They honeymooned in a one-star Mississippi motel: a three-story dingy cube beside an asphalt lot scattered with El Caminos and Volkswagens, notable only for the towering neon sign spelling its name in phosphorescent pink glass tubes – S-U-N K-I-S-T, like the citrus – and the seven letters she bet always blinked beneath – V-A-C-A-N-C-Y. Originally, they had planned to drive all the way from Grand Isle to Florida, but they never made it because they got sick of driving – or, more accurately, because Odell’s fingers had been sending a tingling sensation and a string of goose bumps up her thigh since the Louisiana-Mississippi border. By the time he suggested they stop in Pass Christian, she wanted nothing more. She laughed when he pointed at the vacancy sign blinking over the Sun Kist, and she laughed even harder when he drove over the railroad tracks into the lot. And so it was that their son was conceived in Room 301 under the neon pink glow of that sign, while the wind off the dirty Gulf floated molecules of salt and seawater she could taste through the open balcony door. And so it is that, today, on the first anniversary of that night, Mrs. Odell LeBlanc is weaving through traffic into the lot.
Her knuckles white against the steering wheel, she sighs: at the glare of the sun off the dash, the tilt of the second C in VACANCY, which has in the past year all but fallen from the sign. The motor whines as she parks the car. She hurries through the black parking lot toward the office, jumping at the bell that rings as she opens the door.
The receptionist sits behind a desk, legs crossed, seashell-pink lips shimmering as she smiles lazily from beneath her monstrous beehive. Everything in the office is dark brown, apart from the linoleum floor. A fan on the desk oscillates. Pale threads of hair snaking up the woman’s scalp quiver, fuzzing out from her hairdo, that gravity-defying monument to all that is mod.
“Can I help you?” The receptionist hasn’t changed at all. That hairdo, that lipstick. Her fingernails are even the same color, fluttering seashell pink above her desk. Penny remembers giggling at them last summer as Odell held her hand and inquired about a room with the straightest face he could muster – which wasn’t very straight considering the LSD they had taken in the car. When the receptionist reached out to take their money, the pink of her fingernail polish had left traces of light in the air, marking the path of her hands.
“Penny Leblanc,” she says. “I have a reservation. Room 301.”
The woman checks a notepad. The oscillating fan turns, overwhelming Penny, briefly, with a sweet floral scent, the woman’s perfume. The receptionist nods, her beehive bobbing up and down, tiny threads dancing in the air like snakes being charmed. “By yourself?”
In the mirror behind her, Penny watches herself nod back. Originally, Odell was supposed to come with her. But he had called, the week before, to tell her that they were cutting his furlough, moving up his date so his whole battalion could take the same ship to Vietnam.
“Seven bucks,” the woman says.
She fishes around in her bag, watching her reflection as she hands the woman seven crumpled bills. She has been too busy, since Teller was born, to spend much time in front of the mirror. But looking at herself now, she realizes she has her mother’s figure, in addition to her eyes. With her hair pulled back in the fraying bun she’s worn since her son was born, it’s as if her mother is right there, watching her over the shades she bought at a gas station just outside Baton Rouge.
She pushes the glasses up on her nose, unsettled by the idea. Although almost a year has passed since her parents’ accident, the thought of either of her parents still has the capacity to bring her suddenly, and without warning, to tears.
“Can you believe this sky?” the woman asks as she puts the money in the register. “It’s so blue. And with that storm in the Gulf!”
She shakes her head, trying to feign disbelief as she worries whether she forgot her breast pump. Surely she took it out of Teller’s bag this morning before she left him with her mother-in-law. Surely it’s just outside in the trunk. Here she is, separated from him for the first time since he was born – and she knows how she’s supposed to feel, a new mother separated from her infant, she’s supposed to feel nervous, guilty, worried – but she feels relieved instead, unburdened, for the first time since Odell left for the Depot. Teller would be fine; Odell’s parents were thrilled when she asked them to keep him overnight.
The receptionist is staring at her.
Penny tries to remember what the woman has just said. “What storm?”
“That’s right.” She heard about it on the drive up, but didn’t pay much attention since it was headed for Florida. “The one that destroyed Castro’s crops.”
“That’s the one.” The woman sets the key on the counter, her seashell pink fingernails fluttering above it, as if she doesn’t want to let go. “Where you from?”
