When the earthquake hit, Keagan was in another state a thousand miles away from the epicenter. He learned about it through the muted news program projected on the television screen above his desk, just below the blue banner supporting his presidential candidate. He had been on the phone with a potential campaign donor. He hadn’t realized he had hung up until one of his staff volunteers asked if they had reached the month’s projected quota.
“What?” Keagan asked, searching through his desk’s cluttered drawers for the television remote. Quickly, he gave the television a voice it hadn’t possessed since they first changed offices six months ago to address the conservative voting element.
Keagan and his five volunteers listened as a harried news anchor, a piece of her auburn hair sticking straight up out of the top of her head like an apple stem, told them that the earthquake was an 5.5 on the Richter Scale and centralized around Long Beach. The full extent of damage had yet to be assessed.
“Do you think He’ll call a press conference?” asked the only female worker in the place. referring to their beloved boss and presidential nominee with a reverence commonly found amongst their circle.
“It’s not His home state,” spoke up another.
Keagan grabbed his cell-phone and walked out of the office.
When the earthquake hit, Claudia was in the middle of a break-up thirty-five miles east of the epicenter. She was on the phone in her bedroom, both yelling into the receiver and absently rubbing her down comforter between thumb and forefinger. She needed a new color scheme, something not pink, and definitely not floral. Maybe she’d do all-whites, with some light blue hues. It was time for a change. One of the countless campaign buttons Keagan had mailed over months ago reminded her of that.
“You treat me like shit,” Claudia repeated, this time lowering her voice. She knew the conversation was coming to an end, the expected crying had ended fifteen minutes ago, and now she was no longer yelling, she was decorating. This was calm acceptance; this was the end. She’d do well with a terminal illness.
The man on the other end said she was overreacting. Then the bedroom began to shake.
He didn’t know whom to call first. His parents, or Claudia. He looked through the office’s poster-strewn window and watched his workers return to their desks. This had been a good week. No pep talks had been required; everyone on his staff was jazzed to be part of this historical election. He knew somewhere in his tired, addled brain he was jazzed, too. He reached into his coat pocket for a cigarette.
A couple taking their Pomeranian for a walk waved at Keagan and offered words of encouragement. They’d be voting for his candidate! He smiled, nodded once, and put the cigarette away. Then he dialed his parents’ number. Family before friends. He was met with the busy signal, and then an operator’s recording. All circuits were busy.
She was scared and crouched under her bedroom doorframe. Her elementary school earthquake preparedness had kicked in once her phone line went dead. Strewn about the floor were frames containing pictures of her in various poses, always smiling, always with friends. The bookshelf had toppled over and splintered. A few of her paperbacks would be permanently bent. At one point, she had feared the apartment building itself would collapse. She had teared up even, as she clutched crown molding and felt the world around her crumple. She closed her eyes. She was going to die. She wanted her mother. She wanted Keagan. Then the world was still, and she could hear the car alarms blaring outside her building.
He tried Claudia, then his parents again. All circuits were busy. The volunteer with bad breath came outside to remind Keagan he had a conference call with Washington in five minutes. A bird flew overhead. He went back inside, dimly aware of the chime of the bells hanging on the cheap office door.
Claudia walked outside. Though the world had stopped shaking, she had just begun. She dimly recalled that being outside during an earthquake was not recommended, as power lines or trees could fall over and kill you. But it felt safer, somehow, to be in the open space of her street rather than confined in the deathtrap of her bedroom, her memories strewn about haphazardly.
Across the street, a gardener stood dumbly staring off into the distance, his mower turned off. She remembered that when her asshole ex-boyfriend had said she was jumping to conclusions at the beginning of the call, she had had to ask him to repeat himself because she couldn’t hear him over the racket outside. Then she had shut her dining room window and walked into her bedroom. The breakup had continued, as had the gardener’s muted mowing.
The three cars parked on the curb in front of the gardener continued to blare their warnings. As if the earthquake wasn’t traumatic enough. Nobody appreciated an unanswered car alarm. She followed the gardener’s blank gaze, and gasped when she too saw the collapsed apartment complex. Vaguely, she thought of Keagan.
While his boss talked on speakerphone, Keagan had the volunteer with bad breath turn on the television’s closed captioning. So far, there were one hundred reported deaths, and countless injuries. The death toll rose along with the projected voters… one hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred.
His cell-phone rang. Caller ID identified his parents. Quickly, he told his boss he had to call him back. Without waiting for a reply, he hung up one phone and picked up the smaller.
