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Sunday, October 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘Fissures’ by Kris Dinnison

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020

By Kris Dinnison For The Spokesman-Review

They were fighting again. They’d come to Seattle because her dad had a meeting, but Becky knew they also came because of the fighting.

“I have to go to Seattle for a few days for business,” he’d said last week. “I’ll be back Sunday night.”

“Sure. Go. I’ll just stay here and wait for you. That sounds like a dream come true.” Her mom’s voice was sweet. But Becky knew from experience it also was sticky. A trap.

“Joanne, the counselor, said sarcasm isn’t an effective way for us to communicate our feelings.”

Her mom had thrown a fit and a few breakable items from the hall bookcase. “Is that direct enough for you, Dennis?”

After narrowly dodging a crystal ashtray that likely would have brained him, he suggested they all go to Seattle, a family weekend.

“It’ll be fun,” he said.

But now they were at each other. Again. This was out-in-public fighting: more whispering and hissed insults. Less shouting and throwing things and slamming doors. Becky hummed a tune, which she realized was “All Out Of Love” by Air Supply. She hated that song, but not as much as she hated their constant quarreling.

Becky drifted away from their buzzing anger, still humming that terrible song. She’d read the revolving floor of the Space Needle made one complete rotation in 47 minutes. If she moved to the other side of the circle, could she just rotate around and around and never see her parents again?

“Becky,” her mother’s voice rang sharp among the crowd of tourists. “Stay close.”

Becky’s shoulders slumped. “And stand up straight.”

Becky began humming again and leaned her forehead against the cool glass trying to see over the edge. She knew they were spinning, that the floor beneath them wasn’t static. But the view didn’t seem to change, or maybe it just changed so slowly she didn’t notice. Her parents fighting was that way. When did they get like this? She wondered. Becky remembered being happy, she remembered them being happy. But maybe she was just too young and stupid to notice the change.

In the distance, past the skyscrapers, she could see Mount Rainier. And beyond that, she knew, were Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. The volcano. They were all volcanoes, Becky knew, but Mount St. Helens wasn’t squatted quietly in the Cascade Range minding its own business like the others. It had been grumbling and shifting for months. And they said on the news that the earthquakes were happening daily.

“Beckers,” her dad put his hand on her shoulder. “Time to go.”

Becky looked around for her mom, who stood in line for the elevator, her arms crossed, her mouth a stiff line. Becky saw her glance at her watch, then adjust it on her narrow wrist.

“We’re going to be late for the zoo,” she said as Becky joined her in line.

“You can’t be late for the zoo, Mom.”

“And where’s your father gone to now?” She looked at her watch again, though only 30 seconds had passed since the last time.

“I’m right here,” Becky’s dad said.

“Dennis, could you please try not to wander off? I swear it’s like you’re the child instead of Becky.”

“I’m not a child,” Becky muttered.

Dennis put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “Joanne, relax. This is supposed to be fun.” Joanne shrugged out from under Dennis’ arm. Becky saw his smile slide, then harden. “Well then, could you at least try not to make everyone miserable?”

Joanne scowled at him. “I learned from the best.”

Later, at the zoo, Becky’s mom dragged them from the giraffes to the big cats to the chimpanzees. Becky wasn’t sure if it was actual enthusiasm or some sort of internal, unspoken itinerary that drove Joanne.

“Did you know chimpanzees actually make and use tools?” Joanne said, shading her eyes and peering at the enclosure.

“Did you know chimpanzees will sometimes eat each other’s babies?” Becky asked.

Her mother stared at her. “You really are awful sometimes, Rebecca. Why do you have to ruin things?”

“I learned from the best,” Becky said.

Joanne’s nostrils flared. She turned and stomped toward the zoo exit.

“Nice,” Dennis said. “Very nice.”

“What?” Becky shrugged. “I read it in National Geographic.”

Her father dropped his head, then followed Joanne. Becky turned back to the chimps for a few minutes, watching. Three chimps groomed each other under a tree, and two younger ones swung and chased each other around a pile of boulders. One chimp sat alone watching her. Becky waved to him, but instead of waving back, the chimp showed his teeth, then made a loud hooting sound. Becky couldn’t shake the idea that he was laughing at her.

The rest of the day and evening did not improve. There was the moment when Dennis drove their giant station wagon onto the freeway going north instead of south because Joanne was holding the map upside down and the moment when Joanne sent her wine back three times, something that made Dennis and Becky want to sink into the restaurant booth and disappear. And, finally, there was the moment when her parents had another whisper fight in front of the hotel clerk about, of all things, what time they’d be leaving in the morning. Joanne was all for an early alarm clock and getting on the road by 8. Dennis wanted to sleep in and eat breakfast at a nearby diner.