But in the time it takes her to ask, Penny has already swiped the key out from under her fingers, turned around, and pushed the door open, its awful bell ringing merrily as it swings toward the lot. She misses Odell. He was so good at talking. Whenever they were accosted by an inexplicably friendly stranger, all she had to do was stand beside him and smile. Whatever it was – the weather, the war, the fashions worn by astronauts’ wives – he could talk about it politely. “Grand Isle,” she mumbles over her shoulder, then stops, surprised to hear her husband’s hometown instead of her own. “But I’m originally from Pride.”
The sign makes her arms glow a psychedelic pink as she unlocks, then opens, the room door. A smell wafting out, a distinctly stale scent, which she doesn’t remember the room having before. She crinkles her nose, hurries in, opening the balcony doors to let in the smell of sea salt, the sound of seagulls, the brown waves crashing on the beach across the street.
She sits down on the bed, looks around: at the wide brown Gulf beyond the balcony, the ancient-looking radio on the bedside table, the rusty bathtub, the beat-up armoire, the brass handle falling off its door. Nevermind the state of the room, she has to admit, it feels good to be out of the house. Maybe this trip will do her good. Ever since Odell left, there has been something wrong with her brain. It’s gone haywire. Fuzzy. She has difficulty concentrating. Alone with Teller, all day, every day, her grief over her parents’ deaths has come back to haunt her, full force. It was a good thing babies cried when they were hungry. Twice, three times this week, she has put Teller down for a nap, gone to the kitchen to do the dishes, and jumped at the sound of his cries to find herself staring through the window at the brown bay, a full hour gone. Such a strange sensation, to snap to yourself and realize you’ve lost a whole hour. Where do you go when you’re thinking? Is that even thinking, zoned out like that, to stare at the sea?
She pulls out the pack of smokes she bought at a gas station on the way up. Odell’s brand. Lions paw the shield on the logo of the pack, where a slogan is engraved – per aspera ad astra – she doesn’t know Latin. She lights up, takes a drag, breathing in the familiar scent of the smoke, then ashes in the zodiac-shaped tray on the bedside table. There’s a cigarette burn on the quilt beside it, a small black hole in the pastel blue. Did they do that last summer? She can’t recall.
That’s the door they flung open, the threshold where they stood, staring in, on their wedding night. She remembers standing beside him. Auburn hair falling out of his ponytail. Dark eyes laughing as he pointed at the painting over the bed.
Now it’s gone, a rectangle of less-smoke-stained wall in its place. What was it? A sailboat, a print of a sailboat drifting on a perfect blue sea at sunset, which looked like it was painted by someone’s great aunt. She had pronounced it beautiful, noting the extra care the artist had taken to paint the name on the boat. But Odell had noted the unrealistic blue of the sea, which bore no trace of the telltale brown that stained the Gulf for a hundred miles around the mouth of the Mississippi, and they had fallen onto the bed, laughing at the contrast between this place and the suite his parents had reserved for them at the Pensacola White Sands Regal, where his parents said “the help” tossed rose-petals across the bed and brought unlimited champagne.
She stares at the empty rectangle on the wall, disappointed, suddenly, that they stopped here after all. This place was fun, but she’s still never been to Florida. Before she met Odell, she had never even left Pride. Odell would probably call the desire silly and bourgeois – he was always using that word when he talked about his parents – but she would’ve liked to stay at a place like the White Sands once in her life, at least on her honeymoon. Although come to think of it, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t. She couldn’t have gone back to Florida with that hurricane coming. Nor could she have afforded the room.
She leans back into the pillows, the mattress creaking beneath her. If only he could’ve met her here. What a different trip this would’ve been. When they were here, the year before, she had felt so giddy, so free. As soon as they set down their things, he had pulled her onto the bed. She had reached out to run her hand through his hair and kiss him. But her hand had pawed the air between them, missing him completely, fingers closing instead on the pink-tinted twilight that streamed through the glass balcony doors like water. When he turned to smile at her fist full of twilight, she saw the strangest shapes in the dark green of his eyes, the strangest moving white shapes she couldn’t make sense of. What were those ghosts in his pupils? He held up his hand in a wave and smiled. Hello, he whispered. Thank you for joining us. I’ll be your husband this evening.
