An Unnatural Disaster
It almost sounded like a klaxon, a siren, a warning — something that awoke Jerry from his sleep. He turned his head to see what was going on, but his skull felt strangely heavy, almost the weight of a bowling ball. He noticed a television set was on inside the somewhat darkened room, and his foot brushed against someone at the foot of the bed. Someone he’d met last night. Someone who was now sobbing profusely … .
Christ, he muttered in his head. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table through watery eyes. 8:38 a.m. shimmered in LCD on the alarm clock radio before him. He’d been asleep for just about six hours.
He rose from the bed wondering what the hell was going on. He sat down beside the woman at the foot of the bed, noticing she held a remote control in her hands clasped so tightly that it looked pious. The channel was one of those 24 hour news channels, and Jerry could overhear something on the screen about a mudslide in Peru.
The woman was now muttering something between her sobs. Jerry craned his ear. I did this. Over and over. I did this.
She wouldn’t let go of the remote, not even as Jerry gently tried to pull it away from her. She sat there, not willing to budge in her long sleeved shirt and underwear. As he yanked the remote one last time, he started to remember small details about her importance. He’d met her over drinks —
Martinis, right? — in the hotel bar last night. If only he could recall her name … .
“I did that,” she said.
“Huh?” he yawned. “What are you talking about?”
She pointed to the TV screen. Jerry focused his eyes out of blurriness, and noticed people were pulling teenagers out from beneath the rubble of houses that had caved in during the mud slide.
“I made that happen.”
There was a silent moment while Jerry tossed this sentence around in his head, doubting his own sanity and sobriety for a second. He consulted the man who ran the filing cabinet upstairs in the attic of his brain, and pulled out a photo of himself drinking an awful lot in a strange bar with a strange woman the night before
“What the hell … ?” he said, not comprehending.
“I … I shouldn’t have done it,” she wailed, letting strands of her unruly long hair clump against her face. “What we did. You and I. It almost always … always … leads to that.”
Jerry just sat there, letting her words wash over him.
Did she just say what I thought she said?
She flipped to another news channel, twisting her hair with a finger on her other non-remote clutching hand. On this news station, there were pictures of houses floating away on what appeared to be the Mississippi.
“There’ll be more, too,” she said. “Usually, all of this happens in threes.”
“Christ,” sighed Jerry. “It’s just the news — the same old same old.”
He lay back down, tugging the pillow over top of his head. He squeezed his eyes shut. He hoped, for God’s sake, she might do the same.
“I’m not making this up,” she pleaded. “I made this … we … made this happen. It’s part of my curse. I thought that maybe, just this once, nothing would go wrong. But … but … I forgot … “
“C’mon,” he said, his voice slightly strained from beneath the pillow. “I’ve got until this afternoon, well after check-out, before ’til I catch my flight. I want to get some more sleep. OK?”
The levy broke. The bed began to vibrate, and not in a remotely pleasant way.
“You don’t understand!” she wailed, nearly buckling under the weight of her tears. “It’s awful! I don’t know why I keep doing this!”
There are a load of synonyms for the word obnoxious, and Jerry started to rattle some of them off in his head. Horrible. Insufferable. Detestable. He breathed deeply beneath the pillow, beginning to feel cursed himself. Finally, he sighed and got up.
“Okay,” he said, and sat down beside her again. He tentatively put an arm around her and squeezed her shoulder blade. “What’s the matter?”
She glanced at him oddly through a wall of tears, before turning her attention to the world falling to pieces before them on the TV set.
“I’ve told you … you for the last two minutes. This is what the matter is.”
She flipped through the channels again. The Palestinians and Israelis were pointing guns at each other in the Middle East. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
“Did I do something wrong last night?” he asked with as much sincerity as he could muster. “Is that it?”
She shook her head wildly.
“It wasn’t what you did,” she said. “It’s what we … I did. I shouldn’t have slept with you. Not after — .”
She muttered something incomprehensible.
