Patty Somlo / 4.1/ Fiction

PATTY SOMLO

 

 

BEFORE EVERYTHING CHANGED

The tide went out along the Longport Peninsula six short minutes after seven a.m. If anyone had been on the beach, they would have noticed a faint mauve glow in the shape of a curled ribbon, weaving across the retreating water. Damp shallow puddles darkened the sand. According to the tables, with their vertical columns of numbers and times, so small even young people needed magnifying glasses to read them, the tide was expected to return that afternoon at four o’clock.

The afternoon turned out glorious, with hours of sunshine and barely any wind. Normally, that finger of land on the southern edge of Washington State was a soggy place. It had separated from the mainland thousands or even millions of years ago, leaving a bay to bubble past, lapping against its former shore. The highest point, a third of the way down, where acres of Douglas fir and Sitka Spruce formed a constantly dripping canopy, received an annual soaking of nearly one hundred inches of rain. On the occasional days when the sun peeked out, locals said it was a gift from God.

A few minutes after four o’clock, Katie Larson decided to take advantage of the weather, knowing it would be dark by six or thereabouts. An artist, Katie photographed the ocean, mountains, lakes and rivers, and fields of wildflowers, then covered painted canvases, using the prints for reference. She liked to venture out moments before sunrise or close to dusk. Even though she had painted scores of canvases, trying to capture the light as it first fell or was fading, Katie still felt she hadn’t managed to capture the beauty that she saw. After taking photos today, she would try again.

She had lived in the pale blue, batten and board-sided cottage going on seven years. When asked what had brought her to live on the Longport Peninsula, where Sand Street dead-ended feet from a path through the dunes, Katie said the city had gotten too crowded, noisy and expensive. Like many of the people who made their permanent homes there, Katie loved the area’s quiet wildness. Because of the weather and the distance from major cities, the Longport Peninsula was one of the least populated areas on the West Coast. The population was an odd mix, of longtime locals who fished for salmon and crabbed or ran small businesses; fugitives from the law, squatting in moss-covered trailers at the peninsula’s windswept end; and artists.

Even in the rain, Katie took her beach walks. The only time weather kept her inside was during the fiercest winter storms, when wind gusts reached seventy to eighty miles an hour. On those days, she got the pellet stove going and made sure flashlights and candles were arranged atop the coffee table, for when the power went out.

She didn’t pay attention to tide tables. So on this day, as on every other, she wasn’t aware that the tide should have rolled back in by four. As soon as she left the pathway framed by the grass-covered dunes and the beach and water came into view, Katie sensed that something was wrong. She stood for a moment at the base of the dunes, looking around. Her first instinct was to check the sky, assuming clouds had rolled in, as they often did on a clear day up that point. But the sky remained cloudless.

Shaking her head, Katie walked toward the water. The going was slow, the sand deep, loose and dry. She silently scolded herself. There is nothing wrong, she whispered. But something looked different; she couldn’t figure out what. The beach was wide but today seemed even wider.

The tide must be out, she thought, and that made Katie smile. She loved when the waves retreated, leaving fat wet puddles that caught the light and reflected clouds back to the sky. Also, this brought the sandpipers out, pecking madly at the sand, then scurrying away when the waves washed back.

Katie walked closer to where the dry sand turned damp. Yes, she could see the tide was out. But had she ever noticed it out this far? Damp sand stretched from the beach a good ten or fifteen yards. If she dared, Katie could walk a long way and still not wet the hem of her pants.

Tsunami, Katie thought, and hurried backwards, her eyes focused on the water. This is what happens before the water comes roaring in, drowning everything for miles.

She turned and ran toward the path. The sand was deep and soft. As hard as she pumped her legs and arms, she felt stuck, as if she weren’t getting anywhere.

A tsunami would swamp her small, one-story home. It would flood the entire road, all the way to the two-lane highway.

Her mind started darting in several directions at once. What should she take, who could she call, which way ought she to drive? Questions crashed into one another without a response. The beach was one of the longest anywhere. The wave would devour the entire peninsula. She needed to drive to the park, the only place high enough to survive.

