Richard Scott Larson holds an MFA from New York University. His fiction has appeared in Joyland, Booth, Eclectica, Pindeldyboz, and other venues. He also contributes criticism to a variety of publications.

Born and raised in St. Louis, he now lives in Brooklyn and works for the Expository Writing Program at NYU.

The Seismologist

posted Jul 21, 2015

Part 1 | Part 2

Jimmy went back to the library the next day after school. He planned to research ancient rituals that could call forth buried things. He planned to look into strange occurrences that happened after earthquakes. But he didn’t know where to start, and he didn’t know how to explain to anyone what he was doing. Finally he found a dark corner and he sat down, closed his eyes, and waited for the monsters to come. Rose was about to close up the library when she found him asleep in the corner, and she asked if he needed a ride home. He hadn’t realized how late it was. His mother had never arrived to pick him up.

In Rose’s car, Jimmy was quiet, fidgeting with his backpack. The drive wasn’t long, but he didn’t like inconveniencing Rose. And he also worried that his mother would drive up to the library in a rush only to find that he was gone, and he didn’t want to upset her, either. Maybe she would do the chants right there in the parking lot, where everyone could see.

He knew Rose was noticing his red, droopy eyes, his hair which hadn’t been combed in days. He had realized only when he got to school that his socks didn’t match. His mother had stopped paying attention, so it was up to him to keep track of those things. But he was so tired because he couldn’t sleep, the chants always echoing in his mind.

“How are you doing, Jimmy?” asked Rose. “How are things at home?”

At first he just shrugged, but then he started to tremble. He told Rose about the chanting, the secret rituals his mother had begun in the darkest hours of the night. He told her about the wine. He told her about finding his mother exhausted after the chanting, sprawled across the couch like something that had washed up on a shore somewhere far away from home. “I think she’s getting ready for something,” said Jimmy.

“She’s grieving. Just like you are.”

The way Jimmy’s mother was grieving didn’t seem to him like the right way at all. Ray had just gotten angrier and angrier, energy gathering up inside him like tremors itching their way up from some cold, empty place. Maybe that was a way of grieving.

Jimmy found that he grieved in nightmares. His father was always there. In the nightmares his father was in a rage, twice his normal size. Someone had tied him to a tree in the backyard but he had pulled up the tree by its roots and was dragging it around the neighborhood, leaving behind a trail of dead branches. Monsters were inside him, their fingers poking indentations in his skin. He was looking for Jimmy. And his father always found what he was looking for. Jimmy remembered one time when Ray had played poorly at a baseball game. When they got home, their father punched Ray in the shoulder so hard that he dislocated his throwing arm. In the nightmares it was like that, like he would destroy Jimmy if he found him.

“Everything will be okay,” said Rose. “It’s the yellow house, right?” She pulled into the driveway and reached over to hug him goodbye. She smelled like butterscotch. She didn’t know anything about monsters.

“Let me know if you need anything at all,” she continued. But then she looked past him and Jimmy turned to see his mother framed in the living room window, her arms in the air. She was turning in slow circles, and he heard the chants in his mind like the beating of a heart. A subterranean sound, like something trapped.

As Rose pulled out of the driveway, Jimmy saw that she was talking into a cell phone. She released the wheel for a moment and gestured violently toward the house.

*

Ray went to a sleepover with some other boys from the baseball team. Jimmy’s mother had to do a shift at the bar. Her boss said that Jimmy couldn’t be there anymore while she was working because the customers had complained, so she begged Sasha to cancel a date. When Sasha arrived, she looked as pale as one of her vampires. Jimmy hadn’t seen her since the night of the earthquake.

He was scared of the look on Sasha’s face so he left her alone in the kitchen where she was looking through his father’s liquor cabinet. He picked up the book of ghost stories from the coffee table in the living room and started flipping through it. All the usual stuff, he thought, noises in the attic, a mysterious creaking of the floorboards in the hallway. But he took the book upstairs anyway and examined the haunted house on the cover, trying to find a secret inside the image. He looked in the windows, at the dark cluster of trees down the hill past the house. He traced the symbols on the cover, just like his mother had done. And he started chanting, the words appearing in his mind as if the pages of the book were speaking directly to him.

