By Mary Collins
The waves rolled me back and forth, gripping my little boat in a relentless catch and release. Salt water drenched the wooden bow and drifted towards the palm trees. There was no definite rhythm to this ebb and flow, which made it more difficult to navigate. The only way forward was to pull the oars. I paddled parallel to the shore, past the long rows of abandoned beach houses on the outskirts of town, and regularly glanced back at the wooden crates tied behind me. In the distance, seagulls flocked to the garbage-coated beach, a hurricane of white-and-black feathers, fighting over what remained of the area’s sea life. Their crowded chorus rang in my ears long after I passed them by.
Something felt wrong today. It wasn’t the clamor of the birds, or the loneliness of the buildings, or even the guilt surrounding the stolen contents of the crates behind me. I had long since convinced myself to stop worrying about these things. It was something in the air—a heavy, sticky feeling. A sense of dread. I moved more quickly than usual, frequently looking over my shoulder even though nothing was behind me but open water. I had to get back to Elodie.
I rounded the corner of the isthmus and could finally see our house, dwarfed by trees and overgrown bushes. The house stood on stilts intended to protect it from the dangers of floods and hurricanes. It had once seemed laughably high above the ground, but today the waves lapped all the way up to the base of the stilts. The stretch of beach out front had entirely disappeared. It looked rather claustrophobic, like it might be having difficulty breathing. I paddled up beside it, hopped out into the tepid, ankle-deep water, and dragged my canoe to the shore.
The stillness of the house frightened me. There was little to distinguish it from any of the other abandoned houses I’d passed along the way, except that the wood wasn’t rotting and a light was on in the upper window. Elodie did her best to make things homey, but I missed the signs of life that used to populate the beach and the lawn in the old days, now swallowed up by the tide. This wasn’t what we’d wanted. I was supposed to see Miko building sandcastles on the shore and knocking them down with a red bucket. Or Elodie and I wearing those tacky matching swimsuits that her parents bought us. Our friends would be there, too, with their children, and the kids would play in the water while we sat in hand-me-down beach chairs sipping at sangria from plastic wine glasses. Elodie would arch her head back and laugh that almost hysterical laugh that only her friends could bring out of her. I missed that most of all. Try as I might, she didn’t laugh that way alone with me—never quite that laugh. But still, she wouldn’t dream of leaving.
I carried the crate in through the back door, grunting slightly as I staggered up the carpeted stairs to the main floor. The anxiety I had felt out on the water began to loosen. The house smelled like Pine-Sol and bread, and upstairs the radio was buzzing with the soft cadences of Billie Holiday. Everything was going to be fine.
“Daniel? Is that you?”
Elodie threw open the door at the top of the stairs, and for a moment it framed a flash of concern on her face before she registered my presence. She relaxed and dropped something onto the counter next to her. It fell with a metallic clatter. A knife? Was she really so worried about intruders? We were miles from the nearest sign of civilization. But then again, Elodie always preferred not to take any chances. She came running down to meet me, immediately grabbing the other end of the crate and relieving me of half the weight.
“I told you to tell me when you were coming in,” she said reproachfully. “You shouldn’t have to carry this all by yourself.”
She kissed me, warm, and pulled away again as we climbed the stairs, then crouched to open the crate.
“I will next time,” I promised. It was important to her, although I hated asking for help.
“Seriously, Daniel. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to let your wife help you with a box now and then.”
I wanted to tell her what I had seen in town, but I knew it would only upset her more. The boarded up buildings and waterlogged streets were in worse shape every time I went for supplies. Mold thrived on the damp walls of empty businesses, and abandoned dogs and cats had begun to roam the streets, forming formidable gangs of tattered fur and wandering teeth. Everyday more and more people heeded the government advisory, packed up their things, and paid the exorbitant price for gas to drive inland, north of the coast.
“There are hardly any shops open anymore,” I told Elodie. “Even if we had money, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything.”
