Excerpt

Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips

May 16, 2019 
The following is from Julia Phillips' novel Disappearing Earth. After two young girls disappear on the Kamchatka shoreline, the ensuing yearlong investigation forces the emotional, social, and ethnic tensions of the surrounding community to surface. Julia Phillips is a Fulbright fellow whose writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Atlantic, Slate, and The Moscow Times. She lives in Brooklyn.

August

Article continues below

Sophia, sandals off, was standing at the water’s edge. The bay snuck up to swallow her toes. Gray salt water over bright skin. “Don’t go out any farther,” Alyona said.

The water receded. Alyona could see, under her sister’s feet, the pebbles breaking the curves of Sophia’s arches, the sweep of grit left by little waves. Sophia bent to roll up her pant legs, and her ponytail flipped over the top of her head. Her calves showed flaking streaks of blood from scratched mosquito bites. Alyona knew from the firm line of her sister’s spine that Sophia was refusing to listen.

“You better not,” Alyona said.

Sophia stood to face the water. It was calm, barely touched by ripples that made the bay look like a sheet of hammered tin. The current got stronger as it pulled into the Pacific, leaving Russia behind for open ocean, but here it was domesticated. It belonged to them. Hands propped on narrow hips, Sophia surveyed it, the width of the bay, the mountains on the horizon, the white lights of the military installation on the opposite shore.

Article continues below

The gravel under the sisters was made of chips from bigger stones. Alyona leaned against a block the size of a hiking backpack, and a meter behind her was the crumbling cliff face of St. Nicholas Hill. Water on one side, rock wall on the other, they had walked along the coast this afternoon until they found this patch, free of bottles or feathers, to settle. When seagulls landed nearby, Alyona chased them away with a wave of her arm. The whole summer had been cool, drizzly, but this August afternoon was warm enough to wear short sleeves.

Sophia took a step out, and her heel went under.

Alyona sat up. “Soph, I said no!” Her sister backed up. A gull flew over. “Why do you have to be such a brat?”

“I’m not.”

“You are. You always are.”

Article continues below

“No,” Sophia said, turning around. Her tipped-up eyes, thin lips, sharp jaw, even the point of her nose annoyed Alyona. At eight years old, Sophia still looked six. Alyona, three years older, was short for her age, but Sophia was tiny all over, from waist to wrists, and sometimes acted like a kindergartener: she kept a row of stuffed animals at the foot of her bed, played pretend that she was a world-famous ballerina, couldn’t fall asleep at night if she caught even one scene of a horror movie on the television. Their mother indulged her. Being born second had given Sophia the privilege of staying a baby all her life.

Gaze fixed on a spot on the cli far above Alyona’s head, Sophia lifted one foot out of the water, pointed wet toes, and raised her arms to fifth position. She tipped and caught herself. Alyona shifted her seat on the stones. Their mother always tried to get Alyona to take her sister along to classmates’ apartments, but these little misdeeds were exactly why she would not.

Instead they had spent their summer vacation alone with each other. Alyona had taught Sophia how to do a back walkover in the damp parking lot behind their building. In July, they took the bus forty minutes to the municipal zoo, where they fed candy through the cage to a greedy black goat. Its slitted pupils swiveled in its head. Later that afternoon, Alyona pushed an unwrapped milk caramel through a chain-link fence to a lynx, which hissed at the sisters until they backed away. The caramel sat on the cement floor. So much for the zoo. When Alyona and Sophia’s mother left them money in the mornings before work, the sisters went to the cinema, and split a banana and chocolate crepe afterward at the café on its second floor. Most days, though, they hung around the city, watching rain clouds gather and the sunlight stretch out. Their faces tanned gradually. They took walks, or rode their bikes, or came here.

While Sophia balanced, Alyona looked along the shore. A man was picking his way over the rocks.

