Why I Love Earthquake Season

"Earthquake Season," a short story by Kate Reed Petty

building damage from earthquake

Why I Love Earthquake Season

Earthquake Season

They say it’s getting longer every year. Still, I thought earthquake season would be over by now. I was walking to work this morning when I realized it’s nearly April and they still haven’t announced the end. Distracted by this thought, I stepped into a crosswalk too early, just as a car was speeding up to make the yellow light.

“Get out of the goddamned way!” the driver screamed. I raised my middle finger at him. I hadn’t been yelled at since earthquake season started with that six-point-seven in July.

I talked to my coworker Sarah about it later that afternoon, in line for a coffee. She told me she’d noticed the same thing, when someone at the grocery store was cruel to an old man counting coupons too slowly. Sarah and I both speculated that this—the loss of goodwill, and not the official announcement on the news—this was the true sign that earthquake season was over.

On the other side of the coffee shop, a heavy-set woman in a wheelchair was struggling to move a chair out of the way to make space for herself at a table. Everyone looked away from her. Sarah and I were too far away to help, and it would have been awkward to walk across the whole room, so we stayed where we were. We shook our heads, and agreed we would miss the goodwill of the season.

Not twenty minutes later, we were gossiping about our upcoming annual reviews when our cups clattered to the floor.

We ran out into the street. People streamed out of the buildings on all sides. I realized I had forgotten about the woman in the wheelchair, but when I turned back she was already on the sidewalk. Two girls were helping her outside. I felt a little warm glow in my chest, watching the woman and the two girls hug each other and cry.

Then there was a sound like a shelf of wine glasses collapsing. The street-facing side of our office building was spilling down over itself like a waterfall. To my surprise, I started moving toward it immediately. Normally after an earthquake I’m paralyzed for a few minutes in shock. My slow generosity always embarrasses me—I’ve often been the last one running to help others. But today I was ready, and that made me feel proud.

Low wails rose as the dust settled. The front corner of the building had sheared off, leaving each floor open like a doll’s house. A figure stood on the edge of the fourth floor, peering out between stalks of rebar. I counted bodies on the rubble below—six—no, seven. Then another chunk of the floor collapsed and the figure from the fourth floor tumbled down with a cry. To think that just that morning I’d been dreading my annual review. I chuckled at myself as I grabbed a hunk of concrete from the edge of the pile where the front corner of the building used to be. The hunk was about the size of a microwave, but I hauled it up and aside easily. I marveled at my own calm strength. It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m proud to say that today, for the first time, I became the best version of myself after an earthquake.

Then Sarah, working beside me, shrieked. She’d found a foot. A bunch of people rushed over to help, and we all worked together quickly, lifting rubble out of the way. We were careful never to disturb the pile; we’d all seen near-survivors crushed by tiny avalanches. We cleared space around the foot, and then the ankle, and then the calf and the knee. I soothed the emerging leg: We’re coming for you don’t worry hang in there.

An aftershock rumbled up around us. We all had to back away from the leg. We held our breath as concrete rained down and dust rose up. When it stopped, we rushed forward and exhaled loudly because the leg was still there, uncrushed. Almost there, you’ll see my face soon, I called out, until the buried person appeared.

It was one of our building security guards!

For a year this woman had greeted me by name every morning, and I always felt bad because I’d forgotten her name on her second day. I’d been too embarrassed to ask her again; I usually just said, “Oh, good morning!” Now, here she was covered in dust, and still I couldn’t greet her by name. “Oh, it’s you! You’re alright!” I said.

“I’m alright!” she said to me, amazed. In the shock I guess she had forgotten my name, too. “Angels!” she kept saying, looking at me and Sarah.

You rarely get to pull a whole person out of the rubble. But we did today. I stood on the security guard’s right side and Sarah stood on her left and we walked her out to where people were gathering, where the EMTs were already setting up pyramids of free bottled water. I’d heard on the news that the ranks of the EMT had swelled four hundred percent in the past five years, half of that in this last season. What a rush of human kindness. As I looked around today I realized why; those who signed up were only taking a small step by making it official; we are all first responders now.

We passed a man holding a mangled arm against his chest. I recognized the metallic smell of blood in the air, mixed with some chemical smell that always comes out of buildings when they collapse. We saw another leg, less lucky than that of the security guard. We saw a man put his jacket over a body on the ground. But what really matters is that we saw a lot of other people comforting the bloody and mangled. All of us were surrounded, comforting hands on all our shoulders. “What a beautiful world we have,” I said.

“Angels,” the security guard on my shoulder agreed. Sarah and I handed her over to a volunteer, who had a bottle of water and a place to wait until the worse injuries had been treated. We left her there, brushed off our hands, and walked along the street filled with people helping each other. It was beautiful.

And for as long as earthquake season lasts—and it’s getting longer every year; we’ve passed the point where we could have fixed it—but for as long as it lasts, we are all the best versions of ourselves.

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