“Holy shit,” my dad says from the living room.
I am at the kitchen counter with my eighth-grade homework on climate change. Mom is chopping okra and lettuce across from me. “Jack,” she says sharply. She hates it when he curses around me.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. But they’re saying we’re going to get a hurricane,” he says.
“What?” I drop my textbook and hurry into the living room. A cheerful weather woman in a pencil skirt is pointing at the green screen on television. There is a huge, swirling white void on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, just touching Port Angeles. “It’s here already?” I squeak. My family rarely watches the weather on TV, but how could we have missed something as big as this sucker?
“This is showing where it’ll be by tomorrow morning,” Mom says, reading the subtitles that zip by at the bottom of the screen. She is standing behind us with her arms crossed over her chest, holding a spatula. The living room is dim, and light from the television flashes across the walls, giving our faces an eerie, bluish tint. “By next evening it’s supposed to be hitting us, in Seattle.”
“You’re not buying this, are you?” Dad exclaims. “This hurricane is a load of … Where did these people get their degrees?”
“Jack, they can’t be lying about a natural disaster this big,” she says tightly.
Dad acts as if he hasn’t heard her. “Just watch – they’ll be downgrading it to a tropical storm, then a thunderstorm, maybe even a steady rain in the next few hours. Washington can’t get hurricanes, we don’t have the right temperature water.”
“It could be because of global warming,” I say. “Al Gore, this scientist guy I’m studying in school, he studied how global warming is messing with the climate.”
“Please don’t worry about any of this, Lucy.” Dad leans over and kisses me on the top of my head. “I’d say that problem has fixed itself anyway.”
My mother gives him her this-isn’t-over-yet stare and returns to the kitchen. He pretends not to have noticed and goes back to his laptop. I gaze at the television screen and learn the hurricane’s name: Zared. Apparently it’s Hebrew for ‘ambush.’
The night of the hurricane, I lie on the couch and listen to my parents fight over the sound of the wind and rain. Mom says we should evacuate; that is what the city has been telling us to do since yesterday night, when the storm began to pick up speed. We should at least get supplies in case we have to take shelter for a few days. Dad is stubborn, even though he now knows for sure that there’s going to be a storm. He is saying it’s stupid to run when there’s nothing to run from, and if we go our house will spring leaks from every corner. It’s true, our house does leak during storms. Mom asks him whether getting to stop up a flooding basement is worth his daughter’s life, because that’s what it’s going to cost him.
You know I’m right! she says.
As I listen, I try to remember a time when my parents loved each other. They met while shopping for sausages at a German pride festival, which is sort of strange considering the fact that neither one of them is German. They are both Korean, with straight dark hair and smooth sepia skin, but they were both young and broke at the time and the festival sold sausages for cheap. I wish I could have known them then, when they still spoke and made bratwurst stir-fry for their anniversaries. All I know of my parents’ relationship are my mom’s snide, guarded comments and the way my dad refuses to acknowledge that their marriage is dying.
Suddenly it’s silent. Even the rain outside seems to slow. We’re in the eye of the hurricane, and the eye wall comes next.
My mother hurries down the stairs, past me into the mudroom. She begins pulling on her rain coat. I hear her swallowing snot and tears in short breathy gasps. “Mom?” I say fearfully, getting up from the couch.
Dad appears on the stairwell and practically bounds after her. “Sweetheart…” he says, cupping her face in his hands. “Don’t leave us. We can work this out – we love each other.” His words burn with the agony of pretending.
My mom’s eyes dart from side to side. Every muscle in her face clenches and unclenches as she decides how to respond. “I’m just going out to get supplies,” she says finally, in a hard, trembling voice. Then she rushes into the pouring rain outside, slamming the door behind her.
Dad stands frozen in the mudroom, staring at the top right panel of the door. I come over to stand beside him, and he puts an arm around my shoulder. I’m only a head shorter than he is, I realize, and his perfect dark hair is now streaked with gray around the ears.
“Oh, Lucy,” he says. “I’m so sorry you had to see that. But Mom will be back soon, you’ll see.”
I just nod. Outside, trees lash against each other and rain blows in silver curtains across the street. Out the window I can see Mom driving off in our car.
