This story was originally written down on October 26th 2012. Like a lot of my short stories, this was a dream, so the pacing can be a bit off and the world is rather strange. This story ends really abruptly as I got to a point where I was tired of writing and just never picked it up again. Like most of these short stories, I don’t know if or when I’ll ever bother updating this or finishing it. The main premise was that this journalist got sent to cover some sappy fluff story about a small town Christmas in a town in the middle of nowhere when tons of stuff starts happening involving the moon nearly crashing down to earth and it ends up being the story of a lifetime. I know the story never got that far in writing, but that was the idea. I don’t even remember if what I wrote down even got to the ‘love’ part of the story. Anyway, enjoy this story about a journalist having to go to a crappy small town during the holidays.
My grandparents’ house was completely abuzz, with my parents running around yelling at each other. My mom was yelling at my dad to get the Christmas lights up, while she was meticulously organizing the branches of our fake tree, being sure there were six stems of each color before attempting to put them on. My grandpa was busy chatting it up with her over a cup of hot cocoa while grandma was in the kitchen toiling away on three things at once. My mom wanted it absolutely perfect. The reason? My oldest brother and his new wife would be joining us for Christmas dinner for the first time since their wedding. I got along well with my brother, or, well enough, but I barely knew Audrey. We’d only met three times before, but we seemed to get along alright. Still though, social gatherings weren’t exactly my thing.
Where was I during all of this, you ask? Arguing on the phone with my editor. He wanted me to leave the week of Christmas to cover a story he felt best covered near his hometown, nearly fifteen-hundred miles from home. I usually don’t mind going on location for my articles, but to go that far from my pumpkin pie on the busiest flying week of the year is just a bit too much to ask from me. I fought and fought, but to no avail. My job depended on this article. Tom assured me this was the biggest story of the year and if I handle it just right, it could get national syndication. I asked why I had to cover it all the way back in his hometown, instead of trying something closer, and the only response I got was “that’s just the way it is. You’ll like it, I swear!”
My mom didn’t like it. She was arguing with me all the way to the airport, telling me to tell Tom to shove it. “The nerve of that man, pulling you away from your family on Christmas! And what will I tell Nick and Audrey? They were looking forward to seeing you! When was the last time you saw them? Three years ago? You even had to miss the wedding because of Tom! That man doesn’t deserve you, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, you like to remind me every time I get an out of town assignment. Tell Nick and Aud that I’m sorry I missed them again.” We said our goodbyes as I carried my luggage to the service desk and one hug and two cups of bad coffee later, I was on a packed flight to Seattle. The plane was teeming with life as excited kids screamed to their parents, “I want to open one now!” as their parents reminded them, “No no, not until we get to Gran’s, ok?” Amidst the screaming I was glad I had noise-canceling headphones. I do not recommend traveling on December 21st to anyone.
I spent the next 2 and a half hours drafting up my article layout and plan of action for when I arrived in that small town in the middle of nowhere. If there was one thing Tom enjoyed, it was dragging me off to cover some silly insignificant thing as an excuse for us to have a little vacation together. He’s had a crush on me ever since I started at the paper (though we’re getting more web-based now), but aside from planning these little ‘business trips’, he’s always shied around the issue of asking me out. I guess he’s just too embarrassed to ask a girl out. In a way, it’s kind of cute. In another way, I wish he’d just outright ask so I can turn him down already. In-office romances never go well. That, and I really don’t want my work to be subjected to office rumors. The last thing I need is for one article to hit it big, and then have a national paper deny me transfer over rumors of me sleeping with my editor to get published. It’s a shame, though. He’s a pretty nice guy. If it weren’t for this job, I don’t think I’d have any problem getting to know him better over coffee or dinner. I guess I’ll have plenty of time getting to know him now. I’m going to be stuck with him in this hick town in the middle of nowhere for a full week. As much as I dislike social gatherings with family, I’m a bit sore that he’s getting to spend his Christmas with his family while I’m dragged to some stupid festival. I don’t care how big the moon will be. For all I care, the moon can crash into the earth and kill us all. If I can’t have my pumpkin pie on Christmas eve, nobody can.
