Story — From the August 2014 issue

Bounty

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A dead man twists around one of my Doric columns. I chose these columns for their plainness, their strength. I liked imagining people looking up at my home, its smoky leaded windows reflecting their city back at them, the classical Greek proportions held up by simple, democratic design. Tasteful. No frills. The dead man’s arm trembles oddly in the water, out of rhythm with the rest of his body. It’s most likely dislocated at the shoulder. Perhaps more than dislocated, but I won’t investigate. A brown gull does a number on his eye.

The man doesn’t look familiar, so I don’t believe him to be one I’ve turned away.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

When the world first flooded, the men who came to my door asking for handouts calmly went away when I said no. They’d survived once before and would do it again. There were other options still. Colonies remained above water with homes to take refuge in. They speckled the rising sea. Now those colonies are underwater, most of their inhabitants drowned.

The other day a man in what looked to have once been a pretty fine suit knocked on my door. The suit, now, was in ruins, the arms shredded like party streamers from his shoulders. Sea salt ghosted his face. Some sand, or maybe a barnacle, clung to his neck. A blue crab scuttled under his pick-stitched lapel. But I mostly noticed his loosed tie because it was definitely designer — it was a kind of damask-rose pattern, but nontraditional. Of course, only designers change designs. It’s why we used to pay so much for them. We paid for innovation.

This man in the nice suit asked for food and water, then tried to strangle me, choked back tears, apologized, asked to be let in, and, when I refused, tried to strangle me again. When I managed to close the door on him he sat on my veranda and cried.

I’ve gotten used to these interruptions. I don’t blame these men. If I’d been one of the unprepared, I’d be desperate, too. They come to my door, see that I am clean, are dazzled by the generator-fed lights. They sense I have rooms full of provisions, that my maid’s quarters are filled with bottled water, cords of wood are in the exercise annex, and gas is in the garage. They ogle my well-fed gut. I am dry. They are embarrassed, filthy, smell of fish. They get back on their driftwood, or whatever they use to keep their heads above water, and paddle next door to my neighbor’s. If I were them, I would overtake someone standing dry in the doorway of a fine home. I wouldn’t give up so easily. But these men are not me. For starters, they’re awfully weak from not eating. But still. I don’t like the change. I miss the old days when, though they happened to be begging, they were gentlemen who understood that hard work was their ticket to success. I’ll need to carry a knife to the door next time.

It was happening just like they said it would. Things never happen like they say they will. That I was living to see it felt kind of special, truth be told. Like a headline. history in the making!

My neighbor’s house still stands, and across a new tiny sea in turmoil from trapped fish and unprepared people, one additional cluster of houses remains, perhaps four in all. Day and night, people hang out the windows waving white bedsheets and shouting. What kind of message is that? Surrender? To whom? I’ll bet they have no food or water. My neighbor’s house shakes from the extra people crammed inside. Each of the ten bedrooms probably holds a small village of newly homeless vagrants he’s rescued. I told him to prepare. I know this sounds crazy, I said. We haven’t always gotten along, but I decided it was the neighborly thing to do. You’d think he’d have been grateful. But instead he just crowds our last parcel of heavenly land with bums. If I open the windows I will smell the house, its burdened toilets and piss-soaked corners. The shallow but rising sea moat between our homes is rank with sewage. The tide takes it away, but more always comes.

In the old days, I would have left a letter in his mailbox about this or that neighborhood issue. The mail carrier once warned that it was illegal for non–mail carriers to put things into mailboxes. She held it out for me to take back. It’s just a note, I snarled. See how overgrown his hedges are? She stared unbudgeably hard, held the letter steady between us. Why can’t you just leave it there for him? I fumed. I slammed the door in her face and the next morning I found it stuffed in with my own mail, in my own mailbox. On it she had scrawled petulantly, Only I can put this in the mailbox, and I won’t do it!

