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CALIFORNIA STORY: Short Fiction

Aftershock

July 16, 2006|Midge Raymond | Midge Raymond has received fiction prizes from the Indiana and Georgia State University reviews. Her work has also been published in the Ontario and North American reviews.

They were still 50 miles from the border when a semi blew a tire, causing an accident up ahead that brought traffic to a standstill. It took two hours, but finally they turned off the 101 and parked near the pier.

The heat of the desert had given way to the thick, humid air of the ocean, and she rolled down her window to breathe it in. They could see the water from where they parked.

Let's take a walk, he said.

On their way to the pier, they passed young men in colored bandannas gathered in the outdoor auditorium and Marines sprawled on the beach and sun-bleached surfers playing chicken with the algae-coated pilings.

As they walked across the gnarled wood slats, she peered between them at the swirl of greenish water below. When she looked up and saw a viewfinder, she pressed her face to it and pointed it south. Can we see Mexico from here? she asked.

I don't think so, he said. The coast curves.

She pulled away and they went to the diner at the end of the pier and ate guacamole burgers.

Do you think it's a sign? she asked him.

What?

Maybe we aren't meant to go to Mexico after all.

It doesn't mean anything, he said.

She leaned back and pushed her plate away. She glanced to her right and saw that someone had left a newspaper on the seat of the adjacent booth. He had seen it too, and reached for it.

She watched his eyes skim the headlines.

Associated Press picked it up, he said. He handed it to her.

It was just a small weekly for the coastal cities, but there it was on the back page. It described her as 24 years old and brunet, and it didn't mention him at all. She was actually only 19, and blond.

She dropped the paper on the table, and he slid it onto his lap and signaled for their server. As he paid the bill, she felt a sudden jolt and saw the saltshaker jump. She'd forgotten where they were, about the spindly legs of the pier and the cold, roiling water beneath them.

Did you feel that? she asked.

He nodded. Let's go.

He buried the newspaper in a trash can at the base of the pier.

It's not a big deal, she told him.

The article hadn't reported much, but it was a story she had hoped would disappear as quickly as they had. She didn't see the need to cross the border, but he insisted. He thought people would remember her face.

From the beginning, he had tried to make her believe it was her idea. It started back in Rolla, where they'd been at the flea market looking for shoes, and as she bent down to slip one on she saw a box filled with old newspapers, some laminated and some crumbling, and she began to file through them, headlines with names and events foreign to her: Nixon, a walk on the moon, a shuttle explosion. But what caught her eye was not one of the top stories--it was a small bit, beneath the fold of a front page announcing the Rodney King riots, with a dateline from her home state: A 5-year-old girl, a kidnapping, a cold trail. She wasn't sure why, but she bought it, along with the shoes, for $6.

Now she wished she'd never shown it to him. He'd gone to the library to research it on the computers. He came back and told her that the mother of the missing girl had moved to California, had married the CEO of a Los Angeles bank, had never given up the search for her daughter.

Then he looked at her and said she had the same blue eyes as the missing girl; with a little work, she could have the same dark hair. The girl was from the outskirts of a small Midwestern city, as she had been, and by now would be only a few years older. It was meant to be, he told her, and she almost believed it. She had disappeared from her own home at 15 instead of 5, and she hadn't seen herself as kidnapped by him as much as rescued. Still, she was a child without a mother, and here in this faded newsprint was a mother without a child.

They would use the main suspect as a starting point, he said, and use the lapsed memory of a traumatized 5-year-old as reason for not knowing the rest. He prepped her for her role, asked her questions that he knew they would ask, like did he hurt you and, of course, she already knew the answers, she knew them all too well, the answers her own mother's boyfriend had given her in the years before she finally left.

But what had truly convinced her was California. She longed for a place that was completely different--and here she could have the curve of mountains instead of plains, the throat-scorching desert air rather than the sticky Midwestern heat, the heaving breath of the ocean over the wide-eyed glassy ponds.

Her only worry, which she didn't voice, was that she knew even before it happened that she might want to play the role for real.

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