“I’ll make dinner tonight,” Dad says. “Do you want to watch something on TV?”
I go back into the living room and pull our old wool afghan off the back of the couch. “I’ll find something. Can we just order pizza?”
My dad says yes and I curl up on the couch to watch a movie I find on the family network. It’s halfway over, but I don’t really care; I just want something to pass the time until Mom comes home. Because I have the most nauseating feeling that she won’t.
The movie ends. I switch to cartoons.
The pizza comes.
The storm is getting stronger and stronger and as he brings me a plate of pizza my dad looks out the window in fear. It’s as if the storm wants to throw my father’s stubbornness back in his face by proving that, yes, it is a hurricane, and he’s sent Mom out into the midst of it.
I switch to the weather and the cheerful lady on the green screen is no longer so cheerful. The camera alternates between shots of her gesturing at a map of the hurricane’s progress – Seattle is now impossible to see under the swirl of the storm – and newscasters standing knee-deep in floodwater, their slickers soaked and leaves and umbrellas flying through the air behind them. They are telling us that it is no longer the time to evacuate; now all those in the Seattle area should stay in their homes and wait the storm out.
That is when the phone begins to ring. Dad has been standing behind the couch watching the weather with me, but now he walks quickly to the side table where we keep the phone and answers. “Hello?”
I nibble on my pizza, not really listening, until he speaks again.
“Is that you, Jade? Honey – ” My father begins to sound panicked. “You’re breaking up. Just tell me where you are. Jade? Jade?! JUST TELL ME WHERE YOU ARE!”
I’ve never seen my father so terrified in my life, and I hide under the afghan, trying to block out the sound of his voice. He slams the phone down and gives a sigh. Then he’s in the mudroom again, and I can hear him pulling on his raingear.
I leap off the couch. “Where is she?”
“Near Lake Union,” he says, not looking up. “I’m going to go find her. You have to stay here.”
Suddenly I am choked with fear. “No!” I cry. “You can’t leave me here alone! I have to come with you!”
“It’s safer here,” he says, his hand on the doorknob.
“No it’s not! What if the house floods and I have to go onto the roof by myself? There are so many ways I could drown or be crushed or maybe blown away and we’re probably some of the only people in Seattle who didn’t evacuate!” And it’s your fault, I think, knowing that Dad will hear that too. I stuff my feet into my rain boots. “I’ll be safest with you. And you might need my help. Please, Dad.” I lower my voice. I refuse to cry; he’ll leave me home for sure then, because he’ll think I’m too weak to go through a hurricane.
He stares at me for the longest time. Finally he says, “You can only come if you do whatever I say.”
“If I tell you to keep still, you keep still. If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to turn the boat around and leave, you have to do that.”
“Boat?” I say. My dad gives a shadow of a smile.
Fifteen minutes later we are pulling the super-sleek fiberglass canoe my parents keep in the basement into the water-swollen streets outside. I can hardly believe how the hurricane has changed Seattle. Trees have fallen across the road. Buildings loom and then disappear into a haze of sharp, stinging rain. Most shocking of all is the fact that a canal now runs in and out of city blocks where streets once were. Dad sits in the front of the three-seat canoe and I sit behind him. After a brief struggle against the wind he covers us with a tarp he found in the camping equipment and tucks the edges inside the boat so they don’t drag in the water. Then he begins rowing us down the street. The water is running in the direction we want to go. The rain is bearable underneath the tarp, but the wind finds its way inside and chills me through my layers of clothes.
As my dad rows and I shiver, I try to figure out how long we’ll be out here. We live on Capitol Hill, and if Mom’s near Union Lake then she can’t be far. I can’t figure out why she’d go to a city park to get supplies until I think of how strong the current in the water is. Our car is relatively small; maybe she got to a point where the water was too deep to drive any farther and she decided to let the current pull her along. She might have been hoping to reach higher ground. Except the current is coming from the swollen river that feeds into Lake Union, so my mom is headed for even deeper water. I hug my knees to my chest and pray a little, for my mom, and for our leaky house, and for me and Dad, floating in some flooded Seattle netherworld.