Even as Katie hurried through the cottage, grabbing insurance policies and filling a nylon duffle bag with clothes, she listened for what she assumed would be a terrifying roar, when the fantastic wave came barreling onto the coast. All she heard, though, was the familiar faint whoosh the waves normally made, a neighbor’s barking dog, and a few birds calling. It took less than ten minutes to pack the car. As soon as she hit the main road, Katie dialed 911.

The dispatcher repeated back what she thought Katie had said.

“The tide is out too far. You think we might be about to get a tsunami.”

Neither Katie nor the dispatcher mentioned anything about an earthquake, the phenomenon that usually preceded a devastating tsunami. She listened for the sound of sirens, signaling that the tsunami warning system installed ten years before had been activated. But no such sounds entered the car, even though Katie had opened the driver’s side window.

Entering the main town of Longport fifteen minutes after leaving the cottage, she anxiously looked around. It appeared like any other late afternoon, mid-week in the offseason. A few cars were parked on both sides of the road. One couple strolled down the west sidewalk, eating ice cream from large tan cones, stopping to look in the window of a shop with colorful kites hanging overhead.

Katie pulled into the parking lot of the small police station. She race-walked to the front door and yanked it open. Her throat dry, when she tried to speak, nothing came out. The second time, she got three words out.

“I just called,” she croaked.

“Yes,” the woman at the reception desk responded, urging her to go on.

“About the tide.”

The earthquake monitoring system hadn’t picked up even a whisper of seismic activity off the coast, Jim Kirkpatrick, who ran the peninsula’s five-officer police force, informed Katie.

“Someone should at least have a look,” Katie said, as she realized the police chief thought she was crazy or making the entire thing up.

“I’m taking a ride,” Chief Kirkpatrick informed the receptionist, before following Katie outside.

“You can show me what you saw,” he said to Katie.

In the offseason, it was legal to drive on the beach. Deep furrows in the sand, starting a few feet beyond the white wooden sign in the shape of a half-moon that announced WELCOME TO LONGPORT in large red letters, indicated that numerous drivers had preceded Katie and the chief there. Just as by the cottage, the beach was wide. The chief kept the police car in the furrows, so as not to get stuck in the sand.

Katie held her breath, as the car edged closer to the water. After driving west, straight toward the ocean, the chief turned left, following the furrows south. He drove several feet and looked out toward the horizon. The water seemed awfully far away, he thought.

He stopped the car, turned to his passenger and said, “Why don’t we get out and take a look?”

Kirkpatrick opened the driver’s side door, stepped from the car, and walked past the hood, his elbows crooked, hands poised above and to the right and left of his belt. At first, he thought the problem was the lateness of the day. The sun had set moments before. In places, the water was still shaded mauve, but dark in others. He had to admit, though, the start of the ocean was very far away.

He didn’t want to say this out loud, though, at least not until he’d had a chance to study and ponder the situation a bit longer.

“Oh, my God,” Katie said.

“What?” the chief asked.

“The tide’s even farther out than before.”

Not only in Longport, but across the United States, in Europe, on the African continent, and in Asia, people had known for a while that something was wrong, at least when it came to the weather. What had once been considered normal could no longer be expected. The surprising part was that the shift seemed to have occurred almost overnight.

Once people on the Longport Peninsula noticed that each day the tide retreated farther out to sea and returned a little less close to the beach, their thoughts quickly shifted from shock and surprise to acceptance. A small number of residents assumed, though nothing had been proven yet, that the disappearing tide was another manifestation of the environmental destruction humankind had been causing for generations. The majority of residents, though, viewed the change more fatalistically. People, they argued, had nothing to do with this. It was God’s will, some said, a punishment for sinning. One group believed it signaled that the end times were near.