“Someone’s coming,” Alyona said. Her sister splashed one leg down and lifted the other. Sophia might not care who saw her act like an idiot, but Alyona, her forced companion, did. “Stop,” Alyona said. More loudly. Heating up in her mouth—“STOP.”

Article continues below

Sophia stopped.

Down the line of the water, the man was gone. He must have found some clean place to sit. All the frustration that had been rising inside Alyona seeped out like a bath when the drain was unplugged.

“I’m bored,” said Sophia.

Alyona lay back. The rock was hard on her shoulders, cold on her head. “Come here,” she said, and Sophia stepped out of the bay, picked her way over, and squirmed next to Alyona. The smallest stones crunched together. The breeze had left Sophia’s body as cool as the ground. “Want me to tell you a story?” Alyona asked.

“Yes.”

Article continues below

Alyona checked her phone. They had to be home in time for dinner, but it wasn’t even four o’clock. “Do you know about the town that washed away?”

“No.” For someone who never obeyed, Sophia could be very attentive. Her chin lifted and her mouth pinched shut in concentration.

Alyona pointed down the shore at the most distant cliffs. To the girls’ right was the city center, from where they had walked this afternoon; to the left, marking the mouth of the bay, were those black hulks.

“It used to be there.”

“In Zavoyko?”

“Past Zavoyko.” They sat under the peak of St. Nicholas Hill. If they had kept walking along the shoreline today, they would have seen the stony side of the hill eventually lower, exposing the stacked squares of a neighborhood overhead. Five-story Soviet apartment buildings covered in patchwork concrete. The wooden frames of collapsed houses. A mirrored high-rise, pink and yellow, with a banner advertising business space for rent. Zavoyko was kilometers past all that, making it the last district of their city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the last bit of land before sea. “It was at the edge of the cli where the ocean meets the bay.”

“Was it a big town?”

“It was like a settlement. Like a village. Just fifty wooden houses, filled with soldiers, wives, and babies. This was years ago. After the Great Patriotic War.”

Sophia thought about it. “Was there a school?”

“Yes. A market, a pharmacy. Everything. A post office.” Alyona pictured it: stacked logs, carved window frames, doors painted turquoise. “It looked like a fairy tale. And there was a flagpole in the middle of town, and a square where people parked their old-fashioned cars.”

“Okay,” Sophia said.

“Okay. So one morning, the townspeople are making their breakfasts, feeding their cats, getting dressed for work, and the cliff starts to shake. It’s an earthquake. They’ve never felt such a strong one before. Walls are swaying, cups are smashing, furniture is—”

Here Alyona looked to the gravel beside her but there was no washed-up branch for her to snap—

“Furniture is breaking. The babies are crying in their cribs and their mothers can’t reach them. They can’t even stand up. It’s the biggest earthquake the peninsula has ever had.”

“Their houses fall on them?” Sophia guessed.

Alyona shook her head. The rock she leaned against pressed into her skull. “Just listen. After five minutes, the quake stops. It feels like forever to them. The babies keep crying but the people are so happy. They crawl toward each other to hug. Maybe some sidewalks split, some wires snapped, but they made it—they lived. They’re lying there holding each other and then, through the holes where their windows used to be, they see this shadow.”

Sophia was unblinking.

“It’s a wave. Twice as high as their houses.”

“Over Zavoyko?” said Sophia. “That’s not possible. It’s too high.”

“Past Zavoyko, I told you. This earthquake was that powerful. People felt it in Hawaii. People way off in Australia were asking their friends, ‘Did you bump into me?’ because something was making them rock on their feet. That’s how strong the quake was.”

Her sister didn’t say anything.

“It shook the whole ocean,” Alyona said. “It sent up a wave two hundred meters high. And it just . . .” She held her hand out in front of them, lined it up with the at water of the bay, and swept it across the horizon.

The air brushed cold on their bare arms. Somewhere nearby, birds were calling.

“What happened to them?” Sophia finally asked.

