7th Annual Short Short Story Competition Winners - Third-place

Announcing the Third-place winner of the 7th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition
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Five Minutes after an Earthquake

By Max Wiley

It came in June to Tokyo, with the arrival of the rainy season. A collection of tiny paper cuts of annoyances: damp futons that refused to dry out; the steamy discomfort of crowded commuter trains; hair plastered to the head; and the smell of leather shoes, left unattended in the entryway cupboard, festering with mold and mildew. But above all, it left Faith so restless that she managed to knock off course the straight line her life had been taking.

The heat put a sharper edge to everyone's temper. What was overlooked last month turned into grudges this month. The paper cuts were deeper now, leaking all kinds of interior things. The lack of sleep in the increasing heat and humidity was an accelerant to rivulets of resentments. It was during this time that the relationship soured between Faith and her boyfriend, like the shoes in the cupboard.

Not long after he left, the moldy shoes became the last of his belongings she threw out. Let the healing begin. But it didn't. The sense of things being trapped, with no movement forward, still remained with Faith. She considered that perhaps it was the places they went to and the friends they had in common that were still there, that didn't conveniently lose the associations of a shared history when a relationship ended. Inevitably, when their paths crossed, they moved hastily, gingerly away from each other with shoulders set up around their ears. The same wince locking up their bodies as if an invisible hand had yanked off some transparent body-length veneer.

The summer unfolded into the Obon season, observed during the broad back of summer, when even the dead could be restless and looking for respite in the sweltering heat. It was a time of remembrance and appeasement of the ancestors, when the living joined them at gravesides or crowded the night festivals. Faith ignored the invitation to linger from the red glow of the festival's paper lanterns that punctuated the deepening darkness. She hurried home past the gleeful children dressed in their bright yukata, holding up bags of swimming gold fish captured in the wading pool. It seemed sinister to her, this festival of the dead attended by laughing children, while the festival's eerie bamboo flute music warbled and wailed between drumbeats.

Scrambling to cover the expenses once shared by two, Faith dropped any hope of vacationing on some tropical beach and taught summer school instead, supplemented that with a few odd jobs. Teaching English to native Japanese succeeded in keeping her occupied during the days as summer broadened and bloated past unbearable. Some days she never spoke to anyone outside of the classroom, either in English or in Japanese. Faith was vaguely aware that her isolation was magnifying the ordinary experiences that she was never conscious of before. Sensations began to press against her to the point of discomfort. Cicadas droned, unmelodic, all day, all night. The sheets felt rough against her flesh. The humidity was a heaviness sitting on her chest at night. The old reruns of her life played in her head in a never-ending loop. Sleep was impossible for the unairconditioned. The only relief she had was from a fan, set atop the TV, that blew directly onto her face. She watched horror videos into the meager morning hours and drank beer so icy that the neck was ringed with freezer frost. Exhaustion would overtake her and she would fall, for a brief few hours, into fractured sleep.

She held the beer bottle by the neck and pressed it to her aching temples. The night sweltering, the window open. She could hear a crazed, high pitched voice, in a scathing tongue-lashing some young Japanese woman was giving her boy-friend. Faith spent half the night flipping through her Japanese-English dictionary, amusing herself trying to follow the argument's course, but there came a point where it was just so much noise, like the cicadas, that wound down and started up again. Closing the window, the heat in the airless room would be unendurable, so she shuffled into the bathroom to stuff toilet paper in her ears when the rattling started in the corners.

Tremors spread through the room. Earthquake she had time to think as the ground sneezed three times and the apartment building hit its foundations with a heavy sharp thud. Even on the third floor, she felt the impact telegraph its way through her bare soles. Then the enormous silence that floods into the vacuum after an earthquake. A brief self-inventory of life and limb. All limbs intact, all brain pans undamaged.

Faith came to awareness one disjointed fragment at a time. She looked down and found that she had braced herself against the sink during the shaking. Amazed at the strength of her hands, she told them to release their death grip on the basin. Faith looked up and saw her pale face in the mirror. That part of her, observing from far away, informed her that elevated levels of adrenaline caused the rush of blood from her body's surface to its interior. In that pale face, the dark pupils expanded, taking in more than the eyes could see. In an instant, her perspective went down a rabbit hole. She was transported there inside the black reflective expanse of pupil, catching a secret seen when she was a child which had been held behind its dark curve. It was the hidden thing that had simmered under the surface in the heat of this Tokyo summer, finally released by the earthquake.

Then she flashed up and back away, again to hover, seeing the reflection in her mirror eyes flooding with the familiarity of anguish so deep and the realization of death close by that it swept through her—an icy wave that drew breath and warmth and strength from her body. She covered her face with her hands to shut out the strange images from a stranger perspective, then pushed away the dark bangs matted by the perspiration against her forehead. Forgetting the toilet paper clamped between her fingers, she shuffled back to the futon mattress and abruptly sat down.

The screaming voice was quiet now.

Tick, the sound of the clock hand marking a minute was startling, intrusive. The sounds of traffic, a far-off car alarm, a baby's cries drifting through the window. Faith leaned back on the heels of her hands and let the beat of her heart slow. In her imagination, she saw the inventory continue: reaching out to loved ones, hushed voices out on the balconies, worried voices, muffled through the walls and the floor, reassuring each other.

Tick, time was moving forward again. She let out a pent-up breath, realized that she was tensing for an aftershock.

The cicadas had given way to the barking of distant dogs. No more domestic battle drifted from the window, but the squeak of the ceiling board as a pacing parent tried to soothe a fussy baby.

Tick. Same squeak. Different place.

Tick. Her eyes opened. For an instant she had fallen asleep, her first true unblemished sleep in months. The unmistakable rhythm of the couple in the apartment below making love traveled through the floorboards to the futon and into her ears. Might as well clamp her ear to a water glass.

Tick. She bolted upright, tired beyond belief, but no longer sleepy.

She wanted to move, needed to move, had the insomniac's compulsion to moveÑlike the dead, perhaps too restless to stay in place. She rose from the futon, went to the shower, turned on a cool stream of water and moved forward into it to wash off the night's sweat. She would deal with her ghosts.

Tick.

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