Tuesday, November 11, 2014

River Cats! by Jonathan Danielson

When the levee bursts and floods Jess and Scott's neighbourhood, they welcome the tragedy as an opportunity to be the centre of attention - but how much suffering is too much? By Jonathan Danielson.

When the levees for the Delta and American River burst that morning, Jess and Scott laughed. "At least they bought their house on short-sale," they said, before gathering everything they could, water seeping through their doors and rising up their legs.

"Should've listened to FEMA!" Scott joked, carrying photo albums upstairs, the fact that they paid eighty-five thousand under asking price putting in perspective that black mold wouldn't be as expensive as it could have been.

"But who knew!" Jess laughed, following with cans of food.



Before Katrina, when the Army Corps of Engineers determined the levees bursting in New Orleans was the number one potential disaster facing the US, people accused the Corps of being Debbie Downers and buzz-kills. Something like that would never happen, they argued. This was the Big Easy. The city of Mardi Gras.

So after Katrina - and after the tragedies of the Super Dome, the Convention Center, and Kanye calling the President a racist - Bush, Obama, Congress, the insurance companies, Jess and Scott's realtor, their home inspector, and their friends and family all felt confident that lessons had been learned, and something like that would never ever happen ever again. Those in charge would never let it happen. And never in Sacramento, the capital of the seventh largest economy in the world. This wasn't Podunk Louisiana after all.

So when FEMA listed the Delta and American River levees collapsing as the next numero uno, most-likely threat, Jess and Scott felt safe buying on a floodplain.

Oh, sweet hindsight, they teased, and headed back downstairs.



Downstairs, Jess and Scott gathered books off their shelves, in case they wanted to catch up on some reading while waiting to get rescued, the water past their bellybuttons and rising. The hollow porcelain lamp Jess's mother gave them as a house warming gift floated on an end table, the power cord tethering it to where it floated, the light bulb still burning bright. "How about Grisham," Scott asked, flipping over a book to read the synopsis.

"Already read it," Jess said, letting books she wasn't interested in float by. They gathered their portable DVD player from the top shelf of their entertainment hutch for the more-than-likely event they found themselves bored of reading.

"All I found was The Parent Trap," Scott said, reaching into the water by the television, to the place where their DVDs were once stacked.

"Lindsay Lohan or Hayley Mills?" Jess asked.

"Lindsey Lohan," Scott said.

"Too bad," Jess said.

And even though the modem was gone and the power finally popped off, Jess and Scott used their phones to upload pictures of themselves standing waist deep in their living room, the cat above them on a ceiling fan blade, staring at the water below.

Meow!



Upstairs, Jess interrupted her husband from stacking cans of food and paperbacks by the window. "Hold the can just like that," she said, trying to find the perfect angle on her camera phone. "This is a really cool silhouette with the window and water and everything."

Scott cradled a can of green beans to his chest, his shirt soaked and sticking to him. He stared out the window, somber and foreboding-like.

"Nice," Jess said, snapping the pic and bringing it up for Scott to see.

"It looks like I have a double chin," Scott said. He stepped back to the window and resumed looking out it, somber and foreboding-like, only this time raising his jaw. "Do another."

As the camera app on Jess's phone reloaded, a movement at the stairwell caught Jess's eye. Up the steps something crawled out of the water, tiny and shaking and hideous looking, a little monster that crawled out of the river murk.

Meow!

"Muffins!" Jess cried, but before Jess could rush to her little darling, to wrap her in her arms and say sorry Mufficans, sorry, her husband snapped at her.

"Seriously Jess," Scott said. "Before the light changes."



With their photos and cans of food and paperbacks and DVDs safely upstairs, Jess and Scott realized they hadn't grabbed any extra clothes or towels or can openers before the water was up to the first floor's ceiling.

"I'm cold," Jess said, her body soaked, her arms hugging herself as she sat next to Scott, his body soaked, his arms hugging himself as he sat next to Muffins, who licked herself. "Me too," Scott said, shivering. Meow, Muffins meowed. Outside their window, their cul-de-sac neighbors who had purchased single story homes sat on their roofs, their signed sports memorabilia, tablet computers, and flat screen televisions in piles around them. Their neighbors, in soaked pajamas, basketball shorts and T-shirts, sunbathed and drank beer as the water rose and stranded them on personal desert islands, shingles for sand and chimneys for palm trees. A few boys threw a football between rooftops. Someone's boom-box blared Kanye's Gold Digger. "Holla we want prenup," the boy who caught the football yelled. He raised the ball above his head, to which his neighbors replied, "We want prenup, yeah!"

"I want to go out on the roof," Jess said, annoyed that the sun, which had been hidden for days during the storm that caused all of this, was now out, bright and beautiful. There they were, she thought, freezing to death in their own home while everyone else was outside enjoying the weather. Overhead a chop chop chopping came from far away, and Scott rushed to the window beside her. Their neighbors, who had been sleeping and drinking and throwing footballs, dropped to their knees with their hands to the sky, sudden tears of agony overtaking them.

Jess and Scott pressed their faces to the window and were able to see the call letters for a news station on the underbelly of a helicopter, a cameraman hanging out its side with his camera pointed down upon their neighborhood.



A few minutes later, a second chop chop chopping came behind the first, then a third, then a fourth. Jess pressed her face harder against their window as Scott tried pushing the glass from the pane that was painted shut. The Coast Guard logo was on the bottom of all the new helicopters.

"We're saved," Jess said. Scott pressed his face against the window and saw it too and they embraced. Muffins licked herself.

Overhead, a loudspeakered voice came from the helicopter, telling everyone to stay calm, that they will be rescued shortly. Their neighbors reached out and grabbed their chests. They gritted their teeth and cried. Jess and Scott watched a basket descend from a Coast Guard helicopter with a man in a jumpsuit and helmet, a dark visor over his eyes and a microphone in front of his mouth. Like an alien coming down from a spaceship, to abduct meager earthlings. Jess and Scott left smudges on their window as they watched one neighbor after another be taken away. They pounded but no one noticed.

