• Zenia Platten


Martha peddled through clouds of opaque breath, working hard to beat her order of Chinese food to her door. It was her little Friday treat after a long week feeding, rolling, cleaning, and lifting patients. Lo Mein with sweet and sour pork and ginger beef on the side. The leftovers would feed her and Naomi for the weekend, minimizing the amount of time either of them would need to spend in the dreaded, cramped galley kitchen of their apartment.

Grinning, Martha crossed Prior Street and rolled to a halt before the entry door to the underground bike storage. No sign of the delivery guy. Hefting Shadowmere, her faithful two-wheeled steed, onto its rack Martha winced, her muscles twinging where a confused patient had struck her that morning. On days like today, she had to remind herself that they were only afraid, and disoriented, and that it would be wrong to hit them back; especially that.

A tinny rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” rattled against the cement walls as her phone vibrated insistence from her purse. Martha dug past a handful of pens, make up, and her Sailor Moon wallet to answer it.

“Hello?” Martha said, trainers slapping against the floor as she jogged up the stairwell.

“Hi there,” a friendly voice answered, “I have your order here. Can you buzz me in?”

“Not from here, but I’ll be with you in a moment. Hang tight.” Martha pushed aside the heavy steel safety door at the top of the stairs with her shoulder, and waved at the young man waiting on the far side of the main glass doors.

She hung up the phone as she let him into the foyer, digging in her purse for the right change. “Thanks, I’ve been looking forward to this,” she said, trading the guy a handful of bills for her dinner.

The aluminum take out trays rested partially empty and bent on the coffee table as Martha burrowed deeper into her blankets. Game of Thrones flickered red on the screen in front of her, suspended on the wall. Naomi hadn’t eaten, choosing instead to pick up a meal on route to the club. She had tottered out, balancing on six inch dagger heels and blowing Martha a kiss, about an hour ago. Martha shrugged. There was more than one way to spend a Friday night, and this way didn’t make her feel like mutton dressed as lamb.

Martha didn’t realize she was dozing until a loud bang snatched her from the edge of her nap. She paused, trying to figure out which neighbor had made the sound. On the heels of the impact a chest deep rumble began to build, growing louder until it shook the apartment. Martha stayed on the couch, not quite believing what her body was telling her. The shaking grew, knocking the TV from the wall and unceremoniously dumping Martha onto the floor in a tangle of quilts. She scrambled to remember half-ignored lessons from elementary school. Glass broke; the windows shattering under the pressure of their distorting frames. Martha yelped, pulling her protective blankets closer and grinding her eyes shut against the shifting, rocking room. Even from behind her eyelids light and shadow danced wildly, goaded by the swaying light fixtures.

“Door frame,” Martha muttered, climbing to her knees. “No wait… they changed that. Table,” she collapsed again clinging to the coffee table and curling beneath it as best as she could. The rumble had grown deafening, punctuated by distant screams, reaching out through the newly opened windows.

It went on forever and stopped all at once. One moment a cacophony of destruction, the next, only dismay and shock. The drills of long ago school days were returning to her, and she’d stayed put, counting out loud.

“Fifty. Fifty-one, fifty-two,” she tried to keep her pace even, tapping out a rhythm to help her keep time. “Fifty-five, fifty-six,” she took deep breaths, feeling the air fill her, and release. It was thick with dust. “Fifty-nine, sixty,” she finished. Martha poked her head up, testing the feel of the room like a groundhog looking for hawk shadows.

The living room was wrecked. Paintings and photo frames mingled with broken glass across the floor, promising an uncomfortable escape. A picture of Martha’s nephew was the sole survivor remaining on the wall, tilted but still beaming in his Toronto suburb. The bookshelf leant forward, vomiting its contents among the litter, top caught against the far side of the hall.

Tip-toeing, Martha maneuvered her way uphill, towards the kitchen, picking her way through the carnage. She was hollow, dumped out like the book case. She worked to steel herself, like at the hospital, to pretend that all there was to deal with was another violent patient, another soiled bed, and another stinking wound, half-way healed. It was working, until she passed the window.

All of the apartments on this side of Martha’s building were discounted because of the view. They looked out directly into the building across the narrow alleyway, with little privacy and almost no natural light. As Martha came to the window sunshine hit her face directly, unhindered. Beyond, the view opened into a scene from a horror film or a gritty documentary.

The next-door building had fallen over. It lay on its back, toppled like an unsteady old man. Some sections crumbled inwards under their own weight, or else the force of impact. Spider web cracks branched from windows like crow’s feet, suspended above the rubble that made up the rest of the building. Cement dust wafted, making Martha’s eyes itch.

