Colleen was jarred from Matt’s tale by her ringtone, and fished the phone from her pocket in irritation, certain it must be a telemarketer. All the real people most likely to call her were right here in the house, after all. Seeing her mother’s name scroll across the screen elicited a soft, startled exclamation as she brought the phone to her ear.
“Hi, Mom! What a nice surprise.”
“So, you’re all right then,” her mother said with audible relief.
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“We’ve been hearing such dreadful things about the storm you’re having!”
“From who?” Her parents lived several states away. Colleen couldn’t imagine who’d have been telling them about the weather here—or why?
“It’s national news,” her mother said. “You didn’t know that? All the flooding and the mudslides! They’re saying half the city is without power, and we saw footage this morning of a building being blown to pieces at the university there. Isn’t that where Dusty’s mother works? Is she all right?”
Colleen rolled her eyes. Leave it to network news… “The building wasn’t blown to pieces, Mom. A few sheets of roofing peeled off and broke some windows on their way to the ground. You know how they sensationalize everything on TV. And Anna wasn’t even there. Dusty and I are at Thom and Anna’s house right now, in fact. We just made them a big Dutch Baby for breakfast to celebrate their wedding anniversary.” Under the circumstances, it seemed best to leave matters there.
“Oh! Is today their anniversary?” To Colleen’s relief, her mother sounded charmed now. “Well, please convey our warmest wishes, dear. I’m so relieved to hear you’re all fine. But…just for future reference, when things like this happen, a call to let us know you’re okay wouldn’t be the worst idea ever. We were kind of worried.”
“Sorry, Mom.” Colleen swallowed a sigh. “I had no idea our crummy weather was such big news, but it seems to have blown over now.”
“Is that what they’re telling you?” Her mom sounded surprised again.
“What who’s telling me?”
“The news, dear. Are they telling you the storm is over there? Because the newscast here this morning said the wind had died but the rain was increasing, and even worse flooding was expected by tonight. That’s why I finally called. But you’re there, of course, so you’re probably getting more up to date reports than we are.”
“Well…we haven’t really been watching the news.” Colleen glanced through the window beside her bed, where she’d gone to read the pages Anna had printed for everyone. “It looks like…pretty normal rain out there to me. Nothing like last night.”
There was a palpably consternated silence on her mother’s end of the line. “I know you’re a grown woman,” she said at last. “And I don’t want to seem like a back seat driver. But it might not hurt to glance at the news, Colleen. The rest of the country seems to think there’s something rather serious going on there. The governor has just declared a state of emergency for your entire county, and petitioned for federal assistance with the flooding that’s expected in your city tonight. …Just in case that matters?”
The sigh Colleen had been suppressing escaped at last. “Okay, Mom. I’ll check it out. But my apartment is miles from the river, and on the second floor. Dusty’s place is even farther from the waterfront, and Thom and Anna live way up on a hilltop well outside the city, so even if the whole state goes under, I’ll have a safe place to ride it out. But I am touched by your concern. And I will go check the news when we’re done talking. I promise.”
“Thank you, dear. The last thing your father and I want to be is intrusive. I think you know that. But as proud as we are of our adventurous and fearless daughter, we do still care about your safety.”
“I know, Mom.” Colleen shook her head at how ridiculous this little dance was becoming. ‘I love you too. Sorry I didn’t think to call, but you can stop worrying now. I won’t do anything stupid. I think you know that as well. Right?”
“We do. And even if this whole thing turns out to be a tempest in a teapot, it’s still a lovely excuse to hear your voice.”
“Thanksgiving’s just a couple weeks off,” Colleen said, touched despite herself. “I can’t wait to see you guys, and catch up on everything.”
“Us too, dear. Your father sends his love. He’d be here to tell you himself, but there’s a LuSys board meeting this afternoon in Toronto, and he’s in the air as we speak.”
“Well, blow him a kiss for me when he gets back.”
“I will. And I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing now, but please do wish Thom and Anna a happy anniversary for us—and give Dusty a hug for me while you’re at it, okay?”
“Will do—right away. Love you, Mom.”
“Love you too. Take care.”
As they hung up, Colleen sighed again, then stretched and rose to go check the latest weather reports. She didn’t make false promises—not even little, silly ones. Just one of the many lessons her folks had drilled very effectively into their adventurous daughter’s head as she’d grown up, occasionally trying to smooth her way with ‘little white lies’ like all her friends did. Her laptop was still in the dining room, where she’d left it after breakfast, so she headed down to Google ‘Armageddon’ and see what reliable sources had to say.
At the bottom of the stairs, she found Anna in the living room, sitting on the couch under a picture window, still reading Matt’s story.
