Authors: Kathryn Reiss
The Strange Case of Baby H
In memory of Helen Curfman Mason,
beloved great aunt,
and once again for Tom Strychacz,
my husband, my hero. You inspire me.
Clara streaked through the waves like a sleek gray seal. “I'm coming!” she cried to the figure struggling in the water. “Hang on, Old Sock!” She dragged him up onto the sun-baked rocks and pulled herself out after him. She lifted her mouth to breathe in the salty sea airâand got a mouthful of â¦
With a start, twelve-year-old Clara Curfman awoke from another swimming dream to find her big sheepdog shoving his furry face into hers. In the next second he had leaped up onto her bedâheedless of Mother's rule against Dogs On Bedsâand was burrowing beneath the blankets.
“Botheration!” groaned Clara. “What
you doing, Humphrey?”
Mother would never allow such a thing, but Clara slid over to make room for Humphrey. The dog lay at her side, panting heavily.
Clara closed her eyes. The dream hovered in her mind, but the yowling cats and howling dogs outside her window made sleep impossible. Humphrey pawed the bedclothes. He seemed to be trying to hide. “What's
, boy?” Clara hissed, struggling to sit up.
She listened with surprise to Mr. Grant's rooster crowing next door.
It's still dark!
Clara thought in protest.
Don't these silly animals know it's the middle of the night
But the palest dawn light filtering through the windows illuminated the clock on Clara's dresser: eleven minutes past five. Almost time for the usual six o'clock rising.
The very thought of morning made Clara close her eyes again. Another day of chores, chores, choresâand then more chores. Another day of
. Clara wished she could go back to sleep for a million years, but her eyes flew open when her bed lurched like something alive and Humphrey growled.
The room jolted as if shaken by a giant's hand. Humphrey's frantic barking merged with crashes and thuds from all around the house as everything shook violently from side to side and up and down.
Hang on, Old Sock!
Her brother's voice rang in Clara's head as she clutched Humphrey in panic. She couldn't think what was happening. She heard church bells clanging wildly, shouting from somewhere very far awayâand Mother's shrill voice screaming, “Earthquaaaaaaaake!”
Clara twined her fingers tight in Humphrey's long fur as the floor heaved like rolling ocean waves. She watched in amazed horror as her books jiggled right off the shelves by the bed. They cascaded onto her and Humphrey, sharp corners gouging them through the blankets. Clara tried to jump out of bedâbut Humphrey was on top of her, howling. Plaster came raining down on them from the ceiling, and in some part of her mind Clara knew she must take cover-perhaps under the bed? But she just couldn't move.
The shaking and heaving went on and on, the bed cresting the waves. And then it started dancing right across the sunporch floor with Clara a frozen passenger, unable to stop it. The bed smashed into the far wall. Window glass shattered over the foot of the iron bedstead, and puffs of plaster flew like sharp grains of sand into Clara's face.
Thenâfor one long momentâall was silent.
In the silence Clara thought dizzily:
I liked the swimming dream better â¦
but Humphrey licked her face and she knew this chaos was no dream. As she brought her hands to her face and wiped off the gritty plaster dust, she heard her mother's voice crying her name.
“Clara! My Clara!”
Clara struggled out of her cocoon of covers, shoving Humphrey onto the floor. “Mother!” She jumped down from her bed and felt something sharp stab her heel. “Ow!”
Mother was a dim figure in the doorway, her long brown hair out of its usual tidy bun and coated with white dust. “Oh, my heavens, take care, child! Watch for the broken glass, darlingâ”
She called me darling!
Even through her fear, Clara felt astonished at Mother's endearment. Mother usually had nothing but critical remarks for Clara.
“Hurry, hurry!” Mother clutched Clara's arm as Clara bent to ease the sliver of glass from her foot. “We must hurry outside. There may be more in storeâoh, my land, the house could crumble around our heads and bury us all alive!”
Mother led the way from the sunporch, her tall, thin figure whisking around the corner as Clara limped along more slowly, her heel throbbing with pain.
