After the Quake
The sixteenth day after the quake was cold. The morning was gradual: no lights flicked on, no alarms or radios sounded, no trains made their inaugural runs. The day faded in slowly, dimly – people awoke, dressed, and began to wander about the city on their own arbitrary schedules. Save for a barking dog or a shattering window, there was no sound.
On the roof of a four-story apartment building in the sunset district, a man heated a breakfast of canned soup above a burning couch cushion. Half a cushion burned long enough to heat a can of soup. One couch, six hot meals. The frame would probably burn too, with a bit more effort. The man had been sleeping on the roof for the past six days – the looters didn’t bother to come up here, and he was tired of scuffling with strangers over the contents of his pantry. He wondered where the other tenants had gone – he hadn’t seen anyone here for a week. What day was it? Today was day sixteen, but what day of the week?
The looting had begun abruptly, as soon as it became clear that the police were completely overwhelmed. Most looters were just looking for water: melted ice in freezers, a gallon or two in toilet reservoirs, even in the U-bends of plumbing. A week ago it would have seemed inconceivable to become a criminal over a few gulps of water…but then, no one had experienced true dehydration before. The timing was particularly cruel: when the quake hit, the state had been grappling with the worst drought since 2016; there had even been talk of a “state of emergency” being called. Now that the water mains had ruptured and the city’s meager reserves were lost, water had become the commodity.
And so the looting started, and the looters went looking for water. Everyone went looking for water. Food was easier to find,but most non-perishable meals were so salty, and hurt as much as they nourished. Early on, some people had taken to collecting water from Lake Merced, and others broke into Golden Gate Park to get at the ponds and the water traps on the golf course. But they fell immediately and violently ill with parasites, and quickly enough they’d lost all the fluids they’d gained.
The man finished his breakfast and wondered aloud what he might do today, on day sixteen. To the beach, perhaps? He’d heard that people were camped there, avoiding the chaos of the city and keeping vigil for any ships that might bring aid. Word had spread that the President had finally given a press conference about the quake, and that he’d said he was “closely monitoring the situation.” Did that mean help was coming? China and the EU had already offered to send supplies, but had been rebuffed. America could handle herself, thanks very much. But with the military split between the wars abroad and the skirmishes in Texas and South Carolina, no one was expecting to see aircraft carriers appear on the horizon.
At least it’s cool and cloudy out here, thought the man. It would be cooler yet on the beach. He climbed down the fire escape and headed West, down quiet streets glittering with broken glass from shop windows and apartments. Plenty of people still lived in these buildings, but didn’t bother to board up the windows and doors, for that would be a message to scavengers that something here was worth taking. Better to look as picked-over as the next building. A light fog blew up the street as the man walked – very refreshing – he opened his mouth and imagined that he wasn’t thirsty.
He passed a group of people huddled around a satellite phone – someone must have carefully conserved their batteries. A weekend news show was on (it must be the weekend), and a commentator complained about the purported death toll in the city. If there’s no water in San Francisco, why are all these people staying in San Francisco?, he asked. Just leave! Get out of there! It’s ludicrous! The woman with the phone cursed and switched to the next channel. Another pundit was in the middle of a tirade against the Chinese offer of aid. The man kept walking.
Many people had left the city, of course. They’d left by the tens of thousands, as soon as the rioting had begun. But with no major roads intact, very little gas available, and certainly no trains running, it wasn’t as simple as packing a bag and walking out the door. Some had left by bicycle or on foot, but it was 120 degrees on the peninsula, and the south bay wasn’t much better off than the city. After four or five days without much water, those who tried to leave under their own power quickly found that they had very little power left. Stories made it back to the city of bodies along the 101.
It was indeed much cooler on the beach. It was midday, but the clouds were thick and the sky remained dim. The man removed his shoes and socks, and picked his way down to the water through a cluster of tents sitting just above the high-tide line. Maybe 300 people were camped here, an odd assortment of refugees from the city: young couples with expensive-looking outdoor gear; older survivalists living under driftwood lean-tos; some homeless types for whom very little had changed. They looked sincerely content in their colony-by-the-sea, playing frisbee, napping, making sand sculptures. Some even drank cans of beer – a welcome respite from thirst, though certain to punish later on.