Anna set her pages down and offered Colleen a grim smile. “That was fast. Need a break already?”
“No. I was just getting into it, actually, but my mom called.”
“Oh? What’s up?”
“That’s what she was wondering, I guess. Apparently, our little storm has become a national news story. She was afraid I might be dead.”
Anna’s mouth fell open. “Seriously? What are they saying?”
“That the flooding will be worse tonight, and the governor has declared a state of emergency and asked for federal assistance.”
“Really!” Anna said. “I thought the storm was winding down.” She twisted to look back at the window behind her. “It certainly seems much calmer out there. …I guess it is raining pretty hard, though.” She turned back to Colleen. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Me too, but I promised her I’d check the news.”
Anna stood up and reached for the TV remote, but Colleen waved her to a halt. “Let’s not go there. It’ll just be the same sensationalized crap that sent my mom into a dither. My laptop’s in the dining room. I’ll check the National Weather Service site, or whatever. Anything we really need to know will be there, but I’m sure it’s nothing. My mother just gets…” She fluttered her hands in the air, feeling foolish, for both her mom and herself, in front of someone as competently non-drama as Anna. What she wanted was a change of subject. “How far have you gotten?” she asked, nodding at the pile of pages beside Anna.
“Oh.” Anna looked down, wearily, it seemed to Colleen. “He’s woken up as a boy in that alleyway, and run off from the hospital…” She gave Colleen a sad, helpless look. “It’s all very…detailed. What about you?”
“A little farther. He’d just caught a taxi home when my mom called. Looks like Dusty’s right, huh? What can this be but crazy?”
“Well, crazy or not, everything Matt’s describing happened well before he and Dusty ever met, so it’s none of Dusty’s fault. I still have to hope we’ll find useful clues in all this to what’s really happening, or what to do about it.” She shook her head. “The more I read, the more I keep wanting to have another look at that letter—but I’ve searched everywhere. Maybe I did leave it at work…” She looked back up at Colleen. “But I remember so clearly setting it on my desk upstairs last night. So…where did it go?”
Half memories of a dream flashed through Colleen’s mind: the gleam of eyes behind a mask of copper leaves floating in the darkness, robes flowing in and out of shape, like wisps of shadow. Nothing remotely real. Still, a shiver ran the length of her as she pushed the thought away. “It’ll turn up,” she said. “My apartment’s tiny, but I lose things there for weeks at a time—like they’ve popped into some alternate universe. And then, as soon as I give up looking, they pop right back again. Quantum physics?” She shrugged. “It just happens. Dusty’s copy is at my place somewhere. We forgot about it in the rush to leave, but we’ll bring it to you as soon as we get back there—if yours hasn’t already turned up again.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Anna smiled. “So, speaking of Dusty…I’m sorry about breaking up your moment in the kitchen this morning.”
“No worries. It was over anyway. Really.”
Anna gave her a careful look. “And…everything’s okay with you two?”
“We’re fine.” But even as she said it, Colleen realized that what she really meant was that she thought they were fine. She was fine. He’d said he was. …But she had certainly seen sides of him—and of so many other things— since yesterday morning that she had never seen before…
Anna was still looking at her, doubtfully. “Anything you’d like to talk about?”
So much for her poker face. Glancing back up the stairs to make sure Dusty wasn’t standing there, Colleen went to join Anna on the couch. “He’s always been tough on himself. But not…like this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cry—before yesterday. Now, every five minutes… And that’s fine! Don’t get me wrong. Crying’s healthy. I cry sometimes, when I need to. I cried this morning, and I’m glad he can too…”
“But?” Anna asked, gently.
“All this weirdness has…touched things in him. Deep things. He’s talked to me about some of them before. I mean, ‘no secrets’ is a pretty important thing for him—for us. But… You’ve known him so much longer than I have, Anna, in such very different ways.”
“Do you think he’s okay? I mean…should I be worried?”
Anna leaned back, and regarded her with a slight, sympathetic smile. “Thank you,” she said. “For trusting me enough to ask. I admire you for not just putting a brave face on things and burying these questions. ’Cause that can send good relationships off the rails as fast as anything I know. I’ve seen it happen—close up. That you can ask these questions—as soon as they come up—leaves me even more sure you two will be fine. You’re exactly what he needs—what he’s always needed.”
“Thank you,” Colleen said. “That means a lot to me. But…what does he need? From me. Right now. I’m suddenly…not very sure.”
“Then you’re still paying attention, not just following some set script,” said Anna. “And that’s reassuring too.” She looked away, seeming to gather her thoughts. “I have no secret view into Dusty’s heart either, Colleen. Let’s be clear about that right away. All I can give you is best guesses—no better than yours, maybe not even as good.”
“Your guesses would be a lot more useful than anything I’ve got.”
