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Sisterland(7)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“Hey, Rosie the Riveter,” Hank said, and Amelia, who was Hank and Courtney’s three-year-old daughter and who was standing on the couch, called out, “My mom is on TV!”

I turned back to Hank. “What’s going on?”

“Courtney and Vi were in the same news segment about the earthquake.”

“Why would Vi be—” I started to ask, and Hank said, “I think it’s better if you just watch. I DVR’d it for Courtney.”

“Is it good or bad?”

On the wall in one corner of their living room was a large flat-screen TV, and Hank held the remote control toward it. “It’s not that it’s bad,” he said. “But you’ll think it is.”

I tried not to grip Owen too tightly as I faced the screen. The segment began with a young brunette reporter describing the earthquake that had occurred during the night and providing an overview of the region’s geology. “San Francisco gets more attention,” she said, “but heartland dwellers know that one of the strongest continental earthquakes ever recorded in the U.S. had its epicenter in the Missouri Bootheel, just a few hours south of St. Louis.” Courtney then appeared on-screen, Courtney as in Hank’s wife and Jeremy’s colleague, sitting behind the desk in her office. “In fact, it was a series of between three and five seismic events, the first of which was in December 1811 and the last in February 1812,” she said, and she sounded calm and authoritative. COURTNEY WHEELING, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF GEOPHYSICS, it said in black letters at the bottom of the screen. “At this point, we don’t know if the second and third events on December 16, 1811, were quakes or aftershocks. As for the question of whether we’re living in an active seismic zone right now—”

Before Courtney could finish, the reporter said, “According to one area woman, the answer is very much so.” Hank laughed, presumably because it seemed obvious that Courtney had been about to say the opposite, and then Vi filled the screen. Seeing her, I flinched. The big, loose purple tunic she wore had seemed unnoteworthy at Hacienda but now appeared garish, and even if she hadn’t been in the same clothes, I’d have guessed she hadn’t slept the night before: There were shadows under her eyes, her face was puffy, and she didn’t have on makeup. I had never been on television myself, but I knew you at least needed foundation.

“Another earthquake is coming soon. A powerful, powerful earthquake.” In voice-over, as footage showed Vi giving a tour of her living room—the iron candelabra set on the windowsill and the Tibetan prayer flags strung across one wall and the little fountain in the corner, with water bubbling over a pile of stones—the reporter said, “Violet Shramm, a self-described psychic medium living in Rock Hill, claims that the tremors St. Louis residents felt earlier today were a prelude to a much bigger earthquake. No, she doesn’t have proof, but in 2004 she helped Florissant police find nine-year-old kidnapping victim Brady Ogden, she publicly predicted Michael Jackson’s death in June—and she says she had a hunch about the quake that happened early this morning.”

“I did a reading for a group last night,” Vi told the camera, “and the last thing I said to them was, ‘Be careful, because Mother Earth is very restless right now.’ ”

I glanced at Hank. “I thought you said it wasn’t that bad.”

“Well, I wish they weren’t pitted against each other. I’m sure Courtney had no idea.”

“She looks deranged,” I said, and added, as if it were necessary, “Not Courtney.”

“Shramm knows she’ll have her skeptics,” the reporter was saying, “but she believes that staying quiet could do more harm than good.”

“If I can save just one life,” Vi said, “that’s what’s important.”

The shot shifted to an image of a map with a pulsing red circle over the border between Missouri and Arkansas on one side and Kentucky and Tennessee on the other. “No doubt about it, we’re in a hot zone,” the reporter said. “But according to Washington University’s Wheeling, the Big One could come tomorrow—or never.”

“It’s no likelier to happen next week than fifty years from now,” Courtney explained, and she looked, I noticed this time around, impeccably tasteful in a gray blouse, a black suit jacket, small silver earrings, and well-applied foundation; her short blond hair was neatly brushed. “Does it hurt to keep emergency supplies in the basement? Not at all. But in terms of daily threats for St. Louisans, I’d say something like obesity far outranks earthquakes.”

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