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First pages

Chapter 1

I was thinking about my Studebaker when the quake hit. Though it’s not exactly a showstopper, it’s a ’63 Lark, and pretty sweet. The Studey was on my mind because a moment before the building went bonkers I’d been looking at Diana’s legs. She was wearing one of those napkin-sized skirts she sometimes wears and her legs are all the way up to there anyway. I always try not to stare—I’ve perfected this method of looking off in a fake distracted way and then flicking my eyes back. I can get away with zeroing in on her without getting caught, I think. It was almost quitting time, and I wasn’t paying much actual attention to anything.

So there I was standing in my cubicle holding some papers and Diana was standing at the copy machine in that skirt and I was thinking that maybe if those Nazi mechanics of mine would fix that problem on the Studey, this time I could finally ask Diana out without worrying that my car would stall at a light and maybe leave us in the Tenderloin without wheels and me looking like Doofus Number One. And then the quake hit.

I felt it in my stomach first, a kind of squeezy uncomfortable feeling, like riding on one of those old centrifugal-force carnival rides where you lean against a wall on a spinning, circular platform, and then the floor drops away while you spin faster, pinning you to the wall in an awful, verge-of-nausea way. I never liked those rides, really, but I would always ride 'em when I could. You can’t be smart all the time.

So my stomach did a couple of pirouettes before I really even knew what was going on and then the floor started moving in a real greasy way, a kind of sliding, humping, fucked-up kind of way, and I was finally clued in that it was an earthquake—and that it was a big one. There seemed to be a second wave that had more kick than the first and then the building really stepped onto the dance floor. It swayed big-time, and I mean swayed like you’ve downed ten tequila shooters and slapped yourself in the temple with an unabridged dictionary. My heart was now hammering like a trapped animal was inside.

Now it’s not like I’m a quake virgin or anything. I’m a California boy all the way, and have been through more than a couple shakers in my thirty-plus, including one in the 70s when I was staying in Santa Barbara where I watched a nearby hillside seem to turn to liquid—but that was just my eyes jiggling. And since I’d moved to San Francisco, I’d felt the earth skip a beat more than a couple of times. I’ve always sort of liked it—the land stretching its legs a bit and all. And now it was almost the 90s, and there hadn’t been a real big bumper for a while. But this was different.

Different because Consolidated Leasing—yeah, that’s where I work; could a business name be any more lame?—is on the eighth floor of a new building on the edge of downtown, and it’s built to flex in a quake—and man was it flexing. But different yet, because even with the flex, even with me having rocked and rolled through my share of quakes, this shaker seemed special right from the get-go.

A jolt punched me into the edge of my cubicle, and I hit the corner about armpit height, hard, and then I stumbled to one knee. Though I pretty much forgot about scoping Diana, she was still right in front of me and I saw that she was clutching the sides of the copying machine with both arms, a love-death grip. From my angle it looked like the machine was actually lifting into the air a little, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar myself. Also from my angle I saw that her little skirt had hiked up even further so that I could see where the thighs of those fine legs moved right up into that round rump, which was covered by red panties. I filed that away in one of those micro-seconds because it’s really no time for my standard lech act, considering that the office was in a state of total pandemonium, and I’m not completely convinced that the entire building wasn't going to go kablooey right down onto Market Street. I tried to shout something out to Diana, but it came out like a strangled little bark.

Cubicles playing bumper cars with each other doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. Since our building was getting so loosey-goosey, and we were on the top floor, office goods were really starting to scoot around with each pendulum swing of the building. Two of the tallest filing cabinets toppled with a huge crash, but I could barely hear that because of the shouts and screams that were ricocheting around the office. After I’d righted myself a little using my cubicle wall, the next round of building flexing took my monitor tumbling off my desk, and it exploded on impact. The novel! My novel, the only damn thing that’s seemed real to me in the last year, was on that computer. What if it was trashed too?

