Jill sat on the aluminum steps of the silver trailer she’d shared with Russ these past four months and watched the creek inch not just forward but toward her. She’d seen thunderclouds approach like this, taunting and inevitable, but those she could handle. She could go inside and they’d pass. But this. If she’d known Russ had lived near moving water she might never have even come home with him that first time. Certainly not spent the night.
But it had been November. There’d been heaps and heaps of early snow. And all she could see out his small windows were his pickup truck, the abandoned old farmhouse on the other side of the long gravel driveway, and these flat fallow fields. A white ocean was how it seemed. So there’d been that insinuation of water. But under those drifts, Jill sensed, was earth, dark brown and sturdy, another season, and when Russ came behind her that first morning and whispered “Stay,” she didn’t want to say no. Now, though—despite these months of relative peace—this rising creek twenty feet from her ankles was making her hands shake.
Russ didn’t understand these changes. For the four months he’d known Jill, they’d existed in this strange harmony. He’d had his share of rough women in his forty-some years, women who bossed him around and threw things into the yard. Jill, though, was all softness and low murmurs, so different than the others, and younger, that he’d hardly blinked when she admitted in halting apologies that she didn’t work, hadn’t really worked for years, preferred to tend a home and take care of a man. A lot of things could be worse, he’d decided, so they went ahead, a little nervous at the outset.
Their lives, though, fell in together with startling ease. He’d leave mornings for his job at the granite company, and while he was gone she cleaned their daily messes, organized his closets, read magazines. And when he came home she’d have some meal ready, something real nice—goulash or tuna hotdish—and they’d talk as they ate, and with each conversation they seemed more and more surprised that they had so much in common, this being sort of a chance and convenience thing. And the sex was good, too—neither of them expecting too much, just a real easy way of moving together. It wasn’t something they put words to, but they’d each started to glance at each other when the other wasn’t looking with this hope. It was like they were peeking through window blinds, thinking, Maybe.
For Jill, these thoughts were a slow and steady salve, relaxants that seeped into the muscles she’d clenched so long. Sometimes, when they were in bed curled against the cold, she imagined telling Russ everything. At the deep wheeze of his sleep, she’d even whisper a few words into the dark, mention the river she grew up on, the way it had terrified her, especially in the spring with its big liquid jaws. And when she told him, “It was the river that stole my daddy”—because on the first day of her first hard flood her father had been there (he’d told her about water levels and crests and levees), but after she woke the next morning (the river the meanest force she’d ever seen, carrying with it huge logs and patio chairs and some child’s red wagon), she stared out her bedroom window wide-eyed and then ran through the house searching for him, but he was gone, carried off by the current, she just knew—when she told Russ all this, she imagined him not smirking or rolling his eyes, calling her blind like her mother had, calling her pathetic like a few of the men had before him. She imagined Russ placing his lips on her forehead, tightening his hold on her waist. Telling her, “I’m here, honey. Keep talking.”
It shouldn’t have been so hard, still. Admitting it aloud: He kissed me goodnight and then left me.
But after those first days of staring out the window, willing the water to recede and leave anything that looked familiar to her former life—her mother screaming first at the memory of him and later at the permanence of her denial—it seemed safer to wait for the wrong details of the story to right themselves.
It had become her way.
But Russ. It seemed like he might be kind. He might listen, regardless of the details. He might stay. And as one calm night turned into another, she imagined this outcome so vividly that telling him the truth seemed—for the first time in her life—inevitable. It was just a matter of courage.
Then March had come, and instead of the blizzards that were often the unwelcome guests of a Minnesota spring, there’d been a sudden string of gorgeous fifty- and sixty-degree days. One whole week of April-come-early. Every day Jill waited for Russ’s truck to bump down the driveway, and as she opened the screen door for him they’d remark on how the snow had melted, how much more of everything could be seen. For Jill it was like watching someone pull back a blanket. Russ, though, watched her.
“Guess what’ll show next?” he would tease.
And she’d say, “Rain bucket. Ashtray. A little garden you forgot to weed.”
He’d only shrug and smile, but as each day passed she imagined more tomato plants, more lettuce, and small spiky cucumbers that she’d wash and slice and place on their sandwiches. She looked forward to these things.
But then one afternoon, Jill peered through the window above the kitchen sink, and there was a gash in the earth. She realized the snow was melting differently about thirty feet from the trailer. There were more bushes. There were trees. What she’d assumed was a weak windbreak was something more: the product of moving water. Water coursing fast and down and up. She went outside and stood a few feet from its bank in Russ’s old snow boots for she didn’t know how long, watching the brown water push. With every passing second it swirled faster, grew wider and wilder. Slim sticks skidded past her like miniature canoes and occasional trash bags bobbed like balloons felled by bad weather. She thought she might have seen someone’s old yellow sandal, a plastic toy truck. The sun beat down on her matted blond hair, and she’d started to sweat, so when she shivered it was because of the sound—the thwish thwish of this waking snake.