“I’m not so sure.” Anna gave her a crooked smile. “But…most of all, I’d say he needs tangible reasons to believe in what he wants more than in what he fears. He’s needed that ever since I met him on the Avenue.” Her gaze drifted, clearly lost in memory. “He fled his home so full of rage at what his father’s addiction had done to all of them. Then his sister died, and he wound up holed up in a squat, doing speed himself, trying to play the Avenue’s patron saint, while hiding the monster. His father—all over again. You know what came of his attempt to look after Matthew Rhymer. After Thom and I scooped him out of that disaster, it was so hard to pry him from believing he’d just poison anything he ever dared to reach for. We worked so hard to help him trade running away from what he couldn’t face for running toward what he really wanted.” She turned from her reverie to look intently at Colleen. “We must have succeeded, or I don’t think you’d be here now. But I’ve never seen anyone or anything that’s helped him really, truly believe in what he wants more than you do.”
Colleen felt herself blushing, and fought an urge to look away.
“Whatever he may need,” Anna continued, “family is what he’s always wanted—and feared, I think. He’s built a lot of very impressive walls between himself and the things he fears since Thom and I decided to try providing him with family. He’s learned to manage his strengths and weaknesses amazingly well since then. But if I wasn’t sure before, the last two days have made it clear—to me, at least—that good walls and better management won’t be anything like enough. Not for the long haul. He may have learned to own his shadow, but…” She looked down with an expression of distress like none Colleen had ever seen or imagined seeing her wear before. “I’m not sure he’s learned the difference between owning things and resolving them.”
“He’s always seemed…so solid,” Colleen said, not quite able to reconcile what she was hearing with the Dusty she had thought she knew. “The way he’s turned his life around. He’s so good-hearted, honest, capable. He does…everything so well now… I’ve always been amazed at how deeply he seems to have worked through everything he started with.”
“Me too,” Anna agreed, sadly. “It’s seemed a little too amazing maybe. But you saw him this morning…” Her brows climbed up as she gave a helpless shrug. “The Dusty he used to be and the Dusty he is still clearly haven’t come to terms. As long as they’re still fighting, he won’t be safe—from himself. They need to be one person, Colleen. He has to find some way to let himself be both of them together—or it will always be one…or the other. You see what I mean?”
“I think so,” Colleen said, dismayed. She had started this conversation hoping for reassurance. Counting on it, she realized now. But this wasn’t comforting. It was scary. “Is there…anything I can do to help that happen? Or…”
Anna gave her a sudden, fierce smile. “Just what you’ve always done for him. Keep giving him permission to stumble across whatever or whoever he finds inside—no matter how much it surprises or frightens him. He’ll know whether it’s really safe to let you see the dark things when they emerge.” She leaned forward. “So, you’ll have to be genuinely okay with that, of course. Lies never work. But if he knows you’re really safe to trust—with anything—he’ll bring the dark things out where you can struggle with them together.” Anna’s eyes had turned pink and shiny with unshed tears. “And if he knows you’ll face that struggle with him, I’m certain you two will find your way to real solutions; the kind that outlast any kind of walls.”
She leaned away again and they just sat for a time, side by side, absorbing the territory they’d stumbled into, and an appreciation for each other that Colleen suspected Anna wished no more than she did to sully with words. It seemed best to leave things right here where they had come to rest. But there was one other question Colleen couldn’t bring herself to leave unasked.
“And what do you think Dusty fears right now?”
Anna’s smile faded. “Oh, you should just ask him that yourself, I think. I’m sure he’ll tell you—at great length. There’s no topic he keeps closer, even at the best of times.” She drew a deep breath, and let it go. “That’s part of how he makes himself feel safe.” She gave Colleen another crooked grin. “You really don’t know this already?”
Colleen returned the smile in kind. “I guess I do. But I’ll ask him anyway. So he can see I want to know—and that it’s okay to tell me.”
“That’s right. Keep that up, and you’ll both come through this right as…rain.” She glanced back at the window again. “Should we go find out what’s happening out there?”
They got to their feet, and went to the dining room where Colleen booted up her laptop, and searched ‘emergency alerts in my area.’ A moment later, she was sorting through a nest of maps and topic links on the NOAA website until she found one that took her to a list of local evacuation warnings for at least a dozen nearby districts, and a map of the greater metropolitan area covered in swaths of yellow, orange and red. The legend matched time stamps to each of these colors. But it took her another few seconds to fully understand what she was looking at.
“Oh my god!” Colleen all but shouted, turning to Anna, who stood just behind her, staring slack-jawed at the screen. “My mother was right! How have we not gotten any warnings or something—like the tornado one yesterday?”