I'm probably leaving bloody footprints on the carpet runner
, she thought.
Mother will have a dozen fits â¦
They hurried down the long staircase to the front door. Clara gasped as they passed the parlor. It looked as if a storm had swept through, tossing furnishings about like loose pages of newspaper on the street. The mirror over the mantle had shattered, and so had the clock. Shards of silvered glass lay on the mahogany bench.
The lodgers appeared in the front hallway in their nightshirts, looking like ghosts. Old Mr. Granger had on a nightcapâ
the ghost of Wee Willy Winky
, Clara thought wildly. She felt dizzy and light-headed as the nervous lodgers gathered around her. Mother shooed everyone toward the front door.
“Where is Father?” Clara demanded. It should be Father in command, not Mother. In her mind's eye, she saw how he would leap over the wreckage and lead the way out of the house with old Mr. Granger slung over his shoulder and one of the ladies under each arm â¦ But that was impossible now.
“Mind the glass,” Mother warned Miss Abigail Chandler, the young piano teacher who now slept in Clara's old bedroom. “Clara! Do hurry!”
Where is Father
?” Clara grabbed Mother's arm.
“I'll come back for him once I get you all safely outdoors.”
“I'll get him myself!” cried Clara, and she turned and hobbled, heel throbbing, through the dining room, where broken china littered the floor, toward the small study where her parents had been sleeping.
“No, Clara! You must leave the house at once!” shouted Mother. But Clara ran faster.
She found Father sitting on the edge of his bed, clutching the iron bedpost. He was trying to pull himself up to a standing position. “My Clara,” he spoke quietly when he saw her in the doorway. “I trust you are unhurt?”
She limped over to him. “Yes, Father.” She could hear her own heartbeat pumping in her head. The noise felt like a drumbeat to get them marching:
Get out quickly! Get out of the house!
“But you're bleeding, my girl.”
“I stepped on glass, that's all,” she replied, trying to speak just as calmly as he did. “Hurry, Father. Mother says we must get out into the yard beforeâ” She broke off as another jolt shook the house. Father fell back onto the bed. Clara grabbed hold of the dresser and reached out to intercept the wicker wheelchair as it careened toward them from the far side of the room.
The house trembled as if shaken by the scruff of its neck. Then it droppedâdown, downâand Clara's stomach lurched down with it. More plaster sifted around them, covering their identical auburn heads like snow and frosting Father's beard. Clara shook back her tangled, waist-long hair.
“Snow in San Francisco,” grunted Father.
“Is it over now?” whispered Clara. Then they heard Mother shouting for them, her voice rising hysterically. Clara grabbed the wheelchair and pulled it over to the bedside. Father eased himself into the seat, and she took hold of the wooden handles.
They hastened into the back hallway. Out on the stoop, Clara was relieved to see that the wooden ramp for Father's wheelchair was intact. Clara blinked in the half-light and sucked in a deep breath of early-morning air as she and her father reached the grass. Mr. Hiram Stokes, a middle-aged office clerk, came running around the house from the front and took charge of the wheelchair; Mother was right behind him, and she wrapped her shawl around Clara's shoulders. The other lodgers straggled after Mother into the small backyard. Humphrey pressed his wet nose into Clara's hand as she gazed at the unusual sight of the lodgers in their nightclothes and curling rags, nightcaps and bare feet. She stroked Humphrey's head.
“You knew it was coming, didn't you, boy? That's what all your fussing was about. Somehow you knew.”
Humphrey thumped his tail, and Clara's shuddering heart slowed to nearly normal. She looked around at the twisted iron fence, the broken glass, the mess. But at least her family and all the lodgers were out of the house unhurtâthe only injury was Clara's foot, and that was a trifling matter compared to what could have happenedâand the house still stood whole, except for the windows.
Thanks be to Godâthey were safe!
No sooner had Clara thought this than Humphrey pressed against her side, whining, and the ground beneath their feet tossed them forward. Clara landed on her knees, wincing. She gripped the arm of Father's wheelchair with both hands to pull herself up again.