“You’ll think I’m … I’m crazy,” she said, biting her lip.
“Jesus, of course not,” he said, mentally adding I don’t think — I have a pretty good idea that you already are. “What the hell is going on?”
She drew in a breath. She placed her hands, still welded to the remote, into her lap.
“When I was 13 years old, I was cursed by a guy who pulled me between some cars in a parking lot. He told me I could never have sex, ever, or bad things would happen. Just picked me at random.”
There was a pregnant pause in the room. Jerry felt as though his stomach had burst out of his gut, opened the 14th-story (or was it the 13th given the way things tended to be numbered in high-rises?) hotel bedroom window and jumped.
“You’re kidding,” Jerry said, almost with borderline sarcasm. “Bad things happen?”
“Yeah. Torrential floods, tornadoes, accidents. You name it. Something always goes wrong. The world gets destroyed. I shouldn’t — I mean, I do it to prove him wrong. That’s why … . Last night … . “
Jerry sighed and raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Did anything else happen when this guy grabbed you?”
She wiped the tears away with her shirt sleeve.
“I don’t know. I don’t really remember too much.”
Jerry’s arm retreated from her shoulder. He suddenly had the most incredible urge to put his pants and shirt on and get out of the room. Now.
“Where are you going?” she asked as Jerry left the bed.
He didn’t reply. He went to the bathroom, and locked the door.
Inside, he turned on the light and placed his hands on the cold marble counter. He quickly glanced at the figure in the mirror — a slightly overweight nearly naked guy only wearing a pair of boxers and a crew neck white shirt. Nothing spectacular of nothing that would, on the surface, look like bait for those who were messed up. Or so he thought.
He turned on the hot water tap and splashed his face with near-scalding hot water. He did this partly out of punishment, and partially because he wanted to dull the trio of jackhammers beginning to rev up in his head. It didn’t help. But there was a purse belonging to the woman on the counter. He rummaged through it without thinking, notions of privacy being one thing out of his mind, hoping to find an Aspirin or an Advil. He suspected this probably wasn’t a bright idea given the fact he’d been drinking last night. But, right now, he wasn’t sure if he would mind if he dropped dead of liver failure. He felt pretty awful, general weirdness notwithstanding.
Instead of finding instant headache relief, Jerry found himself turning over a brown bottle of prescription pills. He held it for a moment, then turned it over in his hands. There was a yellow label on one side that said Clinical trial and a white one that read Trialveron. Take two times a day. Refillable. He’d never heard of it.
There was a name on one of the labels. Sarah L — with the rest after the L being peeled away.
Jerry quickly unscrewed the top and shook out two triangular green pills onto his palm. The musky smell reminded him of cleaning out his mother’s medicine cabinet after she died, and finding all sorts of strange noxious or banned substances, including a bottle of saccharin. He wondered what the hell Trialveron might just be, or what it could possibly cure. One whiff practically made his head float away from his body.
He put the pills away and pried his eyes open as he looked in the mirror. Little crimson rivers ran through fields of egg white. He cursed to himself, and continued his futile hunt for headache relief. There was nothing in the purse.
During his hunt for something to cure his pain, he tried to recall how he’d gotten into this mess. He knew he’d met her in the bar in the downstairs lounge last night. She’d approached him … . No, wait. It had been the other way around. He’d approached her. It usually happened that way, didn’t it?
He wasn’t sure why he’d chosen her. It could have been anyone, but there was something intangible about her. Maybe it had been the way she wore loneliness for company, slumped over a drink at the bar as she had been? Maybe that had simply made her an easy target? Jerry liked women like that. They required little work, little hustle.
He approached her, pulled towards her by a million tiny magnets. There she was, drinking a martini, looking as cute as a button. She was a simple girl, maybe even a country girl checking out the big city. She was plain Jane dressed in jeans and that long-sleeved shirt that hadn’t been tucked into the waist of her pants. She also had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and brown eyes — the kind of girl Van Morrison once sang about. Jerry suspected that a significant other of some sort might not be too far off, but that hadn’t stopped him before.
