Quake, p.12
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       Quake, p.12

           Richard Laymon
 

  'We'll do whatever we can,' Pete had assured her.

  'Is she in the car?' Barbara had asked.

  'Yes, yes. Such a fool was to leave her alone. But only for two minutes? What can happen in only two minutes? An earthquake, for instance! The end of the world? Who knows! For two minutes leave her alone. If I'd known! But we don't know these things! These things are rocks thrown at us- we're not paid to duck, if you know what mean.'

  Barbara had no idea what she meant. That didn't matter, though. It only mattered that her daughter was trapped. More likely her granddaughter, considering the gal's age - though Barbara supposed Mrs Klein might be the child's actual mother.

  When they came to the ruin, Heather realized that more than a simple garage had fallen. 'Was it two stories?' she asked.

  'An apartment up above. But it was vacant, thank God.’

  'Your car's buried under all of that?' Heather asked.

  'It's not so much. You should've seen it before. A mountain, that's what it was. Me, I've whittled it down. But I…' Shaking her head, she raised her hands. They were shredded and bloody.

  'It's okay,' Barbara had said. 'We'll get her out.'

  With Mrs Klein watching from the alley, Barbara and Pete and Heather had climbed the rubble and gotten to work. They'd made good progress for a while. Then Pete had gashed his forearm on the point of a nail. The wound not only took him out of commission while Mrs Klein hustled him into her house for first aid, but put a stop to Heather's half-hearted labors.

  Crouching on the slope, Heather had watched the woman lead Pete away. Just when they were about to enter the back door of the house, she'd called, 'Wait! I'm coming, too!' and started to hurry down.

  'You don't have to go with them.'

  'I do, too. Anyway, I'm thirsty.'

  'How do you think her kid feels?'

  'She's probably dead.'

  'Maybe not. The car could've protected her.'

  'Yeah, sure. This is a big waste of time. I'm only helping 'cause Pete wants to. Anyway, I'm taking a break.' Then she'd hurried on to the house.

  A while later, Mrs Klein had come back alone. Not only had she returned to the alley without Pete and Heather, but without a soda or even so much as a glass of water for Barbara.

  That's when Barbara had decided it was time for a breather. 'Such wonderful young people you are.’

  'Glad to help.'

  Barbara raised her arms, one at a time, to wipe her face on the short sleeves of her blouse. 'What happened to Pete and Heather?'

  'They'll be along. The poor girl overheated herself.’

  'I'm pretty hot, myself.'

  She suddenly seemed to see Barbara. 'Why, you're soaking wet.'

  'I could sure use a drink.'

  'A drink? You look ready to collapse, you poor thing.’

  'No, I'm not that…'

  'You shouldn't be standing out here, you'll drop dead from heat prostration. Into the house with you, right this minute. Find yourself a drink in the fridge.' She patted Barbara's arm. 'Sit, rest, cool off. won't have you dropping dead from the heat. Come out when you're ready. You and your friends. But don't take too long. My Susie…'

  With that, Mrs Klein staggered to the pile of debris, leaned forward, and picked up a chunk of stucco.

  'I'll just get a drink and come right back,' Barbara told her.

  'Cool off,' Mrs Klein said without stopping her work. 'A few minutes you should take to cool off.'

  'Sure,' Barbara said, though she had no intention of relaxing inside the house. Maybe after they'd found Susie.

  A narrow walkway led from the side of the demolished garage, through a neatly trimmed back yard to the patio of Mrs Klein's single-level, stucco house. The outside of the house looked undamaged. A faded awning shaded the patio. Barbara let out a sigh as she stepped beneath it. So great to get out of the sun. On her way to the back door, she lifted the front of her blouse and wiped the sweat off her face. Then she fastened the buttons. She pulled open the door and entered the kitchen.

  Most of the cupboards were open, their contents thrown out and scattered on the counters and floor. No sign of Pete or Heather. 'Hey, you guys,' Barbara called.

  'In here,' Pete called to her. He sounded as if he were a room or two away.

  'Be right there. What're you drinking?'

  'She's got Pepsis in the fridge.'