Through my great-room window, I can see that his grand staircase, with those audacious carved-pineapple finials, is littered with men, women, and children. The way they lie about, it looks as though there’s one whole family to a stair. A boy dangles from a dusty crystal chandelier. I watch an old woman topple over a railing while maneuvering through the immense spiral shantytown. What a shame. But you can’t let everyone in. There would be no end to it.

I run a finger over the great room’s mantel. Dead skin, infiltrated ash. Too bad the housekeeper has most likely perished.

Someone knocks on my door — insistent and angry rather than timid and begging. I grab that kitchen knife.

On my veranda stands a man holding himself up by the door knocker, his muscles about to tense themselves off his bones. His face is unshaven, neglected. He has the skinny corpse and fat face of a drunk, and when I pull the door open he attempts to keep hold of the knocker and falls in, face-plants on my entryway Oriental.

“Whiskey,” he groans, reaching for an imaginary tumbler.

I think about swiping his open palm with my blade, but there is something about him that I like. His request is original. At least he’s trying.

Where my driveway used to break into a grand circular turnaround, the waves are mincing: they hiss, churn up crud and fish parts. But the ones farther out, nudged upward by some bar — probably the submerged cul-de-sac lower on the hill, the one I drove through on my way home every day — are large and smooth. They roll long like bedsheets drying in the wind, and I can feel their break.

I never thought I’d get tired of the crashing waves, but it never ends. It holds your attention like someone who can’t stop coughing. It grates. It might be nice to listen to something else for a change. Plus I’m tired of my music.

I know I probably shouldn’t, but I kick his feet toward an ornamental umbrella stand, get him full-bodied into the house, and close and lock the door. He wants whiskey? I don’t care for it, and I have too much as it is. Besides, I’ve always liked having drinkers around. They often surprise.

The man — he grumbles that his name is Gary — doesn’t even take the stack of crackers I offer him, flings them like dice, messily pours another glass.

“Ice,” he slurs.

I shake my head. One of the first things I did was unplug the fridge and freezer. My food is canned.

He’s so at ease in his stupor. Though he arrived sopping wet, if he asked me what’s with all this water, I wouldn’t be the least surprised.

Now he wears one of my bespoke suits. He wears it like he’s a metal hanger, but it’s a bit tight on me. I’m not ashamed. I live a good life.

I make a list of chores for him.

“If you’re going to live here, you’re going to work,” I say, and slide it over for him to sign. He does so without reading. Irresponsible.

So I summarize it for him. “The contract states that in exchange for room and board, Gary will guard the house, take care of any beggars or intruders. He will fill the flush buckets with seawater when they are empty so we can flush our toilets like civilized people. He will throw our empty cans, bottles, and uneaten food out the back door each night to avoid smells. He will help the owner with weekly cleanings of the house. He will perform all other duties the owner asks.”

There are plenty of extra rooms for him to stay in, but it’s my house. So for the first night, I set him up on the study love seat with some fine sheets and a goose-down pillow. He scrunches into it, keeping one eye open as he sleeps, one foot up on the coffee table and the other leg bent, perfectly right-angled, foot flat on the floor, ready. For what? To run? Though the water is creeping closer to the house, I’m not sure that’s it.

The far stand of houses is gone. Where there should be rickety multifamilies, I see water flat like a prairie, occasional whale spouts on the horizon, the glare off all that water like looking at the sun.

I see my neighbor padding around the sleeping bodies in his halfway home for derelicts. He is dressed in a tattered robe, his beard is long and unkempt. I can practically smell him.

I catch his eye across the moat and mime a drowned body, limbs, head, tongue hung and bobbing, and then point to where the houses stood. He looks, rubs his eyes, then drops to his knees. Some of the criminals he’s invited into his home take this opportunity to rob him. Their hands work him over, dig in his bathrobe pockets, his hair, while he shudders with tears. Something is yanked from under his arm, and they disperse so quickly it is like they were never there. I shiver. My neighbor is taller than I am, and stronger. Who knows what would become of me if I had hundreds of people crammed into my house? I’d have no food left. I’d be bullied out of my master suite. I might even lose my life. I am once again grateful for Gary. He wants nothing from me except my whiskey, and has the build of a welterweight or a thief: small and wiry, someone who can put you in a headlock before you feel his touch.