Her husband. The man whose laugh, mellow and echoing in her ear, set her whole body trembling. The man whose spirit had streamed out his mouth later that night, into hers, through her open lips, and made a baby. Not literally of course. She knows the biology. But there was this moment when they kissed, this surreal moment, later that night, on the beach. Her toes were muddy and wet and cold and she was thinking she couldn’t tell the difference between the sky and the ocean, everything was black and star-spattered as far as she could see. But when she leaned over to tell him, he had said I know before she had time to say anything. And when he kissed her, she could feel his spirit flowing in through her lips, like water, like the pink twilight through the glass doors, only this time she felt it instead of seeing it as she closed her eyes, let it in. Down her throat, twilight, air, to her belly, a yawn, in reverse, swelling up.
That man. He is missing from the letters he sent from the Depot and Camp Lejeune. Each week, since he left home, she’s gotten only one page, front and back. Seven short dated paragraphs, one for each night of the week. Every time she reads them, she aches, and she’s read them so often, the pages have torn and crumpled. She can tell he is scared They will read them, by the way he refers in this strange blithe way to Our Country and God and Duty with a capital D. But his signature. Each paragraph ends, Yours in spirit. And those three words feel more truthful than anything else he writes. As if he doesn’t want to admit his longing. As if he wishes that by inscribing those words, each day, like a mantra, he could encode his spirit in those letters and send it to her via post. But that’s impossible. Obviously. His spirit has shipped to the jungle with his flesh. When she gets home tomorrow, the house will echo even more with his absence – during the day, as she takes care of Teller; at night, as she sits up, sleepless, watching television. And she has come to this motel alone.
The house has felt so empty, these last couple months while he was in training. She’s been obsessed with the news, consumed by the danger he would face in Vietnam. She’s had trouble enjoying quiet moments with her son.
She fumbles through her bag for the vial Odell asked her to find last week in the freezer, before he called back a few days later to say he couldn’t make this trip after all. Apparently he had hidden the vial in a bag of frozen okra, the summer before, after they realized she was pregnant, when she asked him to throw it away. She isn’t sure it’s such a brilliant idea to do this stuff alone, but she has felt so awful since he left for the Depot. She remembers the last night they did this stuff together, newlyweds sitting Indian-style beside a campfire, finding themselves in each other, in the flames.
There’s only a small bubble of transparent liquid at the bottom. Odell probably did the rest when he went camping with Pete, two days before they left for the Depot. That would explain his strange behavior the next day, his last with her. She tries to swallow her irritation at the long walk he went on by himself before sunrise, the way he seemed to avoid her eyes, that night, the last time they made love. Afterward, he made her promise not to hang onto his memory for too long, if it came to that. Teller will be needing a father, when he gets older. If something happens to me, you’ll want to find someone else. He had been so sincere about it, so desperate to hear her say yes, that she had nodded. But the truth is she can’t imagine being with anyone else.
His idea had been to relive their wedding night, tonight, to recapture the wonder, the freedom, they felt together before their son was born. But all she wants is to find herself, the girl who once took joy in everyday life. It’s not so different from the vision quests her mother talked about her ancestors doing, before they started going to church and trying to pass as white. She had always been drawn to that idea, the value of stepping out of yourself into a shadow world in search of the truth.
She squeezes the eyedropper, sucks up the rest of the liquid, and drops it on her tongue. Then she lies back down on the bed, tired, the length of the drive catching up with her. She closes her eyes, trying to forget the zodiac-shaped ash tray, the cigarette burn on the bed, the missing painting. The whole world, revolving, turning, spinning around her, against her. Squeezing her eyes tighter and tighter still, trying to see: not the ceiling, or the static on the backs of her eyelids, but him. Staring out of the porthole of a rocking ship on the bright blue ocean with the rest of his unit. Long hair shaved. Face gaunt, muscles taut. His eyes hard and tired. Her husband. In spirit.
But the image of him that swims up is not what she expected. His eyes are hard and tired, empty, hollow, pale, as he stares out that porthole. And the pale hollow color of his irises has seeped into the skin around his left eye, staining his flesh a faint bottle-sea green. A bruise.
It’s hitting. She can feel it. The mattress has become springy beneath her. She props her head on her hand. Did she fall asleep? The room is alive with pink. The cigarette burn on the blanket glows, layered, starshaped. Outside the hard brown edge of the burn hole, she can see traces of the burn she couldn’t before. It’s translucent around the edges, lovely lace fading into untouched blanket like someone threw water on it before it quite burnt.
