Family Trip

Posted: August 1, 2017 in Stories, Uncategorized
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Every year was a hard fought battle to get as many family members as we could to go on at least one camping trip. Everyone would try to figure out the best weekend to make it happen so that those who didn’t have the days off could request them off far enough in advance. We’re talking four and sometimes even five generations of probably one of the world’s most chaotic and fun families to ever walk the earth.

This year was going to be a little different. Instead of packing cars and trucks and heading to the nearest mountain range or beach in California, we had won tickets to Japan.

There were some who couldn’t make it work, and a couple that dropped out at the last minute, but in the end, we arrived. Two grandparents, a couple aunts, one uncle, a handful of cousins, and their young children all landed safely in Tokyo and then dragged our luggage to a waiting bus that drove us to a small town called Onjuku in the Chiba Prefecture that rested on the eastern coastline of Japan.

The trip took us through some beautiful landscapes, all dotted with colorful signs, none of which any of us could read except for the occasional little round white sign with numbers inside a red circle that we all assumed was speed limit signs. There were also large round mirrors on metal poles at certain intersections so you could check for other traffic merging along with you. I don’t remember seeing one stop sign.

We drove through little towns that looked like they had been movie sets built to look like small 400-year-old villages, untouched by modern roadways or manufacturing, save for the one shiny brand new NTT phone booth in the center of town that was encased in tinted glass and looked so out of place, it almost seemed like someone made a mistake in placing it.

When we finally made it to our hotel in Onjuku, we all split to our separate rooms to unpack and agreed to meet back in the lobby in an hour. The rooms were small, but very much westernized for our comfort. When we gathered in the lobby a short time later everyone had a different idea of where to go first. We all quickly agreed that dinner would be a good idea once we realized we had little kids in tow as well as grandparents who get grumpy when not fed. My cousin Anna and her husband Michael went to go talk to the receptionist about local restaurants. None of us spoke Japanese, so before long they were standing at the check-in counter pantomiming spooning food into their mouths as the lady looked at them with a mix of terror and amusement on her face.

Another cousin, Michelle, decided that she was tired of the receptionist acting like she couldn’t understand what they were saying and started to storm over there but I grabbed her arm and begged her not to.

About ten minutes later we were all being ushered back onto a bus that took us out of town and into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean. Not sure if our driver even knew what was going on we all enjoyed the scenery and tossed the smallest kids back and forth between us.

We arrived at a restaurant that was built out from the cliff face, part of it sitting on stilts above the water. Across the small road that ran past the building itself was just a wall of the mountain that had been covered in cement to prevent mudslides during heavy storms. As we shuffled inside, the smell of food brought smiles to even the most jet-lagged of us all. We were seated at a long banquette table that ran along the outermost wall where you could look out over the ocean and the beach below. The wet sand below us looked so inviting that even Jimmy commented that we should just camp out down there with a bonfire and some beer. The waitress overheard part of the conversation I guess and said, “No beach, beach in Onjuku,” and shook her head as she wandered off.

“Maybe it’s sacred or something, I saw a lot of Shrines around here on Google maps.” I offered.

“Yeah, so sacred they built a restaurant over it.” Replied Michelle as she rolled her eyes.

She had a point.

Our grandfather decided this was a good time to announce that he wasn’t hungry and wasn’t going to order anything, which brought a silent but felt glare from our grandmother. We all quickly looked away and stared intently at the menus. I spent a second trying to figure out if there was anything labeled, “Cooked beef, just for you dumb ass Americans.” There wasn’t, but they did have the menu items listed in English under the Japanese spelling.

Without any kids to keep me busy asking what they wanted, or a spouse arguing about ordering anything at all I found myself staring out the window.

The ocean looked so calm and peaceful, all the way to the horizon. The green-blue water sparkled with sunlight and the beach below glistened.

Anna leaned over and said, “Strange isn’t it?”

“Strange?” I asked as I looked over at her. It always kind of took me by surprise that she was the one cousin who could always kind of catch me daydreaming and knew where my heart was at any given time.

She smiled, “No waves.”

She was right, there wasn’t a wave in sight, not even on the beach, just a sort of small little mess of water lapping at the shore. It reminded me of being at a lake.

I let my gaze wander to some of the old pictures on the wall. One showed the restaurant as seen from a boat. The ocean was just below it and made it look like it was almost floating. I glanced back out the window and craned my head a little to look at the stilts under part of the building that I could see. They had barnacles attached to them and looked wet. The skin stood up on my arms and a chill ran up my neck as I looked back out to sea. Everything still looked the same. Calm.

I concentrated hard on the horizon but it was just a naturally darker shade of blue, nothing seemed strange about it. But it felt different now. It felt ominous.

