Fault Zone

A Short Story (approximately 1780 words)
by Jack A. Urquhart © 2012

Earthquake Richter Scale

Anyone with eyes could’ve seen them—the pedestrians approaching behind the car.  It wasn’t his fault Declan hadn’t.  True, he could have spoken up.  But it had all been so obvious.

It’s not my responsibility to play lookout for a grown man, Luke told himself.

Declan apparently thought otherwise.

“Another second, and I might’ve hit them,” he barked, his face collapsing into a bull-doggish grimace.  “How come you didn’t say something?”

Luke turned to look out the window.  Leave it to his partner to pass the buck—and to disallow room for response.

“I don’t know why people can’t wait five seconds when they see a vehicle backing up!”

Luke opened his mouth and then thought better of it.  No telling what might pop out; probably something leading to more bickering and they’d already squandered enough time on that for one day.

Like the squabble that had erupted an hour earlier.

“Sorry.  Closing went long.  Par for the course in Real Estate,” Declan had offered peremptorily, like it was no big deal being late three times in as many days.  “Difficult to phone home when there’s a twenty-thousand dollar commission in the balance.”

Luke had been unable to resist biting back.  “Right, Dec.  I can see how a phone call would be too much for your secretaries.  Either one of them,” his riposte.

The end result—would he never learn?—had been a clash that accomplished nothing save to further delay their departure for a rare evening out.  As usual, Declan managed the last word.

“I don’t know why you need to go for the jugular when I mess up.  I said I was sorry.  Why pour sarcasm on the small things?”

Small, indeed!

And now on top of everything, this incident in the parking garage.  The whole thing avoidable.

Who in their right mind pulled into a one-way entrance, and then backed right back out again—across a crowded sidewalk!  All for a savings of two dollars!

“Why pay ten bucks when we can park for eight down the street,” Declan said testily when Luke had asked what he was doing.  “You’re so ready to throw money away?”

Before Luke could reply, they were in reverse, Declan looking over his shoulder directly at—or so it seemed—the pedestrians heading their way.  A miracle they hadn’t hit the leader of the pack.

An even greater miracle a worse scene hadn’t ensued.

“Stupid Fuck!” the thuggish young man—sporting more piercings than a pincushion—snarled, thrusting his face up against Luke’s window.  “Buncha fags!  Get a fuckin’ horse!” he’d screamed, smashing his fist down on the car roof.

Luke had known immediately the blow would leave a dent.

Twenty minutes later, after they’d found parking in another garage, he examined the damage.

“Looks like we’ve got a war-wound,” he said, forcing a calm he didn’t feel.

Standing next to him, Declan examined the dimpled roof, lips curled into a smirk.

“Jerk was a homophobe!” he snarled.  “Bunch’a hoodlums and hustlers.”  And then, perversely, “I don’t see a dent.”

Luke clenched his jaw.  A crater the size of a hubcap and the man’s response would’ve been the same, he felt certain.

“Let’s eat,” Declan said turning on his heel to head for the exit stairs.  “Only an hour till the movie.”

Right.  The movie.  The one they’d never make.

Five flights later, engulfed in the crowds along Polk Street, Luke paused to zip his jacket against the brisk San Francisco evening.  When he looked up, Declan was already well ahead, same as ever.  No matter that Luke had longer legs; Declan consistently outpaced him.

“How about calzone?  Sound good?” Declan, holding up, called back to him.

Luke pondered the question.  A hundred restaurants to choose from, and none appealing.  Why wasn’t there a place, a decent place that served ordinary food?  “Sure, Calzone’s fine, if you like,” he replied.  And then, “what else is there in this neighborhood?”

Declan thrust his hands into his pockets and turned away.

“There he goes,” Luke mumbled, irritated.  These days cross-eyes was enough to snap Declan into a sulk.

“There must be a dozen places on the next few blocks,” Declan bawled back at him.  “If not calzone, then what?  It would help to know what you want,” he grumped.

“Calzone’s okay,” Luke sighed.  “No time to look anyway.”

“Fine!” Declan snapped, quick-stepping ahead.

At the end of the block, waiting for the traffic signal, Luke approached the window display at the corner liquor store.  An unfamiliar brand of vodka was oddly displayed as on a lady’s fancy vanity table, mirrors and costume jewelry coupled with the opalescent-colored bottles, everything draped in strands of fake pearls.

He was studying the arrangement, trying to fathom the window-dresser’s marketing strategy, when it began—a collective shuddering, like all creation attempting to shake a chill in a simultaneous shiver.

It was the vibrating plate glass, the bottles chattering in the window—the way some of the pearl strands slipped off—that made him realize the motion wasn’t from passing traffic.  And then the strange sensation of lateral movement, and the noise—like a locomotive moving underground.

Before Declan shouted, Luke knew it was a quake.  Two seconds more and somehow Declan was behind him, yelling, pushing him away from the storefront.

“Stay away from the window!  It could shatter!”

And just like that, it did.

Luke heard the crackling sound behind them, like breakfast cereal on steroids, followed by the crescendo of shattering glass.  Ten seconds more and it was over.  The tremor rolling away, a wave headed for a distant shore.

In its wake, several car alarms were left crying wolf—the racket wah-wahing up and down the length of Polk Street.

A group of teenagers yelped from the opposite corner.  “Shit!  That was fun!” one of them cried.  Next to the liquor store, a less ebullient group of tourist types spilled from a Thai restaurant.

