Hanging, Just Outside the World – By Jim O’Donnell

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“See how the waters are rising in the north; they will become an overflowing torrent.

They will overflow the land and everything in it, the towns and those who live in them.

The people will cry out; all who dwell on the land will wail.” (- Jeremiah 47:2)

 

Somewhere within the fits of reason that assailed her, Sunny caught a glimpse of the boy. There, between the sleeping and the dreaming, she knew she always would.

“I saw him again.”

“Oh?” The nurse pulled a thin blanket over Sunny’s shoulders. Sunny lay in a deep chair, curled into a ball. Her hips ached and her back was tight. The nurse opened the curtains. The sun streaked in, lighting the bed in front of her. Instantly she felt the heat and pushed the blanket off and onto the floor. The bed was still empty. She’d hoped that, maybe, the bed wouldn’t be empty. She hoped that, maybe, it had all just been one long nightmare. She took a deep breath.

“Yes,” she said.

“Wait. Which boy?” The nurse was cautious.

“The one there on the docks.”

“Huh? Oh…Ok.” The nurse pulled at his blue scrubs, adjusted his surgical glass and sat down on the empty bed. He ran his fingers through his dark hair and sighed. “Do you want to tell me about him?”

“He’s gone. They’re all gone,” she said. “It hurts.”

“Nothing hurts forever.”

“A mother shouldn’t have to bury her own son.”

The nurse nodded. He didn’t know what to say to her.

“You remember the ferry that used to go out there?” She asked. “Do you remember? You could still see the island from shore that spring.”

“Not anymore.”

“No.”

“It wasn’t so far away then.”

“No…Of course it was actually there, then. And then it wasn’t.” Redoubt had reinforced the old ferry in the winter because of the waves. They’d grown so big out there almost anything would roll. They took out all the windows and welded in steel plates. The third deck was like a fortress. They reinforced the hull and put in padded chairs and seat belts. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. Just transportation. “Do you remember?”

He didn’t. He was too young. The ferry hadn’t run for years.

“I had to get out there to the island to get back. But I was afraid to go home.”

~ ~ ~

Sunny gasped when she crawled up into the devil-eye of the sun. It was very hot. The stench of sweat and breath and bodies had overwhelmed the cabin. But the island air wasn’t an improvement. It was still and humid and stunk like seagrass, brine, and oil. Sunny felt the apprehension she held for this place well up inside of her. She pulled her shirt over her head. Then, like all the others, she popped open her white umbrella. On the dock, the captain waited. She was stiff and sweating. She was nervous and impatient.

“I don’t understand why you come back here, Sunny,” the Captain growled. “This place is a prison. Everyone is leaving and you come back.” She shook her head.

Men and women in blue Redoubt Ferries uniforms stacked boxes, trunks, and suitcases. Then, one of them scanned each tab and printed a bar-tape receipt in black thermo-print for its owner. Others formed a line and passed the luggage into the ferry. The old LNG Wärtsilä engines grunted against the waves to keep the boat steady. It was all very orderly. Sunny walked down the dock and into a silent crowd. The families relieved for the moment of their possessions, crowded around under their umbrellas. Sunny recognized faces but couldn’t place them with names. They were all drenched in sweat and swatted at the mosquitos and bugs the rose up in clouds from the edge of the marsh. Some broke off into small groups and mingled to the side.  One family set about trying to build a smoky fire against the bugs. The others simply watched.

The boy was standing just there. It was the first time she’d ever seen him. He was blond, like all the rest, but his skin was a deep bronze color. He was grimy and hungry-looking. He watched the ferry with intent hazel eyes.

The Captain walked over to Sunny. “Look. You’ve got to talk them off of here. This island is a death trap.”

“That’s not why I’m here.”

“What is it you want, Sunny?”

“I want my mom’s things and that’s it. Then I’m out of here.”

“They’re all going to die. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“You want that on your conscious?” The Captain asked.

“I hate them. Why would I care?”

“Family. You have to talk them off.”

But Sunny just looked at the ground. “Fuck it,” said the Captain. “But you listen to me. If they don’t go on the Guard boat…the last boat out is us. And for the return trip we’ll have just your seat left,” she said. “If you bring out any of them after the Guard leaves you’ll have to give up your seat. Think twice about that, considering your condition.” Sunny nodded.

The Guard had set a perimeter just beyond the boathouses and Gillie’s Fish Shack. They funneled the islanders in along the white-picket fences of Sheridan Lane and down to the docks. Most of them were unarmed. Sunny could see the strain on their faces. Someone had taken shots at them earlier in the day. For some of the islanders the Guard weren’t to be trusted. The soldiers on the perimeter had rifles. They scanned the tree line and the cliff faces with ancient binoculars, a single laser-sight and rifle scopes.

Tom met Sunny at the end of the pier. He was thin and brown from the now endless summer. His eyes were a baked brown. He didn’t try to hug her. She couldn’t believe they had once been so close. “I told you not to come back,” was all he said.

“It’s good to see you too, cousin.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just not smart. It’s not safe.”

“It’s my home, Tom,” she told him.

“No. It’s not.”

“This isn’t exactly the reception I’d expected.”

“Ya,” he said. “No bags?”

“No. I’m here two nights. That’s it.” She made a sound like a jet taking off. “I’m not sticking around for your storm.”

Tom led her along Sheridan to the deck at Gillie’s. The bar sat on this side of the mouth of a treeless and swampy spillway that cut back up into the island to where the bridge used to be. The spillway was lined with white, red, and pale blue crab shanties. Sunny and Tom sat under Gillie’s fabric shade.

“Let’s drink a beer,” she said, wanting something to calm her nerves.

Tom shrugged. “They’re hot.”

“Everything is hot.”

“You want the local?”

“Tastes like ocean.”

Tom stuck his head in through a hole in the wall of the structure. “She wants the better!” He shouted.

“Of course,” came the reply.

Gillie waddled out. He brought two glasses and two bottles. He looked at Sunny. She was looking off at the turbines in the bay. They were white in the sun. None of them turned in the still, and half of them were in ruins. “They look like monsters,” she said.