His mother reported that they were fine, the Labradors had barked a great deal but from their location in the suburbs they had barely felt the quake. Luckily, that day his father had worked his stock equations from his home office so he wasn’t in one of the downtown high-risk office buildings. God was looking out for their family. They’d for sure be going to church on Sunday to say thanks and pray for the quake’s countless victims. Keagan’s mother was worried about Claudia, who was so much closer to the epicenter. Had he heard from her? Her mother, their neighbor, couldn’t reach her.
When Claudia was little, her father would play a game with her called Earthquake. In the game, he would take his clunky old video camera out to the backyard and film his grinning daughter. She would shout “Earthquake!” at the top of her young lungs and jerk her body back and forth horizontally while her dad shook the camera vertically.
The game always ended with a dramatic fall where Claudia would reach up towards the camera and give one, final gasp, “Earthquake.” Sometimes, she’d pull tufts of grass out by the fistfuls and throw them up, letting the natural green confetti fall about her in what she believed to be a beautiful image. Once, they had tried to stage their game inside the house with the theme music from a Sean Connery James Bond film booming from a cassette player. Her mother had complained about the noise and the shoot was cancelled. Claudia never saw the finished product of her father’s filmic attempts, and the one time she suggested the game to Keagan, he shook his head and told her he hated earthquakes.
Walking towards the wreckage, the sound of police sirens approaching, Claudia decided she hated earthquakes, too. Next to her, the gardener coughed. She stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, and she grabbed his calloused hand to keep from falling.
Keagan checked his email. The last email received from Claudia had been from the day before, a quick scribble about an unsurprising and impending breakup with some guy, he couldn’t honestly remember if this was the waiter or the filmmaker, and of course her halfhearted declaration of unending love and support for Keagan’s cause. He knew that love and support was much more for him than for the political message he swore to promote.
Absently dialing with one hand his boss’ number to finish their meeting, he scrounged up Claudia’s online photo album with his other. While his boss read statistics and poll numbers off a sheet, Keagan studied year-old photos of the two of them taking Claudia’s young cousin trick-or-treating, Claudia dressed as Minnie Mouse, himself as Mickey, the young cousin as some sort of vampire. How Claudia had enjoyed pouring fake blood all over that kid. There was an album full of random “tourist’ photos she had shot throughout his last visit to Los Angeles. The one taken at the park, by a particularly beautiful and blooming yellow rose bush, she had wryly labeled their engagement photo. He tried to zoom in on her face while repeating numbers back to his boss. Even pixilated, she looked happy. For that matter, so did he. He remembered later they split a Churros recipe and then she had cried when she saw the terrible conditions at which the animals at the local petting zoo were housed. She named a goat Buster and talked about him the entire car ride home. Keagan decided he did not mind the photo being labeled an engagement photo, even though some part of him probably should.
He closed the online photo album and went to work on the spreadsheet that would determine what volunteers canvassed what particular areas.
Eight hours after the earthquake and two hours after he distributed his spreadsheet to the necessary parties, Keagan finally reached Claudia on her cell-phone. She was at her parents’ house, picking apart a store-bought rotisserie chicken wing, her mother on the home phone line explaining to another woman in her book group about the disaster her brave daughter had experienced. Apparently surviving was all that was needed to be brave.
She fingered the semi-translucent chicken skin and wondered why the unhealthiest part of the bird always smelled the best. She peered through the chicken skin stretched between her fingers– everything was hazy. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “The phone systems have been crazy.”
She heard him mutter something at someone in the background. Suddenly, she was surfing an unexpected wave of anger. “At least you were able to still get work done,” she quipped, cradling the cell phone on her shoulder while she rose to throw out her dinner, chicken skin and all.
“Your mom told my mom that one of your neighboring buildings collapsed.”
She watched her plastic plate and picked-apart chicken fall to the bottom of the garbage can. In the void of her mother’s garbage she saw the gardener crying, the paramedics screaming at her to get out of the way, the tiny arm reaching out towards her, palm up, from under piles and piles of wood and concrete. The hand was pale, with a butterfly temporary tattoo half-smudged on its wrist. Claudia had spent most of her own youth decorated with temporary tattoos, though she had preferred mammals to insects. Her favorite tattoo had been a gift from her father, a cat with large, glassy eyes. She managed to make that one last for over the recommended week. When they finally dug the body out, she met the staring eyes of the little girl who had sold her Thin Mints outside the local dry cleaners. That was when she threw up, stumbled back to her own apartment, and called her mother. She noticed and ignored Keagan’s six missed calls.