When I whirled around to check out the computer itself, another tremor hit that seemed to run sideways from the direction of the first. I was plunked right down in the aisle between the cubicle rows so that I sort of fell on my back and my butt, with my legs a little in the air. That gave me a splendid view of some of the plasterboard roof panels of the acoustic ceiling above, which were now deserting the roof in droves and diving to the floor. I had to get out—fast—but I felt like I was moving in slow motion. The novel, damn. The building—double-damn!

I sprang up, but was staggered by a rolling motion of the building. I was kind of half-crouching, half crab-walking my way across the office because there were so many toppled things on the floor, and so much noise and dust. I couldn’t see or hear anyone who seemed actually injured, but I wasn’t sure. I was scared, very scared, and I could barely focus. I had to jump over the most egregious example of wretched corporate art that the office possessed (on a lease, of all things), which had fallen to its deserved death off the wall. It had been pierced by the weird sharp-edged desk lamp that one of the graphic artists had brought in to try and prove that she wasn’t a corporate drone. I had a fleeting thought that I hadn’t appreciated her creativity before. But no time for thoughts.

At least six people were crowded into the office’s open double-doorway, seeking wall-joint strength like good Californians should. Unfortunately for them, that was also the primary office exit, leading to the elevators and staircases and what seemed now to be an impossibly long flight away from a building that was still rumbling like it was moving to a good belly laugh.

The bulk of the office populace was now pouring toward those open double doors, where that half-dozen of the first mad scramblers had fled. I was moving with the pour, in fact, kind of pulling on the shoulder of a guy in front of me for momentum, as the floors and walls did another little tango. The doorway people were half-crouching, some with arms entangled, all leaning on the person next to them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed. They looked so scared that I had a new gut-clench of fear.

The doorway crew didn’t intend to abandon their protected place in the doorway, but those intentions had to negotiate with those of the half-crazed stream of souls coming toward them who had no intention of remaining in the building. I glanced back at the cubicles, seeing two people from payroll standing wall-eyed in the aisle, while a rivulet of a toppled Sparkletts bottle trickled between them toward me. When I turned back to continue for the door, my boss Megan was standing in front of me.

In front of me doesn’t quite explain it though. When I turned back toward Megan, I was wearing her like an apron, since I had turned holding both my arms out from my waist and she had moved with her arms up and forward toward me. Since she’s about a foot shorter than me, just in turning around I ended up involuntarily clasping her to my chest, which surprised us both.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed “Megan!” which was all I could manage. My ante was too high for her, however—she couldn’t even speak. We’ve all heard that phrase “white as a ghost.” Just another phrase that’s lost its elastic—but Megan brought a rich new meaning to a poor phrase.

I didn’t have time to think this, but just absorbed it: She was drained of color, paste-white, a fully credible white that would never pretend to be the pallor of a living being. But I did detect a little pinkness in the center of her face: her tongue, usually as discreet as all of Megan’s doings, now blatant because she was unable to engage it to make conversation. It rested limp on the bottom of her widely open mouth. Behind the heavy black horn-rims of her Elvis Costello glasses, Megan’s bright blue eyes shrieked the words her tongue couldn’t manage.

I did a little pas de deux with her in the aisle, spinning her by the shoulders toward the exit. In thinking of it afterward, I longed for a video: my formidable boss, always cordial but always reserved, impenetrable and boss-like, spun like an addled child and pointed toward the door. “I think we should get out,” I said in as manly of a voice I could muster. But I was feeling some panic; my heart hadn’t let up, and for a second the pounding made me think I was having a heart attack.

We were near the tail end of the crowd moving through the doorways. The first human wall of resistance clinging to the entryway had been breached—and like bowling pins, most had scattered, choosing the staircase path preferred by the bulk of those in flight. Probably two minutes, three at most had passed since the initial shock hit, and the building still seemed to be reverberating, though I couldn’t judge time or the trembling with any accuracy.

I shepherded Megan past the lone doorway holdout, Squink from Accounting. He was gripping the doorsill with both hands, his eyes wet and dreamy as we went by. It was lucky I had Megan to tend, because that responsibility calmed my brimming panic.