"Push," Scott yelled, his hands on the painted-closed window. Jess did and a crack formed at the seal. The basket began another descent. "Come on," he yelled, Jess groaning as she rocked back-and-forth on her outstretched arms. A helicopter filled with the rescued flew away. Then another. The crack stretched along the edge, up and around the frame. A neighbor waved goodbye as she ascended, holding down her purple nightgown as it flapped in the wind, the news chopper circling the scene to get different views and shots. "Come on," Scott yelled, daylight appearing through the white paint. "Come on," Jess yelled. The basket came down again, lifting neighbors gone and away, until only a few were left, and only one Coast Guard helicopter hovered above. They could have broke their windows and crawled out, but they were just installed and they were dual-paned, and do you know how much dual-paned windows cost?



When the seal finally broke and the window flew open, the basket for the final Coast Guard helicopter began its final descent for the final neighbor on the final roof.

"Over here!" Jess and Scott screamed, waving their arms out their window. "Over here!" As the last of their neighbors, the boy who had caught the football, went up with the helmeted coast guardian, the neighbor nudged his rescuer, who turned to Jess and Scott, pointed to them, gave them a gloved thumbs up that he saw them. The news helicopter swung around, to get the current rescue in frame with the folks hanging out their window in the background.

"We're on TV," Jess said between waving and yelling.

"I know," Scott said. "I hope the folks are getting this in Scottsdale."

As the last neighbor was brought aboard, the loudspeakered voice came back on and thundered we can't carry any more people - and - we will come back for you, emphasizing will when he said it. The Coast Guard helicopter flew away into the morning sun, and when it did, the news chopper followed.



About an hour before sunset, no helicopter had returned, and Scott and Jess were still in their house, still wet and cold and almost without hope when Scott got the idea to make a fire. With the water near the top of the stairs, he cleared a space in the middle of the room and, remembering an episode of Man vs Wild, took the batteries out of the portable DVD player.

"How are we going to watch The Parent Trap?" Jess asked, as Scott broke apart the device for spare pieces of current carrying metal.

"Do you want to watch The Parent Trap or stay warm?" Scott said, arranging his supplies in a little pile. "Besides, I thought you didn't like the Lindsey Lohan one." His wife didn't say anything at that, nor when her husband ripped out pages from The Client and A Time to Kill for kindling. "Now," he said, pointing to the pile. "Hand me the batteries, and that and that."



A few minutes later, from the roof of a rescued neighbor's home, Scott and Jess, husband and wife, wet from having had to jump into the water outside, Muffins drenched and shivering in Jess's arms, watched the second story of their home erupt in fire, engulfed pieces falling into the dark water.

Meow!



Scott found himself in a bit of a pickle as he watched his house, half submerged in water and half engulfed in flames, what with his wife not talking to him and sitting on the other side of their neighbor's roof. Just my luck, Scott thought, assessing the situation.

"Jess -" he said.

"No," Jess yelled, watching the flames reflect off the pool of their cul de sac. "I told you I wanted to watch The Parent Trap."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Scott asked.

"Because our home wouldn't be burning down," she yelled, "if you would have just let me watch the stupid DVD!"

A beam in the roof collapsed. It fell through the house and splashed into the living room. Jess sat silently and watched her house burn, her hair knotty, her spaghetti strap damp and sticking to her, the fire of their home and the setting sun lighting her perfectly.

"What are you doing?" she asked, after a flash went off behind her.

"Wait," Scott said, pushing buttons on his phone which they made sure to seal in a Zip-Loc before jumping into the flood. "Let me turn the flash off," he said. "Look back at the house."

Jess did and Scott took more pictures, then changed the framing and took more, then went from horizontal to vertical, and when he was done, Jess came over and looked at the shots. "Ohh," she said. "That's a good one." Since they still could connect to their network, they uploaded the pics and read the comments from their friends. When they were done, Scott handed Jess the camera and got up.

"Do a couple of me," he said. He went to the edge of the roof, his fists tucked on his hips, his gaze at the half submerged, half engulfed home, his expression somber and foreboding-like.



Fortunately for Scott, Jess remembered that their neighbors, Asad and Katherine Ahmad on the other end of the cul de sac, had a small fishing boat in their garage. Unfortunately for Scott, since he burned down the house, he had to swim across the street to go get it.



With the orange fire painting the water surface, Scott swam through the reflecting oil trail between homes. Halfway across, a flash came behind him. With phone in hand, Jess gave a thumbs up

The Ahmad's garage was locked when Scott got to it, his hand reaching under the water along its aluminum surface until he found the metal handle that wouldn't turn. Around the side of the house he pulled himself over the cinderblock wall and fell into the other side and landed with a splash. The single pane window to the side garage door was broken from the pressure of the water half up it, unseen glass floating around the entry way. Scott reached through the broken window and unlocked the door, but when he tried pushing it open, it wouldn't move with the weight of the water. Instead, he crawled through the window, somehow not cutting himself in the process.



It was impossible to see inside the Ahmad's garage, the only light coming from the bouncing reflection of fire across the street and warping around the house by the shimmering flood. Like looking at a star, Scott saw shadows from his peripherals, and noticed the engine of the boat sticking out of the water. Feeling his way and stubbing his toes on whatever lay beneath the surface, he made his way to the front of the garage. He flipped open the lock of the door and slid it open. The room filled with light from his burning house across the street.

Jess watched as her husband appeared, waved, then disappeared back inside the garage.

The boat was half-submerged, the engine the only thing above water. No matter how Scott tried to lift or tip it over, it was too heavy. It wouldn't budge.

I need to think of a new workout plan, Scott thought. He pushed and shoved, put his back to the hull and used his legs, but the hundreds of pounds of water inside kept it where it sat.

Jess was going to be pissed, Scott thought. A paddle floated out the garage. Really pissed.

Exhausted, Scott looked for anything that might give him leverage to tip the boat over. On top of the dry upper shelves at the other side of the garage were two boxes, the images of the inflatable pool toys the Ahmad's children used every summer printed on the cardboard.



It was too awkward to swim with the paddles and boxes of pool toys, so Scott secured the paddles on the dry shelves and took the folded rubber mats out of their packaging and swam across, a black and yellow tarp floating behind him. He tossed the deflated toys to the roof where Jess lassoed them in, then swam back and returned, this time with the oars.

