by Kaye George
We spend the first twenty years of our lives preparing to leave home, and the rest of it, trying to get back there.
I remember when we used to horse around in the city swimming pool, wading from the shallow end into the deep and pretending the water was rising and we were going to drown as soon as it reached our noses. I had a fascination for the game and for the water.
Problem was, I had a bad habit of panicking in the deep end and sucking water into my lungs. I loved and hated the game, but didn’t want to be called a sissy, so I went along with the others and played it with my friends. I always lagged pretty far behind, and never got much more than mid-chest deep after the first few times. I always wished I could keep going to the very deepest part.
“Hey, Jazz, where’d you go to?”
I shook my head to clear it. My friend Erica brought me back from those bad memories. The present didn’t feel a lot better, from where I sat. I had thought we would all be safe here, but it looked like I might have been wrong. Our family cabin was not only in the mountains, it was so high up some visitors would have trouble breathing when we’d take them hiking.
Sure, we knew the water levels were rising. They’d been rising for a couple of years. Those scientists who predicted elevated water levels for decades in the future were probably all drowned by now.
“I’m here,” I told Erica. “Just…remembering stuff.” I stood at the window, looking across the rows of ridges, seeing the sun sink in a glorious blaze, the mountains and the sun unaware of what was becoming of our planet. For the last week, the water had crept up the long gravel driveway and was now about fifty yards from the house.
“Jasmine, is there any more firewood anywhere?” Peyton always used my full name. She had just lit the last of the logs to keep us from freezing tonight and sat to huddle next to Erica on the couch.
I turned from the window. My four friends filled the couch, the rocker, and one of the two stuffed chairs. “That’s the last of it. There’s a few more trees right close, but they’re green. We’d smoke ourselves out of here if we burned them.” I walked to the big wooden armoire, and pulled it open. Like most of the furniture here, it dated from my great-grandparents’ time. The wood from the antique furniture might keep us going, but I hated to suggest burning it.
“Did you ever think we’d run out of firewood, with a hundred acres of it right here?” Erica asked.
“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Peyton said.
“How high is the water now?” Chrissy asked me.
“Maybe about sixty steps away. It’s slow. It’ll be a few more days, if it keeps coming.”
“It might stop, right?” Chrissy raised her eyebrows and widened her blue eyes, looking hopeful.
When I didn’t answer, she said, “I guess that’s rhetorical, too.”
This all started weeks ago, about a couple of months, maybe. I had lost track of time. The five of us had come up here for a weekend. We always intended to go back home. We’d been friends since high school and we five were some of the few who hadn’t left town to pursue jobs, boys, an education. Our parents were local merchants and business owners, and one rancher. We had all five gone to work in the family businesses or in town and had never left.
Except me. And Chrissy. Briefly. I went to college for a semester, then came back home. She stayed until the end of the year, then went to a cosmetology school to learn to do hair in her mother’s shop.
“I have time to read a few more pages before we lose the light,” Chrissy said. “Okay?” She looked around for approval.
“Sure.” If no one else took charge, Erica did. She was bigger than the rest of us. Taller and heftier. Her weight had never seemed like a detriment, because she didn’t regard it as such. You might think that being a large person would be a drawback when you were a plumber, but there were probably plenty of smaller people in the family construction business, guys who could fit into narrow places where pipes were sometimes located.
Chrissy picked up the copy of Bleak House that had been on the cabin bookshelves since I could remember. The bookshelves held an abundance of classics. Probably because my grandmother had been a high school English teacher. I doubt anyone had even taken one of the books down before our weekend trip was extended, except maybe to dust the shelves.
I was glad to see there was half of the book left to read. We’d gone through most of the ones we had any interest in and the pickings were getting slim. They had to last until…until this was over.
She started reading where she’d left off, at the beginning of chapter forty.
Her voice lulled me. Took me back a few years. Freshman year at college. Chrissy wasn’t my roommate, but neither of us liked the ones we were assigned and we’d become buddies. I’d known her in high school, but never appreciated her college. She had seemed bland, insipid, and mostly boring. That all changed when I had my break.
I stopped going to classes, overwhelmed by…everything. College life. Bewildering courses. Crowds of people who seemed to know where they were going and what they were doing—all the time. Professors who gave me an F if I forgot to turn something in, even if I promised to have it the next day.
It began to feel like the walls were closing in on me. I stumbled when I walked. People were staring at me and laughing at me, I knew that. I got back to my room one day and sat on my bed. My roommate gave me a disgusted look and walked out. My vision grayed out at the edges. Ringing in my ears grew to a roar. I slipped to the floor and curled up, but it wouldn’t stop. Nothing would stop. Leave me alone.
Gradually, I grew aware of warm hands on my shoulder, rubbing my back. A soft voice came through the din in my ears.
“It’s going to be all right. Someone is coming. They’ll help you.”
Erica stood. I grew aware that Chrissy had finished reading the passage. We all looked up at Erica’s tall, sturdy frame, towering over us.
“Peyton,” Erica said, her voice almost raucous after listening to Chrissy’s melodious one. “You have more cookies?”
Peyton jumped up and pulled a baking sheet from the oven as the timer dinged. “Perfect timing.” She smiled, grabbed a spatula, and shoved them onto a plate. As she said, perfectly round, peanut butter cookies. Warm and wonderful. She left the oven door open to help heat the room. Peyton’s family had owned a bakery before it was devoured by the rising flood waters. It had been at the foot of the town, on the road that proceeded into the valley, the road that disappeared and trapped everyone in the small mountain town. The bakery was the first building to go.
