It isn’t long after an earthquake strikes your city, shortly before your thirty-third birthday, that you begin acting skittish at the slightest noise or vibration. Your heart flutters with fear. Your legs strain, and you have to use every ounce of will to resist rushing for an exit, plunging through fire doors, stumbling down stairs. You’ve always been sensitive to sounds, tremors, but they’ve never before inspired such intense reactions. You work on the twelfth floor now, not far from street level, but the earthquake makes you realize that during a disaster, you’d have seconds to determine a course of action—take flight to ensure your survival or let the building crumble around you.

 When it happens, you’re training a new employee at your desk. The floor starts shaking. “Did you feel that?” the woman says. But you’re already on your feet, looking out the window on downtown Philadelphia. You think that maybe a small plane has crashed into the building or a gas main exploded underneath. A few of your coworkers are standing, too. They look at each other, confused. “What should we do?” one of them asks. You didn’t realize making these decisions was part of being a supervisor, but you make the call anyway. Your eyes meet hers, you wave your arms in a fanning motion toward the door. “We get the hell out of here,” you say, herding them to the stairwell, trying to avoid trampling the people fleeing below.

We get the hell out of here.”

It isn’t your most professional moment. But does such a moment require professionalism? The earthquake measures 5.2 on the Richter. Its epicenter is two hundred miles away, but you don’t know this at the time. You sensed a threat and reacted. If the threat was genuine, your action would have given you all a chance to live, and each day after this, whenever a helicopter or a jet passes overhead, whenever the windows rattle, you shift in your seat, plant a foot, and make ready to haul ass out of there.

When you were eight, your cat Max was hit by a car in front of your house, and you learned that everything that lives eventually has to die. You cried yourself to sleep for a week, but you wept into your pillow. No one else seemed to have a problem with what you’d just learned. Your mother and father were sad, but you didn’t see them carrying on about it. “How often do people die?” you asked, with hopes of quelling your fears. Then one day, your father, concerned you were developing an unhealthy obsession, told you: “You can’t live in fear. You’ll never enjoy anything if you do.” You’ve tried to carry this advice into adulthood, but as you get older, it takes greater effort to balance your anxieties with the risks involved in relishing day-to-day existence.

The earthquake occurred in August. A month after that, you married your girlfriend of four years, and so many things are going well that you have more to lose than ever. You and Justine are planning for the future. You’ve bought a house in the suburbs where the schools are good, you’ve discussed having kids.

“If we have a boy,” she says, “what should we call him?”

“Sherlock. There aren’t enough people calling their kids Sherlock anymore.”

“I thought you were partial to Miles.”

“Sherlock Miles, then. He can go by his first initial and middle name.”

“Smiles Jones?”

You laugh, but later that night, as you lay in bed, you wonder if you should have children. You like the idea of being a father, but as long as the idea exists in your mind alone, the children are happy, healthy. Once they enter the world, they’ll learn of suffering, of mortality. They’ll have pets die. They’ll be scared by earthquakes, and when there aren’t deaths or disasters, they’ll have to grapple with their own everyday limitations. Perhaps this is the reason for the fundamental tension between parents and children. Parents, no matter how loving, are the cause of their children’s sorrows by giving them life, and you wonder how many people, offered a choice with the foreknowledge of what they’d have to endure, would opt to come into the world.

Each year at Christmas, you watch It’s a Wonderful Life. You enjoy George Bailey’s odyssey, the angel Clarence arriving to show him how much better the world is for his having lived in it. You like the notion that each one of us has an influence on other people, and without one person the world would be dramatically different. You don’t mind buying into this sentiment over the holidays, but you can’t uphold its optimism the rest of the year, and once you enter the cold stretch between New Year’s and the spring solstice—that stretch of low light and little festivity—you hopes disappear.

One morning at work, you embarrass yourself. A sporting event downtown has requested a flyover of military jets. The jets pass, dipping low, and as they skim the buildings, their sleek forms break the sound barrier. You imagine missiles heading your direction. You see the instant of impact, vaporizing, heat so high your flesh would melt. You imagine being here, then not; knowledge, then nothing. This time you aren’t training anyone. No one stands to ask for guidance. All you see, as the sonic boom explodes overhead and you dash for the stairwell, are colleagues, rubbernecking as you pass. You’re in high gear now, moving too swiftly to stop, and you don’t slow down until you’ve hit the eighth floor. At this point, the structure should have trembled, collapsed, but it hasn’t, and you turn to go back up.

“You have the strongest fight or flight response I’ve ever seen,” one of your colleagues says.

She’d been among those who’d followed you down during the earthquake.

“I’m not sure there’s much fight in it,” you reply.