By firelight, Jess and Scott spent the evening inflating the rafts, getting light headed from all the blowing. Muffins sat on the edge of the roof, watching her reflection in the water.

The moist, inappropriate sounds from blowing turned into laughter, which turned into Jess forgiving Scott for burning down their house, which turned into kissing, which turned into rolling around over the half inflated toys, pushing all their air into one rubber section like a bubble, which turned into the rubber serving as divider between the shingles and their skin, making the evening a bit more personal while the last of the roof beams fell through the charred frame of their short sale home.



In the morning, as the sun rose behind the computer and television littered rooftops, steam and smoke whispered off the remaining beams of Jess and Scott's house. Once Jess and Scott finished blowing up the rafts, Scott tied the giant ducky to the black-and-white Shamu with the orange extension cord he found at the Ahmad's, weaving it through the handles of the two crafts.

They loaded up their remaining canned goods into the empty laundry basket Scott also found at the Ahmad's. They nestled it between the two boats so it wouldn't move. Muffins was placed on top as her owners readied their oars and set sail into their flooded Natomas neighborhood, the black clouds that caused all of this resting along the horizon in the distance.



Jess met Scott at a Sac State/UC Davis mixer years before when they were in college, her at the UC, Scott at State. Instead of asking about their signs, they discovered they both studied Communications, which, they understood, meant they had no idea what they wanted to do when they grew up.

As juniors, they were too young to have jobs outside waiting tables and pouring drinks. This meant they were too young to have any financial stake when the crash hit, as their friends a year or two older did. By the time Jess and Scott graduated and got real jobs, they weren't tied down with credit card debt and an upside-down mortgage. They were better off than all their friends, and as a consequence, they resented themselves for it.

"What're we going to tell our grandchildren?" they would ask, back when their friends came over for BBQs, the Ahmad children screaming in the background.

Scott and Jess grew up with stories from their grandparents about bootlegging to make ends meet, or eating at a dining table that was a wooden board over a bath tub, which at night, was filled once from water heated on the stove for the whole family to use. Jess and Scott's dining table was Thomasville. Bought on consignment of course, but still Thomasville.

They were too young to sign up for the Army after 9/11, and by the time they were old enough, it was more fashionable to protest the wars than fight them. They didn't drop everything and move to New Orleans after Katrina. They didn't vote for Obama, but didn't dress up like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson to bitch about him either. They never went to the Gulf before or after the spill. They weren't part of a Middle Eastern uprising, and even if they wanted to help in Japan, they didn't want radiation poisoning. Plus, tickets to Japan were expensive. Do you know how much tickets are to Japan?

But the levees bursting was different. This came to them. This was their event, they told themselves, paddling through their apocalyptic underwater neighborhood, stopping to climb on empty roofs to get dramatic angles for the pictures of themselves that they took. Other survivors they met along the way sat on their roofs or floated by in rickety fishing boats with put-put engines, all of them putting their beers and iPads behind them, only to bring them out again after the flash. This was their chance to be an iReporter, Jess and Scott told each other. This was their disaster to tell their grandchildren.



"The Kings would've been smart to move to Anaheim," Scott said, paddling with Jess through submerged streets they knew to be streets from the treetops sticking out of the water and lining the way. Next to them was a former empty field, once farmland then property awaiting development, but now a serene lake where cranes landed and took off. On the other side was Arco Arena, water thirty feet up its walls.

"They would've been smarter never selling to the Maloofs," Jess said, pulling her paddle through the tide. Scott high-fived her for her joke, their giant inflatable duck and Shamu cutting the new lake of Sacramento, Muffins meowing from the basket between them.



By the time the morning sun became the afternoon sun, rowing became easier the closer they paddled to the Garden Highway, because the closer to the Garden Highway they came, the closer they were to the river. As they paddled, the water fell in some areas and was shallow enough that Jess and Scott pulled their rafts through shin high water. It dropped in other places, so they had to jump on and paddle. Regardless, the closer they sailed to the highway, the less stagnant the water became, because the more the water found the current that pulled to the river toward and mid and downtown, where helicopters still hovered.



When the levees had burst, it was after the river had risen with four straight days of rain, without pause or respite, until it overcame the crest of the dirt divider and the levee collapsed, a wave crushing through the tree line on its other side, washing away the road and spilling down on families just waking up. Yet in only one day, for something so unstoppable, the river which poured into the townships initiated its reversal, and the tide began its natural recourse back to the place where it belonged.

While good for the city, it also meant the pleasure cruise Scott and Jess enjoyed through familiar grocery stores, banks, gas stations and bars, became choppy as they navigated through chimney tops of homes along the levee road, which peaked from whitening heads.

"This is fun," Scott said as the boat began to vibrate, until it vibrated more, until the boat began to turn and they couldn't control it, until the vibrations became dips and the boat spun in the rapidly developing current. Jess yelled hold on when she came over the tide's crest and the water dropped into a slope with treetops spearing above the surface, and the dips became punches until one punch became a kick and Muffins, in the white laundry basket between them, was propelled into the air with a few cans of food and splashed into the water ahead. The boat hit a treetop unseen, and the inflatable ducky and Shamu flipped into the gushing rapids.

Scott held on to Shamu's handles and spun with it. The yellow ducky caught on a tree top, causing the bound crafts to spin even more until a strip of yellow rubber ripped off with the wound. As the ducky deflated and flipped in the current, it was without Jess on top of it. As Muffins landed with a splash, Scott instinctively reached into the moving water, and pulled her out by the scruff of her neck.

"I got her," Scott yelled proudly, hoisting up Muffins for Jess to see, Jess yards ahead in the water, sinking then resurfacing, sinking then resurfacing.

"Great," Jess yelled, bobbing then coming back up. "Now get me!"

Scott tucked the cat between his legs, paddled with his hands and kicked with his feet. The cat dug her nails into Shamu, to keep herself on as they cut through the current.



By the time Scott paddled to his wife, Shamu was a half-inflated tarpaulin, with only air bubbling in certain sections keeping it afloat. In her panic, Jess grabbed Scott's legs, to pull herself onto the idea of safety offered by the craft, but instead, with her added weight, she only adjusted the rubber in the right ways to liberate the remaining air. The cat tried to stay out of the water, and pawed and scratched the parts of Scott's body that weren't yet submerged.

