Someone Else
By Monica

2004 –
The hot late summer heat beats down on my face making me squirm and fidget. The clay playground lies baking beneath my pale legs, and I wonder for a moment if it might actually cook my flesh the way chicken cooks in an oven. It is mid morning on a Monday in September 2004, and the sun is scorching my eyes as I try to see the faces of all the people gathered in the playground. Eventually the sunlight becomes too overwhelming: I am forced to turn my head away. I look back at my classmates who, like me, are all sitting cross-legged in a straight line with white helmets dwarfing our nine-year-old heads. I giggle as I realize how much we look like those silly bobble head toys. I try to catch my best friend’s eye, but she is too busy tracing the pink and purple logo on her shoes. Disappointed, I turn back into the blinding sun, rest my pink cheeks on my fists and wait to be let back inside.
The headmaster’s voice is crackling through a megaphone, drilling my head with words like ‘silence’ and ‘orderly’ and ‘discipline’ while minutes ago my mind had been filled with my fourth grade teacher’s calm voice as she read us another chapter from Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. I try to ignore the sun and the headmaster’s lecture and the fact that the big white helmet is digging into my dark hair. I pretend to be like everyone else and simply enjoy the time out of the classroom.
The kid in front of me, a new boy from France, turns back and looks at me with confusion written all over his freckled face.
“Why are we here?” he asks, reaching under his helmet to scratch his brown curls.
I roll my eyes. Having lived in Japan all my life I am perfectly used to this typical routine. “It's a drill in case there’s ever an earthquake.” I reply, careful to keep my voice low.
The boy’s green eyes widen. “Really?”
I grin and nod. “Yah. I don’t see why we need to do them though. There are never any earthquakes during school.”
Our teacher’s head snaps around as she scans her students for the source of the whispering. I dip my head and hope the big white helmet will hide the guilt that has spread across my face. Earthquake drills are one of those things big people make such a big deal about that as a little person, I can’t help but wonder if I should be taking it seriously.
2011 –
Six years and six months later I am sitting in geography class on March 11th, 2011. My teacher is explaining the renewable energy task that we will have to complete for the following week. It's my last class on a Friday, so frankly I’m only taking in about half of what he says. My eyes drift to the clock on the wall. It's a couple minutes past 2:40. “Two more hours.” I tell myself. “Two hours from now you’ll be on your bike riding home.”
I’m the first one in our class to notice the shaking.
“Earthquake!” I say, a smile already creeping across my face. The others catch on almost immediately with similar reactions.
“This is like the fifth one this week!” someone yells from the back of the classroom. The rest of us laugh. We’ve had small earthquakes all week, so we know that this one is no different. It is nothing to worry about. It’s just a little bit of excitement on an otherwise dull day.
But the shaking doesn't stop.
A couple of us exchange nervous glances as we notice how violently the globe on a nearby shelf is rocking. Our voices evaporate and our smiles fade as we listen to the unfamiliar creaking that seems to be resonating from every direction.
“Do you want to get under the tables?” my geography teacher asks slowly, a frown on his usually composed face. Normally this sort of remark would have been met by scoffs and giggles as we thought about how ridiculous it sounded, but no one is laughing. Without a second thought we all duck under the tables, hardly believing our own actions.
With a sudden jerk the entire building seems to lurch as if yanked off its hinges. I can feel the earth sway beneath my fingertips like a wounded animal staggering blindly in the dark. The overhead speaker squeaks to life and our principal is heard over the pounding in my ears.
“We are currently experiencing an earthquake,” he says in a voice so collected I wonder if it was pre-recorded. “Everyone please stay calm, and go under your desks. Quietly wait for the shaking to stop”
But it doesn't stop. The shuddering earth continues to groan and spin, making me almost sick to my stomach. Instinctively, I reach out for the metal legs of the table in front of me. My sweaty hands slip on the gray paint, but I manage to grasp it, not even noticing the pointed edge that presses into my palms upon contact. I can feel the very core of the earth move as I am rocked from side to side. Behind me there is a clatter that almost stops my heart. Things are beginning to fall. This is no drill.
The experience is a quiet one, only the gentle tapping of the blinds can be heard: a soothing sound, which under normal circumstances I would associate with a warm spring breeze flittering through an open window. Its presence now only enhances the surrealism of the situation. I close my eyes to try to focus, only to find my mind is a jumble of questions. Am I safe? Is this building safe? Is this table safe? Will it collapse? Will it hold? Will it stop? Am I safe? Frightened, my eyes snap back open and involuntarily dart around the classroom, searching for something stationary. A flash of blue and green on the shelf to my right grabs my attention. It’s the globe that I was sitting next to minutes ago, rocking like a buoy in the trough of a wave in an open ocean.
The earthquake dies down as quickly as it started. Or at least I think it does. The room still swims before my eyes like a never ending rollercoaster as I try to remember how to breathe smoothly. I shoot a terrified glance at my friend under the table next to me. She mouths the words ‘Oh my God’: a phrase she uses on a daily basis being the drama queen that she is, but this time any sparkle of jest is absent from her face. Only then does it dawn on me the reality of what just occurred. Only then do I wonder about the safety of my friends and family. Only then do I realize that we may not have been the worst affected.
I left school that night at 8:45 and returned to a house with no electricity and a couple third graders who I’d never seen before in my life. The boys were two of over fifty students from my school who couldn't make it home that night because the trains had stopped. We gave them my sister’s room and my sister came into mine. As we are close, whenever my sister and I have to share a room we normally talk and laugh and gossip, but the only sound that could be heard in my bedroom the entire night was the sound of my rapid typing as I conducted search after search about the earthquake on five different news feeds, and my sister’s steady breathing as she tried to collect her thoughts while staring at the posters on my ceiling. At around three in the morning she spoke to me for the first time since we arrived home. I recognized what she said immediately. She was referring to a Calvin and Hobbes strip that she and I had read when we were kids:
“When you hear about natural disasters and other horrible things happening around the world, you know you're concerned, but you don’t really worry because you think that it's the kind of thing that only happens to someone else. But I guess in the end we’re all someone else to someone else.”