And the air turns to dust. Grey plumes billow. Sirens wail. In an instant the calm has been shattered into pieces. And the people – each on their way to somewhere, a doctor’s appointment, a lunch meeting, a child’s school play – now trip and stumble, their possessions scattered, their cheeks streaked red. My son Sean, just ten, sits cross-legged on the couch, remote control tucked into the crook of his knee. I stand behind him in the doorway, barefoot, a mug of coffee between my palms. I can feel my heart beat right through my chest. I say without conviction that he should turn the TV off. As a father I feel this is what I’m meant to do. But neither of us moves.
Instead I stand and watch him watching, his mouth slightly open, head bent forward listening. A year ago, six months, I think, I might have known what he was thinking, but today his thoughts are among the many things I no longer know. If I’ll even be living here in the weeks or months ahead is no foregone conclusion, as this is what Kirsty wants to talk about tonight when she gets home. I rest my head against the doorframe and am surprised by the sweet smell of cedar that still lingers, perhaps has always lingered, in the dozen years we’ve lived here.
When the phone rings later I am standing in the kitchen, the days’ dirty dishes staring at me from the sink. “Hi-ya,” Kirsty says, her voice high-pitched and overly polite. “I’m leaving a little early today.”
I say, “Okay.”
She asks me if I’ve seen the news. “It’s horrible,” she says, more sombre now. “They’ve got the TV on at work.” A pause. “Is Sean okay?”
I cradle the phone between my shoulder and ear and twist the faucet knobs. What little breeze comes through the window seems suddenly not enough. “Hard to tell,” I say. “He’s gone to the park with his friend James.”
“Good,” she says. “That’s good.” Another pause. I picture her in her office at her putty-coloured desk, looking up at the ceiling, as if she’ll find the words she needs up there. “Is there anything you need?”
From the window above the sink I can see the green of hills, the sea, white-capped waves, a sailboat or two. I dip a hand into the warm sudsy liquid. “Yeah,” I say. “We’re out of milk.”
Alone, I dry my hands and sit on the couch. On the TV screen a reporter stands in profile, her gaze turned upward, one raised hand shields her eyes from the late-afternoon sun. Around her the scene appears surreal, jagged tiers of wreckage ringed by broken glass. A small crowd stands beside her, staring into the ruins of a multi-level building, its backbone splintered, as if slammed from above by a giant fist. I sip my coffee, now gone cold, and think, if this was a movie the camera would now pull out and the picture would fade to black. If this was a movie we would cut to six months later, to scenes of children playing, a baby being born; cheesy footage of people learning to live again.
But this is not a movie. The floor is cold and hard beneath my feet.
I pick Sean up the next day from his friend James’ house. I walk behind him up the path, his skateboard and an androgynous action figure tucked beneath my arm. He is dressed, I notice, in the kind of outfit I’ve seen older boys wear, collared shirt tucked into board shorts, high-top trainers with wide, thick soles. He is taller by at least a head than the other boys his age. “Good time?” I say, and inside I cringe. It is one of those expressions, I know, like, Sleep tight, or, Be good, that I heft about, like the words have weight, like they mean something. In front of me his shoulders lift in a shrug. This is how we communicate these days, in simple gestures, in one- or two-word phrases. There is so much I need to say to him, if only I knew how. The words I used to say now have different meanings, and the words I use, I don’t know their meanings anymore.
At home, over fish and chips, Sean gets up and turns the TV on. A close-up taken from a low, tight angle fills the screen. He steps back and cocks his head, as if searching for a sense of scale, of context, a way to justify the unreal. The camera tracks backwards and a slender impression in the dirt becomes a snaking chasm, cutting through the distance like a rip in the earth’s skin. Above, power lines hang, their criss-crossed cables dangling like an unstrung bow. I study Sean’s expression, but his profile remains unchanged. I wonder why he isn’t edgy, jittery, like me. “You know what James says about this?” he says, and sits back down.
“Tell me,” I say.
“That God is practising His disasters on those people.”
I shift in my seat, looking everywhere but at his face. I want to disagree, but in my heart I think James has a point. How, after all, can I convince my son otherwise when the God I’d taught him was benevolent seems now to peer steely-eyed over the rim of the universe, cold-hearted and thirsty for blood?
He drags a chip through the tomato sauce on his plate. “Why do they have to keep showing this?” he says. “When are they going to put the regular shows back on?”
I turn my face towards the window. Outside there are no clouds, not a wisp of haze in the sky. “Soon,” I say. “Things will be back to normal soon.” But I know this is a lie, because what I’m really thinking, what I’d really like to know, is why I don’t know his favourite colour, why I hadn’t noticed that he’d skinned his knee.