We were sitting now on opposite sides of the box, taking out containers of rice and crates of dried fruit. Elodie’s forehead puckered and she searched my face, worrying.
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“Just that things are going to be a little harder now.”
“But we’re gonna stick it out. Right?”
I hesitated. There was still plenty of food left in town that we could continue stealing, and I wanted so badly to reassure her and see the worry wash away from her dark eyes.
“Right,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s your home. It’s our home.”
The house was Elodie’s, a family property originally owned by her grandparents. She inherited it before we got married. It was located ten minutes away from her childhood home, in the same quiet corner of Florida’s pan handle that she’d lived in her entire life. When I met her in Miami, I was a college student, fresh out of an adolescence that was spent constantly moving. Elodie gave me something to hold onto. This was before the fuel crisis and long before the mass displacement of recent years, long enough ago that my family could travel the country in the full peace of our privilege. Florida was just another state at first, no more my own than any other place I’d lived. Until Elodie. The stability of her life intrigued me. I thought I was lucky to be a part of it. But as the sea rose, our luck was running out. “Sticking it out” implied that at some point “it” would be over and the town would return to normalcy, pick up the pieces and carry on—as if the very forces of nature were not against us.
“Why all the towels?” Elodie asked, removing cloth after cloth from the bottom of the crate.
“Oh. Well, it seems like a waste to keep picking up paper towels and toilet paper. They run out so quick.”
Elodie made a face, but nodded.
“It’s more environmentally friendly, too,” I added, grinning.
“A lot of good that does us now,” said Elodie.
Miko’s bedroom was in the attic, the highest point of the house, as an extra security measure. This was not really necessary. The sea did not rise overnight. But it was a strange comfort to me. It was easier to relax knowing that my son was sleeping above me, somehow a little farther removed from our worries.
He was the reason that we stayed, at first. The day he was born, the hospital media screens were all streaming the same news story: the newly-formed emergency Climate Impact Bureau had decided that the Florida coast was no longer a safe place to live. But that was a warning, not a command, and with a newborn baby, it was clear that we weren’t in a position to just leave. And we were so happy, in spite of it all. So we tried to keep things as normal as possible while our town moved out from under us.
The changes came gradually at first. When I was laid off at the construction company, I took up odd jobs around the house, building my canoe and waterproofing the bottom story of the house to keep myself busy. Elodie kept things cheerful in her own special way, making preserves and singing lullabies in the evenings. We danced on the balcony. The months slipped by. When Miko turned two, we gathered the few of our friends who were still in the area and threw a party with a boxed chocolate cake and some ancient yellow-and-green streamers that we had stashed away. Soon afterwards I started scavenging in the city. Now those last friends had left, too, but we still set the table for dinner every night.
When Miko woke up, Elodie brought him down and I took out the last items from the box—two glass coke bottles, the old-fashioned kind which Elodie loved so much, and a small plastic soccer ball. Treasures from the abandoned gas station. We sat on the carpet and took turns rolling the ball back and forth. Miko giggled everytime he caught it. Elodie and I drank the coke and listened to the jazz drifting from the radio. It was some upbeat song with a walking bass line, and I started tapping my fingers to the rhythm. I wrapped an arm around Elodie’s shoulders and tried to feel the fullness of the moment, let the richness of our little family wash over me. All I wanted was to take care of them. But just as I was beginning to relax, the song faded out and a siren cut in. Elodie dropped the soccer ball and Miko watched it roll away to the corner of the room with no attempt to stop it.
The siren blared five times and a man began to speak.
The National Hurricane Advisory is issuing a severe hurricane warning as a Category 4 storm approaches the Florida coast. The National Bureau of Climate Impact is mandating an evacuation of the panhandle in advance of the storm. Residents are advised to turn off gas, electricity, and water utilities prior to evacuation. Contact your local….