Scientists from the University of Washington drove down to try and determine the cause and the effect it might have on everything, from fish and shellfish to shorebirds and marine mammals, and to the weather. The tidal alterations were puzzling for several reasons. First, while scientists had accurately predicted certain changes in the weather and effects on animals resulting from a warming planet, they hadn’t imagined anything happening to the tides. Even more puzzling was the fact that the rest of the West Coast had not been affected. Other sections of the Washington Coast were fine. Only the tides that moved back and forth along the Longport Peninsula had changed.

Katie felt too afraid to take her almost daily beach walks. She was plagued with insomnia, as she worried that at some point the tide would come rushing back in, a wave of such force, speed and magnitude, it would swamp the cottage, her tiny dead-end street, and even the main route to town.

Those first frightening days and weeks soon stretched into months. Nothing changed. The abnormal became commonplace. Tide tables were reprinted, until oceanographers realized that the tide was receding a bit more every week. They decided to simply post the new times daily on the Internet.

Six weeks after Katie first noticed the altered tide, she overcame her fear and headed to the beach. The sun hovered low on the horizon. The tide had retreated so far, she could barely see where the water started.

It was beautiful, of course, the damp sand saturated dark pink, as far as Katie could see. Reflections of clouds and even bits of blue sky were caught on the surface. An entirely new landscape had emerged, one that Katie hadn’t ever painted. Wondrous, really, even though she felt a gaping empty sorrow in the pit of her stomach, at what had been lost, maybe forever.

Rumors of frightening occurrences began flying around the peninsula, from the Beach Market in Salmon City to Hal’s Tavern in the heart of Longport, to Ocean Elementary, a mile north of the boat harbor. The small black bears that lived in the pine forests had started roaming the beach, it was whispered, packs of them, even in the middle of the day. Thousands of crabs were coming ashore and dying, abandoned by the retreating waves.

Up and down that narrow spit of land, people began complaining of frequent and sometimes excruciating headaches, stomach pains, and occasional vomiting. Women experienced overwhelming bouts of sadness, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.

For the first time in the seven years Katie had lived on the peninsula, she started to be plagued by a haunting, stifling loneliness. Having treasured her time alone – the solitary walks, painting, reading, working in the garden, or sitting in front of the pellet stove – Katie now faced a daily dark, yawning emptiness every morning she needed to escape. She wasn’t aware that other people on the peninsula were experiencing the same feeling. Not sure what to do, Katie gravitated toward town, to any place she might encounter someone with whom she could just talk.

Instead of eating breakfast alone in her tiny kitchen — a bowl of cold cereal, banana, a cup of dark French Roast coffee and a novel propped up against the carton of one percent milk — Katie drove into Longport. She grabbed a vacant stool at the counter in the Coast Bakery and ordered a currant scone and coffee.

No matter who joined Katie on the neighboring stools, the topic of conversation hardly varied. All anyone could talk about was the tide.

Soon, however, another subject came up. The more Katie went out, to the bookstore, the pub, the tavern, or the market, this became what everyone wanted to discuss. They yearned to reminisce about the way life on the peninsula used to be, in the years before everything changed.

The old timers grew the most nostalgic. The salmon, they would say, gazing off into the distance and sighing.

Katie listened to the women who had worked in the canneries.

“It was such hard work,” a woman named Lois said one stormy morning. “We stood in a foot of water all day.”

But she went on to tell Katie how the women all became friends, that they celebrated each other’s birthdays, and decorated the cannery for Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.

Katie heard about the days when salmon was plentiful, and a man could make a good living from fishing, enough to support a large family. She was told about the cannery workers’ union, the strikes that were won, about good wages and benefits. She learned how friendly people were back then, that if someone had a problem, all the neighbors pitched in to help.

There was talk of the weather. How it rained much more then, and the summers weren’t as hot. Then, people moved on to what everything cost.

“Not like now,” a crusty old fisherman named Harold said to Katie one night, as they perched on tall stools at Hal’s Tavern. “In them days, we was free. ‘Cause nothin’ cost so much.”

He told her about times he and his family and their friends camped out at the tip of the peninsula. They’d fish during the day and sit around a big campfire at night. Tell stories, eat the grilled fish they had caught, sing sea shanties.

