Ed. Note: Third volume of a futuristic novel written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, written to envision what would happen today. Beyond Chron published the first chapter on August 13th, the second chapter on August 20th and will reprint each chapter regularly. Anthony Cardott is a writer living in Santa Cruz.
It’s getting dark as Michael and Ott come upon a truck that has a shell on it. Ott swears to himself for the weight of the box until he sees it, then he steps excitedly up to it. They’ve both seen it at the same time and, though they’ve barely spoken for the whole hike, they both know without looking at one another that they have to get under its cover. They whisper loudly to each other. “Lookit. There’s enough room in there! Let’s get in.”
They make enough noise as they step around the truck, because the weeds grow fat and thick under the oaks, but it seems already long abandoned, and no lit windows can be seen around it. Dense oaks that cling to the ground surround the hillside. Michael sets his case down on the ground first and checks the tailgate. It’s open and Michael anxiously opens it up. There’s rather little garbage in the bed and almost no spider webs. The long slender windows are closed tight; likely no insect could manage in there.
They take the old leaves and packages out and load the truck with the boxes and bags, and take their jackets off so they can let them dry out in the cabin. Then they lay down with their heads toward the tailgate. Light rain falls upon the lift gate and drips before their eyes.
“How much was that, three miles?”
Ott opens a bag of chips up and eats thoughtfully out of it. Then he grows amused.
“No, that was a mile anna half at most!”
“My knees don’t feel any worse but my arms and back are wore out.”
“Mine too. That’s good though for your knees.”
Both were spared from the hardest rain under the trees, but now the air is getting colder. Michael moves his knees carefully and breathes deep. He can’t see if they’re bleeding. Ott brings two water bottles out and they drink.
“I wonder where those flames came from.”
“Well what explodes then, beside gas lines?”
“I don’t know. Sewage?”
“I doubt it. But I’da liked to seen that. Burning shit in the air.”
It occurs to Michael how deeply weary his body is.
“Tomorrow we can stay somewhere else, where there might be a gun. Maria’s shack isn’t far away. It’d be better to stay somewhere tomorrow and get ready to save Maria. I’m only scared that she might starve. But we’d better fight with the monster in the day light.”
Ott purses his lips and regards him in the dark. Almost everything is the same color, except when Michael moves his head.
“And to be completely honest I’d like to see it in the day light, to know whether I’ve lost it. I’ll own I could have been confused by the wounds. And I could’ve simply fallen down where I woke up. But the noise,”
He shakes his head, shrugs, and looks away. Ott searches in his breast pockets.
“I wish I had a cigarette. As far as I’m concerned it was all a dream, Michael. You were pale as death when you found me. To be sure you were disoriented by the wounds and ran around deeper in the woods and fell down.”
They get quiet and lie there in the stillness, both propped up on their elbows. Soon Michael falls asleep and soon he feels the cold of the early morning between himself and the steel floor.
He climbs out of the truck and leaves Ott to sleep. His knees aren’t throbbing, and he wants to take a little walk to see around the forest. The sky between the trees is clear and glows gold despite the blue, how it only glows on this coast, though the air is still cold. He comes through some oaks, the glittering leaves and branches of which stick his skin, and the steep incline stretches brightly upwards, as if the air ran at such speed up the hill that nothing but golden light could stand between the flat ground and the shoved up, floating foliage.
He hikes up the hill and when he reaches the shoulder he looks down toward La Dársena. The harbor is empty, its water polluted. Above no houses can be seen.
Michael goes a pace further and a quarter mile below in the next valley he finds the hospital.
The street that leads up to the hospital is heavily damaged and close to all the parking spaces are empty. Inside all the pictures are fallen off the walls and a couple of windows are broken; otherwise everything’s in shape. There’s still power on account of the hospital having its own generator. Michael enters the hallway and searches in the rooms for someone. In one room he meets the old man from yesterday, as he draws a fresh blanket over a still body, and it startles him.
“Grandfather, are you really here?”
The old man, still clothed in suit and hat, notices Michael and smiles.
“Course. Everything fine with you?”
“Yeah but –how can you be? And the hospital?”
