“It would sure help if we had some fucking light!” Dusty growled from the living room. “I’m not finding it, and we’re really running out of time here, Collie.”
“Keep looking,” she called back to him from the bedroom, where she was triaging the contents of her closet by the glow of a battery-powered camping lantern from Thom’s truck. “I promised Anna we’d get it.”
“Well, it’s not here!”
She rolled her eyes. “It has to be there somewhere. Where did we set it down?”
“Your stuff blew all over the apartment when we left,” he called. “It could be anywhere in this mess, and seriously, the deadline’s in half an hour.”
“I know when the deadline is,” she said, more to herself than to him as she continued shoving things into her garbage bag.
Getting here had been a nightmare beyond their worst expectations: hours of standstill traffic, maddening detours, not to mention lunatic drivers leaning on their horns and pulling insane stunts for ten extra feet of forward motion. She’d seen a guy drive up onto the sidewalk, taking his front fender off on a row of newspaper machines as he squirreled around a corner without even slowing down. The radio station she’d been listening to had fielded calls almost non-stop from listeners worried about everything from the adequacy of law enforcement in deserted neighborhoods to widespread toxic contamination as water cascaded through the city’s industrial sectors carrying who knew what into their neighborhoods and the local water supply. The whole thing had taken on a strange sense of unreality. ‘Evacuations’ happened on the evening news, to nameless people in far-off cities she’d never been to—not in real life, to her.
By the time they’d finally made it to her place, the sky had already started to darken—rushed along by dense thunderheads that had returned with a new round of torrential rain. Not until they’d sprinted up to the apartment had they discovered that the power was out here as well. They’d been rifling through drawers, cupboards, closets and countertops by flashlight ever since, trying to find and pack out everything Colleen might need during the weeks they were now saying it might take before people would be allowed back into flood-stricken areas. One of their two flashlights had already run out of battery, and Thom’s camp lantern was growing noticeably dimmer as Colleen shoved a few last bits of clothing into her bag.
“I’m calling it,” Dusty announced, standing in her bedroom doorway. “I don’t know where that letter’s gone, but it’ll still be there when this is over. Anna would say the same if she were here. We need to wrap this up and get out. My cab is full. Your car’s still got room for something small in the front seat. What else can I take down?”
“This,” she said, tying off her bag of clothing and handing it to him. “It can go in the truck bed. I don’t care if it gets wet.” As she’d predicted, Thom’s open bed had proven all but useless as cargo space since the drenching thunderstorms had resumed.
There was no point in arguing further about the letter. She hated to disappoint Anna, but Dusty was right. They were nearly out of time, and she needed to save the rest of her firepower for what was coming next. “There’s one more thing I need to take. It can go in the truck bed too—if we can bundle it up real good with blankets or something.”
“Blankets’ll get soaked,” he said uncertainly, “and it’s not very clean back there.”
“I don’t care. They’re just to keep the other thing cushioned—and warm.”
“Warm?” Dusty looked leery. “What ‘other thing’ are we talking about?”
“We’ll just take half the water out, tape the lid on, and make sure it’s as wedged in place and insulated as possible.”
“You need your aquarium?” he asked, incredulous. “At Thom and Anna’s?”
She stared at him impatiently. “If it’s really weeks before they let me back in here, they’ll be dead, Dusty. No one to feed them. And no power means no heat. I’m not taking two carloads of dead stuff to safety, and leaving the only living things here to die.”
“Colleen, they’re fish!” He threw his arms out in a really condescending gesture of disbelief. “There’s water everywhere out there! Just dump them in the—”
“They’re tropical fish, Dusty! The cold would kill them instantly! They may not even survive the ride back with us, but I have to try. I care about them. So, if you’re that concerned about time, just help me pack them up and do it, okay?” Must he always, always argue about everything?
“Fine. Whatever.” He walked past her and started yanking her blankets up in a huff. She headed for the bedroom door to go find a salad bowl and start bailing water out of the tank—eager to put a little distance between herself and Dusty for a moment.
She was carrying a bowl of aquarium water to the kitchen sink, when he came out with his arms around a giant bundle of her comforters and blankets..
“I’m gonna put these in your shower for a minute,” he said, “and soak them in hot water. Okay?”
“What? Why?” Was he mocking her now for taking extra time to do ridiculous things?
“They’re gonna get soaked out there anyway. But if we soak them with hot water first, they might keep your tropical friends warmer for longer.”
