Edition 6: Caldera by Joshua D Moyes
Moyes’ short story, Caldera, was shortlisted in the 2012 Story Quest Short Story Contest. The judges were impressed with the evocative imagery of a believable disaster of immense proportions in the US, as well as the story developing to something beyond… GH
Charlie’s tracks are no longer visible. Only a couple hours ago they were there, the edges softening and crumbling in on themselves. Now they have filled in completely. The front yard, the street, the baseball field on the other side of the street, everything: blank.
Not a trace he was ever there.
The flakes keep falling, big and soft and light. You can blow on them as they come down and they eddy and drift like froth. Like smoke. They fall clumped together, some clusters the size of a human head. It piles up as it has been piling up for three days. The second day it built up higher than the floor of the porch and then later it spilled over, fluffing out over the porch and crawling its slow way toward the door. You could almost believe it is snow.
Last night Charlie decided to go for help.
We packed for him, mostly clothes. Water we scooped into canteens from the bathtub. Several handkerchiefs to tie around his face. He wouldn’t take much food. Said he could pillage abandoned convenience stores he came across, and I would need as much as we could save. He didn’t know when he would make it back.
I insisted he take the gun.
“No,” he said, laying the Colt on the table. “You might need this.”
“I have the house. I can keep the doors locked. You’re going—“ I paused, my eyes stinging and my throat aching, “—you’re going to be sleeping out in that.” I waved a hand at the window. “You don’t know what’s out there. You take the gun.”
He didn’t argue any more. I had the feeling, and I still do, that he only put up token resistance for appearance’s sake. As if there was still anyone around to impress. Charlie wanted to take the gun, and I didn’t blame him.
This morning, as the starless black of the sky lightened to charcoal gray, Charlie slung his pack onto his back. He dropped the magazine out of the Colt to make sure for the tenth time it was loaded, then slapped the magazine back home. He slid the automatic into the holster he wore on his hip.
From outside, somewhere in the newly vague and uncertain landscape, came a loud screech. We had been hearing off and on for two days now, sometimes closer, sometimes further away.
“What are those?” I said.
Charlie stared at the front window as if trying to see through the thick drapes. “Coyote,” he said.
Neither of us believed that.
Kneeling in front of me, he took my hands, kissing each at the knuckle of my middle finger. “I’ll be back for you, Rachel.”
“I know,” I said.
“You just stay inside and wait for me and I’ll bring back help.”
I looked at the front door. When we bought this house we put in new, heavy doors. Upgraded all the deadbolts. Installed a security alarm. That all seemed flimsy now.
“Maybe I could come with you.” I knew this was impossible, but at that moment I wanted anything but to be left alone in this house, in this empty village. I could brave the hardship of the road.
Charlie shook his head. “It’s too deep, babe. You wouldn’t make it down the block.”
I gripped the rails of my wheelchair, the chrome cool beneath my fingers. If I squeezed hard enough I could keep from crying until he was gone.
“Okay,” I whispered.
He stood and went to the door. I followed him. He went out and I pushed forward, bumping my front wheels up to the threshold. He stood on the porch and tied a handkerchief around his nose and mouth.
“You look ready to rob a train.”
“All I need is a horse.” He turned to me, his gray eyes squinting the way they do when he’s thinking about something unpleasant. “Wish me luck.”
On impulse, I reached out and grabbed his hand, big and warm in mine. “Luck,” I said.
Charlie took his hand back and pushed his fingers through his hair. He gazed off at the gray, inexpressive landscape, shaking his head slightly. “I’ll see you soon.”
He kicked his way to the porch steps and down them, and then trudged off through the ash.
At first, we watched it on Youtube. Everybody watched it on Youtube.
Charlie, from the office that adjoined our master bedroom, said, “Rachel, come look at this.”
He never brought the laptop out to me when he wanted me to see something. He said it would be like admitting defeat. I must never admit defeat. I wheeled back to him from the kitchen, holding my sandwich in my mouth like a dog that has fetched slippers.
Charlie rolled his chair to the side so I could squeeze close in to the desk. He motioned at the screen. The video wasn’t playing, but I could tell it was supposed to be very important. It was trending. It had over a hundred thousand views in the three hours since it had been posted. Charlie moved the cursor and played the video.
The clip showed two people, a young man and woman, both wearing knit caps and backpacks. The ridge they were on overlooked a valley covered in tall pine. Both their noses red from the wind that whipped the tops of the pine trees behind them. They held hands and seemed very happy. They kissed.
As their lips met, the disembodied voice of the cameraman said, “Holy shit.”