  The refrigerator was still standing, but looked as if it had been dragged toward the middle of the kitchen. Barbara headed for it. She stepped over a small pile of broken plates, kicked a can of Campbell's tomato soup out of the way, and tugged open the refrigerator door. No light came on. But the kitchen was bright, so she had no trouble finding several cans of soft drinks lined up inside a rack on the inner side of the door. She lifted one of them out. It felt fairly cold. But cool slime suddenly slipped onto her hand. She gasped.

  'You okay?' Pete called.

  'I think so.' Barbara looked at the top of the can. It was coated with a clear, mucous substance. Floating on the can and embedded in it, were bits of broken eggshell.

  'You oughta get in here,' Pete said. 'We wanta show you something.'

  'Just wait'll you see this,' Heather added.

  'I'll be right there.'

  Barbara spotted a roll of paper towels beside the sink. She made her way toward it. She wondered if her kitchen at home had looked like this, everything shaken off shelves, hurled out of cupboard, broken jars and bottles and cans and boxes and plates glasses and mugs all over the floor- a strange jumbled mix of containers, spilled ingredients, and utensils. What a mess! Maybe Mom'll have it cleaned up by the time… Please, Mom, be okay… And Dad.

  At the counter, she tore off a handful of paper towel and cleaned the top of her Pepsi can. Then she sidestepped the sink, held the can underneath the spout, and twisted the water faucet handle. No water came out. Of course not. No water, she thought, and here we are drinking up woman's sodas. Barbara raised the can to her face. She sniffed. A lingering odor of raw egg. She took the unopened can back to the refrigerator, opened the door, and set it into the rack. She noticed there were five or six other cans. It won't kill her if drink one, she thought. Ah, the can stinks anyway. The egg couldn't have gotten them all. But she left them all there, anyway, and shut the door. At the end of a short, dim hallway, she found the living room. Pete and Heather were sitting on a sofa beneath a crooked watercolor of a Paris street in the rain. They looked dirty and sweaty. They each held a can of Pepsi.

  'You didn't get yourself a drink?' Pete asked.

  'Nah. don't feel like one. Too sweet.'

  'You need to get some liquid in you. You don't want to get dehydrated.'

  'I don't know.' Barbara shrugged with one shoulder, and felt her top button slip out of its hole. Ever since the kid had grabbed her purse and tugged her blouse open, her buttons hadn't worked the way they should. Pete and Heather didn't seem to notice the problem, so she left the button alone. On her way to the sofa, she looked around. Mrs Klein's living room had fared better than her kitchen. Except for a table lamp that lay on the floor with one side of its shade mashed in, there didn't seem to be any real damage.

  'I bet you didn't find Susie,' Heather said.

  'Not yet.' Barbara sat down beside Pete. 'How's the arm?' He held it up, showing off the neatly taped patch of gauze on the underside of his forearm. 'Not bad. Doesn't even hurt. Mrs Klein, though, she said how I'd better check with my parents and make sure my tetanus shots and things are up to date.'

  'Will you need any stitches?'

  'Nah, it's mostly just a scratch.'

  'Good thing.' She leaned back, and sighed at the wonderful feel of the soft cushion. She hadn't realized how sore she was: how much her neck and back and rump and legs ached. I'll just stay here forever, she thought. But suddenly realized that her sweaty hair and back might stain the upholstery. So she sat up straight, and groaned.

  'Why don't you take a drink of mine?' Pete asked. He held his can toward her. 'Well…'
/>
  'Go ahead. I'm done, anyway.'

  'Well… Okay. Thanks.' She accepted the can. It felt half full.

  'You'll never guess what we found out,' Heather said. Barbara took a few swallows. The soda did taste too sweet.

  It's not too sweet, she thought. It's just not cold enough. Medium cool just doesn't do it when you're drinking colas. Better than nothing, though. She stopped herself from drinking more, and held the can out to Pete. 'Here, you finish it.''No, you go ahead.'

  'I have to get back outside and help Mrs Klein.'

  'I don't think there's a big hurry about that,' he said. 'What do you mean?'

  'Get a load of this,' Heather said. Leaning forward, she stretched her arm past Pete. Her hand stopped above Barbara's left knee. It was holding a small tin of Whiskas cat food.

  'What?' Barbara asked.

  'Three guesses,' Heather said.