As my neighbor wipes his tears, I shrug in commiseration. But he just shakes his head at me, like I’m the one who robbed him, I’m the water that tore those houses down.

Unless he’s sneaking into the pantry late at night, I doubt Gary has eaten a morsel since his arrival. I notice no dent in my supplies, except the whiskey, which is already half gone. The other night, I crumbled some crackers into a half-full bottle to see whether he would take to the sustenance, and he roared, smashed the bottle against the marble table on which we dine. The noise was exhilarating. Normally the only sound is the constant murmur of the sea around us. Some nights I hear displaced loons calling out to their mates, or human calls from the boats of survivors looking for a place to dock. Their voices travel low across the water and get trapped within the walls of my bedroom. I hear music from my neighbor’s house. Not often. In all, it’s dreary, but on occasion a piano is played, accompanied by some squeaky string instrument. People stomp feet and call out. It’s rustic. One night I heard a wavering wedding march and imagined a bride, in a dress of pinned white towels, making her way through the mob to stand with her groom, two people desperate to have what they think is love before the big end. It was hard not to feel something.

Gary doesn’t always hear noise or even conversation. He sleeps undisturbed in strange intervals, like a pet. It’s pleasant enough. When I need him, he is a great bodyguard. When a knock echoes through the house, I send him to the door with instructions to gut-punch the supplicant men. And he does it. They fall backward from shock and he slams the door. Once, a woman came to the door, bent like a hook, and Gary paused, turned to me miserably. I shrugged. Most bands of vagrants send the men, as is proper, but clearly they were beyond propriety. They hoped we might treat a woman differently. I saw two tense shapes in a rowboat just beyond the south wing of the house. What could Gary do? Some people hang on to old ideals. I do not. But I couldn’t make a man like Gary do something he didn’t feel good about. He has integrity. I pointed to my knee. He gave hers a halfhearted kick and she crumpled. He shut the door gently. I hope he feels like this is his home too.

Gary has allowed me to shave him. He sits on the edge of my tub and snoozes while I hot-towel him, lather his face and neck. I’m careful not to nick him; I wag the razor clean in a silver bowl of mineral water. He looks more and more like a businessman in my suit; his graying temples lend him an executive air. He wears my suits and sometimes I add a tie for color. The world outside is gray, black, and blue, dotted by faded plastic garbage. A bit of color brings out Gary’s eyes.

I leave him to clean up, and a while later he tumbles through the bathroom door with a bottle in his hand and knocks into the armoire. He is dangerously intoxicated and half dressed.

He crouches before me as I sit in my reading chair, sticks a soiled finger into my mouth, claws my lower jaw open. I’m stunned and let him. He strokes the caverns of my back teeth. I taste sour salt.

“Where’s your gold?” he asks, like a child who thinks everything is his mirror.

I lean back from his brackish finger. “I have porcelain fillings.”

He is blank.

“You can’t see them. They blend in with my teeth. They’re better.”

His face threatens a smile, which would be a first, but instead his mouth gapes wide; it’s like a California riverbed, shallow gold in every hole.

He taps one. “My bank,” he says, and howls irresistibly. Then he gulps more from the bottle and falls into my bed. He’s wearing a pair of my paisley silk boxers, his legs knobby and bowed like a baby bird’s, and a hand-stitched dress shirt, the French cuffs gutted.

“Gary.”

He murmurs from just below sleep.

“Did you ever think you’d be sleeping under down, in a well-appointed room, clean-shaven, in tailored shirts and silk underwear?”

He strains an eye open, seems to ponder it, like maybe he can see where I’m going with all this.

