On the first day of Autumn, the lake overflows. Rainfall in the night had come in unprecedented amounts, and by the time Jen wakes in the morning her tulip garden is flooded. Immediately she sets to work digging up the survivors.
Maxine emerges from the house behind her, blinking wearily in the pale morning light.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s been a flood,” Jen explains a little breathlessly. “Help me with these, will you?”
Come breakfast the house is sprouting tulips from every table and every bench, every windowsill, and every shelf. Their vibrant reds, yellows, and pinks crowd in at the edge of every thought. When Jen takes a bite of her toast, she tastes tulip in the jam.
“Clearly we’ve done something wrong,” Maxine says. She’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday, her little silver cross glinting on top of her t-shirt. “It just happened.”
Jen chews on a fingernail. “Something wrong? We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You don’t go to church ever,” she says, stabbing her breakfast with her spoon. “Maybe we’re all being punished for your lack of faith.”
“I don’t see how a flood has anything to do with my lack of faith.”
“Hello? Noah’s Ark? That’s what a flood is. It’s the anger of God.”
The nail Jen’s been biting finally snaps off in her mouth. She spits it out in her palm. “Eat,” she tells her daughter. “You’ve hardly touched your cereal.”
Jen’s car is parked out front, submerged in a foot of water. The road swirls and bubbles, carries broken branches, plastic bottles, a soccer ball, and what looks like communion wafers, drifting in congregation downstream. Her phone buzzes with a text. I just heard. Are you okay?
Jen hoists her bag a little higher on her shoulder, pats down her hair. The moisture in the air has made it knot and frizz and expand like baked bread. She decides not to look at the land around her front fence which she knows is muddied and full of holes, like a ransacked graveyard. Maxine is behind her somewhere, dawdling. “Come on,” she says.
Jen takes the drive to the store slow, water fountaining around the wheels of her Kia. Everywhere neighbours and community figures move through the streets like turbulent ghosts. Sodden couches stare at her with big, bloated eyes. People push water out doorways with brooms and carry damaged wares out onto the footpath.
The church is eerily unaffected, pointing like an arrow to the bulbous grey sky. It has acquired a collection of sullen townsfolk. They mill about out front, some wandering in forlorn circles, others crouched in tight huddles and whispering prayers. Amongst these a few people stand still and blank-faced. Jen swears she makes eye contact with one as she drives past. Their eyes swell large and dark and cold and Jen has the unsettling feeling that she’s staring at and being stared at by her own soul.
They park down the road from Tom’s grocer and walk up. Inside, the floor is covered in a thick layer of brown slurry. Tom’s metal shelving has survived, but products on the lower tiers are disintegrating into the mud. Jen finds him behind the counter, silver wire-frames wedged low on his nose, a frown haunting the weathered skin between his eyebrows.
“The store…” Maxine says sadly.
For a moment, Tom doesn’t appear to recognise them—–he looks up and his eyes seem to pass straight through Maxine’s body. Then Jen says, “I’m so sorry, Tom,” and his gaze focuses. He smiles a little in thanks.
“I’m starting to catalogue all the surviving stock, but we’ve lost at least lost a third of what we had.”
Jen doesn’t know what to say except to apologise again, so she says nothing. She looks down at an edition of The Daily Telegraph pasted on the linoleum floor, ink bleeding from every word and image. The face on the front cries black tears.
Her phone buzzes. She slips it in her pocket. “Can I do anything?”
“Mira’s bagging up the ruined stock out back. She could do with some help.”
He utters a great sigh of relief. “Thank you, Jen. This whole thing–” He pauses. “You know, I’ve lived here thirty years, and I’ve never once seen a flood like this.”
She thinks she hears her daughter say something, but when she looks over Maxine is silent. She clears her throat, suddenly self-conscious. “What do you think brought it on?”
“Honestly? I haven’t the foggiest. But it feels like we’re being forced to make amends somehow.”
