When the rain came down, there was a sense that anything could happen.
The sky had been filled with clouds all week, low and waiting to let go. They’d canceled school that Friday, and it had rained all night. The next day, Mom had to go to work—she’s a nurse—but she told me not to go outside, that it was supposed to be bad, that they’d declared a state of emergency. But I was tired of being cooped up, and as I grabbed the keys and left the house that morning, she just said, “Be careful—the rain—”
I picked my friend Caleb up at the gas station by his house. He’d told his parents he was walking to the library. Of course, the library was closed—there was a flood coming, or so the weathermen said—but his parents weren’t talking to him, so it didn’t really matter. He jumped in the car and turned up the radio. Water splayed across the windshield, the wipers beating back and forth in time with the music. I pointed this out to Caleb.
“Synchronicity,” he said.
“You and your fucking SAT words.”
The roads were wet but not bad. You had to watch out for puddles that were deeper than they looked, but I drove slowly. Besides, I was driving a four-wheel-drive truck, so I wasn’t too worried.
“They say it’s supposed to be a five-hundred-year flood,” Caleb said, looking out the window.
“What the hell does that mean?” A few small tree branches had fallen into the right lane, and I swerved around them.
“Like the kind of rainfall that happens once every five hundred years.”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t look that bad.” I stopped at a stoplight. Sirens blared behind me as an ambulance rushed past. I watched the lights flash and fade. It was quiet again, except for the radio and the windshield wipers and the water on the roof.
There was a forecast of rain. There was a forecast of things ending. Of things beginning.
Some churchy kids from school had talked about the End Times. Had said it was all part of God’s Plan and that He was punishing us for our sins. That that’s what caused the wildfires out West, too, and the shooting the summer before in Charleston.
“That shooting happened because the shooter was a racist prick who hated black people,” I said, slamming my hand on the cafeteria table where the Christian kids sat. “And if you think anything else—I mean, it was in a fucking church, how could you think—”
“How do you know what God intends?” Their ringleader, Anna Simmons, stood up and pointed a finger in my face. “Aren’t you an atheist anyway?”
“I heard she does witchcraft, Anna—be careful,” her friend Riley answered, pulling her back.
Anna looked me over, from my screenprint tanktop to my secondhand Chucks, and her eyes narrowed. Her voice was quieter. “God will punish you, too. Unless you repent.”
I rolled my eyes and turned away. “Fucking racists.”
“Pervert,” I heard Riley say, loud enough for the tables around us to hear.
Students turned their heads, but I just kept walking.
I turned left onto Gervais St. and turned up the music—something electronic and distant. Caleb pulled out his phone and took a picture.
“God, Caleb,” I said. “There’s a five-hundred-year flood happening, and you take a picture of me driving.”
He shrugged. “The light looked good behind you.”
He was always taking pictures. Of me. Of the things around us. Things I didn’t see.
“Do you think it’s going to be bad?” he asked, looking out the window again.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I heard sirens again, in the distance. Soon it would be a choir of them, all night. But first it was this—the water running into the gutters and beating against my truck and Caleb asking questions I didn’t have the answers to.
We’d started coming to the river because of our art teacher. Our first assignment of the year was to take pictures of movement. “Of shifting, of change,” he said. Most of us liked art but were really just in the class to boost our GPA, so all we wanted to know was how to get an A. Not Caleb, though. He listened to Mr. Lesley as if he held the secrets of the universe.
I don’t know if he did, but the shit Caleb made was pretty good—better than me, than any of us. He took pictures of the water that day, of light moving on water, of a fish flashing through it. I took pictures of the railroad tracks, the old metal bridge, the train rushing over. We both got A’s, but Mr. Lesley pulled Caleb aside after class, told him he had a real eye. Gave him a book on experimental photography and everything. Caleb finished reading it in a week.
We went to the same place every time. A little trail went down from the path along the river, and there were these big, flat rocks that pushed out of the water, and there were bridges on both sides of us, and we’d go down there, and I’d sketch or write and he’d take photos and I’d throw rocks and tell him about something annoying my mom had done and he’d tell me about this book he was reading and I’d complain about college applications and he’d ask Big Questions about the universe.
“Where do you think our memories go when we die?”