“I’m just saying, I think we have a pretty good thing here. We are at the height of land. We have a beautiful house. It doesn’t smell, doesn’t leak, isn’t crowded. Think of the wind. It sweeps over the entire sea, gathers all that fresh air just to deposit it at our doorstep. We have loads of food. More than we could ever eat, really. We drink imported water.”

I suck at a bottle to demonstrate.

“The whiskey won’t last, but I’m sure we can think of something. There’s other liquor. I have port. Several vintages. All told, Gary, we have a pretty nice life.”

He yawns. Perhaps he’ll take this moment to drain another bottle of whiskey. He looks toward the neighbor’s house.

I’m wondering whether he’s heard me when he mumbles, “We’re homeless.”

I don’t know what he means. “Don’t be absurd,” I say. I’m certainly not homeless. And neither, now, is he.

But then I think maybe I do understand his meaning, looking at the lapping endless sea, which for once stretches beyond metaphor and actually is endless.

“Homeless” is a term of destitution. We’re not hanging out of windows, waving blankets; we’re not trod on by pruned feet like my neighbor. But undeniably we are experiencing a lack. I respond, “Friend, we are worldless.” I let my new word linger. Gary sniffles and paws at his face, and then I see a glistening on his cheek.

“Gary, are you crying?” I mock tenderly.

He scowls and pulls the blanket right under his nose, clutches the whiskey close to his heart, and pretends to sleep.

I hear murmuring outside the house.

A boat creaks a hundred yards offshore. A multicolored sail of ragged cloth, swatches crudely stitched together, barely registers the wind. I can make out the figures of two men swim-walking their way to our door while others wait in the boat. They gaze admiringly at the house. As they should.

“Gary,” I hiss.

A minute later, he shuffles into the entryway, bringing with him a scent of something savory. Not whiskey, I notice, and think it odd.

“Men are coming. See what they want.”

Gary peeks out from behind the drapes, allows his eyes to adjust, nods his head. I hand him a knife and he slips out the front door to meet the men.

He returns with a note in a bottle.

“They’re from next door,” he says, slurring slightly.

“They have a boat next door?” Should we have a boat? I hadn’t thought about surviving outside my home. Would I even want to? It seems so awful out there. But maybe it’s something I should get Gary on, just in case. The note is scrawled on the back of a soup label:

Dear Neighbor, might you have some food and water to spare? My men will ferry it over. We are running dangerously low. Might you have some room to spare? I’ll send clean women and children. We’re greatly overcrowded and I am concerned. Respectfully.

I crumple the letter. The nerve. “No way to this.”

Gary looks surprised, which surprises me.

“But we have spare food.”

“What do you know about food?” I yell.

“You said we had more than enough.”

“I did not!”

“You did.”

“That was before. We’re running very low. You eat too much.”

“We have a lot of food,” he mumbles again.

“I suppose you know best. I suppose you’re the decision maker now. I guess you’ll be telling me we should invite them over.”

“Would it be so terrible to let some in?”

“Yes!”

Gary looks up at the grand staircase, considers each wing. “There’s room.”

I throw my hands up. “You’re unbelievable! He’s scamming you!” I’m ashamed of the squeal in my voice, but I can’t control it. “His house has always been a wreck. Always a cracked window. Bricks crumbling. His vines growing over my side of the fence. And that’s just the outside.”

Gary stares longingly at the upstairs hallways as if fantasizing that they are crowded with laughing children and pretty women.

“They’ll ruin everything. Our life. They’ll eat more than their share. They’ll waste water. They’ll drink your whiskey, you know they will.”

Gary blushes and looks down at a smudge on the golden maple floors, licks a finger, squats to rub it out. “I don’t care,” he mutters into the smudge.

“I’ll make it simple for you, simple guy. If you want to be with them, then leave.” Even as the words come out I want to take them back. The rest of this life feels impossible without Gary. But I shouldn’t have to give up a life I enjoy to harbor the foolish masses. What’s the point of living if you can’t have the life you want?

