According to the radio, humidity was at 75%. From my perspective, it was probably closer to 90.
“Must be the Quakes…” the weather man chirped.
I gritted my teeth and smacked the OFF button with the back of my hand.
I had called Chris once I got home from Harold’s. It literally took me fifteen minutes to punch her personal code into the com system. Chris was always at work. I thought it was meant to be a distraction from her personal life, until I realized her personal life was me. Normally, it wasn’t allowed for workers to get ‘personal calls’ but Chris carried a lot of weight over there. If she didn’t like the color of the sky I’m sure her bosses would have tried to change it if they could.
I read off the numbers on the torn sheet of binder paper she had originally written it on.
I didn’t need to read it. I had memorized it long ago. But something about seeing her handwriting and reading it out loud soothed me. Made me less nervous. Less likely to cut the line when she picked up.
It wasn’t till I hit the 0 that I wondered if she had changed her code. Maybe it would be that final, nail in the coffin for me that things were definitely over.
I let my finger fall hard on the 5. There was a brief dial tone before the hard ring filled my ear.
It rang exactly three times before her voice slipped out of the speaker and lodged itself firmly against my eardrum.
“Hello?” She sounded less stressed than I remembered. Did she sound – calm?
“Hey,” My voice sounded more like a nervous hiccup.
There was a pause, “Hi – uh – what, um, can I help you with something?” There was that stress again.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, not knowing why I was sorry but figuring it would help, “I was wondering if you had some time, for drink…”
I heard her inhale sharply on the other end, “Coffee.” I quickly corrected myself.
She was biting her lower lip, probably.
“Okay,” she finally said, a little flustered, “Where?”
Dom’s was the only 24/7 coffee shop I knew of that didn’t leave the coffee out all day. It wasn’t the fanciest but it filled the void when you needed a jump-start at 3am in the morning. Many of the local joints closed down when things started to get weird, but Dom’s never caved to the community fears. It was open and it was gonna stay open till the bloody Earth opened up underneath it.
“Fine,” the com receiver clicked.
I parked Betsy a few blocks down from Dom’s.
Dom’s was great and all but the neighborhood was not the safest spot in the late hours.
I caught sight of Chris’s car out front with the fancy vanity plate: SCIGEK. I chuckled lightly as my thigh wedged passed her bumper. As I pushed through the door of Dom’s the old bell jingled. From the corner of my eye I saw a blonde sitting at the far end in a counter spin around and then spin back before I could fully see her.
Dom’s was pretty empty, except for old Sam Wise at the counter sucking the life out the bacon strip clenched in his hand.
The soles of my boots skidded against the slick, plastic floor. They felt heavy in that moment. Or maybe it was my heart that had now made a home for itself in my heels. As I approached Chris’s booth I stopped. I didn’t turn to face her just yet. I took one last breath to suck some form of life back into me and crossed the threshold into her gaze from across the tabletop.
She was gripping the life out of her cup of coffee.
Dom was already en-route to us before I could manage words.
“You want anything? Coffee? Water?” Dom was a big man, but he wasn’t a scary man. He was always nice to me. Never pried into anyone’s business. He was just a straight forward guy who wasn’t into this whole alien invasion business. I think that’s why I liked him.
“Coffee is fine, thanks,” I nodded.
Dom sniffed and nodded his head towards Chris, “Anything else?”
The strangely lifeless look on Chris’s face vanished and a smile appeared. She shook her head, “No, I’m good. More coffee would be great, though.”
Dom returned with a cup of coffee for me and topped off Chris’s before returning to his place in the kitchen.
Chris watched him go for a long minute, “This place never changed, did it?”
I shook my head, “It’ll be the last thing the Quakes get to I imagine,” I took a sip of coffee, forgetting to add the cream and sugar.
I reached for the sugar packets and unloaded three into my cup.
“You cut back,” Chris mused, she motioned to the ripped open packets scattered around my mug, “You used to put in at least five.”