“No one knows. Everyone in the city was too distracted by the quake. Even in Zavoyko, they didn’t notice how the sky had gotten darker; they were busy sweeping up, checking in on their next-door neighbors, making repairs. When ocean water came down their streets, they just figured some pipes had burst uphill. But later, when the electricity came back on, somebody realized there were no lights coming from the edge of the cliff. The place where that town had been was empty.”

The ripples in the bay made a quiet rhythm behind her words. Shh, shh. Shh, shh.

“They went to look and found nothing. No people, no buildings, no traffic lights, no roads. No trees. No grass. It looked like the moon.”

“Where’d they go?”

“Washed away. The wave picked them up right where they lay, like this.” She propped herself on one elbow and gripped Sophia’s shoulder, its bones shifting under her palm. “That’s how tight the water was around their bodies. It locked them up inside their houses. It lifted the whole town and took it out to the Pacific. No one ever saw a sign of them again.”

In the shadow of the hill, Sophia’s face was dark. Her lips were parted to show the ridged bottoms of her front teeth. Alyona liked, every so often, to bring her sister to a place where she looked blank with fear.

“That’s not true,” Sophia said.

“Yes, it is. I heard it at school.”

The water, opaque in the afternoon light, was keeping its pace. It looked silver. The rocks Sophia had been standing on appeared and disappeared.

“Can we go home?” Sophia asked. “It’s early.”

“Still.”

“Did I scare you?”

“No.”

In the center of the bay, a trawler pushed south, heading for whatever waited out there—Chukotka, Alaska, Japan. The sisters had never left the Kamchatka Peninsula. One day, their mother said, they would visit Moscow, but that was a nine-hour flight away, a whole continent’s distance, and would require them to cross above the mountains and seas and fault lines that isolated Kamchatka. They had never known a big earthquake, but their mother told them what one was like. She described how 1997 felt in their apartment: the kitchen light swinging high enough on its cord to smash against the ceiling, the cabinet doors swinging so jars of preserves could dance out, the eggy smell of leaking gas that made her head ache. On the street afterward, their mother said, she saw cars ground into one another and the asphalt opened up.

Looking for this spot to sit, the sisters had walked far enough along the base of the hill to leave almost all signs of civilization behind. Only the ship, and the occasional pieces of litter—two-liter beer bottles dragging their labels, peeled-back can tops that once covered oiled herring, soggy cardboard cake circles—floating by. If a quake hit now, there would be no doorway for the two of them to stand in. Boulders would fall from the wall above. And then a wave would bear their bodies away.

Alyona got up. “All right, come on,” she said.

Sophia slipped back into her sandals. Her pants were still scrunched up to the knees. Together, they climbed over the biggest rocks and back toward the city center. Alyona slapped mosquitoes out of their way. Though they had eaten lunch at home before coming here, she was getting hungry again. “You’re growing,” their mother had said, mixed caution and surprise, when Alyona took a second sh patty at dinner earlier in the week. But she wasn’t getting any taller; she remained one of the smallest girls in her class, stuck in a child’s body, a container around a limitless appetite.

Between the gull calls came the sounds of people shouting and occasional car horns. Wet gravel rolled under the sisters’ feet. Hopping up on a knee-high boulder, Alyona saw their path curve ahead. Soon the stony wall at their side would descend. They would emerge onto a rock beach that was busy on one end with food vendors, blocked o at the other with a ship repair yard, and teeming with the summer’s crowds. Once the two of them got there, they could turn away from the bay to look onto the beaten grass of the city’s main pedestrian square. Past that, and the lines of traffic, were a statue of Lenin, a sign for Gazprom, and a broad government building topped with flags. Alyona and Sophia would be standing in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s heart, and seeing on either side the swing of the city’s hills, its long ribs. A volcano’s blue top beyond.

A bus from the center would take them home. Television and summer soup and their mother’s best tales of work. She would ask them what they had done that day—“Hey, don’t tell Mama what I told you,” Alyona said. “About the town.”

At her back, Sophia said, “Why not?”