Gary turns toward me and I don’t like the look. It’s like we don’t even know each other. He slips the knife from his pocket and strides out the door.

They are having words. I can’t tell if Gary’s is one of the voices. Maybe the men are begging to be let in and Gary is merely listening, hearing them out. That would be so like Gary.

But maybe the men are begging to be let in and Gary is saying yes. That would be a different Gary, I think.

Then I hear yelling and grunts from a struggle. I run to the coat closet and hide inside. A lone jacket hangs above me. I pull it down and wrap myself in it.

A cry of pain leads to the sound of men splashing in retreat.

The front door is opened, then gently clicked shut, as though I am a child and Gary is taking care not to wake me. Feet shuffle away. I crack the door and see the knife lying in the center of the rug. It is smeared with blood and sea scum. I would like to dress his wounds if he has any, but I don’t move.

From the study comes the clinking of bottle to glass. A glass this time. What civility. I’m ashamed for doubting him. He is a loyal friend. All is well.

A terrible crash wakes me. I reach across the bed, but Gary is not there.

I see nothing through the window, but hear the sea lashing at the side of the house, frantic and high. The clouds are thick like insulation and hide any evidence of a moon. Is it large and full and pulling the tides higher, or is this some kind of grand, irreversible shift in things?

I sink into the cold middle of the bed. Then comes another crash, and yelling, and the unforgettable cracking of heavy beams of wood, of walls collapsing. Screams, splashes, cries for help. If I had to guess, I’d say my neighbor’s house has just fallen to pieces. I don’t want to look, in case I’m right. The surrounding sea would clog with the lifeless, faces down, a simple burial for those who had survived longest. A passing thought: Must I shoulder some blame for this tragedy? I’d believed our stories were separate. I’d begun to think of this earth as my own private sanctuary. Shared with Gary. We could climb higher and higher as the water rose and live out our days in that quaint, functionless widow’s walk, until it, too, was swallowed. I’d always thought it such a romantic scenario. But with our neighbors washed away, I’m suddenly curious what other story we all might have told together. We’re each of us survivors, after all. What a pathetic end. How desperate. I fall asleep in a surprising state of grief.

In the light of day, my neighbor’s house is still standing. The top of the building has caved in on itself. Some bodies float in the surrounding waters, but not many. The bobbing corpses lack the gravitas I imagined. I leave bed to fix myself a plate of crackers and peanut butter.

As I approach the landing, I hear hushed voices and see my neighbor in the entryway with Gary. They lean into each other, whispering. It all looks quite friendly.

“Howdy, neighbor,” I force.

They look up, caught. I scan Gary’s face for clues. Then my neighbor’s.

He has tried to clean himself up a bit. His clothes look pressed in spots, like they have been lain between stacks of books to mimic the effect of steamers. But they are pieces from different suits, clashing directions of stripes on the jacket and trousers, and a gingham shirt. His beard is roughly trimmed, big chunks of hair cut shorter than other chunks. He looks to be wearing some kind of makeup, a powder or rouge.

My neighbor nods in greeting. “We had an accident,” he wheezes haltingly. “The roof. Fell in. Top floor. All dead.”

“I know, we heard,” I say, mustering horror. Gary looks distraught. Then I say, “We heard it fall, I mean,” so that my neighbor doesn’t think we heard from someone else, as though it were gossip.

“I saw the bodies in the moat,” I say.

My neighbor looks ashamed and sputters, “We had to. The disease. All the others.”

I notice Gary’s suit is rough and wrinkled. I reach out, fondle the fabric. It’s damp.

“Have you been swimming, Gary?”

My neighbor coughs. “Neighbor,” he says, beginning a plea.

“What do you want?” I ask, trying to sound friendly, but I can tell by their faces that my tone is pure stone.

“We have to hold up the ceiling.”