The young woman said, “What?” her voice irritated, but the view had already slipped past her, the focus rushing down, sweeping across the tops of the trees below them. The lake in the center of the valley’s bowl zoomed up to meet the view screen.
The surface of my tongue puckered slightly as I drew air into my open mouth. I paused the clip.
“What?” Charlie said.
“I know that place. I’ve hiked right where those kids are a hundred times. That’s Yellowstone Lake down there.”
“I know it is.” Charlie’s words came out clipped the way they did when he was trying to be patient but really didn’t think he should have to be. As he said, his own challenge to overcome.
He grabbed the mouse and continued the clip. “Watch.”
The north shore of the lake, with pine and fir trees growing to the water’s edge, had become a widening ribbon of brown mud. The crystal water shed away from the bank, flowing south and churning up silt from the bottom. A blossom of reddish-brown murk spread across the surface of the water. The earth at the north bank of Yellowstone Lake swelled, heaving upward in a slow ripple. Cracks appeared in the shore. Where each new crack opened the earth gave up a puff of dirt and steam with the brief shriek of a tea kettle.
My palms felt slick on the armrests of my chair.
The camera lurched and there was a huge rumbling sound. The view onscreen jogged up and down, side to side. One of the men screamed. Earthquake. It went on for what seemed like an hour, but was really only thirty seconds or so.
The shaking subsided. The view refocused on the lake. The water rushed south in a broad wave as the lake tried to tip from its basin, exposing its own raw socket.
Someone said, “Oh—“
The clip ended.
I turned to Charlie.
“Pretty fricking cool, huh?” he said, eyebrows raised, half a grin on his face.
At first it felt like something was caught in my chest and I couldn’t get the breath to say anything. I backed my chair away from the desk and wheeled a quarter turn to face him. He continued to stare at me as if expecting me to laugh at this private delight he had shared with me. I drew in a dry, shaky breath.
“Charlie, we have to get out of here.”
Charlie narrowed his eyes. He cocked his head to the side and sat up straighter in his chair. Squared his shoulders.
We must conquer our fear, his posture said.
“Why do we have to leave?” Charlie said.
“Oh, Charlie.” The words weren’t much more than a whisper. “Please.”
He stood and clapped his hands together, once. Bounced on his toes. His teeth even and straight. “It’s an earthquake. Nothing to panic about. I just thought you’d like to see your old stomping grounds.”
We saw the rest on CNN. They broadcast live from a helicopter above the valley. We watched this from the comfort of our living room. In hi-def. resolution. Charlie made popcorn, but I didn’t want any.
The bulge on the north shore which had started out as a ripple had swelled to the height of stadium seating. Mary Bay had emptied and risen up onto the slope of this new foothill. Storm point now looked down on the water from the conical apex. The effect made it seem the lake had tipped from its basin, spilling over the southern shore while pouring away from the superheated mound to the north. A two hundred yard band of the bed was exposed beyond what was the north bank of the lake. The mud ran in streaks of yellow and rust red that reminded me of infection. Steam vents split and cratered the cone, suppurating like an ulcer. Almost regularly, the surface of the lake churned and frothed as the ground shook from the internal forces that caused the swelling of the earth.
As the sun reddened in the west late that afternoon, the water at the northern edge of the lake began to boil.
“Would you look at that,” Charlie said as he chewed popcorn.
“We’re running out of time,” I said. Charlie’s eyes remained glued to the television. A kid watching fireworks.
At 8:03 pm—I know this was the time because the news anchor repeated it like a mantra, as if it could save him—the distended crust at the crown of the still-expanding volcanic mound collapsed in on itself. A rift tore open diagonally across the southern face of the mound, expelling a gout of steam and gas. Close on the heels of this initial exhalation, the septic red of lava splashed out into the night, ejecting out over the cauldron of lake.
The open wound of the volcano shrieked, an agonized indrawn breath that grated almost painfully even through television speakers.
Charlie sat back against the couch cushions, the bowl of popcorn clattering to the hardwood floor.
“Dear God,” he said. “Rachel.”
“You see it now.”
The surge of lava from the mound relieved pressure within the magma chamber. Superheated gases that had been held trapped in the molten rock effervesced free. This coupled with the screaming in-rush of fresh air.
The first blast disintegrated the volcanic mound, spewing shattered rock and lava thousands of feet in the air and tearing a crater out of the plain between the lake and the mountains. The wave of heat buffeted the CNN helicopter and the image from the camera became all streaking lines and smears of color. A brief moment of stability, then the camera focused on the seething open hole of the volcano as the pilot banked the helicopter to flee the blast.