“What for?” The question comes out sharper than intended.
Tom doesn’t seem to notice. “Wastefulness. Selfishness. A failure to care about the messes we make.” He takes a moment to stare at his grimy hands. “Did you know in ancient stories a flood almost always indicates the arrival of a new era?”
“That’s not the worst way to look at it.”
“Sure, of course. Until you remember that for a new era to begin, an old one has to end.”
Jen finds Mira Farrell seated at a table in the back room, surrounded by ruin. The woman is dressed in tracksuit pants and a t-shirt, her usually bright face stripped bare of all makeup or glow. She stares down into a mug, slowly stirring. The tan-toned water eddies and swirls. “Man,” she says. “This has really fucked up my week.”
“If only that weren’t an understatement.”
Mira looks up, grows worried. “What’s the news on the home-front?”
“The garden was swamped. I’m keeping the tulips in the house.”
“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?”
“I mean–” She swallows. “Just the garden? We had water pouring under the goddamn door. Didn’t know it either ’til we came downstairs this morning.”
“Shouldn’t one of you be looking after the house?”
Mira shakes her head. “We did what we could this morning. The store is more important.”
Together the three of them examine the affected stock, stacking salvageable items on the shelves and loading the rest into the garbage bags. After a while Jen has trouble telling what can be saved from what can’t. It all looks like mud: dissolving cardboard, bloated wood, burst plastic and brown, mushy food. Her bags fill fast. The strap of her bra keeps twisting on her back. Every now and then she glances over at her daughter who picks slowly through the wreckage. She doesn’t look to be making any progress, and Jen is just about to snap at her when she sees Maxine pick a soggy tulip from a toppled pile of cans.
The words lodge in her throat. She leaves the room quickly, taking her filled bags out into the street where the rubbish bins are already overflowing. When she turns back, she finds Mira paused on the store threshold, watching with two bags in hand. “What is it?”
“I meant to ask,” she says softly, “is Maxine doing okay today?” The question catches Jen off-guard. Mira hurries on. “It’s just…well, she’s different—–she has such a unique heart—–and your phone call last night made it sound… I don’t know.”
“What phone call?”
Mira frowns at her for a moment then shakes her head. As if prompted, Jen’s phone starts to buzz. “Do you need to get that?”
“No. It’s nothing,” she says, but on her way inside she removes it from her pocket.
From her mother: Im always here for you honey. Please call me if you need.
From her father: ur mothers worried plz call
And then there’s all the unopened texts from this morning. She can feel their thoughts growing around her, a veritable ocean of them, concerned and churning, pushing to get in. She buries her phone in her bag.
When Jen returns Maxine is no longer in the storeroom. In an instant, all the air is sucked out of the world. She hurries out into the store, moves wildly through the aisles. She’s about to check the storeroom again when Mira comes flooding towards her. “Jen. There you are! I just got a call from your ex-husband.”
Mira envelopes her in a hug before she can stop her. “Why haven’t you said anything? Oh, what are you doing here?”
Jen panics. She pushes out of the hug, out of the store, shouts behind her bulging like nimbus clouds, ready to burst, her whole body cold, cold as unseeing eyes, cold as lake-water overwhelming its bounds.
Jen drives home, scanning the streets for Maxine. The sky’s dark plate seems to be lowering towards the earth, and she has the feeling of being compressed between two slabs of concrete. The town is coated in a blue-grey underwater gloom. Foundations soften and suffer. A rugged man walks down the road, holding up a sign which reads, Repent! God’s Flood is Here! The crowd out front the church has swelled, grey people spilling out onto the footpath like lost coins. At one point a girl runs out into the street, directly in front of her car. Jen slams on the breaks, nearly collides with the steering wheel. For a moment, she thinks, Maxine! But it’s not Maxine. The stranger knocks into her bumper, looks around wildly for a moment, and, seeing nothing, hurries on. As she’s pulling into the driveway, she thinks she sees her daughter’s pale face in the window, watching her, but the girl is gone by the time she’s burst out of the car.