I shrugged, “I got old. It got too sweet.”
We settled into a comfortable silence. Not saying anything while saying quite a bit in the process.
I could suddenly feel Harold flicking the side of my head.
“I – uh,” I began with what felt like a nervous cough, “I saw Harold the other day…”
I glanced up briefly to gauge her look, which surprisingly bordered on genuine concerned.
“How is he?”
“He’s good… more or less.”
Chris shook her head, and I watched as the genuine concern de-evolved into genuine judgment.
“We tried to help him. You know that right? We really did. But, sometimes people don’t want to be helped.”
I felt my teeth tighten on my lower lip, “I don’t,” I breathed in, and tried to choose my words carefully, “That’s not why I called you…well… it is.” I sputtered.
Sam Wise had ordered another plate of bacon. I was trying to form words that weren’t coming out and I was taking it out on the poor sugar packets that were twisted into knots around me. As I finally found the right words I glanced up just as the light hanging over Dom’s head flickered.
It wasn’t just once. It kept going. Then, the other fluorescent lights started too.
Chris jerked her head to the side and squinted, “What the…”
“Dom!” I yelled, and jumped up from the booth, “Get Sam out of here!”
I grabbed Chris by her white lab coat sleeve and dragged her as far as I could. We managed to get to the front door before she tore herself away.
“What the hell?!” She screamed, like old times, “What’s going on!?”
“The Quakes…” I locked arms with her and pushed open the front door to Dom’s. The sidewalk shuttered under our feet.
“My car!” I heard Chris scream. The cement had parted and all the vehicles lined up outside of Dom’s were enveloped, vanishing into the Earth.
“Come on,” I gripped Chris’s arm, “Come on! My truck’s down the street!”
The street rippled, almost reverting back into liquid cement. I kept looking back as Chris and I sprinted to Betsy. It wasn’t till I was in the driver’s seat and we were almost a hundred meters away that I saw Dom’s sucked into the depths of the Earth from my rearview mirror.
Chris was panting heavily. She had her left hand placed on her chest and her right hand on her head.
“I need to get back to the office,” she managed to say between breaths.
“No,” I gritted my teeth.
Despite what we had just witnessed, it didn’t stop her from reverting back to normal for a moment. Who I was to tell her where she could and couldn’t go.
“No? What do you mean no?”
“Harold needs to see you.”
I parked Betsy in Harold’s garage. He always left it open if he knew there was a chance I might swing by.
Still jittery, Chris got out of Betsy like a zombie. Her eyes glossed over. Her hair a mess. She patted her upper left pocket on her coat several times and let out a sigh of relief.
We found Harold in the basement hunched over several hand drawn schematics. He hadn’t heard us come in.
“Harold?” I called out lightly from the bottom of the stairs. I glanced back to see Chris awkwardly positioned in the middle of the staircase, contemplating the notion of fleeing.
Chris had never known what to do with Harold. She was always sweet to him, but there comes a point that niceties become a poor excuse for friendship.
“Harold?” I called again, “I brought Chris.”
The admission brought Harold out of whatever self-possessed trance he was in. He spun around to see us and quickly converged on our location, “Chris! Chris!” Harold held his hands up over his head, relief plastered across his face, “Come in, come in! Coffee? Tea?”
Chris’s face began a kind smile as she finished her descent from the staircase, “Hello, Harold. Good see you too.”
“Tea?” Harold pressed.
“Tea, would be fine.” She smiled.
Harold’s mom was tea collector. She literally had thousands of teas at her apartment. Harold didn’t have the heart to toss them when she died so he dedicated half of the basement to storing her tea collection. If you ever get the opportunity to have tea at Harold’s he never gives you the same kind. It is quite the experience.
Harold cleared off an old nightstand to set up three tea cups. He slipped three different tea bags into each and filled them to the rim with hot boiling water. Mine was definitely some form of green tea, Harold knew I preferred that at night.