Not daring to look further, she stepped back, hissing as glass nipped at her heels. In the kitchen, the leaning tower of dishes had tumbled to the floor, smashing the week-old monument to sloth. The drawers and cupboards gaped, thrown open and emptied by the shaking. The knife block lay on its side, bright steel spilling across the counter. Martha didn’t try to enter, instead turning and opening the coat closet.

“Shoes,” she mumbled. The glass called for hiking boots, and it took Martha three tries to tie the laces with shaking fingers. Salt was in her mouth, though she could not feel herself crying. Numb, she slung her emergency kit over one shoulder, settling it into place with a grunt.

How long had it been since she’d bought this thing on her mother’s insistence? Ten years? Eight? Not long after she moved to Victoria. She could hear her mother’s badgering across the years, “but honey, it’s an earthquake zone. They say it’s overdue for a big one.” It’d taken weeks of nagging, but eventually Martha caved. Boy was she glad about that.

Martha forced a ragged sobbing breath as she took a last look at their tilted, smashed, ruined home of ten years, then shouldered through the front door. As an afterthought she locked it, just in case. The familiar click of the key going through its motions calmed her, a brief anchor point. She locked it again just to hear the sound twice. It could be a while before she would get to do it again.

The hallway made her nauseas. Beyond some cracked plaster it was the same as always. Miraculously the lights were still working, pumping a dim glow onto the pastel wall paper. Her eyes were wrestling with her brain, arguing over whether or not the floor was tilting. Dizziness told her it was, and steeply at that, but her eyes made walking a challenge with their insistence on normalcy.

There were others emerging from their doors, or else disappearing around the corner towards the stairwell. They shuffled alone, or supporting one another, in stunned silence. Most carried nothing, some dragged conspicuous personal items. One woman passed her clinging grimly to a copy of the King James Bible, her bare footprints bloody.

Martha reached to stop her, to insist that she wrap her feet, pick out the glass and wash the wounds, but she hesitated, hand hovering between them. This was not the place. There would be time for that once they were out. Martha followed the woman down the hall, one hand against the wall for the sweet illusion of stability.

Martha’s steps faultered, then stopped altogether as she strained her ears. Was that moaning human, or the building settling into its new position. She pressed her ear to the nearest door.

“Hello? Mrs. Park, are you okay in there?” Martha called, turning the door knob.

Someone croaked in reply, the sound lost in the mess of toppled cabinets, overturned tables, and the tsunami of old magazines that washed over the floor.

“Mrs. Park?” Martha had never learned Mrs. Park’s first name, though she would have liked to use it now. “Where are you?”

The reply came again, muffled and far off. More magazines shifted, tumbling in a flapping heap amongst the others. A foot was behind them, kicking meekly for purchase, swaddled in orthotic boat shoes.

“Mrs. Park!” Martha ran to the china cabinet, straddling over the old woman’s feet and pulling hard at the crushing piece of capsized furniture. It was damn heavy, every inch of height a slog that set the precious contents tumbling to the floor in shards.

Martha held the cabinet, straining and watching for her neighbour’s escape. When Mrs. Park pulled free, shuffling backwards on her stomach, Martha let go of the cabinet, letting it land with a crash.

Mrs. Park groaned holding the back of her head and looking around herself, taking in her ruined home.

“No good. No good at all,” she said before her dark, lined eyes settled on Martha. “Thank you dear. Would you mind helping me clean up?” Mrs. Park asked, her neat English accent out of place in the chaos.

“You would be at it for a while Mrs. Park. There’s been an earthquake, we need to get outside,” Martha answered, enunciating each word so the seventy-six year old would hear her clearly.

“An earthquake? That’s a relief,” Martha found a reusable grocery bag on the floor and began gathering Mrs. Park’s effects as Mrs. Park continued, “I was afraid I was going senile. It would be a shame not to remember a party this good.”

Martha gingerly scooped up what she could find of Mr. Park into a Tupperware, his urn broken from its fall from the mantle.

“Oh, leave him,” Mrs. Park said, pulling herself at last to her feet, “he’s dead sweetheart, but there’s granola bars in the kitchen.”

Once they had a few necessities packed, Martha offered Mrs. Park her arm and they headed back out into the hallway. It was quiet now, most people having already made it out of the building. They shuffled along together, Martha taking the physical weight, and Mrs. Park taking the weight of conversation.