Switching the magnetic field in reverse had been easy. All Jerry had to do was use one of his best pick-up lines, even if it were a cliché.
She stared at him for a moment, not sure if she was the one he’d been talking to. In fact, she looked like she’d been framed between a pair of headlights. Her eyes darted around, as though she was making sure a much more beautiful woman hadn’t slunk up into the chair beside her. Realizing the spotlight was indeed being cast entirely upon her, she feigned a smile.
“Hi,” she replied shyly, taking a sip of her drink.
He pulled up a seat. Confidence hopped up on a dose of amphetamines oozed out of all of his pores.
“I think I lost a contact lens here earlier,” said Jerry, uttering a greatest hit in his arsenal of small talk lines. It was a brilliant lie if he’d ever thought of one. Nobody would ever know, really.
“Haven’t seen it,” muttered the woman, this Sarah. “What about the waitress?”
Great idea, Jerry thought with a smile. And while I ask, I might as well have what this nice lady sitting beside me is having.
Jerry did so and, of course, the waitress merely shrugged at the inquiry about the missing lens. She brought back Jerry the first of what had seemed to be an endless stream of martinis — bought with cash, of course, since it helped him buy the lie of having a different name — and drunk for a moment in silence. Waiting for the woman’s next move.
“So … what do you do for a living?” Sarah finally asked, twisting a nervous finder in her hair.
“I own a chain of hot-dog stands in the South Pacific. In my spare time, I’m a part-time magician to boot.”
“Really?” she said, sounding as though she genuinely believed what he’d just said.
Naïve. This is good, he had thought.
“Actually, I own a digital design firm,” he replied. It was the truth, and sometimes the truth was OK if it got him out of spinning one too many lies.
“What firm?” Sarah inquired.
“It’s a boutique firm. You probably wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s not important anyway. What do you do?”
What did she do for a living? he asked himself again, rapping his fingers on the marble counter of the bathroom sink. He thought for a moment, and then, suddenly, had a quick flash of an image — like somebody channel-hopping from snow to a porno channel and back again. It had nothing to do with the question he’d asked himself, but it made him grin nevertheless. Sarah might have said she’d been cursed, but Jerry realized that it felt as though she’d been blessed with magic hands last night. Hadn’t she?
Jerry chuckled to himself.
“George?” cried the sobbing voice from the other room. “Come on. I hope I didn’t freak you out or anything.”
“Coming,” he said, flushing the toilet to make it look like he was on important business in the bathroom. He fumbled with the tapes to wash up, trying to trace what other lies he’d used on Sarah. He almost wished, aside from telling her his real job, he’d jotted down a flow chart of his fibs from the bar last night just to keep the facts straight.
Not that anything that had happened last night mattered much now, anyhow. It would soon be a memory. The only thing that did matter to him was figuring out a way to get out of this situation, this hotel room.
He opened the door and sauntered out, reaching to a pair of dress pants off a nearby chair. He shook the pants out, and started putting them on one leg at a time.
He glanced up and saw Sarah still sitting at the edge of the bed with her back turned to him. He could tell, thought, she was starting to act a little bit more composed, thankfully. She had stopped sniffling, and had exchanged the morbid images on the TV in favour of the soothing songs of yesterday’s radio from the alarm clock. Jerry knew the song. It was “I Feel the Earth Move” — an old Carole King chestnut. A good ol’ staple of any Mom Rock mix tape.
“I thought there might be something different on the radio,” she said. “You know, some more news when it hits nine o’clock or something.”
Sarah shifted uneasily on the bed.
“Look. I’m truly sorry. I wish I didn’t have to tell you anything.”
She let her voice trail off, and then turned around to look at him. Her voice had a bit of a quiver as she said, “Maybe I should have just said no to you right off the bat.”
