Roller Coaster

Roller Coaster

The beach was quiet; smothered in a blanket of calm, a burden of memories still fresh, ever haunting.

He fought the heavy emotions that stirred within him as he considered the damage. Splintered board, shards of glass, sodden wads of material and scraps of garbage. Jagged beams rose from the sea like broken wooden teeth, remnants of the pier where he’d held her hand that first time.

The water was the same color as her eyes; light brown with flecks of gold, shimmering in the late sunlight of early dusk. She had taken him by storm; the girl who never stopped smiling. What was the source of her happiness, he had wondered? Most of his customers didn’t smile like that until they’d had a strong drink or two, but she wasn’t drinking at all. He had found himself teasing her when she ordered a tall glass of water: diet, on the rocks. He had served it to her with a lime and a little umbrella and said, Now you can feel like you’re drinking for fun.

“I don’t have to drink to have fun,” she told him, her voice dropping in a flirtatious sort of way. She took out a dollar bill and dropped it into his tip jar. “If you’re worried I won’t tip, don’t be. Unless you stop being nice to me.”

He smiled.

“No chance of that,” he said.

She was petit and slender, with straight maple-colored hair pulled back into a pony tail. She had freckles across her nose, though one seemed to have dislodged itself and drifted onto her top lip, settling like a speck of dust.

She was there with three of her girlfriends, all of whom were already drunk when they stumbled into the bar. He noticed them right away, gauging the state of their inebriation.

It was karaoke night, and the three girls were all over the microphone almost as soon as they were through the door. He winced as they wailed their way through a country song that was well beyond their vocal range, while their sober friend laughed at them from the bar and sipped her water.

“I hope you sing better than your friends,” he told her.

“You’re in luck,” she said, “because I don’t sing at all.”

“How did you get stuck being DD? You draw the short straw?”

“No, no straws. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Religious?”

“My dad’s a recovering alcoholic, so… you know. It just doesn’t appeal to me.” She took a sip of water and winked at him. “Good thing I’ve got such a sparkling personality. I’m Dinah, by the way.” She held out her hand and he had to wipe his on a towel before shaking it.

“Robbie.”

“Nice to meet you. Is this your bar?”

“No. I’m just home for the summer. Trying to make a little money before going back to school.”

“What are you studying?”

“Marine Biology. You?”

“Nursing. But I’m taking a little break.”

“Work load too much?”

“Taking care of a family friend, actually.”

“I’m sorry. I hope everything’s okay.”

She shrugged, but before she could respond the country song ended and the DJ called Dinah’s name. Her friends began to scream.

Diiieeeee-nuuuuuhhh!!

“Oh god, it’s my turn,” she rolled her eyes and began to move away from the bar.

“I thought you said you don’t sing?” Robbie said.

“I don’t!”

The opening chords to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” began to play.

“Oh my god,” Robbie laughed.

The bar seemed to explode as Dinah rapped, never missing a syllable. Everyone joined her for the chorus, throwing their hands in the air and bobbing their heads along to the beat. When she finished there was deafening applause. Robbie hated karaoke night- he was more of a country boy himself- but Dinah had done an impressive job. He hoped she would return for a refill, but instead she lingered with her friends until their glasses were empty.

The four of them converged upon the bar, budging their way through the crowd and flinging their glasses and elbows onto the counter. Dinah was easy enough to talk to when she was alone, but Robbie didn’t know how to flirt with four girls at once.

This did not deter them. The most inebriated of the group, Megan, locked eyes on Robbie and shoved Dinah so hard that Dinah almost tipped off her stool. This was meant to be a subtle tap, but Megan lost all sense of subtlety when she drank.

“Do you see him?” Megan shouted above the din. “Tell me you see him, Dinah. That one. The bartender.”

Robbie was mixing a couple of cosmopolitans directly in front of them and was well within earshot. Megan had stretched out her arm to point at him and was nearly poking him in the ribs.

“We’re old friends,” Dinah winked at Robbie, who smiled. “We’ve known each other for like, half an hour.”

“And you’ve already managed to lie to me,” Robbie said, pouring the cosmopolitans into martini glasses and sliding them across the bar to the other two girls, Aubrey and Des.

Dinah gasped. “What? Me, lie? I would never.”

“What was that up there?” He gestured towards the stage.

She laughed. “Were you shocked?”

“Amazed, actually.”

Megan grabbed Dinah’s ponytail and pulled a little too hard.

“You think she’s this sweet little white girl,” she said, “but she’s a hood rat when it comes to music.”

Dinah slipped off her stool and away from her friend’s grasp.

“Thank you, Meg,” she said with mock sincerity, “for making me sound like white trash.”