It was them who burnt the bed – she remembers, in a rush – they were lying naked on the quilt smoking when the cherry fell from the joint and Odell poured his whiskey to the blanket. A tiny orange zinnia had bloomed out of the bed for a second, until the water at the bottom of the glass put it out.
She gets up, unlocks the door. Gasps as the warm night air rushes in. It was light when she went in. The key, the key. Then she’s walking, one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where she’s going, a calm steady rhythm of boot on pavement. Past the concrete staircase down the side of the building. Past the old blue Rambler sitting comfortable, angular, in the back lot, right where she parked it. Where else would it be?
She turns the corner toward the street where the neon sign glows candyapplepink against the night sky, amazing. At the edge of the highway, loud white headlights come around a curve in the road, speed her way. She stands there a long time, watching yellow and orange and peach lights come and go, speed and slow, blur and fade from both directions until the road goes dark.
Across the highway she goes, up the stairs to the little wooden boardwalk that rises over the dunes, where the sand makes the rhythm of her boots on the wood crumbly. Gritty. Toward the Gulf that looks just like it did last year, before she got pregnant, before her parents’ accident, before he got drafted. When the whole world seemed as lovely and simple as this glassy black sea. She runs down the hill, down the stairs, through the sand and the mud and the tide washing up. The sea knocks up and down as she runs. Goes still, when she stops to catch her breath.
In the dunes behind her, past the hightide mark, she sees something. Hears something. She tiptoes back there, best she can, in her boots, in this state. There’s a couple smoking pot behind one of the dunes. She can smell it. The boy’s laugh sounds like Odell’s, a low chuckle, as if he knows things no one else knows. She stands there for a moment, listening, wondering if it could be him. Then she shakes her head, remembering. It can’t be. He’s out there, on that ship. Looking out of that porthole, reaching for her. Fumbling, stumbling, into star-spattered black. Endless waves.
She walks out into the sea. Twilight. Water streaming. Until the wind sets in and the water turns cold and she sees herself shattered with the stars in the waves. Then she shakes her head, bites her lips, seasalt, sand, wanders back up the beach, boots muddy with tide, creatures, seaweed.
When the dune rises up to meet her, she realizes how much she hates the ocean. The cold. Everything that’s come between them. Especially those men, those terrible uniformed men who have trained him to use weapons, to kill. She scoops a fist full of sand, lets it sift from her fingers, remembering the bruise she saw on his face. Have they hit him?
No, she thinks. Not now. Stop it. You’re not in the right frame of mind for this. Dusting the sand from her fingers, she tries to pull off her boots. They make a loud sucking sound as they come off. She peels off her socks, lies back in the sand, and looks up at the starry sky. Before her parents’ accident, the stars were always a comfort to her. She would look up at those patterns and remember the stories her father told her. Now, when she sees those patterns, she sees her father, her mother. Grief.
Tonight, each star is surrounded by a faint nimbus of light of a slightly different color, something more than white – a halo of antique yellow, a circle of gauzy peach – and she can see all of them, even the faintest ghosts of stars light years away. The stars are so infinite in number, so close together that they merge and dance and play, faintly different colors bleeding and switching as she takes them all in. She sees no patterns, none of the constellations her father taught her.
She closes her eyes and remembers the afternoon Odell materialized beside her, a long-haired handsome stranger, as she walked past a bar on her way home from school. Six feet tall, the longest torso she had ever seen, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulders. Miraculous. A dream. At first he had reminded her of old pictures of her father – his strong jaw, that wide chest – he even had her father’s red hair. It was the first week of senior year. When he fell into step beside her and asked her name, she couldn’t find her voice to answer. But he didn’t seem to care. I’m playing at The Blackwater tonight, he said. Do you smoke? And she had found herself trotting after him toward the forest, sharing a joint, letting him press her into a tree for a kiss. When he did, the earth had seemed to slip out from under her feet, and she thought she could feel their selves colliding. It was so intense she had stepped away, frightened, pretending to be interested in a red leaf on the forest floor. The reddest leaf she had ever seen, a sycamore leaf, fivepointed, shot with rust red at the center that faded to lemon at its tips. This beautiful pattern of veins threading through the leaf to feed it with sunlight and chlorophyll.