“Squink, better head down. Maybe the worst of it’s over,” I said as we passed him. I thought I was getting the hang of this whole leadership-in-a-crisis thing, what with Megan acceding to every tiny pressure of my arm, and me feeling like most everything’s in control. It was only when my knees buckled at the first staircase step that I realized that my whole body was slightly quivering, and that I had lost that fine motor control needed for precise movement.

I grabbed the handrail to steady myself, though Megan, in full zombie mode, didn’t notice my stumble. At that moment, she might not have noticed if I had a long scaly tail and flippers. We merged into a mass of semi-orderly building deserters, moving haltingly down the staircases mostly three abreast. I saw Diana ahead of us, looking back with an alarmed look and then lurching forward. My crew, Silvie and Crenshaw, was ahead of her—I could see Silvie throw her arms up while she talked to Crenshaw as they descended. She had a characteristic way of flinging her arms about; she always wore about twenty bangles and wrist bracelets on each arm that clicked and clattered when she jostled them. I was glad to see they were both all right.

The only person I could see that had an injury was Mr. McManus, the portly Vice President, who had a pretty good gash on his forehead, against which he held a bloody handkerchief. There was a lot of tangible tension going down the stairs, which was a process less than brisk. “What if there’s another quake? We’re going to get squashed here!” someone said. “God, I wonder what my house looks like? I just put all this decorative glass on shelves in my living room,” somebody else answered. “Goddamn. I thought the whole goddamn building was going down! The whole damn thing!” said one of the lawyers, who’d just come into the office before it hit. I had a strong urge to push everyone out of my way and rush down the stairs. Calm down, I said to myself. But I was anything but calm.

We came to the seventh-floor landing, where we met a surge of employees from the big insurance firm that worked there. I could see a couple of women who were crying, and several people who looked disheveled and shaken up, but no major injuries. An older man in a suit was standing on the side of the stairwell saying over and over, “Just move slowly and watch out for your neighbor. It’s OK, move slowly down and watch out for your neighbor.”

Just a few steps ahead someone I didn’t know had a portable radio pinned to his ear. “Seven-point five! They’re saying seven-point five, and major damage in the City. Big fires in the Marina. Not certain where it actually hit yet.” We were slowing way down on the stairs as we came in contact with people emptying out of the sixth-floor offices. People were getting more anxious, pushing a little, and I could see a big guy ahead of us trying to force his way through. I felt a strong pressure in my gut, and tried to push back against it. But when I looked down at Megan, she looked weirdly calm. Some color had started to come back into her face.

“Megan, are you feeling better? You OK?”

She turned to me and nodded and softly said, “Yes.” Her eyes still looked as if their owner was off vacationing, but at least she resembled the upright—if not uptight—boss that I reported to that morning. I turned into a bit of a robot myself after that, just moving kind of numbly with the crowd, listening to people speculate on what had happened, the fear squeezing their voices. But I kept jerking a bit as I went down the stairs—as we walked, it felt like there were more aftershocks, but I think my body might have been having little fear spasms. I couldn’t tell.

A picture of my house on fire zipped through my mind. Sure, it was a rental, so it’s not my house, but it had been hard enough finding the place after I left Santa Cruz in such a hurry a year before. It’s a big Victorian, with a huge bay window in the Lower Haight. I hoped Drew, my housemate, hadn’t been standing in front of that window debating his next decorating move. We hadn’t lost any windows in our office, but I was plenty worried that big old house wouldn’t have flexed quite like our spiffy new building.

It might have been thirty, forty minutes to get down to the lobby—it seemed like hours. Then, suddenly, we burst out onto Market Street. The noise was the first shock. The combined sounds—shouts, crashes, horns, machine noises, police sirens—hit with a physical impact, so that I ducked a little when I stepped out onto the street. It was pandemonium. I felt terrified all over again. The street and sidewalks were teeming with people, some milling about, some standing alone, many walking in waves up and down Market.