“Banjo would love these.” Beth looked ready to cry. She had wanted to bring her two beloved dogs on this trip, but they had panicked and run off when she tried to get them into her truck to come up here. She called them for a couple of hours, running through the town, even tromping through the forest that surrounded it, but neither Banjo, her handsome chocolate lab, nor Daisy, her glamorous golden retriever, ever showed up. It started to get dark and we all told her we had to leave. Right now. It wasn’t good to drive on the road up the mountain in the dark.
“They’ll come back home after we’re gone,” Erica had said. “Your parents will let them in.”
Beth hadn’t said anything, but looked like she didn’t believe that.
Now Beth took a cookie and nibbled a tiny crumb off the edge. She sniffed, keeping her tears at bay for the moment.
We’d had a good few days here, figuring it was just a break. We would go back home and help out the town, deal with the rising water.
Then the water was here.
We would never go back home.
Tonight, we tried to act like at least something was normal, but the air crackled with our tension. Even though we sat by the fireside munching cookies.
“Look, we can’t ignore this,” I finally said. “We are here. We are never going anywhere else. You can see, by the water level, that our town is gone. We can’t pretend any more. What are we going to do?”
“Drown?” Beth’s voice was tiny, frightened.
Peyton and Chrissy shook their heads.
“Climb trees?” Erica made a face right after she said that. “That would be stupid. Look, maybe the water won’t get this far. Maybe it’ll start to go back down and we can wait it out.”
“And then what?” Peyton asked. “Where do we go? That town is under water. No one is alive.”
“You don’t know that,” Erica said, sounding unconvinced.
“Yes, we do,” I answered. “No one is alive in the town. The town is gone.”
“Maybe they went…to another mountain top,” Erica said. “They could be safe…somewhere.”
We all stared at her. The water had approached the town just as it was approaching us here. It had risen from the valley, cutting them off.
“Why haven’t any of them shown up here?” Beth asked. “Why didn’t my dogs, at least escape and come here?”
I didn’t know why the townspeople hadn’t all fled here, to where we were. Many were elderly, but not all of them were. “Maybe there was a sudden surge. Maybe the water took them by surprise. Maybe they all died in their sleep.”
It had risen a whole lot faster than we ever thought it would.
“That’s nice to think about,” Chrissy said, a slightly insane smile on her pretty face. “Dying peacefully. In your sleep.”
“I know.” Erica sighed. “We are all going to die here. What are we going to do about it?”
We stared at her. Do about it?
“What can we do?” Peyton echoed my thought.
Erica was still standing over the rest of us, who were now seated or sprawled on the floor. “We have options. We can wait here and drown. We can hike a half mile to the top and drown there. Or we can finish it before then. Take control.”
“I like that,” Peyton said. She was ever practical.
“What do you mean? Take control?” Beth’s eyes were wide and frightened. Beth’s job was pet sitting and dog walking in conjunction with her father’s vet practice. I couldn’t help but think that now she was acting like a frightened puppy or kitten.
“Control of our destiny.” Erica made it sound like a heroic thing. She strode to a kitchen drawer and pulled out a paring knife. “We can control what happens.” She waved it in the air, then pointed it toward her wrist.
The others nodded. I shook my head.
I turned my hands palm up, studied the scars on my own wrists. “If you want to do that, I can show you how.”
Chrissy blinked back tears when she looked at me.
She had been the one who found me on the floor in my college dorm room. She had called an ambulance and visited me when I was subsequently confined to the mental hospital. A month before that, she had been the one who found me in the bathroom, attempting to slit my wrists, but failing, because I didn’t know how to do it properly. She was the one who had sopped up the blood and bandaged me. Never telling anyone. Never reproaching me for any of it.
I got up and took the knife from Erica. “Do you all want to do this?”
They all nodded. Resolute. They looked like their minds were made up.
“Okay, do you want to do it yourselves, or buddy up and do each other?”
“It might be easier to do each other,” Peyton said. She looked at Beth and they nodded at each other.
Erica took Chrissy’s hand and pulled her up from the chair.
“Jazz?” Chrissy looked at me, her hand still in Erica’s.
“You go ahead,” I said. “Now look. You have to slice like this. Not like this.” I demonstrated the right and wrong way to end your life. “After you cut, you’ll just wait and bleed out. There’s pain when you first cut, but it will be peaceful soon. You’ll slowly fade away.”
Peyton got another knife from the kitchen and sat beside Beth on the floor. “I guess we don’t need to worry about ruining the throw rug.” She and Beth giggled.
The aroma of cookie dough and peanut butter still lingered, hanging over us.
“What about you?” Chrissy looked at me. “What are you going to do?”
“It’s okay. Go ahead. I have another plan.” I looked out the window where the moon shone on the rising water.
Chrissy knew about my relationship with water. They all did.
“I’m going back.”
“Back?” Erica asked. “You can’t get back.”
“We started in the water,” I said. “Life started in the water. We still start there. All life starts in the water.”
I walked out the front door. Before I left, I watched them through the window. They were proceeding with the plan.
I proceeded with mine. I wanted to go back home. Finally. Back into the water.