Chris’s was definitely some form of black tea. Harold’s held what I suspected to be Earl Grey.
We sat on the floor around the nightstand. I crossed my legs and held the tea-cup just under my nose to take in the smell.
“That’s from Japan,” Harold informed me.
I nodded and felt Chris’s glare rain down upon me.
“Harold, can you tell Chris why you wanted to talk to her?”
A very distant light bulb had turned on behind Harold’s eyes.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” He repeated. He jumped up, knocking over his own tea and scurried back to his work table.
He returned with a series of sheets of paper. I could already feel the wall of cynicism form over Chris. She hadn’t dubbed Harold as crazy publicly, but it was clear she didn’t have a lot of faith in his mental capacities.
“You see?” Harold pointed frantically at the top sheet.
“Harold,” I began, “Take a breath, okay?”
Harold blinked and his body relaxed a little, “Sorry. Sorry. I get a little over excited.”
“Don’t worry,” Chris smiled.
Harold settled back down to the floor and surgically removed the top sheet from the pile and held it up like a teacher does in elementary school during story time. In that moment, in the calmest I’ve ever seen him, Harold explained to Chris what the chart he held meant. He used a lot of words I didn’t understand but Chris did because I would occasionally see her nod.
Harold held up the second chart and went on for a good twenty minutes more. When he was done, Harold set down both sheets side by side in front of us and pointed at the identical peaks, “See? The peaks? It is going to happen again. But bigger this time.”
Chris’s eyes remained transfixed on the papers in front of her. She said nothing for a while. Just stared. Harold was quick to add some hot water to our cups.
“Harold…” Chris began, sliding the first sheet closer to her, “This sheet looks like it was printed from your… your former office. Did you take these with you?”
“Chris, c’mon…” I cut in, “Can you please listen to what he’s saying?”
“Becca. He stole classified documents. You really think I can overlook that?”
“Yes, I think you should. I think you should listen to what he’s saying.”
Chris shook her head and let out a long sigh that made her look older, “It is all pure conjecture. If you gave me the proper equipment I could probably spot spikes all day too.”
“You can, though!” Harold retreated to his U-Shaped workspace and yanked a giant sheet off the table to reveal a large computer with a horizontal device that shimmered like Christmas lights.
I caught Chris’s face before she rushed Harold.
“You took our equipment!? This is, this is so not legal!”
“Listen, please!” Harold put a very large, oversized headset over Chris’s ears. It looked like something from the early 90’s.
“Where did you get that?” I chuckled, gently tapping the rounded rubber ear coverings.
Harold shrugged, “EBay.”
Chris grudgingly cupped her hands over the headphones and squinted into the cluttered space.
“What is that?” Chris finally said as she pulled the headphones off her head forcing the sides of her hair to frizz.
“I detected it! It is exactly…” Harold paused and took his right hand and hovering his pointer finger in her face, “Exactly, like the signal we detected before the Quakes first appeared.”
A subtle light moved over Chris’s eyes. As though her brain had stepped back in time for a moment.
Harold held her gaze the way he used to look at her before his mom died. A commonality, a wedge of respect briefly bloomed.
Chris’s face fell, as though she’d swallowed something really nasty and the memory of the taste had risen.
“I remember that sound,” Chris’s voice dropped, and she nodded, “okay.”
Harold stood up straight, and his torso leaned back. The old Harold, full of relief, let out a breath he’d been holding since we arrived.
“What’s next?” I finally asked. But the look on Chris’s face told me she was already there.
“Um,” she began, biting her bottom lip. She only did that when she was really nervous.
Chris said nothing for a minute. She slapped her thighs and stood up, as though she were about run into a burning building, “I need to get back to my office.”
I stared up at her, trying not to make my face do that thing that makes her yell at me, “You- you think you can fix this from your office?”
“No!” Chris shot back, “But there are people there who can.” She pointed squarely at Harold’s chest, “You’re coming with me. Bring everything.”