I peek around the edge of the tarp. Everything is fog and grey driving rain. The sound of it fills my ears, that and the wind and the occasional thunderclap. I’m damp and cold. I rest my forehead on my dad’s back, which flexes and moves with each stroke of the oars, and close my eyes. It takes only a few moments for me to fall asleep.
The hammering of cold water on my back awakens me. The tarp has flown off our canoe and rain pours in, filling up our little boat. At this rate I know it won’t last long. Lake Union has increased in size from the last time I saw it. I can’t tell where the shore used to be. Between the broken trees that have been swallowed by the lake I can see the roof of our car, and my mom crouched on top of it.
Dad is still watching the tarp tumble away over the water, mumbling ohcrapcrapcrap under his breath.
“Dad,” I whisper. “There’s Mom. What are we going to do?”
He comes to himself quickly. “I’ve been thinking about that,” he says. “The canoe is too waterlogged to support you, me and your mother all together. So I’ll drop you off at one of these trees and you can stay there while I get Mom.”
There was one big hole in his plan. “But even with just you and Mom, it’ll be too heavy,” I protest. “We’re riding pretty low in the water as it is. If I row out to get Mom, the canoe will be lighter and we’ll be safe.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I’m scared. I’m not as strong a rower as Dad, and I don’t want to be by myself. But I’ve said it, and now I have to stick by it.
“No,” he says flatly. “It’s bad enough I brought you here at all. I can’t let you go by yourself.”
“The canoe won’t support you two. You know I’m right!” I shout.
I’m scowling, but my dad almost smiles when he sees my face. “You are your mother,” he says. Then he puts up his hands. “There’s nothing I can do. I’ll take us to the nearest tree.”
He rows toward a crest of battered green leaves and branches rising from the water, climbs out carefully and finds a comfortable spot to sit. “Be careful,” he says, his voice catching as he gives me the oars. When I look back at him he’s watching Mom, the longing plain in his eyes.
I am swept up in the current and carried three feet to the right before I manage to dig into the water and get my bearings. I blink the rain out of my eyes and begin paddling forward, across the lake. I can barely believe how hard it is not to be carried away downstream. My muscles burn and then slowly grow numb. The elements batter every inch of my exposed skin. I bring back memories of canoeing trips, river waters with the deep shine of lusterware, a warm sun, turtles and toads plopping off their logs, my parents not speaking but not fighting, either. I grit my teeth and groan. This is it. Mom, Dad, on the long river to a hurricane that exists because of what we’ve ignored for too long. This is where it ends.
The front of the canoe bumps against the side of the car. “Oh, honey,” my mom says. She’s caught the boat in her strong hands and is stepping inside. “Give me those oars, honey.”
She rows us back to Dad’s tree. Dad is able to hold onto the back of the canoe and swim through the oily, filthy water as we leave the park and the strength of the current. I don’t think I’m fully awake. The only time I hear either of them speak is when Mom says, “She’s dog-tired, Jack.” He knows this is code for, Why did you let her do it? Neither of them likes confrontations.
After a few minutes of searching, Dad finds a place for us to stop. He tears down a panel of the plywood some manager used to board up his store and climbs in through the window. Mom and I float outside in the canoe.
He pokes his head out the window. “The basement is flooded, but otherwise it’s okay in here.” Mom paddles up to the window, prods me into full consciousness and climbs through after me.
We’re in a frozen yogurt shop. Everything is white except for the pink and blue designs on the wall and the toppings bar, which is stainless steel. Dad comes out of the back room with an armload of long white coats that say Yogurt Lab on the pocket – uniforms for the staff. We shed our wet clothes and button the jackets over our naked bodies. Then Mom goes over to the soft-serve machine and makes herself a cup of frozen yogurt.
“We can pay them back for the yogurt and the plywood once the hurricane is over,” she says without looking up.
I realize that I’m starving. We each get big cups piled high with berries, chocolate shavings and something called a tofu crunchy and sit together at the counter. No one speaks. We know we are lucky to be alive.
That night, when they think I’m asleep, my mother asks my dad for a divorce. He says yes.
She leans in and kisses him on the forehead. I look out the one window free of plywood and watch the hurricane pass.
Age 13, Grade 8,
School of the Future High School
Gold Key Silver Medal