A New Life

Humans often speculated the meaning of their existence. They knew life on the planet had begun in the form of plants and fish and smaller mammals. Life itself was pondered by many humans because it seemed near unfathomable that they were the result of extreme chance; of being on a planet that held an atmosphere and was the perfect distance from a star whose orbit did not deviate enough to prevent conditions that encouraged life. This chance, however great, created a rift between many, causing humanity to segregate itself into different sects of ideology. However, all of them were correct in a way that neither could comprehend. They were allowed to grow and populate the planet because the planet itself allowed it. The human population grew and grew until it reached ten billion inhabitants. It was around this time when the tremors began.

Earthquakes became consistent. After the first year, when the earthquakes grew in frequency, many governments dedicated teams to study the cause of them and provide insight into the changes the planet was undergoing. Arthur Denali was recruited by the Chilean government to study the earthquakes and provide insight as to how they might alter the nations landscape. The main concern centered on how the quakes would impact the mining industry.

Arthur took the job for several reasons. He had been studying earthquakes for over ten years and knew his field, he needed the money to support his two young boys who were both starting their teenage years, and he was genuinely interested in what was causing the quakes themselves. He was certain there was a cause, and he wanted to find it first.

Leon and Christian were on the couch watching the game when Arthur walked in. They were sharing a bag of chips and never tore their eyes away from the screen.

“Did either of you make dinner?” he asked. Leon shook his head without looking away from the game. Arthur sighed, put his bag in a chair, and turned on the stove. He grabbed a pot and a pan and made a simple pasta with meat sauce. When he was done, he divvied the meal onto three plates and took two of them to the boys.

“The last one to finish does the dishes,” he said before returning and grabbing his own plate. They tore into the food, occasionally eyeing each other’s plates as they raced to finish. Arthur watched the game while he slowly picked at his own plate.

“Done!” Leon yelled and slammed the plate down on the coffee table.

“There are still noodles on your plate,” Christian objected.

Arthur pretended to look over their shoulders before saying, “Sorry Christian. He finished first.”

“But…” The younger boy began and turned toward Arthur with sad eyes that were growing too old to draw much empathy.

“You can wait until after the match,” Arthur said. Christian smiled and turned back to the game.

Arthur finished his plate then grabbed his computer before sitting down in the chair next to his boys. He opened the laptop and logged into an international database established to share information regarding the earthquakes and speculate the cause of their increasing frequency. Arthur primarily logged in as an observer. He rarely posted more than the day’s readings at his location. He scanned the readings from other parts of the world hoping something would come together from the information. After gathering what he could, he set up his seismometer and settled in to watch the final twenty minutes of the match with his boys.


 

The rumbling woke him. He sat up and looked around for Leon and Christian. The later opened the door of their room letting Arthur breathe before turning his attention to the seismometer. This quake had been greater than any previous ones. It stopped after nearly three minutes. He scanned the readout. It had maxed at 6.0. As he began his calculations to predict the next cycle, he was surprised by another quake. This one was softer, measuring in at 5.4, but also lasted nearly three minutes.

“What’s happening dad?” Leon asked, more curious than scared.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. The quakes had never been back-to-back before. They were consistent but spread out over several hours. If his new calculations using the previous time-frame and the new data was correct, the next one would come in roughly four hours. He packed his equipment and loaded the car. He returned and gave the boys his usual speech. Go to school, do your homework, clean up the kitchen, and try to make dinner that was more than simply chips. When he left, another quake occurred. He kept his eye on his watch as he waited until it was over. It lasted three minutes and had happened only forty-five minutes after the previous two. A second quake followed, just like earlier, and his phone rang as the trembles subsided.

“Yeah,” Arthur answered. “I know, I know….Yeah….It may be too soon to tell….Tell you what,” he pulled out his notes from the morning quakes and looked them over, “If we get another round….Yeah, two in a row….Yeah….If we get two more in the next hour, let’s call it….Okay?….Okay.” He hung up.

“Everything all right dad?” Christian called from the doorway.

“We will see,” he saw the concern in Christian’s face, “Go pack a bag and tell your brother to do the same. You two can come with me today.”