Meow!



Unfortunately for Scott and Jess and Muffins, they didn't have a boat anymore to navigate them safely. Fortunately though, they passed through the breakers of the broken levee and were cruising, albeit quickly, down the natural body of the American River, something Jess and Scott had done many a time during their college years far more intoxicated than they were just then. The three of them floated, Jess treading and breathing hard from panic, Scott treading and screaming and fighting Muffins, Muffins clawing her dirty claws all over Scott's shoulders, neck, and face.

Fortunately, the family was still together. Unfortunately, the current pulled them toward the section of the river that was still spilling into mid and downtown, and the three of them had to do the whole mess with the breakers, albeit this time without a craft, all over again.



They sank and sunk and tumbled and spun and flipped through the water, Muffins clinging to the skin of Scott's back before the skin ripped and let the little princess go. The rapids smoothed as they toppled over the broken hump of levee into the city and took Scott and Jess past old industrial buildings, card-rooms, furniture stores, the almond factory, then Midtown, pushing Jess and Scott under the weight of the water to the street below, knocking the remaining air out of them only to wash them up toward the surface so they could catch their breaths. It carried them down streets that funneled through Victorian homes turned into apartments and duplexes, law firms and dental practices. Through alphabet-named streets they surfed, until the force of the water lost its power from the distance of its source, until the space between the tide and street lessened, until Jess and Scott found themselves sitting on the ground, exhausted, the flow just above their seated waists but no longer strong enough to carry them another inch as Jess screamed Muffins! Muffins! Muffins!



"She's gone," Scott said, grabbing his wife in her hysteria, the silent faces of Midtown's residents watching from their porches as water rested at their feet. The blood from Muffin's scratches began to seep all over Scott's body. "She's gone," he said again, and pulled his wife to him, holding her as she sobbed. Together, they cried.

"This is so tragic," Jess weeped. From the porches of the Victorians, silent faces watched the embracing couple not notice the bloated bodies in the gutters around them.



Catless, Jess and Scott waded through Midtown, the well-grown trees blocking the helicopters and storm clouds moving back over the city. They waded the streets, and in some places lifted their knees high to keep moving past homes almost a hundred years old, some not flooded but just tempted by water, others collapsed by the rotting away of old foundations. Even though Jess and Scott didn't say anything, they knew they both thought the same thing. That the inhabitants of Midtown were so much luckier than they were, not just for their trendy pads next the pre-flood bar scene, but for how much more dramatic their photos would look with the antiquated homes in the background, especially when compared to the new constructions of Jess and Scott's neighborhood.

As they walked, Jess and Scott made sure to document their misery among the Victorians, and even though they never instructed each other to do it, never asked each other for it, when their time came to play photographer they made sure to capture a bloated body in the background for the many portraits they took and uploaded online. Every few blocks, they would stop and read the comments posted by their friends.

Be safe.

Stay safe.

You're so lucky to be living there in this time.

Nothing ever happens here :)



Down the street, six shadows appeared in the road, a large craft resting on their shoulders, the leading shadow holding a long post, one end stopped up in its armpit, the other low by its waist. The silent faces on the porches watched as they approached.

As they got closer, their shadows took shape, the large craft yellowing in the light to reveal it was a raft, the forms revealing the shadows of men. One of the men underneath the raft ran to an empty porch. He pulled something from around his neck, which was realized to be a camera when the flash went off, just as the post under the leader's armpit was revealed to be a shotgun when it was pumped.

Scott reached around his wife and pushed her behind him. The leading form put the shotgun over his shoulder. The others dropped the yellow raft into the ankle high water and pulled it behind.

"Greetings!" the shotgun form said, raising his arm in a motionless wave. As they got closer, Jess and Scott read UC Davis Law and Crew on their shirts. "Are you in need of assistance and/or rescuing?" the shotgun form said, no longer a form but a young man, a boy with splotching patches of unshaved growth under his chin, and an eye socket black and swelling. Another flash came from the porch.

"No," Scott said. Blood seeped and oozed from his scratches.

"Thank you," Jess said.

"Are you sure," the boy said, stepping into the raft. The six other boys did so as well, their weight beaching the rubber against the pavement. Another flash. "Here, just take my hand," he said, and reached out. The boy looked over all the cuts and scratches on Scott's face "And we'll rescue you," he said.

Scott nudged his wife more behind him. "No," he said. "Thank you,"

The hand just reached.

"Just get in the boat for a second," the boy said. Another flash.

"No," Jess said, inching past Scott.

The boy dropped his hand and straightened up, the shotgun falling back to his grip. "All right," he said, stepping out of the raft. Jess stepped back behind her husband, who also stepped back so that they were shoulder to shoulder, yet the boy made no further attempt. The other boys stepped out of the raft, relieving the vessel from the pavement. They hoisted it back to their shoulders. Another flash came, to which the boy with the shotgun turned to the photographer.

"Goddamnit Mickey, would you quit?" he yelled. "They're not getting in!" He turned back to Jess and Scott. "Sorry about that. You guys live around here?"

"No," Scott said, still unsure of their attempted good Samaritans. "Natomas," Jess said, to which the boy whistled sympathetically and shook his head.

"Heard about that," he said. "Arco's under like a hundred feet of water, right?"

Jess and Scott didn't correct him.

"Yeah, we're trying to head up that way ourselves," the boy said. "Wanted to make sure we got into Midtown though when everything was still hot. Still fresh and stuff, you know?" Jess and Scott didn't answer and in their silence, the boy seemed to get an idea. He unslung his backpack and unzipped it. Like a World War II soldier, he pulled out beef jerky and Hershey's bars.

"Hungry?" he asked, to which another flash answered for them.



The nine of them, the six boys carrying the raft, Mickey the photographer who, unlike the others, wore a UCD Pottery shirt, and the shotgun leader, Glenn, along with Jess and Scott, beached the raft in the middle of the street as they all sat around its rim and ate candy bars and jerky. Blank faces continued watching from their porches.