“The hospital is resistant to earthquakes. But the whole staff is gone. I’ve only got to take care of a few, cause only the sickest are left. By the way,”
He picks up a board from the table and reads.
“In room twenty-three, one floor up, there’s a family. They’ve been trying to have a kid for three days. They came just before the quake. The wife’s ready, but the child isn’t having it. It doesn’t matter, cause they’ve probably got nowhere to go where they’d be safer. Will you do something for me?”
Michael gets scared because he isn’t a nurse, but he agrees.
The old man grabs a jar covered in a handkerchief from off the table and gives it to him.
“Simply givem this. That’s all that I can do for them, and it wasn’t easy to find what they need.”
“What’s in it?”
“It doesn’t matter kid. And you also don’t need to say anything to them, because they only speak jungle tweeting.”
“Thanks kid. It’s because I can’t do it myself.”
The old timer grins again to himself, nods, leaves the room and vanishes.
Michael takes the elevator to the second floor and finds the room with the door open. Three small, very dark people stand under a pale light bulb in the room, which is unfurnished and empty of machinery. The room looks too big because there’s also no bed. The husband stands next to his wife and holds her arm, stroking it. The wife stands upright and her long black hair lies braided on her breast. Their little son stands anxiously between them and regards his mother as she expectantly stares at nothing. The father and the son are both wearing their most modest clothes so they can get them dirty without worry. The mother wears a colorful reboso over her robe.
The father notices Michael first, and wastes no time with talking. There are traces of sadness and gratitude in his eyes. He pushes his son forward instead. The woman seems to relax a little, and she prays under her breath in some Indian language. The little child takes the jar from Michael, steps backward to his parents, takes the handkerchief off the glass, and unscrews the top. Inside is a little black, about six inch long nondescript fish, helplessly tilting in the water. The child picks the glass up to the height of his mouth and looks fearfully at the fish. The father speaks softly to his son and squeezes his wife’s arm.
The child turns brave, sets his brow and drinks the fish down, though it barely fits in his mouth. The child grimaces and swallows hard, he wants to throw up, and finally brings the fish down.
Then he grasps at his belly; the fish is still swimming. The mother begins to cry, and she grows proud and beautiful, lit by her inner light, and braces herself with heavy breath against her husband. He tells her something in the strange language and seizes her in his arms from behind.
Michael wakes up sweating terribly. Ott wakes up just then as well.
“What? What? You alright? Did you have a nightmare?”
Michael calms himself and breathes deep.
“No. No, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was beautiful somehow.”
He doesn’t mention the old man. Their offering stands fast in his memory, but he doesn’t understand the old man yet.
His elbow doesn’t throb anymore and feels the same size as the other. Michael props himself up on his elbows and reaches for a water bottle. The expensive vitamin water tastes good and scratches behind in his throat, where it’s been so dry.
Ott opens a packet of jerky and quickly drinks a bottle empty as well.
“That’s four less bottles then. I finally gotta piss. Maybe I’m not as totally dehydrated as yesterday. That’ll help with the schlepping.”
“Let’s see if my knees are better.”
“You should definitely eat vitamins. Couldn’t hurt.”
Presently it’s not raining. They climb out of the truck and Michael tries out his knees. They’re still inflamed, but better. He stretches his legs and pulls his box and bags out of the truck. He finds the vitamins and eats three pills. They look about themselves and grin about their tourist sweaters.
“Where to then?”
“I guess we should just go up the hill. Maria’s nearby and I know a little road that runs along the deep woods, where there’s at least four houses. There’s just a ravine between them. Hill people. Someone must have a gun.”
In the cabin their jackets are still hung up, and when Michael takes them off the seats they leave wet spots on the upholstery. They put the jackets on.
Then the men heave the boxes up, appreciating the lighter weight, and take off. As the reach the shoulder of the hills, Michael has the sense that he’s experienced all this before, although he knows that his last trip was a dream. La Dársena can be seen below, and on the horizon one can see a boat from the coast guard coming. The citizens that have the money to be able to live away from home are fleeing, and who doesn’t have enough remains in the rubble to somehow live off of what’s of use there.
