A paper collage showing a dream-like scene a sky filled with clouds, a setting sun, and a lens flare.
Image credit: Yannick Lowery / www.severepaper.com

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”

It began to rain.

It rained for thirty-nine days straight—not quite beating the biblical record. But still, with its relentless pounding, its creation of rising torrents in the streets, its cascading into basements, its engendering mold in attics, its drowning of small animals caught in low areas outside, its pouring into the inside of cars as they tried to float, its darkening of days so the sun had no rising or setting but was simply an ugly gray glow that swelled irregularly, it made us think the world was coming to an end by vigorously dissolving—by covering its mistake with cold erasure. Someday, things would start again, we thought, but we would not see it. We were to be a part of the obliteration.

The neighborhood felt abandoned and under siege after the first week. A foot of rain a day made it difficult to even see, much less think, with the bruising sound of endless cloudburst everywhere. The Crawleys four doors down packed up their van and headed to California. Abe and Sally, the older hoarder couple across the street seemed to disappear. Jason from next door went and banged his fist on their front window but got no answer. Toward the end of the first week, he broke in. He found just damp boxes lining the hallway, a living room filled with the flotsam of late-night TV offers, enough dishes to run a catering service piled on the counters, and packets of cereal and bags of veggie puffs that had swollen open with moisture and mold. The basement was filled with water to about a foot from the ceiling. Jason swung his flashlight around, but there was no sign of the couple.

The children next door stopped boating in the street when it became a real river. The rain was coming down too hard to make boating enjoyable, anyway. Cindy, the eight-year-old, started crying on the tenth day and couldn’t stop. Her agony echoed off the covered front porch, where her parents put her occasionally to give the rest of the family respite. We could hear her like a distant siren though the rainy tumult. All our boilers had stopped working due to the rising water tables, and our skin paled and crumpled into bloodless prunes. Henry and Oletta down on the corner kept their electric heating system going until the beginning of the twelfth day, because they had a generator stored on a top floor. They let people come in two at a time to dry some clothes and towels. But then they ran out of gas, and darkness swallowed us every evening, candles becoming precious commodities so even reading was a luxury. Every roof leaked, water creeping down drywall and soaking up from floors to create a latticework of black spores that grew out of the paint and wallpaper. Everything smelled of cold, incipient rot. All the houses used their fireplaces as stoves, their furniture as fuel. We had our last cup of coffee at the end of the second week. It was delicious, even without sugar and half-and-half.

There was a lot of talk of leaving, especially after the electricity went out everywhere, the phones stopped working, and the gas got turned off when there was an explosion a few blocks away because of a leak. But if you hadn’t acted quickly like the Crawleys had, there was no place to go. All the roads, even the interstate, were blocked by new lakes. People tried to gun their cars through but got swamped and had to wade in waist-high sewage to get to higher ground, sloshing back to their homes in the end, but without the possessions they’d had to cast off in their cars. Charles, our eldest, launched out to explore downtown in spite of Aida’s screams of objection, telling him he couldn’t disobey his mother. He trudged out of the backyard carrying the little bright-yellow one-seater kayak we used to tootle around in on ponds on camping trips. In that arrogant seventeen-year-old way, he casually assured us he’d be back in a few hours, and paddled down the street. Aida stayed by the front window until it was too dark to see and she finally came to bed with me and ten-year-old Jewel. Jewel couldn’t sleep by herself and would curl herself against my back, while Aida draped her arm over her until Jewel’s distraught dreams made her limbs jab out into the night.

Charles came back three days later, just when Aida had declared she was going to go looking for him and tried to enlist Henry’s help, over the reasonable objections of Oletta. I had to hold Aida shivering and sobbing in the rain until she surrendered to us, and then she went to lie down upstairs. An hour later, the sounds of Charles’s heavy feet on the front porch brought Aida running to the front door. Charles was setting down a boy of about seven who he’d been carrying on his shoulders, and a woman, the boy’s mother, was following them up the front stairs with a suitcase and a large purse. She didn’t have a coat on, and her clothes stuck wetly to her like a second skin, showing the folds of her stomach. Her hair dripped like kelp fresh from the sea. Her eyes were red, and you couldn’t tell what had been tears and what had been rain.

Aida got them all inside. Later, she told us that she’d had to gently take off the woman’s clothes after taking the luggage from her hands. She’d rubbed her down with our least-used towel and gotten some dry clothes for her. She let her lie down on the bed and came back to the living room, where I’d gotten the boy into some of Jewel’s clothes, while Charles stripped to dry himself in front of the fire. It was the first time in years I’d seen my son’s naked body, and it was astonishing to see a man’s body in its place. He wrapped a throw blanket around himself as Aida came back in. He said the woman’s name was Miriam, her son, Bobby. (Yes, your brother, Bobby.)