“Just don’t.” Alyona would not be responsible for whatever nightmares Sophia did or did not have.

“If it’s true, why can’t I ask her?”

Alyona forced air out her nose. She climbed down, wound her way around a few heaps of stone, and stopped.

Two meters away was the man she had seen walking along the water before. He sat on the path with his legs stuck out straight. His back was hunched. From a distance, he had looked like a grown-up, but now that she saw him better, he was more of an overgrown teenager: swollen cheeks, sun-bleached eyebrows, yellow hair that stuck up in back like the quills of a hedgehog.

He raised his chin to her. “Hello.”

“Hello,” Alyona said, stepping closer. “Hi.”

“Could you help me?” he asked. “I’ve hurt my ankle.”

She squinted at his pant legs as if she could see through cloth to the bone. Their green knees showed smudges from the ground. Funny to see a grown man sitting as scuffed up as a boy who fell too hard in the school yard.

Sophia caught up to them, and her hand came to rest on the base of Alyona’s spine. Alyona shivered her away. “Can you walk?” Alyona asked.

“Yes. Maybe.” The man stared down at his sneakers.

“Did you sprain it?”

“I must have. These damn rocks.”

Sophia made a pleased noise at the curse. “We can go get someone,” Alyona offered. They were only a couple minutes from the city center; she could practically smell the vendors’ cooking oil.

“I’m all right. My car is close.” He reached up one arm, and she grabbed his hand and pulled. Her weight didn’t make such a difference but it was enough to get him on his feet. “I can get there.”

“Are you sure?”

He was wobbling a little. Stepping tenderly with pain. “If you girls would just stay with me and make sure I don’t fall.”

“Here, you go ahead, Soph,” Alyona said. Her sister went first, then the man, carefully. Alyona walked after and watched. His shoulders were curved. Over the low wash of the waves, she could hear his breath come with slow effort.

The path opened up to the center: the stone-covered beach, families on the benches, gray birds flapping their wings over hotdog buns, and ship-to-shore cranes extending their long bare necks. Sophia had stopped to wait for them. The bulk of the hill was behind. “Are you okay?” Alyona asked the man.
He pointed to their right. “We’re almost there.”

“To the parking lot?” Nodding, he limped along behind the food stands, generators chugging exhaust around his knees. The sisters followed. An older boy in a fitted cap skateboarded past the fronts of the stands, and Alyona looked forward in shame—to be saddled with her little sister, to be trailing behind a weak stranger. She wanted to get home already. Taking Sophia’s hand, she caught up with the man.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Alyona.”

“Alyonka, would you take my keys”—he shook them out of his pants pocket—“and unlock the car door?”

“I can do it,” said Sophia. They were already at the crescent-shaped lot on the other side of the hill.

He gave the key ring to the smaller girl. “It’s the black one there. The Surf.”

Sophia skipped forward and opened the driver’s side. He got in, exhaling as he sat. She held on to the door handle. The side panel’s flawless paint reflected her body, dressed in purple cotton and rolled khaki. “How does it feel?” she asked.

He shook his head. “You girls really helped me.”

“Can you drive?” Alyona asked.

“Yes,” he said. “You’re going where now?”

“Home.”

“Where’s that?”

“Gorizont.”

“I’ll take you,” he said. “Get in.” Sophia let go of the door. Alyona looked across the street at the bus stop. A bus would take them more than half an hour, while in a car they’d be home in ten minutes.

The man had started his engine. He waited for their answer. Sophia was already peering into his backseat. Alyona, as the older sister, took her time: she spent a few seconds weighing the city bus (its starting and stopping, its heaving noises, the smell of other people’s sweat) against this offer. His softness, his bad ankle, and his boyish face. How easy it would be to be driven. The car would get them home quickly enough for a snack before their evening meal. Like feeding zoo animals or telling scary stories, this would be another daytime thrill, a summer-break disobedience to be kept between her and Sophia.