Becky wanted to suddenly develop laser eyes, aim them at her parents and vaporize both of them. Instead, she hummed, and she could see the poor clerk didn’t know which was worse: the bickering hotel guests or their strange, murmuring daughter.

Sunday morning her father got his way by accident when the alarm on the hotel clock radio didn’t go off. Becky woke with a start and glanced at her watch: 8:32.

“Did you turn it off on purpose?” Joanne asked Dennis as they packed their bags.

“Christsakes, Joanne. Of course not,” Dennis said.

Becky began to dread the drive home: six hours of forced confinement with these people. Six more years of living with them. Sometimes she wished they’d finally just have the big fight instead of these skirmishes. That one of them would blow a hole in their marriage that couldn’t be repaired. But they never did. So they all lived in dread and longing, waiting for that day.

To Becky’s relief, they didn’t speak through breakfast, didn’t speak as Dennis wound through downtown trying to find the freeway on ramp, didn’t speak until they were almost in Issaquah, when traffic began to slow and then stop. Becky craned her neck and could see emergency lights ahead, and there was a state patrolman making his way down the line of cars, leaning into each window, after which the driver would turn on the blinker and move to the off-ramp.

When he reached their car, Dennis rolled down the window.

“What is it,” he asked. “An accident? How long is the delay?”

“Sorry, sir, but the pass is closed until further notice.”

“What? Why? I have to get back for work in the morning.”

The patrolman looked at Becky’s dad and kind of laughed. “You haven’t heard?”

Joanne leaned over. “Heard what?”

“St. Helens blew her top this morning,” the man said. “The whole side of the mountain came off, and the ash cloud is moving east. Visibility is so bad they closed I-90.”

“When will it open again?” Dennis asked.

“No idea, Mister. You’ll have to exit here and either find a place to stay or head back west.” He patted his hand on the top of the car and stood up. “Be safe.”

Becky’s dad turned on his blinker and eased the car off the highway and into Issaquah. Traffic was backed up, each motel they passed already had their “no vacancy” signs lit. He pulled the station wagon into a grocery parking lot and turned off the motor.

“Why are you stopping?” Joanne asked.

Dennis turned to her, then looked back at Becky. “An actual volcano,” he said. “Can you believe it?” He shook his head. “I never imagined I’d see the day.”

The three of them sat for a minute. Becky considered the scientific words she’d learned to describe an event like this: magma, ash, lava, fissure. But none of them seemed enough to contain the wonder she heard in her father’s voice.

Becky’s mom smiled for the first time that day. “What do we do now?”

“We head south.”

“Dennis, that’s toward the mountain,” she said.

“Joanne, a volcano erupted. I’m pretty sure that’s the worst thing that’s going to happen today.” He grabbed her hand. “Trust me?”

Becky saw her mom poised at the edge of an argument for just a moment, then saw her step away from that edge. “OK,” she laughed. “Why not? Let’s go south.”

Dennis turned the car around, winding southwest through the hills, then onto the interstate. Her parents didn’t fight the whole way. They talked about the mountain. They listened to the news on the radio. They shook their heads, smiled at each other, repeatedly amazed at the miracle of a volcano, an actual volcano, erupting just 50 miles away. Becky wasn’t sure what to do with the marvel of her parents going hours without squabbling. She didn’t have to hum at all. Not once all day. It was disorienting. It was wonderful.

Becky watched carefully from the back seat, but the mountain never showed itself, and her parents never fought. Night was falling as they crossed the Columbia River into Oregon. They stopped for gas, and her mom made a bed out of their coats and an old blanket they always kept in the car.

“Can we roll down the back window?” Becky asked as she settled into the nest.

Her mom smiled. “Sure. But let me know if you get too cold.”

Laying in the back of the station wagon, Becky watched the sky go dark. Her parents’ voices, pitched low and soft, floated toward her from the front seat. She hung her feet out the window, the cool air whipping around her bare toes. Looking at the stars in the clear sky, it was hard to remember that just a few hours ago, a mountain had exploded nearby.

Becky imagined when they got back to Spokane the entire city would be gray, nothing spared from the layer of fine ash. And people had died; she’d heard that on the radio. She knew the eruption wasn’t a good thing. But today the mountain made her parents smile at each other for the first time in months: something beautiful in the devastation.

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