The man watched the group from a distance, standing at the edge of the shoreline and allowing the farthest reaches of surf to trickle back and forth over his feet. The water was cold and frothy, and all too enticing – it seemed a terrible cruelty that such an expanse of water should be allowed to exist if it weren’t potable. He pushed the tormenting thoughts out of his mind, and tried to let the smooth, gray sea calm him. A flock of pelicans passed overhead. Just shy of the horizon, an oil tanker inched along its course. It really was wonderfully calm here. A wave deposited a tangle of kelp at the man’s feet, and he stooped to pick it up. It wasn’t kelp, though – it was a loose bundle of frayed metal cables bent and browned with algae. He rubbed at the braided metal with his thumb, revealing a surface of burnt-orange paint. He looked down the beach and saw more strands of metallic seaweed washed up amidst the sand and foam. Suddenly the beach wasn’t quite as serene.
The wind, which for most of the day had been refreshing, took on a sharper chill, and the man began to shiver. There wasn’t much else to see on the beach, as the commune was settling in for a late-afternoon nap, and no vessels of any kind broke the horizon. Time to go home, thought the man. Well, time to go back to my roof. He looked out over the ocean one last time, forced damp and gritty feet into sneakers, and wandered back toward the city.
He decided to follow the park back East – he’d never been inside, but he always enjoyed walking alongside the fence and admiring the greenery. Remarkably, the fence itself was intact: an unbroken grid of wrought iron, turned outward at the top, stretching three miles down Lincoln…though in places it looked contorted and askew. He could see that at least one of the residence towers by the polo field had collapsed – it was darkly comforting to know that even the architects who built the Park properties hadn’t anticipated a quake like this one. Surely, though, anyone who lived here would have the means to leave their complex if they needed or wanted. They probably didn’t even know what had happened to the rest of the city.
A commotion ahead snapped the man back to attention, and he looked up the street to see a crowd forming at the 35th Avenue gate. Perhaps two hundred people had gathered at the intersection, cheering and pointing excitedly down 35th Ave, where an old MUNI bus sat. Where on Earth had anyone found a MUNI bus?, thought the man. Yet there it was, rusty and dented but otherwise intact, idling in the middle of the road. Wait – idling – it was running! Suddenly the man understood what was happening, and as he did, the bus groaned and lurched forward. The crowd parted to either side of the road as the bus gained speed, flew across Lincoln, and slammed into the two-story iron gate. There was a deafening crack as the gate’s massive hinges snapped in two, and the bus tumbled through the threshold, tipping and rolling across the flattened gate amidst plumes of splintered glass. The driver had flown through the front window at first impact, and now was somewhere either beyond the bus, or under it.
The crowd, silent until the last hubcap came to a rest underneath a redwood tree, exploded in excitement and tore into the park. A secondary crowd had gathered at the sound of the crash, and they too ran straight through the wreckage and into a neighborhood full of new opportunity. From somewhere further inside the park, an alarm sounded. So they did have electricity in there, thought the man. Well, not for long. He smiled to himself, and walked home.
The clouds began to thin just before sunset, and the man watched the first stars of the evening appear as he heated another can of soup on his roof. He enjoyed the nighttime these days – it was downright beautiful – for after all, when else could you see a city lit only by moonlight? Dusk turned to darkness, and countless small fires throughout the city became visible. For a time, the fires on the ground mirrored the early stars in the sky, and the man drew imaginary lines connecting them, stitching the Earth and the sky together. But it got darker still, and a brilliantly dense star field overwhelmed the modest patchwork of flickering lights on land. The perfectly-clear Milky Way stretched across the sky from Twin Peaks to the Marin Headlands, casting a soft silver sheen on the remaining tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The man looked out over the silent city. It had never struck him as a peaceful place – and it certainly wasn’t peaceful these days – but right now, from up here, after dark, everything seemed just fine.
The man tossed his empty can off the roof, stamped out the fire, and lay down on a bare mattress by the fire escape. He closed his eyes.
The seventeenth day after the quake was still cold.