“What about school?” Christian said, trying to act genuinely concerned about missing his education and failing miserably.

“You can skip today.”

Before Arthur finished his sentence, Christian had bolted back inside the house. Arthur packed extra provisions for a worst-case scenario that he couldn’t shake out of his head.

The boys had loaded into the car and Arthur was driving toward the office when the quakes began again. Again, there were two, lasting three minutes each with a five-minute pause between them. Arthur’s phone rang.

“Yeah…Yeah…Okay.” He spun the car around and headed toward the ocean. After an hour, they were safe from any areas at risk of landslides. His phone rang again and he answered it. “Denali……what do you mean underground?………..Okay, okay, send me the coordinates and I’ll meet you there.” He dropped the phone in the cup holder and adjusted his course yet again.

“Dad…” Leon started from the backseat.

“Everything’s okay,” Arthur cut him off. He was too panicked to worry about lying and he didn’t want either of them to know how worried he really was.

They drove for hours. The rumbling of the quakes stayed consistent but increased in magnitude. Arthur had Leon pull out the seismometer and place it in the empty seat. Taking readings in a moving car skewed the results, but it provided Arthur with the information he needed. The quakes were increasing gradually. The last one had been a 6.8 give or take a few decimals for the road conditions.

The steady frequency of the quakes gave people an expectation and allowed their fears to subside a little. Many had gathered out in open areas. Only a few had packed up and gotten on the road. Arthur weaved through them on his way to a place he’d never been. The sky was growing dim when they pulled up to the gates. It was still midday, but dark clouds filled the sky. Two guards approached Arthur and asked for identification. He provided his badge the government had issued him and they let them through. He drove into a hangar and they were all then escorted into a small transit car that took them below into a bunker.

Arthur was greeted by his boss who walked him down a hall. They passed a series of glass windows and Arthur saw the president sitting with a group of men in heated discussion.

“Was that-”

“The president? Yeah. They brought him here this morning after the second set. I need you to give me updated after each grouping. They have been consistent so far. Your boys can stay with you. In fact, they won’t be allowed outside the room.” Arthur was led into a room full of equipment. “Use this phone,” his boss showed him an old landline receiver, ” to contact me.” Then he left.

Arthur surveyed the room and rolled up his sleeves. “Leon. Look after Christian. Don’t leave this room.” He bent down and placed a hand on each boy’s shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He pulled them in for a hug.

He ran from machine to machine for the next several hours, calling his boss after every set of quakes. The quakes were growing stronger. The last set registered at 7.6. They were also beginning to grow in frequency. Arthur predicted the next wave would come in seventeen minutes. His boss came in twenty-three minutes later when the next wave subsided.

“Arthur,” he said, “It’s over.”

“What’s over?”

“Everything. The president called a national emergency four hours ago urging everyone to get below ground. The first volcano erupted two hours ago, since then-”

“Volcano?”

“Yeah. There have been hundreds, maybe even thousands, erupting all over the globe. Spewing ash and gas into the atmosphere. No one can survive outside. The earth is cracking to pieces and-”

“Hold on,” Arthur stopped him. He grabbed papers from all around him, scanning the information, processing the meaning within it. He was on the edge of understanding what it all meant. Then it clicked. “Oh my god,” he whispered. He looked at his boys.

“Arthur! What is it?” his boss nearly yelled as the next set of quakes began.

“They’re not earthquakes,” Arthur said, “They’re heartbeats.”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. The title story of this collection was the inspiration for the movie Arrival, which came out two years ago in 2016. The movie was good and when I found out it was based on a written work, I went out and read it. I’ve discovered so many good books because of movies and have seen many movies because they were based on a book I’d previously read. It’s fun when a book you enjoy gets a screen adaptation. It’s also exciting to discover new authors because of screen adaptations, especially when the old adage “the book is always better” rings true.

As for this case, the movie was based on a short story. This means the movie had more room to create new or original content. When a movie is based on a book, it often has to cut out material while also changing things to make them exciting on screen. With a shorty story, there is usually little to cut for a full two-hour movie and there is actually room to add some content.

There are some excellent stories beyond the title story of this collection. The first page opens to “Tower of Babylon” which made me immediately become a fan of Ted Chiang’s ingenuity and style (I’m actually wanting to get a book of his and read it right now).

