Downstairs, something crashes to the floor. Claire waits a moment, alert to the smallest sound. When the house stops moving, she grabs the phone and dials.
He answers on the second ring. “Buckman, here.” His voice—so self-assured—silences her.
“Hello?” he prompts.
“It’s me. Are you okay?”
“Yes, is something wrong?”
“You didn’t feel it?”
His laugh sounds relieved. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’m serious. Our house moved. You should leave that office tower.”
“The house moved.”
“I was in the back bedroom. It shifted and now the door frame is crooked. This isn’t funny, Ryan, I know what I’m talking about. I lived through a lot of quakes as a kid. We’d hear the crystals fall off the chandeliers.”
“Were you napping when this happened? Dreaming maybe?” He changes his tone. “Have you checked on the baby?”
“There’s nothing showing up on the news feed about an earthquake. I think you’re safe, sweetheart. Give a kiss to my little guy. I’ll try to be home early.”
She stands by the crib, her arms lead weights. The baby is asleep, eyelids aflutter, hands clenched like walnuts. His face looks unfamiliar. She shuts the door as she leaves the room.
Dave Simpson punches Ryan’s arm lightly. “How old is that baby of yours now? How’s Claire?”
“Three weeks,” Ryan answers. He hesitates, then adds, “I think Claire’s a bit down. Unfocused, you know.”
Dave nods, becomes fatherly. “It’s all normal, no need to worry. She’s probably only getting two, maybe three hours of sleep a night.” The second time, his knuckles linger against Ryan’s bicep. “Give it some time, man. She’ll get through it.”
On the dining room floor there is a starburst. The light from the window picks out glittering pinks and blues. Claire squats to examine the concentric circles of breakage. The bell-shaped chandelier now misses its ornamental clapper. It can no longer sound the alarm. She places her finger on a crystal chip to sweep it closer to the epicenter of damage. The pain is out of proportion to the wound. Drops of blood mimic the spray of splinters. They smear on the dustpan when she gets the broom.
“I’m home! Where’s Mattie?” Ryan throws his suit coat on the sofa, pulls on a fleece sweater that will be soft next to his newborn son.
“He sleeps more than I expected.”
“Well, all he really needs is the bottle.”
“Yes, but do you think he interacts enough?”
“Are you suggesting I’m doing something wrong?”
“Claire, love, I wasn’t accusing you of anything.” He reaches for her, holds her lightly. “You’re a great mom. I’ll just go check on him and then I’ll make dinner. Why don’t you have a shower, call a few friends?”
She doesn’t move. He says, “What happened to the chandelier?”
“I told you. There was an earthquake.”
Upstairs, the baby starts to fuss but Claire still does not move, doesn’t seem to notice. There is no sign she has had him downstairs during the day—not an empty bottle or a toy. Ryan observes this but, with effort, holds his tongue.
The baby is warm, bottom-heavy. His lips wow open and closed as Ryan changes him and slips tiny limbs in a clean sleeper. The desire to satisfy that small mouthing need sends a shudder through his body. He is now a father. He lifts the child to his face and whispers endearments. He promises to keep him safe forever.
With the infant tucked in a sling against his chest, he heads to the kitchen. At the back bedroom he stops. Is the door frame crooked? Maybe. It might have been that crooked before. The house is a hundred years old, after all.
“So what did you and Mattie do today?” Ryan pours Pinot Grigio into Claire’s glass.
“I’ve been thinking about the earthquake. We aren’t really ready if there’s an emergency. We should have a kit.”
He rallies to the change of subject. “We probably have the stuff we need in the camping gear. Four-season bags, candles and flashlights, a water filter. We could always use the barbeque if the power went out. We’re in pretty good shape, I think.”
“I’m going to put something more together. I bought bottled water today. The Internet said we should have four litres per day per person for at least three days.”
“I guess if we’re on the subject, I should anchor the bookcase in Mattie’s room to the wall. I meant to do that last weekend. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to hang a glassed picture above his crib.”
Claire rises, paces the length of the dining room, back and forth, back and forth.
“I need to make a list. Can you clean up dinner? Feed the baby?” She walks upstairs with a pad of paper.
The dishes take longer than he expects. When he joins her in the bedroom, he has missed the news broadcast. In the corner, Claire is hunched over the computer. By the bureau there are two boxes of litre-sized water bottles.
Three people. Only two dozen bottles.
She’s animated in the morning.
“Did you know that, across the country, there are over five thousand earthquakes a year? I didn’t realize that there could be foreshocks and aftershocks. Yesterday’s earthquake might have been a foreshock. I made a list of all the things I need to get to be fully prepared. Here, I want you to have this picture of me in your wallet. One of the advisories said to have pictures of your family and friends in case you’re separated.”
“What about Mattie?” he asks.
She looks surprised. “He’d be with me, wouldn’t he? Besides, in no time he’ll look different.” She takes another gulp of coffee, toast untouched. “I’ve asked your mom to come sit with him this morning while I go out.”
In occurs to him that he hasn’t seen her touch Mattie in two days.
The baby is flat on his back. She should change him but doesn’t. Would she recognize him if they were separated? She closes her eyes, but can’t conjure his face. What she sees looks smashed, like a deflated ball or a splintered crystal.
“Ryan, where did you put the candles?”
“Calm down, Claire. I can buy candles on my way home. I was going to go to the drug store after work anyway. Mom said we’re almost out of diapers and formula. Unless you picked them up after she left?”
“No. I wanted to get this emergency kit ready. I have to go. I left some things in the car.”
“Dave, did you hear anything about an earthquake yesterday?”
“If it wasn’t in the business section, I didn’t read it. Man, Ryan, you look wiped. Walking advertisement for prolonged bachelorhood. Go home and get some rest. I’ll cover.”
“I just might do that, thanks. Once I’ve finished this paperwork, I’ll go.”
The front door is unlocked but won’t push open. Ryan puts his shoulder to the wood. The crack widens. The resistance increases. “Claire!”
Seconds pass. His body floods with adrenaline, muscles tensing. He pushes harder. Something gives way. Cardboard or plastic. He can just squeeze into the vestibule. Almost the entire space is piled with boxes and duffel bags. Neck high. She can’t be leaving him? Moving out?
The upper box contains tins. He yanks the zipper on the closest bag. Unfamiliar nylon billows out, the color of a construction cone. He rifles below. A down jacket, five hundred dollar price tag still attached, rubber boots, heavy gloves. Underneath, sleeping bags. New, not the ones they own already. Tent poles. The stacked boxes are labeled. Inflatable raft. Generator. Oxygen from a medical supply store.
“Claire!” What he sees is so wrong. Breath-sapping, stomach-turning wrong. That part of the book on post-partum—the part he’d skimmed—what did it say? Moodiness. Sadness. Not this.
He pushes past the piles, opens the inner door.
“Ryan, take cover!”
Claire is under the dining room table. She judders, as if the room is moving violently. But the house is static, silent, except for the sound of Claire bumping against the floor.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. Come on out. Everything is okay. Where’s Mattie?” The knot in his stomach sends out a wave of heat, crashes like a tsunami when it hits his heart.
“Claire, where’s the baby!” He starts toward the stairs. Her chin bangs rhythmically against the floor.
Even two at a time, the stairs are too many. The back bedroom doorframe is crooked. Just a little crooked, same as always. Mattie’s room is a distant three strides down the hall. The crib is squashed. On top, the bookcase is almost flattened to the floor.
He hears no sound, no cry. The quaking of his body is the only movement. He thrusts his hands under the fallen wood. Surrounded by wreckage, he heaves.
Staircase by Karin Shaddick
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