“Have you ever thought that you’ve lived this exact moment before? Like, that’s why you know what to do, because it’s all just happening on repeat?”
“What if reincarnation is real?”
He was smaller than most guys our age, and his body was often swallowed up by his baggy clothes. He got even smaller when he spun out those questions, like he turned in on himself, even if he was pacing or moving his hands in the air.
Sometimes I just let him talk, let him think out loud until the sun started to set and it was time to go home. Sometimes I played along, offering answers, asking more questions. Other times, it gave me a headache. Like, I just wanted to talk about other stuff, like how Anna Simmons had given the stupidest interpretation of Catcher in the Rye during AP Lit or how they’d opened that new Mexican place on Main Street and did he want to go there for dinner or how the next weekend was Dad’s birthday and I was worried about how Mom would be.
“God, will you stop it,” I said once, throwing my hands in the air in the middle of one of his rants.
“What?” he said. He stopped pacing.
“You’re just way out here,” I said, spreading my arms wide. “I see your thoughts getting bigger and bigger, and sometimes it’s just—sometimes it’s just right here.” I cupped my hands together. “It’s small. Like, something you can hold.”
He tilted his head and pushed the brown waves of hair from his face. He’d dyed the tips blue, but the color was fading. “But everything is related. I mean, even the smallest movement ripples out like—” His hands spun waves out in front of him.
“I know. You’ve told me.”
His arms fell. “It’s just physics.”
The sky was almost dark. The lights of the apartment complexes nearby had flickered on. The big buildings downtown glowed in the distance. A breeze lifted the air between us, crickets calling from the woods beyond. I closed my eyes and listened to them, to the water, to the faint laugh that reached us from the trail above.
I fiddled with the keys in my pocket. “Look, I just don’t want to talk about it anymore today, okay?”
“Talk about what?”
I turned back to him. “The universe, Caleb. I don’t want to talk about the universe.”
He looked down, tugging at the hem of his baggy T-shirt. “Yeah, sure. Sorry.” When he looked back up, I felt his eyes digging into mine, and there was something there, something he wanted. I braced myself.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you still want to have dinner together?”
He smiled. “You know, I hear the new Mexican place is really good.”
“I’m the one who told you that,” I said.
“No, you didn’t.”
“And I said we should go today.” I took a couple steps toward him.
He grinned. “Did you?”
I lunged for him, but he slipped by me. “You—”
“You’re not supposed to be this fast.”
I darted after him again, both of us laughing as I chased him around the rock’s edges. When I finally got a hold of his arm, he glanced at the bank. “Race you to the parking lot,” he said, pulling his arm free. He hopped across a few rocks and scrambled up the bank nearby.
I shook my head, panting, and looked back at the bridge, the cars zooming across it, the stars hanging low in the late evening sky.
My dad had always wanted to be a scientist, but instead he did quality control at a metal manufacturing company. He joked that people either hid from him or hated him. He started out as a science teacher at a middle school, but when Mom got pregnant and wanted to stay home with me, they decided he needed a better job.
But he was smart, and good at what he did. I mean, he wouldn’t ever say that himself. But that was what they said about him. Later.
Dad used to talk about science stuff a lot, and history, too, and I remember sitting in the screened-in porch behind our house one summer while thunderheads rolled in, and he talked about rain and he talked about heat lightning and he talked about the tides and fish and the moon and the stars. But what I saw in my head was fish swimming by the moon and tides pulling them down and the lightning creating strobes behind them.
“I want to be a cartoonist,” I’d told my parents proudly one day in third grade after I won a poster contest at school.
Mom had smiled and told me that she was glad I had such a creative heart but “just keep yourself open to all the options.”
Dad told me he knew I’d be a wonderful artist one day.
Later, I heard them fighting. “You can’t tell her things like that, Allen,” Mom said, her voice raised enough that I could hear it through the wall. “What is she going to do when those dreams don’t come true? When she can’t afford to feed herself, let alone her family?”
“We can’t protect her from everything,” he said. “Some things she’ll have to learn on her own.”
“But we can try.”