“You’re lucky,” Megan told Robbie. She was pointing at him again. “You got to see it. Not everyone gets to see it. She has to be bribed, so I bribed her.”

“What was the bribe?” Robbie asked.

Dinah held out her wrist, where a bracelet glittered in the neon lights from behind the bar.

“Swarovski,” she grinned.

Robbie shook his head. “You know it’s not nice to take advantage of your friends when they’re drunk,” he told her.

Megan held up a finger. “I was not drinking when this transaction took place.”

Dinah shrugged. “I love Swarovski. I’d take it from a baby.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Megan whispered loudly to Robbie as she leaned over the bar. “Tomorrow’s her birthday. That was her present.”

“I had a sneaking suspicion,” Dinah rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry,” Megan told her. “That’s not all. The girls and I have something else planned.”

“Oh dear.”

Des put up a hand to stop the conversation. “Can I say something?” she asked.

Everyone looked at her.

“This is the best cosmo I’ve ever had.” She slurred the middle of the sentence, but Robbie got it.

“Glad you like it,” he said.

“Fun fact about martini glasses,” Aubrey chimed in. “They were modeled after Marie Antoinette’s boobs.”

Des snorted into her drink.

“I think they look more like Madonna’s boobs,” she said.

“Bitch, Madonna wasn’t around in 18th Century France,” Aubrey retorted.

Des giggled some more.

“Aubrey’s a wine rep,” Dinah explained to Robbie. “She’s always educating us on the history of alcohol.”

“You should tell your manager to call me,” Aubrey told him. She tried to wink but the eyelid just remained closed. “We could work together, you and me.”

“I’ll do that,” Robbie said, then shielded his face from Aubrey and mouthed Not really to Dinah. Dinah laughed.

“You girls from around here?” Robbie asked, his eyes still on Dinah. He spoke with drunk girls all the time. It was the sober one who interested him.

“No,” Dinah replied. “Waveland. We just came to New Orleans for the weekend.”

“We had to get her out of the house,” Megan said. “She needed to have some fun.”

Dinah’s eyes dropped and she stirred her water with a straw.

Robbie noticed and chose not to pursue the why behind that statement.

“What are you doing when you get off tonight?” Megan asked him.

Robbie laughed at her forwardness.

“Megan!” Dinah cried. If the bar had been brighter, they would have seen her blush.

“We’re staying in the French Quarter,” Megan continued. “You should come party with us.”

“We will not be partying,” Dinah insisted. “You three are going to pass out drunk and I am going to pass out from exhaustion.”

“I don’t get off till four, but I appreciate the invitation,” Robbie said, noting Dinah’s discomfort. “I’ll let you girls have your fun.”

Dinah was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

“I’m free tomorrow night though,” Robbie said, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Megan immediately grabbed a napkin and pen and slammed them down in front of him.

“Your number,” she demanded. “Now.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Dinah warned, her lips twitching into a grin.

Robbie scribbled down his phone number.

“Oh, I think I do,” he said, and slid the napkin back to Megan.

 

“Ugh,” Des muttered, pushing her large black sunglasses further up her nose. “Sunlight.”

The girls had returned to their hotel at three that morning and slept until one in the afternoon. After nursing their hangovers for a couple of hours, Megan announced it was time to celebrate Dinah’s birthday.

“Is it weird that I’m scared?” Dinah asked.

Aubrey rubbed her temples. “Just be grateful you didn’t drink last night,” she said, “because you’re probably the only one who’s going to enjoy this.”

They piled into Megan’s car and drove to Six Flags, where the sight of roller coasters nearly made Des throw up. After they parked, she climbed out of the car only to squat for a moment with her face between her knees.

Dinah, however, was thrilled.

“Are you serious?” she exclaimed. “You guys knew we were coming here tonight and you still wanted to start off the weekend at Bourbon Street?”

Aubrey gave her an unenthusiastic thumbs up.

“Bourbon Street was for us,” she said. “This is for you. Happy freakin’ birthday.”

“I’m making you all ride the roller coasters with me,” Dinah told them.

Her friends forced smiles.

“Fat chance,” Des grumbled.

As they walked to the entrance gate, Dinah noticed a familiar face loitering near the ticket booths. She gripped Megan’s hand.

“Is that who you’ve been texting all day?”

Megan grinned wolfishly before throwing her arm in the air and waving.

“Hey Robbie!” she called.

Robbie slowly made his way over to the girls. Last night, the bar had stood as a comfortable barrier between himself and the four females, but now in the open brightness of midday, Robbie suddenly felt the acute desire to run in the opposite direction. It was August in New Orleans. Heat was rising off the pavement and the humidity wrapped itself around him like a hot wet blanket. What the hell had he been thinking, coming here?

Her. He’d been thinking about her.