She looks up now and sees it in the stars, that beautiful threadlike pattern of light against the black of space, connecting the stars like veins. It lights up. Once, twice, three times. Pulsing. Then it disappears. Revealing a hole in the horizon, an inky black starless spot where the sea and sky seem to end. She watches it quietly, lying on her back on that dune, hands behind her head as it grows – is it growing? – it is, slowly but surely swallowing a few stars every minute, like a Rorschach, an inkblot spreading over the sea.
Her first impression upon waking is of light filtering down through the holes in her fingertips, a strange lime green haze. She blinks, shades her eyes from the strange light. Her throat dry. A streaking pain in her breasts; she needs to pump, and soon. She looks for the sun, wanting to know what time it is. But all she can see is this haze. She sits up, her neck stiff, brushes sand off her shirt, slaps the crust off her jeans. She doesn’t remember falling asleep. How late is it? She needs to get back to the breast pump in her car, back home to her son.
The wind carries a cloud of sand past her bare feet. Her boots. She remembers taking them off. She left them behind a sand dune. But which one? The dunes roll out before her, a thousand hills covered with seashells and crab grass.
It’s a long walk, barefoot, back to the motel, her heels sinking into warm sand as she hops over jellyfish and sea anemones. She tries to avoid broken shells, sticking as much as she can to the grass, her eyes on the sand. The wind whips her hair.
As she walks, she wonders if she found what she was looking for, last night, if she completed her quest. She doesn’t feel like her old self, exactly, this morning, but something about this day feels unusual. The whole world looks new, as if a veil has been lifted, and only now can she see it for real.
She hears the strip before she can see it. Hammers pounding nails. Raised voices on the wind. She picks up her pace, hurrying up the boardwalk. There’s an elderly couple in front of the Sun Kist, boarding up one last window with plywood on the first floor. Above them, the second and third floor balconies are crisscrossed with tape.
She hurries down the steps, crossing the empty highway, the railroad tracks, passing under the sign where the haze in the air glows a mysterious peach. The elderly woman turns and sees her, a gust of wind whipping her skirt, her white hair glowing pink. “You Room 301?”
Penny nods, out of breath.
“You left the door open!”
She opens her mouth, tastes the mist on her tongue, forgets to speak.
The old woman yells something indistinguishable from the noise of the hammer, then hurries over, her dark narrowed eyes betraying what she thinks of girls who stay out all night on the beach. “I said, I shut it. The door. Lord, girl. Got a key?”
Penny feels for it in the pocket of her jeans, then nods, embarrassed.
“You hear about the storm?”
She shakes her head.
“It turned last night. It’s headed straight for Pass Christian.” The woman shakes her head, glancing back at the man hammering at the window of the last first floor room.
Penny thinks of the inkblot she saw last night, swallowing the stars. Her stomach knots up.
“We’re pushing our luck,” the woman goes on, “staying behind to finish. How’d you get here?”
“You better get going.”
Penny blinks at the sun-ruined wrinkles of the old woman’s face. Her eyes are so dark, you can’t tell where her irises stop and her pupils begin.
“Go on, get!”
Penny hurries around the side of the building, past the single red car in the side lot, up the concrete staircase. She pauses at the door to her room, fighting down a shiver. That woman. Her eyes were unnerving.
She unlocks the door, the stale scent of the room bombarding her as she walks to the sink to wash her face. The room is just as she left it: zodiac-shaped ash tray, empty rectangle of wall over the bed, cigarette-burnt quilt. Except for her bag. The clothes she packed for today are scattered on the dresser, along with her cigarettes and chapstick. But she doesn’t remember unpacking. She checks the bag. There’s her wallet, sunglasses. Toothbrush, toothpaste. Everything but her car keys. And when she up-ends her bag, the keys don’t fall out. She grabs the bottom, shakes it. The bag doesn’t jingle. And it hits her. Why did that woman ask how she got here?
No. That’s all she can think as she rushes to the window to see the first drops of rain fall on the black asphalt square where her car should be. She blinks. First her boots, then the storm. Now her car stolen? She’d only planned to be apart from Teller for a day. And her breast pump is in there. Her chest aches. She folds her hands across her breasts, relieved at the pressure, the wetness, trying to think. Could she ride with that woman? She grabs her things, throws them in the bag, and hurries outside, down the hall to the staircase – where she slips on the water dripping down the top step, praying she doesn’t fall all the way down the stairs as she grabs for the railing – and she doesn’t – the railing shakes a little under her weight, but holds. She stands up, finishes her descent of the stairs more carefully, sliding her hands down the rails over warm beads of rain. Hands dripping wet, toe swelling, bleeding, she limps into the side lot – it’s empty, she realizes – and calls out. But the front of the motel is now as deserted as the lot, the tiny red car heading up the highway doesn’t slow, and her voice is swallowed by the wind that picks up as if in answer, slapping her cheeks with rain and sand until she bows her head and shades her face.