They hike through the forest and still notice how good the forest still stands compared to the areas below. The hike goes slowly because they often have to stop to relax their muscles. Nevertheless as promised they find the ravine before the sun reaches its highest stride, and across from it two tightly set houses. Ott sets his carton down on the ground and looks into the dim ravine. It’s not steep, but it is thickly overgrown.
“Man, it’s totally poison oaked out. Crap,”
“Be patient. Look some more.”
Michael finds a way through big trees, under which only ferns are growing.
“There! Good, come down.”
They slowly climb down the ravine and take a break at its foot, through which a tiny stream trickles. They climb up the ravine’s opposite incline up to a house’s fence. The paint is old and the shingles are only being held on by the grace of the moss.
The two young men search in the windows after a trace of the owners. None show up until Michael hears the growling of a car.
“Shit, get down.”
They crouch down below the house and observe the car as it arrives. It stops at the other house and a man gets out of it. A woman comes out of the house and they can hear him explain that the road far below has been damaged. Then they enter the house. After a few minutes no other car comes by, and the young men look for an entrance. There’s always a tiny, eye-level bathroom window that can’t be locked, and soon they find it and Ott drags himself in. Inside the house is very comfortable, consisting of a large living room, the kitchen and bathroom, and a big bedroom. Ott drops everything and drops himself onto the sofa. Michael looks hastily in the bedroom closet and discovers not a rifle but a small loaded pistol.
“That’ll have to work.”
Ott comes into the room taking his jacket off.
Michael shows him the pistol.”
“Is it loaded?”
“Luckily it is.”
Ott nods and returns to the sofa. Michael finds a backpack and some shirts and sweaters that more or less fit him in the closet. He also finds two waterproof jackets with which they can replace their soaked coats.
“They left enough clothes behind.”
Then he considers that the owners may not be gone. He decides not to tie up his knees again. They work. When he’s all newly dressed from socks to collar, free of the tourist sweatshirt, Michael goes into the living room and lies down on the second sofa. He breathes out slowly and draws a blanket, handmade by the owners, over himself.
The sun shines through a cloud in the window and heats Ott’s sofa. If the owners are really gone, they’ve cleaned up well. A pile of framed pictures lies on the television and a couple of big pieces of Indian art stand leaning against the wall under their lonely, useless nails. On the kitchen floor lays a neatly swept pile of shattered glass and porcelain, and the empty shelves can be seen in a cupboard.
Out the window an old, orderly pen can be seen, the inhabitants of which are also vanished, and the ancient wooden posts of which seem
able to hold in nothing bigger than an old lame sheep. There are no cars parked in front of the house. Michael looks at the variety of patterns in the rug until he falls asleep.
When he wakes up Ott is already up and busy unpacking.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Don’t know exactly. Half hour? Did you dream more?”
“No, thank god. Just slept. What’re you eating?”
“The fridge’s empty, regrettably. But there’s running water. They must have a well. The water’s good.”
Michael stands up and goes over to the bag of food, still careful not to damage his knees any further, and unrolls the packages from yesterday. The clock on the television shows one thirty. As he sits and eats dried fruit with jerky he hears the loud boom of an airplane that’s flying much too low to the ground. The sound echoes in a closer valley, then through a further one and so on, like the beam of a flashlight.
“What could that be? Red cross?”
“More like a television crew. There’s ruins.”
They eat and drink enough to be able to sleep long hours. Michael tries to read the paper, though he finds nothing true in the news from intact La Dársena. Instead he does the crossword puzzle; it doesn’t matter to Ott if they talk at all. Once the sun is asleep they don’t speak. Outside the window the stars shine, undimmed by the city lights, and their stories play out on the endlessly dark stage of the sky.
One doesn’t learn the stories, but the circle of the play teaches that one can also learn something new from the stars’ daily show, something terribly important.
In the morning a wintery wind blows over the earth that’s bedded down in the rain. Michael notices that he’s awake and that he feels as if he’d comfortably sunken deeper into the sofa than is possible. He feels for the first time after the quake the fuming energy and practical nerve of a common day, on which one has simply slept good. His knees are still injured, though they’re no longer like a ball and chain.