Gary clears his throat. “I found big posts in the basement.”

I’m looking right into his eyes and they are mossy green and clean like he is fully awake. We are so close; his breath in my face smells sweet like milk. I’m about to hypnotically say I don’t have any posts when I remember that I do, from a renovation last year. Why does Gary know my house better than I?

I glare at him, preparing to accuse him of something, when my neighbor begins to cry. Gary clamps a hand on my neighbor’s shoulder to comfort him. I’m alarmed. Those are my hands.

Sea foam curls around my neighbor’s galoshes and I suddenly feel woozy. I step back, hug my cardigan close, and realize I’ve become pointy, emaciated, swimming in this sweater, the cuffs hanging on me like I’m wearing my father’s clothes. Is this even mine? Haven’t I been taking care of myself? I look at Gary. He’s lean. But I don’t think he’s leaner than usual.

“He’s going to borrow the posts,” Gary says, making it sound utterly ordinary to give something away. He tightens his grip and guides my shell of a neighbor inside. “Watch the rug,” he says absently, and instinctively I’m grateful. He’s thought of me. Of us. Of our things. I think to offer him my most thankful expression, but he is already leading my neighbor through the basement door. “I’ll help him,” he calls back over his shoulder.

Of course my neighbor will need help. The posts are big and long and were almost too much for the builders to get down there in the first place. And my neighbor is clearly starving. When he and Gary come out of the basement, I notice that Gary isn’t stumbling. He appears strong, almost. He is speaking in full sentences, not slurs. He’s concerned and not angry. He directs my neighbor, who is bent and shaky, barely able to hold the post up, toward the door. Gary stands tall, the post balanced easily on his shoulder, like the weight isn’t even felt. I almost want to check my food supply, but I know that would be wrong. It’s his house too.

I watch them float the posts over and disappear into my neighbor’s house. I bolt the door. When they come back, they’ll have to knock. But then I think, no, it’s Gary. I draw the bolt back.

I stoke the fire all night and wait for the splash of someone crossing the moat. I deserve an explanation. I can’t sleep without him.

Across the moat, in my neighbor’s house, lit by candlelight, I see a crowd gathered around Gary as he appears to give a speech. His gestures are humble. He is not throwing bottles and sulking. And when he begins to weep, the masses gently reach to comfort him, place hands on him. My neighbor steps through, the people break apart for him, and he and Gary embrace. Gary sobs into his neck.

I crawl to the liquor cabinet. One bottle remains. I cough down half and then hurl the bottle at the great window. I check my food supplies. They don’t appear diminished beyond reason, but I suppose there is more food gone than there should be. Didn’t there used to be one more pallet by the bed? Had Gary started to eat? I couldn’t remember his ever sharing a meal with me, though he always kept me company while I dined. I could live off this food for a while longer, definitely till the end, which feels closer than ever before. But that’s not the point, I think, as I urinate into the fireplace. Smoke, thick like clouds, smothers my mouth. I double over, breathless. I wrench the window wide and gasp in the fumes from the putrid moat. The sun is breaking. A bloated cow drifts by, its hide rippling with bugs, its tail end chewed off by some animal, its belly intact but about to burst. That will be me. Pale, bloated, and raped in some feeding frenzy by what still lives.

Why did he leave?

Did I say he could leave?

The water in the moat has an eerie heft like it is about to become slush. I find firm ground near the corner of my neighbor’s house, and soon I emerge. Water sloshes out from under my clothes and from my pockets; salt and sand grit my mouth.

I hear the noise of much life inside, hundreds and hundreds of people, but as I pass in front of a window the commotion stops. When I knock on the front door it’s like the whole world holds its breath. I press my ear to it. Nothing.

“I know you’re in there,” I yell. “I can see you all from my house.”

I hear a cough from inside and a quick rush to stifle it.

“You stole my food.”

Silence.

