CHAPTER 1 – The End of the World
The ground shook like the end of the world.
At least, that was how it felt to John, who had never experienced an earthquake while growing up in Colorado. And they’d only lived in Maryland for a month before taking this trip to California to visit their aunt. On their second day in the steep mountains of Santa Cruz, while hiking through an old-growth redwood forest that reminded John of a fairy tale, he suddenly felt woozy. But he wasn’t sick. His legs swayed like he was dancing the hula, as if the ground beneath his feet were the roiling sea. Birds took to the sky. Their aunt’s dog, Nickel, barked and snapped at the air, her ears tucked back and tail between her legs.
“Sarah?” John looked over to his sister and held out a hand to steady himself.
She wore the same expression of bewilderment for a moment, then realization dawned across her face. “Is this an earthquake? Cool!”
Her voice rose and fell with the waves just like her knees riding the shifting earth as if it were a skateboard or a pair of skis. Dander like fireflies floated down from the trees and sparkled in the sun’s rays.
“Earthquake,” Aunt Lorraine confirmed. “Just a little one. Hold on, it’ll end in—”
The earth eased to a halt.
“There ya go, all done.” Aunt Lorraine heaved a breath. “For now.”
“For now?!” John hunched over, ready to fall flat on the ground if it got any worse.
“Well, there may be aftershocks.” His aunt winked. John didn’t know why unpredictable shifting tectonic plates warranted a wink.
“Close your mouth, Johnny,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes playfully at her younger brother.
“Your first tremor! How’d it feel?” Aunt Lorraine clapped John on the back.
“That was a very odd experience.” John ran a hand through his hair and looked down at the earth, supposedly such a solid thing that had been turned into a massive vat of Jell-O.
“Is it weird if I liked it?” Sarah grinned with a devilish smile.
Their aunt laughed.
John smirked, revealing the lone dimple in his right cheek amid freckle constellations. His twelve-year-old sister more naturally leaned into adventure. She was more likely to take a chance on a whim. That was one thing John both appreciated about her and . . . “feared”wasn’t the right word. It was more like he couldn’t quite understand how she was able to make such hasty decisions. If John could take a moment to consider his options, to calculate the possible outcomes, he would. And why not? Even better: sleep on it, if you had that chance.
He remembered a time when Sarah hadn’t thought ahead to potential consequences, and it had almost killed her: she’d been pretending to ski down the scree slope of a mountain in the Alps back around 300 CE, when the ground slipped out from underneath her, and she went sailing over the edge of a cliff. Though more than a millennium in the past, it had happened very recently for John, and it made him gulp replaying the movie reel in his mind. He thought he’d lost her!
“Hey, you still have that monkey doll I made for you?” Aunt Lorraine asked. John realized she had her left arm around his shoulders and her right hand on his chest, over his heart, in a comforting gesture. “The worry doll?”
“Monkey?” John asked.
“I think she means Harry.” Sarah giggled.
“Harry the Sasquatch?” John remembered that doll. The one they’d buried near the cave in the mountains just past their backyard in Colorado. Near the cave where he and Sarah found the eye of Ra and first traveled back in time to ancient Egypt.
Aunt Lorraine chuckled. “Yeah, sewing is not my strong suit, but I have other skills. Wait ’til you try my enchiladas for dinner tonight.”
“Mom says they’re the best,” Sarah said.
“Well, my sister the PhD scientist doesn’t exaggerate. They are the best. But listen, John. You okay? You look a little rattled there.”
John realized she was staring at him, wanting him not to worry, as if the anxiety were a thing he could just wave away with a flick of his wrist. At least he’d been getting better at faking it. “Me? Oh, yeah. I’m good. And I see what you did there.”
“What I did?” Aunt Lorraine put her hand to her own chest now.
“Asking if I was rattled . . . after the earthquake?” He paused and watched the gears turn in his aunt’s head.
After another second of silence, Sarah chortled through her nose and looked at John, sharing his bemusement that their aunt hadn’t gotten the joke yet.
Then Aunt Lorraine burst into laughter, the gold bangles on her wrist jouncing as she slapped her knee, her bright red curly hair flopping forward.
Well, it wasn’t that funny, John thought. But her guffawing was contagious, and John couldn’t help but laugh harder than the joke deserved too. Mostly he was laughing at his carefree, wild, California-mountain-woman of an aunt.
“Rattled!” Aunt Lorraine squeaked, her hand wiping the tears from her eyes. “That’s a good one, John.” She patted him on the back.
“Oh, look, a bridge over the creek!” Sarah shouted from up ahead. She was always running on ahead. John thought they should stick together, but he’d given up trying to corral his sister a long time ago. Better to just hold on for the ride.
John hesitated when they got to the river crossing. That’s what it was, a rushing river, not a little creek like Sarah had called it. Two worn-smooth logs about as wide as a fist each sagged across the frothing torrent of white water. Droplets splashed up and kept the logs moist. On one side they’d developed a green algae, and John could imagine how slippery they must be.
“How deep is it?” John asked. “Did you know that only six inches of fast-moving water can bring down an adult? A foot, and it can move a car.”
