by Emily Fontenot
It had been raining for two years. For two years, the rain hadn’t stopped. The South was drowning, and there was nowhere left to go.
* * *
David leaned against the kitchen counter and watched Loraine trace numbers on the small marker board.
“Show me how you would multiply 20 times 5,” Loraine said, offering Milly the marker.
The two of them sat on the floor of the living room doing their lessons. David was lucky that Loraine was a schoolteacher. He wouldn’t have known where to start if not for her. He loved Loraine and she had always been a great mother, but in the past two years he felt the weight of that blessing more than ever.
Two years had passed since the rain started and David still didn’t know what to do with himself. He wasn’t like Loraine—he couldn’t teach Milly the things she should be learning in school. He wasn’t like Milly who could content herself to the entertainment of the objects before her. He was used to working with his hands and body for the majority of the day. He was used to working hard and coming home to crash and relax. Now he had 24 hours a day to do that.
He learned quickly that being trapped in a house was no place for an old country man.
This was oil and gas country. The place where burly boys went off to work for seven days then came back for seven, and never let anyone forget that they worked hard, earned what they got (even if it was paid for with credit cards), and took care of their families (even if they were emotionally absent). Alternative sources of energy would never have worked. That would have required acknowledging and admitting that oil and gas weren’t the best ways to do things, and ultimately, that that source would not last forever.
The South had never been good at acknowledging what would not last. Roots of denial ran deep. For as long as David could remember, the South had not been able to see its doom coming.
The offshore workers would cling to their mantra of “drill, baby, drill” and ignore the helicopters that got turned around by hurricane force winds and the layoffs that came like birthdays.
The Dems in the North were right—they should have seen it coming, but those rigs were all some of these people knew. Straight out of high school, if that, they ran to work. All they saw was better than they had growing up. It was the promise of a paycheck worth getting. It was the promise of a big truck, a house, a wife and kids with a check to blow. The South’s own American dream. And when the layoffs came, they would cuss and fuss, maybe sell their house, be tight for a while, but it would pick back up. They would be rehired, and life would return to normal. The oil industry always picked back up. They would go back to work, probably back at starting pay, but they couldn’t be upset. They’d just be thankful to be working again.
It’s hard to see the harm an industry does when it supports you and your lifestyle. It’s hard to see the harm when your family relies on the check it gives. It’s hard to see the harm in making good money with little training and no education required. It’s hard to see the harm that probably won’t affect your generation or your kids’ generation—until it does.
David had worked offshore for a while. For the first couple of years of his and Loraine’s marriage he worked seven and seven. That’s how they’d bought this house. But then Loraine was pregnant with Milly and his first taste of layoffs happened. It scared him out of the business. He wanted stability for his little family. So, he started at the water plant down the road. They paid him well and liked him. He had chances to move up and could be home every night, so when the oil industry started hiring again, he didn’t apply.
* * *
Panic rose regularly for Loraine. She glanced over at David peacefully watching their lesson. She knew that he thought she had it all figured out. She knew he never would have thought about their daughter’s learning on his own. She knew he was glad that she had.
But the longer this continued, this rain and isolation, the more anxious she became. Loraine was a third-grade English Language Arts teacher. How could she teach Milly anything beyond that? What did she know about anything else?
She could teach Milly to read and to write, to add and subtract, even some multiplication and long division. She knew some history and about the water cycle and photosynthesis. What was worse for Loraine was that she had no resources to help her. Everything she taught Milly had to come from what she already knew and the books she happened to have in the house.
There were times when all she saw was the futility of it all. What good did it do for Milly to know about the water cycle in a place that denied it? When the basic laws of science that even Loraine knew didn’t matter, who cared if she knew about them?
And history? They could be wiped away tomorrow, overwhelmed by the onslaught of water, but here she was explaining the formation of an America that didn’t, couldn’t, exist anymore.
When math was used to count the days between supply drops, who needed more knowledge than basic counting skills? Milly could learn without the numbers to measure water levels and multiply by months, subtract for evaporation. She would do that instinctually to survive.
