he couldn’t feel what she was feeling. How hard that must have been.

She downed the rest of her Scotch with one burning gulp. As she set her empty glass down, the bathroom door opened and Bill came in with the bottle and his own glass. He poured her another drink and sat down, slump-shouldered on the toilet seat. She inched herself upright, so she sat half out of the water, feeling the heat from her upper body turn to steam.

“You’re here,” She said, her voice sounding high and small like a girl’s.

“We lost.”

“Too bad. They still have a couple more chances, don’t they?”

“Yeah, they’re not out of it yet.”

“Good.” 

She tried to think of something else to say about the team or the players, but knew her ignorance would betray her effort. Bill sipped his drink and nodded, as if he’d just solved a problem in his head.

“I suppose the car is totaled,” she said.

“I’d say so.”

The thought of their dependable silver Honda pressed into a block of scrap brought a stab of grief. The car had seen them through the last ten years marriage. They’d taken it on trips to Canada and the coast, singing to Golden Oldies, trading romantic memories, and making married-couple plans, which always included children.

When she threw out the last of her birth-control pills, they celebrated with champagne and sex. The possibility of pregnancy made it thrilling, even dangerous. She had only just begun to think of pregnancy as something to achieve rather than avoid. But the excitement wore thin with each passing month, until sex became more chore than joy. Then the doctors took even that away, reducing conception to a series of scientific steps, no coupling required. Before they knew it, they’d wasted five years. When she and Bill finally called it quits, Hayley saw only an empty sameness ahead.

At the sound of her crying, Bill said,

“It’s just a car.”

Hayley shook her head. 

“I miss the way we used to be,” she said.

He shrugged his shoulders. 

“Things change,” he said. “People change. Doesn’t mean we hold a wake.”

She smiled, tasting the salt from her tears.

“I’m sorry,” Hayley said.

“For what?” Bill asked.

“Everything. The way I’ve been…our not getting pregnant.”

“There are some things even you can’t control, Hayley.” 

Bill swirled the Scotch around and around in his glass, staring into the vortex. His mouth spread into a grin, and he chuckled to himself.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“You, and your cans of Sterno.”

She remembered tossing the bag in the car. She didn’t remember taking it out.

“Oh, no, I think I left them in the backseat.” Hayley hated losing things, even little things, and a $7 box of Sterno was a really little thing. “So much for our survival.”

She hadn’t meant it as a joke, but Bill let out a snort. It was kind of funny. She had to smile then, too, in spite of herself.               

Pam McGaffin is a writer living in Seattle with her husband, Mark; sons, Casey and Charlie; and a pit bull-mix rescue dog, Ben. Her short stories have appeared in the online literary journals Eclectica and Amarillo Bay. She's working to finish her first book, a young-adult novel set in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1960s. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @PamMcgaffin.

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