“Sooo,” Megan began, loud enough for both converging parties to hear, “turns out Robbie is also a huge fan of roller coasters.”

They actually made him a little nervous, but he wasn’t about to correct her.

“Yep,” he said, his eyes on Dinah. In the daylight he could see her blush. “Love ‘em.”

She peered sideways at him, unconvinced.

“See?” Megan smiled at Dinah. “Now you won’t have to ride alone.”

“I was never going to ride alone,” Dinah said.

“Which is exactly why I called in a sub,” Megan replied.

 

The group hadn’t made it far into the park when Aubrey pointed out a small tavern that served burgers and beer.

“Pit stop!” she announced. “Beer and greasy food, best cures for a hangover.”

“Oh god,” Dinah groaned. “You guys are going to be barfing all night. Go, get some food. We are going to ride some rides.” She looked up at Robbie, who was considerably taller. “You okay with that?”

He smiled and said, “Lead the way.”

“We’ll find you,” Megan called out as they parted ways.

“My friends are crazy,” Dinah said as soon as the girls had disappeared into the tavern. “I’m so sorry they dragged you into this.”

“I’m pretty sure I volunteered,” Robbie replied.

“I can see right through you, you know. You’re not really into roller coasters.”

Robbie ran a hand through his short dark hair. “It’s just… all those screws… one of ‘em’s bound to come loose at some point.”

Dinah laughed. “You’re not a risk taker, are you?”

“Not much, no. But despite my aversion to thrills, I have a couple of older brothers who’ve never let me say no to one. We used to spend our summers at this amusement park called Miracle Strip in Panama City-”

“No way!” Dinah interrupted. “You’ve been there? Megan’s family used to go there for the 4th of July and Aubrey, Des and I always tagged along. That’s where I fell in love with roller coasters. Did you ever ride the Starliner?”

“Of course,” Robbie smiled, suddenly grateful his brothers had bullied him into it. “I had no choice.”

“God, I loved that. I get so nostalgic thinking of all those rides. There was nothing like being upside down beside the ocean. I miss that place. I was so sad when they shut it down. Do you think we were ever there at the same time?”

“I think there’s a good chance.”

“Maybe we rode the Starliner together.”

“Maybe you were that fearless girl in the front seat with her arms in the air.”

“I was definitely that girl. And I still am. Sorry, but I’m going to make you ride in the front with me this time.”

“No apology necessary. Your friend warned me.”

“I can’t believe she did this,” Dinah shook her head. “I can’t believe she got you here.”

Robbie glanced sideways at her, her freckles deepening in the sunlight, and she was smiling up at him.

“I’m glad she did,” he said.

Her hair became a faint shade of red in the sun, and she wore a bright blue Wonder Woman tee shirt with matching Chuck Taylors. She had come to him in a place where people drank to be bold, to be funny, to be honest and happy and free. But she was already all of these things, and here she was. With him.

He was having trouble believing it, too.

 

He put his face in his hands. He wondered if he should call her, then he remembered he couldn’t.

A week ago they had sat in this spot, and he had removed his shoes and curled his toes in the warm sand, and she had leaned against him and sighed.

I don’t want you to leave, she’d told him.

I don’t want you to stay, he’d answered.

Now the sand was riddled with broken pieces of glass and metal and wood, and the only sigh came from the breeze as it hissed through stripped palms, and she was gone.

Her memory was embellished with an array of sights and sounds and colors and tastes. That night at the amusement park still came to him in dreams, in flashes of light and bits of music. At some point during the evening her friends had joined them, but he could barely remember anyone or anything but her. The sound of her voice, the humor in her eyes, the softness of her skin, that freckle on her lip. They had wandered around for hours, and she had coaxed him onto every ride, and she had been that fearless girl with her arms in the air beside him. Her screams were outbursts of laughter, her joy too much to contain and too contagious to ignore.

She was a quick addiction. When he said goodbye to her in the parking lot that night, he was already searching for ways to see her again.

“How long are you in town?” he’d asked.

“Just till tomorrow night.”

“Some of us have to work on Monday morning,” Megan chimed in.

They ignored her.

“I don’t,” Dinah grinned.

“Me neither,” Robbie replied. He was smiling, too.

“Come to Waveland,” Dinah told him. “It’s only an hour away. We’ll go to the beach.”

“Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Okay!”

He drove away but he did not leave her there. She replayed like a song in his mind, over and over. He was hooked, and once he’d cycled through each new memory all he wanted was to play it again.

He suffered through the end of the weekend and worked through what felt like the longest shift of his life. Dinah had suggested an early start on Monday morning, so the temperature would still be somewhat pleasant when they arrived at the beach.

