A week before the Northridge earthquake struck on January 17, 1994, I killed Hazel, then used the quake to cover my tracks. It was an accident, but the stupidity, the finality of what I’d done haunted me. I hid the evidence and said nothing, my mouth glued shut by guilt. For years, nobody knew it wasn’t the quake that killed her.
When my husband and I moved in two years before the temblor, we placed our antique armoire slightly off center from our bedroom’s cathedral-ceiling peak. The asymmetry didn’t bother me. Until the day it did.
Maybe that winter I had watched one too many home-decor shows on television. Maybe I was feeling some sort of premenstrual need to nest. I don’t know; I can’t remember. I can only recall being suddenly seized with an urge to redecorate our bedroom. Specifically, to move the armoire from where it had always lived.
Nobody else was home that day, just Hazel and me. Centering the armoire was only the matter of a foot or two. I figured I could give a good heave, and the job would be done. The armoire was nearly empty. How hard could it be? Without thinking, I lowered my shoulder into the side of the antique and shoved.
Why didn’t I wait for somebody else to help? A second person would have seen the error right away: “Umm, Juli? Maybe we should move Hazel off, first?”
Nope. I didn’t think. I pushed.
Like a slo-mo slasher film, I watched in horror as Hazel pitched off the armoire. She fell silently, her gaze fixed on the hardwood floor swarming up towards her, nightmare-like. I couldn’t breathe. My feet stuck to the floor, my mouth distorted. I looked like the screamer in that painting by Munch. Hazel hit the floor and shattered. Pieces of her head, her fingers, her face skittered away from the point of impact. They traced crazy spirals on the floor before spinning to a stop. “Nooooooo,” I moaned, as the air rushed back into my lungs.
Hazel was over 100 years old, German-made, with a hand-painted, bisque china face and eyes that shut when she was laid down. She was a gift to me from a dear family friend who had no children. Three, maybe four generations of little girls had coddled her, dressed her, loved her. I was to pass her down to my daughters some day. Now she was unmade, and it was entirely my fault.
The room vibrated as if from a struck gong. I bent down and picked her glass eyeballs out of the mess. I lifted her wig of dark-blonde, real-human curls. The hair peeled back from her shattered china forehead like a crime victim’s. Silently, I scooped up everything—the torso dressed in crisp white organdy, the dimpled hands painted with a rosy blush, the feet shod in kid-leather Mary Janes. I packed them all in a cardboard box and shoved it into a disused cabinet. I was too ashamed, too locked in my own grief to tell anyone, for fear they’d never forgive me.
Seven days later, the 6.2-level quake struck. It was easy to pretend Hazel was just another thing the temblor totaled.
Didn’t my husband notice? After all, he and I and Hazel shared the bedroom for years. (God knows what she made of the things she saw from her perch.) But Jeff’s not the kind of man to see things like that. He would scarcely register it if I chopped off all my hair. No way would it dawn on him that Hazel, quiet Hazel, was gone.
Not long ago, I sat with my sister, consoling her as she mourned the loss of an heirloom family ring. The massive diamond cluster was stolen from her bedroom bureau. My sister suspected her ex-cleaning-lady’s nephew, who accompanied his aunt to work one day. But my sister could never be sure. The only thing she felt for certain was the awful guilt of losing a family treasure on her watch.
“I know,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic. “I’ve lost family stuff, too. Remember Hazel, my doll? Remember the Northridge earthquake?,” I asked, letting my eyes go wide.
Juli Bliss Kinrich is a writer living in California.
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