“Oh!” She felt a little twinge of guilt. “That’s…pretty smart. But…is there hot water? I don’t know how long the power’s been out.”
“We’ll find out, I guess,” he said, already turning to carry the blankets to her bathroom.
She heard the shower come on, just as a muted peal of thunder rattled her darkened windows. She listened to the rain for a moment, raging against her roof like a million little fists. Even the weather was starting to feel surreal; less a natural disaster than a ‘biblical’ one.
“Still plenty hot,” Dusty called to her. “I guess the power hasn’t been off for that long.”
“Great!” she called back. “Thank you for thinking of this!”
After a pause, he added, “Sorry for being such a dick, Collie. It just…seems like one thing after another lately. I’m not managing my stress very well.”
“Who is?” she called back, a little chagrined at her own impatience with him. Anna’s advice had proven harder to follow than she’d imagined. But, Dusty had never been like this before: so nervous and argumentative all the time. Not so she’d ever noticed anyway. It seemed to be yet another, increasingly abrasive new symptom of whatever Matt’s reappearance had done to him, and if he kept it up, they might need to have a talk. She was really starting to miss the Dusty she had known until just a couple days ago.
Watching her fish dart around in terror, seeking places to hide from her salad bowl, she realized their water already felt a little cool. She should add some warmer water to the tank as well before packing it out into the storm. After dumping the last bowlful into the kitchen sink, she ran the tap until it seemed about the right temperature, then groped in the cabinet for her bottle of dechlorinator.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” Dusty called from the hallway, “and I’ll get these into some garbage bags.”
“Any time,” she called back. “I’m almost done here.”
A moment later, as she poured new water from her bowl into the tank, she heard the shower stop. “They’re pretty heavy now,” he called, “but we should bring everything down together so none of it cools off while we make another trip. You wanna carry these, or the tank?”
She looked at the twenty-five-gallon glass box, with close to ten gallons of water still inside, not to mention all that sand. “I’ll get the blankets?” she replied. Anna had told her to let him play the hero. This seemed like a good place to start. She went to get some duct tape for the lid, and a plastic bag for all her aquarium gear.
Moments later they were standing in their raincoats on the truck bed, hunched against the sheeting downpour, as Dusty rather expertly secured the warm, soggy bundle in place with rope, having tucked her bag of clothes between it and the cab wall to cushion against sudden stops.
“You wanna go lock up while I finish this?” he asked her.
Back upstairs, she swung her flashlight beam around the living room one last time, still hoping to spot the letter somewhere in this chaos they were leaving behind. But she couldn’t find it either. So she stepped back outside, locked the door, and headed back down to find Dusty waiting behind the wheel of Thom’s truck. He lowered the driver’s window as she approached.
“Go gentle on my fish,” she told him.
“I’ll guard your little friends with my life,” he replied, smiling. “Same plan as coming here, okay? You in front—and be followable.”
“I know,” she said. “Did we ever once get separated coming here?”
“No we didn’t,” he conceded. “But it was light then. Got your phone turned on?”
She gave him a ‘back-off’ look. “I can do this, Dad.”
“Call me if anything goes wrong, okay?”
“Seriously, I’m not twelve.”
“I know,” he said. “Sorry. I’m not as…trusting as you are. Of the world, I mean.”
Not lately, she thought. That’s for sure. Anna had been right, though. Trying to take care of her was better than beating up on himself. “I’ll be careful,” she said, stretching up to give him a quick kiss. “You be careful too. See you at ‘home’.”
When she was buckled in behind her own steering wheel, she started the car, selected a playlist of quiet, upbeat music on her phone, and pulled toward the street.
It didn’t take her long to admit that Dusty had been right about one thing. This was a very different drive in the dark. The storm seemed to be worsening. Looming trees along the neighborhood’s once-pleasant streets thrashed their black arms like demonic elder gods against the lavender flicker of lightning-crazed sky. A deafening mix of hail and falling branches pelted her roof and windshield as she pushed slowly through swirling flocks of light and shadow writhing in the deluge. Getting back through this might take even longer than getting here had. She thought of her fish tank in the truck bed, forced to concede that they would likely not make it through alive. But their deaths wouldn’t be her fault now. She could tell herself she’d tried.
Seven blocks later, there were suddenly working streetlights again, though what they showed her was not reassuring. Fences blown over. Gardens shredded. A tree fallen across one driveway had crushed the family car and part of the garage. Another lay well into the road—which, she realized, was under several inches of water now.
“God, I hope we we’re not already too late,” she murmured.