"So you guys from Davis?" Jess said, asking the obvious question between chews.

"Yeah," Glenn said. His shotgun, the stock black and synthetic, leaned against him.

"How'd Davis fair?" Scott asked. He broke off a square of chocolate and passed the bar to Mickey, the camera strapped around his neck. The chocolate, Scott thought, made his skin tingle from the caffeine on on empty stomach. He rubbed the scratches on his arms and neck.

"Horrible," Glenn said, chewing.

"That bad?" Scott asked. He swallowed, which was more difficult then the day before.

"Huh?" Glenn said. "Oh, I thought you were talking about in general. Nah, it's fine. Just some rain and stuff. Sucks Yolo County takes care of the levees on their side of the river." He took another bite of jerky and passed it along the group. "I mean, nothing ever happens there, except a bunch a yuppies riding bikes and bitching about tuition."



The morning the levees broke, Glenn was the first in the frat house to wake up and turn on the TV.

"Saw this dude getting helilifted off his roof with these poor sons-a-bitches hanging out their window, waving and screaming." Jess and Scott exchanged satisfied looks. Anyway, Glenn continued, he woke up everybody, made them blow up the 'ole booze-cruise here - he tapped the raft - woke up his little brother Mickey because before he was a college dropout he was an art major and had a nice camera, loaded up ole' Lindsay here - he patted his shotgun - and set out over the causeway.

"People need hope in times like these," he said, and after he said it, he stared out over the Victorians, noble and somber-like.

"You're so going to be president one day," one of the other boys said. Glenn sheepishly smiled, as if he was embarrassed by even the notion.

"Probably,' he said. He broke off another piece of chocolate. "Anyway, all of Midtown's pretty much the way you see it, except the closer to the river you get." As he talked, Mickey held his camera out for Jess and Scott to see. He scrolled through pictures of Glenn, his shotgun on his hip, his stare stoically over the reflective waters as the other boys rowed. Or of Glenn giving candy bars to confused looking people. Or shots from jilted angles, as Glenn carried a baby from a flooded house, the baby crying and reaching for its parents who, although mostly out of frame, were running after Glenn, the father's fist raised above him. "East Sac's a puddle," Glenn said, the bruise around his eye purpling. "Nothing too bad, though. Course you'd expect it not to be with all the money there. Pocket's gone. Land Park, Curtis Park, Hollywood Park, they're all shin deep."

"Then there's Oak Park," Mickey said, flipping off his camera.

"Bad?" Jess asked. Mickey put the strap back over his head.

"Don't even bother with Oak Park," Glenn said more serious than ever, as if he had seen things in nightmares unimaginable. "Just don't even bother with that place."



After everything was eaten and packed away, Jess and Scott shook hands with Glenn while his frat brothers hoisted the raft back onto their shoulders. Another flash.

"Well," Glenn said, "good luck to you. Either of you religious?"

Jess and Scott said they weren't particularly.

"Well," Glenn said, "you know what Sacramento means in EspaƱol, right? The Sacrament. So maybe things can't be all that bad, right? Jesus walks, all that?" He raised the shotgun to his hip and stared out over the flooded street. "Maybe one day we'll tell our grandchildren what happened here," he said. The six boys carrying the raft began to march.

"Oh," Glenn said, before following. "If you're looking for some real action, head on over to Pancake Circus in Land Park. Down the street from the medical center. You won't regret it."

He winked at Jess and then he marched away, he and his fellow frat brothers returning to their state of uncertain forms, then shadows down the street. In the distance, Jess and Scott heard Glenn cycle Lindsay then cry out, "Greetings, are any of you in need of assistance, and/or rescuing?" A flash went off in the darkness.



By night, Jess and Scott had almost walked out of Midtown. In their exhaustion they found an empty porch of an empty house on the North side of the I-80. On the gliding swing that hung from the rafters, water at their feet, they fell peacefully asleep in each others' arms, until Scott's scratches fevered and swelled. I don't feel good, he moaned until the morning came and the clouds which were never far off were back again over the city, the sun hidden behind them and promising this morning would be darker than the last.



By the time they got there, passing the marquee that promoted:

*Steaks*
*Sea Food*
*Salads*
*Breakfast Anytime*

And approached the building, the water had receded to the entryway of Pancake Circus.

Inside, the floor was dirty and disgusting, filth soaking the carpet. On the walls, crying clown paintings hung next to wooden cutouts of knockoff Winnie the Pooh-like characters. A yellow Formica countertop stretched the length of the restaurant and brown leather booths filled the open space between the counter and window. Behind the booths grown men crouched as porcelain plates flew from one end of the restaurant to the other, shattering on tables and walls and wherever they landed.

In the doorway, the bell at the hinge rang as Jess and Scott entered. Standing there, they noticed the familiar face of cable news anchor Brock Davisis crouching behind a booth. He launched a glass cup across the room like a grenade. The cameraman next to him held a stack of plates. He handed Davisis another glass.

"Hey Anderson," Davisis yelled. "My little brother called and said he wanted his shirt back!" He threw the next glass and it shattered against the wall. Beneath it, the gray-haired face of Anderson Cooper popped up to throw a handful of sharp, metal utensils.

"Good one," Anderson said. He launched a handful of forks and knives and then a glass, which shattered near Jess and Scott's feet.

"Welcome to Pancake Circus," said a pimply-faced boy from behind the register.



After all the plates were shattered and the glasses broken, and the knives and forks and spoons spread over the moist carpet that sunk underfoot, the two news teams, Brock Davisis and his crew of three, and Anderson Cooper with his crew of fifteen, sat at either ends of the diner at the spots Jess and Scott assumed they had sat before the fighting began. Staring each other down, the two crews and their anchors ate the food remaining on their plates, pushing aside the broken porcelain or glass.

"What can I get for you?" the pimply-faced boy asked Jess and Scott.

"What was that all about?" Scott asked, his voice nasally as if he had a head-cold. His body sweated and shivered and fevered, the yellowing scabs to shimmering and dancing on his skin. Behind him, Anderson Cooper methodically ate bits of pancakes. Brock Davisis sat with his middle finger aimed at Anderson.