  'We looked around,' Pete said. 'There's only one bedroom, and no sign that Mrs Klein has any children.'

  Heather, still leaning forward, gave Barbara a smug grin. 'Get it? Her Susie eats Whiskas.'

  'Susie is her cat,' Pete explained, and shook his head. 'You're kidding,' Barbara muttered. 'Are you sure?'

  'There's a plastic bowl on the kitchen floor,' Pete said. 'It has Susie's name on it.'

  'Really?'

  'And milk in it,' Heather added. 'Most of the milk's on the floor, but there's still some in the bowl. Susie's bowl.'

  Barbara shook her head slowly from side to side. 'I don't believe this,' she muttered. 'Susie is her cat? We've been busting our butts out there, cooking in that sun, wasting God only knows how much time when we could've been on our way home to rescue that woman's pussycat?'

  'It sort of looks that way,' Pete said. 'Terrific.'

  Heather grinned. 'Cute, huh? knew we shouldn't stop and help her.'

  'We didn't know it was just a cat,' Pete said.

  'She didn't exactly say it wasn't,' Barbara pointed out. 'She called it her baby, but a lot of people do that sort of thing.'

  'She wanted us to think it's a person,' Heather said. 'She just figured we wouldn't help if we knew it was only a cat.'

  'She would've been right,' Pete said.

  Barbara shook her head. 'I mean, there are probably people trapped under buildings. If I'm gonna bust my butt trying to dig somebody out, I'm gonna do it for a human being.'

  'I'd do it for my own dog,' Pete said. 'If had one.’

  'I'd do it for my cat, Mickey,' Heather said. ‘My father pounded his brains out with a claw hammer one time.'

  'You're kidding,' Pete said.

  'Huh-uh.'

  'Why'd he wanta do that?'

  Here we go again, Barbara thought. Another story sickness and blight from Lady Cheerful.

  'Mickey got into the Thanksgiving turkey.'

  'Oh, man,' Pete muttered.

  'It was right out of the oven and we were waiting for it to cool, and watching a rerun of the Rose Parade on the TV. Mom went in the kitchen to mash the potatoes, and she yelled - this was before she killed herself.'

  Never would've guessed, Barbara thought.

  'So then Dad went in, and he went totally ape. First off, punched out Mom for leaving the turkey out where the cat could get to it.'

  'Where'd she leave it?'

  'On the kitchen counter.'

  'Where was she supposed to…?'

  'Nowhere. That wasn't the thing. Hell, Dad's the one who put it on the counter, anyhow. But that didn't matter. She was the one who got smacked for it.'

  No wonder she killed herself, Barbara thought. A guy like that and with a daughter like Heather.

  'Then he grabbed up Mickey by the tail and hauled outside. went running out after him, 'cause knew he meant to kill him. But then he slugged me.'

  A mad, gleeful look appeared on Heather's face. No tears, this time. Maybe because this one isn't about her mother, Barbara thought. And maybe she hadn't liked Mickey all that much in the first place.

  'He slugged me in the stomach. He never hits me in the face, 'cause it'd show. But anyhow, he knocked my wind out and was down on my back in the driveway, laying there and trying to catch my breath, when he came back from the garage. He'd gone there to get his claw hammer. So then he dangled Mickey right over my face and starting swinging at him with the hammer. It took him, oh, a long time. He kept missing. That's because of how Mickey was squirming around and everything. He didn't miss all the time, though. He'd wham Mickey in the back, and in the jaw, blood was flying, pouring down on me, getting in my face…, but then finally he caught him a good one fight on top of the head, and…'

  'Could you knock it off?.' Barbara said. 'You're making me sick.'

  'Can't take it, huh? bet you never had to take anything like that, did you?'

  'My parents aren't a couple of lunatics,' she said.

  Pete seemed to cringe.

  Barbara stood up. Heather's grin looked crooked and frozen. 'I'm sorry your mother's dead,' Barbara told her. 'I'm sorry your father's a crazy vicious madman. I'm sorry he killed your cat. just don't wanta hear about it, okay?' To Pete, she said, 'I'm going back outside.'

  'Me, too.' Pete crushed his Pepsi can. Leaning forward to set it on the table, he turned to Heather. 'You ready?'

  'I guess so.'

