The cafe was full.
Mark’s hands were shaking, whether from the bitter cold outside or nicotine withdrawal. Dirty habit.
He was trying to convince himself he’d okay with Anna, a fellow uni student, whose boobs seemed unnaturally close as they stood in the doorway. She was a bit of a stunner, brown eyes that sparkled and laughter that produced the most provocative dimples. Only catch was she was almost the same height as he was and had, he suspected, a sharpish intellect. He wasn’t sure how his rather pedestrian maths and chemistry would match up with her major in French.
He’d had an eye on her for weeks now….So many other guys.
He’d accidentally bumped her at a student disco last Saturday. In a lull he’d taken the plunge, casual words long rehearsed, known by rote, but even then he’d stumbled.
‘How about coffee on Monday?’
‘Sure,’ she’d laughed.
Flattered at the time, now the angst had kicked in. All his friends had girls, some already shacking up. He’d looked to be out of it.
A roller coaster couple of days… How would he measure up?
Disaster. Not a table in sight.
‘There, on the back wall,’ she nudged.
She was sharp.
They scrambled through. Those boobs. She might be bright but she looked good for a lot more. He nearly came undone when she unravelled her scarf. That cleavage.
‘Tea, coffee, er…’ he stumbled.
‘Tea and whatever,’ she said.
He threaded through the crowd to give their order.
The tea was an age coming. He looked a little furtively back the way he’d come. What if she’d…
But she hadn’t. She was sitting calmly given him the once-over from the ground up.
At the disco, in tight jeans and blowsy top, she’d manoeuvred to be near him. A bit shy, this bloke, dark hair and eyes, good body, about the same height. Not a bully by the looks of it, not big on being masterful. She was well and truly over that type.
‘One hot tea, mudcake and a hot chocolate for me,’ said Mark putting down the tray.
Then, out of nowhere, this couple appeared.
‘Mind if we sit with you?’ asked the guy who sported a red nose and flashed a superb set of pearlies. On his arm a sexy, tall brunette.
Mark hesitated The place was crowded, what could he say.
‘Join us, no problem,’ Anna got in first.
Mark kept quiet…. So much for a table for two…
The brunette sat down besides Anna revealing a radiant smile:
‘Hi, I’m Helen’.
‘Anna’. They shook hands.
‘Your hot chocolate’s getting cold, Mark’ said Anna.. Not exactly sociable this bloke.
‘Where are my manners,’ Alan butted in ‘I’m Alan and happy as hell’
Any particular reason? Joked Anna.
‘Helen and I are engaged. I proposed to her last night’ explained Alan, his eyes sparkling.
‘Congratulations!’ said Anna smiling back at Helen, and noticing her engagement ring.
“It’s so beautiful” she added.
‘Thanks. That’s nice too,’ continued Helen looking at Anna’s décolletage.
Mark followed Anna’s hand landing on her stylish heart shape pendant, shining on her low cut. That cleavage! He’d better watch himself.
‘It’s called L’Amour. My mother gave it to me’, a twinkle in her eye.
Mark was checking his wallet. Or so he pretended. Is she trying me on? I won’t fall for this one, no way.
‘I tell you what, why don’t we all celebrate this special moment with a nice glass of champagne?’ blurted Alan. ‘Anyone in?’
Hands popped up instantaneously. Mark’s was last.
Alan stood up and swivelled towards the counter.
‘Woops!’ he giggled as he bumped the table. Anna’s right hand snatched at her cup to hold it in place while her left arm grounded the table. The little pendant slipped down her neck in the sudden twist, then plunged to the floor. The cups wobbled and spilt a few drops.
‘I’ve got it’ said Mark, snaking under the table.
The girls were wiping out the marks. Men, what can you expect? They exchanged glances.
‘Sorry about that, guys. I’ll bring more serviettes’ said Alan and squeezed through the crowd to the cafe counter. His black leather jacket, squeaky clean jeans and athletic figure lingered on Mark’s mind. Would that be Anna’s preferred type?
Suddenly the table started to tremble, this time causing the teaspoons to dance in the saucers. In seconds it turned into a more serious rumble, like a high powered car at idle. Anna and Helen stopped wiping and stared, alarmed, at each other. They held their breath.
His chair shaking, Mark looked out the window to see if he could work out what was happening. Then he caught Alan’s eye at the counter. He looked desperate.
A deep groan emanated from within the cafe, a crescendo of concrete on steel, growing louder and louder until it became a muffled grumble right under their feet.