A great thing about a short story collection is that you can put it down and pick it back up whenever you like because each story is complete and you don’t need to remember what had happened previously as with a book. I went through and read every story in this collection is short time though. Another great thing is, due to their structure, you can read them quickly and in between the busy tasks of life.

If you liked the movie Arrival, read “Stories of Your Life” which inspired it. If you didn’t like it, then read the other stories in this collection because they are great. “Stories of Your Life” wasn’t my favorite honestly. I liked it, but I liked some of the “and Others” better. If you’ve never read Ted Chiang, I suggest trying at least one of his stories to see if his writing captures your interest. The world of stories is vast and wild. May this gem just be only one that you find along your way.

Happy Reading.

A New Path

The headstones were spread out in even rows. All of them the same ovular shape. Every one identical save for the names and dates written on them. The first time his mother took him the graveyard, Xander was four years old and frightened. He was scared because he’d heard ghosts guarded the stones on the hill. No one had seen them, but everyone agreed that it was true so he believed it.

He followed his mother with wide eyes and fast heart and gripped her hand tight not knowing the pain it caused her. The sickness was taking hold of her even then, but she didn’t say a word about it or the pain. Instead, she tried reassuring him that the ghost stories weren’t true, but the idea was already locked deep in his mind. His mother set the flowers in front of his Nana’s grave and began talking. Xander didn’t pay attention but anxiously waited for her to finish so they could leave.

A pair of eyes peeked out from behind the headstone. They stared at him and he stared back, breaking eye contact only to glance at his mother. A giggle echoed through the empty burial ground. His mother didn’t seem to notice any of it. She kept talking despite the young girl’s chin resting on his Nana’s gravestone. He glared at the girl.

“She can’t see me,” the young girl said, “but I can hear her. I’m happy to see you again young Xander.”

His heart fluttered within him and he grabbed at his mother’s arm. She paused long enough to tell him they would leave soon.

The young girl walked around and sat in front of the stone. She stared at him. The large smile never leaving her face.

“Xander dear. Don’t be frightened. It’s me, Nana.”

He almost let go of his mother’s arm and ran, but he was frozen.

“It’s okay. It’s a scary place, but it’s okay. Don’t speak, just listen.”

She told him stories every visit. He never spoke to her until he started visiting her alone when he was fifteen and his mother became too sick to leave the house. His job took up much of his time and he had to drop out of school, but he spent any spare afternoons at the graveyard asking Nana questions and listening to more of her stories. She was always there for him.

When he was sixteen, his Papa died. They buried him next to Nana. The next time Xander visited their graves he found two teenagers his own age. At first, he ignored them thinking they were visitors until Nana called his name. He sat in the grass with them for hours talking about the trouble they got into at his age. They prefaced each one with a warning not to do as they had done. He found himself laughing with them until the sky dimmed and the sun’s fading rays hit their faces like firelight. Then his Papa said, “Xander, my boy, it’s time for us to go.”

He stood. “I’ll come visit tomorrow.”

“No, little one,” his Nana said, “We are leaving.”

“What?”

“We can’t stay here. There are things we should have done a long time ago,” his Papa smiled.

“Do you know why we told you all of our stories?”

He hung his head, hiding his eyes. “I’ll never forget you.”

“We know, but that is not the reason,” Nana said.

“True,” his Papa placed a hand on his shoulder, “It is good to remember the past, but you must live your life. Leave your dreams with the living, do not bring them here as we have done.”

“But-”

“It’s okay,” a new voice said.

Xander looked over to see someone he’d only seen in a photograph and his whole world crumbled. She had long, black hair and hazel eyes. She was smiling as she approached. He fell to his knees when she got to him and she knelt down to hug him.

“It’s okay Xander,” his mother said in her teenage voice. They sat with each other as the sun disappeared from the horizon. Its last rays illuminating the clouds enough for him to see his mother as she once was. “They’re right,” she said lifting his chin, “It is time for all of us to leave this place. I won’t be an anchor to you any longer.”

“But mom…I can’t.”

