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The Worst Morning

I am not a morning person.
I was once, when I was young. As soon as I heard my stepmother moving around in the kitchen, I would literally leap out of bed, always disturbing my sisters. Since our house was small, all of us shared a room. Rebecca, who was nineteen and attending college, had her own bed. Bethany, age seventeen, and I slept in the other bed. It was…cozy, to say the least, but my parents were firm in their belief that sharing a room would bring us closer.
Well, it was a theory.
Anyways, I loved mornings. Nothing could compare to watching the dark sky suddenly split open into hues of purple, orange and pink. Every day I watched that glowing yellow orb rise over the cobblestone streets of my beloved city, San Francisco. The light would touch every house and make it glow. People began to walk outside, open their shops, go to work. The nicely-dressed rode by in their carriages while those in plainer clothing pushed their way through the crowded sidewalks. This was my city. This was my home.
Then came the worst morning of my life.
Worse than the morning when Father told us that Mama had died of pneumonia.
Worse than the morning when Father told us that he was getting remarried to a woman we’d never met.
Worse than the morning when Julia, my stepmother, lost her baby.
It was worse than all those because it didn’t just hurt our family: it destroyed the lives of the thousands of people living in San Francisco.
1906.
April 18.
Wednesday morning.
5:12 AM.
I was fifteen, though by the end of that day I would feel like I was a thousand years old.
I had woken up at four-thirty, as usual. I was used to running on little sleep by then, and was just enjoying looking out the window, staring at my quiet city.
Then the shaking started.
And not shaking like a grass blade in the wind, but shaking like being on a steaming locomotive across a bumpy track at top speed. Enough to make your jaw rattle pure out your skull.
To this day, I cannot describe that feeling. It was like every bone in me was being jarred violently, but it was not just in me. The whole house was shaking, and the ground under it. I heard my sisters awaken from bed. Rebecca screamed loudly. From the partially opened window, I heard others shrieking as they were rudely woken up from their sleep. Bethany fell out of bed and crashed to the floor. I saw bricks falling from the house across the street.
Later it was said that the shaking lasted about a minute. To us, it felt like so much longer. Just sit still for a moment and count out sixty seconds. Imagine violent shaking and twisting for that long. It was horrible and absolutely terrifying.
Finally it ended. Rebecca was sobbing. Bethany got up from the floor and yelled, “Cora! We have to get out of the house now!” I didn’t process what she was saying, until I heard the boards of the house creak and moan. I suddenly knew that the house was going to come down with us inside.
“I’m going to get Daniel!” I told Rebecca. “You go with Bethany!”
She nodded. I took one last look at my eldest sister and was out the door of our room.
My brother slept on the couch in the parlor. He was just eleven and was lying on the floor, sobbing. I saw a nasty cut on his forehead that was bleeding all over Julia’s nice rug. I grabbed him and picked him up. “What happened?” I demanded.
In between sobs, Daniel told me that a small vase kept on the mantle had fallen and shattered just before he had tumbled from the couch and cut his head. I put a handkerchief to his forehead and rushed him out the front door. The snapping from the house had gotten louder.
Julia and Father followed close on our heels. “Where are the girls?” Father asked me frantically.
“They’re still in the house!”
At that moment Bethany came running out the door. She carried blankets and clothes in her arms. “Rebecca is getting food from the pantry,” she told us.
“No, the house isn’t safe; she needs to get out of there now!” Father ordered.
“But—”
“No buts!” Father turned to reenter the house. At that moment, a sound like a thousand gunshots whipped through the air.
There is no sight quite as terrifying as seeing the home you grew up in come crashing down right in front of you.
Especially knowing that your sister is still inside.
We all screamed and ran as bricks and wood and bits of house rained down from the sky. I held Daniel close and shielded him from debris.
The dust cleared and we rushed at the pile of rubble that was once a home. Julia was sobbing. “Where’s Rebecca?” Bethany cried. Father began to dig frantically through the rubble, calling for his daughter.
He found her quickly.
Her neck was broken.
An animal-like sound sprang from Father’s throat. He buried his face in his hands and wept like a child. I, who had not cried for years, sobbed into my brother’s hair.
We had just had an earthquake. We were homeless. And Rebecca was dead.
Father looked up suddenly. “We need to get out of here. More houses could be coming down. It isn’t safe.” He began digging through the rubble for supplies we could take with us.
“Where are we going?” Julia asked timidly.
“The ferry. We have to get out of San Francisco.”
