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A Little Earthquake

Below you will find the first three chapters of a novelette: A Little Earthquake. You begin on a school bus full of children picking its way down a twisting mountainside road when, suddenly, a violent tremor shakes the bus. When the avalanche tumbled down did the bus truly get swept over the edge? A video from a helicopter caught everything. What did it show? Read these first three chapters below and, if you want chapters four through seven, leave your name and email contact at the bottom of the Home page and I will forward the complete novelette to you as either a Word document or as a PDF. Let me know your preferernce.

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   A LITTLE EARTHQUAKE       

by

 Carl H. Mitchell


                                                                                       Chapter 1

 

The bright yellow school bus jounced down the mountain road. Bill Chambers, the young driver, kept a firm grip on the steering wheel. He could feel each bump transmitted straight to his hands.

The first tremor went unnoticed, obscured by the constant shakes and rattles of the bus.

Unaware, Bill continued guiding the school bus down past mustard-colored walls of rock, picking his way along the rutted, rock-strewn road that slashed in hairpin turns down that section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west of Sonora. This morning he had clipped to the windshield visor a wallet card presented to him by the school superintendent. It proclaimed in flourished script that the driver, Bill Chambers, possessed a safety and promptness record unmarred and unmatched in five years—no mean achievement for a man of twenty-three. Damned essential skills on the mountain route, especially with a bus filled with students.

Bill sported a broad, beaming face, a ten-year-old’s cowlick, and a soft, knowing smile worthy of an ancient mystic. Given to drag racing on weekends, he lavished the same attention and careful scrutiny upon the bus as he invested in his cars. That investment had helped him win twelve trophies and earn a perfect safety record—so far.

It was 8:27 a.m. when the first tremor passed—and with it, its warning.

Bill glanced at the overhead mirror. The children, thirty-seven in all, first- through twelfth-graders, engaged in the animated cackle of a hundred conversations. Some, mostly little girls in starched orange-and-yellow prints, whispered secrets, while others alternately laughed and giggled. The older girls recounted last Friday’s dance in the gym, rehashing in great detail which girls got which boys to dance with them, and for how long. The boys, for the most part, talked earnestly of football, of horses, of camping—never of girls. Here and there, a tin lunch pail clunked against the chrome edge of a seat or fell clattering to the floor. A full day, the last before summer vacation, awaited them. They were eager. Noisy and eager.

Not really conscious of the tune he was quietly whistling, Bill trailed his gaze along each twist in the road, across each quirk in the grade—his instincts, experience, and reactions blending subconsciously. Only once did he let his attention wander, and then for little more than a second as a helicopter from the State Road Department rose up into view about two hundred yards ahead. The Sonora Weekly had had a front-page article trumpeting the beginning of a three-week filming run prior to the start of land surveying for the County Road Reconstruction Project. The mountain road being their toughest challenge, they were giving it a thorough going over, capturing gradients, road widths, and future tunnel sites, all in glorious, living color.

The second tremor, at 8:29, wrenched the front wheels sideways, slamming the bus almost to the craggy wall, which ended up less than two inches from Bill’s side window. He instantly coaxed the brakes and adjusted the steering. The laughter and giggling choked into abrupt silence.

One thought came immediately to Bill’s mind, and with it, beads of sweat to his forehead. “Keep your seats, kids!” he hollered. “And stay away from the windows.” His mind rippled through the possibilities. No, the windows would be safe, for now. Besides, he’d need lookouts.

For a moment everyone was quiet. Then a deluge began.

“What?”

“Why?”

“How?”

“I don’t know, kids,” Bill answered. “I don’t really know.” He turned around to face the children. “You older kids, both boys and girls, sit next to the windows on my side. Keep a sharp watch on the ridge above. I’m gonna move ahead slowly.”

Only open-mouthed hesitation greeted him.

“Now!” he demanded. “Do it!”

A quick scramble followed, and seats were exchanged.

Downshifting, he eased out the clutch and cursed himself for stopping. Damn foolish thing to do. Could be costly. From across the aisle, he heard little Jennifer Pryor trying not to cry.

“I’m scared,” she sobbed.

Can’t blame her, he thought. Five feet beyond her window, and it’s two thousand feet to the bottom.

Jenny was six and had bright red hair. Tomorrow was her birthday. He hoped she’d be around to celebrate reaching seven.

He tickled the accelerator—harder, then softer, then harder again. He wasn’t sure whether normal speed was called for, or no speed at all. Every instinct cried out, “Tromp down! Get out!” He and the kids were up against a quake. How big—how small—he didn’t know. If they hung around, they could be shoved right over the side. Too fast, and they could slam into a crumbling wall—or into emptiness. He felt like a man caught between two ugly sisters—damned if you do, the same if you don’t. He decided: normal speed.