When the waitress came back to our table and began taking orders I wanted to ask about the picture and the barnacles, but also didn’t want to be the idiot at the table who thinks the sky is falling and is wrong. When she asked me for my order I motioned her closer before pointing out the window and asking, “Can we go down to the beach after we eat?”

She started to answer as her gaze followed where I was pointing, but the answer died on her lips as her eyes widened.

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.” She said and almost ran into the kitchen.

Everyone looked at her puzzled as she disappeared through a swinging door and turned their attention back to me. I was already standing up and said, “Get your shit, we’re leaving.”

Uncle Craig replied, “Calm down. What was that about?”

“’No beach, beach in Onjuku.’” I quoted our waitress and then said, “but that’s a fucking beach!” I pointed out the window and watched as it registered.

“Let’s go.” He said as he swooped little Mason into his arms. My cousin Jimmy grabbed his son James as Anna grabbed her and Michael’s daughter Emery. We all were headed towards the door when the manager came out from the back with some other workers and they all looked out the window as the waitress pointed.

“We all need to leave, right now!” I said.

The manager squinted out the window but then turned to us with a huge smile on his face, “It’s fine, tides only. You eat?” He motioned for us to go back to our table. By this time some other customers were looking at us and back at them, curious as to what was going on.

I pointed at the picture, “Tides don’t change twenty feet or more!” I turned to push my family out the door.

I didn’t grow up near the ocean and was only half convinced I was right when the manager raised his hands’ palm up and said, “Old picture. No siren, no problem.”

There weren’t any sirens going off and I guess coastal towns would all have early warning systems in place for tsunamis.

I looked at Michael who just shrugged and said, “I’m ready to leave, we’ll find another place to eat.”

The manager turned to calm some other customers that were starting to ask what was going on. We all looked at each other and Alex asked, “So are we blowing this bitch or staying?”

I turned to look out the window but the same peaceful ocean sat out there, nothing had changed. There was no rushing wall of water that was about to wipe out half of mankind hovering above the restaurant.

I shrugged my shoulders in defeat and we all started making our way back to our table as Michael stood a little more defiant, “I still say we find another place or come back tomorrow.”

Anna replied, “Babe, it’s fine,” And ended the debate for good.

We all filed back into place at the table and the kids went back to playing with the chopsticks and using the chopstick holders as faux mustaches. I stared out the window trying to tell myself that I was only imagining that the dark line of the horizon was getting bigger, closer, or both.

“Knock that shit off.” I looked over to see Michelle staring at me.

I conceded, “Sorry.”

As we sat waiting for our food I used my finger to smear a line where the beach met the water on the window, then without moving, I closed my eyes and counted to thirty. When I opened them there was a bigger gap between where the smear was and the water line. The water was receding, and a hell of a lot faster than any tide could change.

I looked around to signal the waitress, but she was nowhere to be found. A minute passed and then the manager came out of the kitchen looking a lot more worried than he had previously. I waved at him when he looked at me but his gaze went right over my shoulder.

I made my wave bigger and caught his attention. I watched as his worried look melted when he focused in on me and a forced smile spread across his face as he hurried over.

“Do you have evacuation plans in case we do need to leave?” I asked him.

He nodded, but there was panic in his eyes.

Out front, three small buses pulled out of the parking lot and took off down the road out of sight. Alex jumped up and shouldered past the manager on his way towards the kitchen. Half the restaurant guests followed him with their eyes and turned heads. The doors swung shut behind him and then immediately burst open as he came right back out, “They’re gone!” he said.

All hell broke loose then. People grabbed their belongings and headed towards the doors, one girl screamed, which did nothing but add haste to people who were already running over each other to reach the exits. Some of us started to do the same but Michael told us to just wait and stay calm. He pointed out that there were only two other buses in the parking lot when we got here so all the buses were now gone.

I turned to look and could now see quite clearly a wall of ocean far out in the distance, the wet sandy beach below us had grown as well.

A little hand grabbed mine and squeezed. I looked down expecting to see one of the younger family members but instead found a girl of about four years of age, fear stretching her eyes wide as her bottom lip trembled. I told her, “It’s gonna be okay.” As I looked around to see if anyone was looking for her but everyone was still trying to push and shove their way out the front door. When I looked back down she was shaking her head slowly the way children do when they know you’re lying and are scared.

I asked her what her name was but she just gripped my hand tighter and bit her bottom lip.

“Time to go.” Uncle Craig proclaimed and we all made our way to the exit. Outside there were about fifty people all trying to figure out the best course of action to get to high ground. The road ran along the cliff face in front of the restaurant and although it did have some elevation to it in places, as far as we could see it didn’t rise any higher than the restaurant roof. Across the narrow road was a cutaway section of mountain that had been cemented over to prevent land and mudslides. There was a metal ladder bolted to the side of the mountain but the bottom ten feet were blocked by a metal door that was padlocked. There were a handful of people beating at the lock with fist-sized rocks.