He heard a scream of terror downstairs and his first thought was that he had summoned monsters with the words and now they were out there in the world, called back up from whatever dark place they had retreated to. He ran out of the bedroom and started down the stairs. Sasha was still on the couch, but she had scrambled back to the far end of the cushions, staring at something on the other side of the room. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she kept saying.

Jimmy prepared the chants again, knowing he had to take control of the monsters and send them back once and for all. He couldn’t let them finish what they came to do. But then he saw three masked faces staring in through the living room window. He stopped cold. The chants wouldn’t be able to help him now.

The figures pulled off their masks, and Jimmy recognized Ray’s baseball teammates. Ray was the last to remove his mask and he was laughing, doubled over. “Got you,” he mouthed through the window. The smile slowly faded from his face as he stared inside at Jimmy, who glanced quickly behind him to see if the monsters were coming. When he looked back at the window, there was no one there. Just Sasha crying on the couch, smaller than he had ever seen her.

When she had composed herself, Sasha called their mother and then went to wait on the porch. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore,” said Sasha. Their mother had to leave work halfway through her shift and Jimmy and Ray were grounded for a week, sent to bed early each night without dinner. But before they went upstairs, their mother started crying, too.

“You guys don’t know what you’re doing to me,” she said. She had turned gray, all the color gone from her body. Jimmy didn’t know how much of her was left. “What are we going to do now?”

*

Each night after that Jimmy lay awake staring at the ceiling, silently begging his mother to give up on the monsters. Rose called the house once and at first Jimmy didn’t recognize her voice. Then he said, “I’m almost finished with the zombies. They’ve almost killed everybody.”

“Is your mother home?” said Rose.

Jimmy lingered around the corner to listen after giving his mother the phone. He heard her say, “None of this is any of your business. You wouldn’t understand.”

Jimmy thought about the monsters all the time now. He thought about his mother, too, always so tired, her face sunken and hollow as if its surface had cracked under the pressure of holding everything inside. She came home each day with bottles of pink wine that she drank zealously before stumbling through the house like something raised from the dead. Maybe they had gotten it wrong and she had actually been the one who died. Not his father. Maybe his father was just hiding out somewhere ready to jump out and surprise everyone like he used to when Jimmy was younger and they played games like that together, even though Jimmy didn’t like to be scared.

Now he imagined his father jumping out and yelling, “Got you!” And then his mother would suddenly collapse into a pile of bones on the kitchen floor.

*

The next night, Jimmy heard his mother pulling up the carpet downstairs. First she went through the usual chants and then he heard her tearing through the house, banging on the walls and yelling, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Then the sound of ripping carpet, a hammering at the floorboards. He imagined he could feel the house shaking. Maybe the earthquake had just been a warning, like the opposite of an aftershock. A premonition of something to come.

Jimmy thought Ray was asleep, but then he heard him say, “This is all because of you. If only you weren’t such a freak—”

Jimmy closed his eyes. “Leave me alone.”

She had already been slurring her invocations when she sent them up to bed. Now he heard her again through the vent in the ceiling. The chanting had become more zealous each night, like she knew she was getting closer and closer to the perfect way of saying the words. Until their father’s death, Jimmy had thought of her as hushed, hiding behind the noise others made. Their father had been the loud one, always yelling or smashing something. But now that he was gone, it was like everyone else had taken over the task of finding things to break.

Ray’s face appeared behind the guardrails right next to Jimmy’s pillow. “Freak,” he said. “I’ve heard you saying the same words. Where did you learn it? What are you trying to do?”

“Nothing,” he said.

Downstairs, their mother kept yelling in her new language as she hammered away at the floor. Ray flinched and Jimmy burrowed further under his blanket. “Nothing,” said Ray, his voice high-pitched and mocking. “Nothing, nothing, nothing!” Then he disappeared and Jimmy almost thought he was free, but then Ray was back with his pillow. He put his pillow over Jimmy’s face and began to push down.