A few weeks before the flood, Caleb had shown me pictures he’d taken in his house. The way the light came through the window. His mom sitting alone at the dinner table. His closet—old clothes pushed to one side, new ones on the other—but there were so many of the old ones. “Mom won’t let me throw them out,” Caleb said. A spread of pens on his desk. The broken television in the basement—one of those old boxy ones. A stack of home videos gathering dust. His pet rabbit.
“Damn, these are good.” I slid my finger across the screen of his phone.
He shrugged. “You notice a lot when people don’t look at you.”
I handed his phone back to him, and he looked at a few more of the photos and then tucked it into his pocket.
Mr. Lesley told us once that the system isn’t broken—but that we have to break it and make something new. That’s why he had us make such weird stuff—“found art” or collage or messing up images on purpose. He said that’s what the Black Lives Matter people are mad about and the people who love Bernie Sanders and even the people who love Trump. People say the system is broken when it was never really right in the first place, he said.
I liked him. But I knew he’d probably be gone by the next year. You couldn’t say that kind of stuff in my school and stay. Or maybe he’d find some better place than this shithole of a school. No one wanted to stay in Columbia, anyway. I talked about it with Caleb once—everywhere else I wanted to be. We were lying by the river, watching the clouds.
“New York is too cold,” he said.
“But, like, it’s the center of everything, you know?”
He shook his head. “My parents took me to New York once when I was a kid. It’s loud and noisy and cold.”
“Still too cold.” His eyes were tracing the lines of the branches, or maybe the edges of the clouds.
“I know. New Orleans. I hear there’s music everywhere. And, you know, they like all kinds of people there. You don’t have to be a certain way. Like you do here.”
I don’t think Caleb had the same vision I did. He saw backward, around, inside, outside, far ahead, to the end of the world. He saw time collapsing in on itself. He saw himself moving through it, between it. I told him he watched too much scifi. That he needed to think about his future. He hadn’t even filled out one college application.
He shook his head. “You don’t get it,” he said. “And it’s not science fiction. It’s science.”
I was awful at science, though, so I didn’t understand what he meant.
The second week of art class, Mr. Lesley had us cut up pictures of childhood stuff and make new stuff out of them. I cut up stills from Disney movies and glued them together to make Pocahontas and Mulan fall in love. Caleb cut up pictures of Barbie. The world wanted her to be a certain way, he said. But all they saw were pieces. She had this one body and only a few sets of clothes and she was supposed to fit into them, but what if she didn’t?
Caleb called his piece “Conflagration,” a word he’d learned in Latin class when they read about Dido and Aeneas. The pieces of Barbie, all cut up and put back together, a little off. All around her, her clothes on fire.
They’d closed the parks along the river’s edge, so we couldn’t get to the place we usually went to. We drove around a bit and eventually just went to the Gervais Street Bridge like everyone else who wanted to see what was going on. I parked at a metered spot but didn’t pay. I figured the police would have enough on their hands that day that they wouldn’t worry about my expired meter. I started walking toward the bridge. Caleb paused by the meter, his hands in his pockets.
“But, I—I have change,” he said, “I can—”
“Don’t be such a goody-goody,” I said. “Come on.”
The National Guard was already filling sandbags. Piling them up, begging the banks not to collapse. Lines of people gathered to help.
“Will they work?” Caleb asked. He was holding an umbrella that was too big for him. One gust could’ve pulled him away.
“Will what work?”
He pointed to the piles of wet sand, the lines of people with shovels, the white stacks growing higher as the water did, too.
I shrugged. I heard the shouting from below and the sounds of radios and walkie-talkies.
“Jessie?” Caleb said.
We were standing on the bridge, rain soaking through my T-shirt, dripping from the ends of my hair. I spread my arms and tipped back my head and closed my eyes and opened my hands and let the rain fall and fall.
When Caleb told his parents he was trans, they took him to the church to be healed. The preacher told them that Caleb was a beautiful child of God, and that God didn’t make mistakes. Caleb’s parents thought this meant that if the doctor said he was a girl, he was, but the preacher shook his head.
“No, no,” he said. “Really, what we need to do is affirm Caleb’s identity with love and grace, recognizing that all are beloved by God, and that if Caleb feels this way, and feels it so fiercely, perhaps it is so.”
Or something like that. I mean, Caleb told me, so I don’t know word-for-word. But when Caleb quoted him, he used this big preacher voice, so calm and full. It made me think Caleb might make a good preacher one day, but he wants to be a photographer.
