by Katherine L.P. King
On Sunday afternoon, I look out my window. The sky is bright blue and my sister Pepper is outside on the lawn with no shoes on. She is holding her hands up by her shoulders, palms facing the sky.
I stumble out of the house in my sweats and ask, “What are you doing?”
“Rain,” she says.
“It’s not raining.”
Pepper sniffs at the sky. “It will.”
She thinks she can smell things like this. She does have the extraordinarily large nostrils of our late father. I think they’re charming but she was called terrible names in school.
“Pepper, you don’t know that.”
She looks at me, blinking. “Yes, I do. A lot of rain.”
“It’s supposed to be sunny all week. I don’t think it’s going to rain.”
Pepper turns away, the curve of her shoulders expressing annoyance. “I wish you would listen to me.”
I don’t want to fight. I go inside and make two cups of tea—one with sugar, and one without. When it’s done and the bags release their bitter scent in rising silver tendrils, I take the cups out and watch my sister. The sky has dimmed, but it’s definitely not raining. Her hands are at her sides, but otherwise she has not moved. Her long brown hair blows gently. I approach and extend a cup to her. “Pepper, I’m sorry, but you can’t smell the rain. Come inside and drink some tea.”
Before Pepper answers, I feel a drop on my head. It’s cold. I look up and the sky is a color I’ve never seen—not light gray with pale clouds, or rolling steel fog, but a dark gray, darker than 4B drawing pencil lead. I feel another drop on my cheek.
I sigh. “Okay, you were right about this one. Now will you get inside?”
The downpour begins with a soft shh sound. In moments, Pepper’s hair is dripping. The sidewalks match the sky in color. Rivulets of dirty water run down the lawn into the gutter. The world smells like rain.
I go inside and Pepper follows me. Our feet squelch through the yard as we go. In the kitchen, I offer Pepper tea again, but she ignores me. She heads for the garage, and I follow her. “Pepper, honestly, what is wrong with you?”
“We need to get moving.” She starts rummaging through cardboard boxes. I wait for her, trying to keep my breathing steady. When she tosses a small box at me, I don’t catch it. It is a bright red blow-up raft, likely something Grandma gave us and we’ve never used.
“You can’t be serious.” I stare. “Pepper, this is nuts. We can’t go back out there.”
“Ginger.” She turns to me, puts a hand on my shoulder. “You have to trust me. For once.”
I frown, open my mouth to argue, but she moves away. My cheeks hot, I walk into the kitchen. The cat purrs on the sofa, and the rain pours on the house. Out the window I see our little backyard and our dog, Jeremiah, sitting under the back porch, his thick coat wet. I’ll have to wash him when the storm is over, or he’ll smell for a week. Pepper comes back inside. She’s soaked all over and her hair drips little bits of rain on the tile.
“Pepper, you’re scaring me. Can we sit down and talk about this?”
“There isn’t time. We have to go.” She glides into her room. I toss our teacups into the sink.
When she comes out of her room, she’s changed into jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Still no shoes. She’s brought her huge backpack. Pepper goes to the pantry and starts shoving boxes into the backpack. Some things she leaves, others she takes. Then she goes to the fridge and starts taking from there, too. “What are you doing now?” I demand.
Pepper doesn’t answer. Instead she goes into the closet and gets the small bags of cat food and dog food and rat food and fish food we keep in there. We’re animal people. These bags go into the backpack as well, which is now bulging.
“You need to change, Ginger.”
I want to argue, but my fingertips tingle and I’m sweaty with fear. I go into my room and put on clothes that mirror hers, down to the bare feet. By the time I come back into the kitchen, I can hear my sister on the roof.
The rain comes faster now. I curl up on the couch with Thompson, the cat.
Pepper comes back inside and says, “Help me with Andromeda and Willow.”
They are the rats. One white, one black, both with pink noses and tails. They’re in a cage in Pepper’s room, and I help her carry it out to the backyard. That’s when I notice how much water is on the ground. Pepper has taken the tall ladder from the side of the house and leaned it against the wall. She gets onto the roof and I climb up after her, only going halfway so I can hand her the cage. The rats squeal as I pass them into her hands.
“Get Thompson, please,” she tells me. I pause, squeezing the ladder, then bite my cheek and head down. I go inside and pick the cat up. He comes willingly enough at first, even though he’s old and doesn’t like to be held. But when I get to the glass sliding door heading to the back yard, he hisses and claws at me. I have to put him in my purse and zip it shut to get him outside.
When I get back to the ladder, I’m standing in six inches of murky water. Our back yard has flooded. I look up, squinting through the rain, and see that Pepper has somehow coerced Jeremiah onto the roof with her. I hand over the purse with Thompson in it and tell her not to open it. “Now Coriolanus,” she says. I notice she’s got the raft out of its box and spread out on the roof.