Charles told us the story of his three-day trek to downtown. He had met someone with a battery-operated short-wave radio—I didn’t know people still had those—and it was hooked up to some car batteries. The radio confirmed what we’d been suspecting—that the rain covered the western half of the continent. In places, flooding had wiped out whole communities. Landslides and dam breaches were changing the geography, wreaking havoc and tragedy across the country. There were rumors of bands forming to declare themselves independent countries with the right to do what they had to do to survive—but that was mostly because FEMA and the National Guard had fallen apart when lack of funding and a government shutdown stopped the paychecks, and people went home to protect their own. Charles had come across a couple of groups of men ransacking buildings for useful items, but no one was attacking anyone yet. He had to be careful even of his dorky kayak—boats were precious, and he became good at hiding it. Downtown was under about twenty feet of water, so if people were in the buildings, they were on the third or fourth floors and had broken windows so they could come and go in rowboats or rafts. The library was on a hill and it was filled with people. He said it was like a movie set, with little camps everywhere. They had figured out how to have a fire in the atrium, and were able to vent the smoke. They used books as fuel. He said there was one guy who was responsible for keeping the flame going. He laid each book individually on the pyre, saying a small prayer and kissing it beforehand.

An impromptu ferry system had sprung up. People who had large enough boats, such as motorboats they kept on trailers at the back of their driveways, had been able to get to some of the deeper roads and highways, and were taking people back and forth. Everyone seemed to be looking for someone. At the library, especially, there were handwritten signs asking for information about people, with descriptions and a lot of exclamation points.

Charles found Miriam and Bobby on one of the bridges over the river in the early morning of his third day out. The water had come up so high there was no space between it and the bridge, and it swished along in a red-gray maelstrom. It was louder than the rain, with the pounding of fallen trees and great logs smashing into the bridge and then being gobbled under by the swift water, eventually bobbing up on the other side. Miriam was standing there as though hypnotized by the violent current, while Bobby sat on the other side of the bridge, glancing up at people who were crossing where cars used to cross, shielding his eyes from the downpour. Charles tried to get Miriam’s attention, but she was in another world. He talked into Bobby’s ear and then lifted him onto his shoulders. He took Miriam’s hand and led her to his kayak’s hiding place and put her in the seat. Then he pulled and walked and swam with the boy until they got back here, Miriam floating behind in the little yellow boat. That took the whole day. Bobby thought it was fun; he was a good swimmer and didn’t mind the cold. They were going somewhere.

Miriam left sometime during the night, leaving the suitcase that held a couple of Bobby’s things, including an electronic gamebox and a deck of cards. We haven’t seen her since. Bobby started sleeping in the bed with Jewel, Aida, and me. Charles went out on more sojourns, coming back sometimes with supplies he’d lifted from someone’s abandoned house or news about another catastrophe the rising floods had brought about somewhere. Once he came back with a slash on his arm and a broken finger, but when we pressed him about it, he shrugged and said that’s the way things were now, and that he was okay. He was becoming a different person as the days went on—one I didn’t know, but wanted to. It was like he had appeared with the rain and was becoming a bit more clear each day.

The silence woke us that last morning.

Aida shook me, but I was already awake. The occasional drip of water landing somewhere only made the silence more profound. We went out front. The sky was whitening. We could see farther down the street than we had in a long while, and we could see other people peering out. Jewel tugged at my pants and said, “Look.”

Floating down the road in the race of water was a Red Ryder wagon box with a little tent on it, and a small cry came from within. I lit down the stairs and waded chest-deep into the water, angling to intercept it. I fished it out and lifted the tented tarp to find a baby inside looking furious. Her diaper was soaked, as was the blanket on top of her. Her little cloth cap had come askew. There was a nearly empty baby-bottle. There were three onesies balled up around her. And one sock. That was it.

I pulled her to shore. Everyone came down to see her. It was such a joy to be outside without the hammering of rain on our heads. Aida lifted her out of the wagon box and ripped her diaper away as the baby screamed at her. She wiped her off with a rain-soaked tea-towel, getting her clean. She opened her own shirt and tucked her inside on her breast, warming her. The baby blinked up at her, quieting.

Aida said, “Hey girl.” The baby said nothing, just stared. “Your name is Moses,” Aida said. She looked around at us, daring us to contradict her. “Moses,” she said.

And that’s how you got your name.