“Once, when Mr. Park took me back to Korea to meet his brother, I got stuck just like that,” Mrs. Park began as they maneuvered awkwardly into the diagonal stair well. “We were heading to Busan, there’s a temple there that Mr. Park wanted to show me, when our car was struck.” Martha nodded, half-listening as she considered her footing on the tilted stairs. “Both cars were Hyundai of course. We were in Choi’s new Pony, but I don’t remember the other. I just remember thinking ‘isn’t it funny that their so alike,’ maybe they were both Ponys.” Mrs. Park was quiet for a moment, casting her memory back, lost in the years.

They were half way to the ground floor, just two flights to go, when the aftershock hit. The shaking was less intense than before, but Martha found herself trembling just the same. She huddled with Mrs. Park in a corner of the stairway, the old lady absently stroking her hair like a child. Martha could feel the tilt of the building increasing, tipping under them and waiting for something to give.

Martha and Mrs. Park were thrown into the stairs as the floor bucked, and then dropped away. Martha did her best to shield Mrs. Park from the impact, feeling the cement bruise her in even lines across her back. Above their heads a thunderous sound grew closer and louder with a pattern like falling dominos. Utterly helpless, she allowed herself to scream.

The sound was slowing down. The tooth-rattling thuds were directly above them, like giant, rowdy neighbours having one hell of a house party. Martha stopped screaming and held her breath, willing the noise to stop. Cracks appeared in the concrete to her right, spreading down the walls like dripping paint.

The noise and movement ground to a halt, a breath away, tonnes of cement hovering over their heads like specters. Martha didn’t count out a minute this time, instead hauling herself and Mrs. Park upright and shuffling towards the ground floor.

“You know,” Mrs. Park said once they had found a rhythm for their crablike climb, “I think maybe they were both Ponys.”

Martha looked back at the old woman in disbelief. She could see her rabbit-wide, red-rimmed eyes reflected in the composed pools of Mrs. Park’s.

“How are you so calm? And don’t tell me it’s the wisdom of age, I’ve seen ninety year olds shit themselves at the idea of one little vaccine,” Martha asked, an edge of hysteria creeping into her voice.

“Oh no dear. It has nothing to do with being old. I’m British,” she said proudly, chin thrust into the air.

“We have stiff upper lips, it’ll take more than this to rattle me.” Mrs. Park gestured vaguely at the crack-riddled stairway with her free hand. It was trembling.

They emerged from the emergency exit into another world. Cars that stood in stately attention when Martha entered the building were sunken, sticking half in and half out of the ground, up to their windshields. The asphalt looked solid, but puddles of water had pooled across its surface, lying in wait for anyone who did not heed their vehicular warning.

People loitered on the sidewalk, unsure where to go. Most of the faces were familiar, neighbours, or else locals glimpsed on the street. Some cried, eyes puffy and red, wheezing heaving wet sobs. Some screamed, pulling at rubble, calling unfamiliar names, or else just sitting on the sidewalk, wordlessly cursing the sky. Most looked like Martha, wide-eyed and quiet, hoping helplessly for direction.

Mrs. Park was frowning at the buildings across the street. They were still standing, one of them listing to the side, but otherwise intact. That side of the street had its own lost flock, though mostly they just gaped at Martha’s building and its fellows.

Martha’s home leant like a drunk balancing backwards in a chair, one tenuous foot on the table for stability. Cracks layered the first floors, while the higher levels were shrunken, collapsed in on themselves, each room fallen into the next. There were chunks of wall missing, pieces that gave way as the stress became unbearable. Inside were dioramas, cut-aways of people’s lives that someone had turned upside down before replacing.

The building to the left, the one Martha used to curl her lip at for blocking her view, was flattened. The crow’s feet wrinkles that she had spotted from her window were larger up close, as thick as her arm and riddling the façade like cancer. Rescue parties were digging with their bare hands, working in teams to pull up collapsed walls.

Martha wanted to join them, to help pull people out, to look for survivors, but she knew where she needed to be. She would do the most good at the hospital. She tried to picture Naomi, one shoe on, the other a makeshift pick, digging the wounded out. That would be her lot as a firefighter, but Martha’s was at the hospital.

As Martha trudged and clambered towards the hospital she fought against the feeling that she was in a painting by Salvador Dali. The tilting buildings, staircases to nowhere, sunken cars, and screaming faces lent the familiar streets a surreal quality. Bloody footprints crisscrossed the sidewalk before her, different pairs of feet that made her grateful that she had paused to pull on her hiking boots.

