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Dave Wheeler
Aftershocks

An earthquake ripped apart her country. Now it’s ripping apart her family.

By Ann Tashi Slater
From the February 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to analyze the title of a work of fiction and explain its literal and figurative meanings and how it connects to the story

Lexile: 930L
Other Key Skills: inference, character, imagery, symbolism

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Think about what the title of the story means. 

If you want to know a few facts about me, here they are: My name is Katie. I’m a teenage girl living in Tokyo in a two-story house next to a graveyard. My dad is Japanese, and my mom is American, from California. He’s a mystery writer. She’s an editor. I want to be an architect, I make amazing miso soup, and yes, we were here for the big one on March 11. I think we survived it, though I can’t say for sure. 

March is never a good month in Tokyo. It’s usually cold and rainy and long. The cherry blossoms are nice when they start blooming at the end of the month, but it’s still, you know, cold and rainy. And anyway, this year people aren’t having their usual hanami cherry blossom parties in the neighborhood park. No one really wants to after the earthquake.

I heard my parents arguing over our hanami one night about a week after the disaster, when school was closed and I was sitting in the dark with our dachshund, Momo. I’d considered going for a run, in case the track meet that got canceled because of the quake was rescheduled. But I didn’t feel like it. 

I didn’t even feel like checking Facebook—I was sick of everyone here posting about how they’re taking off to Singapore or Hawaii because of the radiation, my relatives in the States asking 50 times a day what’s happening, how dangerous are the aftershocks, aren’t we thinking about leaving.

So I was just lying there with Momo, listening to my parents’ voices float up from the kitchen.

“We should have our hanami,” my dad was saying. “Invite people in the neighborhood, as a show of community. Joshiki da yo.”

My dad only says things to my mom in Japanese when he’s about to go off the deep end. And honestly, he’s been kind of a mess since March 11. A few nights ago, I heard noises at 2 a.m. and found him typing in the living room, his face like a ghost’s in the glow of the screen. He said he was working on his latest mystery, but I knew he’d already sent that to his publisher.

“If we have a party, it’ll look as if we don’t care about what’s happened,” my mom insisted.

Then they just kept arguing, the way you quarrel over who forgot to put the milk away when it’s really about something like “I have cancer” or “I’m leaving you.” Since the quake they fight all the time and never make up. They’re two galaxies speeding away from each other in deep space.

I knew what my mom was doing while they were fighting. She was tidying up, her red hair loose around her shoulders, her mascara smudged and her blue eyes tired.

She’s always been laid back about domestic things, but since March 11, the house has been so clean I wouldn’t be surprised if she scrubbed the roof tiles.

When she got home from her office the day of the disaster, after walking for 5 hours because the trains were out of service—not that 5 hours is such a big deal; some people walked like 10—she and my dad got to work putting away the books and stuff that had been thrown from the shelves. And she just hasn’t stopped. Yesterday I saw her taking down the living room curtains to wash them. 

A few weeks after the quake, Hana and I are at the Harajuku Starbucks having mocha lattes. The streets are deserted, like we’re on an abandoned movie set, and the shops and restaurants are dim because the power plants have been damaged and everyone has to save energy.

Hana is telling me about people we’re friends with at our international school, people whose parents were happily married. Like Alessandro. After the radiation started, Alessandro’s mom picked up and moved back to her hometown in Italy with Alessandro’s little brother. And this girl named Risa, who went with her parents to Texas, where her mom’s from. They left right after the quake and because her mom didn’t want to return, her dad just took Risa and flew back to Tokyo. Her mom can’t do anything about it because the law here sides with whichever parent is Japanese.

I push away my latte, and Hana and I stare out the window at the moon floating over the huddled buildings. Fat drops of rain splatter against the window then trickle down the glass in a hundred rivers. And even though dogs in Tokyo are always on a leash, a black terrier emerges alone from one of the side streets and trots past, all perky ears and jaunty tail, like it hasn’t heard the news about real life. 

The next evening, my dad and I are on the veranda eating takeout ramen. Snatches of a broadcast on rising radiation levels drift from the TV inside.

Itsu made tsuzuku no?” I ask my dad. Is this ever going to be over?

He glances at me, chopsticks midair, eyes bloodshot.

Eh? Nan no koto?”

I can’t believe he’s asking what I’m talking about.

“When are they going to get things under control?” I ask.

“Don’t worry. Everything is okay.” He goes back to slurping his ramen. Then he says, “Why haven’t you been running? The track meet will be rescheduled.”

I shrug. “I might not run in it.”

“Why?”

“I just might not.”

“But the team needs—”

“Why don’t we get on a plane and fly away somewhere? Half my friends are already gone.” I watch a crow swoop down onto the stone wall of the house next door.

He raises his eyebrows. “Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“We shouldn’t leave your mother.” His face is distorted in the shadowy light, like in a funhouse mirror.