Jimmy hoped, with a surge of desperate anger, that his mother would suddenly unearth a monster pit downstairs—a jagged, chiseled abyss overflowing with monsters—and they would shriek up the stairs and take his brother back down with them. He didn’t even care if they came for him, too. Maybe living down under the world with monsters was better than living here in this house. He began the chants in his mind, desperate to get the words right.

Ray abruptly pulled the pillow away and Jimmy gasped for breath. Ray disappeared back to his own bunk and Jimmy felt a sharp tug at his legs, where the ladder was. Ray was dragging him down. He cried out, trying to hold onto the railings, but his hands were sweaty and Ray was strong. Jimmy tumbled down the ladder. He felt Ray’s hands on his shoulders and then he was tossed to the carpet. Jimmy scrambled for the door. He threw it open and ran downstairs, his brother barreling down behind him. Their mother stood in the middle of the living room, one arm raised in the air toward the ceiling and the other clutching an empty bottle. The chants came out of her in fits and starts now, her voice breaking occasionally but still full of a loud, floating sadness. Jagged pieces of carpet had been flung everywhere, and a splintery hole spread out across the floorboards below. Jimmy couldn’t see anything reaching up from the hole, but he knew sometimes monsters were invisible. They came out when they were ready.

Ray grabbed Jimmy tightly by the shoulders. He looked confused, helpless. For once it seemed like he didn’t know who to fight. His eyes were like big empty planets. Then Jimmy saw that he was crying. He had never seen his brother cry before.

“We have to feed the monsters,” said Ray. “Isn’t that what you’ve been saying in your sleep? We have to feed the monsters, we have to feed the monsters.”

Jimmy squirmed away again. He picked up a large glass ashtray from the coffee table and held it out like a weapon. Then he started the chants, quietly at first but then faster and louder, like he was growing along with the words, becoming something he didn’t recognize. He drowned out his mother’s voice. She stopped and watched Jimmy with a perplexed expression on her face, like she had just woken up after a long sleep and didn’t know where she was.

Ray shrank against the wall as Jimmy turned in circles and waved the ashtray in the air, spinning and screaming. “You can’t bring him back!” he said. “I won’t let you bring him back!” He started chanting, louder and louder. He felt the power in his voice and he knew that things were moving apart just below the surface of the world, making room for what he was calling up.

“Did you feel that?” said Ray. Jimmy saw Ray bracing himself unsteadily against the wall as if he were about to fall to the floor. Their mother grabbed the railing of the staircase for support. Jimmy saw that she was trembling. “It’s happening again,” she said.

The earth was shaking and it was something Jimmy didn’t know how to control. He felt like the house was about to be ripped apart. He threw open the front door and ran outside, still chanting and waving his arms in the air. He imagined that the monsters were close behind and nipping at his heels, all tentacles and claws and leathery wings. He imagined his father chasing him down the street, dragging the tree behind him. But he was determined to lead the monsters away from the house, away from his family, determined to send them off to haunt some other place.

A car was parked in the driveway and two uniformed officers stood next to it, staring dazedly at Jimmy while steadying themselves against the hood. The neighbors must have called and complained about the noise. Another disturbance at the Burke house. But then Jimmy saw that Rose was parked outside, too. She climbed out of her car when she saw Jimmy, and the officers looked back at her like they knew her.

“Stay in the car,” said one of the officers.

Jimmy knew that it was just another earthquake, but he still chanted for the monsters. Another tree had fallen across the street, blocking the road and barely missing the pickup truck parked in the driveway. Jimmy ran in the opposite direction, straight down between the two lanes. He imagined that each side was separated by a fissure breaking the world apart and he was the only thing keeping it all together. A plastic mailbox in the shape of a squirrel had fallen down at a neighbor’s house. Garbage cans rolled lazily down the sidewalks. All the dogs in the neighborhood were barking. Lights came on in every house as he passed and it was like he had summoned the brightness back into the world. Everyone was waking up to see what he had done.