During the storm, the clouds never broke. Twilight hovered every day. On the second afternoon, the electricity went out. The third morning, after the boombox ran out of batteries, I read The Lord of the Rings until the dim light strained my eyes. Then I sat on the back porch, felt the moist wind waft through the screen, and watched the rain. When strong gusts blew, palm trees bent over until their fronds swept the floor. I worried they would break. They didn’t. They had lived through far more storms than I, and they would survive many more.
After Mom stopped cleaning and trying to get me to join her in doing so, she read on the living room couch. We spent most of the remaining day in silence. Then the storm broke. A few hours later, the lights and cell service returned. Aubrey called me. She said the rain flooded the retention pond by her home. The water was too deep to pass, even in her truck. Could I bring some jugs of water?
How am I going to get through the flood? I asked.
I’ll take the boat.
I borrowed Mom’s car and drove to the Publix. The aisles were mostly empty of other shoppers or employees. No one had restocked the water. The occasional jug or case remained on the shelves, which looked much larger with so little on them. The crinkling sound of a bottle rolling on the warped tile floor drew my eye. I shivered. Then I bought a case and left.
On that midday drive to the B section, I passed few cars. The wind pushed debris down the street. Pools of water filled the gutters lining the road. In the middle of a four-way intersection, a downed limb frayed into woodchips. I drove around it and pulled over to let ambulances, fire trucks, and cops pass by. Then I turned down Aubrey’s street. From its entrance, I saw a gleaming sheet of silver extending where the road once was. I drove less than fifty feet before I had to stop. I got out of the car. A skim ambled toward me and back into the stream like water up a bank. Farther back, it turned dark. An eddy stirred. Small branches floated away from me and toward wherever the water was draining.
In the distance, I saw Aubrey, a skinny silhouette, gliding above the water on a dinghy that she propelled by pole. She was wearing torn jean shorts and a plain white shirt. Her hair was up. When she got close enough for me to make out her face, I saw that she was smiling. Once she reached transparent floodwater, she jumped out.
Ain’t that supposed to be dangerous? I said.
You see another way for me to get to you? Come on and help me pull.
Frowning, I kicked off my flip flops and waded shin deep into the flood. It was cold and made my hair stand on end. We pulled the boat onto our gravel shore. I shook my legs off like a dog, but an oily slime remained.
Quit your complaining, she said. You get the water?
I nodded and popped the trunk. Aubrey and I unloaded the case onto the boat. Then she ran her arm across her forehead, which was pink from the sun, though I didn’t see any sweat.
Crazy out here, I said. How deep does it get?
Pretty bad in some parts.
Your house flood? I asked.
Water ain’t make it up the driveway. Guess we lucky. Heard this ain’t nothing compared to when Andrew hit.
Aubrey shrugged and sat on the hood. I joined her. Then she lit a cigarette.
Been craving one of these something awful, she said.
Your mom don’t know?
I think she knows, but we don’t talk about it.
Aubrey exhaled a plume of smoke and ran her hand across her forehead again. Her fingers left a white imprint for a moment until the pink filled it in.
My mom barely let me out the house, I said.
She got on you bad?
She been on my case. It’s raining like the world’s about to end and she trying to get me to clean.
And if a branch crashed through the window, first thing she’d say is get the broom.
Aubrey threw her cigarette into the river. The yellow filter bobbed for a moment. Then it drifted off with the current.
Don’t much feel like going home, Aubrey said.
Let’s float for a bit.
Before I could respond, Aubrey grabbed me by the wrist. She pulled me into the water and to the boat. By the time I was in, I still felt her soft, smooth fingers on my arm. Then Aubrey shoved off and I stumbled. The boat rocked from side to side.
Steady now, she said. I’m getting there.
Don’t look like it.
Could’ve given me a warning.
You thought we was going to sit still?
Aubrey pushed until we caught a light current. She let go and we rode downstream. On our sides, the flood flowed through gutters into lawns and lapped at the bases of driveways. The occasional house’s garage was open and a generator ran. A few people stood outside smoking or watching the water. Aubrey began pushing again and yelled hello to someone, who yelled hello back. What did we look like to them? A black boy and a white girl on a boat in the flood, a case of water between them, the boy sitting at the front as though being ferried, the girl standing in the back as though in control.
The current strengthened and the boat slid along with ease.
The farther into the neighborhood we got, the higher the water climbed up lawns and driveways. We must’ve been nearing where the water stormed the banks. I watched the homes and the people and the water pass by, feeling like I was looking at something far away, as if I were watching the evening news. At one house, a man in a white tank and cargo shorts sat on his front step, his head in his palms. Through the open door and past the sandbags behind him, I saw two young children rolling around on the floor. Neither children nor parents seemed to notice each other. Then the floodwater swept us on and they escaped my sight.