What good was reading even? Other than a means to pass the time until the water gets too high and drowns them all out and the world forgets about them.
Loraine wished to be somewhere else. She wished they had left. She wished they weren’t alone in this house, trapped. If they were in a place where some travel was possible, some place where they could at least see other people at times, where they could, as a community, teach their children from combined knowledge. If their houses weren’t so far apart, maybe it never would have gotten this bad. Maybe they would have done better to prepare or done better at managing as time passed and things got worse. But no, they were spread out, alone, isolated.
“A hundred,” Milly exclaimed.
Loraine blinked and refocused. She looked back at the board and examined her daughter’s process. “Good job.” She smiled.
Milly looked at her with eyes that had learned to be observant, patient. “Can we do another one?” She handed her mother the marker.
“How about a harder one?” Loraine asked. “We can do it together.” What else could she do?
* * *
They took a break after math and let Milly play in her room. David and Loraine went out to the porch. They sat there for a while.
Loraine looked out at the black water. She thought about how grateful she was for the raised porch and the roof that forced rain away from the house. David had added these early in their marriage. It kept them from being completely trapped in the house. They at least had an outside to go to.
As they sat there lightning flashed and the rain gained momentum. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three—thunder like God’s roar bore down on the house. The ringing subsided as the clouds unleashed their torrent. Sometimes Loraine thought it was personal. Like God himself had remembered something they’d done and poured that wrath into a storm for them. And there were some who believe that. If you turned the dial on the radio two notches from the state-sanctioned news station, you could hear them screaming at the rest to repent. They swore that repentance and humility would make the rain stop.
When Loraine was a girl, they had taught her about Noah and his ark in Sunday school. They had told her about the flood and God’s plan to start over. He killed everyone, except Noah and his family and some animals. This time, no one had an ark to save them. God hadn’t given anyone a way out. Apparently, there was no one worth saving. Not even the animals. Didn’t God want to save them? Weren’t they his creatures too? All dogs go to heaven and all that? What had they done wrong? Unless that was just the Sunday school version, and all dogs didn’t go to heaven. Loraine thought about Lucy and the current that had taken her in the initial storm and rebuked that idea. In that moment, she demanded God take Lucy in. That dog had a soul, even if no others did.
They had told her God promised never to flood the earth again, that the rainbow after the rain reminds them of that promise. Was that the Sunday school version too?
They hadn’t seen a rainbow in years, and the rain wasn’t stopping. She guessed God hadn’t included the South in his promise. It was only part of the earth, after all; he had found a loophole.
* * *
It should be unbearably hot, David thought, now that there was no electricity, but it wasn’t. That’s the good about the rain. It cools things off. If they hadn’t known there was a hurricane in the Gulf, they might have guessed this had all started as a heat rain.
Heat rains in the South weren’t what they showed in the movies—either they didn’t try to or there was just no 4-D, real-life experiencing in a movie. David didn’t know. Heat rains sprung up out of nowhere and usually only lasted about ten minutes. It was too short for the sun to know to hide, so it stayed in place, confused, until the rain left in the same hurry it showed up in.
They were supposed to cool things off a bit—give the earth some time to breathe, and the people too, but you had to be patient. If you weren’t used to it, you might curse it. The minutes after a heat rain were often worse than the heat before it started. The air got thick and moist. The sun seemed to shine twice as bright, as if it realized a trick had been played on it. You could see the freshly dropped rain evaporate and return to its home in the clouds. You could feel the mosquitoes’ grins as they prepared to swarm.
And after all that, after you were done cursing the rain for making it even more miserable—the rain that wasn’t even cool as it pelted your skin—everything would feel a bit better. The temperature would drop two or three degrees, and you would smile realizing nature knew what she was doing all along.