“Who said anything about leaving Mom?” I say.

The ramen is heavy and oily in my stomach, and this thing starts cartwheeling through my mind: Maybe my dad isn’t working on his book in the middle of the night. Maybe he’s making a plan for just the two of us to go away, like Risa’s dad.

He coughs. “What I’m saying is, there’s nothing to worry about. The nuclear power plant is 150 miles from Tokyo, the aftershocks are going down—”

“Like you guys are really getting used to them.” Every time one hits, he screams at me to get under a table and my mom runs and grabs the earthquake kit from the entryway, as if that little backpack filled with rope and Band-Aids can save us.

“We live here,” he says. “We can’t just leave.”

The blooms on the jasmine vines along the veranda railing look blue and cold in the twilight. “But they said on the news that a really big quake could hit Tokyo,” I say.

“That’s always been true.”

“What if there’s a nuclear meltdown?”

“If that happens, we’ll have time to evacuate. Papa ni makasenasai.”

“Leave it to you?” I ask. “Which means stay here and wait for the next aftershock to crush us?”

He rubs his forehead and stares at the floor. His shoulders are slumped, and his shaggy hair is more gray than I’ve ever seen it.

What’s going on? I feel like shouting. He always knows what to do—why doesn’t he do something? Cats start yowling from the alley, and a siren whines somewhere close by. My dad stands up and goes inside. 

That night, I lie in bed with Momo, staring at the bamboo drawn by moonlight on the shoji screens over my windows. The leaves and branches are all tangled up in a design so complicated it’s exhausting.

I try to stay awake because I’ve been having nightmares.

Last night I dreamed of a big wave, like this sculpture I saw a couple of years ago at the Rodin Museum when we took a trip to Paris for my parents’ 15th anniversary. In the sculpture, a huge green wave is about to crash down on three people.

In the dream, I was watching the wave crest over me and I could feel the tug of the ocean, the salt spray on my face. I heard the ocean breathing, like when you hold a shell to your ear, and it sounded like the sighs of all those people in Tohoku as their bodies were washed out to sea and their spirits went right to heaven.

Now I hear what sounds like someone crying in the kitchen. I sneak down, holding Momo so her toenails on the stairs won’t give us away, but no one’s there. Just the fridge humming, the sink so clean it sparkles in the moonlight, the dish towels folded neatly on the counter.

Back upstairs, I take out a photo of me and my parents in Paris. I stuck it under my mattress when the glass in the frame broke in the earthquake. 

It’s a sunny day, and we’re standing on top of a hill. I look at my parents’ smiling faces, their arms around one another, me in the middle with my arms around them. If only this photo held a message for me from the universe, some answer or clue to how my parents could be so happy then and not now.

School finally opens again the first week of April. Some students still aren’t back—and some have left for good—but most of us are here.

Every day we bring in canned food, diapers, towels, and blankets for Tohoku. My mom forces me to carry an emergency kit that takes up my whole backpack: a copy of my passport, water, chocolate, a radio. I’m surprised she hasn’t thrown in a tent, just in case.

In science class, we talk about tectonic plates and fault lines.

“I get that there are deeply buried places where one plate meets another and all this pressure builds up,” I say to Ms. Belsky, our teacher. “And they might slip in our lifetime or not. But what I don’t get is why the world has to be so sketchy. Couldn’t we manage without fault lines?”

Everyone laughs, but I’m not joking. They should have put me on the Design Committee. I’d have designed a world without earthquakes. And while I was at it, without volcanoes, floods, tornadoes, and droughts. Why couldn’t the Earth just be one big, smooth ball, turning forever and ever in harmony with the heavens?

My parents send me to a therapist.

“I’m basically fine,” I tell her.

She nods. “I imagine things have been quite stressful for you?”

 “Nothing really happened to us here in Tokyo. It’s the people in Tohoku who have it bad.”

“Do you feel guilty about that?”

“I don’t know.”

The conversation lags, so I tell her about some research I’ve been doing, that plate tectonics came from continental drift theory, which is about how places like Africa and South America once fit together but then drifted apart. She says some stuff about trying to relax, letting things take their course. Everything seems pointless and I feel like crying, but I don’t say anything else and neither does she.

We sit for a while without talking and I think it’s nice to just look at the plum trees in the garden.

When I get home, my dad’s gone somewhere, and my mom’s in her study. I never see them together anymore.

“How did it go, Katydid?” my mom asks, taking off her glasses. Her desk usually looks like a hurricane hit it, but now everything’s perfectly straight: a row of sharpened pencils, a stapler, a ruler, a silver Eiffel Tower paperweight she bought from a souvenir shop in Paris.

“Okay,” I say, a small happiness flitting through me—she only uses my pet name when she’s in a good mood. “The therapist told me that I shouldn’t keep things inside. That I should tell people what’s going on.”