“Good gracious!” one of them, matronly in her pastel pantsuit, whooped, eyeing the shattered glass.  “Thank the Lord we don’t have nothing like that back in Arkansas!”

“Only an occasional twister,” Declan deadpanned sotto voce.  And then, “Prob’ly just a 4-pointer.  Happens everyday somewhere.”

Shaken, Luke tried to remember the last quake—difficult since he often thought he could feel the earth moving.

Sometimes deep in the night, with Declan asleep beside him, the house seemed to quiver, as if something at the earth’s core had stirred in its dark slumbering place.

“Looks like the touristas had a scare,” Declan said, ready to move on.  “You all right?”

Luke half laughed.  “Just a bit, a bit—rattled.  I guess you never get used to these.”

Quakes were like seismic temper tantrums, it came to him—snatching at the earth beneath your feet, roiling away in seconds, leaving you stunned and embarrassed, newly acquainted with what it meant to be…breakable.

Declan shrugged.  “Goes with the territory,” he said.  “Better hurry.”

It was when Declan turned that Luke noticed the glass shards, like trapezoidal raindrops, clinging to Declan’s shoulders, to the back of his good wool jacket.  And something else—a tiny drop at the nape of Declan’s neck the size and color of a holly berry.

Instinctively, he reached for Declan’s arm.

“Wait.  There’s glass all over you.  And you’re—I think you’re bleeding,” he gulped, searching for his handkerchief, wondering why it was that the sight of blood brought flutters.

Not Declan.  Already he was craning his neck, positioning himself in front of a window searching his reflection.  Luke had to restrain him from brushing barehanded at his shoulders.

“No!  You’ll cut yourself!  Let me do it,” he said, grasping Declan’s shoulders, pivoting him toward the street light as he swept away the shards with his handkerchief.  “Give me yours,” he added, all business, reaching for the monogrammed linen square in Declan’s hand.  “Is it clean?”

Still twisting his head to see, Declan pulled a face.  “Com’on, it’s just a nick.”

Luke wasn’t convinced.  “Be still.  Turn around,” he barked, eyes riveted to the scarlet spot soaking through white linen.  Proof of life.  Proof of something.  But what?  “Maybe you’ll need a stitch,” he said, lifting the handkerchief before blotting again.

Declan sighed.  “Maybe I won’t.  Maybe it’s just a scratch.”

“What if it had been a bigger piece?  You could’ve been killed!” Luke croaked, swallowing hard.  “A cut like that—next to your jugular!”

Declan eyed him askance and allowed a small laugh.  “My jugular’s over here,” he said, placing his finger on the spot.  “And it wasn’t a big shard.  It was a splinter.  See?  The bleeding’s stopped.”

But Luke wasn’t listening.  “I couldn’t have stood it.  I’d die,” he said, his mind galloping into an imagined future that seemed all too plausible.

This time, Declan’s laughter echoed up the street.  “No, I’d have died,” he said.  “Remember?  It’s me there, decapitated, in your little imagined soap opera.”

Shocked back into his skin, embarrassed to be caught singing ‘solo’, Luke laughed self-consciously.  But there was no hiding from it—nothing to do save acknowledge the ridiculous, the ludicrous moment of smallness and egotism and naked regret.  “Well then…we’d both have died,” he parried, teetering on the verge of laughter, or was it—Oh God, he hoped not!—something else.  And then, letting go: “I’m so sorry!  It was my fault back there,” he gasped.  “I was stubborn, self-centered.  I should’ve spoken up in the…”

“You should’ve thought twice about moving into quake country, you mean,” Declan interrupted, shoving his arm through the bend in Luke’s elbow to lead him across the street.  “But then, you’d never have finagled a prize like me, would you?”

No.  No, I wouldn’t have, Luke thought.  Not in a thousand years.

“Like I said, comes with the territory,” Declan said, maneuvering them through the bustle of imperfect humanity.  “Some days are shakier than others.  Nothing like living in a fault zone.  Now about that calzone…”

Luke blew his nose into the handkerchief balled in his hand, noticing too late the single scarlet spot on white linen.  He laughed in spite of himself.  “I’d rather have Chinese,” he said.  “Screw the movie.”

Declan, laughing out loud, squeezed his arm.  “Just waiting for you to say, Babe.  Can’t blame me for that.”

Luke shook his head and swayed closer to his lover—until they were shoulder-to-shoulder.  Until there it was—rhythm, the two of them moving apace.  Step for step—at least for the time being.

Sure I could blame you, Luke thought, considering how easy, in fact, that would be.  Sure I could, he admitted, smiling to himself.

Comes with the territory, he allowed.

END

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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4 Responses to Fault Zone

  1. Excellent piece of writing, Jack! Displays once again your fine use of metaphor and symbolism to add layers of meaning.

    • jaurquhart says:

      Thanks, Lorinda. Appreciate you stopping by today. I’m still struck by how such a short piece can take up so much time in the making. Comes with the territory, as Declan would say. 🙂 Best, Jack

  2. mrydpierce says:

    I do so love these shorts. Astonishing how you can lay out living, breathing characters caught in the richness of life with so few (albeit exquisitely chosen) words. Bravo, my dear!

  3. I love your writing! Your descriptions are always rich and beautiful. Can’t wait for the next one.

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