As we continued, we saw a few boats: some middle schoolers in camo hats steering an inflatable raft, a man wearing a bucket hat with a cooler on a dinghy, and a young couple in a kayak. Aubrey waved at them all and they waved back. We followed the water to where it was deepest and curved around a home turned into an island. On our left, a doe watched us from muddy land amid the woods on an undeveloped lot. Then it turned around and returned to the forest. We floated into the center of the retention pond, which was lined by tall thin trees on three sides. When I faced away from the way we came, it looked like we were in the wilderness.
The water was calmer here, almost still. Aubrey sat down and looked up. The shadow of the lingering storm had almost entirely gone. The sky was nearing blue now. I heard the click of Aubrey’s lighter. When I turned to her, smoke shrouded her face.
Jess’s house flooded too? I asked.
No, she’s all right.
So why’d you call me?
I chuckled and said, You always think someone’s mad at you. You always surprised people lean on you.
The boat began to turn clockwise. I looked over the edge. The surface was dark, brown. Grass and pine needles floated near us. A black garbage bag bobbed a little farther off. Beyond it, large and small branches circled us, the water staining them a dark color.
Even when Jess and I wasn’t talking because I was dating Brandon, she said, you came to lunch, kept talking to me. Even if I skipped four days of school, you was there on the fifth. Figured you would’ve brought the water even if you had to walk all the way here.
Figure you’re right.
A rustle gathered in the forest. A crowd of birds emerged. They called to each other with shrill, high-pitched sounds, traveling across the sky until they flew in front of the sun and disappeared. Its light made me squint then shut my eyes. When I opened them again, black dots scattered across my vision as I watched Aubrey drink from one of the water bottles. She burped long and deep, and even above the earthy, moist scent in the air, it smelled sour.
Gross, I said.
She laughed and punched my arm lightly.
So easy to get a rise out of you, she said. Everybody else stopped reacting to my burps.
I ain’t everybody else.
She rolled her eyes and said, Tell the truth, we ain’t need the water.
Thought you might be lying.
Aubrey punched me again. Then it was so quiet that I heard her cigarette sizzle when it hit the pond and the distant trickle of water coming home.
Wanted to get out the house, she said. Mama been getting on my nerves since my sister left for her boyfriend’s. Soon as she walked out the door, Mama said she was leaving us in an emergency.
Like you ain’t never been in a hurricane before.
And Mama just kept talking about how everyone left her. Husband’s in jail. Daughter’s at her boyfriend’s. She got to take care of herself and me, even though she ain’t know what to do if it floods. Then, maybe the second day or the third, she got quiet. Barely talked to me even when we was eating canned food cold for dinner after the power went out. So I was just alone. Spent the time just sitting, hearing the rain coming so steady I stopped noticing it. Looked out the window and watched till it got boring. Then I laid on the couch and stared at the ceiling. Went to my room and did the same there. Thought maybe it’d look different. It didn’t. Just lay there waiting for the rain to stop. Then the street started filling up and the water was coming up our driveway and Mama got loud again. Started talking about how she got a bum man and raised a bum daughter who done left and got to take care of the other one with no help.
A dry, almost warm breeze passed by. Aubrey downed the rest of the water and threw the bottle into the pond. It splashed dark drops into the air. When it settled, it rotated in the same direction we did.
Moment the rain left, Aubrey said, I got in the boat. Been riding around till I called you. Figured you’d have something on your mind other than what’s going on at my house. Something to say about school or track.
Boring, dependable Daniel.
It’s kind of boring sometimes. But it’s something else to talk about. All the other stuff gets old.
What you mean old? You the one doing all the drinking and smoking. Going to parties. Cutting school.
I do that all the time though, she said. Got the rest of my life to fish and mud and get drunk. Everybody I know doing the same. Just something to pass the time.
You don’t like drinking?
Everybody likes getting drunk, Daniel. Don’t be stupid. But when you come in all excited about putting on your short shorts, that’s new to me. You all excited to run round that circle, trying to run your way on up out of here.
When I’m on the track, ain’t nothing else matter.
When you do good, Aubrey said, you get to talking about where you going to go and what you going to do when you get out of here. And when you do bad, you got this fire in you for days can’t no joke of mine put out.
Ain’t know you noticed.
Then Aubrey leaned forward, her hands on the case of water as she closed the distance between us, and said, Bet you miss it.
Lord knows I been feeling restless.
You excited to get back to practice? Get so fast you get you a scholarship and get out this no-name town.
Can’t wait till I set foot on dry land again.
Oh, you can’t wait huh?
A smirk creeped in at the corner of Aubrey’s lips, but her look remained steady. A light wind blew and her hair rustled with it, the air made visible as a chestnut wave. Some of the loose strands reached out to me but didn’t make it all the way. When the wind passed, as her hair fell slowly, I smelled the sweat, warm but not unpleasant, for a moment, and then the floodwater covered her scent.
I can wait a little longer.