"Same thing it's been about since they got here," the boy said. "Who's got the better ratings, who's got the better photo-ops, yada yada yada. Oh, and before you ask, just know that when the power went out the freezers went out, so at this point all the eggs and bacon and sausage and milk and everything is all spoiled."

"How about pancakes?" Jess asked. Anderson chewed and chewed and chewed.

"I would, except that there's no more batter since these assholes" - he nodded to the news teams - "came in and I had to serve them everything that hadn't gone bad." He hid his mouth with the backside of his hand. "Well, maybe not everything." He gave a wink.

From his seat, Davisis silently mouthed fuck you over and over again.

"Well," Scott said, his body aching. His scabs oozed. His skin around the scratches was red and flushed. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. "What do you have left?" he asked.

"As of a couple hours ago, the gas was still working," the boy said. "I could put some bread on the burners and make you toast." He looked around at all the broken plates on the ground. "I just won't have anything to serve you on."



At the Formica countertop, the boy brought over two pieces of toast, the edges black and burnt.

"So what're you doing here?" Scott asked, as he took the toast off the spatula the boy served him on. With his other hand, Scott wiped the sweat off his forehead. Pus and blood seeped from his wounds. "It can't be that good a job to stick around for."

"I live up in Natomas," the boy said. "I came in early the day the levees broke, but with the roads closed and everything, there's no way for me to find my way home. Could've been worse, I suppose. At least for a while I had food and stuff. At this point I don't know what I'm going to do. I dropped my phone when the water was inside, so I haven't talked to my parents since. I don't even know if they're alive. Where you guys from?"

"Natomas," Scott said.

Behind them, Cooper chewed and chewed, never breaking his stare with Davisis.

"You guys get stuck down here too?" the boy asked.

Davisis waved his middle finger back-and-forth.

"We rafted down," Jess said.

The boy didn't say anything. He shook his head as if he was disappointed by something. As if suddenly there was a gaping hole in his story. As if he could have gone home this entire time. "Heard Arco's under like two hundred feet of water," he said, asking in a way that was almost hopeful.

"Something like that," Scott said. Then, realizing better of it - "It's not that bad. It's bad. But it's not that bad."

The boy ground his teeth. He stared down into the yellow Formica.

"If it's any consolation," Jess said, trying to cheer him up. "Our house flooded and burnt down." But then, without thinking, "But we're pretty much covered with our insurance."

Absentmindedly, the boy wiped the counter top with his cloth.

"Well," he said. He tried to smile. He stared out the windows behind them. "Shit."

He continued grinding his teeth. Jess and Scott ate their toast.

"Heard Oak Park was bad," Scott said, finally breaking the silence.

"Huh?" the boy said. "Wouldn't know from experience. Haven't left here since everything started, but we had some dumb-asses UCD kids come though. Said it was a disaster. You said you rafted here?"

Jess and Scott nodded, the crisp bread turning into mush in their mouths. The boy ground his teeth more. "Would you excuse me?" he said. He took his apron off. He set it behind the counter, then walked towards the entryway.

"I hope your parents all right," Jess said when the boy opened the door.

"Huh?" he said. "Oh, they were in Tahoe for the weekend." He opened the door and disappeared past the window. The bell at the hinge rang as it closed. For a few more minutes Jess and Scott sat and ate, and when they finished their toast, the boy had still hadn't returned.



Walking out of the restaurant, Scott vomited. Jess wrapped her arms around him and ran her fingers across his scalp, gently though, to not break any unseen scabs in his mat of hair. "Should we go find an aid station?" she said.

"Where else we going to go?" Scott said, then vomited again. When he was done, he looked out across the street to the trees on the horizon, the Pancake Circus marquee reaching up toward the dark clouds, the surface water just over their toes. Scott pulled out his phone, unwrapped it from the Zip-Loc and pressed the circular button at the base of the screen. "Almost dead," he said, wiping his mouth with one hand and opening a browser to find an aid station with his other.

"Might as well stop while we're ahead," Jess said. Scott flipped through his phone for a second before letting it fall to his side. Yellow and orange and black scabs sketched across his face. "What?" Jess said.

"Glenn and all his friends have all those pictures of them saving babies and rescuing people," Scott said. "The kid in there was locked up with Anderson Cooper and Brock Davisis." The clouds moved closely over the marquee. "What have we done?" he asked. "How'll our stories ever even compare to that?"

"Well, what do you want to do?" Jess asked. Her husband turned to the highway in the distance and the trees surrounding it.

"Let's go to Oak Park," he said. He raised his phone to check the screen once more. "I still got a bit of battery left. Let's go, see how it is, find an aid station after that." Jess hesitated. "What's the worst that can happen?"

And so it was that the two walked across Land Park to Curtis Park, expensive homes flooded and destroyed, and crossed the I-99 which divided the neighborhoods, but before that, as they left the parking lot of Pancake Circus, they heard the smashing of smashed plates smash some more, and pieces of broken glassware suddenly exploding against the walls once again.



Before the I-99 cut Sacramento in half, the neighborhoods of Oak and Curtis Parks were separated by nothing more than fences between yards and streets that were crossed with ease. But after the bulldozers pushed down homes and dynamite blasted the path the highway would weave, the neighborhoods divided, and after years of separation the homes on one side inflated to half a million dollars, and the same homes on the other side, the Oak Park side, sold for pennies on the dollar. One side became prime real estate, the other skid row.

Jess and Scott waded through Curtis Park, the homes of former mayors and governors deep in water, the park itself a long oval swamp with bugs like pelicans over the sea, until they crossed the highway, the water of Curtis Park waterfalling down the slope of the sunken interstate, turning the highway into a rushing riverbed, collecting water from the city and funneling it South.

In Oak Park, people sat on their porches and watched Jess and Scott walk the neighborhood of which they obviously did not belong. The houses, old and falling apart, the wood porches rotting, the windows broken, garbage askew in the front yards, but unlike everywhere else Jess and Scott had walked in the city, in Oak Park there was no water on the ground. There was no flood from the rain that rained four days straight.

"What the hell?" Scott asked, his phone out and camera ready since they crossed the overpass. There was no water, no flood, and Jess and Scott realized the sunken interstate had acted like a moat around the neighborhood, protecting Oak Park like it would a castle. While the rest of Sacramento was flooded, in Oak Park, it was just another Tuesday.