Traffic was completely stopped, with some cars left at odd angles in the middle of the street. I saw an empty Muni bus almost sideways, straddling both lanes with its door open. There was smashed glass all over the place, much of it from sidewalk-level storefront windows. Police cars were parked or in movement in all directions. I saw water gushing over a low rooftop wall and down the front of a nearby five- or six-story building onto the sidewalk below. Then I watched an ambulance pull up on the sidewalk of the building right next to ours and spill out its attendants, who rushed inside. I could hear sirens near and far. I noticed the big office building right across the street—it had thick white smoke pushing out of broken windows on the third floor. It was madness. I was breathing very fast, in short gulps and gasps.

People from our office had gathered in a loose circle on the sidewalk edge and in the street, trying to decide what to do. One of the sales guys was trying to get people to go to the Gnome’s Hat, a dive bar around the corner, but nobody was listening. I thought I should try to call Drew at the house, but the only phone in sight had six or seven people crowded around it. I spun around in a small circle, looking up and down the street, and at my fellow workers, who didn’t seem to be able to put a plan of action together. Silvie and Crenshaw stood off to the side, Silvie waving her arms and Crenshaw sucking on a cigarette with fierce concentration.

Then I noticed Megan staring at me. Though her complexion was returning to normal, she still looked stricken. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then said, slowly, in a tight-throated way that made her words croak a bit, “Hayden, I would greatly appreciate if you would walk me to my apartment. I’m feeling quite ill.” She fluttered her arm toward my shoulder, and briefly rested it there and then she looked away. I thought I could see her trembling a little.

“Well, that’d probably be OK, Megan. I’ll just try and call my place from your house—I’m a little worried because it’s an old building.” I tried not to smile too broadly when I said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting some blood back—your face was the color of printer paper up there.”

She touched one of her earlobes, covering one of her tiny pearl earrings. “Well, that’s probably true. This is my first earthquake, and I’d like the number to stop there.” She looked out at the crazed street scene and shuddered a little. “At the moment, I think I’d take the peril of Boston drivers over San Francisco earthquakes hands down.”

Megan had come to Consolidated from Boston only two years before. She’d been an editor there, but also (because it was a small company) the Traffic Manager or some such ungodly title at a small boutique publisher in Boston, routing manuscripts, messages, contracts and communications through that office and across that quadrant of the East Coast’s literary world. She did have all kinds of exchanges with agents and name authors, but that didn't count much at Consolidated. But damn, that contract work did: Now she ensured that leases had signatures, executives had quarterly reports and that meetings had 100% attendance. Consolidated leaned on her small frame with a vengeance, but she never seemed to be caught with a contract—or a sandy-blond hair—out of place.

First things first—get off of Market Street. I knew Megan lived somewhere on Taylor in Russian Hill, so I figured we’d walk up to California and maybe move north on Stockton, skirting Chinatown. I knew that would first take us through some of the big-boy buildings in the financial district, but I didn’t want to flank the Embarcadero—I’d remembered that big waves can follow an earthquake, and though that seemed pretty unlikely in the Bay, I’d always had a strong fear of drowning. Megan still seemed only semi-coherent, so I just gestured the way with a pointing index finger up the street, and we moved through the chaos. I kept looking up at the tops of the buildings, expecting something to fall on us.

We started walking up to where California hits Market and I saw Leg Man, in his usual spot, not far from Consolidated. I saw him almost every morning, since he set up shop near the coffee stand where I regularly fueled up. Leg Man was a homeless guy, or at least he looked like a homeless guy, and like many of the homeless on Market, he had a regular spot where he plied his trade. The ways the homeless folks hit you up for dough on Market Street varied: some would try a story on every passerby, walking with you a bit to fast-talk a dollar. Some had crude or artistic signs with jokes on them—“Homeless man needs money for college and beer,” or sad descriptions of their plight. Others would just sit slumped on the sidewalk, not looking at the masses moving by, maybe with a plastic cup to take any donations.