Four – five – six a.m., I lie awake in the fold-out bed. The past two days the den has become chaotic, filled with boxes, on the floor, the tables, on the shelves. Between the flaps are T-shirts and photographs and old letters, books and records and worn-out shoes, everything that once comprised my life. I lace my fingers behind my head and retrace the footsteps of my marriage, crane my neck around the corners, search the corridors for some sign of what went wrong.
I am a graphic artist – I spend my life examining detail, adjusting lighting and layout, working out the angles of a thing. But with Kirsty it seemed I could never get my bearings, couldn’t determine the composition of the whole. From the beginning she’d been stubborn, emphatic, driven, intense; a dark-haired beauty with eyes the colour of rubbed wood. She’d believed in keys and agendas, things pencilled into calendar squares. I’d always been the type of man who stared into his drink at parties, incapable of banter, unable to stick with any plan. But with Kirsty there was something else that kept me going, a feeling maybe, just beyond my fingertips, that together we could do this, we could build a thing and make it last. But somehow, somewhere, the seasons changed without my knowing, the warmth of laughter cooled to silence, companionship to the cold efficiency of daily routine. That she was stronger than me, smarter, this much I knew. But for her unhappiness I didn’t know the reasons, and I didn’t know why I didn’t know.
I roll over on my side and flick on the small TV by the bed. It blinks to life with the familiar image of a cracked and buckled street. What follows is another clip I’ve seen a dozen times before. I know already every word the narrator will utter, every inflection, each variation in pitch and tone. I know that in the ensuing moments the image, hand-held and shaky, will drop focus. There will be the sound of muffled footsteps, a muted expletive, and a cloud of mortar dust will consume the screen. I change channels but it’s all the same – a yellow digger, its bucket folding and extending beneath its articulated arm – silt being scraped by shovels into gritty dunes – steel girders, exposed and broken, rising skyward in a skeletal silhouette.
And for the first time I imagine what it would be like to just leave town, to hitch my thumb by some roadside, clean slate, with little more than a duffel bag and a single change of clothes. But I think of Sean and in my gut there comes a low, dull ache. It makes me stop and think about my own father. I’d hardly entered the world and the man was gone.
Wide awake now, I creep down the hallway to Sean’s room. I watch him in the grainy light, air pulsing through his nostrils, his jaw clenched tight in sleep. Around him clothes and shoes and the scattered tiles of a Scrabble game are tossed about the floor. I reach down and pick up a tile, turn it over in my hand. Twenty-six letters, I think, the building blocks of every word I’ve ever spoken, of everything I’ve never said to him.
And I can’t help but wonder as I stand there in the doorway, that if the ground should suddenly shift and give way beneath my feet, would he even call for me.
I sit, unshaven, on the couch with the TV on. The things that used to bring me comfort – the wood panelling, the eyebrow windows, the wide plank floor – today seem strangely distant, familiar yet bizarre. There are acres of decisions I have yet to make. Time is running out.
Down the hall I hear heels knocking, the sound of tinny music coming from Sean’s room. My cell phone rings but I don’t listen to my messages, don’t bother answering the phone. Kirsty appears and stands above me, jacket on, a thin gold chain around her neck. “I’m going out,” she says.
I don’t respond. My attention is focused on aerial footage, a listing high-rise, a toppled spire, the flat green void of a vacant park. “From the air,” the voiceover says, “you can see the full extent of damage.” My phone rings again.
She shifts her bag from her left shoulder to the right. “Maybe you should get out, too,” she says. “Get some air.”
I open my mouth, say nothing, then close it again. Onscreen now a crowd is standing on a footpath, their sidelong gazes aimed into the distance, a pile of twisted metal just visible behind them through the trees. The camera frames a thin-lipped man, shirt sleeves rolled up to elbows, hand clasped against his cheek. Kirsty looks at me, then back at the screen. A crease forms between her eyebrows. “God, those poor people,” she says. “What will they do?”
“I don’t know,” I say, and swallow hard. “Some will leave, but I reckon most will stay, tough it out, start again.” But inside I’m wondering how, how you stay when you’re blindsided, when the roof becomes sky and you can’t trust the ground beneath your feet.
Originally from the East Coast of the United States, Sally Houtman worked for more than twenty years as an addictions therapist in Boston and Los Angeles before relocating to Wellington, New Zealand in 2005. The author of the non-fiction book “To Grandma’s House, We…Stay” she began writing fiction and poetry in 2007. Since that time her work has received four New Zealand writing awards and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has work appearing or forthcoming in Natural Bridge, Sheepshead Review, Stoneboat, burntdistrict, Red Fez, and 94 Creations, among others. “Some Will Leave” is loosely set against the backdrop of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. You can read more about Sally and her writing process here: http://flash-frontier.com/