People jumped up, wildly turning their heads in all directions; utter confusion on some faces, sheer terror on others. Everyone stared at the walls and floor of the cafe. One mirror cracked then another. Somewhere somebody cried: “Earthquake! Run!”
At that moment the lights went out followed by a split second of dead silence. The silence then erupted in an aria of shrieking terror and all hell broke loose.
Alan raced across to them from the counter. Helen clutched frantically at him. Mark grabbed Anna’s hand in a firm grip, and yelled ‘This way’. They made for the only exit, Helen and Alan in close pursuit.
The building started to shake violently. The screech of steel girders rang through the confined space compounding the banshee, shattering the relative calm that had prevailed only minutes beforehand. The avalanche of panic grew uncontrollable.
Mark stepped gingerly over obstacles in the dark room, almost falling over. He regained his balanced and roared ‘Annaaa’.
‘I’m right behind you,’ she replied in a tight voice.
People started to push and tumble, but jammed at the exit door. ‘Holy shit’ several voices screamed repeatedly. ‘Run, run, the building is collapsing.’
The main support pillars of the cafe creaked and groaned showering powdered dust and debris.
Mark pushed on through the chaos and finally managed to reach the front bay windows of the cafe near the entrance door. In the intense gloom he felt around, found the metal back of a chair, grabbed it and swung it with all his might at the nearest window. But to no effect. Desperately he swung the chair again, hoping against all odds it would break the window.
‘Shit, you bastard, I’m not going out like this,’ and he swung the chair again and again and again.
Finally, he heard the cracking of glass and the window shattered under his final adrenalin-driven blast, helped no doubt by the earthquake which continued to rumble. Something warm was running down his face. It had a salty taste. A sharp pain ignited in his right arm, but he ignored it. He paused to gather his senses. He had achieved an escape route. Anna’s breath was coming hot and heavy on the back of his neck.
People were crying and crawling in despair all around them. Death was in the air.
‘That’s our only way of escape,’ he shouted, measuring up the window. He grabbed a handful of Anna’s blouse from behind, raised the other arm to protect his face from the glass and counted, ‘One. Two. Three. Juuump.’
He caught the edge of the pavement with his right knee. Excruciating pain. The cold of the night blasted through his thin cotton shirt. Unconsciously shivered but didn’t let go of Anna’s arm.
Terrified cries of those still trapped inside invaded the night but he saw nothing. Dust filled his nostrils and he began coughing up debris.
Silence followed, deathly silence. For a moment, he thought he was dreaming.
Then he heard the girl’s weeping.
‘Anna?’ he whispered ‘Are you OK?’ he asked turning to the figure that lay inches behind his bruised and bleeding legs.
The girl didn’t answer but kept crying quietly, her arm shaking in shock, her blouse shredded.
‘Anna, please, are you OK?’ he persisted.
The sharp stabbing pain in his knee forced him to collapse beside her. His hand slid from her arm to grasp at his ruined kneecap. He fumbled in the front pocket of his jeans, produced his trusty cigarette lighter and quickly thumbed the wheel. A small light flickered and he strained to establish the identity of the person before him.
‘Helen?’ He asked anxiously ‘Are you all right?…Where is Anna?’
A faint cry echoed in the night.
Mark gathered his ebbing strength and started crawling towards it. One crawl, one break, one more crawl and another break.
It seemed like ages. Then a breath came up to his face, shallow but steady. Anna’s smell filled his sandy nostrils. She was lying on her back, in agony.
‘Thank God! You’re alive!’ said Mark and cuddled her hair. His lighter up, he ran a quick check over her body. Her eyes slowly flipped open:
‘I can’t move my left leg,’ she grunted.
‘I’d say your thigh is broken, stay still, I’ll get help,’ said Mark..He knelt down and held Anna’s hand, his mind racing.
‘Are you OK? Where are the others?’ she squeaked.
‘I’m over here,’ responded Helen through her sobs.
‘Helen? Is that you?’ blasted a male voice, hidden behind a bunch of rubble. The three heads turned in unison to the dark wobbling silhouette that was attempting to stand up.
‘Alan, my darling!’ cried Helen and hopped to support him.
Only meters away, a deafening sound of falling debris, metal bending and a blast of energy knocked them all off their feet. The cafeteria was no more, just a pile of rubble fuming in the dark.
The cigarette lighter flickered out. Mark shook it hard and thumbed it vigorously. Alight once more it revealed a flicker on the ground.
‘I’ve found L’Amour,’ said Mark as Anna’s eyes met his.