You didn’t have a religious upbringing, but you grew up believing in God. For most of your life, you’ve taken the idea of some kind of afterlife for granted, but lately, you’ve started having doubts. You can’t say when the seed was planted, but it’s been growing—the nagging suspicion, the idea that you’ll die and that’s it: you’ll exist no more. You’ve heard people talking about it on TV, in the philosophy lectures you’ve downloaded online, on science podcasts. You’ve read the assertions of neurologists in articles published in the academic journals you edit. This might be the reason the earthquake made you so skittish—this sense of finality, an end that seems more genuine than intimations of eternity, an end that could land at any moment, catch you unaware and leave you in permanent darkness, permanent not-you. As the old year rolls into the new, you decide to read the Bible, hoping it holds some secret, some truth, some wisdom. You search its pages for something to assuage your fears, help you stop running into the stairwell each time the windows rattle. You devour the text—Old Testament, New, Psalms and Proverbs. Each night you turn to the book and read, and over dinner, Justine asks how it’s going.

Your wife isn’t religious either, and she thinks you’re reading it for its literary value. She expects you to offer insights over mushroom risotto. You try to speak, but nothing comes. You could pontificate. Point out the usual agnostic objections—its sanction of slavery, its attitudes toward homosexuality, the contradictions that result from various authors professing to be messengers of God. But these objections are worn, trite. They aren’t what bothers you most. No, what bothers you is that the book contains no concise vision of the afterlife. It offers a vague outline of how to get there, but it gives you nothing tangible. Are we static, stuck in one place with friends and family, the same versions of ourselves for all eternity? Or do we continue to grow, develop relationships with the souls around us? And if that’s the case, and there’s change, how can it be perfect? Doesn’t change inherently imply imperfection? And if heaven is so different from our mortal existence the mind can’t comprehend it, wouldn’t the self evaporate, change to such an extent you might as well not exist? 

You have friends who believe—friends whose opinions you respect, but whenever you broach your concerns, you’re met with abstract conversations about faith. And you understand faith, just not theirs. After all, it’s intuition telling you that when you die, you’ll no longer exist. You don’t have proof. If asked to argue your position, you couldn’t. And while part of you understands it won’t matter once you’re dead, the idea of your consciousness ceasing to be scares you more than anything.

Silence hovers over the table. You could struggle to explain your despair, how gutted you feel when you think of becoming nothing, but you don’t want to set your wife’s mind to worry.

For years, you’ve had a recurring dream: your Hiroshima dream. In the dream, you’re in a movie theater when you realize you’ve already seen the film. As you walk into the hall to switch screenings, see something else, the lights dim. There’s a distant rumbling, and the power fails. You recognize what’s happening: someone’s dropped a nuke on your city, and you sit down, accepting it, as the blast washes over you. Somehow you remain aware, experience the prolonged disintegration. Your body breaks down. Everything goes black, silent, a resolute finality. You generally wake, not with a start, but with a slow drifting back to consciousness. You haven’t had this dream in years, but one night, early in February, it returns. Out of the darkness come tremors, a low roar. Your body reappears, and you leap from bed and run into the hall without opening your eyes. The house is shaking, windows rattling. It takes a moment to realize you’re awake, and as you run back into the bedroom for Justine, the shaking stops. You brace yourself in the doorway and stare at the walls. Then you crawl into bed and curl against her.

You ask her about it the next morning while preparing for work.

“You felt it too, right? I wasn’t dreaming?”

She nods, “I think it was the snow sliding off our roof.”

You didn’t know melting snow could shake a house like that.

“Were you okay?” she asks. “I could feel your heart pounding.”

“I thought I was having a heart attack.”

“Maybe you should see someone.”

“Like a therapist?”

“Maybe, but I think you should get a physical. Why don’t you call your doctor?”

Yet, you hesitate in making an appointment. You’re scared the doctor might say you’re really sick, but when your wife asks about it, you say you’re going Thursday.

Thursday night, she asks how it went.

“Clean bill of health. He says I’m in pretty good shape.”

She reaches across the table and takes your hand.

“And your condition?”


“Does he think you should see someone?”

“I think I’ll let it ride,” you say, although you already sense that this is a bad idea. Your body is a coil of dark energy, spring-loaded, ready to burst. You’ve ignored it the best you can, but over the next week, whenever a truck backfires or a car alarm goes off, you’re tense, ready to run. “It’s only sound,” you tell yourself. You close your eyes and slow your breathing. But the more you temper this impulse during the day, the more it invades your nights.

 “You’re not sleeping well,” Justine says. “You’re tossing and turning. Were you drinking?”