“I’ve never seen a monster,” Tom said.

“I have.”

“Long time, girl,” Gillie said, breaking in. His bald head was shiny in the sun. “They’re warm of course.”

“Nothing at all cold?”

Gillie shook his head. “My panels have been down for months. I can’t afford new ones.”

“I’ll need a shot before I can down that swill,” she said to him, trying to smile.

“You’ve gotten weak there in the city, Sunny. We’ve got one last bottle of whiskey on the island,” Gillie said. “We’d hoped you’d bring some more.”

“For the funeral?”

“Come on,” Tom said.

“Well? Who will be left to drink it?” she said and looked to the growing crowd over at the docks. “They’re not sticking around.”

“I’ll drink it. I’m not going anywhere.” Gillie poured out the three shots of whiskey and capped the bottle.

“What? Gillie…”

He took his shot and passed into the cement structure.

“When are you going?” Sunny asked Tom, although she knew the answer. “One Guard evac, one ferry ride. That’s all that’s left.” Tom downed his whiskey, sipped at his beer and looked out over the water, saying nothing.  “You have got to be kidding,” she said.

“So? What are you doing here?” he asked.

She sighed and shook her head. “I’m going to get Uncle Frank and get my things from mom’s place…”

“What’s so important out at your mom’s?”

“My future.”

“Just the past, more like.”

“I’ve got to take care of me. Nobody else will.”

Down along Sheridan someone shouted. It was a man. The Guard wouldn’t let him in. They’d stopped him at the checkpoint just beyond Gillie’s deck. Several of the Guard rushed the perimeter and held him back. He pushed at the men and yelled. “Those are my kids too!”

A woman and three children stood along the gravel road and down past the white picket fences. She turned. You could see she’d been crying. She set down her bags and checked her device. She shook her head and placed it into her pants pocket. “Then, come on!” she shouted back. He didn’t respond and dropped his shoulders. The Guards stood off of him. A Lieutenant walked over and said: “If you’re leaving, you’re welcome in. But we can’t have you in here making a problem. We’ve got enough to deal with.”

“I know,” said the man. And then he just stood there.

“Jesus Christ,” Sunny hissed to Tom. She stood and walked to the railing. “You didn’t build the jetty high enough did you? It’s just gone now. There’s sea junk in the streets, Tom. The whole place smells like a sewer and look at me…I’ve sweated off ten pounds just since I got here. And you got a guy there who doesn’t want his family to leave? What is wrong with you people?”

“You never tried to understand us,” he said.

“But would that have helped? I mean, what’s the point of trying to understand people who reject reality?”

“You abandoned us.”

“You abandoned the world,” she waved her hand at the water. “So now the rest of the

world is at fault for not coddling your willful ignorance? For Christ sake. Somebody should’ve fixed this place,” she said.

They were both silent and then: “It’s all on His timetable,” Tom said.

“God won’t save you, Tom.”

“I’ve got faith.”

“I’ve got no faith that you’d ever make a smart choice,” she said.

Tom sat silent, fingering the empty glass. He wiped the sweat from his face.

“How many are there?” She asked him.

“A couple dozen.”

“Jeanie? The boys? Are they doing this? That’s why the Guard won’t go round everyone up, isn’t it? They don’t want a damn shootout with a pack of kids.”

“But they…we…. wouldn’t go anyway.”

“Jeanie won’t let them go, you mean. You’re all a God damned cult,” she shook her head. “Who is that?” She pointed at the boy she’d seen near the dock.

“Nobody.”

“Oh. You mean I’m seeing ghosts now?”

“Don’t worry about him.”

“I’ve never seen him before.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Frank will come. I’m going to get him. He’s too smart for this.”

“No. No he won’t and you leave him alone, Sunny. Do you hear me?”

“I’m going out there, Tom.”

“You get what you need and be back here to get on that boat when it comes back. You don’t belong here. I’m warning you.”

“And I am warning you.”

“We know how you are. Do you think anyone’s forgiven you?”

“Thanks for nothing, cousin,” she told him. “I remember when we were friends.” She left the terrace.

“Sunny,” he said. “Island Road…you can’t drive on it anymore. Chantel took the truck down there just last month. There were waves crashing in on it…..she tried to cross and…”

“Ya. I know.”

“I don’t know if you’ll have time.”

“It’s all on His timetable,” she said waving her arm at the sky.

“Just go out and come back. Nothing else. They’ll be watching you.”