She glanced into her rearview mirror at Dusty’s reassuring headlights just behind her, and the music was cut off abruptly by her ringtone.
She hit the answer button on her steering wheel, expecting to hear Dusty’s voice.
“I know I shouldn’t bother you again, but they’re showing the most awful footage of your floods on the news here, and your dad’s still in Toronto, and, I’m sorry, but I just needed to make sure you’re still okay. I’m a mom. I admit it. I’ve been a mom too long now to—”
“It’s okay!” Colleen cut her off. “I get it, and you were totally right this morning. I’m sorry I was so snarky about it. The flooding is really bad, and if you hadn’t called, I don’t know if we’d even have found out about it in time to—”
“Oh, I knew it! Are you in trouble? Should I fly out?”
“What? No!” Colleen laughed. “Fly out? Into this?” Are you nuts? “I’m fine. You’re talking to me, right?”
“Well…you sound a little funny. Are you outside?”
“No. I’m…” Should she tell her mom where she was? What she was doing? That would just freak her out even worse. “I’m in the car, actually.”
“The car? Why ever would you be out driving in a flood, Colleen? Are you sure everything’s okay?”
She really, really hated lying, especially to her mom, but on this occasion, the truth was just going to cause a lot of pointless trouble. “I’m going to the store, Mom. For extra batteries. In case the power goes out again. Flashlights. …You know?” In fact, their flashlights were nearly spent. They really should stop somewhere for batteries, in case something did happen on the way home, and they needed light. If they did that, then this wouldn’t really be a lie. But she had to get her mom off the line before some other lie became necessary. “It is pretty rough out here, though. Probably not so safe talking on the phone while I’m driving through this. I should go.”
“Of course. You’re right, dear. But humor your poor mother, and call me when you get back to Anna’s house, okay? To let me know you made it safe.”
“I’ll do that. It may be a while, though. A lot of traffic, and, you know, everything’s taking longer right now.” Still not a lie.
Some sudden movement in the rearview mirror caught her eye, and when she looked up, Dusty’s headlights were gone. She hit the brakes. “Gotta go, Mom! Love you, bye!”
She punched the wheel button to end their call, and twisted around to look through the rear window. “Oh, shit!” Not far behind her, a tree had come down across the street. Not a small one either. She could see fragments of headlight shining through its tangled foliage, but couldn’t tell whether Dusty’s truck was behind the fallen tree, or under it. “No, no, no!” she breathed, unbuckling her belt and shoving the door open. “Dusty?” she yelled, before she was even out. “Dusty!” The storm-roar was too loud to hear anything. Slamming the door behind her, she left the car where it was, and ran toward the fallen tree. “Dusty!” she yelled again as she got nearer.
“Are you okay?” she called, nearly there. “Did it hit you?”
“No. It missed me, but I don’t see any way to get past this.”
She finally reached the massive wall of waving leaves and branches. From this close, she could see his truck was well behind it. But she couldn’t see any easy way through to join him.
“If I drive around through one of these yards,” he called to her, “the truck’ll just get bogged down in all this saturated soil—not to mention the damage I’d be doing to someone’s lawn.” The houses around them were all McMansions with very expensive landscaping. “I think you’d better just pull over and wait until I find some other way around to reach you.”
They were still in her neighborhood. She looked around to see where exactly, and her heart sank. “Well, we’ve picked a really bad place to do this.” They were most of the way through Holly Heights, an extremely upscale development pierced by only one arterial thoroughfare from which a rambling labyrinth of windy little dead-end streets branched off.
Exceptional charm, privacy, and low traffic flow had helped sell a lot of very expensive homes here. But it was going to take a long trip back through, and then around, the whole development for Dusty to rejoin her—with all sorts of ways to get lost along the way, or blocked by who knew what other obstacles in such a storm.
After explaining all this to him, still yelling to be heard above the wind and hiss of rain-soaked leaves, she took a deep breath, and made yet another suggestion she knew he would hate.
“This was already going to take all night, Dusty. The longer we stay out here, the worse the flooding’s going to get, and the greater our chances of getting completely stuck somewhere. There’s no point in sitting here while you drive halfway around the world just to double back to where we are. I can just go on, and you can find the fastest route back to Thom and Anna’s from where you are.”
“We need to stay together,” he called back.
