Something about the texture of the plastic under sheet on the mattress beneath me, a barrier to the persistent bed bugs of the household and the strongest deterrent our eccentric anti-chemical host is willing to impose against the infestation, keeps me from true sleep. Instead I catch it in fretful bursts, waking to the exultant shouts of freshers starting their university lives in and around the UC Berkely campus just minutes from my hostel.
I wake again, late enough now for the sounds to have receded. Peace settles again on the neighbourhood. It washes over me, and though I’m awake I feel luxuriously content nestled in my blankets watching the early sun. As I lie there, it feels strangely natural that for thirty seconds or so the bed shakes minutely beneath me and I think back to an early physics lesson and a small textbook illustration demonstrating the lower end of the Richter scale. A man sits up in bed looking mildly surprised, captioned ‘1-2: very faint tremors felt only during rest or sleep’. An earthquake, I decide vaguely as I slip back into my oblivious dreaming.
It was an earthquake. It rent the earth beneath us. But we’re high up on featureless hills somewhere in the suburbs of San Francisco and after some small time feel the earth still at last, and we steady ourselves, unharmed. My parents are with me and we stand frozen in our own insignificance as we watch the sea and two enormous waves break damagingly on to the shore in the aftermath and carry some way over the land towards us. But we’re too high for the merciless water to reach.
A while later my parents sit in nervous relief as we drive back to the city, wondering in dismal tones how extensive the damage could be elsewhere, but my contributions are minimal. Images of those gargantuan waves resurface in my head. I look out to the coast and the thin blue strip still visible on the horizon, watching for more, willing my tremulous fingers to still themselves. My second cousin, who drives the car reassures me nothing more can happen. But I continue to watch the skyline, where a strange black cloud collects itself, the line separating it from the sky unnaturally sharp.
But it’s as I watch it and we go some small way along the road in silence that I realise this is no cloud but a new wave of incalculable proportions. We pull the car over and run along the side of the road watching the approaching tower of water, seamless and unstoppable. We’re on much lower ground now and survival seems an impossibility as we kneel beside the metal sidings of the road and clutch on to them pointlessly. I turn to my parents, my second cousin, leave them my love, find their eyes and their hands before the sight becomes too much to bear. But I can’t look towards the wave. Instead I focus down at the black stones on the ground beneath me.
This is it. My life. It’s all come to this. But I’ve had a good run at it. Altogether, I’ve had some good years. I smile sadly as I squeeze my mum’s hand in mine and close my eyes.
I feel the world changing. The sun has disappeared, replaced instead with a cool shadow, which in other circumstances would have been a welcome change on the hot day. The air is wet as I breathe it. I gulp it down in huge intakes, readying my lungs for the impact and the impossibility of needing to make my way through an underwater world, undamaged, to meet the surface and survival.
I take one breath. Wait. Another. Wait. The air is dark and thick with moisture.
I hear a slight clicking noise as my nose catches with each inhalation. The rushing air ceases its movement, replaced by my own quiet snoring. I stare no longer at the road side gravel that had been making marks in my knees but instead at the wall beside my bed. And painted there is a large blue wave.