The rain is shooting down fast now, staccato, full tilt, hitting her forehead so hard it should sting. But she doesn’t feel it. She just hears the sound, the tapping. And then, as the rain soaks her through and her skin grows slimy and wet and beaded, she steps out of herself; she blinks and sees herself standing at the front of the lot. Her eyes empty, like his.
Her hand goes to her eye, and she snaps back to herself. What’s wrong with her brain? The trip’s over. Stop it! She limps through the side lot, makes her way up the stairs to her room. The space on the bedside table where the clock should be is empty. It’s missing. Or it never was there this visit. She has ridden out several hurricanes in Pride; they were never very bad out there. But she doesn’t know what it would be like on the beach. There was still damage all over the place in Grand Isle from Hurricane Betsy, when she first moved there. Piles of rubble, construction that had been going on for years. Odell said his parents had completely rebuilt their house. What if this one is just as bad? Didn’t they listen to a radio last year, one night, as they sat on the balcony?
There it is. On the other side of the bed. Behind the lamp. She flips it on, listens to the end of a pre-recorded message before it starts over and starts making sense:
Repeat, as of five o’clock this morning the National Hurricane Center revised its predictions for Hurricane Camille. The storm has changed course. This is Harrison County Civil Defense strongly, repeat, strongly advising all residents to evacuate. There’ll be winds up to 180 miles per hour, and a storm surge of up to 20 feet. Landfall will be late this afternoon or early evening. Repeat –
180 mile-per-hour winds? A 20 foot storm surge? She changes the channel. The next station plays the same message, and the next. She picks up the phone to call for help, but the line is dead. She grabs her chapstick from the dresser, twists off the cap, smears the ointment on her lips. Suddenly chilly. She walks out onto the balcony to look at the bones of this building: its concrete walls, its windows, its height. She walks out of the door to look out through the parking lot at the city of Pass Christian. Is there any other place for her to go? Somewhere more safe?
None of the buildings that she can see from balcony that overlooks the parking lot seem as sturdy as this one. Not the tall ones. And she needs to be high up to survive a twenty foot storm surge. She stands there, looking out over the city, wondering if she should go further inland. But how far will she get without a car? Where can she go, if not here? Where else would she be able to keep out of the rain? She goes inside, changes into a t-shirt and jeans and sits on the bed to look at the storm through the taped glass doors. That haze is covering everything now. The sky over the sea is darker, a color she has never seen the sky be. A watery electric green. As her heartbeat slows to its regular pace, she sees a shape on the horizon, snake-like, pointillistic. Then it shifts in the wind, disappearing, becoming rain, simple rain, the color of her son’s eyes, of trees, coming down in sheets.
Soon the water will come. The great green whorl of water. Thundering over the beach, swallowing the dune where she slept, her boots, the dune where they kissed. But this building, she tells herself, will be safe. Please god let it be safe. It was built on a hill, or so sturdily that it will stand even in the sway of so much water. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, says a prayer her mother taught her long ago, one her mother taught her. Her fingertips press her flesh through her jeans. Until lightning flashes nearby, lighting up the balcony, and she remembers standing there with him.
The first morning they were here, they didn’t wake until almost noon, their bodies intertwined, the damp bedsheets twisted around them. They’d walked to the balcony and stood there a long time, wisps of auburn and black hair whipping in the breeze behind them as they let it dry their skin.
She can almost feel his fingertips, now, brushing concentric circles at her hip. Her skin tingles. She reaches down to touch the skin at her hip, feels the hairs standing on end, the goose bumps just above the waist of her low-cut jeans. But the denim reminds her where she is now, the year that has passed since, the terrible storm that’s on its way.
The room is dark now, outside and in. The power must’ve gone out. Even the faint pink glow of the sign outside is gone. Her stomach rumbles. Something shakes beneath her – she thinks – maybe not. The wind fades to a whistle. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. Cups her knees. She shouldn’t have come here; she shouldn’t have put herself in danger, for her son’s sake. The memory of him, in her arms, before she handed him to her mother-in-law haunts her. Was that the last time she’d see him? She remembers staring down at his wide eyes, on the first day of his life, in the hospital room, touching his pale wisps of dark hair with awe and disbelief. His eyes followed her hand. Hello, she breathed.
