A Brotherhood of Rabbits
The earthquake arrived on the camp’s final day as the bus full of Rabbits wove through the Saratoga hills. They were ages ten through twelve, roughly, older than Otters but not yet Youth Leaders. A transitional group, as Pastor Abe called them. He stood next to the driver at the front of the bus, smiling and scanning over the children, the chatting pairs that swayed and bumped in unison. His hands were placed on the back of two seats, the fabric vibrating up his arms and throughout the bus. A community, Pastor Abe thought, looking from face to face. Some girls added color around their eyes. They were beginning to carry themselves as young women do, a light shimmer on their lips, sitting with boys whose calves and shoulders grew against their green Camp Calvary tees. Though there were others who still wore butterfly hair clips and sweaters buttoned all the way to the neck, faces soft like little angels. May our sons in their youth be like plants, full grown. Our daughters like pillars, cut for a palace. Warm, grateful happiness rose in Pastor Abe’s chest. Redwood branches ticked against the windows, the crooning summer heat reddening faces, jostling some to sleep in the sunbeam that shone through the trees.
A few of the older children shared headphones, nodding in sync.
Two girls tittered over a deck of cards.
A group of boys in the back huddled together, recounting the morning’s adventures. It had been the day of the ropes course, a tradition to close out the camp. Most climbed the rock wall, but the bravest kids tried the more difficult option, a walk across a perpendicular log suspended some thirty feet above the ground while the kids below yelled things like Don’t fall! or Don’t look down! All in good fun, of course, all in the supportive jest of children, as Pastor Abe and the other councilors held onto the support rope, knowing all the while that there was no real danger, and that even if the child fell the others would have a new kind of respect for him once he was lowered to the ground.
An eleven-year-old named Jude had walked across the log as a ten-year-old the year before but feared the others had forgotten. When Pastor Abe asked who would like to go, Jude was the only one to call out. The others cheered. They strapped him into the harness and led him to the ladder, a redwood tree with iron pegs mashed into its bark. Don’t be scared! they called. Sweat made Jude’s hands slippery as he climbed. He wasn’t scared. He heard another camper below yell out, Jude! Be careful on the Wooden Bridge of Horror! Jude had made the mistake of calling it the Wooden Bridge of Hell earlier that day. He was threading a lanyard with two of the younger boys during lunch hour, telling them what it felt like to run across that Bridge of Hell last year, and how he’d go even faster this time. Pastor Abe had tapped him on the shoulder and asked him, in his soft voice, to take a walk. He could bring his lanyard if he wanted. They sat down on a bench overlooking the archery range, a field of dry, yellow grass, empty targets set up in a line. Pastor Abe opened a bag of sunflower seeds and held it over to Jude. He was sorry that he had to take him aside like this, he said. He knows how scary and embarrassing talks like this one can be, but it’s important that he knows what’s okay and what isn’t. He’s an eleven-year-old, and he’s a leader, and the other kids look up to him, and he’s counting on Jude to help out the other boys, to be an example. And maybe next summer when Jude is older he can graduate from Rabbit to Junior Leader. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James. Have you read James? Jude shook his head. The Pastor put a rubber band around the bag of seeds and handed it to him. You have such wonderful potential, Jude. Such wonderful potential.
Jude thought about yelling back down to the kids, telling them to shut up, that he needed to concentrate, but Jude remembered the conversation and then looked down and saw Pastor Abe smiling up at him as he held onto the support rope. He kept climbing. Up on the platform, he felt dizzy, not like he remembered feeling the year before. The other kids looked up with their mouths open, some of them yelling encouraging words that they’d practiced, as encouragement begets community, brotherhood and sisterhood – Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, as Pastor Abe said – and that is what they are. Brothers.
Jude fell after his fourth step; his legs went soft and his body slumped to the side, teetering over the log’s edge only slightly, enough that the others below knew he was falling and made a collective gasp. And at that moment, Jude thought about seeing his life flash before his eyes, but it did not. Wind rushed against his face. He found his hands lifted at his sides. Something had stolen his breath, and he thought of nothing because nothing came to mind. Before his ankles dropped below the bottom of the log, Pastor Abe and the other counselors hoisted him until he was floating midair, swaying gently from side to side as the harness tightened around his waist. Once they lowered him to the ground the other campers surrounded him, asking what it felt like to fall. Did his stomach float to the center of his body? Did he pee himself? Did he fall on purpose because he’d already made it across last year? On the bus, one asked Jude what it felt like to go into the light, what it was like to see the Devil and fight him off. The girls in front of him turned in their chairs. Jude raised an eyebrow and said that the Devil was bigger and more evil and dark that you could ever imagine. That when he fell off the log the Devil appeared in front of him and said, Jude. It’s time for you to go. But Jude said No, Devil. It’s not. And they fought for what felt like days in what was only really a fraction of a second, until Jude won and was lowered back down to the real world. As he told this story, Jude could see Pastor Abe looking at him from his place at the front, still smiling but with a face that seemed wearier. It was in his tired eyes, those blue eyes that looked right into Jude, sending a wave of heat that clenched Jude’s teeth and curled his toes. He wanted to jump from his seat and throw his hands around Pastor Abe’s throat. He wanted to hit him, to yell at him: What have I done wrong?
The earthquake arrived only seconds after the driver announced that the bus would soon be driving over the San Andreas Fault, one of the biggest in the state, and that they’d feel a bump. The driver announced it every time they drove home from camp, and all the kids put their hands up in the air as though they were riding a roller coaster. They did the same this time, and the driver said, Remember to keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times! He looked over his shoulder and chuckled.
Today, the earth teetered more on one side and tottered more on the other, only enough that the asphalt sealant that glued the land together came apart. The earth opened up just slightly, imperceptibly in the scheme of things. Far down the road, the quake shook houses and offices. It knocked cereal off grocery shelves, woke parents and infants in their midday naps. On the bus, it put a little more lift underneath the children as they hovered in the air. Upon landing, it pulled them forward into the backs of warm cushioned seats and promptly returned them to their own, each child safe, searching for their lives before their eyes.
Jude was watching Pastor Abe as the bus went over the fault. The pastor’s hands had been resting on the seats that split the aisle, and he was smiling as he always was. His face did not seem to change when they went over the bump and his hands slipped away. His eyes kept their blueness and his smile remained as the two front wheels touched down and his body was pulled, quiet, into the dashboard, and calm, calm, against the windshield.
Jude believed it was something divine striking down, a punishment for his vanity and mistruths, though everyone told him it was just years of pent up tension in the earth’s plates, finally being released.
Jacob B. Garber is from Los Gatos, CA, and began studying English and writing at The George Washington University. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, and writes about all things Silicon Valley: earthquakes, anxiety, technology, and dreams.
He is the 2014 recipient of the Hassan Hussein Prize for the beginning of his novel, now titled Under the Valley. He has published stories – “A Suburban Earthquake” and “The Explain Game” – with Harvard Book Store, and presented numerous others at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. Outside of narrative fiction, his research on gender and race in Hollywood appeared in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media in 2016, and he is a 2013 Luther Rice Fellowship recipient for his research on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. He currently lives in Washington, DC, where he works as a media strategist for Democratic nonprofit and political organizations.