“Look,” Jerry replied, looking for a way out. “I’ve never guilty about having sex with someone I just met. You shouldn’t either.”
“It’s not that,” she said, her voice leveling out as though she’d swallowed a confidence pill. “It’s not … guilt. It’s … I feel danger. Something else is about to happen.”
“Mmm-huh?” said Jerry, thinking Here we go again as he zipped up his fly and buttoned up his pants. “So what could possibly happen that hasn’t already?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I can just feel something evil in the air. Whatever’s happening outside in the world isn’t over … . Um, are you leaving?”
She wore a mask of genuine worry on her face that was as though his departure might really cause the end of the world. Jerry smiled, and slipped into reassuring mode.
“I just realized that I should maybe try to get down to the airport a little earlier,” he said, trying to keep the faintest hint of sarcasm out of his voice. “Plus, I could stand to go over my notes for my next client meeting.”
Sarah glanced down, rubbing some snot from beneath her nose with her skeletal left hand. She was silent and Jerry used that to his advantage.
“You can have the room to yourself, if you need to,” he said. “I have it until 2 p.m.”
Jerry glanced over at Sarah and something about her downtrodden eyes told him that she didn’t believe a word he was saying. Still, so long as she didn’t start bawling again, everything would be indeed okay. He slipped the shoes over his feet, and then reached for the tie he’d worn yesterday. He threw it inside his briefcase on the table.
“Can you do me just one favour?” Sarah asked.
Jerry steeled himself.
Uh-oh. Here it comes. The pleading and moaning. “Stay with me. Help me get through whatever disaster happens next.”
“Sure,” shrugged Jerry, steeling himself.
“Could you just get me my purse?” she asked. “Think I left it in the bathroom. And some water. Water would be nice.”
Jerry, relieved, gladly complied with the request. He went and grabbed the purse and handed it to her. She went rummaging through it as he filled up a plastic hotel cup with water back in the washroom. He walked out to see her pulling out some Aspirin from the bottom of the purse. How come I didn’t see that? Jerry wondered.
Then, the bottle of Trialveron tumbled out onto the bed. Curiosity got the best of him.
“It kinda prevents what happens from happening,” she said. “It’s new. It negates the curse. I haven’t taken any for days. I wish I did, but, then again, I never thought I would be in this kind of situation.”
The room became deathly silent, save for the radio, which was now playing “Jazzman” on the Carole King hit parade. Jerry couldn’t decide which was more annoying: the songs on the radio or the woman in the room he was trapped with. Either way, he figured this might be as good a cue as any for getting the hell out of this place.
He grabbed his briefcase, luggage and the room key on the table.
“I guess I should be leaving now,” he said wearily. A cliché, but it was the only thing he could think of.
“Are you … sure?” she replied, as though she retained some kind of magic spell over him.
Jerry and Sarah stared at each other for a moment, uncomfortably. It was one of those moments when one person wasn’t exactly sure if there was anything left to be said. Sarah looked up at Jerry in pure horror as though it’d finally sunk in that he was, in fact, about to turn around and leave her behind.
The levy broke again.
“Look, I … I … shouldn’t have freaked you out like that,” she said, bursting back into tears. “I’m so sorry for … everything.”
Yeah, me, too, thought Jerry sarcastically, backing up, reaching for the door knob. Me too.
There were no cabs at the taxi stand outside, but that was fine with Jerry. He suddenly had a burst of energy once he’d stepped off the elevator and handed his room key over to the desk clerk — though his headache hadn’t yet entirely vanished. He stepped out into the sunshine and the gritty smell of day-old garbage sitting on the curb outside of the hotel.
He wrinkled his nose at the stench, which only reminded him that he hadn’t taken a shower that morning and he probably wouldn’t be smelling too good himself in not too long.
Whatever, he thought. I can just wash up at the airport, take a shower in the next city. Which was — ?
He checked his ticked, which he’d kept in his jacket pocket. Ah, yes. San Francisco, the Rice-a-Roni treat.
