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.