  They both stood up at the same time.

  Heather took hold of Pete's hand. Her other hand, Barbara noticed, was out of sight behind her back. 'What've you got?’

  'None of your business.'

  'You're right,' Barbara said. And up yours, she thought. On her way to the rear of the house, she looked back once. Heather's left hand was still behind her, and her right was still holding Pete's hand.

  How can he stand her?

  He can't. He's just being kind to her because she's such a loser. After the cool shade inside the house, the sunlight was blinding, the air heavy with heat. Barbara squinted and lowered her head as she made her way across the back yard. She wished she could've stayed inside. Things seemed worse, now, out here. She supposed that nothing had actually changed very much. Spending time in the house - though probably no more than ten minutes - she'd simply forgotten how bad all this was: the heat, the glare of the sun, the sour odor of smoke in the air, the sounds of sirens, amplified voices, shouts, screams, car alarms, and occasional bangs that were obviously gunshots.

  'What wouldn't give,' Pete said, 'for some air conditioning.'

  Barbara glanced back at him. 'An air-conditioned movie theater.'

  'Yeah. With a big old Pepsi full of chopped ice.’

  'And an Eastwood movie on the screen.’

  'You said it!'

  'How about an ice-cold shower?' Heather asked. She bumped softly against Pete's side. 'With you and me in it.' A grin spread across Pete's dirty face. 'Well, now.’

  'Charming,' Barbara said, and turned away. She was already sweaty again. And her eyes burned. Lifting the front of her blouse, she wiped her face.

  'Maybe somebody around here has a swimming pool,' Pete said.

  'I wouldn't count on it,' Barbara said, not looking back.

  She stopped and gazed at the piled jumble of the demolished garage.

  'Mrs Klein?' she called.

  No answer.

  'Where is she?' Pete asked.

  'Maybe around the other side,' Barbara said. Then she shouted, 'Hello! Mrs Klein! We're back!' Still no answer.

  'Well,' Barbara said, 'it's kind of noisy around here.’

  'She should've heard that.'

  'Oh,' Heather said, 'I sure hope nothing happened to her. Wouldn't that be such a shame?’

  'Hey, cut it out,' Pete said.

  'Don't give me that. You like the idea that she had us digging through this crap for her cat?''Not exactly.'

  Barbara began to make her away around the fallen garage, eyes down, carefully watching each footstep to avoid stumbling or gouging herself on debris. She planned to keep going, and not check the pile again until she had reached its opposite sid
e.

  But Pete said, 'Oh, Jeez.'

  Barbara stopped fast and snapped her head sideways. And saw a pair of legs. Like the legs of a clothes store mannequin that had been jammed headfirst into the side of the pile of rubble, jammed in so deep that only the legs stuck out. It is a mannequin! Barbara thought. Oh, Jesus, no it's not. A mannequin wouldn't have bloody feet. Or torn stockings. Or varicose veins or cuts or scratches on its calves and thighs, 'Mrs Klein?'

  Somebody'd stuffed her into the…

  No, maybe not. Maybe she'd worked her way to the car and tried to squeeze her way in through one of the windows to reach Susie. And gotten trapped. And suffocated? Suddenly feeling breathless and sick, Barbara rushed toward the protruding legs. 'Careful!' Pete shouted.

  She didn't need to go far. She didn't need to climb at all. After staggering over a few scattered roof tiles and splintered boards, she grabbed the ankles.

  'Mrs Klein!' she yelled. 'Can you hear me? Are you all right?'

  Nothing.

  'Dead?' Heather asked.

  Barbara glanced back. Heather had forgotten to keep her left hand out of sight. It hung by her side. It was clinging the can of Whiskas.

  Apparently, she'd intended to confront Mrs Klein with the evidence of her treachery.

  Pete was on his way.

  'Here,' he said. He rubbed against Barbara's side, forced his way through more debris, and wrapped his arms around Mrs Klein's thighs. 'Okay,' he said. 'Let's try and ease her out. Gently.''Yeah.'

  They both began to pull. Mrs Klein came out slowly. When her rump was clear, Pete said, 'Wait.' He reached out and grabbed the hem of her skirt and pulled until the backs of her thighs were covered. 'Okay,' he said.

 
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