The floor beneath her is shaking. She can feel it, jostling the sides of her feet. She puts her palm to the wood, the knot in her stomach growing tighter when she feels vibrations. But they stop almost as soon as they start.
She falls back in time to the hospital room, where her son had started crying. Loud and scary, a newborn who knows no other way to speak. She stared down at his screwed up red face, suddenly swept up in his fear, wondering if she’d scared him by speaking. Don’t cry, she whispered, her heart breaking for him. Don’t cry. Please. But he kept wailing, until she remembered what her mother told her about breastfeeding – that the baby would want to eat, right away – and pulled aside her gown. He went quiet almost immediately, started suckling. And she felt this tingling in her breast, and from deep within, an upsurge of feeling, of wonder, that he knew what to do.
She feels herself pitching backward, steadies herself on the floor with one hand. Noticing, all at once, the wetness inside her brassiere. Her breasts have leaked.
The floor rumbles beneath her. The building, she realizes, is shaking in the wind. She stands up, collects her things. One last glance at the room, and she steps outside. Down the hall, down the stairs, slow, be careful. Holding onto the wet rail, water streaming down her fingers. Long hair whipping from the building, the sea. She hears a loud crack, shields her face from the rain, and peers – slowly – toward the street, through the spaces between her fingers.
The sign. The wind has shattered the letter T. There’s a cranberry spray in the side lot, glowing slightly in the dark with a strange light, as if there is energy in the liquid itself. She holds onto the rail with her free hand, looking out. With another crack, the second S explodes in a merry arc of pink. Then the I. And the K. And the glowing pink arcs floating toward her on the wind are so beautiful and thin and watery in the dark, so like the pink twilight, the strands of memory and light that connect past to present, that she finds she can’t look away. She can only stand there in the hissing rain, holding onto the rail, watching the letters shatter – one by one, glass glittering – until they’ve all exploded.
Then she lets go and crosses the lot, which glows faintly in the dark as the rain bounces off it, a silvery mist at her feet. And although her back is a painful staccato of raindrops and her hair is pressed slick to her scalp, as she crosses the railroad tracks, she walks calmly, telling herself she’ll be safe, she’ll be safe. Until she hears a roar behind her and loses her nerve. There’s a road that runs north-south nearby. The one she took down here. She’ll take it to the big concrete building she passed on the way in, which is further from the beach. If no one’s there, she’ll break in.
The wind picks back up as she crosses that road, and she falls on her scraped hands and knees, her jeans ripping. She’s too scared to stand up; for a minute, two, she crouches, waiting for a break in the wind. Staring up at the shadowy shape of a boarded-up grocery long enough to remember she’s starving – her stomach! When was the last time she ate?
Crouching there, in the rain, she hears an ominous hissing behind her, under the sound of the wind. She has no idea what it is. But she doesn’t turn, doesn’t look at all, only stands up and starts running, wind be damned. When the water starts splashing her legs with each step, she’s relieved – it’s only a couple inches – until she realizes it’s deepening, faster than she thought water could deepen. She has to slow to a jog, then a walk, as it swells to her knees.
And she panics. Not because the water is rising, cool and wet, to her thighs and her hips, but because of its color. It’s glowing in near total darkness, a watery electric green. It’s here, she realizes, the inkblot she saw in the night sky, the creature she saw over the sea. She turns blindly into the wind and rain, bowing her face.
Something hits her thigh. Drags her down into wet, bubbling, burbling. A sharp pain. Salty green going up her nose, the scent, the taste of sea. She swallows. Eyes open, burning. In the wide underwater rush of mud and living bubbles, she kicks up through the muck, clawing her way to the surface. Gasping for air as she surges on a wave toward a tree.
Her fingernails dig into its bark as she climbs the wet ladder of its branches, bare feet slipping in the wet. She climbs, slowly, carefully, higher, higher still, to the highest branch she trusts. Where she clings, back to wind, trembling arms wrapped tightly around the trunk. Until the water rises to just below her feet, and in the not-dark of the glowing green water she begins to make out debris: a tire, a trash can, a table, a dead fish, an uprooted tree.