This was no heat rain, though. This rain did not last for ten minutes and leave. It did not even linger—lingering implies subtlety. No, this rain demanded acknowledgement in its presence. This rain had a steady glare that frightened the sun. Maybe nature wasn’t in control anymore. At least it cooled things off.
* * *
Milly sat surrounded by dolls in her room. The rain was particularly strong; it beat against her window with fury.
She picked up her favorite, the blonde one she had dressed in a mini skirt and a sporty tank top, and walked her a few steps saying, “I’m making popcorn.” She stood Becky to the side and propped Seth up on the couch—legs extended and unbent. Seth was a redhead; once a fairy princess, Milly had cut his hair short and dressed him in boyish clothes for Becky.
“The movie’s about to start,” he called back to her.
“It’s almost ready!”
A loud boom of thunder sounded outside Milly’s window. Seth leaned and fell prone on the couch. Becky fell in the kitchen. “Oh no. I dropped the bowl. The popcorn’s ruined.”
Seth came from the living room and helped Becky clean up the mess. “How about I make us some hot chocolate instead?” he asked.
Becky nodded and he sent her to the living room as he started on their dessert.
Milly had once thought of thunder as boom sounds, but that was before the storm. Now she knew that it was more of a rumble. It reminded her of the sound her dog’s stomach made when she laid her head on it after Lucy had eaten. The long growls that tickled her ears were like the long rumbles that shook the walls.
Thunder, Milly thought, was supposed to just be a sound. Her mom had taught her to count the seconds between thunder and lightning to see how far away the lightning was. That was all it was supposed to be—a warning of incoming lightning. But instead it was like a titan making footfalls on the earth.
Some people called them claps of thunder, but that didn’t make any sense to Milly. Claps were to say good job and thunder came before lightning. Maybe thunder clapped knowing its favorite player, lightning, was about to come on stage. Sometimes there were rounds of thunder that chased after lightning so closely it was like the thunder was a crowd of applause with lightning striking again and again because it loved the sound of thunder’s approval. At least, that’s what Milly imagined when she was brave enough to look out her window.
Or maybe she was getting them confused again. Thunder and lightning chased each other so closely and constantly it was hard to tell which had come first sometimes.
* * *
After their break, Loraine and Milly went to reading. They were reading chapter books now. Loraine had Milly reading Because of Winn-Dixie. Milly had never been in a Winn-Dixie before, so Loraine and David told her about how it was when they were kids. They explained the overwhelming tiling, the grey, maroon, pink, and blue color scheme, the lobster tanks, and the coupon machines. Loraine told her about the games she and her brother used to play as their mom shopped.
“Each aisle had at least one coupon machine, so we’d run around the store grabbing coupons. The only rule was that we couldn’t go down the same aisle at the same time. The goal was to get the most by the time Mawmaw checked out. We treated them like currency. It felt like if you had 20 coupons, you had 20 dollars.”
“How did the coupon machine work?” Milly asked.
“That’s one of the funniest parts,” David laughed. “The coupons would be halfway out, like a vending machine with a dollar hanging out, but when you would pull it, there was some resistance. It had to think to push out another one. So you had to give it a good tug and let it finish pushing the coupon out. It was like it was pulling against you.”
“Exactly!” Loraine chimed in. “But it was a race, right? You’d be running and trying to grab the coupons as fast as you could, but you had to wait for the,” Loraine acted out the process of grabbing a coupon from the machine, “buzzzzzzzzz and the release. It always took too long for the next one to print, so I’d just go on to the next aisle.” She sat with a smile on her face, remembering the days of childish wonder.
“Who won the most?”
“Uncle John, for sure. I was too loud. Mawmaw would fuss me for running in the store. Uncle John was quieter; he managed to power walk through the store and collect coupons without her noticing.”
Loraine smiled again at the memory. Then she looked and saw David leaning against the counter again. Outside of the moment. She closed her book. “That’s enough reading for today, huh? Hey, Dad—” David straightened. “How about you cover science today?”
David smiled and thought for a minute. “Okay, kiddo,” he said, walking toward them, “how about we learn about energy?”