Aunt Lorraine’s hand went to his shoulder again, but he didn’t want her trying to soothe him like a baby. He’d buried that worry doll on purpose. He could handle himself now. Tomorrow he’d be eleven years old, for Pete’s sake!
Perhaps sensing his trepidation, Sarah shot a glance back at him and jumped up on the log, balancing on one foot.
“Careful!” John stepped toward her, his hand out.
She skipped from one foot to the other, advancing out over the turbulent water. John’s stomach gurgled a little, imitating the churning water. He imagined her foot slipping out from underneath her, her ribs cracking into the log before the torrent dragged her away.
“It’s fine, John!” To prove her point, out in the middle of the jiggling logs, Sarah threw her hands up in the air and danced in a circle.
John shook his head. “You shouldn’t underestimate the power of—”
Sarah slipped. She was wearing shorts, and her exposed thigh scraped along the wood. Instead of her ribs colliding, as John had imagined, it was the side of her hip.
“Oof,” she grunted. The boots on her submerged feet pulled her lower half into the water at the same time as she twisted and flung her arms over the upstream side of the bridge. Now she was holding on to the logs while the river did its best to rip her away, water splashing into her face.
Before he knew it, John had ditched his backpack and taken giant steps out onto the narrow bridge. His foot shot off the log, but his hands flew out to steady himself as his other leg flexed to keep balance and to keep him from plunging in alongside his sister.
“I got you!” John knelt down and anchored one hand around a knot in the wood, while the other hand looped under Sarah’s upper arm and he tugged. He wouldn’t be able to lift her by himself, and the force of the water clawing at her only added to the weight.
Suddenly Sarah lunged out of the river, and her chest landed on the bridge diagonally. Her left foot still trailed in the water, but her right dangled in the air, since most of her body was now across the logs. She coughed and sputtered over the edge until she regained her breath, then she lifted her head.
Face to face, John was completely unsurprised to see no fear in her eyes, only an adrenaline-filled giddiness. Just like Sarah. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
“Whew!” she exclaimed, wiping back the wisps of her red hair plastered to her forehead. “That water is freezing!” Her spittle misted John’s face.
He couldn’t help but laugh, the intensity of the moment waning.
But he was still out on this narrow bridge over the gushing stream inches below.
“Let’s go.” He nudged her.
Sarah stood and leapt to the other side in two bounds.
John took more measured steps, not like the giant ones he’d taken when Sarah went down, but he made it across all the same.
Aunt Lorraine used a walking stick to steady herself as she crossed easily, probably because she’d taken this same walk in her backyard a hundred times.
“That was kinda close,” John said.
“Nah, we figured it out. Together, like we always do.” Sarah gave him a shrug.
“What d’you mean? I didn’t do anything.”
She looked at him. “But you did. When you yanked me up a bit, my foot caught a boulder and gave me a foothold to launch myself out of there like a brook trout after a bug.”
“Your leg!” John pointed to a rivulet of blood running down her thigh.
“Aw, it’s nothing,” Sarah said. She searched around, tore off the fanned tip of a leafy fern, and blotted it to the scratch on her leg.
“Let me see that, dear.” Aunt Lorraine was a nurse, after all. She went to one knee and produced a bright multicolored handkerchief from her back pocket.
“Ugh, I’m so sorry that happened, Sarah.” John ran his hand through his short brown hair and grabbed a clump of it in his fist.
Aunt Lorraine looked up at John. “Don’t worry about it, John. Sarah is right. It’s nothing. And actually, who’s to say this wasn’t a good thing?”
“A good thing? Sarah might have drowned and now she’s bleeding. I mean, I know it’s not serious, but if we could redo the last ten minutes, I think we’d all agree it would be better if we could avoid this little ‘nothing’ from happening again, right?”
“Meh.” Aunt Lorraine shrugged and went back to dotting Sarah’s leg with the handkerchief. With its swirly pattern, it was hard to tell whether it’d soaked up any blood or not. “You know about my scar, right?”
“The one on your arm that you got from a science experiment gone wrong?”
Aunt Lorraine pulled up her sleeve to reveal the twisted and gnarled skin from a chemical burn along the full length of her inner forearm. John had never asked, but he’d heard that the surgeon had used skin from her bum for the graft. Despite the unfortunate nature of the accident, that part always made him chuckle. Did she feel it in her backside when she pushed on her arm?
Or the thought of her hugging him with her bum skin.
“The EMT that helped me that day was named Edward Alfano.” She paused.
“Edward? Like . . . like Uncle Ed?”
“One and the same.” Aunt Lorraine finished blotting the handkerchief on Sarah’s leg and stood. “It’s not bleeding anymore. I think you’ll live.”
“So you wouldn’t have met Uncle Ed if you didn’t burn your arm,” Sarah filled in.
“That’s right. I thought it was a terrible thing at first, of course, but it brought the love of my life to me. So, I can’t help but thank this ugly old scar for doing something beautiful. You know?”
John thought about that for a minute as they hiked on. Hard to imagine what good might come of this little accident they’d just had. But then he thought of being inches from Sarah’s face on that log and how happy he’d felt when she smiled back at him and sprayed his face with mist.
Maybe the good thing had already happened.