He wanted to pick her up, so she gave him the address of the house where she was staying. When he pulled up he noticed a small pocket of white flowers growing alongside the drive, and realizing he had come empty handed, he picked one for her. She opened the door before he reached it- she hadn’t wanted to wait for him to knock- and when he offered her the flower she smiled and tucked it behind her ear. She had prepared a cooler full of food and drinks, and he helped her carry it to the car.

“There’s iced coffee and fruit and scones for breakfast,” she told him, “and I packed something special for later.”

The something special was a 6-pack of Bacardi Ice, which brought a smile to Robbie’s face. Bitch beer. That’s what the guys called it. Dinah knew nothing about alcohol, but she had tried. For him.

“I didn’t know what you liked,” she explained, “but the girls always buy those.”

Robbie laughed.

“They’re great,” he said.

“What? You hate them!”

“No, they’re perfect.”

“I’ll have one with you.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m not afraid to have a small drink every now and then.”

“You shouldn’t do anything just because you’re not afraid to do it. You don’t have to drink just to make me happy. I’m happy already.”

When they got to the beach, they staked an umbrella and laid out a patchwork blanket, and as Dinah moved the sun glinted off a little gold cross that hung around her neck.

“That’s pretty,” Robbie said.

She looked lost for a moment, then her hand went to her throat and she took the cross between her fingers.

“Oh, thank you,” she said. “It was my mother’s.”

Was. He didn’t know how to ask, but she didn’t wait for him to. She wanted to tell him.

“She passed away when I was fifteen,” she explained. “Up until that point, my family had been pretty involved in church and stuff. Mom was kind of our anchor, but then, you know, she got cancer, Dad got angry at God, and then everything just kind of fell apart. I don’t think any of us have stepped inside a church since the memorial. But I wear the cross because it reminds me of her strength. She believed up until the very end. It makes me think that maybe I can be strong like that.”

They were silent a moment. He wondered what to say. I’m sorry didn’t seem like enough, but it was how he felt. He had never lost anyone close to him before.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?” he asked.

“A little brother. He lives with my dad and his new family in Houston. Dad left Mississippi after Mom died.”

She opened the cooler. She held out a bottled Frappuccino and smiled at Robbie.

“Starbucks?” she offered.

He thanked her and took it.

“So you’re studying to be a nurse?” he asked, remembering she had mentioned something about it the night they met.

“Yeah. I got the idea when Mom got sick. Up until that point I thought I’d be a pop star.” She giggled at her own expense.

“Naturally,” Robbie smiled.

“But I think I told you I’m taking a break,” she continued. “My mom’s best friend, Ruby, has always been more like an aunt to my brother and me. She’s much older than my mom was- by twenty years, I think- but they were absolutely inseparable. Growing up, Ruby was there for every single birthday and holiday. She didn’t have a family of her own so we just adopted her into ours. She’s had MS for a few years now and it’s getting pretty bad. So bad she can’t do much on her own. So I made the decision to leave school for the time being and move in with her. She was still asleep when you picked me up, otherwise I would have introduced you.”

“Maybe when I take you home,” Robbie said.

“I’d like that,” she replied.

 

After they had swum in the sea and made drawings in the sand, they had lunch and cracked open a couple of the Bacardis. Dinah drank hers slowly, and it had gone warm by the time she was halfway through. Moved with something like pity, Robbie gently coaxed the bottle from her fingertips and poured the rest into the sand.

“I like that you don’t drink,” he told her. “It’s what gave me a reason to talk to you in the first place.”

Dinah just smiled, somewhat embarrassed but also relieved.

“You wanna take a walk?” she asked.

They wandered down the beach until they came across an old wooden chair, white paint flaking from the sun and salty breeze. Robbie told Dinah to hold on, then made a show of sitting down, grunting loudly as he lowered himself into the seat. He gripped the armrests and gazed up at Dinah expectantly.

“All right,” he said. “I’m ready.”

She cocked her head. “Ready for what?”

He lifted his hands, palms up. “To watch.”

She was still clueless. “Watch what?”

“You.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

She looked down.

“There’s not much to see,” she murmured.

Her hair was glowing a subtle hue of orange as it dried into waves from the seawater. She had thrown a small white cotton dress over her bathing suit and wore only the cross for embellishment. No shoes, no hat, no makeup. So few distractions from her natural beauty.

“There’s everything,” he said.

She looked at him then, and for a moment she merely stood there, watching him watching her, not knowing what else to say or do. He waited, and she wondered, and their eyes remained fixed upon one another with only sunlight between them.

She took a few steps towards him and leaned in, bringing her face near enough for him to smell the Hawaiian Tropic on her skin, the Bacardi on her lips.

“And up close?” she whispered.

His breathing quickened. Suddenly there was not enough oxygen in the world.