I was already on my feet, looking from the old radio to the crate still sitting in the middle of the room, calculating what to take with us, what to leave behind. Would we all fit in the canoe, make it to town that way? Or would it be better for me to go first and send for help?
Elodie’s eyes were wide and wild and she was clutching Miko to her with unwarranted ferocity. Her hair, rife with humidity, surrounded her like a mane. The radio crackled and fear prickled in my chest.
“Elodie, it’s a hurricane,” I said. “We’ll have to evacuate.”
“I know what a hurricane is.” She set her jaw. “Once we leave, they’ll never let us come back. The government, I mean. They’ll say it’s too dangerous.”
“And for good reason!”
I was tired of sugarcoating things for her.
“Listen, Elodie. You don’t go into town, you never take the boat out, you don’t know what it’s like out there. We can’t stay here with a hurricane on the way. We’re not going to stay here with our kid.”
I reached for Miko, wanting to smooth his baby curls and soothe his anxiety, but she pulled him away, jerking backwards and throwing me off balance. She was stronger than I thought.
“No,” she spat at me. “You promised me we would stay. It’s safer here—you said so yourself.”
I tried to explain, heat rising to my forehead, that all that was before the hurricane, that this changed things, and that if she didn’t come with me now, I would go on my own and alert the authorities, who would surely take her away from the house. But through everything I said, Elodie just rocked Miko back and forth, saying, my baby, my baby. Her baby. It was beginning to rain outside, a warning from the heavens, and I slammed my fist on the coffee table with frustration. The half-empty coke bottles teetered on the edge, then toppled to the ground and shattered. Elodie shrieked.
“I’m your husband!” I said, a strangled feeling in my throat. “I know what’s best for us! How the hell do you think you’d survive here without me bringing you food—and water, and medicine, and god knows whatever else you decide that you need?”
Elodie said nothing. Her eyes flashed wordless fury and she turned away so I could only see the tightening of her jaw. Miko started crying, too young to comprehend our argument. Elodie remained silent as she hunched over him. She had never looked so small or so scared. I wanted to say something else, to soften the space between us, but the anger was still boiling behind my eyes and I couldn’t find the words. The rain picked up outside, creating a furious rhythm on the windowpane.
“If that’s how you feel, you should leave,” Elodie said finally.
She sat up straight, calmly now, her baby quietly resting in her lap.
The inside of the storm was all wind. Daniel had not expected that. The rain became an afterthought, or perhaps more accurately a precondition, completely unimportant compared to the instability of the howling air. Windows shattered and roofs fell. One man’s canoe stood little chance of reaching any kind of help.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Elodie knew that. Usually there were grace periods after the warning signs and enough time to outrun the clouds. And it wasn’t clear who was to blame—the storm itself for its unpredictability or the humans monitoring it for their incompetence. But somewhere along the line, something had snapped.
It made little difference in the end, and would receive little attention because of the scarcity of people in the area. The storm had been coming anyway. It had always been coming.
When the clouds cleared, Elodie searched the beach for hours. She held Miko tightly by the hand, guiding him through the destruction. Tangles of trees and bushes that once characterized her childhood lay uprooted on the sand, intermingled with variant debris. She looked into each pile, fearful of seeing Daniel’s lifeless hand or leg or, perhaps worse, the sweater he had been wearing, her favorite, the blue one that brought out his eyes. Miko would not stop asking where Daddy was, and Elodie could not think how to answer. He was in every palm branch, every piece of driftwood, around every corner. She quickened her pace. The waves washed in and out on the shore. She began to look at them, too, but she could not bear the idea of seeing him there under the water. He had left in his canoe right before the storm picked up. She’d called him back, called until her throat grew hoarse, but the winds were too loud and the boat was too far and he was gone before he could hear a word.
She walked until she reached town, and sank to her knees in the rubble of the buildings. After a time, someone found her, a rescue worker who directed her to an aid station with a shock blanket and a truck to take her and Miko away. The palm leaves sighed in the wind and they joined the thousands before them moving north