Here I am, two days later, shivering in my little boots waiting for tom to show up. Just standing there on a street corner, taking in the sights and sounds. Young families and lots of seniors were walking the town square. This place is so small that ‘downtown’ is just 3 blocks on Main Street that have shops. Across the road and slightly downhill was the actual square- a park with several platforms for speaking or bands or what-have-you, as well as a few food stands with tables set out. Lots of people happily chattering away under the beautiful lights strung through the lightly dusted trees. I’m glad that there’s only a little snow hanging around. The last time I was dragged to one of these places in winter, I almost got frostbite trudging through the wilderness to find an abandoned fort. I got some great pictures there, but I don’t see why I had to do it in the dead of winter. To Tom’s credit, the snow added a lot of emotion to the pictures of the run-down old fort. Sitting there, abandoned for a century, left to rot in the cold; forever forgotten. I guess I’m just being bitter because I didn’t want to leave home.
Moments later, Tom finally showed up, panting from running the two blocks from his home to the square. He apologized for being late and told me the story. He tried to get away sooner but his parents and siblings didn’t want him to do any work during the holidays. His story sounded vaguely familiar and I thought about commenting on it, but decided to let it go when he offered to buy me coffee. It felt great to have something warm after being outside for so long.
It was in the little family-owned coffee shop that I finally got the details on this project. Tom told me that reports were being flown around about the moon coming closer to Earth than ever before for just one night’s passing, making for some excellent views. He wanted me to take some photos of it as it passed, and to write about the town’s holiday festival. I got dragged fifteen hundred miles to do a damn human interest fluff piece that I could have done at home. This sort of pandering journalism is not going to make me be taken seriously as a reporter. I was expecting something big this time; something that could change my career for the better, but no. Just a damn fluff piece. Tom tried to reassure me that this moon passing is the biggest story of the week, and being Christmas, he felt that the same story being covered by every paper in the nation would have a better shot being read from our paper if accompanied by the beautiful backdrop of a small town holiday celebration.
“Everyone’s going to be talking about the moon passing, and we have a chance here to make our version of the story more enjoyable for the readers! Isn’t the mark of good journalism the ability to take a story everyone knows and tell it in a way that makes people enjoy our perspective of it?
“No, that’s the mark of good theater. People expect the news from us, not a happy-go-lucky Christmas story that just happens to mention the event.”
“People can get their news anywhere, and we need a hook to make people want to get their news from us! The timing and setting are perfect!”
“I was expecting something career-changing; something that would get my work syndicated to larger papers. Maybe even something that would finally get me hired by a national paper! I know it’s Christmas and people want feel-good material, but if you keep having me do projects like this, I’m never going to move on with my career.”
“This is the cover story! It’s the biggest story I can give you right now, and I feel that this festival would make a perfect backdrop to cover it while adding the feel-good holiday cheer that people expect! It’ll give us the advantage we need over other papers!”
“I could just as easily have covered this back in L.A. Don’t try to hide behind the ‘perfect setting’. I know you only dragged me out here because you wanted to spend Christmas with me in your home town. Well, you know what? I have a home too. With family. And that’s where I’m headed right now. I’ll see you in the office next week.”
As I was stalking back to my hotel, Tom pleading in tow, the first earthquake began. People on the street and in the square were strangely silent, unsure of how to interpret what was happening. Tensions lost in the moment, Tom and I started trying to guess the magnitude of the quake. We’ve been through plenty in our time working in California, though I remember Tom freaking out quite a bit the first time he went through one after we’d been hired at the paper. Poor little boy from rural Washington was freaking out, trying to get us to evacuate, when most everyone just laughed and started trying to guess the magnitude themselves. When he got to my desk and tried to get me to leave with him, I just gave him a look and held onto my gently-swaying standing lamp. He ran outside and started calling his friends, asking if they were alright. A few minutes after it was all over, some people in the office had turned on the news and there were more than a few groans from people who’d bet and lost at guessing the number. Tom slinked in without a word and sheepishly hid in his cubicle. It took him a few days to live down the embarrassment as people poked fun at his over-reacting. It’s been a long while since then.