He said nothing. Her proximity was an invitation for more than speech. He put his hand behind her head and drew her mouth to his, and she fell against him, tipping the chair backwards into the sand. She giggled and broke away long enough to apologize, but he had her close now and was quick to bring her closer.

Afterwards she was afraid she had moved too far too fast, and he felt her pulling away. When they came to a pier he told her of his family and his love of life and the sea, and he took her hand and felt her relax beneath his touch. He gently rubbed the soft place between her thumb and forefinger, and she traced her fingertips along his palm.

 

There are rumors of an evacuation, she had told him as she drew invisible swirls on the countertop with her fingernail. She had come to see him at the bar later that week. He couldn’t get the night off, and she had surprised him. I’ll sit with you, she said. You can do your job and I’ll busy myself checking you out and feeding you witty banter.

The night before he had driven her out to Biloxi Beach, where they had dinner and walked the boardwalk and danced in the parking lot beside his car. She had turned on the headlights and put on her favorite song, and she grabbed fistfuls of her dress and danced in the light. He joined her, unable to stay away, and she chastised him. I wanted to give you something to watch, she said. He told her he wanted something to hold.

When she sat at the bar he followed her gaze to the television behind him and watched the weatherman creating broad arcs with his arms.

“We have family in New York,” Robbie told her. “My parents are talking about going up there if the storm turns out to be as big as they think it’s gonna be. You know they shut down our park today. Six Flags.”

Our park.

Dinah nodded, her eyes distant and her finger moving round and round.

“What about you and Ruby?” Robbie asked.

He had met Ruby when he took Dinah home that first night. He was greeted at the door by a Yorkshire terrier named Tiger Lilly, who demanded to sniff his ankles before he made it any further into the house. When he saw Ruby she was sitting in front of the television with a blanket over her knees and her hands folded in her lap to prevent them from shaking. She smiled and told Robbie it was nice to meet him, then she grabbed Dinah’s hand firmly. Dinah leaned in close and Ruby whispered, I love you with all my heart.

She doesn’t say much anymore, Dinah explained to Robbie before he left. But she always tells me she loves me.

“We haven’t discussed it,” Dinah told him as the weatherman continued his animated forecast. “She’s been in that house since I was a child. She’s weathered hurricanes there before. I know because she loves to tell the stories. I have the feeling she won’t want to leave, and if she does…” She sighed. “It will be difficult to move her. And I don’t know where we’d go.”

“What about your dad’s place in Houston?”

“I don’t know. That’s almost a six-hour drive.”

“I can help you, Dinah.”

Her eyes softened and she reached across the bar to take his hand.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.

 

He had thought if he went to Ruby’s house in person that Dinah would change her mind. He arrived on Sunday morning, two flowers in his hand: one for Ruby, one for Dinah. When Dinah answered the door she knew why he had come, and she knew she could not let him do what he had come to do.

Instead of inviting him inside she stepped out onto the porch and took his hand.

“Walk with me,” she told him.

They walked the two blocks to the beach in silence, and he could sense a darkness brewing between them. She was slipping away again, and he did not know why.

“Ruby has a brain tumor,” she said when they reached the sand. They walked all the way to the water, letting it lap over their toes. “That’s when I moved here. When they found it. I knew she wouldn’t last much longer, and I didn’t want the people she spent her last days with to be strangers from hospice. She has nurses, yes, but I thought it would be important for her to have someone to share memories with, too. Not just someone to help her eat and take her medications.” Dinah paused for a moment to squint out at the sea and tuck some loose tendrils of hair behind her ears. Robbie waited. “She doesn’t want to leave her home, Robbie. And I don’t want to leave her.”

Robbie touched her waist and gently tugged her closer to him.

“Let’s sit,” he said.

She sat beside him but did not touch him.

“They were originally thinking the worst of it would hit Florida,” Robbie said, “but now they’re saying it’s coming straight for us. My family is leaving today. The city is being evacuated. They say the levees should hold but there could still be some flooding, and the winds are gonna be rough. Up to a hundred and forty miles per hour.”

He scooted as close to Dinah as he could, and he opened his arms just wide enough to show her he was waiting. She finally gave in and let her body relax against his.

He sighed as he felt her breathing.

“I understand that Ruby is really sick,” he continued, “and that her home is where she feels safest. But Katrina’s going to pass right through here, Dinah, and I don’t think it’s gonna be like anything Waveland has ever seen. Despite her condition I think it’s safer to move Ruby out than to let her stay.” He gave Dinah’s shoulders a little squeeze. “And you have to think of yourself too, you know? If anything were to happen to you…”

Dinah touched the cross at the base of her throat.

“I need to stay with Ruby, Robbie. And Ruby needs to stay here.”