That night Russ had come home to no open door, no meal, just an agitated Jill washing every dish and pan and utensil in his cabinets and drawers.
“Spring cleaning?” He’d laughed and untucked his T-shirt. The counter space was small and filled up, so Jill had things drying on the table and chairs, the refrigerator top, even Russ’s big green recliner.
“It’s so damn dirty in here,” she said, not looking at him, scrubbing a pan with steel wool.
He placed his hands on the counter and leaned forward. Cocked his head. “Well, then seems you’re doing what needs to be done, honey.”
She scrubbed harder.
He came behind her, snatched a glass off the counter and raised it to the window’s light. He wrapped her waist in his other arm, a compliment coming.
“Don’t,” she said, shrugging against him, then making her body rigid. “Don’t touch me, Russ, I swear.”
His arm and smile fell, and he felt the nudgings of an old wariness. He let the glass thunk on the counter. “What the hell, Jill?” he said. “What’s going on here? Did something happen?”
She spun around, avoided his eyes, started collecting dishes on the table and chairs, holding them against each other in her arms. “I just looked around today and realized what a dump I’m living in, that’s all.”
“Yeah, Russ. How many people you know live in a rusted old trailer?”
“In the middle of nowhere? In the wilderness?”
Russ’s hands were on his hips, his eyebrows scrunched together in confused concentration. When she walked by him toward the cabinets he grabbed her arm. “Would you stop moving and look at me?”
But instead she reeled at his touch so violently that dishes fell from her clasp—a coffee mug crashing and shattering against the floor, a bowl knocking against her thigh and spinning down, a plate descending like an axe and landing right on Russ’s sock-covered toes.
He yelped, let go of her. He stared at Jill with his forehead wrinkled and his mouth open, and had she been quick enough in that moment and not so scared, she could have stopped herself. She could have let the rest of the glasses and plates drop too and gone to him, held him, asked him to be patient a little more. But he turned from her, stepped into his boots, and left. This progression was such a familiar fear that she stood frozen. And then all that seemed inevitable was the sight of his back.
Russ returned that night, but late, and he slept on the small lumpy couch.
The next day he came home at the regular time, pulled open the screen door in a slow hopeful way, thinking maybe that strange scene had been the result of PMS or bad dreams or gas, something temporary that he’d be fine to forget. But Jill was in bed—didn’t feel good, wouldn’t talk, turned away at his questions. For a while, he waited, his hand working over the stubble on his chin. He wanted to understand, but he didn’t know what to say, or how to be. So he left again, ate in town, came back when he knew she’d be long asleep.
But of course she wasn’t. She listened to his sounds, deciphering everything from the snap of his shirt buttons to the brushing of his teeth. When, the following morning, she heard him stirring earlier than normal, her eyes shot open from her half-sleep and she jolted up from the bed. She yanked wide the bedroom door more noisily than she’d intended and found him tying his boots. He glanced at her, his face blank except for his raised eyebrows. She walked to the sink without breathing, filled a glass. Drank. Have a good day. See you later. Such simple expressions, such clean white flags of explanation. Why could she not say them?
And all this time the snow kept disappearing, soaking into the earth, feeding and fattening the creek. Jill spent whole hours during the day watching it move. She marked its ascent out of its banks and onto land with beer bottles that she stuck upside down into the soggy ground. Today she’d moved them toward the trailer three times. It was astonishing to her that the water just kept coming, that it passed by her for one instant and then was on to someplace else. She assumed the creek led into the Sauk, the river that ran through Albrun—the town five miles west of them—but then where did it go? What happened next? All this water mixing, these long trails that moved across counties and states and into oceans without anyone accounting for their individual particles—it scared her that there was no way of linking even one molecule to the snow on a hillside in a small country yard.
Now she was sitting on the steps of the trailer, cautiously watching the creek—thinking maybe she should leave, tomorrow? wasn’t that best?—when she spotted Russ’s truck careening along the driveway, muddy chunks of gravel kicking up behind the tires.
It was around noon. He never came home on his break. She stood and felt suddenly conscious of her dirty hair, her sweatpants and ratty undershirt, her smell. But there was no chance to change. He was out of the truck and walking toward her, his steps quick and measured.
“Russ?” She had the screen door open. She’d had no time to think not to. But he plowed right past, as if no door had ever existed. She followed him inside.