Leg Man was different. Leg Man had an artificial leg that he set up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the leg, a little above the knee, there was a little platform and connecting bracket. He’d position a small metal can there for people to drop money in. He usually stood stock-still back off the sidewalk from his leg—he didn’t seem to need the leg to stand—looking at everyone passing by, a small scowl on his face. He was late forties, maybe fifty, black, a big, stocky guy with a small afro of wild, graying hair. Today, amidst the madness, his leg was next to him against the storefront wall he normally leaned against. He undoubtedly knew that pickings would be slim on a day when the entire City was upside-down.

I gave him a nod, and his eyes tightened a bit, but otherwise, he gave me no acknowledgment. But he gave Megan a long, sharp look and then gazed down the crowded street. He’d seen me many times, but I never knew if he recognized me or not, though I’d pushed a buck his way a few times. I wondered for a second if he knew Megan, but then we turned up toward California.

Chapter 2

On the morning of the quake, in a dingy sleeping bag underneath a cardboard tent stretched between two alley dumpsters, Jacob Reid wrestled with a dream. He was walking down Market Street on a hot, humid day. But it was Market Street unlike he’d ever seen it. All the big buildings were there, but they were completely overgrown with fantastically tall palms and heavy ferns. The sidewalk was swampy mud, with reedy grasses tugging at his boots. He still had his leg and he felt strong. But something was horribly wrong.

The VC. They had his children. They had his children and wouldn’t give them back, unless he made a great sacrifice. He was marching up to the head of Market to offer them all he had, but as he moved forward, he began shrinking—he was getting smaller and smaller. And then the pain in his leg, searing …

He shuddered to consciousness, breathing fast. The old sleeping bag covering his face felt like it was suffocating him, so he clawed it off and pushed up from the pile of papers and cardboard. He rubbed his hand over his unshaven chin, and then pulled off the cardboard roof that he’d fashioned atop the dumpsters. Ugly dream. The kids, it’s been so long. But maybe they’d let down their guard and see me now—I’ve been steady for a while. He stood and took a deep breath, thinking again of the children he hadn’t seen in years.

But another sunny day, good. People give more on a sunny day. Maybe they’re more relaxed, because they’re warm. A body thing, more than a mental thing. He made a note to himself to check a sunny day’s receipts against a cloudy one’s. For this moment, the contents of the dream were whisked away.

Sunny but cool, at six-thirty in the morning. He rubbed his hands together to warm them and then rummaged around in his knapsack for the bag of trail mix he’d found yesterday in the trashcan right in front of the insurance building. More than half-full. People throw away anything. Fools. Works out for me though. I’m just an old bird, eating seeds.

He pulled the worn duffel bag he used for a pillow onto his lap, pressing low and firmly on the worn canvas, checking to make sure the leather money bag was still there. He felt its hard, squarish outline through the clothes surrounding it, and he grabbed it and transferred it to the backpack, as he did every morning before he went out to the street. He then settled back against the alley wall. Probably have to go to the bank later in the week, he thought. He grabbed the reading glasses from his knapsack and then the paperback.

The glasses, big black horn rims, looked small on Jacob’s large, bony head. He had stolen them from a little drug store off of Seventh Street a year or so ago and had not long after vowed never to steal again. But he’d laughed about the little flutter of pride he felt in his declaration—more than most, he knew that control is had one day, lost another. His vow had stood one test: he’d been sorely tempted when a man had openly scowled at him when Jacob had asked for change. The man had then had accidentally dropped his wallet when he descended down the BART steps. Jacob stared at the wallet, fighting himself for almost five minutes before a knit-capped kid had scooped it up.

The paperback was a worn copy of Wuthering Heights. Jacob always read for a half-hour or so in the morning before he began his work, and this novel was as good as any. Along with the cover, the first 33 pages had been torn off, and the binding was loose. Jacob was up to Chapter 9, where Heathcliff disappears after Catherine accepts Edgar’s proposal of marriage, but then she becomes ill, and marries years later. The language was a little high-flown for Jacob’s taste, but the travails of the intertwined families fixed his attention. He suspected it would all come to a bad end.