“Do you honestly think that’s what’s best for her, Dinah?”

“It’s what she wants. She’s dying, Robbie.”

His jaw tightened.

“Then I wish she would at least consider you,” he said. “I wish she would let you go.”

“You don’t think she’s tried?”

He kissed her cheek and breathed in the smell of her. In. Out.

She sighed.

“I don’t want you to leave,” she told him, and he could feel his heart begin to crack.

“And I don’t want you to stay,” he answered.

She leaned forward, then turned just enough to look him in the eye.

“Your family needs you,” she said.

She was dismissing him, he could feel it. Everything within him begged her to stop pushing, to stop fighting.

“I can stay with you,” he told her. “I can help.”

She dropped her eyes and he waited for her to respond, but if she had possessed any words she lost them. Instead she stood and brushed the sand off the seat of her shorts.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go back.”

He realized he had forgotten about the flowers he had picked. He was still hanging onto them, but as he stood to follow Dinah he let them fall to the sand. They had begun to wilt.

 

I’ll come see you in the city when this blows over, she had told him. We’ll pick up right where we left off.

Even then he hadn’t believed her, even if she had believed herself. Still he left her, walking away from everything they had shared in the week they had spent together. The bar, the park, the beach, the boardwalk, the sun and the music and every moment they had spent wide open, so unaware of the risk they were taking in light of what was coming to tear them apart.

She had closed the front door behind him and leaned against it, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths to steady the trembling of her hands, the racing of her heart. She had the fleeting notion to call out to him, to ask him to wait while she packed her bags to follow him. I’m coming with you. Perhaps she could call one of the nurses to stay with Ruby, or perhaps a neighbor. Surely there were others who were planning to wait out the storm.

She touched her mother’s cross. Make me strong.

She remembered a time when she was young, when she and her brother had stayed with Ruby while their parents went away for the weekend. Dinah had gotten a terrible sunburn, and a thunderstorm rolled in during the night. Frightened and in pain, she perched on Ruby’s lap while Ruby held her hand and read to her from Black Beauty until the storm subsided and Dinah fell asleep.

Now Ruby was the child. Ruby was in pain, and if Ruby was scared, Dinah would be there to hold her hand. They would get through this together. They would be okay.

She repeated that to herself as the wind and rain began to pummel the house later that night. Early the next morning, it was still dark even though the sun was rising, and Ruby’s yard was a thrashing blur of green and gray.

Dinah was glued to the window. The rate at which the world was changing was remarkable. The rain came in torrents, and the wind bent the trees in half, snapping them like sprigs of asparagus. She was afraid one of them might pierce through the ceiling or through one of the windows. Lawn chairs and umbrellas and a child’s Fischer Price playground streaked across the yard. A few things struck the house, the collisions booming like thunder throughout the walls.

Water began to rise in the street beyond the drive, and within moments it had covered the lawn. Somewhere it sounded as if there were an explosion.

Dinah knew it was only a matter of time before the water made its way into the house. If the storm didn’t let up soon, the first floor would flood and Ruby would drown unless Dinah got her to higher ground. Their only option was the second level. Then the roof.

While Dinah assisted Ruby up the stairs, there was another loud boom. Dinah turned to look out the front window and was startled to see a large black shape bobbing against the side of the house. It was the neighbor’s car.

Ruby’s full weight was on Dinah, and Dinah could feel her mother’s friend trembling.

“It’s okay, Rubes,” Dinah assured her. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

 

They had lost electricity and the house was nearly black. They could hear the rush of water and the scraping of glass downstairs as the surge continued to rise. The walls groaned.

Somewhere outside a dog was barking.

The three of them- Dinah, Ruby, and Tiger Lilly- were crowded on Dinah’s bed. Ruby removed her hand from Dinah’s and placed her palm against Dinah’s cheek. Dinah looked at her, that dear old face that had changed so much in the past few months. What had once been soft and creased with age was now taut and swollen with disease. Ruby’s eyes, however, had not changed, and now they searched Dinah’s with a peace Dinah could not feel.

“I love you with all my heart,” Ruby told her, and Dinah cried.

As the storm raged it was evident the house would soon be underwater. Dinah forced open a window and considered what might be done to save both herself and Ruby. They would have to get onto the roof, and if the waters continued to rise, they would have to swim. Where and how far, Dinah did not know. If they could find something upon which to float they might have a chance until the surge receded.

The wind blew out the remaining windows while the water climbed to waist level on the second floor. Tiger Lilly was treading water beside Dinah, her claws tearing Dinah’s skin as she tried to climb onto Dinah for safety. Dinah pushed her away- perhaps a little too rough- and Tiger Lilly yelped. Dinah’s main concern was Ruby, and the dog was only making matters more complicated.