“Thank you,” Alyona said. She went around the front and climbed into the passenger seat, warm from the sun. Its leather was soft as a lap underneath her. A cross-shaped icon was fixed to the face of the glove compartment. If only the skateboarder could see her now—sitting in the front seat of a big car. Sophia slid into the row behind. A few parking spots away, a woman let a white dog out of the back of a van for a walk.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Akademika Koroleva, thirty-one.”

He signaled and rolled out of the lot. A pack of cigarettes slid across the top of the dashboard. His car smelled of soap, tobacco, faint gasoline. The woman and her dog were crossing the line of food stands.

“Does it hurt?” Sophia said.

“I’m better already, thanks to you.” He merged into traffic. The sidewalks were clotted by local teenagers wearing neon and Asian cruise-ship tourists posing for pictures. A short-haired woman held up a sign with the name of some adventure agency. As the center of the only city on the peninsula, this was the first stop for Kamchatka’s summer visitors; they were rushed from their boat or plane to see the bay, then rushed away, beyond city limits, to hike or raft or hunt in the empty wilderness. A truck honked.

People kept stepping out into the crosswalk. The light changed and then their car was free.

From the passenger seat, Alyona took the man’s features apart. A wide nose and a mouth underneath that matched. Short brown eyelashes. Round chin. His body looked carved out of fresh butter. He was too heavy, probably. That must be why he had stepped clumsily on the shore.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” asked Sophia.

He laughed and shifted gears, accelerating up a hill. The car hummed underneath them. The bay drew away behind. “No, I don’t.”

“And you’re not married.”

“Nope.” He lifted his hand, fingers spread, to show.

Sophia said, “I saw already.”

“Clever thing,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Eight.”

He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “And you’re also not married, am I right?”

Sophia giggled. Alyona turned to watch the road. His car was taller than their mother’s sedan. She could look down on roof racks and along the pink lines of drivers’ arms. People were sunburned after this one day of good weather. “Can I put the window down?” she asked.

“I prefer the air-conditioning. Straight through this intersection?”

“Yes, please.” The trees along the sidewalks were fat and green from this rainy summer. They passed ragged billboards on their left and concrete-paneled apartment buildings on their right.

“Here,” Alyona said. “Here. Oh.” She twisted in her seat. “You missed the turn.”

“You missed the turn,” Sophia said from the back.

“I want to take you to my place first,” the man said. “I need a little more help.”

The road pulled them forward. They hit the traffic circle, and he kept going, into it and through and out the other side. “Help with your ankle?” Alyona asked.

“Exactly.”

She remembered she didn’t know his name. She looked over her shoulder at Sophia, who was looking back the way they came. “I’m just going to let our mother know,” Alyona said, slipping her phone out from her pocket. The man reached off the gearshift to pluck it away. “Hey,” she said. “Hey!” He was switching her phone to his other hand. Dropping it in a compartment of his door. The thunk the phone made when it hit the door’s plastic bottom. “Give that back to me,” she said.

“You can call when we get there.”

Fingers empty, she was wild. “Please give it back.”

“I will when we’re there.”

The seatbelt was too tight on her. It might as well have been wrapped around her lungs. She couldn’t take in enough air. She was silent. Concentrating. Then she lunged in his direction, reaching for the door. The belt snapped her backward.

“Alyona!” Sophia said.

She went to unfasten the seatbelt but the man moved fast again, clamping his hand over hers, forcing the buckle in place. “Stop,” he said.

Alyona said, “Give it back!”

“Sit and wait and I will. I promise.” Under his hand, her knuckles were bent almost to cracking. If they popped in his grip, Alyona believed she would vomit. Her mouth was already wet with it. Sophia leaned forward and the man said, “Sit down.”

Sophia sat back. Her breath was quick. He would have to lift his hand sometime. Alyona had never wanted anything in her life, ever, as badly as she wanted her phone. Its black back, its grease-marked face, the ivory bird charm dangling off its top corner. She had never hated anybody as much as him. She was sick with it. She swallowed.