“Good.”

~~~

From the open window the broad sweeping sea reached to the sky. Thin floral curtains fluttered in a light breeze that had just begun. It wasn’t cool, but at least it was moving. The holoscreen hovering above Frank’s drafting table flickered a series of numbers and graphs and comparison model runs. Along the bookshelves sprawled her uncle’s collection of shells and flotsam and old photographs. One of them was of her and Tom, children, fishing from the dock. The others were all of various cousins or island sunsets. There were no pictures of Frank’s wife. In one photo, however, Frank stood on a corner in the city. He held an eye-catching younger woman in his arms. He was very good-looking, Sunny thought. Sunny couldn’t recall her name but Frank had left his wife for her. Later, when Triana fell silent and funding dried up, he also left the young woman. He left her alone in the city with a child so he could return to the island. The woman wanted to come. He said no. He had work to do. He wasn’t a bad man, Sunny thought. Just a man.

The curtain snapped and Sunny looked up. She watched as the tri-drone dropped out of the sky and approached the house. A swarm of smaller drones buzzed in behind it then split off and made for the mainland. The tri-drone slowed just before the window. It judged its surroundings then slid into its cradle. It powered down and linked itself to the main system. Radar reflexivity values, barometric pressure readings and other numbers she couldn’t evaluate appeared on the holoscreen beaming over the drafting table. A second holoscreen came to life over the desk and the video of the flight looped there.

Then the room darkened and the video moved off the holoscreen and into the center of the room. Sunny found herself in the middle of the approaching storm. The clouds swirled around her, some puffy white, others a battleship grey and a growing number nearly black. If she stared long enough at one area, each point appeared, grew, then shrank back to a single dot and was gone. The winds powered up and the rotation was nauseating. She braced her feet. The eye centered on her and above, the roof of the house disappeared. She could see the cold tops of thunderstorms climb into a blue sky. She looked down. The floor gave way to a violent dark ocean tipped in frothing streaks of white. She gasped.

“In this tool,” said Frank, “you can see the vertical structure of all the radar echoes. You can see the difference in structure between convective and stratiform echoes.”

“It’s fantastic,” she said.

“It’s a simple, looping four-dimensional rotation. This is what NASA hired me to build.”

Again, the eye of the storm centered on her and she watched the cloud walls swirl like a meaty stew. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s also the end of us.”  The storm flew back to the holoscreen and the lights came back on. “This is the only time it will ever get used. We’re going dark.”

“Frank,” she said. “It’s time to go.”

He shook his head.

“Uncle Frank…”

“There are some tides you just can’t swim against, Sunny. No. Not me. And did you see? Jeanie and the boys. They’re not letting people leave anyway.” Frank walked into the room and past her. He was limping. He looked old to her but he smiled and his eyes were dry. He’d trimmed off his moustache and most of his hair.

“Well, why are there dozens down at the docks?”

“It’s just family members they’re keeping. That’s me.”

“But…just family? That’s half the damn island! It doesn’t even seem human,” she said. “You’ll all be dead.”

“Well… Human and human. I’m not sure there’s much humanity in any of this.” He took in the breeze from the window, flapping his shirt.

“That’s the point of it all, isn’t it? We’ve gone ahead and destroyed humanity.”

“No,” he said, “that’s not right. Humanity won’t die off, even if our civilization does. Humanity is more like a garden, Sunny. There are beets and corn and squash and snow peas. There are zinnias and tomatoes and spinach and chard and raspberries and marigolds. When the carrots are pulled, the tomatoes ripen. When the corn dies the squash produce. Aphids come and ladybugs come next. A grasshopper and then a blue bird. Life and death all at once. All the time.

“In the garden you describe, Sunny, there are tomatoes. Only the tomatoes. When a blight or a wilt comes along all your tomatoes die and that’s all you had. Everything is dead. That’s not a real garden. You’re talking about the death of one plant and equating it with the death of the garden. Technology won’t save us. We will be a fundamentally different people before too long. But we are a civilization-creating species. We’ve signed the death warrant for our civilization but humanity will continue on.”

“So, why are you letting them keep you?”

“They can’t keep me. I’m staying.”

“And all this?” She waved her arm around the room. “For this?”

“Of course. I’ll send all the data along to NASA as long as I can. These machines are the last one’s they’ll make.” He pointed to the drone on its perch. They’re not getting anything from GOES 16 anymore. It was an extraordinary machine. It lasted decades. But it’s gone dormant now. We’ll go dark with what we don’t know and we choose not to know.” He fell silent. “So. Anyway. Tell me. How’s the city?” he asked. “I’ve heard the refugees….”

She relented. “You wouldn’t recognize it,” she said. “The water came up too fast. And the people. They’ve just been pouring in. They’re coming from everywhere now. All up and down the coast. The governors, the mayor and the Feds struck a deal to house the new ones in the suburbs. The first ones? They’ve built cities within the city. Out on the edge they started printing tents and kitchens. The idea was that they’d be there just for a few months before they could be resettled out west. Of course, there’s no water out there. Just space. All the water is here,” she sighed. “Now they’ll never move. Most of them at least. The camps just get bigger. I heard some people from Florida started printing permanent structures. Even their own drinking water and sewage system. They aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to build their own city. It’s a mess. It’s just hard to imagine no one ever planned for this.”

“But what’s that like for you? I mean, personally? How does reality impact my favorite niece?”

“The museum is fine. But I’m just the same Uncle Frank. Marooned. But that’s nothing new.”

Frank nodded and sat. “What’s so important out at your mom’s place?”

“The road forward, I think.”

“Explain.”

She sighed and walked in small circles until Frank cleared his throat. “I’ve got a little boy growing inside of me,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Ya.”

“Enhanced?”

“No. Not enhanced. And no, I don’t know who the father is, so don’t even ask.” She sighed again and dropped her shoulders. “And I’m not going to have a job soon.”

“Ahhh…So that’s it. A baby. No job. So, you come home. And just in time for the party, too!” He laughed.

“The city decided to sell the collections to help pay for the seawall. So I’m about to be a mom with no money. Rent and food…the price just keeps going up. I’m in a bad way.”