Dinah clasped Ruby’s arm and told her to hang on to the edge of the window while Dinah maneuvered her way out. Once she was outside the house she reached back through the window to take hold of Ruby and pull her through, but Ruby’s foot had caught on something and no matter how hard Dinah pulled she could not get Ruby loose. She swam back into the house, feeling along Ruby’s leg for the snare. The room was filling with water, and there was precious little space left between the surface and the ceiling. She had to move quickly.

Ruby’s foot had gotten lodged between Dinah’s desk and the wall. When Dinah was finally able to pry it free, she swam up to the surface only to find the surface was no longer there. Feeling her lungs beginning to tighten, she tried not to panic. She had lost hold of Ruby, but now her chief concern was oxygen. She felt her way back through the window and immediately floated to the top of the surge, which was only just beginning to swallow the roof of Ruby’s house. Once Dinah had filled her lungs, she looked around for any sign of Ruby but saw only the tiny sopping face of Tiger Lilly, ears low and whiskers dripping.

Dinah spotted what looked like the wall of a small shed floating nearby, and she swam towards it. Once she had grabbed hold of it she called to Tiger Lilly, and the dog paddled over to her. Weighing no more than seven pounds, Tiger Lilly climbed onto the makeshift raft and immediately collapsed in exhaustion while Dinah clung to the side, frightened the wall would sink if she put her full weight on it.

The wind screamed around her as she searched and cried out for Ruby. Beneath her, the water was the color of chocolate milk. There was no telling what things were suspended in the muddy hell beneath her. The memories, the homes, the lives, the world. Waveland, her hometown, swallowed in one fateful morning. She thought of Megan, of Aubrey, of Des.

She kept hoping that perhaps Ruby had found herself a similar raft, that perhaps she had drifted towards a taller roof, a safer place. But Dinah also knew that Ruby was barely strong enough to stand, to string together a full sentence. How could Dinah have believed Ruby could survive something like this?

I didn’t know, Dinah thought. I didn’t know it would be like this.

The raft drifted towards a copse of tall pines and with one hand Dinah reached out and gripped a branch. The raft grew still, and just then the wind began to die. An eerie silence settled over the expanse of water, and Dinah looked around one more time, waiting for a familiar voice, a cry, a breath.

There was nothing, and Dinah choked back a sob.

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Behind him was a house, gutted with a steel frame and a cupola for a roof. It stood alone, the only structure remaining on that stretch of beach. The other houses, antebellum beauties that had withstood the onslaught of Hurricane Camille in the 1960’s, had been obliterated, their boards and windows and rooftops now reduced to a wall of rubbish that had been deposited miles inland. Their foundations were the only indication of a century-old life now gone.

Somewhere nearby she had kissed him on that wooden chair. He had returned to find her, but the destruction was unbelievable, the town unrecognizable. He had not been able to locate Ruby’s house. Her street was littered with bits of houses and washed out cars. There was timber everywhere. A yacht was on its’ side, sandwiched between two trees.

He didn’t know what he expected. In short blips of news aired between extensive coverage of New Orleans, he had seen Waveland leveled. He had trouble imagining Dinah and Ruby there, safely holed in Ruby’s house, but he had nothing else to go on. They had to be there somewhere.

On his way into Mississippi he had passed hundreds of abandoned vehicles, and the front of his white truck was painted black with a plague of insects. When he stepped outside his vehicle they were in his hair, his eyes, his clothes. Street signs were upside down, bent in half, or missing altogether.

Then there was the smell. The rotting, stinking, bloating, swelling, steaming piles of garbage, animal carcasses, burst sewage and stale water and old food.

He traveled through what little remained of the town, unable to make sense of what he saw. He passed dazed families combing through the wreckage of their homes, the newly homeless as they stumbled aimlessly on the side of the road. They watched him, peering into his truck and wondering if he had something to offer them. Anything.

Eventually he came across the parking lot of what had once been a shopping center. People and vehicles had gathered, tents and tables had been erected, and a sign was spray painted with the words, “New Waveland Café and Clinic”. This was the largest concentration of people he had seen in the area, and suddenly he felt a flare of hope.

He left his truck parked nearby, locked and in plain sight. His eyes combed the area, registering a hundred faces that were not hers. Here there were two kinds of people: those who had lost everything, and those who had come to help. There were those sitting with blank expressions, and those beside them waiting to listen. Have you found your friends? Your family? Are you hurt in any way? How can we help you? Where was your home? What’s your story?

There were animals, too. Cats darted in and out from beneath benches and trailers while dogs lay panting on the asphalt in the shade at people’s feet. Robbie noticed one that was smaller than the rest, searching for scraps near a garbage can. Its ears were pinned back, and its silvery coat was beginning to gather into tufts.