He springs up off the sofa and drinks down two bottles of vitamin water. Ott wakes up just then and scratches himself.
“Let’s see. Is the weather better?”
As yesterday the sky is clear, however a storm is gathering over the ocean to march in with the wind.
“That looks heavy.”
“Another big storm’s coming. It’s coming from the water.”
Michael counts up the water bottles; all of them fit in one box. He puts them all together, and it occurs to him that they should just leave the boxes behind.
“Then let’s get on the road.”
Ott’s furrowed brow betrays fear and his form falters.
“To the monster?”
Michael checks the pistol once more to be sure that it’s loaded.
“This’s your chance to do something extrordnary. Drink the rest of the water and let’s go.”
They empty the bottles and Ott picks out a new Jacket from the closet after Michael’s recommendation.
The neighbors’ car stands resting before the house and all is still in the woods. The young men climb the hillside and, though the path is steep and wild, they soon come to a cleaned up hikers’ path that Michael clearly knows. They come around the shoulder of the hillside, where a handsome twisted pine grows with little circles of needles on its slim members, from which one can see the town below.
“You really helped me recover, I appreciate that.”
Ott spits into the bush.
The harbor can be seen easiest. It looks still more polluted than yesterday. A great circle of dead red seaweed floats around the longest dock. The repeated view of La Dársena from this position wearies Michael; he’s suddenly weary from the repeated climbing, and feels as if he’ll never stop with the climbing, except when he could somehow live in the woods, like Maria. His over-boiling energy is already sinking back into his all devouring feelings. No boats sail on the ocean and the devastation stands deathly still. Yet no cars roll through the cracked open streets, yet no light shines up from their windows, and that airplane from earlier is already flown off to nowhere.
As they tramp further they see falling sickle shaped eucalyptus leaves that swim straight downward toward the ground while they turn in their way like little fish. Yet before all strange things the hard, untouchably obscure smell of the rain rises soothingly into their noses.
Soon they reach the two Saguaros. Michael keeps his eyes from the places where he slept sick and hungry and wounded, and leads into the dense forest. He doesn’t tell Ott about the two Saguaros for the chance that he may not want to let him know how to find the place later. For the twisted trees and also for the distinct darkness of the foliage, things so customary to him, a confusion of feelings flames up in him. His hidden fear of the monster steps on the easy rhythm of his memories. He doesn’t ask Ott if he’s scared.
“Michael, are you scared?”
Why did he ask me that?
“I’m not certain enough to know if I should be scared.”
He draws the pistol and squeezes it. The usual sounds of the woods are muted and strange, the small ground cover plants finally softened by the early rain.
As they come to the hoary hut his fear evaporates almost unnoticeably before the empty lack of a single unusual thing. Ott leans toward
Michael, however politely so.
“How big’s the monster anyway?”
Michael waves him away and steps nearer to the small house. He calls Maria’s name, sees the dark trees behind the building, the long pleading arms of the firs, though all round the hut he finds no huge tentacled beast and hears no answer from Maria. Only the flourishing plants in the garden radiate to him a certain soothing, futile love, the after scent of Maria’s presence, which contradicts the quake’s natural hatred. He sets himself down in the fresh grass in front of the hut and hangs his head in a gloom. Ott stays stiff.
Michael considers, while he nervously empties the pistol, that everything could be a nightmare, that maybe Maria wanted to warn him of the collapse of the roof as she spurned him. That he really knows nothing, and that the third day after the quake should be the same as the first, a repeated and repeated fever attack.
He wishes that he were alone.
“You going in?”
“Don’t be pissed man, I’m just asking.”
The rain smell floats over Michael’s new clothes. He doesn’t feel like he has the energy to further look for Maria, his legs are stuck as if shackled in the damp grass. Regardless he must; sure it would’ve been easier to leave her behind for dead, to take her to the ghosts of Nick and Rolf. He rolls the six bullets in his hand and wonders that its hard wrinkly skin looks so old, and all words are caught in his throat.
“I don’t know what to do now. Where would she’ve gone?”
“You haven’t looked in the windows.”
Michael swallows, shakes his head and looks back.