And so the five of us left the ruins of our home with all we could carry on our backs. Father found one pair of salvageable shoes and gave them to Daniel. The rest of us were in our bare feet and nightclothes. Every step was painful. I felt glass and debris cut into my feet but could do nothing except keep going. It’s what everybody did. All around us were refugees, just walking. Some didn’t know where, but only followed the crowd. We just needed to get away. Anywhere was surely better than here.
The aftershock that came three hours after the earthquake was horrifying. Many buildings collapsed around us as we fled in terror. The crowd was a mass of panic. Screams pierced my eardrums as the earth twisted beneath us. A gouge opened up in the street. If I hadn’t been watching the ground, I would have fallen into the abyss.
Then it was over and walking began again. Bethany had nearly gotten trampled to death, but was fine other than some bruises. Father was leading us all, his jaw set in a determined line.
It took forever to get anywhere. The streets were intensely crowded.
That’s when we noticed thick smoke curling into the sky.
A firestorm.
The danger wasn’t over.
I hacked as the smoke particles attacked my lungs. Father turned us down another street. “How do you even know where we are?” Daniel asked. The destroyed streets all looked the same to us. Everywhere were sharp bricks, twisted roads, and the ruins of buildings that had stood strong only hours before. Pure desolation was all anyone could see.
Father glared at Daniel and no one asked any more questions after that.
“Cora!”
I spun around as I heard my name being called. Someone was running through the crowd at me, pushing past the cart full of books and the lady carrying chicks in a basket.
It was Matthew Morris, a boy from my school. We’d lived a few houses away from each other since we were young.
Matthew ran up to me, panting. “Thank God you’re okay!”
Matthew’s tall frame was entirely covered in dirt, soot, and grime. He had cuts on his arms and face, but I saw that he had shoes on. His feet were in much better shape than mine.
Before I could say anything, Matthew hugged me tight. I blushed and pushed him away. “Don’t do that in front of Father!” were the first words I said.
“He’s walked on ahead.”
I turned and, sure enough, my father was still trudging along the road. It was then that I realized that his mind was with the body of his eldest daughter. Never again would it fully return to him.
Matthew grabbed my hand. “Hurry, we can catch up with him.”
I took one step and gasped sharply with pain. After all morning of walking barefoot in a ruined city, I finally could not move any farther.
“What is it?” Matthew’s worried brown eyes searched my face. He looked down and saw my cut and bleeding feet. “Oh, Cora…” he murmured.
“I’m fine.” I took another step and grimaced. Never had I felt pain as sharp as this.
Matthew bent down and began unlacing his shoes. “No, don’t—” I began, but he didn’t listen.
“Sit right here,” he said, pointing to a pile of bricks on the sidewalk. I did as told and he put his own shoes on my worn-out feet. I wanted to cry, so touched was I at this simple gesture.
“See if you can stand.” He put my arm around his shoulder and helped me get up. I tried to walk but the pain still shot through the nerves in my feet. I sat down again. “I can’t,” I mumbled, tears dripping down my face.
Matthew looked at me curiously for a minute. Quickly he took the shoes off me and put them on his own feet again. Before I could protest, he picked me up like a baby and began to carry me through the desolate ruins. He moved rapidly through the crowds until he found my family, still walking towards the ferry. “Mr. Schmidt?” he called out.
Father turned around, surprise registering on his face. “Why do you have my daughter?”
“Sir, I happened to meet her in the streets. She can’t walk any further, so I’ve carried her to you.”
Father scowled. “Where are your parents, boy?”
“Gone.” I could see Matthew’s jaw tightening as he uttered that one word. I huddled my head on his chest, listening to the rapid beating of his heart.
A moment of silence in the middle of the street din.
“Would you like to accompany us out of San Francisco?” Father finally asked.
A hint of a smile flickered across Matthew’s face. “Yes, sir, if it isn’t too much bother.”
In answer, Father turned around and pushed through the thick crowds on the ferry dock. Hundreds of people were waiting desperately to board the ferry and head east to Oakland. Anything to escape the now burning city.
We waited for hours. We were all hungry and exhausted. I fell asleep in Matthew’s arms and woke up crying. Matthew handed me to Father, who rocked me as if I were a small child. He crooned softly to me and stroked my hair. “It’ll be all right, Rebecca. Daddy’s here.”
Horror at his statement didn’t hit me until much later.
But finally, finally, it was our turn to shove our way onto a ferry. I leaned on the railing with my family, watching the ruins grow smaller as we pulled away. Smoke plumed from San Francisco and fires raged on, destroying everything in their path.
Someone took hold of my hand. It was Matthew. He looked long and hard at me and said, “Don’t worry, Cora. I’m here.”
And after that, he always was.



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