“Tremors of the Heart”
a short story
Gary Baker, October 7 2013
(a special story to commemorate one full year of short stories, here on Stories by Baker)
(a special story to commemorate one full year of short stories, here on Stories by Baker)
It lasted for ages, the city swaying and juddering through hazy earthen convulsions. Standing at an open park bench, his book bag jostling in the grass at his feet, Ariel watched buildings begin to fall…
...and the screaming begin to rise.
The mall across the park from Ariel swayed, seven stories loosening in their gravestone foundations until, finally, one side buckled and brought the rest down in a cascade of stone and dust. The hideous screams rose to a crescendo, flooding Ariel’s ears like water breaking at the floodgates of a wounded dam.
The dust cloud shot outward in a rush of horse-trampled air, suddenly a hot blast radius of compression and harsh, concussive sound, and hit him like a wall. He dropped to his knees, chest heaving, trying to get the clean air back, drowning in dust particles that, moments ago, had been pieces of a whole mall. It was as though the bricks and mortar of the mall were exacting one final lasting revenge upon the species who’d mined it out of mountain quarries.
Several long eternities later, the city shuddered to a standstill, the ground occasionally hiccuping like a young child.
With eyes wide, Ariel stood in awe at the fact that he’d just survived what must have been the worst earthquake in history, immediately turning to fear as he flew like an arrow loosed by Zeus’s bow toward the mall. Someone in there must have survived, he told himself, eager to be doing anything but further gawking at the carnage wrought by heavenly force.
It took him less than three minutes of sprinting to reach the outer wall of the ruin, sighting at once the still-standing core of the marketplace where pipes had held the floor most securely together where two bisecting planes had merged, coincidentally around the primary sewage pipe. He moved through a break in the primary wall and into a sky-high anthill made by fallen walls, broken beams, and rebar ribcages housing everything in sight.
What most caught Ariel’s eye, was the sheer vastly spreading pools of human gore, where entrails of the smashed mixed with the liquid life force of the trapped.
And then the first cry for help reached him, through soup-thick tufts of stone dust and debris, passed noisily spraying fountains jetting in all directions from splintered statues and shredded metal pipes like live copper wires.
Focusing on the cry for help, Ariel crawled under the skewed overhang once a Jamba juice on the fourth floor market, pressing his way through blue canvas and dusty clouds held within. He forced himself to become the hero his dreams had always shown him to be inside, to become that fearless warrior who aided the weak and de-stressed the distressed, to become all the heroes of lore from his endless boxes of comics combined into one, visceral being.
Again the cry reached him, definitely closer, now. He lifted to his full height within the miniature cavern created by two tourmaline lion statues, etched with endless scars across their green and red gemstone surface, as they held the ceiling at a rough forty-degree angle like pillars holding up a staircase riddled with stone-grey cracks. The cry echoed again, this time a weeping sorrow like nothing Ariel had ever heard.
He moved towards it and stumbled on another body, impaled on an umbrella broken at the hip, the shattered table and remaining shaft lay strewn over tile and boisterous rubble. The man in christmas green never moved to protest, almost definitely killed on impact.
Ariel moved passed the buckled entrance to a bookstore, then, and the echo reached his ears like a megaphone. He spun on his heels and flew into the darkness like a bat seeking refuge in the deep cavernous maw of oblivion, and found a leaning bookshelf littered with torn pages and mud from the greenhouse supply store that had once loomed above. Ariel moved for the darkest corner, where he could see an arm sticking eerily from a collapsed aisle of heavy tomes, only to catch the last whisper of an echo coming from above.
Quick as he could, Ariel grabbed hold of the shelf where books had abandoned it, and threw himself up into a hasty monkey climb to a place where the floor above sagged furthest. He had to be on the third floor, by now, but he knew he had barely reached the level of what would be floor two on any unaffected buildings.
And then he saw it; the source of the echo: a woman somewhere close to him in age, with over half of her body disguised from view by an piece from the mostly-standing floor above. This one section had fallen straight down, barely affected by anything bringing it so much as one degree of tilt.
And there she lay, her white shirt soaking into one growing red stain.
He stopped in place, suddenly sure that had he ever seen her before, no matter how shy he had always been with the opposite sex, he would surely have asked her out on the spot. She was wonderful, beautiful even in the final moments of her fleeting life. Hair like muddied, woven threads of gold, freckled cheeks barely visible beneath layers upon layers of sweat and moistening stone dust.
Her cute, button nose appeared to have been sprayed with red paint, the only part of her above her stomach that seemed to even hint at the carnage below, and her blazingly blue eyes fluttered endlessly, like butterflies trying to navigate a hurricane.
He was beside her faster than he could comprehend how, hands searching her for any sort of way to get her out, knowing all the while what fate lay ahead. There was no point, he knew, other than to be there for her as she faded, a feeling only heightened by the sudden urge to protect her.
She brought her eyes to his, having lost the energy to cry out again, and seemed to beckon him to her after a long moment of shock equal to his own. A faint glimmer of a grin wound onto her lips, revealing starlight teeth smudged with red hues spread across her gums.