“And your mom’s?”

“The journals.”

“You know where they are?”

“I hid them. Right after she died. I couldn’t take them then so I hid them. I didn’t want Jeanie or Chantel to get their hands on her stuff. I figured they’d be worth something someday anyway. So I hid them all out at the house. I figure I can either edit and publish them or just make an offer to the University. No doubt they’d pay to get ahold of all that. I guess. I don’t know. I hope.”

“Ahhhh….I’d wondered where it had all gone,” he said.

“She didn’t want any of our idiotic family to get their hands on them anyway.”

“My sister was pigheaded,” said Frank. “That doesn’t mean wrong, just stubborn as could be.”

“Some things are genetic, I guess.”

“Will you stay?”

“Yes. Please. Just the two nights.”

“The front room is always yours.” He smiled at her. “Are you hungry?”

She nodded. He led her, pulling his right leg behind him, down the stairs to the kitchen. He didn’t offer an explanation for the leg so Sunny decided not to ask.

The kitchen was dark. It remained neat and tidy like she remembered. From the cold box in the floor, Frank pulled out a slab of smoked fish, a loaf of bread and a mass of carrots. He made two sandwiches then packed them in a small bag with the carrots. He filled a bottle with water from the filter. “Come,” he said.

They pushed through the humidity into a small and buggy grove of oaks then out along the shore where they opened the umbrellas. “See that crab boat?” Frank said. She nodded. It wasn’t far. A football field, maybe two. A tern crashed into the waves, hunting. Sunny herself dove deep, conjuring the past from the waters. “The school,” she said.

There had been thirty children at the school. It had been square and blocky, made of cement against the storms. Just next to the school there had been a playground that flooded at high tide. And a store. Tom had been one grade younger than Sunny. She remembered waiting for him outside after school then running off together to the store for ice-cream. Then they sat on the swings, running their toes across the rim of the water while slurping at the melting chocolate. They were happy there watching the freighters round the cape going up to the city.

Tom was Jeanie’s son. So, he had always been a part of her group. He was raised into it. But he seemed tangential to it all somehow and you could see the strain on his face when, one windy Sunday afternoon, he’d told Sunny and her mom about the baptisms and the cuttings and the marriages. He’d told them not to tell. The next day he’d paid for Sunny’s ice-cream from his allowance. “I have faith in you,” he told her that day. But that was all under water now.

It’s coming up too fast,” she said.

Frank nodded.

“It’s not easy to be here,” she said.

Again, Frank nodded.

“It is everything I want to leave behind.”

He nodded yet again then led her along to a small rise. Two tombstones stood in the marsh just feet from the waves. “The Georges came and dug up their people before the cemetery drowned. They reburied them in the back yard. Eskridge did the same. Like they think the dead care.”

“Maybe they do,” Sunny said. “Jeanie and the rest are obsessed with our dead.”

“But they’re human too, Sunny. I’d like for you to try to get them off of here.”

“No.”

“Try.”

Again, a breeze lit across the water. “Oh. Thank God,” Sunny said and lifted her arms. This time it was cool.

They ate the sandwiches and carrots then continued along the shore. When they came to Island Road, Sunny gasped. She could see her mother’s house out on the rocky point. It had been there for more than two-hundred years. It stood alone. The little neighborhood was gone. Island Road was covered in sea and the crabbing boat they’d seen earlier crossed over it, heading home. The crabber waved.

“I’m going to need a boat,” said Sunny.

“Try the one in the cemetery forest.”

“Will it float?”

“Let’s see.” And they walked from the shore.

“The water,” said Frank, “it’s turned on us.” Frank had been alive long enough to remember when the island was a peninsula. “Now we’re hanging, just outside the world.”

“Come off with me Frank.”

“No. I’ve had enough. This is home.”

“You have a future you know.”

“Sure,” he laughed. “But it’s the past I want!”

~ ~ ~

The figure moved, wraith-like, through the oaks and into the bramble about the cliff. Sunny called to it but there was no response. She wiped the sweat, left the overturned skiff and followed.

The path wound through the cemetery grasses and up past a spring that had turned all salty. The oaks were thick. Small splashes of light reached the forest floor moving like fairies if the breeze pushed against the branches above. Fairies. Or souls. She followed out along the cliff’s edge, calling ahead, but found nothing. When she dove back into the oaks she saw it again. Two this time. Or perhaps three. They moved parallel to her. She called out to them. They disappeared. She stopped. She recalled Tom’s warning and it occurred to her she was being hunted. She tensed. Then she could feel their eyes peering at her through the forest. Several pairs…dozens? Hundreds? She tried not to panic.

Sunny despised the eyes of the island. When her mother brought her back from the city after the Guard raided the island she’d felt them. The eyes of the whole family. Of the whole island. She had betrayed them all. Without the protection of her mother and Frank she might have just disappeared. Disappeared like the girl who had run away from her marriage and told the sheriff she was too young to be married and to an old man at that. The sheriff had simply taken her back and then the girl was gone. Sunny never saw her again. For a long time, Sunny wondered if she had even done the right thing.

The figures moved again and Sunny called out to them, trying to be brave. “Come out,” she said. “You need to leave. There is a storm coming. A big one. A killer. You won’t survive.” But there was no answer and no movement. Still, she could feel the eyes on her. Then a rock thumped to the ground next to her.

“Go home, Sunny!” A small voice called out. “You don’t belong here!”

Sunny ran.

The ground was uneven and she stumbled straight off. She came up and raced down past the old headstones and up along the fold in the land where the spring ran. At the top, she could see them weaving among the trees. Her heart dropped. Jeanie’s boys. The one’s she had collected around her after she’d left prison. The children of her cult, the cult the Guard had broken apart.

Sunny raced on toward the old boat, aiming for the clearing below Frank’s house. The boys moved in closer, paralleling her on either side. She weaved among the trees, gasping for air. They caught her at the boat. Twelve shirtless, barefoot, grimy boys with grim faces. They were armed with rocks, lengths of pipe and timber clubs. She stopped cold. “I’m pregnant,” she told them.

“You’re not one of us,” said the tallest boy.

“I’m sorry,” she said. But she didn’t mean it. She was frightened.

“Leave.”

“Come away with me,” she said. “I can help you if you come. I can’t help you here.”

