March 21, 2063, 0130 Hours, Richmond Medical Center, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Richmond, California
Benito gasped for air. His 5-year-old lungs were failing him now. No surprise, of course — he’d breathed highly polluted air nearly every day of his life. He screamed in agony, his blood-curdling shrieks piercing my eardrums like spikes. Tears streamed down his anguished caramel cheeks as he pawed furiously at the white sheets on the hospital gurney. Momma stroked his short black hair with one hand, holding back her own tears as best as she could. In her other hand, she held an old rosary necklace, the one her mother had given her just before she passed. She made the sign of the cross, grabbed Benito’s hand, and looked him in the eyes: “God is with you, Beni.”
Then why isn’t He helping us now? I thought. The nurse told us a doctor would be in to see him soon. But that was over 30 minutes ago! I know, I know. Last night’s explosion at the refinery has them very busy treating other people. But Benito’s dying here!
I jumped off the counter and peered outside the door: an old black woman with a respirator was stumbling toward me as several medical staff walked hurriedly past her; a squealing baby in a plasticine basinett was being wheeled down the hall, its face a gruesome bluish-red; and several dozen others sat coughing in fits along a long row of chairs, the end of which I could barely make out. Poor Benito. What if he can’t hold on?
I darted over to the reception counter, cutting in front of at least a dozen haggard-looking victims of the latest oil refinery blast. I waived my hands frantically, shouting: “Please, please! My brother needs help!” A man behind a glass wall gave me a passing glance, then pressed the corner of his touch-sensitive readout. A mounted vidcam tilted downward to scan my face, producing a data set on his display. He spoke calmly into his mic: “Rodriguez, Mariela. Asthmatic sibling registered to room 109A. A resident doctor is scheduled to evaluate him at 0140 hours. Please step aside, or security will be called.”
They don’t care. None of them care.
I shrank away from the counter, lowering my shoulders in resignation. As I wandered back, I could hear Benito’s wheezing gasps in the distance. Up ahead, several medics shuffled into his room. I quickly followed, and saw Momma standing silently over him at the foot of his gurney. “Clear!” said a man holding a blinking metal device, which he quickly planted on Benito’s chest. His upper body convulsed in rebellion as his pupils rolled skyward. A loud beeping sound blared from the monitor. Benito’s wheezing was now little more than weak gasps. Everyone was in a frenzy. Everything became a blur as medics took turns administering injections, triggering the chest device, and nervously adjusting Benito’s gas mask. The beeping became a steady high-pitched ring, and a young nurse covered her mouth, staring at the flat red line on the readout.
Momma fell to her knees, clutching Benito’s feet with her outstretched hands. “Nooooo!” she screamed. “Too young!” My own tears were welling up now. This can’t be happening. Beni was just pulling my hair yesterday. Laughing, playing. No, this CAN’T be. A rush of burning rage coursed through me. All I could think about was that swindling real estate guy who sold us that damn house in the first place. “This is the best deal you’re gonna find,” he kept telling Momma. “You’ll be out of harm’s way. Far from the flood zone. And the refinery’s totally safe now.” What a load of crap!
Before my fury got me into any more trouble, I turned and ran. Smashing through the closest doors across the hall, I came to a stairwell. I scaled several flights, trying to shake off my anger. A darkened set of stairs came into view. I kept going, hoping for anywhere to hide from all this madness, all this pain. I pushed open a small door, and stepped out to the rooftop. A faint whiff of burning chemicals breezed past my nose. That fucking refinery. Someone’s gotta pay for what they’ve done to Benito. To all of us.
I could ignore the ambulance sirens and shouting from the streets. I could ignore the toxic haze closing in around me. But I couldn’t ignore the image in my mind of Benito’s smiling, big-toothed face. Little Beni. Poor Beni. Sweet Beni. I finally let myself go, crying like a baby, gasping for breaths between my drooling lips. I draped myself over the ledge overlooking the emergency entrance. Hundreds of people, scores of them children, stood patiently in line, waiting for care they may never receive. We’re TOO damn patient. Too willing to accept these assaults on our health, on our dignity. When will it end?
My vidpad rang in my jacket pocket, playing my friend Tatiana’s unmistakable ringtune. “¿Bueno?” I said reflexively, knowing full well that things were far from good.
“You’re up! You okay?” asked Tatiana, her face overcome with worry. “I was up late, and just heard there was an explosion!” Tatiana still lived in our old ‘hood in Oakland, though thankfully a bit uphill from the floodwater exclusion zone. I hadn’t seen her in months, but ever since I was a little girl, we could always count on her and her family for anything.
“Sí, I’m fine,” I finally said, trying to hide my tears. I paused, then met her gaze. “Pero, Beni’s gone, Tati,” I managed through my sobs. “He couldn’t take the smoke.”
Tatiana put her hand over her mouth in shock, shaking her head in disbelief. “No!” she cried. “Pobrecito. I’m so sorry, Mari. I’m so sorry.”
“Gracias, Tati. I know he’s in a better place now. But Beni never stood a chance, you know?” Our house in Richmond was simply too close to the refinery, and directly downwind from its flares. We knew he was suffering, but couldn’t leave. Momma needed her care-taking job in Berkeley, and our beat-up house wouldn’t have fetched enough to move anywhere else. “We never should have left Oakland!”
“I know, amiga,” she said. “You should get out of there, at least ’til the danger passes and you and tu madre can decide what to do. You’re welcome to stay with us.”
“Muchas gracias, Tati,” I responded. It would be SO helpful to get away, I thought. If only for a little while to figure out what we’re gonna do. “I gotta go back to Momma. She needs me.”
“Of course,” said Tati. “Blessings, Mari. Vid me when you’re ready.”
I pocketed my vidpad and started back to the stairwell. Just then a bright beam of white light cut across the rooftop. I raised my arm to shield my eyes, then turned to face its source: the warning beacon perched atop “Goldilocks,” the newly constructed mega-dam right at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Everyone’s been singing its praises for years now. It’ll keep out the rising seas, the newscasters would say, and protect our shores from the floodwaters. Of course, it’ll also provide good-paying jobs, generate clean energy, and still allow for trade ships to come in and out through its enormous system of locks.
All that sounded well and good to me, but too little, too late for us, not to mention the 100,000 or so other folks who’ve already been pushed out by the floods. And why couldn’t us Richmond folks get a proper beacon or warning system for all these refinery blasts? Why?
I returned to Beni’s room and saw Momma still bent over his lifeless body. At least he was finally at peace. I hugged her tightly, trying my best to ease her sorrow. Our sorrow. I held off the staff from wheeling him away for about an hour as we sobbed, reminisced, and finally, made arrangements for his body. A proper funeral would have to wait. We stepped outside to a calmer morning. Most of the line had disappeared, except for a dozen or so folks sleeping under hospital blankets by the front entrance. A foul-smelling fog covered the grounds, and a grey-soaked sun began to peek over the East Bay hills.
I convinced mother to go straight with me to Tatiana’s for at least a few days, despite her pleas to return home. “It’s not safe yet, Momma,” I insisted, as we shuttled to the Richmond train station. I knew we could borrow clothes from Tati’s familia or get some from Fruitvale Plaza, so it wouldn’t be a problem. As we left the station, the haze lessened, revealing a haunting sea of flooded buildings toward Richmond Harbor. We were slammed hard in the ’50s after a big chunk of the Greenland ice sheets melted, raising sea levels by several feet in less than a month. Richmond and much of the Bay Area has never recovered.
I wonder what our old neighborhood looks like now? I hadn’t been there for over a year. We’ll see soon enough. And maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of this mess.