Ariel brought his hand to her face, his fingers electrifying with the cool, clammy softness of her cheeks, smoothing the trails of saline tears across caked dust and sweaty grime. It was horrid, what happened to her.
A god of destruction who had known not what tolls it wrought.
Just then he wanted to recreate the world anew with this knowledge, with the ability to know just how perfect she was and how much he suddenly loved her, just to get her out of there at any costs to himself in the process. If she had only lived then the universe might have continued with a brighter day, a more glamorous sunrise, and a more star-riddled night. He wanted to hold her as the shuddering had begun, to go back in time and feel her pain as the ceiling collapsed over her, to take her terror and monstrous horror if only to stave off the inevitable for a moment longer for her.
Ariel cringed in empathetic pain, seeing the tiny fracture of a sealed scar over her left eye, wishing he could turn back time to find out what had caused it, to discover what made her tick, what made her who she was.
She blinked slowly, her striking blue eyes turning to shadows for one brief moment, leaving Ariel sure that this time was his last with her, that one of these times they wouldn’t open again and that he’d forever be lost, his sails sent whirling through unknown waters so shortly after having been drawn full. More tears swept across with the wake of a stream over a bed of pebbles, her eyes hinting at the pain deep inside, consuming her world bite by gnawing, vicious bite.
Words meant nothing, not right here, not right then.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he brought his nose to hers, forehead to clammy forehead, fingers entwined in her matted, muddy hair on either side of her fading glow. He felt her try to lift her nose, then, trying to see what the new source of hot brine gushing across her cheeks was, finding only his clamped eyes, his teeth grit in pain so great that still it barely pretended to feign the numbness of her own. Ariel knew there was no way he could transfer it in any regard, that she, like so many others, was bound by natural law to be consumed, torn to shreds by thrashing jaws of isolation and blood loss.
Now he, too, he realized, would be consumed by this end.
She gasped suddenly, her torso convulsing hard, like a tree bucking in the winds of a violent twister in the plains, her life coming to a sharp, horrifying end. He forced his eyes wide, staring into hers, pupils almost gone, replaced by the perfect blue. So very perfectly blue.
Lips shuddering with further throes of horror, he grabbed her cheeks, warm beneath her ears, turned her eyes to look into his, to feel the weeping warmth pierce it’s way into her skull as the tears dropped like anvils of molten lead… and she held his gaze, determined to stay one last minute, one last fateful second.
But the convulsing worsened, threading into her arms, her shoulders and neck. So Ariel fought back, thrusting his face to hers, holding her lips tight against his, his tongue interlocking with hers as she kissed him back with what could only be felt as a tumultuous smile. He kissed harder, feeling her free hand rise to the nape of his neck and pull him down over her and keep him right there, just there, lips to lips, salty, pain-stricken cheeks to muddy, sweat-glazed cheeks.
His eyes clenched, swearing not to see her go no matter the cost, focusing on the kiss, making it last her forever, taking his all to make it last for the rest of her life.
Her teeth bit his in ecstatic approval, her tongue lapping at the inner walls of his jaw, breathing him in, inhaling just enough to keep him with her, just as he was to her, longing for a mystical way to pretend that even just this kiss could stave away the pain and keep her alive one moment longer, turning the painful seconds she had left into an eternity of undying love.
Then her chest heaved, her lips tightening on his as her hand raked trenches into his spinal column, forever leaving him with a physical scar to mirror the coming mental destruction. Her neck bucked, the convulsions trying to throw him off while her heart kept him against her. She shook suddenly, tears the least of Ariel’s worry, as he brought his knees to her to give him a better angle and allow him to hold her close even as he forced her to focus on the kiss, on the everlasting essence of their lives as they intertwined right to the bitter end.
Her lips lost muscular force, and her teeth slacked. He felt her intake another breath and he gave her everything he could, only to taste copper and iron as a trickle of her life force erupted from between their lips and across her perfect, sodden, soft cheeks and down along the bottom of her left ear to drip quietly into the spreading pool brought from the depths of her wounded, cleaved torso.
One last shudder broke, like the last trailing wave of a tsunami along the seashore, and it was over.
Slowly, ever so slowly, so painfully, hideously slowly, he drug his lips over hers into one final kiss, puckered lips to puckered lips. It didn’t matter that one of them no longer had control of their body. To Ariel, it was enough to know that she was passed the searing pain only imaginable by another with the same experience and, similarly, not a living soul on the earth.
Hands still held firmly at her temples, pooled with blood, blemished by the fact that none of it was his, he felt his own convulsions begin, hiccups trying to choke him while saline waterfalls tried to drown him. He felt the trail of her blood on his chin begin to cake in his stubble, losing her warmth at long last, and leaned back over her, cheek against cold cheek, laying like a child in the womb over her prone, lifeless form.
And the cavernous ruin that had once been a multi-story mall echoed with a new moan of horror: a ghost living in permanent servitude for the lasting reality that he had lived and she had not, despite the vast difference in their worth; hers being platinum mountains of gold compared to his weeping, pitiful, smoldering coal. How wrong the universe seemed just then as he held her inanimate form, half-obscured by what was once the fourth floor.