Anyway, when that preacher said that, Caleb’s parents stopped going to that church. They told him that unless he started acting like a girl, they didn’t want anything to do with him.
They didn’t talk to him for months, except when he responded to his given name or wore some kind of “girl clothing.” But mostly it was silence. Or talking about him like he was dead. Like “Don’t you remember how nice it was when she used to go to church with us” or “I miss her so much.” Often there was crying involved, Caleb said. A kind of mourning, I guess. Except that he was right there.
“At least you can do whatever you want now, though, right?” I asked him, trying to lighten the mood. We were driving, windows down, cicadas’ songs loud as sirens.
I put a hand on his shoulder. Felt the hard blue sky breaking in on us. The sun a cold thing, far away.
When I was little, I had this book on tape that I played over and over again. The cassette was old—Mom had found it at a thrift store—and bright yellow with a faded sticker on the front with a drawing of a forest and a raccoon and an owl. And the story opened with a song sung in a cartoonish voice:
Do you ever wonder
why there’s lightning and thunder?
If you want to know the answers,
just ask! Just ask!
And then all these animals got together and tried to figure out where lightning and thunder came from. Some were scared because they thought there were gods bowling. Others thought that the lightning might get them and didn’t know how to stay safe. The raccoon explained everything, though—about electricity, about low and high pressure, about positives and negatives. He told the other characters not to be afraid. The answers were there. They just had to ask.
Mr. Lesley had us do this project once where we had to “get rid of the human.” We had to draw or take pictures or make a video without any humans in it. I remember running with Caleb down the path by the river, slipping past all the people walking and riding and laughing and talking on their phones and thinking we were going to get rid of all that noise. The frat brothers and sorority sisters sunning themselves on the rocks, the kids who spent ten hours a day fixing their hair and the other fourteen hours looking down on people like us, the guys who shoved Caleb into lockers and called him “faggot” and “freak” and shit like that. The vice principal who told us we could have a “diversity club” at our school but it couldn’t have the word “gay” in the name. The principal who told Caleb and his parents that they were protecting him by not letting him use the boys’ bathroom. That they were doing him a favor by letting him use the nurse’s bathroom on the opposite side of the school from all his classes. That he should be grateful they were offering him any “special treatment” at all.
We slid down the river banks, scrambled up rocks. We took photos of leaves, of birds swirling in circles above us, of the messages spiders wrote in their webs, of turtles out on the rocks, of the moon showing itself in the early evening sky. I dug my fingers into the mud and pulled up earthworms and rocks and shells. I loved feeling the wet mud between my fingers. The cool water washing them off.
We ignored planes and trains and cars, laughing people tubing down the river, motorboats and kayaks, guys fishing on the banks. We ignored each other, but we saw what the other saw. We pointed. Said, “Look, look!” We showed each other our favorite shots. Laughed at the ones where we’d photobombed each other. Saw the way that the light played tricks sometimes—made things look like they were there that weren’t.
“Maybe they’re ghosts,” Caleb said, pointing to a flash of light in the corner of one of his photos.
“That’s the sun,” I said.
I shook my head. “And I don’t believe in ghosts.”
He slid his finger across the screen of his phone, looking at his other pictures. “I was reading about it. Before. About how time’s like layers. Or maybe a spiral. And we’ve tried to put it into these boxes—past, present, future—but maybe they’re all actually happening at the same time.” He pushed a button on the side of his phone and put it in his pocket. “Maybe ghosts are just flashes of these other times, you know? Echoes or something.”
We watched the water move past. The clouds. The soft breeze on our faces.
I stood up and brushed the dirt off of my cargo shorts. “As long as ghosts don’t count as ‘human.’ I don’t want to get marked down on my assignment.”
I wrote a journal entry that I turned in with the pictures I submitted. I wrote about how humans ruin everything and how we’re killing the environment and killing each other and how we’re annoying and full of shit and how everyone fucks up everyone else. I’m sure Caleb wrote about time and space and all that brilliant bullshit. He could get into MIT or Princeton or anywhere, but he’s so stuck in his fucking head he might just rot in South Carolina with his stupid parents. Or maybe he’s time traveling already, which is why he doesn’t seem to give a shit about what’s going to happen in May when we graduate.
