Summer Stories: ‘Volcanic’ by Deb Caletti
July 12, 2020 Updated Wed., Sept. 23, 2020 at 2:41 p.m.
Deb Caletti, author of the new young adult novel “Girl Unframed,” lives with her family in Seattle. (Susan Doupé)
We’ve heard rumblings for two months, news of little earthquakes, hundreds of them. Explosions of steam, dark ash covering snow-clad summits. But let’s be honest. I’ve heard rumblings for years. I know the signs: Shivering teacups as a hand smacks a table. Explosions of steam you can feel, the heat coming right off his skin. Dark ash, a mood edging in. A shift in the atmosphere, a foreboding that makes you step oh-so-carefully and turn the doorknobs oh-so-slowly.
I felt eruptions, too. Bad enough that I had to clap my hands over my ears from the sound. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t, so I hid instead, though his rage always found me.
“Forget it, we’re not going. Not when this place is worth $60,000, at least.” Sean downs the last of his coffee, sets the cup on the deck. This place: our cabin, our home, right down the road from the lodge at Harmony Falls, along the curve of Spirit Lake. Those are beautiful words, Harmony, Spirit, and on that deck, the mountain is right there across the water. It almost doesn’t look real, the way it rises up so majestic, so powerful, bigger than anything around it by far, its own image rippling in the lake. It’s strange the way something large and dangerous can almost make you feel safe until it doesn’t. It’s strange the way you can stare straight at it and know what it is but still ignore the warnings.
“Everything we have,” I say. I rock and sway with the baby on my hip. I named him Will because that’s what you need to survive the world. One of his little socks is falling off, and I scoot it back up his chunky leg. I lean into him and smell the sticky peach scent of his cheeks.
“You don’t just walk away from that.” My husband doesn’t like being told what to do. We’ve had this same conversation countless times. He leans back in his Adirondack chair. It’s a beautiful morning, so why not. Spring. You can smell blackberries ripening and the deep-water murkiness of the lake. His breakfast plate sits on the ground next to him, just bits of egg left, the overcooked parts, the thin skin from the sides of the pan. The slightly burnt edges of toast. He leaves behind the flawed parts like a child would.
“It seems quiet,” I say, watching that mountain. “It looks quiet.” On my hip, Will jabbers his pretend talk, and I gaze at him, and he gazes back with his endless-universe eyes. I tell him things that are only between us. Secret stuff. Like the lie that I just spoke because I don’t think it looks quiet, not for one second. I can feel something building, down in the core, down in the dark parts no one can see. Silence isn’t to be trusted, not that kind. For weeks now, I’ve seen that muscle working in Sean’s neck, tightening, relaxing, tightening. I caught him pacing and going stony, and I thought, “Uh oh.” I thought, “It’s coming.” Sometimes eruptions aren’t as personal as they seem. They’re collision forces that have little to do with you – stress, pressure, some instability that begins at the center and rises slowly to the surface.
“It’s fine! Goddamn Dixie Lee Ray and her red zones. They told us Three Mile Island was the end of the world, too. If we took off, we would have had looters.”
“Exactly,” I say. But I don’t really believe the Andelli’s had looters. I think the door was open because they left in a hurry. That door was open because nothing inside mattered all that much, at the end of the day. All up and down Spirit Lake, those shingled houses, those charming little retreats – they’re empty now. With the neighbors gone, I feel it more, the way the evergreens tower overhead and the way the shady spots can get so cold and the way the dark out there was deeper than any city dark. Exactly was a lie, too. It was helpful, all the years of practice, saying the things you needed to say to keep the mood even, feeding tidbits to his ego, turning down the temperature with your words. It was helpful to learn how to manipulate.
“The Kitsap Sun today? They said scientists who watch the mountain for a living aren’t promising much of a show.”
“See?” I say.
Inside, I wrestle that baby and change him, the little squirming, twisting guy. I smooch his bare belly. It’s weird because there’s doom, doom everywhere, the heavy sense of imminent disaster, but I feel glee. I feel giddy the way you do when something’s almost over, or something’s almost starting.
I try to take it all in – the crib with its rabbit bumper pads, the plants along the kitchen sill, the windows where you can see the fog roll in. But everything seems slippery, impossible to hold in memory. I’m too jittery with nerves maybe, or maybe sweet thoughts refuse to keep company with the others – the cowering in that corner, the hole punched in the wall over there, and, in that room, his hand striking again and again as his face contorted in fury. I zip the keys to the truck into my pocket.