“Of course you can. Let us be your guide.”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This book has a lot going on and it all works in amazing ways. I strongly believe that time travel is a really hard topic to pull off because there are many opportunities for plot holes or for something to leave the audience unsatisfied about. Even popular movies that venture into that territory often falter. This book, and the movie based on it, do a great job of avoiding the many pitfalls surrounding the subject. Just as it is for the characters in the book, the time travel element seems second nature/a random event that is both problematic but sometimes good.

The premise is Henry DeTamble involuntarily travels through time at random moments. He first travels at a young age (around 4?). He can’t control it. Every time he travels, he doesn’t know where or when he will show up, but his clothes never go with him so he ends up naked wherever he ends up. He has to find clothes and eventually just wait for the “jump” to pass because he eventually travels back to his original time and place from where he first disappears. Essentially, he lives a linear life but disappears every so often to visit other time periods of his life and other places he may have never been before.

Anyway, the rules are laid down and adhered to within the book and the fantastical element works extremely well, especially when creating complications for Henry and his eventual wife Clare. The movie came out in 2009, which I saw and thought was an excellent adaptation. I recommend both, but of course encourage the option of reading. Though the movie does have one scene that makes me hold back a tear. Not many movies do this but this one does.

Rare moment of vulnerability aside, this book does contain a lot of sex and drug use (not a ton, but enough to not recommend it to children/younger/immature persons). The movie cut a lot of those things out so it is safe to watch. They do show Eric Bana’s butt a few times though (I’m sure some of you may be pushing play on the movie right now because of that). Other than the few omissions of “suggestive themes,” the book is pretty much spot on in capturing the major moments and most of the smaller ones. Of course, movies never include everything in the book.

The story centers on the relationship of Clare and Henry and focuses on each character equally. It’s a gripping story that incorporates time travel extremely well and isn’t even a typical science fiction book that you might expect. It’s more of a fiction with the time travel element added for a bit of excitement (to put it mildly).

Happy Reading.

Pollyannaism

She was smiling. Kelly always smiled, but this was his favorite photo of her. They had gone to the pier after the beach. It had been his day off. No one was there and the attendant at the Ferris wheel seemed less than thrilled to get any customers, but Nathan hadn’t let anything ruin that day. They went simply because they could. They had lived in the city for a decade and had never gone. At the top, she pulled out her phone and snapped the picture.

He still looked at the photo every day even after he began seeing the numbers. The first time he saw them was during his last night shift in the ER. An elderly man came in complaining of dizziness. He was on several medications, but Nathan knew Hydralazine would stabilize him. There was absolutely no doubt. He calculated it perfectly. 10 cc’s. Not a drop more. The numbers appeared as he pushed the drug into the man’s arm. They ticked down, and when they reached zero, the old man’s eyes grew vacant and left his body behind.


Nathan wandered to the pier every morning on his days off. He would stare out at the ocean and take in the salt-sprayed air for an hour or so. He’d buy a ticket to the Ferris wheel from a bored attendant. They were different each time, but now they all had numbers. The young man this time had a healthy 63 years, 22 hours, 41 minutes, and 36…35…34…

He didn’t know what it was or how it came to him, but he kept the numbers secret. He knew the idea of them would sound insane to anyone else. At first, he thought they were a punishment, a sign that whatever he did meant nothing, but he realized they were a blessing when he pulled a young boy out of anaphylaxis. He watched the minutes rise one by one as the boy’s breathing returned to normal. He knew the urgency of each patient with a simple glance. He started his rounds with the patient with the lowest number and ended with the highest. The nurses found his method sporadic, but he was always where he needed to be. They gave him nicknames that he tried to ignore.


At the top, where he could see most of the city, he would pull out his phone and stare at the photo of his wife. The zeroes above her head were daggers, but he taught himself to look past them and see her smile. The smile that reminded him of the day they spent at the beach six years ago. When they had gotten out of the water, plopped down on their towels, sprawled out on the sand and Kelly told him she was pregnant. She said it so bluntly he’d almost missed it. She had looked at him with that beaming smile and started laughing.

It was infectious, even across the years. Nathan found himself smiling when he got off the empty ride and onto the vacant pier. He headed into the city of a million people.