A Novella & Stories
Bad Things never choose their location. A storm’s path is traceable but its final destination can be wider and more destructive than projected. Earthquakes, tsunamis and twisters strike without warning.
Humans cause Bad Things too. The real-life event that connects the stories in Bonnie ZoBell’s unsettling What Happened Here is the kind of Bad Thing that receives attention when it occurs, on anniversaries, and when something equally terrible happens. In 1978, Pacific Southwest Flight 182 collided with a private Cessna plane over the San Diego neighborhood of North Park. The Cessna’s pilot failed to inform air traffic control of their course change, the other pilot was unable to see the other plane on the radar, and air traffic control ignored the alarm that the planes were heading toward each other. The result: 137 people from both planes were killed, seven died on the ground with nine more injured and 22 homes destroyed. It remains the deadliest air disaster in California history.
ZoBell’s connected short story collection takes place decades after the accident. Edgar has a sense of self-importance about witnessing it. “Nobody else understands what we went through back then,” he tells his former neighbor in “Dear Sam,” one of the best stories in the collection. What he either does not realize or admit is that his letter reveals lingering post-traumatic stress syndrome—something not discussed openly or researched thoroughly in 1978. While readers can make this assessment, Edgar and those around him never will.
Lenora, the narrator of the first and title story, did not live in North Park at the time of the crash. Still, she does not spare the gory details of “scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways.” Yet the crash finds its way into her life. Her husband John starts drinking and behaving erratically when his newspaper starts planning coverage of the accident’s 30th anniversary. Their neighbor Archie, whom Lenora describes as a “ghost,” is only too happy to assist with the research:
“See right there?” Bending ninety-degrees beside my window, he pointed to a photo with our house on it. “Right by the carport?” he continued. “The people before you tore that down. See the crater or your lawn? Who knows what landed there? See?”
Even those who leave cannot escape the bad karma. But one resident both escapes and embraces his environs. “Sea Life” is a beautiful coming-of-age story. Surfer-dude Sean is at very loose ends after college graduation. He does not internalize the crash; he simply hates North Park. “I wish another one would freaking fall out of the sky so I can move on and do what I want,” he tells his parents. What bothers him most about North Park is its location “fifteen miles east of the beach,” something seasoned surfers equate with coming from “Kansas City.”
His surfing naiveté leads to an epiphany. The large fishes that circle him in the water are not sharks, but dolphins. Relieved, he resolves to “forget about his hunger for understanding life.” Then a mother and calf dolphin examines him as carefully as he examines them:
He reaches his palm into the liquid velvet, launches himself and his board further away from what he knows, toward the horizon, realizing this dolphin is less menacing than many of the humans he knows.
The dolphins and water symbolize a baptism, not a trial by fire. Unlike his neighbors, Sean finds the courage to escape. “What is there to stop him?” asks the last line of the story.
ZoBell hints at what next happens to him—and the others. Every neighborhood has its landmarks and secrets. Those contained in What Happened Here add dimension to a landscape that already has a story to tell. These burn too but they do not all have to be Bad Things.