Sometimes when you drink, you get restless. But you’re honest and say no. If you’re having nightmares, you can’t recall them. You haven’t had the Hiroshima dream since the night the house shook, but you wake sluggish. You have trouble dragging yourself out of bed to the shower.

“Maybe cut back on the coffee?” your wife suggests.

You sense she’d like to push you toward seeing a shrink but knows you won’t be receptive. Instead, she makes these suggestions. She means well, but they don’t work. You’re nervous, jittery, ready for another quake.

Everything, at its core, vibrates. This is what science says. At a fundamental level, all matter hums, and you take this as truth, since it fits your experience. At night, the bed trembles beneath your body. By day, the desk trembles beneath your palms. Everything shakes, down to the last particle.

Justine often works late, and these nights, you sit at home in your study, staring at the walls. You read about string theory and relativity. You read about Buddhism and reincarnation. You read searching for answers. Some people grow so despondent with life they take their own, but you’re having the opposite problem: you love it so intensely, you fear losing it. You love your wife, and you lied to her about going to the doctor, but you didn’t know what else to do. You strain to stay sober, avoid giving in to drink. Whenever you used to grow restless, you’d take walks to calm your racing thoughts, but it’s too cold now, and each time you step from your front door, a chill wind cuts through you.

You glance at the bottle of bourbon you keep on your desk. You consider pouring a drink, but Justine wants a baby and so do you, and you want to be clear-headed when you conceive. You worry your state at that moment might affect the baby’s path through the world. You fear if you’re inebriated, you’ll have a cowardly child, a child who can’t face day-to-day life without a nip to take the edge off, and you hope your child is better than you, braver. You hope it can face the frightening things this world has in store and not hide away, cowering among books.

When Justine comes home, you make love with a clean system, and afterward, you lay near her. In your mind, you compile a list of the things you take on faith, physical laws science has shown to be true that you’ve never bothered testing yourself.

The earth orbits the sun.

You’ve read the reasoning, and you believe it. There’s no reason not to. But you’ve never bothered testing this out yourself. It’s something you believe without question. Science is based on observation, the measurement of data. It’s given the world flight, sent men into space, cured diseases. But it hasn’t always been perfect. Newtonian physics were replaced when Einstein had a better idea. But Einstein’s theory can’t explain matter at the most miniscule levels, so they developed quantum mechanics, string theory. And none of this explains what happens when you die.

Neuroscientists insist that all we are is a series of chemical reactions in the brain, neurons firing, and once you’re dead, this stops, so you stop. It’s a logical inference. But who can say they won’t eventually realize this is false? Maybe with more sophisticated technology, they can verify some type of existence beyond the brain. After all, no one seems to know where consciousness comes from. You need answers, and there’s something in scientific arrogance you can’t abide. Hearing people insist there’s no such thing as a soul bothers you, even if it makes sense.

The problem persists. You’re afraid to die. You’ve been holding the fear at bay ever since your dad offered you his advice about not living in fear, but the earthquake brought it to the surface. You’re fighting it even now, but this fight is becoming increasingly difficult. In your twenties, you suffered from panic attacks. One day you got stuck in a car and got sick when you couldn’t find a place to pull over, and after that, you worried you couldn’t control your body. You worried you’d get sick in public places, in front of people, embarrass yourself. Yet, you eventually overcame it. You started pretending it didn’t matter. Pretending—that was the first step. You’d feel pain coming on, nausea, and you’d tell yourself to go ahead and get sick. It doesn’t matter. No one cares. And this quelled the tension, eliminated the anxiety. You bluffed your way back to health, convinced yourself you didn’t mind, and now, sitting up at night, you realize the only way to assuage your fear is to recreate the earthquake, give yourself up to it, let go of what matters so that it can matter once more. But how does one recreate an earthquake?

It isn’t like you live on a fault line. They don’t happen every day. After giving the matter some thought, the only equivalent you can see is a rollercoaster. A rollercoaster, with its jostling and jolting, could simulate the experience, force your body and mind into a reckoning. You decide you’ll go to an amusement park, call out of work and not tell Justine what you’re doing and ride all day, and once you’ve reached this decision, you fall asleep, certain the solution will cure your ailment, put your mind at rest, return you to life.

Over the next month, you research amusement parks. You’re not looking for an ultramodern, loop-de-loop rollercoaster, but an old rickety wooden rail with a well-worn car whose safety seems questionable. You can’t explain why, but you have to do this alone. Whether that’s simply to keep your neuroses under wraps, or because your wife will tell you it’s a dumb idea, you can’t say. But you need to figure out an excuse to get away.

