Picking up their belongings, the three of them walked for a mile or so without further incident. At one point, they passed a crowd listening to a radio that had been turned on inside of a car that was parked on the street. The announcer was reading off street closures and the location of various fires that were burning throughout the city. In a monotonous voice he explained that experts were now saying that the earthquake had been a 6.5 magnitude that was centered just south of San Francisco. There had been others in the cities history which had been much worse and most of the damage was isolated to the Bay Area and its surrounding communities.
In fact, as they traveled onward the street seemed to grow less and less cluttered with debris. Some of the apartments and houses that they passed were still being occupied. People unconcerned with the possibility of a pending collapse or aftershock stood on their rooftops watching the destruction throughout the rest of the city. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
Dustin told the couple about what Steve had said concerning the Bay Bridge collapse and James stopped to ask a cop about it. The cop, a fat man with the demeanor of an excited sportscaster told them that it was only a section of the upper deck which had caved in on the bottom just like in the 1989 quake. “Not a single fatality!” He finished proudly.
Dustin didn’t see anymore bodies and, if he had he wouldn’t have used them to distribute his business cards. There had been something too personal in his encounter with the old man and with James and Alexis at his side it seemed overtly morbid. He may have been a funeral director by trade but Dustin tried to keep it between himself and the people that he served. Selling internments while standing in the shadow of a pregnant woman didn’t appeal to his nature.
It also didn’t help that Alexis and James were perhaps the two nicest people on the face of the earth. Dustin enjoyed their company but also wondered how they could be so buoyant when surrounded by so much misery. He guessed that it could have been the excitement they were feeling about the arrival of their child although he himself didn’t remember feeling so optimistic when his own daughter was about to be born. At the time he’d felt scared and he would have been terrified if it had been about to occur now amidst as much chaos as they were in now.
For the third time that morning Dustin remembered his 12-step meeting and almost stopped dead in his tracks. The thought of missing the group and their shared confessions tonight seemed to suck the wind from his lungs. James noticed the change that had come over him and stopped. He set down his garbage bag and took Dustin by the arm.
“Goodness gracious neighbor!” He said slowing him down and forcing Dustin to look him in the eye. “Are you okay?”
Dustin blinked. “Yes.” He replied wondering why the man was staring at him so seriously.
“Are you sure?” James asked again a little more firmly.
Dustin nodded. “Yes… why?” He asked hesitantly.
“Well I was just walking along talking to you and you turned white as a sheet.” He said seriously. “You’re not diabetic are you? I have a brother who’s diabetic and he gets that way right before he’s about to go into shock.”
“No.” Dustin said stepping back from his grip. “I guess I was just thinking of everything.”
James cocked his head giving him a long look.
“I don’t like to be touched.” Dustin said.
The man dropped his hand to his side and stood there looking hurt.
“I’m sorry.” Dustin continued as he tried to explain. “I know it’s rude of me to ask but I don’t like being touched. Please don’t if I’m not expecting you to do it. It’s okay if I know, and I touch people all the time without asking but please just don’t grab me without warning.”
James grinned. “It’s okay!” He said shrugging his shoulders. “Some people are just that way. No need to apologize for the way you are.”
Dustin felt relieved that he understood. “Thanks.” He replied flashing a weak smile.
“You shouldn’t worry about your kitten poster either.” James said unexpectedly.
Dustin’s smile disappeared. “What?” He asked feeling the blood rushing to his face.
“We saw it when we went up to grab our things and I sort of worried that you might be wondering about what we thought about it.” James said without a trace of sarcasm. “I know that you’re a private person. Heck, we’ve never talked as long as we’ve lived next to one another until this morning!”
“It’s not a problem!” James said reaching out to grab his shoulder again. Thinking better of it he paused. Instead he gave the air between them a little wave. “Truth is, Alexis has a T-shirt with that same picture on it. Looking at her wearing it just makes us both so happy!”
From her husband’s side Alexis held out the fishbowl. “Oh no!” she said looking down at the glass.
Together they all turned their attention to the fish. Their journey had splashed a good deal of the water from the bowl. The three fish sat gathered in a small puddle at the bottom gasping for breath.
“Whoa there!” James said. “It’s a good thing we stopped after all.”