After the quake stopped, the din from the square began to rise. People were panicking a little. Some couple dozen or so pulled out their phones and others were running to their homes to make sure everything was alright. Tom and I found a seat on a bench and watched the show while waiting for the aftershock.
“Well that was fun, huh? It’s kinda funny to see their reaction. This sort of thing never happens here,” Tom smirked.
“You’re right… don’t you find it a bit odd? I wonder what reports will say about how the plates shifted here.”
“Maybe it was a super-villain testing some underground nuclear weapon.”
“Heh, maybe. How do you think they’ll react to the aftershock? Sometimes those are a lot worse than the little quakes like we just had.” It was then that I noticed the buildings around us. They were all made of brick, some possibly over a hundred years old. “Say, Tom… how long have these buildings been around?”
“Oh, since a little while after the town was founded. At least a hundred and twenty years ago. Some of the houses around town are from the turn of the century, too. The courthouse has a panoramic picture of this intersection, taken in 1896. A lot of these buildings are the same ones from that picture. You should see it, before you go…” Tom looked sullen as he realized he just brought the subject back around, just as we’d forgotten it. I didn’t forget it, but I was curious about something else.
“You know, back home, buildings are made to code to withstand most quakes. Some taller ones even have suspenders and shock absorbers built into the structure and foundation, to keep them from sustaining any damage during this. I don’t think any of the buildings here follow quake safety guides… Do you think some of them got damaged?”
No sooner had I said it did the aftershock come. It hit hard. So hard that I found myself gripping the arm of the bench so as not to fall off. What was the magnitude of this one? It had to be over 6.0. I don’t think I’ve ever been in one this bad before. People in the square were holding each other. Tom seemed freaked out a bit as well. I don’t think I lost my cool, but I was getting more and more worried as it went on. It had to be twenty seconds now. When it finally stopped and people began to calm down, I started to hear this low rumble. Was it going to be another one? No… the building on the corner across from us was gently swaying. The other buildings seemed to for a moment, but then stopped. This one, however, kept going. Teetering like a drunk trying to catch his balance. With a few screams from the onlookers, it fell. Not straight down or directly to the side, but like every brick had come looks and it gently fell to the side and then collapsed on itself. Dust and panic spread as the sheriff showed up and started telling people to get back.
“Tom… was anyone in there?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s a museum that’s opened during the afternoon three days a week, and the old man who owns it lives a few blocks down. He should have closed up and went home hours ago.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I’m going to go home and see if my family’s alright. They’re probably pretty shaken up by all of this.”
“Yeah, you should. I’m heading back to the hotel.”
“Why don’t you come with me, Claire? You can meet my family.”
“Or I can go to the hotel like a professional.”
“You can get some perspective on the quake from locals! Who knows? You could write up an article about the building’s collapse and sell it to the local paper. We also have plenty of food to share.”
“…Do you have any pumpkin pie?”
“Yeah, should have two, I think.”
“Alright, I’ll go. But just for a few minutes.”
“Great! I know you’re kinda down about coming out here for Christmas, so maybe it’ll cheer you up a bit.”
“I doubt it. Hey, when was the moon passing supposed to be? Is it a new moon or something?”
“Tomorrow, and… I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I can’t see it tonight.” I’d been staring at the surprisingly starry sky while we were walking. With no smog and hardly any lights, you can really see a lot of stars out there. It’s a shame it was so cloudy. Or was it dust from the building? I wasn’t sure.
“Oh, guess you’re right. You’re pretty perceptive.”
“I was just wondering if there may be some connection between the moon thing and the quakes. I don’t know… I can be a bit neurotic at times.”
“But that’s a good thing, for you. It’s the attention to detail that makes your work seem so well-researched and thorough.”