For as long as Jan can remember, she wanted to live in an orange house. Not a dark orange or a rust color, but a vibrant, bright orange glowing like the late evening sun – only it’s not easy to have that color on your house when you grow up in Michigan, or even if you move to California and then Nevada and then Louisiana and finally to Florida.
“I need information on your death certificates,” Jan says into the phone. “For the period between 10:05 AM and 10:17 AM on January 14, 2010.”
The lady from St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi inhales, “Why would you want that?”
“Because Jackson is one of the highest murder rate cities in the US. You should know that. You see it all the time. I want to know if anyone died during that period.”
A keyboard clicks. Jan is used to the clicking of keyboards over the phone, and the pause that accompanies the sound. It’s like rain on the metal roof above her head, the one supported by mud walls that are drab on the inside – but bright orange on the outside. Port-au-Prince is like that – colors everywhere on the hills that droop down towards the Atlantic Ocean, as though it’s a painting that’s getting old and is soon going to run away with the water.
A keyboard clicks. The nurse hums. “No deaths in that time period.” Another pause. “Are you looking for someone in particular?”
But Jan has already hung up. She’s already grabbed the backpack from the bed and gone to the door. She’s already on the steps heading to the street – in fact, she’s already on that street, walking amongst the colorful houses, the shanties that were betrayed in 2010, when the solid ground turned to mush and two hundred thousand people turned to dust. Colors return, she thinks. But people never do.
In Port-au-Prince, there is a hut off Grande Plaine in the neighborhood of Croix-des-Bouquets where Jan goes. Corrugated steel doors swing shut behind her as she goes to a free hammock. There are hammocks everywhere, swaying in the breeze of a hundred fans – hammocks at the top of ladders straddling hammocks that lie beneath, hammocks tied to metal studs or to the mud walls, hammocks drooping with the weight of the people in them.
Jan slides into a hammock that smells of fish and urine. A man comes to her and gives her three small rocks in exchange for a few dollars. The rocks go in a metal plate that she heats with a lighter. Fumes rise, and she takes them in.
Above, the metal roof sags, and Jan wonders what it was like to not need this. I’m going to die, she thinks, but it’s not clear when or how. Maybe it will be back in Florida, with her parents, or in a gutter around the corner with no one at all.
The earthquake came January 12, 2010. There were so many dead people that they had to build mass graves on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Jan had been in Florida at the time, Miami, and for many years, she had told her friends that she’d felt the tremor. She’d been in a coffee shop. She’d been young. But she’d sworn to her friends that the ground had moved beneath her, just a small amount, enough to make her dizzy. Enough to make her stand up and go to the door, out into the sunshine.
Fumes circling in her head, Jan buys vodka on the way back. It’s close to the last of her money, but it’s not hard for a pretty little white American girl to make money in Port-au-Prince, if she’s willing to be available. The vodka hits her as she walks, assembling the fumes and turning them solid.
Back in her orange hut, she dials a number. It’s dark outside. They speak English in Sierra Leone. “Health Department,” she says when someone answers. It takes her twenty minutes to connect to an official, who sends her through a web of other people. She sips the vodka. Listens to the shouting in the city. When she finally gets someone, his voice is deep. “I need to understand how many people in the country died between 10:05 AM and 10:17 AM eastern time on January 14, 2010. Can you tell me that.”
“This is highly irregular. Who are you? Why are you asking this?” asks the man.
“I’m doing a story. I’m a journalist,” she lies. “It’s vitally important information.”
“What kind of story would require this information?”
“The only one…” she mutters. A mouthful of vodka direct from the bottle helps. “Can you help me? I’m asking because the life expectancy in Sierra Leone is only about 55. And you have seven million people. That means people die all the time. I want to know how many people died in that time period. I don’t want names. Just a number.”
When the keyboard starts clicking, Jan closes her eyes. It’s three in the morning in Port-au-Prince, the perfect time to be calling Africa.
“Twelve minutes is nothing,” says the man’s voice. “I am sixty-three. Does this surprise you that I have exceeded the life expectancy of my country? There are many twelve-minute spans in a life this old.” A pause. “No one died in Sierra Leone in the time you care about.” He hangs up.
I’m twenty-eight, thinks Jan. She calls Burma after that, then Sri Lanka. Mumbai in India, she is sure, will defy her but it doesn’t. Adan, Yemen; Mahajanga, Madagascar; Pretoria, South Africa; Lahore, Pakistan; Samara, Russia; Brest, Belarus. All the same. It’s five in the morning when her phone runs out of power. She goes out into the darkness. The city is still alive. This is Haiti, she thinks, as she leans against a wall and waits for men to come – and soon they do, seeing this pretty little American next to this little orange hut, standing in the light from one lousy little light bulb.
