She had seen a man crawl out of the dark beside a slithering brown torrent, his ghastly face lit by her car’s flashing orange hazard lights.

The Day After

A chapter from a novel-in-progress

Two deer graze in a field with misty trees and a hill behind them
Two deer graze in a field with misty trees and a hill behind them
photo / Patti Witten

As soon as it was light, Leah left the church and drove home through the fog. She needed to see if she still had a house.

She had not slept, just sat and talked a bit with the volunteers and half a dozen others who’d escaped the flood, like her. She’d gone numb despite the harrowing stories they told. In the cat carrier, Emmy had lapped some water from a paper plate, wide-eyed and silent. Probably traumatized. The rain had slowed as though the blood-clot clouds had nearly bled out. In the car, the driver’s door and seat were spongy and water pooled in the footwell. She was exhausted and wearing donated clothing, her wet things wadded up in a plastic grocery bag. And no doubt Emmy needed to pee.

Utility and highway trucks and tractor-trailers hauling heavy equipment were out in force. In the gray light, trees and sky and the spaces between them were opposite. Light stepped back and the shadowed places moved forward, glimmering. The land all around was a mosaic of negative space and animal shapes, the kind artists see. Specters. In the ghostly light, Leah and Emmy turned into her little street. The red ranch stared at them. Police tape and barriers blocked the road down to the point. She saw a few of her neighbors walking on the pavement under umbrellas and standing on their porches.

At the far end of her driveway, there was a gaping space where the garage had been. It was just gone. Who knew what tragedies had occurred down the hill on the lakeshore. Leah did not want to know, not yet. She had seen and heard enough that night.

It was so quiet in the house that she could hear the whine of tinnitus in her skull. The fan blades were motionless, the refrigerator was silent. No power. Emmy meowed to be let out of the cat carrier. Leah thought the basement must be flooded because the sump pumps ran on electricity, and that meant the litter box, too. She left Emmy in the carrier and found an unopened box of cat litter in the mudroom. In the kitchen, she turned the tap. No water because no electricity for the well pump. Leah set Emmy’s food and water bowls down in the mudroom, emptied a plastic tote, and covered the bottom of it with an inch or two of fresh cat litter. Then she let Emmy out of the carrier and shut her in the mudroom. Poor Emmy.

At the bottom of the basement stairs, black water reflected Leah’s flashlight back at her. Her heart thumped. She shut the door and locked the cat-door hatch so Emmy could not go down there. Fear coursed through her. The weather was inside her house, in her car, in her clothes, behind her closed eyes, and she was alone without help to fight it back. Everything was suspect now, everything was scary and nothing could be trusted. Any door she opened, any corner she turned might reveal a new terror, a new crisis, something she could not deal with.

She leaned against the kitchen counter and willed herself to calm down. Took a breath, let it out slowly like she was blowing out a candle. She felt the counter’s edge bite into her palms and relaxed her hands. Hugged herself, dropped her chin, relaxed her neck muscles. Breathed.

Half an hour later, an insurance claim was in motion, and the vet had agreed to take Emmy for a few days. Then Leah called her bosses at the winery, and Ray answered. There were some washouts in their fields, but they were OK, and they still had electricity in the showroom and the house. After Leah explained her situation, Vanessa took the phone away from Ray.

“Leah,” she said, “come here, stay in the bridal suite. I mean it. We’re closing for the weekend, everything’s canceled. It’s no problem.”

Back in her wet car two hours later, Leah’s anxiety was under control. Emmy was safely at the vet, and her phone was charging in the cigarette lighter. The rain had stopped — finally — but the air was still thick and damp, and the sky, fields, and trees, even the roads looked hostile. On the main road, she passed the now barricaded crossroad where she had turned to follow the truck. She wanted to know what had happened to the man and who was in the truck, but she did not know how to find out. Exhaustion made reasoning impossible.

Leah turned into the winery parking lot, drove past the showroom building, and continued up the gravel drive. Ray and Vanessa met her as she pulled up to the house. Vanessa hugged her, and Ray took her bag. Leah began to weep. Vanessa led her to the clean and bright bridal suite, closed the blinds, turned on the taps to fill the bathtub, and left her alone.

She undressed, folding the borrowed sweatshirt and pants neatly, and shut herself in the bathroom to soak in the hot, clear water. When the bath water cooled, she dried her hair and body with a soft white towel. The water twisted down the drain, and air whispered from the vent above the door, raising the fine hairs on her arms and face. Wrapped in the towel, she walked barefoot across the shiny, creaking floorboards to the bed, lay on top of the crisp, expensive bedclothes, and sobbed for a long time.

She had seen a man crawl out of the dark beside a slithering brown torrent, his ghastly face lit by her car’s flashing orange hazard lights.

Leah pulled up the covers and finally slept. A cup of tea Vanessa must have brought in cooled on the bedside table, and her sandals, like orphaned twins, said their prayers on the floor beside the bed.

This is a chapter from a novel in progress. © Patti Witten, all rights reserved.

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