The boy looked at her and considered then shook his head.

“Hey!” Someone shouted.

The boy took a step towards Sunny and raised his club.

“Back off!” Tom came from the clearing. “Go on back, boys,” he told them. They disappeared into the trees, like ghosts.

Sunny watched them go. Then her fear turned to rage. “What the fuck was that about?” She screamed at Tom.

“I had nothing to do with this. But I warned you,” he shouted back.

“They listen to you! You’re part of this? Your mother is a fucking child molester and you’re OK with that?”

“Why do you persecute us for our beliefs?”

“I’ve never given a damn about your beliefs! It’s about your impact on others! Dammit!” She yelled, and kicked at the boat until her foot hurt. The rage inside drained to sorrow and she felt tired. She paced and rubbed her belly. “Just dammit,” she said. She paced more and fought back tears. “I’ve got this life to grow,” she said and pointed at her belly. Then she rubbed it again, gently.

“I didn’t know.”

“Of course not.”

“Did you come here for forgiveness?”

“What do I need forgiveness for?”

“You’re not Jesus.”

“I didn’t lie, Tom.”

“Honesty isn’t the point.”

“Loyalty above truth, then?”

“Something like that.”

The oaks swayed in the wind, creaking and groaning. Tom pointed up. “Our dead sing from the trees. We’ve always buried our family here, Sunny. You know that.” He pointed at the ground. “Our blood, our bones, our genes…they’re all a part of this earth. And the trees have grown here, taking up our material as part of them. Even they’re family. How can we not have loyalty to that? It’s our land. Our home. You want us to leave that?”

Sunny nodded. She watched the smears of sun play across the grasses. If she understood anything, she understood this part of it all. “We were friends once. Cousins. We played together all the time. I loved you.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Tom. What I did had nothing to do with our family’s history or to our roots. I told because your mom…that side of the family…was hurting people.  Marrying little girls to old men.”

“But this is what God told us. It’s a way of life. And if we live right with God we save our land. Our roots.”

“No,” she said. Then: “God never told you that.”  She paced again. “Do you have a little wife now? Is this happening again?”

“You know nothing about loyalty, Sunny. You’ve always been just out for yourself. I’m protecting a whole way of life.”

“You’re all going to die. And you deserve to die.”

Tom laughed out loud. “You know nothing of faith.”

“No,” she agreed. “I’ve never had any faith.” Sunny walked away towards the clearing.

“I’ll keep them away from you, Sunny. But you have to hurry up and leave.”

Somewhere in the distance they heard the pop, pop, pop of gunfire. And Tom was gone.

~ ~ ~

The bottom level of the house was all full of water. The mangrove had moved in and backed up all along the rear where the dock and garden had been. Sunny hesitated and closed her eyes. She left her shoes and umbrella by the swing set, hiked up her dress and waded inside. The water was warm, like a bath. She could see through to her feet, the sidewalk and the crabs creeping along what had been a well-maintained yard. Cattails and a dark green bramble grew just on either side of the front door. A cloud of mosquitos lifted when she came into the gloom. She covered her face with her dress and closed her eyes.  She could smell the mold and rot.

“Hello?”

“Upstairs, sweet Sunny!”

She crawled up onto a platform of two by fours lashed together and set on piles above the water. That lead to the stairs and she climbed to the third story. A thick tarp served as a door and she pushed her way through. The room was dark and cave-like. Hot and stale. The ceiling was low and the room was filled with a thin smoke and the stench of unwashed bodies.

Jeanie sat in the gloom in a wide wooden rocking chair that creaked when she moved. A reedy beam of light fell on her from a crack in the curtains. Her hair was gray now, her skin,  ghost-white. She smiled with oversized yellow teeth. She was almost too large for the rocker. The blond boy from the docks stood next to Jeanie. His eyes caught Sunny’s and held them.

“Hello, my love. It’s been far too long. Actually, I’m surprised you’d even come here. Bravery isn’t exactly your strong suit.”

“Hello, Aunt Jeanie. It looks like there’s been some changes.”

“The world is always changing, my love. We can’t do anything about that, now can we?” She laughed.

“Hi there,” Sunny said to the boy but he remained silent. “Who is he?” Sunny asked.

“That is Chantal’s boy,” said Jeanie. “There is something wrong with him. He doesn’t talk much. He can’t choose for himself. Now. Tell me about you. I love it that you’ve grown your hair back out. You look like a woman again. Scrawny but still like a woman. I hope you got rid of those awful tattoos too.”

“I saw him down at the dock. Where does he live? Does he have a name?”

“What’s the point of a name?”

Sunny sighed. “I’m fine…” They stared at one another, waiting. “Where is everyone, Jeanie? Where are the boys? Do you know the house is flooded?”

Jeanie stared at Sunny then began rocking again, pushing with her rough, bare toes. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Sunny took a step back and assessed the room. A huge cross, one of the old plastic ones, hung from the ceiling. There was a line of chairs stacked up against the wall. A hundred-year-old transistor radio crowned a stack of boxes. A large empty table dominated the room. Smoking coils of mosquito repellent hung by fishing line from the ceiling.  It was all very bare bones and despite the curtains, the windows were open in false hopes of catching a sea breeze.

“Frank says you’re not letting anyone leave.”

“Why should they?” Jeanie’s voice dropped.

“Do you know what’s coming?”

“Nothing is coming, Sweet Sunny. That’s what.” Sunny started to speak but Jeanie waved her off. “Your problem Sunny…just like your mom…is that you believe everything they tell you. They want this island cleared, Sunny. And they think it will serve somehow to scare us off with stories of a big, bad Cat 6. They think that we’ll just up and run away and just let them get it. No dear. Enough of that.”

“Frank too says its coming. I’ve seen it on his holoscreen.”

“Hollywood.”

“Jeanie…”

“He works for them, Sweet Sunny. Don’t worry. Frank has had his warning.”

“Warning? Warned about what? What do you mean?”  She put a hand on her belly and paced in a circle, thinking. “Is that why he’s limping? Did you hurt him? Is that your warning?” her mouth was dry now.

Jeanie resumed rocking and folded her hands into her lap. Sunny paced more, circling. “Does he stay?” Sunny asked, pointing to the boy. “I can get him on the Guard evac ship.”

“No,” she said. “There is something wrong with him…he wants to learn how to swim. Seriously? He said one thing in 2116: Can you teach me how to swim? Can you believe it?” Jeanie laughed in her grunting way and slapped her knee. “Swim. Can you believe it?”