“We have our phones,” she shouted. “I can tell you what streets I’m on. You can rejoin me if you want to, by whatever path is shortest, okay? We’ll end up on the same route again, and I’ll still just be a little further ahead of you. But we won’t have lost so much time—or put ourselves at even greater risk while the water rises, right? Does that work for you?” There was a lengthy silence. Come on, Dusty, she begged silently. Just give me some credit for once. I don’t need a big manly escort everywhere I go.
“Call me as often as you can, okay?” he called at last. “I want to know how you are! That’s for my comfort, Collie; not yours.”
Thank you! she thought, relieved that they wouldn’t have to stand here arguing about it for fifteen minutes this time.
“And keep your phone plugged into the car,” he called again. “I don’t want its battery dying before we get home, right?”
The words ‘yes, Dad’ were halfway up her throat before she aborted them. No point antagonizing him just when he’d agreed to her plan. “You too!” she called, “Love you! Good luck. See you soon, I’m sure!”
She raced back through the rain to her car, climbed inside, and turned the key, bobbing her head to the music as she started down the street again. She’d been driving for less than ten minutes when her playlist was once again interrupted by a call.
“I’m out of the maze,” said Dusty, “heading north on some street called Montrene. Where are you?”
“On Chapman, heading down to 85th. Montrene should get you to 85th too, in about ten minutes. See? Good job! You might even beat me there, so whoever reaches the avenue first should call the other, if you want to stay behind me.”
“Great! Will do. See you soon, love.”
As he hung up, she began tapping her free foot happily to the resumed music.
Her good mood took a hit, though, as she arrived at Chapman and 83rd, a wide, four-lane avenue like 85th—with a surprising amount of very muddy water flowing through it from somewhere. Colleen couldn’t figure out why as she pulled to a stop at the light, her tires already standing in seven or eight inches from the look of it. This couldn’t be the river. It was literally miles and miles away from here. Could all of this just be rainfall? Unbelievable! How many more days of this weather were they going to have to put up with?
85th was just two blocks further ahead. Was it like this too? If so, it would clearly take them way longer to get back than she’d hoped.
There were no cars behind her; no one driving anywhere at all that she could see now. So she just stayed where she was when the light turned green, assessing the situation. She picked up her phone and looked at the traffic app already open there. It showed no warning of any kind for 83rd, or any of the other broad, east-west avenues passing through this part of town. Maybe it was only like this for a block or two? She tapped around for alternative routes to Thom and Anna’s, but found none that didn’t require backtracking for miles. And two of them were marked closed or heavily congested, for whatever reason.
She looked back up at the intersection. Though moving rather fast, the water out there seemed no deeper than what she was parked in. Eight inches, she could handle, no problem.
She considered calling Dusty, but the thought of running right back to ‘the guy’ for advice irked the hell out of her. He wasn’t here to see that it was just a couple inches deep. He’d tell her to turn around, go wait for him somewhere, and then he’d plan their route home… He wouldn’t come out and say it, of course, but they’d both know he was thinking it: the girl’s plan hadn’t turned out so good. She had, just now, finally gotten him to let her look out for herself, and damn it, that’s what she was going to do. Like she’d said back in Holly Heights: be decisive, and get through this quickly, while it could still be gotten through. That was the plan.
Though she saw no other moving cars, she still waited for the light to turn green again before starting slowly into the intersection. When she’d gotten across and had a chance to see if this situation continued all the way to 85th, she’d call Dusty and tell him what she thought they should do.
The water really was moving at quite a clip. As she moved further into the intersection, the shallow surge started piling higher against the up-current side of her tires, shoving at them unpleasantly. Colleen stepped a little harder on the gas to increase her forward momentum, wanting to get through and out of this unnerving stream more quickly, but the road beneath her became suddenly very rough and bumpy. Her tires bounced alarmingly across whatever lay beneath the muddy surface, and then, all at once, the front half of her car lurched downward, as if the road itself had somehow just fallen a foot or two. With a small shriek, Colleen yanked it into reverse, and gunned the engine, but the front tires no longer had traction. The car just slewed briefly sideways before striking something beneath the surface and slamming to a halt, as if caught on the edge of some submerged hole. What on earth had she driven into out here in the middle of the street? With the car’s nose so low and fixed in place, the hump of water on her upstream side leapt up in height and strength, coxcombing across her fender now, and splashing at the windshield.
Then, her engine died.
The torrent around her seemed to be growing deeper and faster—rapidly. She brought a hand to her mouth. Had she just driven into the leading edge of some flash flood?
Oh, Mom, she thought, aghast as the car began to slide again. I’ve done something stupid.