Coriolanus is my Siamese fighting fish. He’s in a small tank in my room. I unplug the filter and lights and heater and carry him out of the house and into the backyard, which is now filled with at least a foot of cloudy water. My pants get soaked up to the knees as I make my way to the ladder. The air smells like mud and the current is strong. I hand the tank up to Pepper, pausing on the bottom rung to take a deep breath, and then I climb. When I get to the top, there’s the menagerie we’ve collected: two rats in a cage, a fish in a tank, a dog sitting next to my sister and panting, and a cat’s paw poking out of my purse.
I sit down at the edge of the roof near the ladder. My sister has the raft up to her lips and her cheeks are rounded with air. She blows into it, inflating it. After a while I take over for her, since her face is red, and anyway I’ve got the stronger pair of lungs.
When we trade back, I go look over the side of the roof, careful not to slip. The water now covers the top of the picnic table. If we were sitting there, we’d be breast-deep. Cold rain drips down my face.
Neither of us is sure how long it takes to blow up the raft. We left our phones inside. But it doesn’t seem like very long before the water is only a few feet away from the top of the roof and the raft is full of air. I didn’t hear any glass breaking and all the windows and doors are shut, but there must be water in the house. I imagine sitting on the sofa watching the water rise above the windows, witnessing the streets fill up around me like the opposite of a fish in a bowl, seeing cars floating away, and people too.
The raft is bigger than I thought. Pepper wastes no time putting the rats , the purse filled with a cat, and herself inside it. She whistles for Jeremiah, and he goes too. They turn to me. Well, Pepper does, and Jeremiah mimics her.
I get in; it’s a tight fit. I pick up Coriolanus’ tank and set it in my lap. My stomach cramps as we wait, with the gray sky weeping down rain and the water rising.
Eventually the water reaches the top of the roof and we start to lift. Just the edges, first, and then the water gets high enough and we’re floating. We don’t appear to move anywhere but up. The tops of the trees are the only thing, besides us, still above the water’s clear surface.
I decide it’s safe to let Thompson out, so I open my purse. He gives me a nasty look as he scrambles out of the bag, but when he realizes that he’s stuck with us on the raft, he curls up next to me and sulks.
Pepper is watching me. I cannot meet her eyes. “Thanks for saving us.”
She nods. “Want some food?”
“What did you bring?”
“Crackers. Cereal. Apples. Celery. Peanut butter. Chips.”
“I’ll take an apple.” She tosses it to me and I bite into the skin. It’s green and makes my cheeks pucker.
We drift. Soon enough even the trees are gone and there’s nothing but us. I take a nap.
When I wake up, the rain has stopped. It’s warmer out. I’m still wet, but at least my shirt is starting to dry. I sit up and pause. I don’t remember the world ever being so quiet. The animals are silent, Pepper is silent, and the only thing I can hear is the gentle lapping against the sides of the raft. The sound echoes over the surface of the water and stretches on endlessly.
Pepper doesn’t notice I’m awake. She is studying something cupped in her hands. I stretch my neck a bit to see it’s an old-fashioned compass. I think Grandpa gave it to her before he died.
“Does that help you?” I ask.
“It only tells me where north is.” She sighs. “But I don’t know where we are. It’s hard to tell by looking down there.” She points into the water.
I lean over the edge of the raft. The water is pure and clear, and I can see everything below us. Streets, sidewalks, houses, yards, trees and sturdier bushes. But I don’t recognize the neighborhood, perhaps because I’ve never looked at the world this way before. The street signs aren’t visible at this angle. Our town is flat and I have never seen a skyscraper, so I don’t expect we’ll have anything to mark the way. Even the telephone poles are submerged.
With my face so close to the water, I realize that it has a sweet mineral smell, like well water.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Pepper says, “Since we can’t steer this thing anyway.” The idea makes my stomach hurt.
We sit silently until the sun starts to set. That’s when we see a man on the horizon. He’s standing and holding something long and thin. It looks like he is floating on the water’s surface. He comes closer to us and we see he’s standing on a door. It’s white but the paint is chipped. The man is holding a pole—bamboo, maybe. On his head is a large hat to block out the sun.
“Greetings,” he says, as if we’re passing on the street. Maybe we are now.
“Hi,” Pepper says. “Do you know where we are?”
“On the water,” he says.
Pepper and I look at each other. “But do you know the town?”
The man blinks. “No towns up here.”
“Have you seen anyone else?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
He looks at the sky. “At least the rain has stopped.”