* * *
David sat across from Milly. “Now, there are two different kinds of energy: There’s potential energy and kinetic energy. Potential energy—” He paused to make sure he had them straight in his head. He had always gotten them confused in school, but he used his context clues and hoped for the best. He figured it wouldn’t do much harm if he got them wrong anyway. “Potential energy is energy that has the potential to be released. This is kind of like stored up energy. Kinetic energy is energy that’s being used; it’s energy in motion.” He remembered an exercise he had done when he was kid. David asked Milly to grab the yardstick from her room.
She came with it, and he leaned it against the wall so that it slanted. 36 inches of incline. Then he grabbed the marker Loraine had been using and told Milly, “Okay, let’s pretend this marker is a car.”
“Okay,” she said, standing on the other side of the stick, smiling up at her dad.
“Now, when we hold it right here,” he held it where the yardstick met the wall, “it’s like having the brakes on, or being at the tippy-top of a roller coaster. When it’s here, it’s not moving. It’s just storing up its energy.”
“Do you remember what that’s called, Milly?” Loraine asked.
“Yep, potential,” David answered. “To turn it to kinetic energy, we have to get it moving. If this was a car, we’d ease off the brakes. Or, we could pretend it’s a roller coaster and it just paused at the top. But as soon as it crests that—” David let go of the marker, and they watched it plummet down the yardstick to the ground. It met the floor and continued straight for a few feet. “And now it’s potential again.”
Loraine chimed in and said, “There was a scientist named Isaac Newton who said that ‘an object in motion will remain in motion until acted on by a great enough force.’ That means that if the stick didn’t touch anything on the bottom, the marker would keep going forever. The floor is what stopped it.”
* * *
They continued their lesson and tried different objects to slide down the stick and different forces to stop it. They laughed when things didn’t slide down but veered off the yardstick and crashed. David and Loraine reminded Milly of the terms they were teaching her, and she seemed to remember them well. They smiled at her potential and hoped there would be a time when it could be released as kinetic energy into the world.
* * *
David liked listening to the radio. More than liked, really, he needed to. Governor Deshotel’s office issued reports daily. They played on repeat unless there was new information. He spent most of his days listening to those repeating reports, at least those they could catch. The radio was a reminder of the outside world. It reassured him that people were still alive out there. Though he often skipped over the death report; he needed to know that people were alive, not dying.
The reports were more useful in the beginning. The reports were how they knew what was coming after the hurricane blew over. Then they were told that there were small loads of supplies coming on the boats locals had, though calling them boats was generous. Most of them were old, rusted crawfish boats. They were told about the masks and gloves that would come around with supplies, and they were told that they should wear them whenever they went outside or anytime they might come in contact with the flood water. The radio was a lifeline.
But it had been raining for so long now there wasn’t much they could tell him that would help. They told him about the weather—rain, he knew. It wasn’t as if the meteorologists even monitored it anymore. There was no point.
Sometimes he worried that it was all a ruse, that none of it was real. They had just been the unlucky survivors. He took to carefully observing all of Governor Deshotel’s speeches. He listened for repetition. If they were just recordings being replayed to placate them, he would know.
He would know. Not that there was anything he could do with that information, but at least he wouldn’t be being tricked anymore. Maybe once he figured it out the experiment would end. The scientists would come out from wherever they were hiding and thank them for their participation. The audio would stop and the backdrops would rise. He would recognize his driveway again. Lucy would chase cars on the road.
He might not even be angry with the scientists—maybe. At least it would mean that none of this had been real.
He knew it was real. But still, he listened to every word the governor said, committing each to memory, just in case.
* * *
“God’s fingers are like cypress trees, rising out of the water and holding us in place,” Governor Deshotel told her citizens.
Even the governor preached. They couldn’t make it through one announcement without someone telling them to keep the faith or trust in God’s timing. It drove Loraine crazy. If this was God’s plan, it was a fucked up one.