“Emergency alerts are only sent to phones that GPS data places within the affected area,” Anna said, still staring at the screen in disbelief. “We must be far enough from the city not to have been notified…” She leaned in closer, and brought a hand to the side of her face. “If I’m seeing this right, a third of the city…” She looked sharply at Colleen, then reached down for the touch pad and began to magnify the map—zooming in on Colleen’s neighborhood. “Okay…okay, good.” She exhaled in relief. “Your place isn’t even near an evacuation zone.”
“No, but look.” Colleen reached in turn to back the map out again. “The campus is!”
“Oh…no…” Anna’s hand went to her mouth. “I can’t believe this…”
“And if all the rest of this actually floods,” Colleen said, “half the city could be closed off. I might not be able to reach my place for weeks.”
“What’s all the racket about?” came Dusty’s voice.
Colleen and Anna turned to find both Dusty and Thom at the dining room doorway.
“Sounds like you two are having a knock-down drag-out,” Thom teased uncertainly, “or watching a tied-up football game.”
“Half the city’s going to flood tonight,” said Colleen, still barely able to believe it.
“What?” Dusty came to look at her laptop screen. “Since when?”
Thom went back into the living room, where Colleen heard the television come on.
“They start closing these evacuation zones at seven o’clock,” Colleen said. “It’s two now. That gives us five hours to get to my place before all our routes disappear.”
“Well, that should be plenty of time,” Dusty said.
“Maybe not,” Thom called from the next room. “You might want to see this.”
Everyone went to join him before the TV screen—filled with aerial footage of gridlocked freeways near the riverfront. “As you can see,” said the disembodied voice of an off-screen reporter, “there’s literally panic in the streets this afternoon, heading both into and out of the city. Half a million people trying to reach—or flee—their homes or businesses before tonight’s evacuation deadlines. Municipal teams are working frantically in numerous areas around city perimeters to shore up aged and, some say, badly neglected levees and retaining walls built decades or more ago to hold the river back during events like this one, rarely if ever seen in our city’s history, and clearly neither expected nor much prepared for since.”
“Okay, we gotta go,” said Dusty, already heading for the stairs. “Can we take your truck, Thom? It’s bigger than mine.”
“Anna and I will just come along,” Thom replied, digging in his pocket for keys.
Dusty turned back to wave at the TV screen. “Thanks, but trying to get one truck through that will be bad enough. Getting a whole caravan there is just going to slow us down and cause who knows what confusion. We’ll be dashing in and out; there shouldn’t be that much to get, is there, Collie?”
“I guess not,” said Colleen. “Packing whatever I might need for the next few weeks won’t take four sets of hands. But I’m taking my car too, Dusty.”
“Because with just your truck, the cab is full of us, and the things I’m bringing back here can’t just be tossed into your open bed in this kind of rain. With my car there, we’ll have room for things in your cab too—and all of it dry.”
She watched Dusty roll his eyes, and couldn’t believe they were having this argument again. Did he really think that having a truck made him the only qualified driver around?
“Okay, let’s just take your car then.” He waved once more at the television. “No way we won’t get separated in that, and I don’t want to be wondering where you are, or what to do if you don’t show up.”
“We have phones, Dusty!” she snapped. “What we don’t have is time to stand here arguing about it.”
“Just stay together—even if it slows you down,” Thom interjected with noticeable calm. “And I’d still like you to take my truck, Dusty, in case conditions prove rougher than expected. I’d feel better knowing you two had access to a vehicle with four-wheel drive and enough clearance to get you safely through whatever you come up against.” He turned to Colleen. “No disrespect intended to you or your car. But it wasn’t designed for driving through flood zones.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she admitted. “But it does traffic better than a truck, and if we can just get out of here, I’m hoping that’s all we’ll have to drive through.”
“You’re sure there’s nothing else we can do to help?” asked Anna.
“Celebrate your anniversary,” Dusty called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the upstairs hallway.
Colleen gave Anna an apologetic look. “If you get through any more of Matt’s story while we’re gone, maybe you could give us the CliffsNotes? Don’t want to fall too far behind.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Anna. “Take care out there. And don’t forget to bring me Dusty’s copy of that letter. We’ll have dinner ready for you two this time.”
“Oh,” Colleen groaned. “On your anniversary?”
Anna shrugged. “It’s what’s happening on the ground. And you know our rule: always do what’s happening on the ground.” She stepped closer, and surprised Colleen with a kiss on the cheek. “The distraction will do Dusty good,” she murmured in Colleen’s ear. “And permission to play the hero might not hurt either just now. Be patient with him.”
Colleen gave her a rueful smile. “I may need some more reminders before this is done. And thanks for our talk.”
Anna grinned. “I was just about to say the same thing.”