The Big One

Abby Mendelson & Vincent Rendoni

"We're asking for it, just asking for it living here." Millie lets go of the butt-end of her Kent 100 and smiles as it sails out the window.

"Don't do it again," I tell her. "A thousand-dollar fine for a lit cigarette. That's how the police eat. Traffic fines."

I've told her this again and again. She ignores me. She always does.

"They say the Big One's coming. The Ten-Point-Oh." Millie draws out the vowel and looks at the lake. "Three fault lines in this town. Maybe more. Hood Canal. Saddle Mountain. I forget the last. When it's time, we're all going straight into the sea."

It's beautiful, one of the eighty days when it's good to be here. The low-hanging clouds persisted in the morning, but burned off by the late afternoon. We're wrapping up our day in Seattle at Gas Works, a former coal plant turned park down by the lake. A beloved monument to our industrial heritage, utilitarian values – our progress.

We park the car and walk towards the water. Millie has her Wayfarers on, about to strike another Kent. Her bleach-job is fading, but it only serves to highlight her hair and frame her face. We tried to beat the rush, but we're too late: men in ponytails and cargo shorts tossing around a Frisbee. Girls in loose-fitting sundresses flying kites from the mound. Kids squealing as they roll down the hill. One girl, with pigtails and a romper, considers the grass. She sniffs it, opens her mouth, then exhales before returning to her friends.

"Smart move," Millie says. "The dirt is carcinogenic." She points to the kayakers in the lake. "The water, too. Hopelessly contaminated."

"I hear they cleaned it up," I say. That's me, forever the optimist. "We’re on a fresh bed of topsoil. Cleaned and greened."

"Little Miss Sunshine," Millie calls me. "Tar rises to the top," she says. "Bubbling, oozing."

I want to see more. I make my way up the Great Mound. Millie follows behind, wheezing and embarrassed by how out of breath she is.  

“The smoke in your lungs,” I tell her. 

“The poison in the air,” Millie counters. "Cigarettes are a drop in the bucket."

When we make it to the top, the sun is on its way down. I take a second to admire the pink and orange glow, but Millie's voice in my head says it's only the pollution that makes it that way. Really, she doesn't say anything, and I am grateful for her silence. We lose ourselves in a kiss, reposition, and look down at the people. Then my eyes move to the plant and its rusted stacks and high-wire fences.

Millie moves her big canvas purse between us. Always moving at a languid pace, she reaches into her bag and pulls out her two hands, clenched together into the shape of a pistol.  

Of all our games, this is my least favorite.  

Millie takes aim at the children and shouts. Pop-pow.

She swings to her left. Pop-pow. Now to her far right at two tiny tykes on a distant swing set. Pop-pow. Pop-pow. "Got 'em both," she says, "little shits," blowing imaginary smoke off her fingertips.

"If the Big One happens, the kids will go first, so they'll suffer the least." Millie raises a clenched fist. "Women and children first!" She then turns the pistol into a rifle. Millie moves her sights to the men with ponytails. "Or maybe we take out the men first. Because men in a crisis please."

Right elbow high, she aims at the men chasing the Frisbee. P'chew. P'chew. P'chew.

I look away.

Millie takes a second to consider the women, then balls up her fists and bites away at the top of her thumb before making a lobbing throw. She whistles, makes a loud boom, her shrapnel fingers flying into air. Millie likes to wait until the end, to let me believe that someone will make it. But with her, there are never any survivors.

Abby Mendelson, PhD, teaches writing and literature in the Chatham University MFA program. An award-winning author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, his most recent novel is The Oakland Quartet.

West Seattle resident Vincent Rendoni has an MFA in Fiction from Chatham University. He released his chapbook, In the Methow Valley, in 2011, and has previously published in Shady Side Review, FictionBrigade, and Arcturus.

Mendelson and Rendoni's first flash fiction, "Blood Red," appeared in Fiction Southeast.