He smiles, so we smile back. “Thank you,” Pepper says. The man pushes away with his pole. We watch him go until he’s just a tiny speck on the horizon. The sun sets, and it’s beautiful on the water, with flashes of orange light momentarily blinding us. Then the light begins to fade and we can no longer tell water from sky.
We sleep, but not well. It’s cold, especially since we haven’t completely dried out. The gentle rocking of the raft reminds us that we’re not at home in our beds and may never be again. We’re not big eaters, but with what Pepper brought we probably won’t last a week.
In the morning, we feed the animals. My arms are tired from holding Coriolanus’ tank and he looks less shiny than usual. He’s mostly green but today he looks pale.
“Is it salt-water, Pepper?”
She smiles. “It came from the sky, Ginger.” But she dips a finger in the water, then tastes it. “Not salt. Delicious, actually.”
I look into the water. It is clear, and I’m thirsty. I taste it. She’s right—the water is refreshing, warmer than I expected, but good.
I kiss Coriolanus’ tank. Then I lean over the side of the raft and pour him into the water that has become the foundation of our world. When he first goes in, he seems stunned. Then he kicks his tail and comes to life. His scales shine, flashing green at me. He even gets a little bigger. I watch him circle wider and wider until he disappears from my sight.
I put my head in my hands and cry a little. Pepper rubs my back. Jeremiah laps up water from over the edge of the raft and then comes to lick my face.
We eat breakfast—peanut butter and apples and celery. And I get an idea.
I suggest it to Pepper while she hands small pieces of celery to Andromeda and Willow. I brace myself for her to say it’s a bad idea, but she agrees, maybe because she knows it will cheer me up.
So carefully, trying not to upset the raft, we strip out of our still-damp clothes, down to our underwear. Then, with Pepper standing at the other end of the raft so that I don’t tip us, I slide off the side.
The water is warm but not bath-water warm, and clean. At least it feels clean. I dunk under the surface and open my eyes, and I can see everything as clearly as I could above the surface. I stay under as long as my lungs will allow, and when they’re shriveled and begging for air, I come back up and take a deep breath. The water smells herbal, mineral. I don’t remember ever feeling so calm. I hold my side of the raft so Pepper can get free too. And as soon as she jumps in, Jeremiah follows her. Thompson puts his front paws on the raft’s lip and watches us.
I float on my back. There is nothing I can see besides Pepper and the pets and the water and the sky. I realize that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Pepper. I also realize that there is nothing else that I need.
Pepper splashes my face and I splash her back. Jeremiah barks. We swim in circles around the raft, making sure we don’t lose it. We race each other to it and back to some arbitrary point on the horizon. We dive down as deep as we can, so deep we can touch the front doors of the houses below us. I cling to the branches of a submerged oak tree. Pepper grabs a garden hose and drags it to the surface and back. Jeremiah dog-paddles by the raft, waiting for us to return. Eventually we get tired and climb into the raft. We eat cheese crackers for dinner and share them with the cat.
That night we sleep a little better, tired from the swimming and the sun and more accustomed to the gentle rocking of the water.
When we wake up, we look down into the water to see that our scenery has changed. We’re no longer floating in suburbia. Now we are floating above a cattle field. There are no cows, of course, but the fences and fields of grass underwater are unmistakable. What’s more, the water level has dropped. Now it looks like we are less than twenty feet from the ground.
The cat is restless. Jeremiah goes swimming, but Pepper and I stay in the raft. After breakfast, Pepper says, “We’re dropping.” I believe her. By late afternoon, the raft comes to a stop on the earth. The air smells like fresh grass. As soon as we land, Jeremiah and Thompson leap out onto the soggy ground. They sniff and explore. Pepper and I stand up and get out of the raft too. The world looks the same as it did before the storm, just wetter. But the sun is drying even that up as we look around.
It’s miles of green hills all around, nothing but grass and a fence stretching out of sight both ways. All I can think about is Coriolanus and whether he’s lying on a sidewalk suffocating in air right now. Maybe he found a lake or a pond.
“There should be a rainbow,” Pepper says, looking at the sky. I look up with her. It is clear blue, cloudless, and void of rainbows. It is the same. Everything is the same.
But we are not the same. I look at Pepper. “Which way?”
She looks up and down the fence. “How about west?”
I smile. “Right behind you.”
As we gather up the rats and the backpack and call the dog and the cat to us, and start walking west along the fence, we know that something deep inside us—as deep as the water—has changed.
Katherine L.P. King is a writer and Chapstick enthusiast from California. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but please don’t hold that against her. She primarily writes short horror fiction and her work has been published in Wild Violet Online Literary Magazine, HelloHorror, and Coffin Bell.