“I have a rule,” the man said. They were already at the tenth kilometer, passing the bus station that marked Petropavlovsk’s northern border. “No phones while I’m driving. But when we get there, if you can both behave that long, I will give it back, and I will take you home, and you’ll be eating dinner with your mother tonight. Understand?” He squeezed her fingers.

“Yes,” Alyona said.

“Then we’re agreed.” He let her go.

She tucked her hands, one sore, under her thighs, and sat up straight. She inhaled through an open mouth to dry her tongue. The tenth kilometer. Before it, buses stopped at the eighth for the library, the sixth for the cinema, the fourth for the church, the second for the university. Beyond the tenth kilometer were limited settlements, scattered villages, tourist bases, and then nothing. Nowhere. Their mother used to travel for work, so she told them what waited outside the city: pipelines, power stations, helipads, hot springs, geysers, mountains, and tundra. Thousands of kilometers of open tundra. Nothing else. North.

“Where do you live?” Alyona asked.

“You’re going to see.”

Behind her she heard Sophia, breath in-out, in-out, quick as a little dog’s. Alyona stared at the man. She was going to memorize him. Then she turned around to her sister. “We’re having an adventure,” she said.

Sophia’s elfin face was overexposed in the sunlight. Her eyes were bright, wide. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Are you scared?” Sophia shook her head no. Her teeth showed. “Good.”

“Good girl,” the man said. One of his hands was off the wheel and hidden in his car door. Alyona heard the falling chime of her phone shutting off.

He kept watching them in the mirror. Blue eyes. Dark lashes. He didn’t have any tattoos on his arms—he wasn’t a criminal. How was Alyona only noticing his arms now? When they got back, their mother was going to kill them.

Twisted around, Alyona pressed her chest to the passenger seat. A pair of work gloves, palms coated red with latex, was tucked into a cup holder in the car’s center console. The gloves were dirty. Alyona forced herself to look at Sophia. “Want another story?”

“No,” her sister said.

Alyona couldn’t think of a new one anyway. She turned back around.

Gravel popped under the tires. Fields of clumped grass flashed by. The sun made shadows short on the road. They passed the sign, dark metal, marking the turnoff for the city airport, and kept going.

The car shook under them as the pavement got worse. The door handle on her side was jittering. For an instant, she tried to picture herself taking hold of it, pulling the latch, tumbling out, but then—it was picturing dying. The speed, the ground, the tires. And Sophia. What would Alyona do, leave Sophia?

If only Alyona had been allowed to be alone today. Their mother always made her take Sophia along. Now—if something happened.

Sophia couldn’t take care of herself. The other day she asked if elephants actually existed—she thought they’d gone extinct with the dinosaurs. What a baby.

Alyona jammed her fists against her thighs. Don’t think about elephants. The leather under her was still hot, her lungs were tight, and inside her mind was all shimmery, the air waving up off fresh-pressed tar. She had told her sister that stupid thing about the wave. The piece of earth that disappeared. She wished she’d thought of something else. But now she couldn’t undo it—she had to focus. They were in this car. They were headed somewhere. They’d be home soon. She had to be strong for Sophia.

“Alyona?” her sister asked.

She made her face happy and turned. The muscles in her cheeks were trembling. “Uh-huh?”

“Yeah,” Sophia said. Alyona looked at her. Not remembering. “Yes, a story.”

“Right,” she said. The road was dusty and empty, lined by skinny trees. Leaning forward, rushing them along. On the horizon, the cones of the city’s three closest volcanoes were exposed. The mountains were a line of sawteeth. No more buildings stood in their way. Alyona thought again of the tsunami. Its sudden weight. “A story,” she said. “I will.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Copyright © 2019 by Julia K. B. Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




More Story
Win an organic farm in upstate New York by... writing an essay? Calling the highly specific group of writers who have $150 to burn and would like to care for an organic farm in upstate...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

x