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Earthquake

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October 1, 1987

 

When the trembling stops, there is a moment of exquisite silence, as if sound has been struck away from the world along with certainty. But then the fractured hillside above the narrow, twisting road sighs and slips and flows like floodwaters rising, sweeping everything before it over the edge, down into the dense tangle of chaparral. There are shouts then, and thuds, and clanks, and other harbingers of disaster, but no one to hear them. No one but birds and small creatures at least, and they are all still scrambling self-centeredly in search of a place to hold onto lest the earth begins to quake once more.

 

“Nick?”

“Nick?”

“Nick? Murray?”

“I’m here. I’m here Cody. Here. Can you feel my hand?”

“Nick?”

“Nick?”

“Feel my hand, Cody. I’m right here. I’ve been here all along. Can’t you feel my hand? You’re squeezing it to death, you’ve got to be able to feel it.”

“Murray?”

“Murray’s back at the Riptide. He’s fine. I mean, that was a big earthquake, but he’s on the boat, so he’s probably fine. Probably.”

“Nick?”

“This is getting old, man. C’mon. Open your eyes. Will you open your eyes? I don’t want to slap you awake -- your head’s taken enough damage. But I will if you don’t open your eyes.”

“Nick?”

“Dammit. Maybe if I pinch you.”

“Ow. Nick.”

“There you are. Can you see me?”

“‘Course I can see you. Why wouldn’t I? Oh! Ow. Nick. What happened? Where are we?”

“Turnbull Canyon. I told you this place was bad news. Hold still, I want to see if I can get that cut on your head to stop bleeding.”

“Okay... okay... ah... careful... easy. I must’ve cracked something in there. I feel like we’re upside down.”

“That’s because we are upside down. Well, more sideways, than exactly upside down, but the Jimmy must’ve flipped in the landslide.”

“But wasn’t Murray in the back?! Nick, where’s Murray?”

“I told you, I told you. He’s home. He’s on the Riptide. He’s fine. He and the Roboz are probably still waking up from the earthquake.”

“Earthquake?”

“You don’t remember the earthquake?”

“Nick, the last thing I remember is sitting in Straightaways watching you and Murray eating steak and wondering why mine was taking so long to show up.”

“Steak? That. That was two days ago. Are you sure you don’t remember anything past that?”

“I don’t know. Give me a clue!”

“Stop waving your hands around, you’ll get cut on something and I don’t think you can afford to lose the blood.”

“Sorry. I just... Can’t we get down from here? I mean, I can undo my seatbelt.”

“You undo your seatbelt and you’ll land on top of me. And I can’t catch you because there’s something sharp on the other side of me that’s already trying to make a hole in my back. Add your weight to mine and it’ll go right on through.”

“Jesus, Nick. Are you bleeding?”

“Probably. It’s kind of at a bad angle for me to check.”

“Let me see if I can.. oh, fu...”

“Cody? Cody? Cody!”
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“Nick?”

“Oh thank God. I’m here, Cody.”

“Nick, I don’t feel so good.”

“Don’t try to move this time, okay? I don’t think it’s good for your head.”

“What happened to my head?”

“You hit it on the roof when the Jimmy flipped. And no, Murray wasn’t in the back. He’s safe at home with the Roboz, and probably worrying already, but he’s not sitting in a wrecked car in Turnbull Canyon wondering if the noises he hears are ghosts coming out of the old insane asylum.”

“It’s daytime. Nick. Ghosts. Don’t come out. Daytime.”

“You know that and I know that, and Murray usually knows that but not when he’s been reading up on all the old stories about Turnbull Canyon and scaring himself. Remember when he thought the Riptide was haunted?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I remember. Ghost repellent.”

“Yeah. Man that stuff stank.”

“Nick. Why. Are we. In a wrecked. Car in. Turnbull Canyon?”

“Because we got hired to find out whether or not a little girl who disappeared half a century ago could have been taken up here by a satanic cult and murdered. Do you remember?”

“No.”

“Well, at least you remember the ghost repellent.”

“Why. Investigate. Ghosts?”

“Because Helen Howell asked us to. You know? The lady who owns Pier 56? She came down to the boat and asked if we’d be kind enough to go back and see what happened to her best friend from school. And we said yes; because she’s the landlady, and because Murray likes her. And then we found out that her best friend was sent to an orphanage during the Depression and disappeared in Turnbull Canyon, and was probably murdered by a cult. Which is why you and I came up here this morning to get the lay of the land while Murray decided he should probably start looking through records. You know how he is about the spooky stuff.”