He started walking, and a street sign at the corner he reached told him he was headed down Xenia Avenue. Jerry thought this was an odd name. It sounded foreign, almost outer-space like. He’d heard it somewhere before, too, but just couldn’t place where. He shrugged and continued on his way, with the memory of what just transpired between Sarah and him starting to vanish like yesterday’s news.
Except … .
Except that last look she’d given him. Jerry couldn’t really shake that out of his head no matter how hard he tried. There was something off in that gaze that was just loaded with guilt, and he did feel a bit wee bit bad for just abandoning her like that. It wasn’t really the behavior of someone trained to hold a client’s hand and tell them that everything was going to be alright.
He tried to shrug it off as he walked, but he noticed that the street was oddly devoid of pedestrians and cars, aside from the odd one parked here and there — which struck him as a bit odd. The birds were also deathly silent. In any event, Jerry knew he’d catch a cab if he kept walking. This was a main drag, wasn’t it? There was bound to be a major intersection coming up at any moment. He could catch the taxi, take it to the airport, and maybe catch a few zzz’s on the drive over or in the terminal. Once he was in Frisco, he could sleep, shower and shave. Maybe in that order.
Jerry was halfway down the block when he heard the ominous rumbling. It sounded like a large truck passing by him, but he quickly glanced around and saw nothing. No, the source of the noise was beneath him. It was a force unlike anything he’d felt before — a violent trembling that sounded like boulders splintering into sand.
A plate glass window fell apart and sprayed thousands of tiny diamonds into his face and hair. Traffic meters on the sidewalk bent themselves out of shape. The yellow line of the road before him split in tow — exposing burst sewer and water lines like jagged little teeth.
Somewhere, a lady screamed. Horns blared in the distance.
Jerry might have run, if the ground hadn’t pushed him up and onto his side like a little toy. His briefcase and luggage flew out of his hands as he hit the ground. Pain ripped through his left arm, but he frantically scrambled to get up, digging his fingers into the concrete to find purchase. It was like grabbing onto a wet chalk board. Tiny pins jabbed into his arms, making the task virtually impossible. He felt something running down the left side of his face.
Not that it mattered. The sidewalk entirely gave way and Jerry was sucked into a dark void.
A storefront crashed down on top of him. Other buildings started following suit, dropped one after another, like dominoes, on top of him. And then, the rumbling stopped. The silence of death started oozing from the rubble like a fine mist.
Jerry lay in a tiny air pocket underneath the rubble of fallen buildings and debris. His breathing came out as ragged as the crack in the earth he had been trapped in. The sound of dirt running down the hold cascaded upon him like a waterfall. The smell of the damp earth smothered him like a lie.
Pinned under this rubble, there’d be no way he’d be walking and talking his way out of this one. That he understood. The air was already felling thick, oppressive. In a few minutes, he’d probably be suffocating on his own carbon dioxide. He tried flailing his arms, tried to move them to get up. But he couldn’t. His body felt broken. All he could do is lie there and expect the worst. The damning part was that he would have a few minutes to think to himself Right now, there was only thing on his mind. Maybe Sarah wasn’t as screwed up as he thought. Maybe she did have a sort of sixth sense for disasters.
Jerry almost wanted to laugh, but was on the verge of tears. If she was so good at knowing something awful was about to happen, why didn’t Sarah turn the other way when she met him?
He spat grit from his mouth strung out in tiny beads of drool, suddenly hating himself. He felt weak, and not just in the physical sense. He now understood he’d been caving all his life, looking to the Sarah L.’s of the world for a quick lay so he could keep himself up on his little pedestal. It was all bullshit, of course. Just as much bullshit as the web of lies he’d spin to … well .. just about anyone, really.
Jerry felt a darkness seeping into him, consuming him. It was going to put an end to all of his aches, pains and deceptions for good.
He heard a voice, an inner one.
I did this.
I made it happen.
And then it was blessedly over.