“Life was simple,” he explained. “We didn’t need so much stuff.”

It was as if the tide, in retreating farther and farther out and refusing to come back in, as close as it had been before, reminded people of everything they had lost. If asked, the older men and women, and even some of the younger people, might have said that they knew their world had shifted before this seismic event. But for some reason they couldn’t explain, what had happened with the tide gave them permission to speak about the pain and disappointment they’d mostly been keeping to themselves.

Six months and one week after Katie first alerted the police department to the strange and far too distant tide, one scientist’s measurement gauge showed that the tide had begun to inch closer to shore. The morning had dawned cloudy, with a bruised charcoal sky hovering low.

As the tide crept toward shore, it picked up sand and small shells, turning the water the color of mud. Each time the waves rose and fell, the salt-filled, sandy water let out a long, low sigh.

What began slowly picked up speed as the morning went on. By noon, the tide had surged, rushing up the beach to the narrow path, leading through the dunes to Katie’s dead-end road.

Katie headed to the garage after lunch, where she started a new painting. She prepared the blank raw canvas by brushing white paint across with a wide, black-bristled brush. Around three o’clock, she thought she heard a gurgling sound, on the other side of the garage door. Dark clouds had been threatening a storm all morning. She assumed rain had begun to fall, and didn’t bother to look outside.

About a half-hour later, she decided to return to the house. When she stepped out the side door of the garage, water that had accumulated on the driveway licked her ankles.

At first, she thought rain had caused the street to flood. But wading across the driveway, she witnessed what she’d feared. Water was pouring onto the street from the path to the beach.

This time, Katie didn’t need to pack the car. She had kept her important papers and several changes of clothes locked in the trunk. All she retrieved from the house was her purse and two bananas.

When she reached the main road, she saw a line of cars, stretching as far as she could see toward Longport. As she got closer to town, she began to spot tan military Humvees heading in the opposite direction.

Not knowing where she ought to go, Katie followed the traffic as it inched toward Longport and then through town, where the water had risen to the level of the sidewalks. She drove past the hospital and the high school and beyond the boat harbor, to where the ocean terminated at the river. Here, at least, the road wasn’t under water. She kept following the other drivers as they headed for the bridge.

When she reached the Oregon side of the river, she saw that the traffic was being diverted from the main street by two police officers. She kept following the other cars, not having any idea where she was headed. In her entire life up to this point, Katie had never been a victim of anything. She had seen them on TV, men and women in tears who’d just lost their homes and everything they’d owned, in a tornado, hurricane or fire. She couldn’t imagine how that might feel but was just now beginning to find out. Numb, she would have said, if anyone asked. I feel numb.

Sometime during the night, while Katie lay awake on a cot, in the shelter set up by the Red Cross, the little blue batten-and-board cottage was lifted up. Helicopters hovered overhead, the thup-thup of the blades the only sound for miles. The cottage came easily off its foundation and then began to float.
Waves surged, with water gushing farther and farther inland, then sucking out. With each outward thrust, the cottage and pine trees, boards from fences, televisions, washing machines, dressers, and kitchen chairs sailed toward the horizon.

A blanket of fog draped low over the water as the day emerged. The governor appeared on the morning news, along with aerial shots of the devastation. The news anchors on different stations read the same copy that claimed this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Katie and the other refugees at the shelter knew they would see floods like this again.

Three months later, on a remote Pacific Island, a small blue cottage washed up on the beach. An old man hurried across the sand to find his four grandsons.

The boys carried the surprisingly intact structure to the two-acre plot the old man had lived on since his birth. He moved his favorite rocking chair inside and set it in front of the large living room window. That evening, he could be found rocking and smiling, as he watched the sun set over the water from the comfort of his new home.

5b7449cd-7791-40fd-b197-4bba4053e864Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Somlo has three forthcoming books:  a short story collection, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil, July 2016); a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in journals, in2016cluding the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com or follow on Twitter @PattySomlo.

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