Of course, Mr. Lesley’s class the next day was all about how “the human” is always there, how we can’t escape it. Can’t escape ourselves. How “the human” is in our vision, in the shadows, in the way the water moves, in the way we hold our cameras. He showed the picture Caleb took with the light in the corner. It was up on the big screen at the front of the room—the river, the trees, the veil of light.
“What do you see here?” he asked. “What do you think this is?”
“A reflection from the water,” a voice answered from the back of the classroom.
“It looks creepy,” someone else whispered.
I waited for Caleb to say things about the time-space continuum, about ghosts. But he was quiet.
“It’s a trick of the lens,” he said. “It’s a simple issue with the mechanics of the camera and the way the photographer is holding it and what settings he has it on. But the thing is, we try to make sense of it. That’s the human thing, right? That’s why trick photography works. We want a story. This flare is just a matter of science, but to our brains it doesn’t make sense. It never will.” He clicked forward to the next picture. “Nice shot, by the way, Caleb.”
But Caleb wasn’t looking at him. He was scribbling something in his notebook, lines and circles and spirals.
When I was a kid, Dad took me on fishing trips sometimes, down the Saluda River or over at Congaree Park. Ice chest in the bottom of the boat filled with beers and cans of soda and another smaller one with bait. He taught me how to slide the worm onto the hook, tip to tail, how to clean a fish after we’d caught it. But usually he just threw them back. “I used to hunt, too,” he’d said, “but I sold my gun after you were born. Couldn’t imagine killing another thing.”
His eyes were gentle, even without the alcohol, glinting in the spring sun. He wore a fishing vest, pockets filled with things we mostly didn’t use. I had on a lifevest, brightly colored, clipped across the front. He almost always invited me to go with. When I got into middle school, I usually turned him down. I had friends to hang out with, wanted to go to movies on Saturdays. “But fishing is boring,” I’d told my mom when she asked me to “just go with your father—you know how happy it makes him.” Dad went by himself, still, but kept asking. He never stopped.
The week before the river flooded, I had a dream I was in a tunnel, and I was there with Caleb and this kid I’d known growing up and someone else I didn’t really know and maybe some other kids from school and Caleb’s dog Snickers. We were trying to find a way out, but each way we turned, there was either lava or falling rocks or water seeping in through the cracks.
Caleb said he’d take Snickers to sniff around down the way, and I gave directions to the others, and then Caleb came back, and I thought when he did we’d be leaving, but he just shook his head.
The space was warm—too warm for being so deep in a mountain somewhere. It should’ve been cool, I thought, but maybe the lava or whatever around us was heating us up.
Snickers leaned against my leg. His fur was damp.
There was something in Caleb’s voice. Not resignation, but a kind of closeness. He put a hand on my shoulder, but my head spun with plans, with routes, with all that science stuff I’d actually long forgotten or never learned.
I knew there had to be a way out.
Caleb told me that the principal called his parents sometimes because of his art. Not his photos but the re-made stuff Mr. Lesley had us do—most notably a black-and-white photo series he did using beheaded Barbie and Ken dolls standing on top of piles of Ken and Barbie heads, most of which had been painted on, had their hair chopped off, or were otherwise defaced.
“It’s a critique of the heterocispatriarchy,” he told me the day after his parents got called in for that particular piece. “But they wouldn’t get it. So I told them if they’d start calling me by the right name, I’d probably stop making such messed up stuff.”
They didn’t listen to him, though. When they got home from meetings like that, they usually grounded him or sometimes his mom cried or sometimes they just didn’t do anything. So he’d come over and play video games with me or we’d go down to the river and walk.
My favorite was when we were by the river and the train went over the bridge. The train sounds always made me want to be somewhere else. When the train went over, I’d lift my hands to the sky and scream at the top of my lungs. Caleb laughed at me. Once he took my picture. I tried to get him to delete it, but when he showed it to me, I knew he couldn’t. The way the light shone behind me. The way I was burned into shadow.
“You look so powerful,” he said.
I looked at the bridge, now empty, and shook my head.
The rain was falling harder, and Caleb finally convinced me to share the umbrella with him.
“You’ll get sick if you stay out in the rain,” he said, holding it out to me.
“You’re worse than my mom,” I answered. But I got under the umbrella anyway.
His arm was warm against mine, and I felt him breathing. Water droplets slid down my skin. I tried not to get him wet.
He’d taken photos earlier, walking back and forth along the bridge. The flash of the metal shovels against the sand. The white of the sandbags. Me leaning against the bridge’s stone railing, looking down. The crescent moons on the bases of the streetlamps.
I only took a few pictures—one of the river and a couple of Caleb walking back from the other side of the bridge, phone in his hands. When he got back to me, he smiled and posed. That one was my favorite.
Others had come to the bridge, too. Couples hugged each other under umbrellas. A jogger ran by in short shorts but slowed to a stop on the middle, just looking. An old guy stood next to us, “Doug’s Bait & Tackle” on his trucker cap.
“Higher than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
“Us, too,” Caleb said.
“But the folks down there look like they have things under control.”
I looked him over, his hair gray, his face lined. “You fish?” I asked, pointing at his cap.
“Now and then.”
“What do you catch?”
He shrugged. “Rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass, mostly. My buddies are better at it than me. Mostly just go to pass the time, anyway.”
I nodded. “I used to go fishing. When I was a kid.”
I thought of Dad, the slow arc the line made when he cast it out into the water, how excited I’d been when I caught my first one. It was tiny, but Dad acted like I’d caught the Big One. I even brought a picture in for show-and-tell—me, my dad, and that little fish.
The currents rippled by below us. Caleb checked his phone. Another emergency alert flashed across it. And his mom had texted him: Come to Nana’s house tonight… People are saying our neighborhood might not be safe because the street is so low. I’ll bring some of your things so don’t worry about going back to the house.
I scoffed. “Some of your things? Probably dresses only.”
He shrugged. “You never know.”
“Well, at least she texted you.”
I thought of our rocks, our place. I imagined it under the brown water, dirty with other people’s debris. Their pieces and parts floating over it.
The old man cleared his throat. “Well, I’m gonna head out, but y’all take care. The roads aren’t gonna be safe much longer.” He tipped his cap at us and took one last look over the rushing water. “You know, it’s the same with fishing, this.”
“What is?” I asked.
“Waiting’s the hardest part.”
In my sophomore year, after taking several tests in the “Dream for the Future!” career counseling program that Mom made me go to over lunchtime, I told Mom that I was going to be a philosopher.
“Excuse me?” she’d said.
We were in the car, trees and bushes flying by beside us, air on full blast. I told her it was one of the things that came up when I took the test. “Philosopher or theologian,” I said, “but I don’t really know if I believe in God, so I don’t think theology is the best fit.”
She paused. “Can’t you pick something more—more reasonable?” she asked, her voice tentative.
I shook my head. The other choices were reasonable, but I hated them: computer programmer, project manager, police officer, bookkeeper.
“Look, you need to start thinking seriously about your future. So stop messing around.”
“Messing around?” I said.
“‘Philosopher’ isn’t a real job, Jessie.”
I watched the lampposts fly past as we crossed the Gervais Street Bridge, the dome of the capitol building coming into view, the flags on top. I shoved my bookbag onto the floor. “I’m not Dad.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Dad wanted to teach. And you didn’t let him.”
“What?” Red crept up into her cheeks.
We were at a stoplight. By a McDonald’s. She looked out the window. Pulled the lever that sprayed the windshield with water. The windshield wipers stuttered and groaned as they moved across the glass.
She accelerated, pulling around the car in front of us, ours dragging as she pushed on the gas. Our Camry was over ten years old, and it felt like it. The A/C barely worked, and paint peeled from the hood. I hated when Mom picked me up at school. I asked her why she had to drive this shitty car, but she just rolled her eyes at me and told me to “woman up.”
As we passed the State House, the Stars and Bars were flapping in the wind next to statues of dead white guys who’d fought to keep their slaves.
“The history is more complex than that,” my social studies teacher had said when I’d told him that the Civil War was about slavery.
But Dad used to watch the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War on repeat, so I knew more than my teacher thought. Dad had this giant book about the Civil War, too, and I’d read it when I was in third grade. I don’t know why he let me—they had these pictures of dead bodies and amputated legs and black people hanged from trees. Pictures that for the first time showed the world how terrible war was. But they also had love letters from soldiers and stories about kids who lied about their age to enlist and women who dressed as men so they could fight, too.
“Don’t you think she’s a little too young for that?” Mom asked him once as I nestled against him on the couch, a sad fiddle tune singing from the TV’s speakers as a deep voice read one of those love letters aloud.
“She’s a smart kid,” Dad said. “And she likes learning about this stuff. Don’t you, kiddo?”
I nodded, but I knew even then that it wasn’t true.
Mom turned the car a little too hard. Her knuckles were white. She took a deep breath.
“That was unkind,” she said, her voice a quiet rumble.
I shook my head. “The truth hurts.”
“God, Jessie.” She shook her head and turned up the radio. It was on NPR, though, so it was just these loud voices talking about cities burning in Syria. She hit the fast-forward button and kept hitting it and hitting it until she landed on an oldies station, and then she turned it up even louder.
“Don’t you know how to use the ‘scan’ button?” I yelled over the music.
She didn’t answer, so I rolled down the window, the air flying past me, into the back seat. It mostly drowned out the music.
“Roll that up. The air’s on,” Mom shouted.
“Your music is too loud.”
She jammed off the radio. I rolled up my window.
We’d had a drought all summer, and in our neighborhood, sprinklers were still trying to make the brown grass green. Our neighbors were praying people, so I wondered if they prayed about it at night, asking God for the perfect yard.
Mom pulled into our driveway. The car stopped with a jolt. She pulled out the keys. We sat for a moment, the heat collecting around us. I looked at my hands in my lap. I didn’t pray anymore.
“Your dad took a good job at a good company because he wanted the best for you. For us,” Mom said.
“If you hadn’t wanted a bigger house—”
“We both wanted a bigger house, honey.” Her voice was gentler, but I didn’t care.
“But he loved teaching, Mom. Why would he—”
“And he also loved history and classical music and astronomy, but you didn’t see him flying to the moon or conducting an orchestra, did you?”
“And he even loved his job sometimes. He wouldn’t have stayed there for ten years if he didn’t.”
I shook my head. I felt something hard in my chest. “But he was always so tired.”
“I just….” I put my hand against the window, felt the sharp heat of the sun, let it press into the backs of my fingers.
I remembered sitting on the back porch, the lightning, the thunderheads in the distance, the trees waving along the lines of our property, the rain coming, but us safe, letting it fall.
I made my hands into fists and jammed them onto my knees. “I don’t want to be like that, Mom. I don’t want my life to be like that.”
I shook my head.
“He loved you. He took care of his family.”
I breathed the hot air in and out. Sweat gathered at my temple.
“That’s what people do.”
I saw his hands baiting a hook, the squiggling worm. Pictures of dead men in piles in sepia tones. Dad talking about the stars and dust particles and how when we look at the stars, we’re actually looking into the past—to what they looked like maybe even hundreds or thousands of years ago. The lightning and thunder and how you could know how far away the storm was by how long it took the thunder to get to you. Dad counting out loud to figure it out.
Mom put her hand on mine.
I nodded. I unbuckled my seatbelt. I opened the door. I closed it behind me, not too hard. I slung my backpack over my shoulder. I tugged at the straps. I heard Mom’s door slam. I heard the gentle thunk of the car door locks. I walked up the pathway to our front porch. I fumbled with my keys in the lock. I pushed into to our small, messy house.
If Dad had been there, he would’ve caught the rain in jars and measured the rate of the rainfall and said things like “Twelve inches so far!” and “That’s more than all the rain we got in September!” He would’ve known the exact level the water had to reach to break into the water treatment facility on the other side of the river, the thing that everyone was afraid of, the thing that would turn our water green the next week and turn churches into water stations. He would’ve known exactly how long to boil the water to make it okay again, maybe could’ve even told us the microbes that we had to protect ourselves from.
While the sirens ran all night, he would’ve distracted me with scientific tidbits and old movies on AMC—Casablanca and You Can’t Take It with You. He would’ve watched the news on the side, though, and kept track of which dams the local officials worried would go next. And when the water took out Caleb’s house, down at the bottom of a hill, after it broke through one of those dams in Forest Acres and washed away roads and covered up cars and pulled houses from their foundations, he would’ve known exactly what to say, but he wouldn’t have said it. Instead, he would’ve held me, and he would’ve told Caleb to stay with us, and he would’ve known—it didn’t matter, the rest didn’t matter, you know? He would’ve been okay with it, whatever it was, and he would’ve heard that people were being evacuated to our school nearby, and he would’ve made us all volunteer there the next week when school was out, even though we hadn’t showered for days.
Or if he hadn’t known any of these things, he would’ve asked.
After we left the bridge that day, I dropped Caleb off at his grandma’s house.
“You gonna be all right?” I said, windshield wipers still pounding back and forth. The engine ran, and the front porch light of his grandma’s house was on. Water poured off the porch’s roof in thick streams.
“Like, if they’re too much—if you need a place to stay—”
He shook his head. A smirk pushed up the corners of his lips. “I just hope they brought some of my T-shirts.”
“If they only brought dresses, just go around naked.”
Caleb rolled his eyes and looked away. He touched a hand to the window’s foggy glass.
I grabbed the steering wheel, felt the engine rumbling through the seat beneath me. I wasn’t ready to go home. Mom probably wouldn’t be back yet, and something in me liked the sound of the rain on metal and the way the water snaked down the windows and how the light turned it into these patterns that moved along my skin. It made me think of Mr. Lesley—it’s all perception anda trick of the eye.
I looked over at Caleb, his dark hair and baggy clothes, his breath on the window. “It isn’t going to be this way forever,” I said.
“I know.” He took a deep breath. “Just once every five hundred years.” He smirked.
“Yeah,” I said.
He pushed open the truck door and popped open his huge-ass umbrella. “See you.” He splashed up through the puddles to the front door, the lower half of his jeans soaked through. He looked back at me from his porch and waved. I put the car into drive.
The emergency alert blared on the radio, the rain coming down heavy and full. I thought about when I asked a girl to prom the year before and the school told me we couldn’t get a couple’s ticket. About how I wanted to hold her hand when we were walking through school but how she was afraid of getting beaten up and how my mom had held me one night as I cried after people wrote a bunch of nasty shit about me online and how she’d said, “You just have to be careful.”
I thought of cutting up pictures and putting them back together. Pieces of my childhood. Pieces of the South. Me, a shadow, my arms raised. How good it felt to scream at the sky.
“Just don’t put it in people’s faces,” my mom had said.
My mom was stroking my hair and I was crying and I didn’t have the energy to say anything to her anymore. It was enough that she didn’t kick me out. It was enough that she let me join the “diversity club” and go to the pride parade. It was enough that she took me to a shrink after Dad died and gave me grandpa’s old beatup pickup when they took his keys away.
“Why do you have to fight with everybody?” she’d once asked me.
The system isn’t broken. You have to break it. And put it together again. You have to make something new.
Rain on metal. Water washing away the dust that had gathered on the windshield, spattering on the mirrors—rain of five hundred years, a thousand. Would it be enough?
The sirens on the street and the emergency alert on the radio and water pooling around my tires, streaming down the hill, down to the rivers and lakes and piles of sandbags and the people who were filling them. It grabbed at us as it went, pulling us in, pushing us across the land, overflowing.
The water didn’t care about the things we’d built. The things we’d made to bind it. It would crest over the banks and break the dams and wash away the roads and sandbags and bridges. It would sweep up cars and trucks and houses and the things that filled up those houses—T-shirts and dresses and photo albums and cameras and Bibles and souvenirs from those family vacations—the things we thought made us who we are. And they’d all float away, down to the river, alongside the fire ants and the muck and the memories and the fish and the way we’ve all been told to be for five hundred years, for a thousand.
I pulled into my driveway. I turned off the car. I thought about Caleb, and Mom, and Dad, and the stars dying above us and the bodies of Civil War soldiers face-down in the mud and the water washing over us all.
The rain hammered on the roof. Thunder clapped overhead. Mom opened the front door.
We hold and hold and hold, but the water was there to remind us. It would take us, and it would break us. And once we’d cleared the debris and shoveled out the muck, maybe there would be room for something else. Maybe we would be able to make something new.