He’d gotten the book from Sully, one of the younger bums who used the Woolworths on Market as the locale for his trade. “I got it from the dumpster behind the shop, but I never shoulda even bothered. Bunch a crap. All kinds of fancy-ass people with their bonny lass this and that. Words bigger than a stretch limo. Hell, it’s supposed to be in English, but that spew’s not English. You read it!”

Jacob had been a reader all his life, from flopping on the library floor for hours as a pre-adolescent, surrounded by sports biographies and dinosaur books, to more serious works—Native Son, Invisible Man—in high school in the late 50s. Now, reading in a cold alleyway posed no burden; he’d even carried a book or two on every march or action his squad took in Vietnam, catching pages at humid dawn or humid dusk when he could. Some books he read five, six times—war could be numbing in the bleak stretches of routine. And then hell would come, instant, ruthless.

He settled against the wall to read, sipping from the big water bottle he filled every night from the restaurant tap in the alley a couple of blocks down. The city was waking up: the Munis began to run more regularly after 6:30, with the ambitious office early birds often arriving before 7. He thought he might have heard Dexter blowing some low, rumbling tones on his sax a few blocks down, where a high hollow in the marble facade of the utility building gave his notes a fullness. He used to work near Dexter, until he noticed that his daily take was dimming while Dexter’s was brimming. Besides, Dexter had started to blow some of that 70s and 80s fusion garbage. Leave Bird for Chick Corea? That’s nowhere. Miles was messed up.

Jacob read for a while, thinking that Heathcliff’s violent nature probably wouldn’t get him the love he craved, no matter how he forced the issue. He put the book back into his knapsack and then strapped on the fake leg. His joint only ached a little—it might be a good day. He stretched, feeling the tightness in his shoulder where he’d taken a tracer those years ago. It had just gone in and out, but had torn up some tissue and left a little ball of scarring deep inside. At the time, he thought that the bullet was the worst thing that would happen to him that day, or any day, but that thought would turn out to be wrong. He stowed the duffle in the alley electric-circuit box he’d discovered had a bad lock and closed its small door.

He walked out in front of the big insurance building, spotting the budding stream of businesspeople, many of them whom looked like kids playing dress-up. Young men and women with confident walks and clean clothes, pushing forward. He settled by the edge of the building, out of the main traffic flow, where the cops usually wouldn’t bother him unless they had a bug on. He unstrapped the artificial leg, set it up a few feet from the building’s façade and put the cup on the connective joint at the leg’s top. He moved back with his cane, and leaned against the wall.

Most people would look at the leg, squint or frown in non-recognition, and then catch its fact when they glanced up at Jacob against the wall. The biggest percentage would hurriedly look away, moving at a slightly accelerated clip. Some people would look at him gravely, sadly and move on. Some were visibly disgusted. Over time, Jacob had begun to study his clientele, noting reactions, gestures, words. Marketing. That’s what it’s about. Making a brand. Work is a process. Always selling. Got to have a method, an approach. He didn’t use the leg for the first few years, and then he tried it, stopped, and began again, having calculated his returns. Now the leg was his signature.

He used to have a sign that said “Vietnam vet could use a little luck” or some variation, but that didn’t seem to get him any more trade, and he started to tire of the long, wandering conversations he had with other passing vets who wanted to talk about their tour. He had talked about it as much as he could stand. He was through talking.

A short man with slicked-back hair walked by and tossed a coin into the cup, not looking at Jacob. There’s my shill, he thought. My rainmaker. Now let it flow. Sometimes just one person putting a coin in could start a line of falling coins. People were robots sometimes, sheep, following the leader. Jacob occasionally put a few coins in the cup himself to warm it up, to kick-start the day. Sometimes he might make 30 bucks in a morning, sometimes 30 cents. You could never tell.

