Aftershock

Midge Raymond has received fiction prizes from the Indiana and Georgia State University reviews. Her work has also been published in the Ontario and North American reviews.

They were still 50 miles from the border when a semi blew a tire, causing an accident up ahead that brought traffic to a standstill. It took two hours, but finally they turned off the 101 and parked near the pier.

The heat of the desert had given way to the thick, humid air of the ocean, and she rolled down her window to breathe it in. They could see the water from where they parked.

Let's take a walk, he said.

On their way to the pier, they passed young men in colored bandannas gathered in the outdoor auditorium and Marines sprawled on the beach and sun-bleached surfers playing chicken with the algae-coated pilings.

As they walked across the gnarled wood slats, she peered between them at the swirl of greenish water below. When she looked up and saw a viewfinder, she pressed her face to it and pointed it south. Can we see Mexico from here? she asked.

I don't think so, he said. The coast curves.

She pulled away and they went to the diner at the end of the pier and ate guacamole burgers.

Do you think it's a sign? she asked him.

What?

Maybe we aren't meant to go to Mexico after all.

It doesn't mean anything, he said.

She leaned back and pushed her plate away. She glanced to her right and saw that someone had left a newspaper on the seat of the adjacent booth. He had seen it too, and reached for it.

She watched his eyes skim the headlines.

Associated Press picked it up, he said. He handed it to her.

It was just a small weekly for the coastal cities, but there it was on the back page. It described her as 24 years old and brunet, and it didn't mention him at all. She was actually only 19, and blond.

She dropped the paper on the table, and he slid it onto his lap and signaled for their server. As he paid the bill, she felt a sudden jolt and saw the saltshaker jump. She'd forgotten where they were, about the spindly legs of the pier and the cold, roiling water beneath them.

Did you feel that? she asked.

He nodded. Let's go.

He buried the newspaper in a trash can at the base of the pier.

It's not a big deal, she told him.

The article hadn't reported much, but it was a story she had hoped would disappear as quickly as they had. She didn't see the need to cross the border, but he insisted. He thought people would remember her face.

From the beginning, he had tried to make her believe it was her idea. It started back in Rolla, where they'd been at the flea market looking for shoes, and as she bent down to slip one on she saw a box filled with old newspapers, some laminated and some crumbling, and she began to file through them, headlines with names and events foreign to her: Nixon, a walk on the moon, a shuttle explosion. But what caught her eye was not one of the top stories--it was a small bit, beneath the fold of a front page announcing the Rodney King riots, with a dateline from her home state: A 5-year-old girl, a kidnapping, a cold trail. She wasn't sure why, but she bought it, along with the shoes, for $6.

Now she wished she'd never shown it to him. He'd gone to the library to research it on the computers. He came back and told her that the mother of the missing girl had moved to California, had married the CEO of a Los Angeles bank, had never given up the search for her daughter.

Then he looked at her and said she had the same blue eyes as the missing girl; with a little work, she could have the same dark hair. The girl was from the outskirts of a small Midwestern city, as she had been, and by now would be only a few years older. It was meant to be, he told her, and she almost believed it. She had disappeared from her own home at 15 instead of 5, and she hadn't seen herself as kidnapped by him as much as rescued. Still, she was a child without a mother, and here in this faded newsprint was a mother without a child.

They would use the main suspect as a starting point, he said, and use the lapsed memory of a traumatized 5-year-old as reason for not knowing the rest. He prepped her for her role, asked her questions that he knew they would ask, like did he hurt you and, of course, she already knew the answers, she knew them all too well, the answers her own mother's boyfriend had given her in the years before she finally left.

But what had truly convinced her was California. She longed for a place that was completely different--and here she could have the curve of mountains instead of plains, the throat-scorching desert air rather than the sticky Midwestern heat, the heaving breath of the ocean over the wide-eyed glassy ponds.

Her only worry, which she didn't voice, was that she knew even before it happened that she might want to play the role for real.

She'd never felt the earth shake until she moved to California, even though she'd grown up near one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, the one that sent the Mississippi flowing backward, that cracked chimneys in Washington, D.C., that made church bells ring in Boston--all from its epicenter in New Madrid. But until she showed up on the doorstep of the missing girl's mother, earthquakes had always been just talk, just a centuries-old collective memory.

The mother took her shopping, cooked her meals, let her use the car to get to classes she never attended. Instead, every week, she'd hurry to the motel where he lived to give him money. One day, she didn't show up. She got in the car and just kept driving, alone, out east, where she pulled over on a quiet desert road and tried to figure out how she'd gotten into this and how to get back out.

That's when it happened--she heard and felt a low rumbling, like a passing train, and when she looked up she could see the land move, rising and falling like a wave, as if the earth were made of water. She waited for it to drown her. It brought her to her knees but didn't swallow her up.

It was just afterward that everything changed. She'd begun to sense that the mother already knew, that despite the disappearing money and the details that didn't add up, they recognized each other's need, and it became the bond they'd never physically shared, a secret they kept between them without ever speaking of it. But after the earthquake, she heard the phone ring a few times, too late at night. She heard the husband talking; she heard the who are yous and the indignant protests and, later, the hushed whispers between the couple, questioning who she really was. She knew her time was nearly up.

The car was just a few blocks from the pier, and when they got back, they sat inside as he skipped from station to station on the radio, looking for news about the earthquake.

Did you hear that? he said. They said it was a 4.9.

Good size, she said. Then she asked him if they could drive along the water, just for a little while, and he looked at her and said, All right.

As he drove along the strand, she looked out the passenger-side window at the horizon, blue on blue coming together, so much like her past and her future in that she couldn't tell where one ended and the other began.

She stole a quick glance his way and wondered, as she had every day since they left, whether he had made those calls to the mother's house, whether he had been willing to give up his plan, all that money, just to get her back. But she couldn't bring herself to ask.

She leaned her head against the window frame, remembering the summer storms that raced through her childhood, and the night winds that blurred the fireflies into shooting stars. She could still recall being young enough that running had been a game; she'd gamboled through the neighbor's corn, hiding among the stalks, as they enveloped her within their crinkling, weaving arms.

The road dead-ended, and he turned back onto the 101 and drove a few miles south before getting on the interstate.

Not too much longer, he said.

She tried to focus on the ridges in the highway, on the reflectors holding them in their lane, on the shuddering of the truck as it sped along.

Did you feel that? he said.

She said she didn't feel anything. The red eyes of brake lights opened in front of them, and as they slowed she scanned the landscape, the one she'd wanted to inhabit for so long, the one she was outgrowing already: wide and open, its scrubby rolling hills giving way to the Pacific, the sunlit thickets of chaparral short and sharp and hard, and not high enough to hide behind.

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