One afternoon, when it’s almost April, Justine comes home and tells you her employer is sending her to Ireland. It isn’t unusual for them to send her overseas for conferences, and though you miss her when she goes, you’re secretly ecstatic now. This gives you the freedom to test your theory. Ever since you came up with the idea, you’ve been sleeping better, but over the next few days, as she packs her things, you’re nervous and jittery. You don’t like her flying alone. You worry if something happens, you won’t be there with her, and as scared as you are about your own death, you’re just as frightened to live without her. You often wonder how you were lucky enough to marry her. Of the two of you, she’s more sensible. She doesn’t drink to excess, she makes good decisions. Yet, soaring in a little metal tube twenty thousand feet above the sea, she isn’t in control. If something happens, you don’t know how you’d cope. Your lives are inextricably linked. You bought this house together, pay bills together, spend all your time when you aren’t working in one another’s company. You have plans for the future—children, vacations, retirement. After she leaves, her side of the bed is empty for the first time since you were married, and you roll over, caressing the sheet where she usually sleeps.

 The next morning you check the news to make sure there weren’t any plane crashes. Then you shower, dress, get ready to leave. You’re expecting her to call at two in the afternoon, which you think is eight in the evening for her. You arranged this before she left, and you hope to be home by then, home and safe and secure, and if possible, cured. You’ve been in your head too much with this. You feel guilty you’ve been neglecting her, but you plan to change that once you’re better. You’ll take her on dates, plan trips, keep trying for a child. This is the day. You feel good. There’s a chill in the air, and the sky is overcast, but this means the crowds will be thin and you can ride as much as you need. You pull on a sweatshirt, grab the keys, but as you back out of the driveway, your phone starts to buzz. You cut the ignition. It’s her. You hesitate, afraid she’ll sense what you’re up to. Why’s she breaking the plan, calling so much earlier than you’d agreed upon?

After the fourth ring you pick up.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

You sit in the driver’s seat, staring into the yard—the sycamore, the climbing hydrangea that scales your back deck, your garage. You glance at the red brick structure of your home. You’re building a life here. Now the weather’s getting warm, spring is in the air, it seems more real. You’re happy to hear her breathing on the other end.

“I made it safe and sound,” she says.

But there’s a strange flutter in her voice.

“That’s good,” you say. “How was the flight?”

“Lots of turbulence,” she says. “It was kind of scary.”

And the fluttering’s gone. It must have been the connection. You’re searching for something to say, caught between the need to go and your relief at hearing her voice. You’re worried it’ll rain, that they’ll close the park, and she’ll get back to the States and you’ll still be a mess. That can’t happen. You need to fix this. You consider getting off the phone, but you can’t pull away from the sound of her voice.

“Am I interrupting something?” she asks. “You seem preoccupied.”

Even in another country, she’s perceptive, knows you. You check the review mirror, gaze at the hedges, the butterfly bush. You’re about to come clean, admit what you’re doing, but as you open your mouth, she chimes in.

“I’m late,” she says.

“Okay, I’ll let you go.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she says.

“Oh,” you pause. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure I’m late. I’m not sure what that means.”

You’re both silent: a child. You might be having a child. It didn’t seem real before. You never believed she’d conceive, that her belly would grow and a whole new life would come from that.

“How long have you known?”

“It’s day five,” she says. “I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but I don’t know. Maybe I couldn’t wait. The turbulence. I was scared. And you sound like you need to hear it. Either way, it’s not certain.”

“You didn’t take a test?”

“No, I want to wait ‘til I’m back. I want to be with you.”

“Well, that’s good news. I think…”

“I think so, too.”

As you hang up, you put the car in gear and ease it into the street, heading toward the highway. The news makes you yearn for her presence, her body. She still has to get home, and this makes you nervous. You want her with you. One more flight, and she’ll take a test, and you’ll know for sure. You think of the day ahead, and your heart’s not in it. All your strange uncomfortable thoughts originated with the ground shaking, with life’s uncertainties, and a quick visit to the amusement park won’t fix that. Still, you don’t turn around.

When you hit the turnpike, it’s raining, but you don’t stop even then. You need to drive. You turn on the wipers, careful to keep your speed steady and slow. You have no idea where you’re headed. But after your wife’s news, the soft murmur and patter of rain are soothing. You feel an odd sensation you haven’t experienced in months: calm. You watch the drops beat down on the windshield in thick beads. You watch a gale rip across the gassy verge at the side of the interstate. You suspect they’ve closed the park for the day, but you keep going. You drive through wind and rain, let the storm wash over the car, gusts shaking its sides. Your hands grip the wheel. You hold it steady and smile. Right then, you understand you’ll never get rid of the fear, but that’s okay. You don’t have a choice. From now on, you have someone else to take care of. And you hope to do that as best you can.