We were all waiting to see what other people were going to do as well as debating if we should take off down the road, but no one really knew which way to go. I looked back down at the little girl who still had a grip on my hand and noticed she was just staring up at me, not looking around for anyone.

She had neck length brown hair that was parted in the middle and ran down past her chubby little cheeks on both sides, framing her big brown eyes and soft nose. There was something almost familiar about her, but I didn’t remember seeing her on the bus that we came in on or at the hotel earlier.

I looked up at the nearest group of strangers and asked if anyone knew where her parents were. A couple of people looked up only to turn their attention back to their own conversations and arguments.

Cheers erupted across the street and we all turned to see the gate swing free of the ladder as people started to climb up it. Others rushed over while the owner of the restaurant held his hands up in front of them trying to warn them in Japanese.

“That’s too many people,” Grandpa said and halted us as we all sort of shifted in the direction of the ladder.

A solid line of people started climbing their way up as the group below pushed in harder. Someone in the crowd called out for help, but it went unanswered as they fought to get to the safety the ladder promised.

Halfway up the 200-foot ladder, a lady screamed for the person below her to wait but he climbed over her, followed by others. I don’t know if she slipped or if someone nudged her out of the way but she fell a hundred feet to the ground, and no one even turned to look where she landed.

“We need to do something, we can’t just stand around here waiting,” Michael said.

“That ladder is our best bet, once we let everyone else go ahead of us we can help mom and dad up and carry the kids.” Uncle Craig offered.

“It’s too many people, Craig,” Grandpa argued.

Just then the snapping of bolts could be heard and we all turned our heads to see a section of the ladder jolt and break free on one side flinging people off. Those with kids tried to shield their eyes but you couldn’t stop them from hearing the screams, as well as the impacts those people made when they hit the asphalt.

Those around the base of the ladder dispersed, some going the way the buses had brought us in and a larger group following the restaurant owner as he waved and yelled in Japanese. When they started to pass our little group Jimmy asked a couple of people where they were going and finally, someone answered that the owner had said there was a path up the mountain just down the road.

We were all snatching quick glances out to sea and taking notice of how much closer the wave was but no one wanted to admit it. Alex grabbed little Mason and put him on his shoulders when Michael did the same with Emery, and although James demanded to be allowed to walk himself, Jimmy still snatched him up and put him on his shoulders as little James protested out of principle but didn’t put up any real fight. I noticed then that the little girl had let go of my hand and looked around to see if I could spot her but I couldn’t.

We all started to fall in with the group moving down the road towards the promised path up the mountain but something in the back of my head told me something was wrong. I glanced back at the restaurant and then sighed and pushed my way past a group of people to head towards it.

“Where are you going?” Anna called out. I shouted over the heads of the people between us that I needed to make sure the little girl didn’t go back inside. She frowned as people started to push her and the rest of the group along. I promised to be right behind them and then turned and shouldered my way back towards the restaurant.

As I got closer to the front doors I noticed a trail of something that led from the roadway into the restaurant, it looked like something had been dragged along. As I swung the door open, the smeared trail turned to blood across the tile and I saw then a woman sitting slumped against the wall, a trail of blood falling from the side of her mouth, her legs were all twisted wrongly and my stomach dropped at the sight.

“Help me.” She pleaded when she saw me. I knelt down next to her and tried to figure out how to help, but I didn’t know what to do. She tried to cough up the blood that was slowly filling her lungs but only managed to get a couple little bubbles of blood to form before she closed her eyes and was gone.

I stood up and checked the rest of the restaurant but didn’t find the little girl. As I made my way back to the dining area I knew I had made a mistake. The wave of ocean was towering now and moving fast. I could see it growing before me.

I felt my leg tremble when I realized there was no way I could outrun it, even if I knew where to go. I sat down at the table we all shared only a short time ago and stared out the window. I could see the veins of green and blue in the water, the seaweed that had been sucked up into it and churned now like a snow globe after being shaken.

A hand reached out and squeezed mine and I jerked my head around to see the little girl sitting opposite me, tears streamed down her full little cheeks now. Somehow I knew she wasn’t real then, like a solution that you have been searching for hours just finally and mysteriously reveals itself to you.

She saw the revelation in my eyes and squeezed my hand reassuringly. I looked up and asked about my family, “Will they make it?”

She nodded slowly and smiled.

“Good,” I said and turned to watch the tsunami rush in towards me as the restaurant began to shake.

“I love you more.” She said and I turned as tears and a sob burst from me. She was no longer the little girl.

“I love you too mom.” I managed to say before the window next to me imploded and the abyss took me home.


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