Christopher James ~ Merapi Volcano

Americans, Meg thought, under­stood earth­quakes. The earth moved. Los Angeles. Bridges col­lapsed. San Andreas. Your best China falling, stand­ing between door jambs, dam­age to the Sam Kee Laundry. The Nimitz free­way.

Volcanoes, she’d assumed, would be sim­i­lar, except with added lava. But this was so dif­fer­ent.

She and Greg were in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, near Merapi vol­cano when it blew. News reports had pre­dict­ed it for a few days already, but the lady at the hotel had told them it was noth­ing to wor­ry about. Damn, was she wrong. Now they were say­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple had died, includ­ing the Guardian of the Mountain, and it was still, still, rain­ing ash like snow, and there was no way out for at least a week.

Everything but every­thing was grey.

They’d thought they could take pic­tures of the erup­tion safe­ly from here, but now they were regret­ting that. The hotel’s shut­tle bus, the one that had brought them from the air­port, was parked out front with six inch­es of ash all over it. The food they ordered from room ser­vice was fine, but the boy who bought it had grey in his hair, hav­ing run ten sec­onds there and back to the shop across the road to find the beer they want­ed. There must be gaps around the frames of their win­dows because every hour some­one had to come in to sweep the floor.

And this was sup­posed to be Greg’s gift to her. His apol­o­gy. Six months they’d been togeth­er, and three weeks ago for the first time he’d hit her. He said he didn’t remem­ber why, but she did. He’d drunk too much, and his team had clawed vic­to­ry back from the ton­sils of defeat with two goals in injury time, and she’d joked about the way he would’ve act­ed if they’d lost again, and he’d smacked her across the cheek. Plus, of course, Trump had won the elec­tion. Like that had hurt him more than it hurt her.

She’d almost left him. Before they got togeth­er, she’d seri­ous­ly been con­sid­er­ing a career in the army. She was a strong woman. No way she was going to be with an abu­sive man.

But he’d apol­o­gized a mil­lion times, and bought her a new lap­top, which she’d need­ed for ages, and promised her a trip to get away. He’d explained the stress he was under at work, talked about his father, about his poor moth­er. It was a one-off.

She believed him enough to agree to this trip. And then boom.

With earth­quakes, she knew, one of the biggest risks was after­shocks. But she wasn’t sure if the same was true of vol­ca­noes.

In the hours after the ini­tial erup­tion they’d both called their folks. ‘We’re pret­ty shook up,’ she told her dad, ‘but we think that’s the worst of it. My new laptop’s done in though. They say as long as we stay in the hotel and don’t go out­side, we’ll be okay. Flights should be up and run­ning again in a week.’

Beside her she heard Greg talk­ing to his mom. ‘I’m fine, but Meg’s scared. Don’t wor­ry, mom. Please don’t cry. Is dad there? Tell him we’ll be home in time to see us lift the cup.’

What the what? I’m fine, but Meg’s shak­en up? Who was the one who’d had to take over the phone call to the air­line peo­ple to find out what was hap­pen­ing next?

Actually,’ she told her dad, ‘I’m ok. But Greg’s a lit­tle fright­ened. You know what he’s like.’

And both she and Greg said good­bye and hung up at more or less the same time.

Later, Greg want­ed to go out. He tore two sheets into large squares, said the hotel could just try and charge him, and soaked them both in milk.

What’s the milk for?’ Meg want­ed to know.

We used to do this back on march­es,’ Greg said, ‘when we thought they’d use pep­per spray.’

Meg smelled the sheet he hand­ed to her, and wrin­kled her nose. The milk, despite being UHT, had gone sour.

That’s because pep­per spray is an acid,’ she told him, ‘and milk is a base. It won’t work on vol­canic ash.’

For fuck’s sake,’ said Greg. ‘If you know so fuck­ing much about it, why don’t you take fuck­ing charge for once?’

Immediately after, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, some­thing large and heavy crashed down out­side, felled by the weight of the ash atop it.

Meg took a deep breath and said, ‘Why do you want to go out?’

I want to take some pic­tures,’ said Greg. ‘And get anoth­er beer.’

Why don’t I just stay here?’ she sug­gest­ed.

He didn’t answer, but wrapped the milk-sod­den sheet around his nose and mouth and slammed the door on his way out.

The slam shook the walls and the ceil­ing, and a heavy lay­er of ash fell from god knows where all over every­thing inside the room.

She switched on the TV, turned to the US chan­nels, and watched CNN. They didn’t even men­tion the vol­cano. Either they didn’t know, or it was already yesterday’s news. Instead they talked about why Clinton had lost, and what this meant for America and the future of main­stream news. And she threw some clothes into the small­er of their two suit­cas­es, wrapped the milk-stink­ing sheet around her face, and went out­side, in the oppo­site direc­tion.

~

Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has pre­vi­ous­ly been pub­lished online in many venues, includ­ing Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the edi­tor of Jellyfish Review.