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art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico

After the Earthquake

Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. She is a Clarion West graduate and was nominated for a Nebula Award last year for her novelette "Stone Wall Truth." Her fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

After the earthquake, Steven drove to his grandmother's house to check on her. He knew the damage was bad the moment he walked in the door. The entryway tiles were covered in a puddle of spilled memories--a week in the hospital, his grandfather's last ragged breaths, the funeral service in the pouring rain. The iridescent sheen of the memories was dotted with shards of broken glass.
So many memories lost, all because his grandmother had used vases instead of something more sensible. Steven had tried to talk her into metal, but she liked to look at the delicate swirls of color in the memories. His wife had suggested plastic, but plastic was too tacky to be put on display.
"John?" his grandmother called.
Steven stepped around the broken glass and found his grandmother sitting in the middle of the living room floor.
"Hi, Grandma," he said.
"Where's John?" she asked. "I looked for him, but everything is broken."
"Let's clean up a little bit," Steven suggested. He couldn't bear to tell her that her husband was dead, she looked so fragile now. "I brought some new containers for you."
He didn't mention that the new containers were plastic.
Some memories survived. The hall closet was the best. Steven found three months of his grandmother's childhood in an oversized pickle jar and his father's first day of school in a Batman thermos. The china hutch was the worst--full of cracked tea-cup memories of friends and broken champagne flutes of birthdays and anniversaries. Nothing in there had a lid, so even the cups that hadn't broken had sloshed their contents onto the floor.
"I have a son that looks a lot like you," his grandmother said.
"I know." Steven didn't know whether to be disappointed that she didn't remember him or relieved that she remembered his father. Both, he supposed.
He poured the memory of a fight his grandmother had had with Aunt Jane into a Tupperware. It wasn't something he'd normally save, but she had so little left that he didn't dare discard it. His grandmother eyed the plastic suspiciously.
"I'll put it in a kitchen cabinet," he assured her. "It's only temporary, while we clean things up."
He took it into the kitchen, where he found a mass of soggy envelopes on the table.
"Oh, Grandma," he said, "You can't put memories in paper. What were you thinking?"
"I wanted to send them to John. He's deployed overseas."
He wiped up the mess with a wad of paper towels and dumped everything straight into the trash. He couldn't even tell what she'd been trying to send.
All through the house, he salvaged as much as he could into Tupperware containers with nice secure lids. He encouraged his grandmother to help him, mostly so he could keep an eye on her while he worked. They saved Aunt Jane's wedding and his grandmother's first date and the time his father got suspended from fourth grade for fighting. He stacked the memories inside the kitchen cabinet, and periodically his grandmother opened the door and peered at the bright colors locked away inside the plastic.
That night, Steven tucked his grandmother into bed and called his wife to tell her he'd be sleeping over on the sofa. His grandmother had always been so independent, but he didn't dare leave her alone now. Tomorrow he'd make arrangements for a live-in nurse.
Steven woke to the sound of the dishwasher beeping and found his grandmother sleeping in a chair, hunched over, with her head resting on the kitchen table. One cabinet was open. It should have been full of neatly stacked Tupperware, but it was empty.
He put his hand on his grandmother's shoulder and realized she wasn't breathing. He started to dial 9-1-1, then slid his phone back into his pocket. He'd lost his grandmother in the earthquake, and what little they'd saved had gone down the drain. He should have known better; she never had liked memories stored in plastic.
His grandmother was clutching a glass perfume bottle with a few drops of memory inside. She'd found it yesterday, and it had been so small he hadn't bothered moving it into a sturdier container. In the memory, his mother gave his grandmother a tiny baby boy--Steven--to hold for the very first time. In the memory, and in death, his grandmother was smiling.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 12th, 2012
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