“Up there!” Sharon Jackson, the blond, graduating cheerleader was first to notice.

“The mountain’s cracking open!” Brian Kilmer, sophomore, first flute, followed.

“It’s coming down!” cried Lenny Peters, spelling champ of the third grade.

Bill flinched as he saw a million tons of ridge wall heave upward. For an instant, the mass of rock hung suspended as if its yellows and browns and grays had been captured in a Sunday supplement photo. Then, with a shudder felt throughout the bus, the face of death began to slide down to meet them.

Bill’s foot was already to the floor. They were in Ryan’s Chute, a vertical bowl of granite with the lip—and escape—not more than a hundred feet away. What seemed like a thousand screams filled the air, none more shrill than the cry in his own mind. Let us make it, God. You don’t need these kids—not now.

He glanced at Jenny. She was twisted sideways in her seat, looking at him, tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips were stiff, straining not to quiver, and she clutched two books tightly in her tiny arms. For an instant he wanted to hold her and tell her it would be okay. But only for an instant. He’d tell her later—if there was a later.

Beyond Jenny’s shoulder, framed in her window, he caught a glimpse of the helicopter, its tail pitched upward about twenty degrees. His one wasted thought was how desperately he wished he could change places with the pilot.

The ground beneath the bus shuddered. He could feel the spasmodic fishtailing of the rear end through the wheel. Keep us on the track, God, he pleaded. Keep us on the track. He bit his lip, hard. Blood trickled. The soles of his feet felt as if pressed against hot coals. Cramps racked through his back, hunching his shoulders. Keep us on the track was all he could ask.

They had less than forty feet to go.

A sudden, sickening silence overtook the bus. The back of his neck prickled. He could feel each young soul behind him twist in agonized, grotesque body English. Thousands of egg-sized rocks, the advance guard, pelted the roof as he fought the wheel to the left. Only twenty feet to go.

The whole frame shivered under the next load. Glass shattered and the roof began to buckle. He yanked the wheel all the way to the left.

Little Jenny Pryor still held back her tears as the rear wheels began to slip.

Thirty-seven gasps and moans reached Bill’s ears as the right rear wheels found the road’s edge and the bus began to tilt.

Through the steering wheel, he could feel the front tires scratch against the roadway as they were dragged toward the edge.

The scratching stopped as the front tires tilted up off the road.

  

Chapter 2

 

The bright red kite dipped left and swerved overhead. The blue imprint of a biplane was pressed tight against the cross-sticks as the kite peaked, weightless for a moment in the buffeting currents of air, then swooped down to the right in a perfect strafing run.

The intensity of the image caught Ed Pryor in mid stride. Emerging from the bathroom, he touched the opposite wall for balance. Where had it come from? Why? He shook involuntarily. Kites had no business in a man’s hallway at nine in the morning.

The image faded. Ed gave his head a good shake, as if trying to whip seawater from his thick white hair. Satisfied the kite would not return, he decided it was just a symptom of getting old. He opened the closet door, pitched his towel into the hamper, and continued to the kitchen.

Two breakfast plates and silverware were already on the table, but not in the usual neat arrangement atop their respective placemats, more like they had just been plopped down. Ed turned and saw Maggie on the phone listening, a puzzled expression creasing her face. He glanced out the window and saw Jennifer sitting lotus-style in front of the tin shed, her right arm making periodic sweeps through the air, her red hair glistening in the morning sun. The shed was thirty feet from the house, so he couldn’t quite make out what game she was playing. She seemed engrossed.

Ed’s stomach gave a sharp growl. He opened the refrigerator and retrieved four eggs. As he reached behind Maggie for the frying pan, she started giving directions detailing how to get from Sonora to their house on the mountain road.

Ed stopped her in midsentence and covered the phone. “Who are we inviting up here?”

“A woman reporter from one of the Los Angeles papers. She was very nice. Asked if she could interview the three of us about the bus incident.”

Ed thought for a moment and decided he didn’t like surprises. “Tell her no.”

“You tell her,” Maggie said, handing him the phone and taking the pan. “I’ve already invited her up.”

Ed spoke into the phone. “Sorry, Miss. We’re not giving interviews today.” He hung up immediately, cutting off any counterargument.

Maggie rolled her eyes as if hearing an old, boring story for the millionth time. “You’re the real thing, Mr. Hermit. If you had your way, we’d never have company.”

“Busybodies aren’t company,” Ed said, handing her the eggs. “The bus thing was four days ago. Los Angeles must be having one hell of a slow news day.”

“She said there’s been a renewed interest since a film clip of the accident was shown on TV last night.”

“What film clip?”