From my pocket I pull a note card, kept dry in a plastic baggie. It’s an eloquent reminder for Gary of our comfortable life at home, and of the contract he signed. I find a crack at the top of the door, try to push the note through. Something stops it mid-slide and pushes it back out.

Gary.

I palm the door and press my cheek against it. It is slimy and cold. I feel painted onto it.

“Gary!” I yell. “Let me in! I’m cold and wet.”

The moon is full. The water is waiting for orders. I think it wants this house as much as I do.

I could still make it home. But for what? People begin moving around again inside my neighbor’s house. I hear the piano, and the march of many feet up and down the staircase. They are carrying on. I notice for the first time that my neighbor’s house sits slightly lower on the hill than mine. We truly were at the height of land. It was not my imagination, or merely a boast. I’m awash in sadness.

“Gary. We had it all.”

I sit down on the stoop and the water rises to my knees. Small fish circle my legs like they are playing a game. Hawks circle high in the pinking sky. I don’t know much about birds but I imagine they need land somewhere nearby. If they are gulls, they can float on the water. I don’t think hawks can do that. Or buzzards circling a kill. If they were albatross they could fly the length of one giant ocean and never get tired. I’ve heard they keep ships company on an entire journey.

I had never thought that somewhere beyond my sight the world might be continuing as normal. If those are hawks they’ll have to return to their treetops, high above houses full of sleeping families, husbands and wives, children lucky enough to have been born. Just beyond the curve of the earth, out of my view, skyscrapers could be creaking slightly in the newly blistering wind. Newscasts could be reporting about us, the ones who perished.

I’m surprised how easy it was for me to believe I was one of the lucky few left. If people are watching this sunset all over the world then I wouldn’t be so lucky after all, sitting up to my chest in cold ocean water cluttered with debris and oily with human waste. What makes me so special? I had a house. I had Gary. It felt like enough for the end of days.

Soon someone will need to open the door. They have flush buckets to fill. Cans, bottles, batteries to toss. Don’t they? I could wait.

I try to imagine it: me in there. Pressing palms, talking about the lives we lived. Being nostalgic for what? Eating crumbs together? Of course, if they were to let me in, I’d be expected to give over my house and supplies. They’d paw my antiques. They’d mess all the beds’ bedding. I’d never again enjoy that morning echo of solitary me padding across the floors in my empty house.

But if I go home, I’ll live longer. It is indisputable. I don’t know what more I could ask for.

“Okay, Gary. Last chance. I’m leaving,” I call out. I wait a beat, listening for the door to creak, for curiosity to win out.

Instead, I hear laughter behind my neighbor’s door.

I know that soon they will come. Gary will lead them. It could be any minute now. They’ll wade, swim, selectively drown their way across the moat and break through my great window. Eventually they’ll splinter open the locked front door. It’s a quality door. It won’t be easy.

The water and weather will soon get in, eat the house from the inside. They’ll be left with nothing yet again. I could warn them, but do I have to think of everything?

I wait in the widow’s walk, surrounded by soft down pillows, a tower of blankets. I have with me water, crackers, tinned meat, and my two biggest knives, but I hope it won’t come to that. I don’t think Gary will let it. True, I feel betrayed. He knows all my secrets, what I’m most afraid of, all the combinations, and where anything of worth is hidden. But I will still be his friend. If he’ll have me.

The moon rises, dips, rises, dips. The tide rolls in and out. I wait for the end. The wind pries itself inside. Even shrouded in blankets, I’m folded over from shivering. I wait for them. Pieces of my neighbor’s house are letting go, dropping into the sea; some break windows as they fall. Is that a piano I hear tinkling, or glass shattering? Is that the sound of singing or of wood creaking to its breaking point? The whole house leans. The sea is knocking, but his door remains shut.

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’s collection Man V. Nature will be published in October by Harper. This is her first story for Harper’s Magazine.

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Photography From the April 2009 issue

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Photography From the April 2009 issue

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