Martha chose her footing carefully. She was curious about the cars dipping into the apparently liquefied asphalt, but she had no desire to explore the phenomenon first hand. She avoided the growing knots of desperation, hoping her backpack was non-descript enough to avoid notice. She couldn’t even remember what was in there, but she was determined to keep it.

By the time Martha crossed onto hospital property the parking lot was already thronging with people. She had to fight her way in, forcing the odd refugee out of her way with a shove and grunted apology. Her ID was somewhere in the mess at home, but she didn’t need it. There were no orderlies, or nurses, or even patients; just the hurt, and the helping.

Three days after the earthquake, aftershocks were still rumbling. Martha was beginning to get used to them, but they still made her mouth go dry. The hospital had weathered the shaking well, losing windows but staying upright. The backup generator had taken a few moments to start up when the shaking had wiped out the power, killing several people depending on life support. Since then, it had been able to keep up.

Around two hundred people have been declared dead so far, though emergency services are still digging. Buried, or crushed, or suffocated mostly. Martha’s too tired to feel much about it. She just hopes Naomi isn’t one of them. Having overflowed the morgue the bodies are laid out behind the hospital, wrapped tight in white and red sheets.

The staff aren’t allowed to charge their phones or use the hospital computers to contact family. They’ve checked in, and in theory someone is updating a survivors list online, so their families can see they’re alright. It makes sense, all the power is dedicated to the patient’s care, but Martha can’t help but feel isolated.

She hasn’t left the hospital in days, catching what rest she can sprawled out on the benches in the staff change rooms. The hard wood left her sore and cranky. The food the hospital had on hand for emergencies was surprisingly tasty freeze-dried stuff, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Martha’s stomach was growling constantly, and she could only imagine how the people outside the hospital were feeling.

Public updates were being posted on the big white board in the common room, plucked from Twitter by the hospital president – allowed to charge their phone for the purpose. Raiding Out of Control was the first thing on the board besides the death toll, written in glossy red. Quake Caused Fires Wrecking Untold Damage was next, this time in black. 8.6 Was at the center of the board, circled three times in green.

They were told every day that help was on the way - the Red Cross, and the government, facebook prayers and gofundme campaigns. Not much seemed to make it through though, it all stopped in Vancouver, or Seattle; bigger cities also damaged by the disaster. What did arrive wasn’t enough.

More people arrived every day, wounded or not, to drain away the hospital’s carefully prepared supplies. The food was almost gone, already severely rationed, and big water storage tanks were drained to only a third. There had already been three fist fights over portion sizes.

Martha was taking a break. She’d slept for a while, woken by her growling stomach, but she didn’t rise for the cafeteria. She’d already had her ration for the morning, she wouldn’t be allowed seconds. She was swaying where she sat, back and forth, without thinking about it. Blearily, her eyes wandered around the room.

There were wads of paper towel overflowing the change room waste basket, likely used by the staff for personal sponge baths. There was a strong, septic smell wafting from the adjoined bathrooms where people had ignored the signs that the plumbing was out of order. A spider was waiting patiently in one corner, its cobweb a grey shadow against the wall. As her eyes slid over the rows of lockers, lined up like soldiers for inspection, they settled on hers.

It was a dull tan colour, identical to the others. She hadn’t been in it since arriving, quickly changing her shoes, dumping her bag, and heading back on duty. Her bag. Her emergency kit. Martha sprang to her feet, pausing for a moment to let a wave of dizziness pass. Glancing around to be sure she was alone, Martha spun the combination wheel on her locker. 36-8-10-click. Her breath stuck in her throat, and she held it there, suddenly nervous.

She yanked at the black and red knapsack, snagging on the lock before pulling free. The bag was heavier than she remembered it. Martha knelt, maneuvering the zipper slowly, savoring the anticipation. As long as the bag was closed, there could be anything inside. Roast pork, lo mien, chocolate pudding, or even a bottle of Ribena – that would go a long way for morale in the pediatric wing.

Martha hesitated with her hands on either side of the bags opening. There could be a second generator, more water, a HAM radio. Heck - why not - there could even be a working flush toilet and tampons. There could be feather duvets, back-up gauze, fuel, clean clothes, or anything else at all.

She watched the individual teeth on the zipper click together as she pulled the bag closed again. She’d heard of people lost in the desert, dying of thirst with a full canteen. It used to confuse her but she got it now. They could go without the water, but not without the hope. She slid the backpack into her locker again, closed it, and turned towards her next slog of work.

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©2019 by Zenia Platten.