Maggie cracked the eggs into the pan, mixing them thoroughly. “Seems the State Road Department had a helicopter in the area, filming for the new road. They filmed the bus during the earthquake.”

“So?”

“So if you’d had the antenna fixed, we’d already know.”

“I’m beginning to like it around here without that damn idiot box.” He took over the pan from Maggie and continued scrambling the eggs. “So what about the bus?”

“She said the bus should have crashed, that it had fallen over the cliff and had—somehow—been swept back to safety. She said what happened was extraordinary. No one can explain it. She said some are even calling it a miracle.”

“I think your reporter has been hitting the bottle extra heavy today,” Ed said, looking at his wristwatch. “And it’s not anywhere near noon. Yes, the bus got pelted with a lot of falling rocks dislodged by the earthquake. Yes, one window was smashed in. Yes, two older kids got a small cut or two. But the bus got out of the way in one piece.” He looked out the window. “Jennifer hasn’t acted as if they were swept over the edge. The only reaction she’s had is to sleep like a log for the better part of three days. I know this is the first day she’s really been up and about, but she hasn’t said anything about the bus falling.” He turned off the gas and slipped the eggs evenly onto two plates. “And from what I hear, none of the other children have said anything, either.”

“What about Bill Chambers?” Maggie asked. “He’s locked himself in his room and refuses to come out. His parents are at their wit’s end. They’ve even talked to Father Mulvaney.” She shook a dash each of salt and pepper over her eggs.

Ed covered his eggs with a layer of ketchup. “Bill Chambers was the driver. It was his job to bring them all down safely. He’s exhausted, wrung out, physically and emotionally. That responsibility would take everything out of any man, let alone a young man of—what—twenty-three, twenty-four? He’s just a hero who hasn’t adjusted yet. The bus got banged up one hell of a lot. Nothing extraordinary in that.”

“Then why has Brian Kilmer stopped by twice to ask how Jenny’s doing? I hear he’s asked after several of the children.”

“He was one of the oldest on the bus. Probably playing the older brother.”

Indicating with an arched eyebrow that she thought little of Ed’s hypotheses, Maggie reached to turn off the heat under the coffee. “Did you ever think maybe Jenny’s been too calm about the bus, too casual?”

They never did get to eat the eggs.

The phone rang again. Maggie, the closest, answered. She listened intently, her brow furrowed.

“What is it?”

“A radio producer says he’s planning interviews with the families of all the children on the bus. He says we’ll be one of the first. He’s set up and ready to start an on-the-air interview with the whole family.”

Ed grabbed the phone from her. “No,” he said repeatedly as the voice on the other end turned from sugarcoated to pushy to arrogant to surly, and finally, to abusive. Throughout the whole conversation, Ed himself was anything but polite.

More calls followed. Two magazines wanted pictures of their house, of themselves, and most importantly, of their granddaughter. One self-knighted inventor claimed he could prove the whole thing with the bus was done with trick photography. A few calls later, a religious zealot proclaimed the bus was a harbinger, signaling the coming of the Final Days. Another, a mumbler with a twang, said he’d just been dropped off by an “extraterrestrial craft” that had caught the bus in its tractor beam.

Finally, Ed insisted they leave the phone off the hook. Standing by the sink and shaking his head, he looked across at Maggie. “Seems everybody has been drinking from the same bottle as your reporter friend.”

Maggie shrugged. Glancing through the window, she said, “Please get Jenny and bring her in. I don’t want her outside today.”

“Why? She’s okay.” Watching as Maggie’s hands wrung and re-wrung the faded green washcloth, Ed knew better than to argue. 

 

Chapter 3

 

As soon as Ed stepped outside, Jennifer jumped up from where she was playing and dashed to his side. She grabbed his nearest hand and started pulling him toward the shed.

“Hey, speed demon, slow down!” Ed protested, his tone mock serious. “Grandma wants us in the house.”

Jennifer reached back, grabbed the other hand, and tugged all the harder. “I want to show you something.”

Her excitement seemed unstoppable, and Ed gave in to her urgings.

Giving her skirt a quick fluff, Jennifer sat on the brick walk and grabbed a small red ball.

A group of jacks spread across several bricks caught Ed’s eye.

“Watch what I can do!” Jenny’s voice peaked two octaves above her normal range. She bounced the ball, and as it shot off the bricks, the jacks rose unaided about a foot into the air. Her eager little hand grabbed them all, plus the returning ball, in one pass. She giggled, replaced the jacks, and bounced the ball again. The jacks once more floated upward, where all but one were captured. The single jack maintained its position in midair while the others were replaced back at ground zero. Jenny bounced the ball again, the jacks rose, and now a second jack remained to defy gravity with the first.

