This story is by Maia Thomlinson and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In this moment, the silence is deafening. The night air is leaden, utterly still. My heart sits heavy in my aching chest with countless lives lost – the faces I knew and the ones I never will.
A few hours ago, I found myself in this spot with little recollection of how I got here. I am perched atop a crumbling building on a sharply inclined hill, several stories higher than the sea of rubble below. I can see the ocean from here – it’s not hard. Water is everywhere. The shoreline? Now that’s a different story. Couldn’t find it if I tried.
A fallen telephone pole lies horizontally to my left, effectively impinging on what little space I’ve managed to claim for myself and leaving me somewhat reluctant to move. Lucky for the structural stability of the building at this moment, it is rather unlikely I would move even if I could. I don’t want to move. Moving means feeling and the pain in my heart is too great. I am not sure my bones could carry such grief, could carry such terrible weight.
Faces flash through my mind, dragging with them an assortment of names, stories, and memories. This is my community. My family. My home.
“Where are they now?” I whisper, wondering aloud. One face overwhelms the rest before I shove them all to some dark corner in my brain. It is the only way to keep myself sane in this moment. I wish I didn’t care like I do.
Caring can be such a burden. You care for people and they are grateful for a time, but eventually, they always leave. The minute it no longer suits them, they disappear into the abyss, leaving you just as they found you: alone.
In this moment, I am utterly alone.
Numbness spreads slowly, crawling from the tips of my toes up to my hipbones and coming to rest in my tired heart. I allow for the sensation of nothingness to overtake me until I am blessedly numb, enveloped and held by the darkness I so feared when I was young.
It’s the first clear night we’ve had in months. There is no electric light to interfere with the beauty of space and I should be enjoying the stars…but I’m not. Even their light seems dim against the cold, black sky. My eyes briefly trace the constellations I know so well, but I find no comfort there as I normally would. Tonight is no normal night.
I drop my gaze from the heavens to the wreckage below, surveying the scene for any signs of life. Scanning by the light of a glaring full moon, I watch the breeze stir the dirty water. Help has yet to arrive. The world must be asleep, I think. Perhaps with daylight, they will come.
For a time, there is nothing. I listen to the sound of water lapping softly against broken buildings and imploded cars, a city swallowed by an ocean that has grown weary of man. It’s almost peaceful, this lullaby. It is the illusion of calm in the midst of a storm. Then my mind reboots itself, and all bets are off. All at once, the quiet is gone.
The thoughts start out slowly, trickling in one by one. Then gradually, imperceptibly, the stream grows into a deluge that threatens to overtake me. I am thrown back in time, to the events of the last twelve hours that brought me here, to where I am now.
There was the quake, seemingly normal in magnitude but enough to disrupt dinner. Then came the standing in the doorway just to be safe. My favourite mug dove off the edge of the kitchen table and I dove in slow motion to save it. It was just your normal, everyday earthquake happenings. Nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, it may have caused a few cracks in the road. Maybe a building or two suffered some damage, but it was nothing a good contractor couldn’t fix in an afternoon of work. This city was built to endure shocks of much greater magnitude, and no one gets upset over something like this. Nobody died, nothing exploded, all tragedies were averted. Right?
The streets continued to hum with activity, and people went on with their lives.
I showered, read a book, crawled into bed. Attempted to drift off to a fitful sleep only to be taken over by insomnia minutes later. So I’m staring out the window. Staring at the sky. Noticing the full moon cast a stream of light across the water, isn’t that nice. Could I always see the ocean so well from my peek-a-boo view? Do the tides always reach so high?
Then came the sirens. The panic began.
I stood alone in my pyjamas, transfixed in horror as a swell larger than I’d ever seen swallowed our beloved harbour and people poured out of buildings to seek higher ground. Too slow, they were moving too slowly. I wanted to scream. It was like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion, all at once sluggish and far too quick.
Move, a voice barked sharply in my head, you need to move. Right now!
Without another thought, my bare feet carried me out of the door of my tiny apartment up the fire escape to the very top. I lingered a moment longer as the ocean continued to voraciously devour everything in its path. I ran to the edge of the building furthest away from the water for which I had only ever had a healthy dose of respect, inhaled breathlessly and leapt as I’d done only a few times before, landing with a crash on the next. Higher ground. Seek higher ground. Do all you can to survive.
A branch slaps the water somewhere to my right and I am back in this moment, back in this landscape I hardly recognize. Tsunami. We’ve been struck by a tsunami. The word sticks to the back of my throat. It’s not real. It can’t be. I feel as though I’ve fallen into a movie, into someone else’s reality.
There is the faintest glow touching the horizon now, a strip of light invading the dark of this night. I have only seen the sky this colour once before.
My cheek is wet, I realize, but there are no clouds in the sky. I peer at my hands sitting in my lap and wish he was here to hold them, wish he were here to hold me as he did so well. We fit together like two puzzle pieces, this boy who lived in my heart. Until one day, he told me what he felt he couldn’t be what I needed any longer, that in some way he was holding me back. How could he know what was best for me, better than I knew myself? But what he needed was for the relationship to end, and so it did, just like that.
I can’t explain what it is to love someone even after they’ve broken your heart in this way. I can’t explain what it is to miss them, to feel their absence every day. I can’t explain what it is to experience grief to the capacity you didn’t know your heart contained: the denial, the anger, the numbness and the frustration that still, after all this time, you feel the same.
I care. I still care. I’ll always care.
Where is he now? I need to know.
Dawn is breaking over the horizon and I’m choking on a lump in my throat. I watch the water recede with the darkness, dragging with it debris and broken boats. The lump dissipates within seconds, dispersing in a panic that shoots through my bones. My body moves of its own accord for the second time this night, this time towards the water, towards danger, in the direction of his home.
I clamour down the side of my building, now no more than three stories tall. I’m sobbing, sprinting, stumbling blindly through clear patches of fragmented road. The water recoils with increasing speed and I find my feet racing to match. I don’t stop to acknowledge the wreckage. I don’t stop to catch my breath. I don’t stop until the water stops me when it stops short two blocks from his house.
The tide is still, just like that.
I take one step, and then another, wading out into the ocean I once loved. I keep going until the water licks my hips, causing goose bumps to rise on my bare arms.
Tsunami. In this moment, it becomes real. Disaster came, but you survived.
I close my eyes to the destruction and listen to the strength of my own beating heart. In this moment, I am in this moment, for the first time in a long time.
My heartbeat stutters. You’re alive.