“You’re keeping him here to die then?” Again, Jeanie didn’t respond. “That’s just not human,” said Sunny. “He doesn’t even have the ability to speak for himself and what he wants. So, you decide?”

Jean simply looked at her. “You have nothing to say, sweet Sunny. Nothing after what you did to us.”

“Where are the boys?” Sunny asked again. But there was no response. The house groaned and settled. “This is happening before your eyes Aunt Jeanie. How can you deny this?”

“We don’t deny it,” she said. “This is God doing what God does. For all we know, God wants the Earth to get warmer.”

“Ok. Whatever, Jeanie. It’s God’s will. Fine. But it’s time to go. This island is going to be under twenty feet of water in a few days.”

Jeanie smiled. “Your sea walls, those drones flying around seeding the ocean with iron…folly. All of it. Money can’t buy back what you had then. You can’t fight God. You can’t violate God’s will. If God wants the change you can do nothing to stop it.”

“Then why do you live in this house? You were born naked. Isn’t it against God’s will to cover yourself up if you were born naked? To live in this house made of God’s trees that humans cut down?”

Sunny heard shouting outside. There was splashing in the water and a cry for help. She darted to the window. A pack of bare-chested boys splashed through the water. They were the boys from the forest and her heart sank. None of them were more than twenty years old. They carried the body of a man that was all drenched in blood. You could see a gaping hole ripped into his chest. His face was covered with a cloth. Behind them, two other blood-soaked boys limped through the water, crying. “They shot us, mama!” Someone shouted.

Sunny pushed aside the tarp and ran downstairs. They boys clambered up onto the planks and passed the body along between them to the stairs. They looked at her and stopped. “Come on,” she said and pulled one boy up by his hand. Sunny tried to help with the body but they pushed on past her. She waited for the other two and helped them up onto the stairs one by one. They were covered in blood and sobbed and winced in pain. In the dark, Sunny couldn’t see where they were injured.

“The Guard shot us!” One of the boys yelled. He was trembling. “We did what you said and they shot us!” They’d placed the body on the table.

“Who is that?” Yelled Sunny. No one responded. The boys paced about looking at the floor and breathing hard. The two wounded boys slumped down into tears. Jeanie still sat in her chair and asked for a prayer.

Instead, Sunny shouted again. “Who is that?” She pointed at the body, shaking. “It’s God’s will to destroy all the people?”

“It may be,” said Jeanie. “Those that experience God’s wrath…”

Sunny rushed the table and pulled the cloth from the dead man’s face. Her breath caught. It was Tom. The room went silent and Jeanie asked for a prayer. Sunny stepped away.

“And you? Why is God about to kill you?” Sunny shouted at them all, interrupting the prayer. “You’re religious. Why do you deserve to die?”

“We won’t.”

“Tom did!” Sunny yelled then covered her cousin’s face. “That’s your son!” The boys stood around in silence. Sunny cried. “What is going on here?” Sunny rubbed her belly feeling ill. She paced. “Get some clean water,” she said to the tallest boy. To another she said “And you. Get some clean rags or towels. Something. We’ve got to help those two.” She didn’t know who was who. Were they all family? She didn’t remember this many boys on the island. “Why did the Guard shoot? I’ve never heard of that before.”

“They want our island.”

“Crap,” she said. No one had moved.

“So. I guess we don’t need to bother ourselves any more by taking responsibility for our actions. Right? We make a poor choice, there are negative consequences…but…oh! Wait! God actually wanted those negative consequences! So now it’s not anyone’s fault. No responsibility. Is that how it works?” Again no one responded. “What’s your name?” she asked the tallest boy.

“Michael.”

“Get some Goddamned water Michael!” she shouted. This time he moved. The tables had turned, she saw. He was frightened. “Is there a medical kit around here?”

“I know where I can get one,” another of the boys said. He was filthy and you could see the sorrow and fear on his face.

“No,” said Jeanie. Sunny. It’s time you leave.”

“Jeanie…”

“What is it you want, Sunny?”

“Let the boys come with me.”

“No.”

“Let that boy come with me then,” she pointed at Chantal’s son.

“No.”

“You have to come with me. You have to let others go. You have to let me take them.”

“No, Sunny. You’re not taking anyone. This is a test of faith.”

“It is a Goddamned test alright. God is testing our intelligence. And we’ve failed. You’re right. Judgement is at hand and hell will be cooking ourselves to extinction.” Sunny kicked at the wall and threw aside the tarp, walking into the mass of mosquitos. She covered her face again. She followed the trail of blood down the stairs and into the dark, dank of the bottom level. She jumped into the water.

Outside, she heard Jeanie’s voice call after her, “It’s Judgment Day, Sunny.”

~ ~ ~

Sunny told Frank Tom was dead. His shoulders dropped. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “Let’s just get the boat before they see us.”

They walked from the kitchen down through the clearing and into the oaks. A Black skimmer passed over the dove at the water beyond the cliff. “I thought they were going to kill me here,” Sunny said.

“It’s just a mess, Sunny. We’re all just a damn mess.” Sunny could see the weight of it all riding on his back, his shoulders, his head. Sunny’s heart sank as she realized that Frank had lost his hope. She needed his hope. He was the only one who ever had hope.

Using two logs as levers they turned the skiff over. A spider crawled away. Sunny realized the boat was hung up on a trailer that was sunk deep in the soil and overgrown. “Dammit,” she said and lifted her shirt over her head to wipe at the sweat and bugs. “God dammit.”

“No kidding,” said Frank. He was breathing hard in the heat. They looked at the boat.

“What’s the point of being dead?” she asked him.

“No point, really.”

“Then why die for an idea? For a religion? What does that help? Go and shoot at some fucking Guard…for what? Get shot, for what?”

“Doesn’t seem so smart, does it?”

“You’re no different.”

Frank considered. “I don’t know why I’m not afraid. Maybe you have to care to be afraid.”

“You don’t care?”

“I don’t care.”

“And Gillie? He doesn’t care.”

“I don’t think there is much hope to spread around, Sunny,” Frank took one of the logs and pushed at the skiff until the boat shifted off the trailer and into the grass. He winced.

“Leg?”

“Ooof. I’m just old.”

“Jeanie.”

“It was a warning.”

“And you listened.”

“Well enough.” Together they got the boat up on a line of logs and rolled it into the clearing. Then they sat, breathing hard and swiping at the bugs. Frank pulled the boat along by the dockline while Sunny raced back and forth carrying the small logs from back to front to keep the boat moving. It was an ancient way. At the waterline, she felt the first kick of her pregnancy. She was surprised and sat in the boat and laughed. Frank pulled his leg behind him and asked. “First time?”