The baby naps, a small warm hump, diapered bottom up in the air, soft feather hair damp with sleep. I can hear him, Sean, chopping wood in the back. You know, for winter. For the future. I peek at him through the blinds. He has his Walkman clipped to his belt, his headphones on, probably the same cassette he listens to over and over. M-m-m-my Sharona! I can tell by the rhythm of the thump, thump crack of the ax. Aye, aye, aye, whoo!
I grab the important papers, the clothes, diapers, though, damn, babies come with so much stuff. I prop open the front screen with a rock so it doesn’t bang shut. The chopping stops. I freeze because no lie will cover this, what’s gathered in my arms. The chopping starts again. I shove what I can under the seats.
That night, after Johnny Carson, he falls asleep on the couch. Dangerous – right in the living room. That mountain isn’t going to wait for safe, though, and so I lift the baby, a heavy weight against my shoulder. I go out that front door, and I shut it carefully, and then I run. I run to the truck, and my heart is beating like crazy, and I’m going so fast, I lose a flip flop in the grass.
I toss Will into his little bucket. My hands are shaking so bad, I can barely get the key in. Then, Rrr, rrr, rrr, like a bad horror movie. It is one – one that began too long ago, when I was a lifetime younger. Ooh, my little pretty one, my pretty one! Aye, aye, aye, ooh!
The engine turns, and I hit the gas, and we’re down our road, and we’re speeding under a midnight sky past those shingled houses, now empty. We’re flying past Harmony Falls and the old lodge, and we’re taking the curves of Spirit Lake, the moon shining white, glittering the lake water, as that mountain looms. We drive the logging roads, the ones that go around the barricades set up weeks ago, keeping people out, keeping people in. It’s so dark, and the roads are rough. We pass the Iron Creek Campground and go over the bridge, and we’re on Highway 12, but my eyes are on the rear-view mirror the whole time because I’m sure he’s back there, following me in his dying Mustang. Every pair of headlights is him, I’m sure of it. I feel him, or maybe I just feel that mountain, inhaling, exhaling.
Any headlights back there merge into a steady stream on I-5. What’s everyone doing up so late? Who knows, but we’re checking in to the River Inn in Chehalis. I have one shoe, but the woman says nothing. Shame floods in.
Behind that locked door, I make a call.
“We made it,” I tell my brother.
My eyes burn with fatigue. A heart can’t pound that hard and for that long without needing rest. Even here, between those pine-musty and unfamiliar sheets, with the baby beside me, I still feel him hovering. Finally, I drift into sleep.
The blast almost knocks me out of bed. The explosion, the boom, is terrible, atomic. The walls tremble. The lamp swings on its chain. There’s no doubt what’s finally happened. Will starts to cry, and I pick him up. “It’s OK , it’s OK,” I tell us.
The first thing I see when I bring Will out onto that stoop of the River Inn is a pair of sandals. They’re formed to someone else’s feet, but they’re pointing out. My chest heaves with grief and gratitude, and my throat tightens with tears. It’s eerie silent outside. The birds are silent, the trees are. I swear the river is, and the sky is a crazy, end-of-the-world, violet bruise.
I think: I hope he was there. I hope he was in that house. I hope the lava flowed over him and stilled his body and his arms and his voice. I hope it buried him.
Now, it begins to snow. Gray snow, falling. Ash-like snowflakes. I let out a breath. I exhale. I want to sob with horror and relief and awe. I tilt my head up toward the sky. I watch the snow coming down. It’s almost beautiful.
Inside that pine walled room, with its cigarette-burned dresser, and flowered bedspread kicked to the floor, the phone rings. It rings and rings until I reach it.
“He’s been calling,” my brother says. “Calling everyone.” I remember those headlights. It’s like he’s back from the dead, but of course he was never dead.
Five hundred and twenty tons of ash is darkening the sky, steadily moving across the whole country. The waters of Spirit Lake boil, and the river thunders with mud, and trees are incinerated. Rubble, wreckage, anything once living is singed and sizzling. The damage will last for years and years. The damage will last through the generations.
But that mountain. It’s still here, isn’t it? There’s a giant hole where it blew, but it’s here. Sometimes, nothing wrecks the thing that destroys everything else. It alone will shake the ashes from itself and go on. It will stay and stay and stay standing, only now we understand what it’s capable of doing.
In those sandals, I carry the baby to the truck, to find someplace where the sky isn’t black. Harmony, Spirit, those beautiful words – they’re gone. But Will is still here in my arms.
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