There was the blond, the one with the glasses like his. He’d seen her many times, particularly since he’d been steady here for months. She always carried that black, bulging briefcase, always looked in a hurry, always seemed distracted by something. But there was something else, something that he’d caught the last couple of times he’d seen her, but he couldn’t quite place it. She reminded him of somebody, or something. Or there was something in the way she carried herself. But who, what? He hardly knew any young white women anymore, not since his college days after the war, and how many years ago was that? Hell, he hardly knew any women anymore. But he recognized something about her.

He watched her come into his line of vision, and she flipped a glance at him, their eyes meeting. What is it? Can’t quite place it. Something about her, though. It’s not like she’d remind him of his daughter—she’s too old. White besides. His daughter Tabby would be almost 19, the same age he was when he went overseas. His son Joshua nearing 14. It had been eight years, many of them drunken ones, since he’d seen them, five since he talked to them. It seemed like a hundred. More limbs gone missing.

Someone put a bill in his cup while he was thinking of his kids, and Jacob hadn’t seen who it was. Probably the tall guy with the nice suit and the cane; he’d glanced back at Jacob and given him a quick nod. Jacob liked to guess the occupation of his customers, or speculate on what they might say to themselves—“This week’s good deed”—when they put a coin in his cup. That one’s a money man. Stocks, maybe. Probably trying to work some good ju-ju on his picks by giving the bum a bill. Whatever.

It turned out to be a pretty good day. He’d collected seventeen dollars by 1pm, as well as a beautiful old silver cigarette case that he could probably pawn, handed to him without a look from a tall, silent woman. And a very good avocado and cheese sandwich given to him by one of his regulars, a rotund, fussy man with a little moustache who reminded Jacob of Oliver Hardy. He went back to the alley and checked on his sleeping bag, and then relaxed in the sun while he ate his sandwich. He fingered the silver case and tried to remember the last time he’d had a cigarette. It was before he’d stopped drinking—this time, actually stopped—and when he’d decided to start saving the money. Must be a good five years. Funny how the cigarettes had been no sweat. But the booze. Not so funny.

It was around five when he thought he’d pack it up, maybe walk up to the waterfront to look at the bridge and the rush-hour traffic. He’d strapped on his leg and slung his backpack over his shoulder when the strange rumbling began. What the hell? Then the quake kicked hard. Jacob went down on his bad leg, which was good, since the kneecap that hit the ground was plastic. At first he thought a shell had hit, and he had a brief flash of the smell of cordite. Shells, crap, no cover! A nearby woman fell against a sidewalk coffee cart and screamed—Jacob heard the screams of a patrol buddy whose intestines flopped completely out of his belly when a big slag of shrapnel had hit him. But what was falling wasn’t shrapnel; it was glass from some office windows above. Jacob pushed up heavily to his feet and moved forward toward the edge of the sidewalk, but he had to quickly draw back, because a taxi hit the curb and ran up against a big newspaper stand right in front of him. Jacob pawed for the .45 strapped to his hip, but 20 years separated him from that gun. Quake! That’s it! Big one. No shells.


About me

Tom Bentley is a fiction writer, business writer and editor, essayist, and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He’s published hundreds of freelance pieces—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His book on finding and cultivating your writer’s voice, "Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See" was published in 2015. He would like you to pour him a Manhattan right at five.

Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
Huckleberry Finn, Lolita, Grapes of Wrath, Slaughterhouse Five, Oryx and Crake, Gilead, Crime and Punishment, Steppenwolf, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Breakfast of Champions, The Sheltering Sky, Innocents Abroad, The Great Gatsby, Plainsong, The Handmaid's Tale, The Old Man and the Sea, Gone Girl
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
I wrote the story because I lived in San Francisco at the time of the quake, and had quake-related experiences with people who became models for certain aspects of the main characters. San Francisco itself is a rich setting for fiction. The circumstances called out to be made into a coherent novel.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
I had a near-drowning experience when I was 12, and I wrote about it for my Catholic grade-school class. My teacher later gave me a lovely cloisonné pin that said "Best Writer." That impelled me to write more. Writing more impelled more writing. There's more to come.

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Nowhere is safe.
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What if you triggered mass telepathy?
Infectious alien disease V Radioactive robots