“So, you’re okay?” Keagan’s voice was small and insignificant. She could make out his typing in the background.
“As okay as I’m going to be,” she retorted, irritated. “I have to go.”
“I miss you,” Keagan said. That was usually her line.
She hung up, and wondered if what he said was true.
Sitting alone in his office, he studied his screensaver. Fish swam peacefully in a black ocean. The computer at the other side of the room bragged scenes of peaceful paradise retreats. Keagan wondered if the screensaver-designers ever got to visit the locations themselves, or if that was someone else’s job. He wanted to know how much a screensaver-designer was paid.
He went about locking doors, safes, tightening the lids of the candy jars. Tomorrow he’d have to make up for today’s poor performance. If he woke up early enough, maybe he’d bring in donuts as a sort of apology for being so distant today with his volunteers. The ones with sprinkles were always popular. He felt bad for Claudia; obviously the earthquake had affected her more than she was willing to admit.
Switching off the office lights, walking the one-block to his campaign-provided apartment (which consisted of a cot on the floor, a mini-fridge, a water leak and a fan), Keagan recalled Claudia’s odd love of that game, Earthquake. How she had begged and begged during the drive back to his parents’ house from a Christmas party that they reenact her childhood shenanigans. Sitting in his parents’ cold den, drinking leftover eggnog and wine coolers, he had finally given in, more in an attempt to keep her quiet than anything else. Though they were both adults, he still lived in fear of waking his parents and getting caught misbehaving. He could practically feel their disapproval as he had popped open another beer.
He shook his new camera up and down as directed, while she quietly flailed herself about the leather couch. She knocked one of his mother’s new pillows onto the ground. “Earthquake!” she shriek-whispered, and laughed. “Earthquake!” Then she pulled him down on top of her. “Earthquake!”
She had been drunk, he knew that, there was an eggnog stain prominently displayed on her blouse. Yet he couldn’t help but feel she had unfairly and premeditatively planned the whole evening, especially when, still whispering “earthquake” over and over, Claudia leaned forward and kissed him squarely on the lips. She pulled back; they both listened to the overheard clock tick off five seconds. She studied his eyes. He stared back, unsure what to say. Her eyes were red and not very attractive. Then she shook her head, stood up, and said she had to be heading home.
He left two days later to get back to work on the campaign. Now that he was working for the party’s officially chosen Presidential Nominee, his personal time had been cut in half, and then sliced again. Their phone calls, when they managed them, were short and to the point. She bitched about her latest boyfriend, he updated her on the election. Usually it was information she could learn from the newspapers and drama he could piece together from her late-night frantic emails. They both knew they received more meaningful conversations from complete strangers. They both knew admitting this would be painful, especially to Claudia.
She claimed to blame the election and their busy work schedules, but he knew they both knew the truth. Something had changed the night of Claudia’s Earthquake game; something had shifted with her metaphorical plate tectonics. They were no longer on the same ground.
The night of the earthquake, Claudia lay awake on her parents’ hard and uncomfortable guestroom bed. She hadn’t wanted to be alone in her apartment building, with the yellow caution tape still strung about like Christmas lights in geometric shapes up and down her block, and her mother had relished the chance to baby her daughter, going so far as to make tea and cookies to help calm the poor dear’s nerves. After all, she had barely touched her chicken.
She thought of the earthquake game, and of Keagan. Even in her drunken state that night, she knew the game was supposed to have had a much different outcome.
“Earthquake!” she meant to whisper as she kissed him. And he would feel her kiss, and he would realize, finally realize, that they clicked, they were not the earthquake but rather the safe place. The world around them could and would shake and quake and fall apart, but as long as they were locked together all would be still and quiet and beautiful. He would kiss her back. He would kiss her back and there would be no more trembling.
Instead, she caused a slow-yielding tremor, a quake whose damage took days, months to fully comprehend. Her man-made quake was months old, and the aftershocks were still coming.
As Claudia turned over in bed and considered the mistake of her mother’s striped wallpaper, she wondered if any shake-up, of any kind, could move enough platelets around for Keagan and her to be in the same place ever again, if any seismic activity that powerful could occur without any victims, specifically ones with upturned, pleading hands, waiting for an adulthood that would never come.