The two of them, Jess and Scott, sat on the curb in front of a gas station. In the gas station's window was a hand-written sign that said we serve hot Chinese food. Jess and Scott's clothes from the last three days were soiled and damp and rotting, their bellies filled with only digested bits of jerky and chocolate from the night before, and bits of burnt white bread. The smell of the hot Chinese food made them nauseous. Scott was nauseous already. Jess's head fell to her tired husband's shoulder.

"How anticlimactic," she said.

It was just like '02, Scott thought, thinking back to when the Kings played the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Kings the better team yet stopped short by a ref who threw the game, Bibby getting called for a foul when Kobe elbowed him in the face.

"We were supposed to go to the Finals," Scott mumbled, his hands involuntarily shaking.

"What?" Jess said.

Scott popped his knuckles. "This is just like Freaky Friday," he said. "Oak Park the nicest part of town, everything else shit. What the hell?"

Scott puked again. "There," he said when he was done. He stood and wiped his mouth with the back of his shaking hand. "That's a little more like Oak Park."

"Let's just go find an aid station," Jess said. Scott shook his hands together and bit his inner cheek. His body shook. Then, as if a decision had been made, he stopped. He handed his wife his phone, the camera app on. He stood and faced the gas station that proudly served Chinese food. "You hungry?" he asked, then headed toward the building.

"Hey," she yelled as her husband opened the glass door. "Do you even have any money?"



Inside, a young man leaned behind the counter, talking with his customer, a larger man with his beard neatly trimmed around his jaw line. A black hat with a red RC for River City and River Cats, the city's minor league baseball team, sat low on his head. On the register was taped a hand printed note, informing customers that Shoplifters will be shot, and underneath, Reggie this means YOU! The cashier and customer nodded to Scott as he entered, then went back to their conversation.

Scott turned down the back aisle and picked bags of chips and cookies and doughnuts and cereal and cans of Spam and Ramen Noodles from the shelves. He cradled them in a giant pile in his arms. This was survival, he told himself. This was about evidence of his will to survive. This was his grandkids knowing he and their grandmother had suffered. Suffered and survived.

He scooped up bottles of Naked Juice and Coffee-Mate creamer from the cooler, and when he turned the corner to the front of the store, by the hot section of Chinese food served, the two men bullshitting at the register turned to Scott as he approached, dirty and disgusting and tweaked-out looking, scratches and scabs covering his face and neck and arms, the same arms filled with merchandise. The cashier stopped leaning against the counter on Scott's appearance and put his hand around the register, his fingers finding the sign declaring what happens to shoplifters. The customer smiled out the side of his mouth, as if wondering if this shit were really about to happen.

"Cash or credit?" the cashier said. Scott's eyes bounced from cashier to customer, cashier to customer, but his steps didn't stop stepping.

"Don't do it man," the customer sing-songedly said.

"Cash or credit?" the cashier said.

"Don't do it."

"I said," the cashier said, Scott only a few feet away. "Cash? Or credit?"

Scott took off out the door.



Jess stood by the pumps, playing games on Scott's dying phone, so she didn't notice her husband come running out of the gas station, his arms filled with snacks and drinks, and for some reason coffee creamer but no coffee.

"Take the picture," he yelled, running toward her. "Take the picture, take the picture, take the picture!"

Jess raised the phone shoulder level and tapped the camera app back on. The camera focused on her husband running towards her but then lost focus as he seemingly tripped and threw the snacks into the air. He fell face first onto the ground and a loud crack that blew back the blades of grass filled the air. As her husband fell, the screen went black and over it Jess saw a man in the doorway of the gas station lower a shotgun, black and synthetic like Glenn's Lindsey. He cycled the weapon, an empty cartridge shooting out.

"I told him not to do it!" another man yelled, standing beside the shooter in the doorway. "You heard me say it!" he said, pointing to himself. "I told him not to do it!"

Instinctively, Jess finished tapping the black screen to take the picture, then dropped the phone, smash, as her husband rolled over and over, grabbing his lower back with both hands and screaming.



"Baby," Jess screamed. She ran to her husband, his body contorting as he screamed my kidneys, my kidneys, I can feel my liver, my blood Jess, make my blood stop hurting. "Baby," Jess said, grabbing Scott's back and feeling blood coming out.

"What the hell did you shoot him with?" the man next to the shooter asked, both of them running up, the shooter holding the shotgun by his side. "That sure as shit ain't no birdshot."

"Double buck," the shooter said, moving his head from side to side, his hand rubbing his chin as he watched the shoplifter squirm and cry, my liver, Mommy, Mommy, Jess, my liver, my liver. "Reggie kept saying he wasn't afraid of no birdshot."

My kidneys. I can feel my kidneys.

"This shit's gruesome," the companion said, turning away every few seconds as if he couldn't watch another moment, only to look back again at the man crying, the woman holding him, his blood on her hands as she held his face, streaks smearing his cheeks as she cried and he cried. Mommy, Mommy, Jess, Jessica. "I mean, this is over the top."

"Please," Jess said to the men. "Please," she said. "You have to help him," she said. "He's dying. He's dying right here, in front of your store," she said. "Please."

My liver. Oh God. Oh my God, my liver.

The two men looked to the faces on their porches. They looked to the woman at their knees, cradling the dying man.

"Fuck," the shooter said.



The dying man was heavier than they thought he would be, his woman next to them comforting him as they staggered down the street toward the overpass for the interstate, a raging river below.

"Thank you," the woman cried. The man's screams had muttered into stuttering.

As they crossed the interstate overpass at the spot where the protective chain link fence was at its lowest point, knocked over by a hit and run a month earlier - as hit and ran by Reggie, everyone knew - the two men, friends since childhood, threw the dying man over, his body splashing into the river below.

And when his lady started screaming what the hell are you doing, when she rushed to stop them, they threw her ass over too. Not in front of my store, the cashier said when they were done. World goes to shit and everyone thinks they can act like crazy people and bring craziness into hard working people's lives. All he wanted to do, the cashier thought, was wake up, run his store and support his family. He didn't look for trouble. He didn't ask for this. He just wanted a quiet life, and he worked too hard to lose it all for some tweaker and his tweaked-out lady.