Even thinking that made her want to cringe. She almost instinctively looked over her shoulder. Her mother wouldn’t have stood for that sort of thinking. But how could she help it? Where was she supposed to find God’s plan in all of this? How could her mother answer that?
Loraine didn’t even know if her mom was still alive to answer her. They hadn’t been able to get in touch with each other since before the storm. Her parents hadn’t evacuated either, though that was no surprise to Loraine.
She tried not to listen carefully to the death reports; still, she hadn’t heard her parents’ names. David hadn’t mentioned it either, and she knew he listened.
* * *
Dying and stuck seemed more accurate to David, but he committed the governor’s words to memory anyway. There is something to be said about a landscape built for death though; she had a point. After all, what more is swamp and marsh than decomposing and eroding once living matter?
There used to be bridges that were miles long; they could drive over marsh and see cypress stumps relentlessly there. Their tops gone, and fragmented shades of decaying trunk stood out of the water, but the roots stood firm. Each stump stayed in its claimed space. Each stump stood strong.
Perhaps the trees, like Cajun grandmaws, stayed purely out of love. The tree branches and severed trunks wouldn’t regrow. The stump would hollow out and sit. But, in its hollowed state, it would become its own ecosystem, harboring creatures small enough to scuttle into its holes and under its roots. The stump was dug deep enough and could hold tight enough to maintain its grip on the earth. Storms hit and could not tear it from its place. Creatures relying on it would be safe in the home they’d made of it.
The governor continued her speech, and David milked every whisper of information he could get. He sat in his recliner, across from the radio and listened intently. The governor occasionally issued statements, but they were never anything much, just enough to let the people know the government hadn’t tucked and run.
David scoffed to himself—Run where? There was nowhere to go if all the reports were true. At first that news wrecked him. If it was true, things were hopeless. At least though, it meant everyone was trying. They could keep forgetting about the South, but they couldn’t forget about their own disasters, their own families. So everyone was working on a solution. Everyone everywhere was trying to fix the hole in the universe that caused this rupture. Because surely something had ruptured. Regions around the world were being killed and tormented by various natural disasters. The earth was in the midst of a fever, and the body was trying to fix itself. If Governor Deshotel knew what had caused everything to go to shit, she hadn’t told them. David would have heard it.
* * *
This isn’t a rupture. This is a rapture.
Loraine heard those words echo in her head; she had heard the preachers and fanatics cry on and on about it on the radio. Somehow, they had managed to keep their radio stations working and producing new content too. It wasn’t the environment, they claimed. It wasn’t us tearing holes in the ozone that caused this. Oh, no. This was God’s doing. God was reaching his hand into the earth and plucking out those he wanted to keep.
Then why were all those screamers still here? Loraine would ask them if she could. If they loved God so much and knew so much about his plans, why’d he leave them here? To tell everyone else to repent? That seemed unfair.
* * *
As the governor finished her speech, David walked to the doorway. He stood looking out, keeping the screen door shut. He thought of the cypress trees and their makeshift ecosystems. They hadn’t made homes of cypress trees, but the homes around them were coming to look like it. Homes rose out of landless water with no roots in sight. Their dark colors and algaed exterior blended into the murky water. Some homes were like the broken remains of cypress trees with tarps thrown over their torn roofs. Still others rose out of the water and managed to maintain branches and leaves. But all of them looked isolated and alone, growing as if ignorant of any other growth around them. Across the desolate landscape of murky water and ghost homes were tiny ecosystems. Living like the creatures in long dead cypress trees. That ecosystem, while maybe not thriving, was surviving, and surely, that was worth something.
Emily Fontenot is a writer from south Louisiana. She is currently working on her PhD in Creative Writing at Illinois State University. Her fiction has been published in Children, Churches and Daddies, Quail Bell Magazine, Gone Lawn, The Southwestern Review, and others. Her poetry has appeared in Antenna::Signals and in Buddy, a lit zine, where her poem, debris, won their first annual poetry contest.