“You want something?” she asked, moving toward the refrigerator. “We have some ham.”
He rooted around in the little closet, started throwing things on the floor.
“The river’s getting too high,” he said, his hand emerging with old brown fishing waders. He dragged a chair from the table, sat, and pulled off his boots. “The mayor asked Kenny to give us the afternoon to help fill sandbags. It’s pretty bad over by the bridge on Highway 2.”
Jill swallowed, glanced through the window glass and back at Russ. “It’s worse than here?”
Russ shot off a harsh laugh. “This is just a piss streak, honey.” He stopped, looked at her. She was so pale. “We should probably get you out of the house some, huh? At least give it a try?”
She met his gaze but then ran her hand through her hair.
“In fact, Jill,” he said, now sliding the waders over his feet and legs, “maybe that’s a real good idea, seeing as how you’re so unhappy here. Seeing as how it’s such a dump and all.” He stood, hooked the suspenders over his shoulders. He was a big man, and it wasn’t easy for him to move quickly, but the situation called for it, called for action, called for a man who’d do what he had to, comfort be damned. He grabbed work gloves and a baseball cap from the floor and strode outside.
Jill followed him, every bit of her alert, every movement of his analyzed, but she was momentarily blinded by the full sun shining off the aluminum steps, his truck windows, the remaining crusts of snow, and the muddy whooshing waters of the creek. It seemed even closer, meaner than five minutes ago. He was walking so fast. She felt a churning acid rise within her.
“Russ,” she cried. “Wait.”
He took a few more paces and then heaved a great sigh, turned halfway. Rubbed his eyes. “Now? You want to talk about this right now?”
She raised her hand, shading her face.
“God, you know,” he said, shaking his head, taking a step toward her. “I guess it seems like maybe…” He shifted the gloves and cap in his fingers. “This thing in town, it’s an emergency, Jilly.”
Her gaze went toward the creek and he glanced there, too.
“That’s just nothing. We’re going to have a messy yard in a week and maybe lose a bit of land in the runoff, but in town?” He whistled. “The Sauk is a monster. You should see it, the way the water’s taken over. All the trees are swimming. The kids from the high school were even let out to help.”
“So, don’t go,” she heard herself saying. “Can’t you let them do it? Let me make you that ham. You could stay here. We could sandbag here.” She took a step forward.
He shook his head again, put on his baseball cap. “You’ve barely talked to me for two days.”
“I know,” she said.
“Barely looked at me.”
“I know, Russ.”
“Haven’t given me any reason, either.”
She opened her mouth and closed it.
He gave a rough laugh. “Back to that, then? You want to go on pretending I’m some man you don’t know?”
Her eyes shot to his. She remembered that first night at the bar, the way she let his talk surround and lift her, a thrum of sweetness and light. Between them now, flipping in front of her eyes like schools of fish, was something else: slippery, substantial. But there was too much pounding against her brain, too much throbbing at her temples, and she curved away.
He brought his lips into a tight line and pulled the bill of his cap down once more. He turned too, walked to the truck.
Before Russ drove off, he lowered his window, leaned over its edge, and looked at Jill. She was facing the creek.
“I thought,” he started. “I thought we had something real good here. But I’m worn-out, Jilly, and I ain’t got much taste for this sort of thing.” He fiddled with the radio for a while, but then found her face. The noon sun was so bright that it blanched her skin, and to him she seemed to almost combine with the light bouncing up from the water.
He opened his mouth. Then closed it.
As his tires scraped and squealed against the wet gravel, Jill wrapped her arms around her body and watched the rear of his pickup get smaller and smaller. When he reached the paved country road, flipped his blinker on for whom she didn’t know, she thought to herself in a clear rush of words, Run. You can still see him. He is still within reach. But a low, far-off rumble sounded behind her, and she spun toward it instinctively, raised her hand against the glare of the sun to see on the western horizon dark rain clouds. They were headed here, Jill realized—a familiar certainty gripping her—were already adding rain to other creeks and streams and rivers.
She glanced back too late toward the road: empty.
The driving water in front of her was unstoppable and so near.
She’d go inside. She’d wait for the air to turn crisp and cool. Listen to the wind howl. She’d watch the rain pound the earth and sink into the pulsing creek, disappearing. Her beer bottles would lift with the water and then they’d careen away away away, and she wouldn’t go after them. There was no point. Soon they’d be in the Sauk. And there they would either sink or be carried off still farther into country she would never see.
Emily Brisse has her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her fiction and essays have been printed in a wide variety of publications, and are forthcoming or have recently appeared in Atticus Review, Hippocampus, under the gum tree, The Fourth River, and River Teeth. She teaches high school English in Minneapolis.