“Can’t. Stay. Away from it.”

“Heh. Yeah. That’s true. But he was up half the night anyway, and you said we should come up here to look around before it got too hot. And then the earthquake hit and you managed to keep us on the road long enough for the landslide to catch us instead. So here we are, sitting in the brush, waiting for someone to find us.”

“Waiting for. Murray to find. Us.”

“It was a big earthquake, Cody. He’s on the other side of the city and he doesn’t know we’re in trouble. They’re probably advising everyone to hold tight where they are through the aftershocks.”

“Aftershocks?”

“Yeah, there’ve been a few. That’s why we’ve slid around some. I’m hoping the next one will turn the car enough that I can risk trying to get loose.”

“You’re stuck?”

“Yeah. My foot’s jammed under the dashboard, and I think it might be broken. Good news, though. I’m not lying on top of a shard of manzanita anymore.”

“You. Sound. Tired.”

“Yeah, well, I stopped bleeding but I hurt. And it’s a hundred degrees now that the sun’s topped the canyon wall. And I’ve spent the morning watching you fall in and out of consciousness and explaining what happened every damn time you open your eyes and I’m kind of losing it here, Code. I’m really... just... starting to...”

“It’ll be. Okay. Boz’ll. Find us.”

“Now you’re stealing my lines.”

“Great minds. Think.”

“Alike. Yeah, I know. Sorry. I’ll try to hold it together better.”

“‘Sokay. Nick.”

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“Cody? Cody, can you hear me? You're breathing, you're alive. I know you’re alive. Just keep breathing. Keep breathing, okay? We’ll get some shade from that scrub oak as soon as soon as the sun’s a little lower, and then it’ll be better. I promise. I mean, I’m sorry I’m not gonna be able to save us, but at least we’re not going to cook to death. Dehydration, that’s what we’ve got to worry about. I don’t suppose you’ve got a canteen in here somewhere, do you? I mean, if you did, I’d know about it, and I don’t know about it, so you don’t. But it would be useful, y’know? If we didn’t die of dehydration. Pretty sure that’s not a good way to go.

“Y’know, I’ve got my gun here. And I’ve been thinking about it. About good ways to go. And I. Well, if it gets too bad, then. I mean. You won’t know anything about it. I’ll take care of it. Because, you know we’ve been here for hours and I haven’t heard a single car go by. There was a helicopter, but it just... I think it must have been on its way somewhere, because it didn’t hover or anything. Just flew on by. It flew right on by and all I could think was that I wished it was Murray here with you because if I had the Mimi I’d find you guys in no time flat, and then you’d be okay.

“And now the sun’s going down and it’s going to get harder to find us. I thought about lighting a signal fire, but the whole hillside would go up. You know the way this stuff burns. We’re lucky the crash didn’t start a fire or we’d already be cooked, and that’s even worse than dying of thirst. Quicker though. I mean, we’d be dead, but it would be over with. And I’m tired, Cody. I’m so fucking tired. And every time I close my eyes I start thinking about all the stories we used to tell about the canyon. All the dead kids, and the nuthouse and the gates of hell and the hanging tree. And I can’t sleep for wondering whether we’re going to end up haunting this place too. It might not be so bad. At least we’d be together.

“But I’m so damn tired.”

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The sun is turning the streaks of smoke and cloud overhead shades of orange and pink by the time the fire rescue truck pulls up beside the landslide and two weary firefighters climb out. They are joined by a third man, a lanky civilian, whose jeans and buttoned shirt are filthy from helping to dig through the last three landslips, and whose complete attention is on a small device which is beeping softly in his hands. He follows the indicator without looking up, and has to be snagged back from walking over the edge by a firefighter. The damage below the road is clear enough, even in the fading light. Dirt, mostly, with some rocks and upended brush mixed in smeared across the slope, yes, but at this angle they can see, down where the brush and trees are thicker, the artificiality of straight lines and the gleam of metal and plastic. The civilian calls, and is answered by a terrible silence, but the firefighters begin an arcane ritual of ropes and carabiners and the pulley on the front of their truck. They load a wire stretcher with boxes and kits to bring alongside as one of them rappels carefully down the hillside a safe distance from the rockfall. The civilian watches from above, his hands clenched against helplessness, and his throat working as he swallows back his fears. The exploring firefighter reaches the overturned pickup truck and bends down to look inside. For a moment the world is silent and still, hope and grief hanging in the balance. But then he stands again and holds up two gloved fingers before turning his hand to hold up a thumb.

Two. Alive.

And the world breathes again.