This was real life, he thought. And real life has consequences.



Jess's body twisted and turned in the current, pushing her up and over, her hands then feet scraping the tops of cars that happened to be commuting when the water started spilling down on top of them. The current threw her upward so she resurfaced and caught her breath, before dropping her again, only to resurface and not see Scott, only to be pushed back under.

Finding herself in the movement of the water, she moved with it and forced herself to the top, scanning the moving brown where her husband was nowhere to be seen.

"Scott!" she yelled. "Scott!"

A few yards ahead, she saw the color of Scott's shirt surface, only to be lost, only to surface again. She swam to it, grabbed it, and felt the weight of his body inside. She pulled his face out of the water, to let air fill his lungs. She swam to the sidewall. She pulled herself and her husband to dry land, only a highway exit down from where they were thrown.



"Come on baby," Jess said, blowing into her husband's mouth, filling his lungs with air. She pumped his chest. She blew. She pumped. "Come on," she said. Then she cried. She stared at Scott on the wet concrete, and then his chest, very faintly, rose ever so slightly, then fell. Rose. Then fell.

"Baby," Jess said, taking his head into her hands. She kissed his lips. "Baby, I'm going to be right back. I'm going to get help. I'm going to find someone to help you." She kissed his lips again, then pushed herself off the ground and ran, not seeing that after her husband's chest fell again, it failed to rise once more.



Jess ran up Franklin through shin high water that slowed her. She tumbled and fell, the water breaking her fall as she tripped over the curb to the overpass that led to a gas station. She got up and ran. She ran past former mayors' homes and former governors' mansions. She ran through water past parks like swamps with bugs like birds, through empty streets and homes with porches where residents sat and stared. She ran through Curtis Park, through Land Park, to the medical center down the street from Pancake Circus.

"Help!" she screamed coming into the ER, but the hospital was empty, the ground disgusting. Three feet up the walls, a black line of filth was painted across the drywall, a reminder of where the water had been a day before. Jess screamed help, and when no one answered, again she ran.



"Help!" Jess yelled after into the Pancake Circus, the bell ringing on its hinge as she threw the door open. However, no one was there to hear her. The camera crews, the pimply boy, Anderson Cooper and Brock Davisis, all gone, the tables empty except for left crumbs and coffee rings and napkins and broken plates and glasses. Only the jacketed back of a single body sat at the yellow Formica counter, facing the television in the corner, a local affiliate reporting. "Where is everyone?" Jess pleaded. Her hands fell to her knees as she tried to catch her breath. She stood and put her hands over her head. She took soft step after soft step, the carpet moist under her. "Where'd everyone go?"

At this, the back at the counter turned, as if he had been too engrossed with the television to hear her when she entered. "Huh?" he said.

"Where is everyone?" Jess said.

"Up and left," the back said. On the television was an aerial shot of an ocean side manor, white tents and chairs set up in its grass courtyard. "Lindsay Lohan's getting married," he said. "Big surprise ordeal in Malibu."

"What -" Jess said between breaths. "But -" she said. She looked from empty table to empty table, as if maybe there was a cameraman she had failed to see. "Husband -" she said. Her breaths became harder and harder to breathe.

"Never heard of the guy," the back said. "Some waiter in Burbank. Didn't really think she was the marrying-type myself." The back heaved up and down in silent laughter.

At this, Jess slid into one of the booths. She began to cry.

At this, the back turned again, seeing the woman's face falling into her hands in uncontrollable sobbing. It was uncomfortable, the man thought, watching her cry like that.

"Hey," he said. He stood from his bar stool. With his tongue he rubbed his lip through his mustache. "Hey," he said. He didn't know what to do. He pushed away the coffee he had poured himself and buried his hands into his pockets. When he finally made motion toward the door, the woman stopped him with tearful pleas.

"Wait -" she said. "Please -" she said. "My husband -" she said. "My husband's been shot." Please, she begged. Help me, she said. Please.

"Lady -" the man said, jingling his keys in his pocket. His truck was three miles away, parked in the only dry spot he had found when he drove up that morning. "I don't even live here," he said. "I drove up from Stockton just to check everything going on. I don't -" he stopped and tried to figure out what it was that he didn't know. "I don't -" he sucked his mustache into his teeth, looked off into the carpet, and shook his head.

At this, he walked over to the door and, ignoring the woman's cries, stepped out into the city, the clouds that clustered around mechanically breaking as if controlled by God. Breaking to allow the sun to shine over rooftops and trees and a river that swelled and ran, sucking its straying portions from the landscape back into its path where somewhere along its banks a creature crawled out onto dry land, a monster from the river murk. As it emerged it looked out over the Earth and wondered, as it had lived in chronic domestication its entire life, how to get food, how to survive, how to live. This creature, soaked and shivering, felt overwhelmed by its task. Wishing it was still kept, it sat on the wet grass and did the only thing it knew how. It licked itself.

Meow!

3 comments:

  1. What a hellish journey from the seriously inconvenient/mildly exciting through to terror in a short space of time. Grounded with exquisite descriptions of details that take us to the full impact of the tragedy on ordinary and flawed human beings. Well done,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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  2. Your characters experienced something vastly different from people in the low-lying areas in this neck of the woods where rainfall floods their homes every winter. Even though their misery is on a far smaller scale than that you describe, they are too busy trying to save what they can to treat the matter lightly, so I found it difficult to relate to the casual amusement of your married couple at the start of the story. Taking the 'scenic tour' also did not ring true as surely their instinct would be to reach safety and allieviate their discomfort as soon as possible? I liked your ending. If some disaster did wipe out the human race (which seems imminently possible with all the nonsense going on in the world at present) it's highly likely that some hardy species of animal life will be all that survives. In your case, Muffin's survival against tremendous odds lifted the mood and held out some hope in desperate circumstances.
    Beryl.

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  3. I think that there's more to this story than there seems at first reading. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans or had dealings with FEMA should read it. And anyone who likes cats! It's a good theme for a story and about the right length. Well done.

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