At the door, her phone buzzes against her thigh. The heavens shiver with thunder. She feels the insistent pressure of the world, its unpredictable anger, and longs for her garden. She shuts it behind her.
“Mum, is that you?”
Tulips like candles fill the house, brightening it. Maxine comes downstairs, stands framed by the garden.
“Oh god, Maxine,” she says, pulling her daughter into a hug, breathing in the warm, floral air. “You’re here.”
While dinner is cooking she wanders the house, letting her fingers drift over the different shapes and textures, the chairs and tables, the walls and decorations and utilities. All the perfect structures which rose up out of the ashes of her divorce. She thinks about how lasting it all seems and something inside her trembles.
In the lounge room Maxine absently flips through the channels on TV. Outside the sky has split open, water pouring forth from its dark cavernous mouth. But it’s dulled here, distant. Tulips everywhere nod in approval. Jen’s phone vibrates near-constantly on the coffee table. “You know I can’t help wondering,” Maxine says.
“Is this what the last days of Atlantis were like before the city plunged into the sea?”
For a heartbeat her daughter, seated by the window and washed in the day’s strange marine gloom, wobbles, becomes semi-translucent, like a person below the surface of a pool. Somebody halfway to another world. She has the abrupt and startling conviction that were she to touch Maxine, her hand would pass straight through.
Jen blinks and clears the water from her eyes. “Don’t be silly. Come away from the window, Maxine.”
The knocking starts halfway through dinner. It grows louder the longer she tries to ignore it.
“Uh, Mum?” Gently, Jen sets down her knife and fork and pushes out of her chair. Her daughter watches her with an eyebrow raised, swivelling in her seat.
Her ex-husband stands on the doorstep, hair dripping, suede jacket slick with water. “This rain,” he says. His eyes are red, the skin puffy. “It’s awful heavy.” Behind him water is filling up the street again, surging over the footpath, lapping at her empty garden bed. “Jen? Just tell me that you’re alright. Please.”
She says nothing. Her ex continues, “Your parents are scared that– well.”
“I’m fine,” Jen says. “The flood didn’t reach us here.”
“The flood? What–? Listen, that’s not– that’s not what I’m–”
“Mum, who is it?” Maxine asks from the dining table.
“You should go,” Jen tells him.
“Can’t I come in?”
“I see you’ve redecorated. That’s a lot of tulips.”
She starts to shut the door. He slams his palm against it. They watch each other. “I had to replant them,” she explains. “The flood ruined the garden.” He looks at her strangely.
“You know they’re dead, right?”
“What?” She looks over her shoulder at their bright, bobbing heads. “No, they’re not.”
“Yes, they are.”
“Look at them – they’re wilted.”
“Leave us alone!”
“Us?” He shoves into her perfect, husband-free home, turns towards the dining table. The door swings open uselessly behind him. “Who’s us?”
Outside the sky releases a great crack of light that splits open the thick, blue gloom, throws everything into high contrast, into black and brilliant white. Jen collapses. The floor is coated in grime, the wooden boards warped and rippled as though remembering the water which passed over them. A stain where the flood swept through coats the walls. She collects some of the sludge with her hand – in it, tulips’ petals, crushed and dark-veined and slowly dissolving away.
“You can’t shut this out, Jen,” her ex is saying. “I know– I know it was sudden, but I’ve been told it can happen. Her heart was abnormal. We knew this. We did everything right. It’s just– sometimes–” His voice catches, sticks.
Slowly she stands up, walks past her ex, reclaims her seat at the table. Looks at the empty spot opposite her, a bowl of pasta cold on the placemat.
Divine anger, atonement–neither of these are right, Jen decides. The flood just is. It sweeps into one’s life with indifference, claiming everything. We don’t see it coming. We deal with it the best we can.