“Tiger Lilly?” he said.

The dog didn’t look up, but when Robbie said her name again, her ears pricked up. She ran over to him, wagging her little tail and sniffing his ankles, his hands. He picked her up and she licked his face.

“Robbie?” a small voice came from behind him.

He knew it was her before he turned. When he saw her face, it took everything within him not to weep. She wore an off-white tank top and cargo shorts, and her hair was pulled off her face with a blue bandana. She had dark circles beneath her eyes and a bright sunburn on her cheeks and shoulders.

He set Tiger Lilly down and went to Dinah, wrapping his arms around her and holding her as tight as he could without crushing her.

She’s alive she’s alive she’s alive.

He could feel her tears wetting his tee shirt, and when he asked “Ruby?” she just shook her head and cried some more.

They stood there in the hot sun for a long time, his arms locked around her, her face hidden in the crook of his shoulder. People milled around them but did not disturb them. This kind of scene was not uncommon here.

When she had recovered she pulled away from him, and he wiped the tears from her cheeks. She seemed to grow uncomfortable and moved away.

“I’m fine,” she said.

He searched her face and knew she was not fine.

“Why are you here?” she asked. “Where’s your family?”

“Still in New York. I came to get you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can take you to your dad’s in Houston. Or you can come with me. You don’t have to stay here, Dinah.”

Dinah looked over her shoulder, where there was a trailer hooked up to a generator. A tent was erected just beyond it for shade, and a small crowd of people sat beneath it.

“That’s our clinic,” she told him. “I’m volunteering there. They need as much help as they can get.”

He looked at the clinic, then at her. She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Where are you staying?” he asked.

“Here, with the hippies. They were some of the first people to come. They run the Café.” She smiled a little and pointed at a large tent with blue tarpaulins for walls. “And the Wall-Less Mart. They give out free supplies.”

Tiger Lilly was seated at Dinah’s feet. Dinah reached down to pick her up, taking another step away from Robbie as she did so. Robbie quickly closed the distance and took her hand.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he told her.

She buried her face in Tiger Lilly’s fur and murmured, “It was horrible.”

“I can’t imagine. There are videos all over the news.”

“It’s different when it’s happening to you.”

“I know.”

She looked at him then, and he could see what she was saying without her even speaking a word.

You don’t know. You have no idea.

She squinted against the stark sunlight and gazed off into the distance, towards the copse of trees where she had waited out the last of the storm. The branch she had gripped now stood twenty-five feet above the ground.

“I feel like a refugee,” she muttered, more to herself than to him. “My home is gone. I can never get it back. But the people here… the ones who are left… they’re the only ones who will ever understand.”

Robbie thought of New Orleans and tried not to feel affronted.

I understand, Dinah. My entire city is still underwater.”

“I want to help them, Robbie.”

Robbie shook his head. He was getting angry.

“You’ve been through enough, Dinah. It’s time to let someone else take care of you.”

She removed her hand from his.

“I’m staying,” she said. “You should go.”

Robbie covered his face with his hands.

“Why are you doing this, Dinah?”

She shook her head, unable to tell him why.

Because Ruby died on my watch. Because I was not strong. Because I failed.

Her bottom lip trembled.

Robbie studied her face for a moment. Every curve, every freckle, every lash, every speck of gold in her brown eyes.

“Don’t make me lose you all over again,” he begged.

Her chest heaved. A tear fell.

“I have to go,” she said. “They need me.”

“Dinah.”

“I’m sorry.”

 

He stood and took one last look around him. If he closed his eyes, he could still see this beach as it had been the day she’d brought him here. The glint of her cross in the sun. The warmth of her lips on his. The way she giggled when the water splashed over her toes.

He had come for one last look after leaving her in that parking lot. He wanted to understand. But he could not.

The brokenness within her. The devastation around her. The obliteration of what could have been, of what was no longer. Everything they had touched that had been erased.

He walked back to his truck, but before he stepped inside he paused to shake the sand from his shoes. He looked down and noticed a small white flower on the cracked asphalt, crushed but intact, and despite himself, he smiled.

One day this beach would be restored, and the homes would be rebuilt, and the trees and plants and flowers would grow again, and perhaps she would come here and think of him. Perhaps she would throw her arms in the air and close her eyes, and as the breeze feathered through her hair and the sun kissed her skin she would imagine herself as that fearless girl in the front seat of the roller coaster. He hoped she would imagine him beside her, and that she would know all the things he should have told her: that she was strong, that she was beautiful, and that despite the short time he had known her, she was the girl he would remember for a lifetime.

 

 

 

In loving memory of my mother,
one of the many hands who helped rebuild Waveland.
Your strength will never be forgotten.

 

 

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