Nothing could hold back the Mississippi that summer. Our flood stage was sixteen feet and when the river crested at thirty, folks panicked with good reason. Jackson’s Island, which jutted out of the river as an overgrown sandbar, was completely submerged. The island, immortalized by Mark Twain, wasn’t very big to begin with, though Huckleberry Finn and Jim found it to be plenty. The annual spring rains usually caused minor flooding, but the trees on the island reached up from the river like bushes floating on the muddy surface.
Water was what people talked about, worried over, and watched. Upstream and downstream, levees busted by force and by sabotage. Barges were stuck for months and the trains stopped running.
On land, we prayed to crumbling rock and gravel walls for protection and piled up more layers of sandbags to push back the pressure. If a levee broke on one side, there was temporary relief on the other. Some farmers walked their lines with shotguns, threatening anyone who came near their sandbags. The fight was fair at first. Until it wasn’t. Until it came to sacrificing others to save yourself. Until those with power didn’t want to protect those without. Maybe that’s why I left. But by then, the Mississippi had taken more than six hundred miles and much of our lives in its wake. Ten years ago, even as I was falling for Sammy on that steamy July night parked at Lover’s Leap, one of my feet was firmly planted on the ground, even as I hiked the other to welcome him.
The river’s to blame. When you grow up on the banks in Hannibal, Missouri, you need an escape route. You never know when the water is going to rise and you have to run.
Mama thinks i’m home again for my ten-year high school reunion. I don’t tell her much more when I park my Honda in the grass, scattering chickens, and come through the door about ten o’clock. I drove twenty-two hours straight from Jacksonville, Florida, alternating between the Dixie Chicks’ first album and Shania Twain’s latest, skipping over sad songs. My boots make my feet ache, but I keep them on for courage.
The house smells like Jiffy Pop and tomato soup: Mama’s favorite. The tang and salt make my skin itch. I scratch at the rising bumps on my forearms, but there is no relief, only more allergy to this part of me. Mama is dozing in her recliner, waiting for the late news to announce the flood stages and her Lotto numbers. When you can see the Mississippi out your windows, flood stages are your religion. And when you can’t imagine how to dig yourself out of your hole, you put your faith in the Powerball.
On the screen, a retrospect from that summer shows houses flooded past their roofs, land stripped of crops, and schools ruined. “The National Weather Service claims the Great Flood of Nineteen Ninety-Three was extraordinary. It’s considered the most costly and devastating flood in modern U.S. history. The many record river levels, people displaced, crop and property damage, and its length exceeded all previous U.S. floods.” The voice is cheerful, as if it’s a sunny weather forecast rather than the Mississippi’s destruction.
The bumps on my arms swell to hives. I drag my bags in from the car, and the weight of them feels useful. If I just keep moving, I won’t have to think. Just like Mama, I always kept the news on in the background of my apartment in Florida, just for the noise, to feel like I had people around me when I didn’t.
As I lug in the last suitcase, a threadbare maroon one Aunt Betty bought me for my high school graduation, the zipper busts and a pathetic pile of dirty socks spills out. Mama opens her eyes, and we both stare at the socks. Then she sighs like this is exactly the kind of mess she expects from me. “Be careful with my girls out there, Laura,” she says instead of hello. “Y’all haven’t been properly introduced yet.”
“My girls. The chickens.”
“Yep. Oh, they’re sweet girls. Fresh eggs every morning. You’ll see.”
I nod at the prospect and go to my room. It’s the second one on the left from the kitchen, down our trailer’s narrow hall. My veins buzz from too much coffee. Black paint chips flake off as I open and close dresser drawers and toss in my stuff. A pale pink peeks through the laminate. My best friend, Rose, and I painted the walls and furniture Charcoal Magic in ninth grade. We thought it sounded sophisticated.
Mama turns up the TV volume and follows me down the hall. “Take your shitkickers off in the house.”
I hold up one of my boots to show her the spotless snakeskin. “They’re clean.”
She shakes her head but doesn’t insist. “Looks like a long visit.”
“Maybe.” The last ten years of my life are these four suitcases, my shrinking savings account, and the car that barely got me here. It doesn’t look like much more than I took when I left. I’ve given myself until the Fourth of July to decide what’s next.
Mama leans against the doorframe while I unpack. The Lotto tickets are tight in her right hand.
“You play the same numbers?” I ask. I know the answer, but I know she wants to tell me, too.
“You and your brother’s birthdays. Always.”
Mama huffs. “Not yet.” She chews the nicotine gum I sent her, like a cow working its cud. Her face is rounder since she quit smoking. Her creamy skin is healthier, and there is a flush to her cheeks. She smooths her purple striped blouse and black jeans to have something to do with her hands besides squeeze the tickets. I’ve come home unannounced and caught her wearing the clothes I sent, the ones she never thanked me for or acknowledged. Clearly, she didn’t hate them.
“Just a few weeks. Maybe a month,” I finally say, telling the truth, mainly. “That okay? I’ve got vacation time comin’. Thought I’d spend it here catchin’ up.” I slip back into Missouri talk so Mama won’t call me out for being uppity. You can reach, Mama always says; just don’t look like you’re doing it.
“Catchin’ up with who?” There it is. Mama’s suspicious. She smells trouble. At least there’s usually more on Trey, my older brother.
“It’d be nice to see Trey. Aunt Betty, of course. Rose and Bobby.”
“And?” She wants me to say Sammy. I don’t. Maybe she thinks I’m rooting around for Daddy, too. We haven’t heard from him in years, but that never stopped me from scanning crowds and searching the eyes of every ER patient on my shift. Just in case.
“Haven’t seen Rose in almost a year,” I say, trying to distract her. Mama could mention that I haven’t bothered to visit her or Trey or Aunt Betty in almost three years, but she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s merciful. Usually not, though. I hinted about the reunion on the phone last week, after everything that happened happened, but I didn’t tell her directly that I was on my way home. I could hardly believe it myself.
Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri and proudly claims it her hometown. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, and Poets & Writers. She’s a Contributing Editor for Fiction Writers Review and Editor of the Grace & Gravity anthology. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. is the author of the novel Flood.
Hear Melissa read from Flood on July 22nd, 2017, 7:30 pm at Starts Here! in Baltimore, a monthly fiction reading series hosted by jmww editor Jen Michalski at Bird in Hand in Baltimore. For more details, go here.