Michael stands up and goes to the window. He looks around the house.
“No. She’s definitely not there.”
He goes over to Ott and they regard the sky awhile.
“Well, there’s always Christmas Hill. We could look for the source of your smoke. We gotta go somewhere.”
“Yeah, let’s do that. We’ve got plenty daylight. ”
Ott wags his arm and sniffs.
“Nothing, nothing at all. Come on.”
Michael’s knees throb a little, though less than before. The climb up Christmas Hill pretty fast and it comes to mind how many times he’s wished to climb the gorgeous hill. So many times at two in the afternoon he’d looked out from the window of the fast food joint, dreaming that one day he could simply call the owners on the phone and ask for permission to spend a day hiking in the beautiful hills without being chased off the property with a rifle. Now there’s neither herd nor owner who he could disturb. When they get to the broad peak they stop at great jutting stones, and grow astonished again by the position of the land.
Behind the hill they can see the whole chain of hills that runs along the coast and meets the big mountains thirty five miles away. In between they see the sea of fractures and fissures, and beyond that the valley where Brighton was.
The word drips slowly out of Ott’s mouth.
“Is that for real?”
What was the broadly bending beach at the foot of the hill has torn itself apart and revolved, and against the opposite, straight run one can clearly measure its angle. Between La Dársena, which was somehow held together, and the hills that lead to Brighton, there’s nothing but completely shattered land. Under the grasses, trees and earth is the bleached, sandy stone of the coast visible in some spots, which glows freshly polished by the rain like the bloody ribs of a slaughtered animal. Uprooted trees protrude in every direction and wild flowers blow in the wind, still growing as bound and moveable parts of the earth. There’s definitely no hospital nor any settlement; it would be impossible to make a settlement amongst the fissures and clefts. The smoke with its promise of heat ascends out of the ground no longer; likely Brighton has finally burnt up completely. Many rainy seasons will have to pass in order to rejoin and soften such a landscape. So the earthquake had to have started north of Brighton to have destroyed the entire plateau.
Ott sees nearer beneath them the corpses of many cattle that lay in nightmarish contortions. Many are missing heads and legs, many lay half-swallowed in the earth. They couldn’t escape as the quake hastily shredded the land. Buzzards dive down on them and eat the meat from their bones.
“Shit, that’s that.”
Michael plants himself on a leg, thinking of the empty hut and the men from the Bureau of Crisis Management. Then they must at last try again to stay in La Dársena, at least until they can get a lift out. He doesn’t want to imagine the circumstances in town; having to waste time waiting in a pen in the gymnasium, having to sit next to Ott and his loose tongue and let their experiences and hopes slide pointlessly into comparison, to fight over food and space, to always be monitored by soldiers who are younger and dumber than he.
That’d be worse than hiking toward Santa Carla, but even so some feeling goads him once more back to La Dársena.
He doesn’t want to ask Ott to go along any further. The feeling compels him to what he knows, what concerns him, what he could lose.
Perhaps it’s not about Ott at all; perhaps it’s simply about Maria. She’s still the only surely living person left to him, even if he hadn’t found her yet. He replies to Ott.
“Yeah, that’s that. We definitely need to find some food. What do you want?”
The wind blows through Ott’s hair, and he looks at the wrecked coast, and he throws his arms up and down.
“No idea. Back. Start in the flat area south of the harbor.”
Always back. Out of the one danger –into where then?”
They climb up the great mountain silently. In the sky the dark storm is still gathering as it sails near, as if it were the ship that would carry everyone dead out of the city.
“We’ll stay in the city tonight, or in a house like yesterday. That storm looks ugly.”
“I know the fastest way down the hill. Let’s go.”
Before long they meet a grazing deer that sees them coming near and lifts its head, which stands on its oddly long and bent neck; its ears turn back and forth and its eyes gaze very carefully at the two men, though its pointy mouth freely chews away. Michael regards it too, looks in its being for some trace of the terrible monster. The deer, like the forest, seems to be undisturbed by the quake, as if it were a connected part of nature, and hence safely moveable, never to be disintegrated by natural forces. In its way it steps away into the bush.Filed under: Archive