Ed felt dizzy. He wanted to sink to the ground and hold tight with both hands. This couldn’t be happening! Far down in a remote corner of his mind, an ancient foreboding, a childhood nightmare, broke free of its bonds—bonds he had forgotten he had spent a lifetime strengthening, all the while pretending there was nothing really to guard against. He clamped his eyes shut, fearing that pretending time was over. Relentlessly, a misty, clouded vision played out across his closed eyelids.

He was back in the third grade, and his best friend had a strange power: he could move lunch bags, pocket knives, schoolbooks, even squirrels and other small animals, just by thinking it done. He saw others become aware, saw them make fun, heard them jeer, watched them plot. Then, as he watched, his best friend was captured by the others, taken to the far end of the playground behind the oak tree, and beaten. The first beating was a tentative experiment, more pushes and shoves than closed fists, but when no mysterious force repelled the bullies, they made it a daily occurrence.

From the first, he was afraid to help his friend. Though he saw the other boy’s eyes pleading with him from beneath the piles of swinging fists and thrashing feet, he could not—did not—help. He turned and walked away.

It became worse. One day after school, he watched as his friend was locked inside a neighborhood “haunted” mansion, a deserted two-story house with bars across the windows. His friend screamed. He saw himself leave with the others, trudging as they marched, afraid to lift one hand, one finger, to help his friend. Ed’s ancient memories witnessed again his return several hours later only to feel his friend’s eyes pleading with him from the locked room on the second floor.

The vision began to waver. The last he saw was himself somehow breaking down the door to the room, then turning and running away. Ed never learned what happened to his friend. Ed’s parents moved a week later, and riding north in the back of a dusty old Ford, he left behind his forlorn friend with the strange power.

The vision faded.

Shaking his head, Ed sat beside Jennifer on the bricks. From somewhere he managed to stretch a thin layer of calm over his words. “Whatcha doing?” he asked. “I thought you were supposed to catch more each time.”

“It’s harder this way,” Jennifer said as she made another pass at the jacks, catching five and leaving five. “I have to hold each one real still or I mess up.”

Ed grunted. “I can see that it’s really hard that way.” He decided to find out what else the jacks could be made to do. “Can you change their height? Can you lower them halfway?”

No sooner had Jennifer said she could than the jacks dropped and held about six inches above the bricks. On impulse, Ed stuck his hand beneath the jacks and began slowly to raise it. Just as he would have touched them, the jacks began to drift upward, matching the speed of his hand.

Jennifer giggled and clapped her hands.

“Think you’re pretty tricky, eh?” Ed demanded, managing a heavy dripping of mock sternness in his tone. “Making sport of an old man, are you?”

Jenny nodded, her eyes wide, expectant.

Ed shuddered involuntarily. He felt anew a young third-grader’s eyes burning up at him. He’d been a coward then, a helpless coward. Would this time be any different? He didn’t want to find out. “Where did you learn all this?” he finally asked. “When was the first time you found you could move things by thinking it?”

“When the bus went over the edge,” Jenny replied, “and I pushed it back.”

Two full heartbeats passed after Jenny’s answer before Ed fully absorbed the words he had heard. Throughout those two heartbeats, he had been trying to tighten his suddenly slack jaw.

His mind reeled. His surroundings—the toolshed, the rail fence beyond, the scrub trees and bushes continuing up the mountain—suddenly seemed small and distant, as if he were looking at them through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. He kept repeating one thought: No one else must know about this. Then he remembered the reporter and all the phone calls.

“Is something wrong, Grandpa?”

“Jenny,” he began slowly, not knowing where to start or where to end. Whatever happened, he must never feel Jenny’s eyes helplessly staring down at him from some room in a haunted house. “I want you to do something for me. Don’t do any more of these ‘tricks’ for a few days.” He chose “a few days” because he didn’t think that “forever” would sit well with her. He’d take it a week at a time. “Don’t even tell anybody about them.”

“Why, Grandpa?”

“No whys, Jenny. Just do as I ask.”

Jenny paused for several moments, her expression showing the youthful wisdom of knowing what adults can be like when, for no apparent reason, they get upset. “We can tell Grandma, can’t we?”

“Not now. Let me tell her later.” Ed stood up and lowered a hand.

Slowly, as if not quite sure, Jenny gathered up the jacks and the ball, placed her hand in his, and pulled herself up.

Ed gave her a wink which she did not return. “Remember,” he said, “no tricks for a week.”

“You said just a few days.” Jenny tried to bargain as they walked toward the house. Finally, getting nowhere, she nodded. After a few more steps, she stopped with a suddenness that jerked Ed to a halt. “Are you upset, Grandpa?”

Ed lied and shook his head no.

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