“Well, she’s right,” my mom says. But she doesn’t say anything else, just looks at me with this faraway expression. “Did you put your lunch bag by the sink when you came in?”

“Yes.” I’m so sick of her tidiness campaign. If it’s not my lunch bag, it’s putting away my clothes or straightening the books on my shelf. Yesterday, she even made me brush Momo’s teeth.

I sit on the floor and rest the back of my head against her knees.

“Mom? Is everything okay with you and Dad?”

She sighs. “Your father and I are . . . just going through a bit of a difficult time. Nothing for you to worry about, baby.”

 Sounds to me like: Don’t worry, we’ve just hit a bit of an iceberg.

I look at the papers on her desk. She’s editing a script for a documentary about adventurers. In the part she’s working on, there’s an interview with the author of a book about Sir Edmund Hillary, who with a Sherpa climber named Tenzing Norgay was the first to reach the top of Mount Everest.

“Interesting, don’t you think?” my mom says. “It’s important to attempt something big in life.”

“Maybe, but think about all the people who don’t make it. What’s the point if you end up dying of altitude sickness or being swept away in an avalanche?”

She smiles. “I’ll tell you, one thing I’m learning from all this earthquake stuff is that there are no guarantees. Things happen that we don’t always have control over. But we have to keep trying, right? Whether it’s climbing Everest or anything else.”

There’s something I don’t exactly get about what she’s saying.

It comes to me that evening. Even though I still don’t feel like running, I lace up my shoes before dinner and force myself to go. I walk for a few minutes, break into a slow jog, and then I’m on my way, energy flowing through my body.

A new moon is rising over the canal, the houses and apartment buildings, the old wooden shrine next to the neighborhood park, just like in the books I loved when I was little, stories of towns where everyone lived happily ever after. I stop to ring the shrine bell and wake the gods so they can hear my prayer: Please help the people in Tohoku. Please let my parents stay together. And then I keep on running—through the park, past shops and restaurants, up a steep street of more houses and apartments.

As my feet pound the earth, I think about adventurers walking along paths, crossing ice fields, sailing ocean routes to new worlds. My mom’s right. Even though you don’t always know what’s going to happen, or why, you have to keep going. And I guess it’s like that with lots of things, including earthquakes and marriages.

When I reach the top of the street, I stop to catch my breath. The cold spring air is sharp in my nostrils, and the lights of the dim city spread out below like a quilt of fireflies.

Maybe, just maybe, the universe isn’t designed so badly after all.

Maybe it had to be designed the way it is because if there weren’t any obstacles in our path, we’d be like rocks or plants, with no chance of becoming anything more than what we already are. I mean, it’s this chance that makes us human. Rocks can’t push themselves to become better rocks; plants can’t decide not to give up on themselves or other people.

When I get back to the house, my mom’s study light is on, but the room is empty. On her desk is a legal pad covered with my dad’s scrawl. I’m surprised to see it’s an evacuation plan for the three of us (four, including Momo): If necessary, we’ll go to my grandparents’ place in Okinawa, or if we have to leave Japan, we’ll go see my other grandparents in San Francisco.

As I climb the stairs, I hear voices from the veranda. I tiptoe toward the sliding door in my parents’ bedroom and see two figures on a blanket: my mother and father, her head on his lap. They’re looking up at the sky, Momo at their feet. I step outside, and they don’t say anything, just shift position so I can sit between them, then put their arms around me. And now I notice there are all these leaves on the veranda—my mom didn’t sweep today—and I realize something was different about her study tonight. The desk was a mess. A wonderful mess! Especially with my dad’s family evacuation plan sitting right in the middle of it all.

An aftershock rattles the house and we jump. But amazingly, my dad doesn’t shout at me to get under a table, and my mom doesn’t run for the earthquake kit.

When the house stops shaking, we sit quietly, looking at the stars. Then we talk, my dad asking how school’s going, my mom telling a funny story about a colleague. We stay out on the veranda for a long time, all of us together on this beautiful night. 

When Bad Things Happen 

How do we overcome them?

 It’s a tough fact of life that bad things happen. Some bad things, like natural disasters and wars, are shared by whole communities. Other bad things are more personal, such as the death of a beloved pet or a divorce in one’s family. Then there is all that stuff that might seem small to others but feels as big and catastrophic as an exploding star to the one who is experiencing it, whether it’s not making the basketball team or a friend saying something cruel. 

The good news is that when we go through challenging experiences, there are things we can do to help ourselves feel better. With a little help, we can get out a needle and thread and stitch ourselves back together. And when we’re finished, we’re often stronger than we were before. Human beings are remarkably resilient.

We asked two clinical psychologists, Dr. Jamie Howard and Dr. Meghan Tuohy Walls, for advice on coping when faced with stressful or traumatic situations. Here’s what they said: