The young man working the two-pump gas station at the corner of Main and 443 stopped a black minivan with an upraised hand so he could fill Annie’s gas can. His narrow face and weak chin gave him away as a Scanlan, but she had no idea which one. Mickey? Eddie? Tommy? Or was he old enough to be Mick, Ed or Tom? He lifted weights and was cock-proud of his broad chest and thick biceps, one of which was tagged with an eagle tattoo, a screaming patriotic bird of prey, talons extended. He looked at her sideways as he eased the nozzle into the can.
“You’re not planning on staying, are you?”
“I’ve stayed before. Don’t see why I shouldn’t now.”
“The whole southern part of the state’s being evacuated.”
“Yes, it’s called undue caution.”
The young man looked away, in the direction of the derelict garden center across the road, gnarled, mostly dead fields, milkweed pods like shriveled fingers, ears reddening. He didn’t know what “undue caution” meant. Water was visible through the fields, the tail end of Corbin’s Creek fizzling away in a series of eddies.
Barely a town, Corbin’s Creek consisted of a dozen homes fronting the brackish river. There was a town hall and a Baptist church, a small public beach and a dock. On Route 443 stood a couple more houses and the Corbin Creek Café, a roughneck hangout in the 70s that had been transformed into a coffeehouse for locals. Fifteen miles inshore from Sea City, the only reason anyone drove through the town was because it sat on the evacuation route.
“Don’t you have family somewhere?” the young man persisted.
“That’s hardly your business. Are you staying? I can’t imagine the Scanlans leaving.” An ever-burgeoning brood of Scanlans, dozens of them, lived on the other end of town in a dilapidated farmhouse, rusting car husks serving as lawn decorations. Recently, one of the sons had been arrested for shooting at the father. They hunted, drank beer, committed petty larceny: South Jersey gentry.
“We can take care of ourselves.”
Annie handed him a rumpled twenty from the front pocket of her denim shirt, took up the gas can. She would have plenty of fuel for the generator if she were to lose power, plenty for the pick-up if she found she had no other option than to flee. The can was heavy, but the walk to her house was short. Every ten yards she placed the can down to rest. Seventy-six, she felt of variable age, sometimes ninety, sometimes fifty. There was no reason in the world to rush, despite what the world told people.
Minivans and small foreign cars passed her on Main. In the minivans she saw children immersed in small electronic devices or watching screens mounted on the seat backs in front of them, a few peering out and watching her, probably noticing, even through the closed windows, a quickening in the air.
Annie walked toward the house in which she had been born, one she had returned to and lived in for the past twenty years, a narrow, two story Victorian nestled in shadows, surrounded by thick pines. The light blue wooden siding had weathered to silver, and the porch boards were springy, threatening to crack if she wasn’t careful where she walked. Inside was a jackdaw magpie rabbit hutch. The front room was not small but felt small, thanks to the upright piano, overstuffed furniture, random pieces of artwork, some hers, some yard sale finds, tumbledown piles of New Yorkers, communist pamphlets and books, paperback and hardback, records and CDs, a soft pile of sweaters. Although anti-materialist, Annie felt most comfortable surrounded by the objects of her choosing. The living room and kitchen were connected; when she’d first moved back in she had punched through the wall, and on the kitchen counter were bottles of oils and vinegars, canned goods, fresh vegetables she picked up in a wooden crate every week from the CSA, heavily weighted toward kale and parsnips this time of year, bags of jasmine and brown rice, and more exotic vegetables and herbs she bought at a little Asian market outside Atlantic City. Annie was both a communist and a sensualist, a lover of fine foods and wines who never wore anything fancier than corduroy pants and wool sweaters.
She lit the pilot on the stove, began assembling a vegetable-based soup. She added water, herbs and spices, a lot of shaved ginger, a little red curry powder. The soup would have been improved by shrimp or morels, something to give it substance, but she worked with what she had, dicing the parsnips. Gramsci, her black cat, too fat by at least three pounds, hefted herself onto the counter to sniff the parsley, wild yellow eyes roaming.
“Looking for catnip, Gramsci? You know there’s some in the studio, don’t you? You should know that by now.” She ran her hand from the back of Gramsci’s neck to the base of her tail, clumps of hair willowing to the floor. The cat purred, then mewed, showing fine needle teeth and the red articulated structure of its inner mouth. “You’re always hungry. And I always feed you. Alright, then. Here we are.” She emptied a can of wet food into a bowl, brown chunks glopping out, set the soup to simmer.
The computer her son Patrick had insisted on giving her, an older Apple resembling a neon beetle carapace, sat atop a piece of rickety yard sale furniture, a sewing table she’d painted pastel green, in her relatively spartan upstairs bedroom. Annie distrusted technology, suspected it of sapping some essential humanity, but it also allowed her to Skype with her grandchildren on a weekly basis, which, though sometimes a bother, could lift her out of her periodic depressions. She had set up a website advertising her artwork, from which she had sold two pieces, and she kept in contact with a few friends via email, but her heart blanched whenever she heard the clashing sound of the computer starting. She finger-combed her shoulder-length gray hair while the computer booted up; she didn’t care if she looked presentable, whatever that meant, but she did not want to look like a crazy old lady to her three grandchildren: Sean, the oldest, Andrei, her favorite, and Mai, the baby Natalie had adopted from China after ten years of paperwork. Natalie the mother of a baby again. At 43. God help her.
Andrei answered the Skype call almost immediately. His big, round face—his father was an ethnic Chechen—filled the screen. Dark-haired, with large round eyes, he was the cutest eleven-year-old boy you ever wanted to see, sensitive the way she had never been, a child whose heart was, dangerously, turned out toward the world. He was wearing lipstick and what had to be fake earrings.
“Hello, Andrei! Playing dress up, are you? What’s that on your face?”
“Hi, Granny! I’ve figured out that I’m actually a girl.”
“Don’t be silly. Stop playing.”
“I’m not playing, Granny.” He looked at her, very seriously. Skyping was different from face-to-face interaction, awkward pauses caused by some barely perceptible but powerful time lag. Now she noticed that he’d applied makeup to his cheeks and around his eyes, too, so subtle and tasteful Natalie must have helped. “I am a girl,” he said.
“Where’s your brother, playing video games?”
“Yeah. Mummy says you should come up and visit us. Mummy says you should leave now, before the storm starts.” In many ways, Andrei acted younger than eleven.
“Tell Mummy I’m staying right here, thank you very much. Can’t you wash that off your face, Andrei? Get your brother for me.”
“Okay. I’ll go get him.”
Their living room outside Trenton appeared before her, like the set of a sitcom about a modern American family. It was a mess, baby toys and boys’ outer-clothes on the floor, and she could hear noise in the background—a baby crying, the cacophony of a video game interrupted by Sean’s voice as he barked an insult at his brother. Then Sean appeared on the screen. Each time she saw him Annie was struck by the upticks in his maturity. He wore a short military-style haircut, and he was beefing up.
“Playing videogames again, Sean?”
An epic eye roll.
“I’ve made myself perfectly clear on how I feel about them.”
“You have, Granny.”
“I don’t know why your mother lets you play them all the time.”
Sean glanced to his left, where his video game was, no doubt, paused on the television screen. He couldn’t stand to be detached from it for two seconds, not even to speak with his grandmother.
“Fine? Is that what your mother is going to say?”
He shrugged. Annie knew she was unfair, that she treated Sean more harshly than she would ever treat Andrei, but she couldn’t help herself. Sean needed discipline; Andrei needed love. Sean needed to stop playing so many violent idiotic videogames and pay more attention to his schoolwork. He was a sophomore in high school. It was time to start thinking about his future. If Natalie didn’t care, someone should. In this society, people were eaten up and spat out before they’d had a chance. People had to be tough.
“You shouldn’t stay down there, Granny. You should drive up here to stay with us.”
“Is that what your mother told you to say?”
“Put her on.” Sean slid out of the seat, grateful to be released. “I love you, Sean!” she shouted into the computer. He nodded but didn’t turn back toward the screen.
And then there was her daughter Natalie holding the fat, smeary baby, her face still indistinct to Annie. She could not picture Mai on her own yet. The poor thing wore a pink bow in the little bit of hair she had. A doll for Natalie’s middle age. Her daughter filled the screen with her massive, almost manic concern.
“You have to leave now,” Natalie said. “You should have left this morning, but you have to leave now. My god, the storm is coming right up the coast. It’ll be there by midnight. Please, Annie. For my sake.”
“It’s all hype, Nat. You know that. I’m not going anywhere.”
“It’s not all hype.”
“It’s mostly hype, then. I’ve ridden out storms before. You remember Hurricane Floyd? This isn’t even a hurricane, dear. I have gas, a generator, candles. I have extra food. I have Gramsci to keep me company. I’m looking forward to it, to be honest. A little excitement. Something to shake things up a bit. I’ll be fine.”
Did the screen amplify emotions, or was her daughter always so overwrought? Face to face, Annie found it difficult to sustain eye contact with Natalie; on Skype she was forced to.
“And how’s little Mazy? Hell-o, baby! It’s your Granny! How you doing, lil dirl?” The baby munched on her slobber-shiny fist, resembling, despite the pink bow, a fat Chinese accountant.
“Oh joy. And you want me to come up and stay with you? No thanks. I’ve been through that before. You can keep it.”
Sean was not doing fine in school—he was getting C’s and D’s. Natalie listened patiently to Annie’s pleas to limit his videogame time but made no assurances. They talked about Natalie’s job as a special education teacher at an urban high school, the ever-increasing demand to do more with less, the kids she loved but who sapped her of energy. In the background she heard the boys fighting, a verbal altercation escalating into a physical one. “Just a phase,” Natalie said when Annie asked about Andrei’s makeup, “probably.”
When the session was over, Annie felt the quiet of the house reach around her shoulders to hold her fast. She was so glad to be alone. Most of the time. The worries she felt about Sean and about Andrei slowly dissipated.
Every ten minutes, a weather alert interrupted the classical music program she listened to most evenings, the public radio station airing clips from their illustrious governor, the so-called straight-talking Chris Christie, who was labeling anyone who chose to stay, despite the evacuation order, an “idiot.” This, the man who would likely be running for national office in 2016. Annie vibrated with anger listening to him. In her mind he morphed into a horrible snuffling wild boar with bristly whiskers and deadly tusks. She had been fighting the two-party system for more than fifty years, yet she recognized that a Dem, any Dem, would have been better for the state than this monster, who had gutted social services and education funding and swaggered like a playground bully.
She switched off the radio and put on a Sharon Isbin CD, Dances for Guitar, listened to the soft wooden tones of the songs as she slurped soup, sunk into the old broken-backed couch. The dim lighting in the room was usually perfect, two low lamps, but this evening the room felt too close. It was dark out the windows—as if all light had been sucked out of the earth and she had been left in limbo. The soup was tasty, nourishing. She cleaned her bowl and poured herself two fingers of scotch, transferred the rest of the soup into a Tupperware container she put in the freezer. If she lost power she wanted the soup to keep.
By nightfall the exodus had ended and the region donned a haunted mantle. Annie walked through her studio, with its collection of in-process sculptures, its messy worktables (she gave lessons to local women who had become her boon companions, all fled to relatives inland), the kiln that was raised on a brick platform and would most likely be safe. She couldn’t imagine the water rising more than four feet. Sometimes the creek rose to wash out her backyard, but it had never reached the house. Still, the water table was already high, the lawn smooshing beneath her feet. She was dressed in her red down jacket and winter hat, a thick red scarf catching her breath and holding it as wet warmth before her face. Wind picked up to charge like a rhino against the ground, the trees bending limbs like graceful dancers. A few branches had already fallen. The sky was brushed metal, the rain light but steady.
After standing in the darkness for a moment, Annie caught sight of the sculptures, male and female figures, edging the yard like sentries. For the past fifteen years she had been traveling every summer to Iowa, where dozens of artists turned six-foot sections of old clay industrial pipe into sculptures. At first she had been inspired by classical mythology, but lately she’d been homing in on her own, more personal mythology, based on transformation and hybridization. In one corner of the yard was a man with the head and torso of a moose, human arms and hands raised in alarm, genitals sagging like a grape cluster. In another corner was a woman with a doe’s head, her breasts small. The doe woman was running—away from something or in sport. Annie was concerned with classical form, had been working with anatomy for so long she could produce a passable hand with ease. A lifetime of dedication to craft. A bat/woman hung upside down on the thick limb of a silver maple, a bull/man charging near the shed. There were older figures, vestal virgins, goddesses, and heroes, brown, rough-finished, and alive. Though she had fashioned them herself, the best of them took on a life of their own, lived apart from her, sometimes surprising her with their animation.
The creek was a suggestion of dark movement swelling its banks, encroaching on the lawn already. She patted the water with the soles of her duck boots before opening the shed door. It was a simple shed, holding her metal rakes and push mower, old gallon cans of paint from when she had first moved in, and her big green 1937 Old Town canoe, exactly as old as she. As a girl she had taken many canoeing trips with her father, mostly in the Poconos but sometimes in the Adirondacks and as far north as the White Mountains. She propped the shed door open with a stone, dragged the canoe out backwards, lower back muscles emitting a warning pulse. She backed up only a couple inches at a time. The slick grass made it easier, though once out of the shed she had to contend with intensifying wind and rain. The trees made a sound like animals lowing and like a thousand birds lifting into the air at the same time.
She tied the canoe to the wooden post off the back deck. Just in case.
An agitated Gramsci woke her a few hours later. She no longer slept as soundly as she once had. All her life she had slept well, dreams buried beneath sedimentary layers of imagery, but within the past few years sleep had become fitful. She woke at the slightest disturbance, like the cat landing with the full brunt of its weight on the old bed. The cat padded to the head of the bed and climbed around Annie’s neck, where it settled into a purr that vibrated against her skull. Annie reached up to rub the animal’s ruff. Fifteen years old, Gramsci was a regal, imperious cat. Like all cats, she took what she wanted when she wanted it, with no regard for anyone else. A good mouser in her youth, she had lost a step in her dotage. In her salad days she had carried dead birds to the back deck, laying them down, with a warrior’s pride, as offerings. Annie remembered one striking goldfinch, as yellow as nature allowed.
Intense wind pushed hard rain against the house. 11:47, and the storm was just starting. Limbs snapped from trees and branches scratched the siding. As a girl she had believed in ghosts; now she believed in nothing.
It was as if the power grid were invisibly humming inside her at all times without her being aware of it; she noticed the moment the power went out. She felt its absence and, sure enough, when she looked at the digital clock, its face was blank. Gramsci stopped purring but didn’t move, animal warmth crowning Annie’s head.
For the first time in years she slept heavily, waking only to listen to another tree limb snap or the wind at its most ferocious. She could not remember the last time she’d woken simply because she had slept enough. The sun was trapped behind a thick gray stormbank, yet she could tell it was morning. She took a shower with the last of the hot water, scrubbing herself red as a lobster, steam banking in the dim bathroom. It felt wonderful to be clean and safe inside a house while nature raged outside. She dressed in corduroy pants, wool socks, a thermal undershirt, denim button-up and wool sweater, tousled her hair in a clean towel that still managed to smell like cat.
Gramsci mewled and rubbed her head against Annie’s legs as she walked downstairs, nearly tripping her, stopping only when Annie emptied a can of wet food into her bowl, eating with mucky grabs, tiny teeth shining. She lit a number of candles and walked into her studio, open to the weather, rain battering the glass so hard she made X’s with scotch tape in case the glass gave. She had believed the storm was mostly hype—every storm nowadays was hyped, people heading to grocery stores in mad panics, schools closing for an inch of snow, even tropical storms named—but this was a bona fide storm. Perhaps she should have left the night before after all. The backyard was a swamp, the lawn covered, the Old Town canoe trundling as if someone were inside rocking it from side to side. Water had seeped through the studio’s concrete floor in patches, beading like blood on skin. The rain a torrent. Her bat/woman had been blown out of the tree and lay face down, bobbing in the middle of the yard like a woman sobbing.
She donned gloves, hat and scarf, though it wasn’t as cold as it had been the night before, and in her duck boots walked out into the water, two inches, three at its deepest, the grass slick underfoot. The creek was running stronger and faster than she’d ever seen it, current discernable in the distance. There were no animals about. No birds or squirrels; that’s what made the land feel haunted, not the absence of humans. The earth breathed a sigh of relief when humans left but pined for the animals.
The clay sculpture was as heavy as a human body, and Annie crouched to lift it with her legs. She resembled a solider lugging another, injured soldier off the battlefield. In Iowa, there were always younger artists to help transport the sculptures into the bed of her pickup truck, and when she returned she would have Natalie or one of her rare men friends—she had a hard time thinking of them as lovers, though that’s what they were—help her. The bat/woman’s bent legs left a wake in the water. The tip of one of its wings, folded over the hidden face, a woman’s face with bat’s teeth, had broken off. After she wrestled the sculpture into the studio and onto the table she went back out to search for it, but the tip was gone.
The gas had not been cut off, so she put on the kettle and made strong coffee in her French press, using the remainder of the water for instant oatmeal. Although the maple syrup and cinnamon flavors were artificial, the oatmeal tasted good, rich, real. She sat on the old couch eating, flipping through a New Yorker, reading an article about ITER, an international project to generate energy through controlled nuclear explosions. It read like science fiction, but the future was now. It was hard to recognize the future when one was in it, but considering how much had changed during her lifetime, Annie was not sure why. Human beings so stuck in the moment they could see neither the past nor the future, could see only what was directly in front of them. Which was why climate change was a concern but no one had actually done anything about it. Everyone lived as if they were not hurtling toward cataclysm. They would deal with it when they had to. If then.
She blinked in the doorway to the studio, recessed a few inches, those few inches filled with rising water. Even as she watched, it crept up the baseboards another inch.
She worked steadily but without urgency, carrying what she deemed most important up the stairs—a number of statues still in-process, most leather-hard, all of her important papers: one birth certificate; two marriage certificates; one death certificate; the deed to the house; the title to her pickup; divorce papers. She rummaged through the books, picking out those she was likely to read again or which held sentimental value. She set aside Henry Miller and Anais Nin, Collette, Balzac. Simone de Beauvoir. Audre Lorde. Das Kapital. A number of large and awkwardly shaped art books about Michelangelo and Louise Bourgeois and Francis Bacon, Giacometti, Kathe Kollwitz. She carried the books in small piles up the stairs and stored everything in her childhood bedroom, which was already mostly filled with old sketchbooks and blankets and random pieces of furniture. The material remains of one woman’s life. By the time she had moved everything, her duck boots were plashing in more than an inch of water, the old green rug on the living room floor floating like a skate.
She collected food in the wooden crate from the CSA, vegetables, all the canned goods, the can opener, a loaf of good white bread, the Tupperware container of soup, which had frozen solid overnight. She got the five-gallon jug of water from the refrigerator, carried the food upstairs, put the stopper in the tub and ran the water until it was an inch from the lip. The storm showed no sign of abating, and the cracking of tree limbs outside were now anticipated events. She braced against them.
After she heard a low throaty rumble like some fantastic creature rolling in the earth’s guts, she sensed the water around the house swelling. Out the window, she saw it: both a wave arriving from the west and an upwelling of the river itself, so that in a matter of minutes, maybe seconds, the water had risen five feet. She heard it downstairs, rushing through the doorways to fill every available space. She could still see the current of the creek, but it had become a lake in all directions. The creek was affected by the tides, brackish where it emptied into the Mattahack River, but she had not expected it to be affected so directly by the storm surge.
The water, gray and brown from everything it had picked up, had sealed off the downstairs, four steps leading down to the surface. It smelled of black dirt. Hard to believe how much, how fast. Annie rummaged through the books and took up Colette’s The Pure and the Impure. The book captured her immediately, took her back to high school, when she would imagine traveling to Paris and becoming a Bohemian. She took the book into bed to read, without thinking about the statues in the backyard, now submerged, her pickup which was probably floating away, her stove and refrigerator that would need to be repaired or more likely replaced, her kiln, the material maps of both her later and earlier lives in the process of being obliterated.
Annie never would have pictured herself returning to Corbin’s Creek in her later years, but there she was, a seventy-six-year old woman, reading Colette under the covers, a black cat purring on her shoulders, floodwaters rising around her. Actually, she found when she got out of bed to get something to eat, her body informing her it was time for lunch, the water had receded a few inches, and the rain, though still falling, had tempered, cutting diagonal swatches across the displaced lake. The current carried large branches down the river, and she was almost certain that the sun was trying to burn through the heavy dirty-cotton clouds. The worst was over, she told herself.
Raw, many of the vegetables were useless to her. She nibbled at parsnips. The soup in the Tupperware was still frozen. Gramsci mewed at her side, nudging her knee with her head, so she opened one of the cans of cat food. Annie ate three slices of bread with cheese and raw parsnips. She was lucky she still had most of her teeth. She was missing two back molars, too rotten to save, so sometimes food got stuck back there. She ate and drank two Ball jars full of water, looking at the computer on the rickety sewing table and thinking about Natalie and her grandchildren. They would be worried about her, but there was no way to contact them now. Patrick had given her a cell phone—he was always giving her the latest in technology, most recently a necklace that tracked her by GPS in case she wandered off, a Silver Alert backup device, god help her—but she had left it in the junk drawer in the hutch downstairs, where it was now beneath several feet of water. Patrick would be ringing it. He would keep trying. He was a banker, a rationalist, a materialist. Her son, an international banker. He had married a pretty blond German woman, Hannah. When they married, Annie had expected Hannah to provide good hearty German grandchildren, had assumed that her career had gotten in the way. She wore black high heels and pencil skirts, was a powerful figure in the banking industry. Annie had only recently discovered that fertility was an issue. They were getting counseling and would probably have triplets soon. They had the means but not the children; exactly the opposite of Natalie, who had no means and too many children. Annie loved them all, but they were far from the ideal family. Their father, her ex-husband, had been dead for years. She thought of Andrei, her angel, wearing lipstick and blush. The world presented you with new problems you never could have anticipated. That was its job, she supposed.
She relished the calm quiet of midday, sensed the emptiness of the land around her, her isolation. She didn’t need anyone or anything, and for that she was grateful. She sat in bed with her back against the wall, running her hand over the sleek, soft, muscly back of the cat, physically in the bed, mentally with Collette in the early 20th Century, following her series of characters into their erotic adventures. The vivid out-of-body joy of reading a good book. Her eyes were not as good as they had once been, but her mind and, more importantly, her imagination were intact.
The Old Town canoe had risen with the water. It was still tied to the post, but the post was now nearly submerged, only a small wooden knob breaking the surface. The canoe banged against the side of the house in a cold steady rain that was picking up, the wind approaching gale force, treetops browsing down, tired dancers now, weary after hours of movement. The floodwaters were brown, bearing patches of foam and dye, and everything turned sepia under the darkening sky. Annie realized that the calm was not the end of the storm but its eye.
She collected extra clothes into a backpack, moved the wooden crate full of food and water closer to the window. The roof was gabled, the canoe floating six feet below the roof. The wind picked up, rain stippling the water’s surface, poking finger deep. The mass of water swelled.
The water rose fast, another storm surge, sluicing through the doorways and up the stairs, and she had to be quick, grabbing the crate and her backpack and scuttling out the window onto the roof, her heart clattering too loudly. The canoe was directly beside the house now, moored to the hidden post. She lowered Gramsci inside. The wide-eyed cat scurried beneath the wicker seat. Annie stepped into the canoe, hoping and trusting that it would not capsize. She wore her red jacket and winter hat and the wind pressed hard against her, ruffing the surface. The end of the canoe bucked, struggling to break free from its knot, until she reached over with her Swiss Army knife and hacked through the rope, a process that took longer than anticipated, the muscles in her hands strong from years of work but the rope thick. Finally freed, she took hold of the oar and rowed, with no destination in mind. She rowed away from the current, which was attracting all manner of debris. The rain spit into her eyes, blinding her. Her heart turned over like a floundering fish. There was no question now: she should have heeded the warnings, should have climbed into her pickup and driven to Trenton, where she could have been sitting in Natalie’s living room, surrounded by her grandchildren, watching a Hiyao Miyazaki film, something they could all agree on, Spirited Away. She imagined Andrei’s head wedged into her side, his body a warm weight against her. Even this late in life she was bullheaded. That quality had landed her in trouble so many times, but she never learned from her experiences. Maybe no one ever did.
She steered the canoe toward the edges of the flood. Maybe if she rowed far enough she would come to dry land. It was evening but dark as night, and after rowing for ten minutes she had to stop and remove the winter jacket. She was still only about ten yards from the house, the rowing futile. Rain beat the side of her face. She had to find shelter. She set herself forward in the seat, Gramsci mewing beneath her, and rowed hard, not stopping until she had steered the canoe to the stand of trees past the submerged garden center. It was like entering a cypress swamp, branches full of browning leaves scraping the body of the canoe and brushing against her face. It was quieter here, calmer, the wind and rain out there. She tied the rope around one of the tree’s limbs in the innermost sanctum of the wood and rocked for a while. She chewed bread, drank water from one of the Ball jars, then picked Gramsci up and held her on her lap, petting the cat, soothing her. Gramsci kept looking around with wild yellow eyes, finding herself in a world she never could have imagined.
When the water level peaked, Annie could see the top of her roof. The world had become a lake, the tops of trees a new topography. From the canoe she could see the sky open, gray shreds of cloud pushed to the edge of the horizon, then over it, to expose more stars than she had ever seen before. There was no light pollution in the southern half of the state tonight, and the Milky Way was a full coil. The moon, though only a sliver, shed light over the submerged world. This was the end of the world. The world does not end in fire or in ice but in water.
She arranged the winter coat on the damp floor of the canoe, carefully lowered herself on top of it, on her back. As long as she remained on her back the canoe would remain steady. She stared past the black cutouts of branches above her, the abbreviated treetops, at the sky.
Over the course of the night, she had wrapped the arms of the jacket around her, yet when the sky shifted to morning she was shivering. The cat curled around her, warming her midsection. When she sat up, Gramsci retreated to the far end of the canoe, where she glared at Annie with burning yellow eyes.
“Don’t blame me, buddy,” she said. Afloat and level with the water, she felt almost bodiless, though her body ached. Gingerly she lifted herself onto the seat to look around. The tops of trees were growing out of the water, which had not retreated an inch, may have even risen a bit. Her house was almost entirely submerged. She untied the rope from the tree and paddled over, tying the canoe to the gutter and clambering onto the roof so she could stretch her legs. She did shallow knee-bends and stretched toward the sky, recalling tai chi moves from when she had taken a class with a former lover—single whip and grasp the bird’s tail. She felt both exhausted and newly minted, her eyes washed, as if seeing everything for the first time but in an old vessel, her body upset with her. You should have left, her body told her. Yet if she had left she never would have witnessed this uncommon beauty. The surface of the water was riffled by a light breeze and took in every color of the sunrise, refracting it, glowing like a radioactive ingot, bright bright and so pretty. Although there was debris in the water, at the moment the world looked holy. She leaned against the old brick chimney with its wire squirrel guard, watching the world be made.
She let the current carry her to its end, wondering if she would find anyone stranded on a rooftop, wondering if she should have stayed back on her own rooftop and waited for rescue. She was too impatient for that.
Ordinarily the creek ended just beyond the derelict garden center, where it trickled away to nothing, but now it had swelled to join the much larger Mattahack River, which came down from Cumberland County. The currents of the river and the creek had met and turned each other around. From where she sat she saw nothing but treetops and roofs. She guessed she was somewhere above the railroad tracks, near Cat Pond, a scruffy little body of water that no one in her knowledge had ever swum in. She wondered how its wildlife would fare in the wider body of water, what would become of it once the waters receded.
She thought of Andrei wearing lipstick, his face filling the now-submerged computer screen. She would never Skype again, unless Patrick bought her a laptop, which he probably would. She wondered how much insurance would pay, if she had flood insurance. She had no way of checking now, hadn’t thought to bring her box of important documents into the canoe with her. The birth certificate, the death certificate, divorce papers, deeds, financial documents, all of it gone, floating in the floodwaters. She pictured the individual certificates drifting under the water like so many jellyfish.
Birds roosted in the treetops—white egrets like cotton balls in the distance—and the sun was shining. A beautiful day for exploring. First she let the canoe drift and fixed herself breakfast. The soup had melted enough so she could eat it, cold, fat globs dotting the top. She opened a can of food for Gramsci, placed it on the uneven floor of the canoe. The cat ate but looked affronted not to have the food slopped into a bowl for it.
“You’re lucky I don’t just leave you on a roof somewhere.”
She popped the lid back on the Tupperware container, put the container away in the box, out of the sunlight. She took a few sips of water from the Ball jar and looked around. The biggest danger now was not starvation but dehydration. Despite the fact that she was surrounded by water, only the water in her Ball jar was potable. The rest could kill her.
She paddled over her backyard, imagining the statues below her, lined up along the edge of the yard like sentinels in Atlantis.
Corbin’s Creek Café was almost entirely underwater, one vent pipe sticking above the surface. A black bird perched on the pipe, and for a long time it watched Annie approach before taking wing. She paddled leisurely, exploring this new world. The sky was calm, and, despite the fact that it had inundated the land with great violence, so was the water. She passed unusual detritus now and then—a coffee table floating legs-up, a golf cart, a few untethered boats. The water was discolored and, in places, stank. A few dead fish had eddied up to treetops.
She heard it long before she saw it—a whining that reminded her of the only dog she’d ever owned, King, her father’s dog, which he got from the pound after the war. She saw nothing in the tree branches; the whining seemed to come from all around. She stopped rowing to listen, oared toward the sound, found him in the crotch of a maple tree with leaves like closed hands. The dog was a squat gray pit bull, head nearly as large as his body. She could see his ribs, as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks. His problems went beyond the flood. He looked at her with the large sad clown eyes of a male dog.
“Hey, Buddy.” Gramsci retreated under her seat, peered out, hair standing straight up on her haunch. When she got close enough, the dog jumped into the canoe, nearly upsetting them. Annie held the oak gunwales steady. The dog kept looking at her with large eyes, so she opened the Tupperware container of soup and pushed it toward the dog, who lapped at it, fat gobs sticking to its whiskers. It worked skillfully at the container, pushing it onto its side, working its fat pink flexible tongue into all corners.
“You’re an old guy, aren’t you? He’s an old guy. He’s harmless, Gramsci. We’ll find a place to drop him off.” The cat emitted a low throaty growl. While eating, the dog eyed the cat with apparent disdain. Once finished licking the bowl clean, he flumped onto the floor of the canoe and closed his eyes. When the sun hit his back, his coat was brindle, but in the shade it was gray. What in the world am I doing, Annie thought.
The dog snoozed for several hours, waking to cough loud, throaty barks across the water—at what, Annie could not, at first, determine. She had spent hours rowing away from the river, in the direction of town, but had yet to reach any place where the water gave way to land. The entire Middle Atlantic Coastal Plain had apparently been swallowed by the sea—which was predicted to happen a hundred years from now, not today, not while Annie Harmer was still alive. She had oared over the old Mattahack downtown, the stone bank building and the Masonic Temple half-submerged, everything else under water. The bank building’s large windows stared like blank eyes. She had bumped against them, peering inside at little ziggurats of building supplies in a large, otherwise empty space, as if someone had been planning on renovating the old building, whose 1872 was now at water level. The Masonic Temple was a plain white steeple in the air. She passed over submerged trailers, the old railroad museum, the diner, continued in the direction of the shore. Summers, the road over which she travelled would be jammed with cars full of “shoobies,” tourists from Pennsylvania who turned the locals’ lives into a living hell for three months a year. The drive to the food store, ordinarily ten minutes, would take thirty minutes or longer. Now the entire southern part of the state had been abandoned. She was the last person left alive in the world. She wondered if she had enough food and water to last until the waters receded. Even now, several hours after the last storm surge, the water had only ebbed a foot at most—though she was so far from home it was difficult to tell. It would take days before she could get back into her house again. By that point everything inside would be ruined. Her entire life. She wondered why she wasn’t more concerned or upset. Shock, she supposed. At the moment there was no pain associated with leaving her life behind. She was still Annie Harmer. She had made it this far.
When the dog barked, the entire canoe shook and echoed, as if the ribs of the canoe had expanded to become his ribs. He stood straight, muscles rigid, ears back, barking repetitively.
“Come on, Buddy. Don’t make me regret picking you up.”
The dog looked back at her briefly then resumed barking, reiterating its point. Which was? She wasn’t sure, but after a minute she heard a motor and saw a shape approaching. The shape was square and mostly white, and soon she realized it was a party boat. She heard music playing, the chunking electric guitar and booming drums of heavy metal. As the boat approached she recognized most of the figures on board as Scanlans, including the boy who had filled her gas tank the day before. The others were the women of the Scanlans. They were all drinking, some singing, some laughing, some dancing. The elder of the tribe, Mick, manned a grill on the deck of the boat. She could smell the juicy smoke wafting across the water. There were tattoos marking his chest and neck, blotchy dark blue shapes.
She assumed they would slide past without noticing her, but as they drew closer, one of the Scanlan boys pointed and shouted, and the motor was cut, the music stopped abruptly, and she found herself looking back at a whole gallery of faces, most thin and feral. She had spent her life among men like this—at least the first and last portions of that life. They were simple men, brutal only in certain situations. Working men. They were the proletariat, the salt of the earth. They shot at each other and treated their women like shit and were just out for a good time. They saw life as a brutal progression from cradle to grave, a constant challenge to their manhood. And they were not wrong.
“That’s our dog,” the boy called out. “You’ve got our dog, lady. Give us back our dog.”
The dog continued to bark, rigid.
“You lot couldn’t care for another living thing.”
“Hey, Jonesy. Jonesy, it’s us. Tell the old lady you’re ours. He’s ours, lady. Give him here.”
Mick Scanlan watched from behind the grill, mean grin on his face.
“That’s our dog all right,” he said.
“He hasn’t been fed in weeks.”
“Yeah, he run off on us.”
They stared at her for a few minutes, this gallery of human foibles, some of the women missing teeth. Their eyes were hard. She felt judged and was sure that she was being judged harshly. Two of the boys in the back passed a joint back and forth. The boy from the gas station watched impassively. Only the one boy was concerned about the dog.
“Fuck it,” Mick Scanlan said, pronouncing his final decision, the arbiter of all Scanlan business, “we’ll get him back later. Take care of him for now.” The radio was switched back on, and the motor started putting them away down the river. Annie watched them get smaller. The women danced, holding plastic cups of beer. Someone shot a handgun off. There was laughter and shouting. Then they were gone, and she exchanged a look with the dog.
It was easy to convince herself that she had never actually seen the Scanlans or their party boat, that they had been a passing mirage, a daydream she’d tricked herself into believing. The waters were so still now. Aside from an avian population of scavengers and adventurers, she was alone. She felt more profoundly alone than she had ever felt in her life. Solitude as an ultimate state. The waning day released a sense of the end, the light slant and golden, perfect for photography. The golden hour. Annie’s arms ached even after she’d drifted for an hour. She had squatted and accommodated herself the best she could, peeing into one of the Ball jars, dumping it over the side of the canoe, rinsing the jar out with slimy water, the surface rainbow-spattered like an oil slick. She had been bumping against the unexpected all day—the most disturbing being a horse’s bloated corpse, a biological island bearing a trio of carrion birds. The horse’s mouth was open, as if whinnying or screaming, its teeth brown as wood. The birds had watched her. The water had ebbed then risen with the tide, and now it was at a low ebb again, the second stories of houses partially exposed.
Ignoring both the pangs in her stomach and the ache in her arms, she paddled back toward her house, using the landmarks she knew so well to guide her. She heard a gunshot so distant it didn’t echo—the Scanlons, most likely. It made her nervous for the night. Anything could happen in the night.
The windows of her upper story were still half submerged, so there would be no getting in until morning, at the earliest. Her body was already protesting the coming of the night. The cat had worked itself into a torpid state, staring with yellow eyes at the dog, who sat on the bow, panting, tongue unfurled, looking back at her now and then. She could picture how they looked. All she needed was a snake to drape around her neck.
She was surprised when, over her backyard, the canoe started bumping against the sides of figures. They had risen from the bottom of the new lake, her statues, to bob on their backs, staring at the sky. It was impossible—unless, somehow, they were more porous than she had realized—but there they were, like drowned bodies and like watchers, their eyes on her, looking more alive now than ever before. The moose man. The doe woman. The vestal virgins, gods and goddesses in a sorry state.
Her eyes must have been going, because in the west, where the sun was setting, emerging from the surface of the floodwaters, she saw a mountain where there had never been a mountain before. She paddled toward it, the canoe bumping against the floating figures all around her. The town of Mattahack was behind her, the white steeple of the Masonic Temple shrinking. The cat climbed onto her shoulders and made itself limp, a living scarf, while the dog stood strong at the bow, like a bowsprit.
The mountain rose up out of the water. It was still distant, but she could see figures on the mountain, walking the mountain paths and looking out toward the water, toward her. There must have been hundreds of people on the paths. All of her living and her dead. She looked for Andrei, who had, hopefully, washed the makeup off of his face by now. She looked for Natalie and Patrick, her children. She saw her father and her mother, who had raised her in the house in Corbin’s Creek. She remembered her mother singing quietly in the kitchen while her father was off at war—she wore the same dress now she had worn then. She saw the gangs of kids she had played with in Corbin’s Creek in the ‘40s, while the world was being made safe for democracy, their faces and hands dirty. She saw men she had slept with who had been killed in Vietnam or in random accidents or had simply disappeared from her life. She saw her first husband, Robert, a man who had been closeted until she allowed him to come out, and her second husband, the father of her children, who was Irish and a big mistake. They all carried traces of her life with them, echoes of places she had lived: Philadelphia during college; New York City; Stamford, Connecticut; Eniskillen, Ireland. All of those places that had made her but not really.
She was on the mountain, too, somewhere, all the different iterations of her: Annie Harmer as a little girl, as a tomboy, as an art student, as a failed wife, as a young mother, as a woman, as an artist. She paddled slowly toward the mountain, wondering what would happen once she landed.