The entire Yellowstone caldera erupted. The basin vaporized, the plain belching itself out into the night sky. Two hundred fifty cubic miles of rock and lava and lake and tree and bear and deer lifted in a column of fire and ash that spiked a hundred miles into the upper atmosphere. All lit from beneath by the deep magma, brilliant white and yellow, that geysered out of the rift in the world. The fire and smoke intertwined, twisting and roiling.
Before the final heat wave disintegrated the helicopter and everyone aboard, the camera showed something else.
Dark shapes spiraled indistinct in the whirlwind of dirt and smoke, but the occasional backlighting from the blazing core of the mass suggested separateness, independence from the whole of the eruption. Purpose. A hint, in motion barely seen, of wings.
The darkness of burial descended upon the helicopter, and the image on our television became snow.
Charlie had leaned forward again, his wrists on his knees. “Rewind that. Just a few seconds.”
I picked up the DVR controller and backed the footage up. Played it again.
“Now pause it.”
It was impossible to be sure of what we saw. Shadows within shadows. But I could not shake the impression of an elongated face.
A gaping nest of teeth.
Charlie has been gone now for two days. The memory of the warmth of his hands on my cheeks tells me he loves me. The memory of the square set of his shoulders tells me how determined he is accept the unfairness of being saddled with a wife crippled so early in their marriage. I know that he tried to teach me to be strong. To be limitless.
But now I am so scared.
Ash has drifted across the porch and piled against the front door. It is level with the bottoms of the windows. It finds the smallest imperfections in the house and makes its way in to me. I must keep a damp kerchief tied across my face all the time to keep from choking. The water in the bathtub has fouled gray and muddy with it. The water tastes bitter.
If Charlie found his way to help, he would come back for me if he could. If nothing else, pride would drive him. I fear, though, that he has not found help. That he has been swallowed by fields of pillowy ash that extend on for eternity. I fear that he has found more than ash in the eternity of wasteland.
I write you this for a record. For you who, in a hundred years or five hundred years, uncover this house and all within it. That you might have some clue what happened, who I was, who was my Charlie. I cannot create mosaics or pottery to tell my story as those in Pompeii did. And so I write to you.
There is no knowledge so certain as that I will die here. A million years ago this volcano coughed, and its ash buried herds of rhinoceros and camel as far away as eastern Nebraska. I am not so far away as that and the ash will soon engulf my home. But I may never get the chance to be buried alive.
Our neighbor to the east was Mrs. Rodriguez. Charlie and I had not seen her in the two days between the eruption and his departure for help. We assumed she had evacuated early with the rest of our neighbors. I no longer believe that.
Yesterday I allowed myself a look out the front window. It seemed a risk, but I had not heard that eerie screeching since before Charlie left. I drew back the drapes and sat in my chair, looking out at the grayness and being thankful for what light seeped through the bruised atmosphere. A hundred yards away, the roof of Mrs. Rodriguez’s house peeked over the tops of the trees.
Something sat atop her house. At first it just seemed to be a large shadow, a trick of the non-light. But it moved, flexing wings out from its sides, taking a step. Its head swiveled on a long neck. It seemed to be looking for something.
I wheeled away from the window as fast as I could, letting the drapes fall back in place. I prayed that whatever was on the roof of the other house had not seen me.
For a long while I heard nothing. A world covered in ash is painfully quiet. The contrast of that quiet made the screaming from Mrs. Rodriguez’s home so much louder. So much more present. It began as short, staccato cries that lengthened into a protracted shriek. It carried.
I borrowed a glass baking pan from her only a week ago. I should have returned it.
Since then, I no longer use my wheelchair. To keep as low a profile as possible, to stay beneath the windows, I stay on the floor and drag myself along with my arms. Perhaps it is silly. Perhaps it is futile. But I will struggle to keep on until I can go no further.
An hour ago I heard something land on the roof. It was an almost delicate sound, no impact that suggested any real weight. I held my breath. It might only have been a tree branch dropping onto the roof. The rafters belied that notion, however. They groaned with stress as the mass of the thing settled.
Since then it’s only sat there. Occasionally it shifts its weight and I hear what sound like claws gouging at the shingles. Sometimes it taps, a quick succession, and I cannot but imagine the points of curved, enameled daggers.
I wonder how long it will wait.
Friend, explorer, future treasure hunter: I will write no more now. My hope is this letter will be safe from future history inside the oven. And my hope is that there is an end to this waste, and an end to the fear that dwells within it. There is for me, and it comes soon.