And the water keeps rising, slowly, submerging her legs, her knees. The branches above won’t support her. They’re too weak. Her arm muscles ache. If the water keeps rising, she’ll have to let go. She waits, watching the water, clinging to the tree trunk, deaf now to the wind and rain as the water seeps up to her thighs, her waist. She wills it not to rise any further, tells herself, over and over, she’ll be safe.
She closes her eyes, imagining her son in the bassinette she left at her mother-in-law’s, eyelids fluttering, smiling faintly in his sleep. His chest rises and falls with a regular rhythm. She breathes with him – in, out, in, out – as she clutches that tree.
Until her ears pop, and she’s stunned to hear – nothing – suddenly, weirdly, nothing but the dull distant echo of that roar in her ears. The air has gone still. It’s stopped raining. And through the now-bare branches of this tree, suddenly, she can see the night sky, like she’s looking up from the bottom of a well walled with wind. The eye, she thinks. Then the floodwater tickles her feet – it’s sinking – and the air around her goes strange. There are particles in the air, spinning, blood red, suspended in the still like energy. Glowing faintly. She reaches out with her left hand, eyes closed, certain she will feel a spark, but feeling only grit on her skin. Sand. Spinning in the dark like dust, whipped up by the wind, drifting to the rooftops revealed by sinking water. Glowing red, faint, flickering. Fire – she can smell it, ash, smoke, the pungent scent of gas, carbon, burning – see it, to the west, at the edge of this clearing.
She feels a pain in her thigh, sees the tear in her jeans, and beneath it, the soft gel pink of a wound. She wonders what cut her. Then the water sinks even lower, revealing the second floors of flickering buildings, piles of bricks, fallen trees. Until she forgets time and space. Until this strange red world flows straight through her, because she’s beside her son’s bassinette as he sleeps. She picks him up, careful not to wake him.
Her arms are so leaden, so heavy.
She presses her face into his, breathes in the soft pink scent of his skin. He looks up at her, smiling, his eyes the most beautiful green. For a moment, everything is perfect. There is nothing but his smile, his weight in her arms.
Then she’s blinded by a great roar, and she feels herself falling, weightless, wary, waiting for the splash she knows will sound as she hits.
The next morning, when she wakes, shivering, she doesn’t trust her memory. It doesn’t seem possible for her to be awake at all. But here she is, curled up atop a mound of trash in a strange world of uprooted trees. She remembers the moment she spent underwater, thrashing, kicking, when she plunged beneath the surface of the sea. She remembers surfacing just in time to see this mound of debris, then reaching up through the rain and the wet for something metal, something solid, and climbing up here. She looks up at the bright sky, now, and clears her mind, a rush of gratitude welling up inside her to the universe just to be. Her fingers pressing drowned wooden beams, a soggy mattress, she pushes herself up with her hands. The cool morning air gives her goose bumps. She smells mud, brine, compost. At the edge of the mound, as she scrambles off of it, she sees a half-buried sheet, something tangled up in it: a shirtsleeve, a gray finger, a wedding ring.
Bare feet sliding over muck, she runs from the body, her breasts hard nodes of pain, until she finds herself at the edge of a shallow lake. When she steps into the water, the cuts on her feet burn, and she’s forced to slow her pace. The pain reminds her of her son, her resolve to get home. Near the edge of the floodwater lake, she meets a starving wet dog, a Catahoula, one eye brown, one blue, both wild, who bares yellow teeth. And she’s off, again, flying away through mud and mist until her feet touch metal and wood, and she looks down and sees the railroad tracks that pass directly in front of the Sun Kist.
She stops, stares down at the tracks, runs her bare toe over the rail. The icy cold, the dew of the metal, makes her shiver. Something rises in her throat, a puff of gray air, of nothing, a laugh that vanishes as it floats from her lips. Then she spreads out her arms, balancing like a trapeze artist, marveling at the strange upside-down forest around her, as she starts back down the tracks toward town, or what’s left of it.
Mary McMyne’s stories and poems have appeared or will soon in Los Angeles Review, Pedestal Magazine, Word Riot, Contrary Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic, Apex Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won the Faulkner Prize for a Novel in Progress and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award. Dancing Girl Press published her poetry chapbook, Wolf Skin, in 2014. Additional support for her writing has been awarded by New York University, Louisiana State University, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in northern Michigan, where she is an assistant professor of English and fiction editor of Border Crossing at Lake Superior State University. Learn more at marymcmyne.com.