It’s one in the afternoon before Jan eats anything. The eggs are cooked in lard, the coffee made with milk. She comes to this place to eat because there are photos of three brothers on the wall, surrounded by flowers – the brothers Martin, as they’re called, all of them dead in the earthquake. They’d left behind wives and children, and now that family runs the place.
On January 22, 2010, a telethon had aired in Florida to raise money for Haiti. It had been the most watched telethon in history and had raised a lot of money. Where’s it gone, wonders Jan, as she stares at the brothers Martin and sits under a squeaky, discolored fan at a table that stoops to the side? She’d learned about Haiti that day and started researching it. Somewhere, in some far-off place of the internet, she’d come across a fact: although more than two hundred people had died starting on the day of the earthquake – January 12, 2010 – there had been a twelve-minute span on January 14 where no one had. Not one person had died in Haiti, even though people had been dying every few moments before that.
Jan drinks the coffee. She can’t re-find the place in the digital world where she’d learned that fact anymore. It’s gone. But she’d taken the information and looked around the world, everywhere she could think of, and has yet to find a record of anyone anywhere dying during that twelve-minute period. No murders. No natural causes. No drunk drivers going off cliffs. No suicides. No explosions, no wrecks on the interstate, no middle-age heart attacks, no cancer patients coming to the end, no one expiring of too many years made up of too many days, no drownings or smotherings or electrocutions or falls. Not even an overdose. Before 10:05 AM on January 14, it had been business as usual. After 10:17 AM the same day, the world had resumed its typical maudlin stream of endings and conclusions.
She goes into the street and walks to the market. It had been wrecked by the earthquake, and still isn’t restored. But people are here, trying to sell things to this pretty little girl with the grey-blue eyes and the jean shorts. She buys a Haitian flag and wraps it around her waist. She thinks about calling her parents in Florida, where they’re living in a house that’s too large, on a property that’s too big, wondering when the next hurricane will come and force them to evacuate – and when it does, what will they do with all their belongings, who will enter their house after they flee and rob them blind?
I will, thinks Jan. Or someone like me.
She goes to the ocean and swims. Under water, she sees a shark in the distance – just a little one, no threat at all. When she breaks the surface, she’s far from the beach and starts swimming back. I could cramp up, she thinks. Or maybe the shark has a large friend. Or maybe the things I do to my body are finally going to catch me. But she makes it back and lies on the sand.
It’s not a coincidence, she thinks. After all the phone calls and the research, after tabulating the odds of that one small period of time escaping the typical things that happen to people, there’s no explanation other than the extraordinary. It’s a god, or gods, it’s fate, it’s a simulation, it’s some overlord controlling us, she thinks. It’s something.
She closes her eyes. The sand – the same sand that had moved and slinked around like a beast when the earthquake came ten years ago – holds firm underneath her. I’m tired, she thinks. And I’m alive, she realizes.
That night, she makes no phone calls. There’s no point anymore – the facts are clear, the case made. Instead, she spends longer in the hammock, smokes more. Her mouth is dry when she leaves the place on Grande Plaine. I’m an addict, she thinks, as her body begs her for more. It’s not even midnight, but she goes to a square that she knows and meets some men. There are things happening in the alleyway. She finds a big black man and lets him… Then a tourist, who… A stream of men, warm hands and legs, inflamed by a need they can’t get rid of, no more than she can.
When she’s got enough money, she heads back to Croix-des-Bouquets. The place is nearly full. She has to climb a ladder to a plank of wood and walks along it using rope handrails to steady herself. The hammock she finds is near the ceiling.
A man comes to her. “Yes?” he asks.
“I have this much,” she says, giving him her money.
“Yes,” he returns, and puts rocks in her plate.
“Don’t go,” she says. “I want to tell you something.”
“A secret. Do you want to know a secret?”
He is a wiry little man. His eyes are clear, focused.
“A secret that no one else has,” she continues. “The type of thing that can change the world. Let me tell you. Just you.”
He balances easily on the wooden plank. How old are you, she wants to ask him? How long do you believe you’ll be here? You have many years gone by, it’s clear. Many days of sunshine. You have the pain of the day the earth shook and a couple hundred thousand people turned to dust. What can stop something like that, she wants to ask? Who did you lose? Why did you lose them?
“No secrets,” he says. “Not for me.” He leans forward. He has small glasses on his face, and his dark eyes peer from underneath them. “You should leave this place. I give you back your money. Don’t tell anyone I do that. But you should go.”
Here’s my secret, she mutters. It’s yours now. Keep it, reveal it, tell everyone. Or just put it in a grave made of mud and rubble, on the outskirts of town, where no one will go and not a soul will ever find it. “I’m going to die,” she whispers. It’s not clear when or how. It’s not even clear why. She takes the man’s hand and smiles, then puts a flame to the rocks.