“Yes. Yes.” She laughed again.

“An end a beginning.” They sat the in boat, resting.

“Why didn’t you say anything, Frank? Why didn’t you and mom just say? And why didn’t you back me up?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“You know right from wrong.”

“Maybe.”

“Ya.”

“Jeanie won’t come off. She won’t let those kids come off. Its ok. That’s not why I came here anyway. Let the water cleanse the world.”

“No. It will just make more of them,” Frank said. “It seems that…when the world comes undone folks try to understand it through their Gods. And then they think…if we only go back to the old ways…whatever that is in their minds. When it all falls apart new religions are born. I guess the challenge is: who controls the vision of the future?”

“And Chantal’s boy….”

“Ya. The kid who likes the plastic birds.”

“Maybe I can get him.”

“You, your boy and Chantal’s messed up kid. That will be the end of us. Amazing, eh? He hangs out at The Tiles. You can find him there.” A river otter poked its head above the small waves, assessed the two and moved on up towards the inlet. “It’s their world again now,” Frank said.

“Help me.”

“No. You can do it. You’ve got to do it. Go. Come back. Make it fast. It’s also your world now.”

~ ~ ~

In the morning, out on The Tiles, the place where the rocks broke off into neat plates, Chantal’s boy found her. The rocks were covered in bird shit. Sunny sat, poking at a pile of plastics with a stick while watching a trawler move across the bay from where Norfolk had been. It was an older vessel. They were all old now, or most of them anyway. It had been retrofitted as an iceberg catcher, probably for West-coast work, and you could see the giant harpoon placements on deck. But they were empty and the trawler pulled nothing.

The boy came and sat next to her. He pointed at the shadows of the clouds passing over. Then he put his hand on her shoulder. She looked at him and acknowledged that he would be dead in just a few days. “I’m sitting with a damned ghost,” she sighed. He pointed at the trawler. “I heard that out there…down there…” she pointed, “the ocean steams. That’s where it’s coming from.”

Sunny talked at the boy about the city, about her mother, her child. She told him how her father died working on the New York seawall when she was a teenager. She told him how her brother joined the army and got sent off to Mexico and that he was still there. She told him about her job and her apartment in the city. She told him how the storm was coming and that he was going to die. “It’s one crap-ass world,” she said. The pile of plastics she poked with the stick had once been inside a gull. The feathers were all gone. Only the skeleton and plastics the bird had consumed remained. “It’s one giant pile of shit,” and she poked some more.

“We’re a civilization-creating species…so we’ll just create a new one. Sure. It’s just not likely to be a better one.”

“Money can’t buy back what you had then,” the boy said. And that was all. She asked him his name and he said nothing. Eventually he stood and walked away, drifting off down The Tiles occasionally touching the water with his foot.

The day faded. The shadows of the kittiwakes and terns cut the horizon. The breeze grew. Sunny walked back among the houses towards Frank’s place. The roofs glowed with golds and oranges against the matte of the greying sky.

~ ~ ~

Sunny crossed along the roadway chest-high in the rising water, pulling the skiff from the forest behind her. The breeze grew into a wind. The sky was mostly gray. The water lapped at her chest but her footing was secure.  For the first time since childhood she was cold. Her body shuddered and remembered. The storm surge was pushing the water higher. The driveway had eroded into chunks of asphalt and Sunny tied the skiff to the handle of the garage door. The old oak with the swing was drowned. Inside, the house creaked in the wind. It groaned with the gusts. Most of the windows were broken out and some of the furniture was missing. Tiny piles of sand had accumulated in the strangest spots. A family of gulls nested in the reading alcove where she had kept her books and basked in the streaks of sunlight like a puppy. Upstairs, in her favorite room, Sunny found the toolbox and fingered through some of her dresses still hanging in the closet; deciding she wouldn’t take them.  She took the toolbox and walked past the bathroom into the master bedroom. It appeared untouched and the windows were still intact – but everything was blanketed in salt and sand and dust. She kneeled, opened the toolbox and removed a crowbar. She prised up five floorboards then looked in to see the box. She opened it.

The notebooks that had made her mother famous lay tied in neat bundles. They were wrapped in plastic. They appeared to be in good condition. Sunny sighed. She cracked one of the plastic bags, untied a bundle and took out a solitary blue-covered notebook. She ran her fingers over the equations and chards and doodles that was her mother’s lifework. Sunny smiled. A powerful gust, the strongest so far, hit the house and it groaned. Now, she told herself, it’s time to get off the island.

She heard water slapping somewhere downstairs, below her. She dropped the notebook into the box, sealed the plastic and pulled the package from the box. Then she lifted the whole box from the hole in the floor and placed the notebooks back inside. She closed it tight, running her fingers along the edges to check the water tight seal. She felt the house sway and nearly lost her footing. She ran back to her favorite room, grabbed a pile of her old dresses from the closet and looked out the window. The blue sky was gone, replaced by gray. To the south, she could make out the black wall of the storm. The ocean beyond the headland was choppy. Roiling. “Shit.” It was moving faster than anyone imagined.

Sunny raced back to the master bedroom. She took up the box. It was heavier than she thought it should be. She draped the dresses over the box and lugged it downstairs, past the gull nest and outside. The boys were there, waiting. Her stomach tied itself into knots. Then she set the box gently into the boat, making sure the dresses kept it hidden.

“You came back for dresses?” said Michael.

“They’re mine.”

“Dresses?”

“I want my things.”

“You don’t belong here.”

“Either do you. Not anymore. You’re scared. I can help you.” But the look of fear she had seen in Michael’s eyes was gone. “I can help you,” she shouted at the other boys.

They rushed her. Some of them grabbed her arms and held her. Michael punched her repeatedly in the head. Her fear again turned to fury and she kicked at them. But they knocked her to the ground. She curled into a ball and wrapped her arms around her head as they kicked at her head, her legs and her belly. At some point a curtain came over her eyes. They left her.

