The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Rendezvous: A Literary Celebration of Historical Romance. Please enjoy.
“Take my hand,” he says with a wry smile. I’ve known this young man since his family moved into the apartment next to mine on Polk Street back in 1894. He was 7 at the time. I was 6.
It was love at first sight – at least for him. For me, it took a bit longer to fall for the scrawny boy in tattered suspenders and stained newsboy cap, missing his two front teeth. But, by the time his gapped-toothed grin was no more and that once lanky body began to show signs of maturity, I was enamored.
Now, almost 12 years later I’m his, he’s mine and we are embarking on an adventure I’m not sure is absolutely legal or safe.
But, I trust him.
Grasping his hand, he tells me to appear ‘nonchalant.’ Not knowing exactly what he means, I hide meekly behind his confident posture as we approach the door marked, “Staff Only.” Lingering ‘nonchalantly’ until someone pushes open the heavy steel door and walks out into the brisk April air, we then make haste.
Before the door slams shut, he stops with it with one of his strong hands – while the other still gently grips mine. Throwing me a quick glance of triumph tinged with a hint of cockiness, my heart goes aflutter – exactly like he’s been doing to me since our first kiss at the Cliff House after he accepted his first job at our neighborhood corner grocer.
Without a moment to comprehend what’s happening, he whisks me through the door and up the metal staircase. Up we go, quickly but quietly – trying not to draw attention to ourselves. Two local teenagers shouldn’t be where we are, which makes it all the more thrilling.
It was only four days earlier when he snuck up behind me while I walked down Market Street with my friends. Those hands I so adore, gently pressed against my eyes. “Guess who,” he whispered into my left ear – his sweet, warm breath sending tingles down my spine.
Spinning around, his hands went from my eyes to my waist and I fell into his loving embrace. My friends giggled, as young girls who have yet to experience love often do. But, I didn’t mind them. My thoughts were only on him.
Gazing into one another’s eyes, I first caught glint of his adventurous scheme. “Whatever is on your mind?” I questioned with a soft, yet tactful chuckle.
He told me to wear my Sunday best even after I pointed out it would only be Tuesday night. “It will be worth it,” he dramatically emphasized and planted a playful peck on my cheek before dashing off and getting lost in the sea of pedestrians filling the street. My friends tittered even louder. I, the veteran of love, just rolled my eyes.
“Children,” I muttered as a smile broke broadly across my face.
Now here we are on Tuesday evening – me in my finest dress and he in his most elegant suit – though neither truly fashionable enough for the building we are currently dashing up the back stairs to parts unknown. Still, with him leading the way, I feel like royalty.
As we ascend, my billowy dress catches on the iron handrail. The shrill rip of satin slices through the air, causing him to stop and look back. I shockingly inhale, then almost laugh aloud knowing this gash would soon be lost within the other patch-worked holes and tears my mother has meticulously sewn back together through years of wear. But how will I explain this one to her?
I encourage him to keep moving before we are discovered. More stairs wind us up, up, up until I am sure there isn’t any higher place in San Francisco to climb. And then, just as my heart feels as if it will burst forth from my tightly fastened corset from a combination of adrenaline, exhaustion and fright – he stops.
“Here we are.” For the first time I consider our surroundings and gasp because there, far down below is the stage of the Grand Opera House, the very stage where in just a few short moments the great opera star, Enrico Caruso is set to perform.
In a momentary lapse of womanly judgment, I ravenously wrap my arms around him and kiss his lips. “I love you!” I yelp. He charmingly covers my mouth with his hand and chuckles. “I love you, too,” then beckons me to sit down on the rafter where we currently stand.
Our legs dangle over the edge of the metal walkway as the conductor raps a baton on his podium. The audience quiets and the orchestra bursts forth into song. The sheer force of the music makes me jump. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and I calm – falling effortlessly into the melody.
The crowd once again erupts as Mr. Caruso makes his spectacular entrance. For three glorious hours, the star fiercely performs his way through the operatic masterpiece of Carmen. I get lost in his voice, but not enough to lose grip of the man I so cherish. He is the one who gave me this – and as enraptured as I am with Mr. Caruso, I shall never forget who got me to this moment.
As Mr. Caruso hits his last impressive note, the man I love gently kisses my neck. “I adore you,” he whispers. “And want to be with you forever.” My head spins, my thoughts twist and every fiber of my being plummets joyfully into his future.
We hold each other for what seems like forever. All sounds fade around us and soon it’s so quiet that I gently drift off to sleep. And so does he.
Before sunrise, I am jostled awake. I first think it’s him rustling me from my slumber until I realize – it’s the world around me. Everything is shaking me awake.
As a lifelong resident of the city, I understand immediately that San Francisco is having an earthquake. I try to stand, but the rafters under my feet tremble fiercely. He’s already awake and gripping the handrail. “Hold on,” he yells, voice trembling with panic. I already know that will be of no use. This is far worse than anything I have experienced in my 18 years.
The world crumbles around us. I want to scream, but it’s too late. We go down with the Opera House.
Seconds stretch into an eternity as everything crashes down. This is it. I know it immediately. The Big One that all the pontificators anticipated, but the public never truly believed. Until now.
On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m. San Francisco collapses.
I lay in the pile of twisted metal and brick. For a moment, I can feel myself lifting up – floating and losing consciousness. Perhaps this is the end.
But pain rips me back to alertness. I must get up. Though my entire body throbs in agony, I pull myself onto my hands and knees, trying to breath life into my soul. But soot fills my lungs, sending me into a coughing fit that unexpectedly rattles me back into existence.
“Good Lord,” I choke out. I’m alive. But where is he?
I frantically search the ruins around me. There’s only rubble. Moments ago, this was one of the most majestic buildings in all of San Francisco. Now – it’s completely destroyed.
He’s somewhere under there.
I yell his name, screaming myself hoarse.
Then. There is movement. A hand cautiously rises from a pile of jagged debris. It’s him! I crawl over, not allowing the immense pain that causes my muscles to agonizingly spasm to consume me.
It’s now his turn to trust me.
“Take my hand.”
But will he? Can he?
“Take my hand…”