Pendleton and I were scooping peanut butter straight from the jar onto our fingers when the earthquake hit. Our mouths were full and sticky, so our shocked yelps came out sluggish, as if we were made of swamp mud. Instead of running to a doorway or the basement or wherever grade school drills would have told us to go, we stood by the bay window and knelt on the pleather seats. Pendleton took my hand in his, and I became suddenly aware of how gross my fingers must have been from the grits of peanut butter lodged in the grooves of my fingerprints. Still, I did not withdraw mine from his, but instead clutched him harder. His touch was warm, his grip strong, and he had calluses on the bumpy flesh just below his fingers. They were itchy knobs.
He smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and cleared his throat. “Would you look at that.”
He was referring to the teetering bank across the street. A large fissure was coursing its way across the parking lot, a rusty Toyota Corolla slumping as the earth opened up beneath it. The building looked like a piece of paper being torn in half from the bottom up; the glass front doors were already spider webbed. I could hear the piercing yelp of an alarm coming from inside the building; everything was howling outside, but because of the strong walls it felt like I was listening while submerged in a bathtub.
“I’d happily die here with you,” I said, but Pendleton acted like he hadn’t heard me. I tried to catch my breath.
We didn’t know what to do besides watch. Our side of the street was fine, a blanket of calm, but the businesses across the boulevard were getting wrecked. Women in power suits and men in ties that billowed like slim flags were running all over the place, shielding their heads with briefcases and legal pads. One man was stuffing pens in his pockets as he ran out of an office building; a woman wearing a grey blazer held a vase full of flowers like it was a baby.
The earthquake lasted for what felt like hours, but neither Pendleton nor I moved. He continued to hold my hand, staring out at the destruction. The bank was leveled, and the Toyota’s windshield was smashed by the large white “S” that fell from its sign.
“Why do you think we’re okay?” I said, finally. Breaking the silence felt like smashing a plate.
And I immediately regretted saying anything, cracking that noisy whip, because that’s when Pendleton started to rise. He seemed unsurprised by this, and he tried to clutch my hand tighter, the fleshy pad of his thumb kneading at the hair on my knuckles, but as he reached the ceiling he finally let go. His hand brushed my shoulder, then my chin, dragging across my two-day stubble. When he let go permanently, he took the grit of the peanut butter with him.
“What’s happening?” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Pendleton said back.
I thought the roof would hold him, but Pendleton squeezed right through, as if the paint was the surface of a lake and he was diving in. I chased him outside, tears already coagulating on my face, and watched as he was trumpeted away into the sky, eaten up by the clouds. When he was nothing more than a blurry dot, I finally looked across the road again. The earth had gone still like a child having a tantrum loses steam. Car alarms blared. Water spat from burst mains. I smelled methane. Everything unfurled, unclenched. I started walking toward the decimated bank, ready to unearth something, anything, that was lost and wanted to be found.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.
Author-in-hiding, Digital Artist-in-training, Student-in-perpetuum