Sunny woke when the water swallowed her feet and licked at her ankles. She pulled herself up and sat with her knees wrapped into her chest. She felt her belly. “Please kick, baby,” she said. And then she cried. It was a deep, long and sobbing cry. The little skiff bumped her legs. Out beyond the point the water was dark and tipped in frothing caps of white. You could see the black storm to the south. The Guard evac ship crawled into view, fighting the sea. Then it disappeared behind a curtain of rain. “No,” she breathed. “No. No. No.” The wind grew. It threw her hair all up in her face. She checked her device but it was drowned.  When she wiped at her face her hand came away bloody. Her arms and legs ached from the beating. She struggled to stand.

“God dammit!” she yelled when she stood. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.” She climbed back to the porch, opened the door and walked into the house. Her body relented out of the wind but the house moved in great groans and creaks. In the garage, she found two old oars and hustled outside. She tossed them into the skiff and climbed in. She untied the line from the garage door and floated free, down Island Road.

The wind took her as soon as she crossed from behind the rocks. Her hair flew up again in her face. She dragged the box between her feet. She pulled hard on the oars. She barely moved. She pulled again. Then again. Her arms ached. She kept pulling, slowly propelling the skiff towards the opposite shore. She could still see the pieces of the road under the waves. Her nose bled into her dress. She could feel that her ribs were bruised or even broken. A cold wave slapped the side of the boat and turned it sideways. It drenched her and she cried out. The salt burned a crack in her cheek. She began to cry again as she pulled the skiff back on course. Sunny pulled hard on the oars several more times, grunting with the effort. She turned to see the shore just ahead, another wave hit and the boat tipped. Sunny crashed into the water.

The sea lashed her in circles. It flooded her body. A wave pushed her down and she smashed into the pavement. Her shoulder popped loose and she tumbled along the road and into a boulder. Panicked, she kicked to the surface but the sea roiled her and she hit her head on the pavement. Desperate, she turned and pushed off again. When she hit the surface, she sucked in a deep lungful of air. Then she screamed. The skiff was gone and the waves began taking her out to sea.

Sunny heard her name and a rope slapped across her face. It stung. She grasped at it wincing every time she tried to move her right arm. Her legs crashed against the rocks and then she got her footing. Frank scrambled into the water and took her up.

“It’s gone!” she yelled. “All of it is gone!”

“Goddammit girl!” Frank drug her through the boulders and marsh and onto the shore. He laid her down in a pile of gravel. “You’ve got to get off of here!” he shouted. “The ferry is…what the hell happened to you? Who…Goddammit.”  And then she was gone.

~ ~ ~

Sunny woke on the dock. The wind sounded like a train. She sat up and several Guard members rushed past. Gillie’s was all burned out. The shanties were all on fire and the wind whipped the flames to the sky. The sky was black and the blades on the turbines spun far too fast. More Guard came past her and then a man hustling along with a group of crying children. “It’s OK,” he told them. Painfully, Sunny pushed up and steadied herself in the blow.

Down at the little beach Chantal’s boy stood with his toes in the water. He held a little cup and collected small bits of shell and stone and flotsam. When the wind whipped his hair into his face he pushed it aside and stepped deeper into the water. He smiled, reached down and came up with a smooth piece of glass. He held it up to her, beaming. He stepped in deeper. Sunny felt a kick in her belly. Then another. She burst into tears. “Thank God,” she said.

The captain came at her, angry. “God dammit it all!” she yelled. Sunny could see that she was scared and the sweat on her dark skin shook like tears. “I’m not one of these idiots,” she yelled sweeping her arm at the island. “I have no interest in drowning here. The future won’t be dry, that’s for damn sure. It’s time to go.”

“What about the boy?”

“Grab him,” said the captain.

She looked at the boy again and caught his eyes. He held her gaze but said nothing. There was a kick inside of her. ‘Go’, it seemed to say. Alone and empty-handed, Sunny turned and limped into the ferry.

~ ~ ~

“Everyone was silent,” Sunny said to the nurse. She told him how they were thrown around the ferry like dolls. She told him about the silence. Then the screams. Then the silence again. You could hear bones snap at times. Then screams. Then it was quiet again. Not everyone had seats. The ferry was overcrowded and it nearly rolled several times. The storm moved faster than anyone imagined it would and it pushed the ferry just ahead. What she remembered most clearly was the white-knuckled silence. “When we got to the docks they carried them off on stretchers,” she said. “They carried me off in a stretcher. In some ways it seems just like yesterday. In other ways it seems like centuries ago.”

“It was a long time ago,” said the nurse.

Sunny nodded and closed her eyes.

When she woke, she stretched, lifted the blanket and walked to the window. The nurse had placed her son’s things in a small box and left them on the bed. His keys. His glasses. His books. His rings. His clothes. Even his medications. The ones that had failed them both. Sunny looked out on the slackwater of the city. The tide was out and the fresh continental waters flowed up against a line of seawater. It was almost sunset and you could see the printed platform walks snaking along 14th Street, tight up against the buildings. Their shadows lay long on the silvery water. Small mercantile boats and Guard craft crawled up and down the canals past canoes and rafts and an occasional sailboat. The lamp posts, poking just above the water were covered in white crust from the birds. A man and a boy fished from an island of cattails in a corner below the International Trade Center. On the Mall, the stilted shantytown sprawled in a haze of smoke from the dinner fires. The white marble of the monument lay where it had collapsed a decade before, poking above the water like the spine of a dead leviathan. Traders gathered around the fish farms in a tight pack of skiffs and canoes. The sun lit a line pointing to where the sea met the sky and hung there just a bit too long.


 

( Note: This story was first published in January 2018 in the anthology Chaos of Hard Clay  edited by G. Allen Cook )

About the author:

Freelance journalist, author and photographer Jim O’Donnell focuses on conservation, human rights, and travel. A former archaeologist, O’Donnell is the author of “Notes for the Aurora Society: 1500 Miles on Foot Across Finland” as well as numerous articles, several sordid tales, many brilliant observations, a few half-finished novels, various angry letters-to-the-editor and other scribblings. He offers nature and travel writing workshops and a yearly photography tour to Cuba. He lives in New Mexico with his two children.

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