Alexis frowned. “We need to find them more water.”
Dustin looked around. Across the street a corner grocery sat with its windows busted out and a man sweeping glass in front. Thankful for the chance to break away he walked over. “Are you open?” He asked.
The stores owner looked up, his eyes narrowing. “After this morning?” He answered incredulously. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Dustin looked inside. The store was a jumbled mess. Potato chip bags and broken pickle jars littered the floor while cans of soda sat split and leaking at the bottom of their coolers.
“Could I just get some water from you?” He asked avoiding the subject of the stores condition.
“Sure.” The man smiled. “It’s $3.00 for a bottle of water. Good luck finding one in there though.”
Dustin sat the bird cage and his luggage down. Slowly he crept inside stepping over items which had been toppled from their displays. Walking back to the darkened wall of coolers at the far end of the shop he found one which contained water. The shelves had come unhinged so that the plastic bottles rested at an angle and on top of one another.
Dustin hesitated. “I can’t pay you now.” He called back to the man out front.
“Then you can’t have any water buddy.” The man said. He was a large man. At least six and a half feet tall with an enormous stomach that forced the Black Sabbath T-Shirt that he was wearing up over his belly-button. . He looked like an ogre as he stood watching Dustin through the window a hand propped casually on the handle of the broom.
“Look.” Dustin said turning. “I don’t have any cash on me. If you’ve got a way to run a credit card without power then I could pay you that way.”
The man shook his head. “Not going to happen. I don’t accept credit cards for purchases under five dollars anyway.”
Dustin sighed. “Then fine, I’ll buy two bottles of water.”
The man leaned the broom against the broken window and stepped into the store. “I can’t run your credit card without power dude and things are just too crazy this morning for me to even care about doing an imprint.” He said as he stood just inside the doorway. “Just leave the water where it is and get the hell out.”
Dustin turned defiantly and opened the case pulling out a still cold bottle of water. As he did so, several more spilled out onto the floor creating a loud racket as the shelving they’d sat on resituated itself by falling back into the storeroom behind.
“Put it back.” The man growled.
Putting the water into his gym bag Dustin turned and walked to the doorway. He stood before the man that was blocking it. “How about I give you my business card?” He asked trying to make a final compromise.
“Dude.” The store’s owner sighed. “You’re just too much. Put the water back.”
“Fine!” Dustin spat.
They were standing beside the counter at the front of the store. Dustin locked eyes with the owner as he angrily yanked the bottle from his bag and slammed it down on it’s surface. “There!” He said.
The man smiled.
Dustin pushed past him back onto the street where he grabbed the birds and his suitcase before marching over to his friends.
James read the expression on his face. “What happened over there to make you so mad?” He asked.
Dustin turned pointing towards the stores owner who now stood watching them on the sidewalk from across the street. “That guy wouldn’t let me take a bottle of water from his store.” He huffed. “He wanted three dollars cash which I didn’t have even though I offered to pay him with my credit card.”
“Oh.” James said looking concerned. “Well, I guess he can’t run a credit card without power.”
“That’s beside the point!” Dustin protested. “People are supposed to help one another out during times like these. I don’t understand why he couldn’t just let me take it.”
James smiled. “It’s okay! I’ve got three dollars. If you want some water then I could get it for you. Heck, it’s the least I could do since you’re giving us a ride out to Alexis’s moms place and all.”
Dustin shook his head. “Don’t give that guy any of your money.” He fumed. “All I was trying to do was help out with the fish.”
Together both James and Alexis laughed.
Dustin gave them a quizzical look.
“You don’t need to worry about that!” James said putting an arm around his wife. “We already got water.”
Alexis held the fishbowl out to show him. It was nearly full. The three fish inside were swimming happily around in tiny little circles.
“How?” Asked Dustin.
Alexis answered. “We used that leaky fire hydrant over there.” She said pointing to a spot just a little ways from where they stood. “It was a gift from God!”
Dustin turned to regard it. The cap was partially unscrewed causing a slow trickle of water to drizzle out. He wondered how he’d missed it before.
“Do you still want a water?” James asked taking out his billfold.
Dustin shook his head. “No thanks.”
The three of them carried on.