The days leading up to the impending disaster are not at all unusual—no portents, no signs of impending calamity. Bryce works his night shift at the hot dog factory, Isaac drives the bus to school, Evelyn attends a funeral. But when the electricity fails in the middle of the night on September 21, 1989, it marks the moment when everything will change: Hugo has arrived.
The storm builds, the wind whips by faster and faster, and interpersonal dramas, grudges, and rivalries are dredged up along with the flotsam and debris. Meanwhile, flood markers, painted red, track the height of the water from past rainstorms, and as the creek level rises higher than ever before, so do the emotions of the townspeople. Floodmarkers has us look bravely at the eye of the storm, as acclaimed author Nic Brown shows us that human nature can stir up a spectacular tempest all its own.
“Stories starring lovable slackers and beautiful failures . . . on my List of Favorite Books, right after The Moviegoer and just before Cathedral. Smart and funny and sexy.” —Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish
“Reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in both its structure and its tragi–comedic view of a small town . . . his empathy and insight into the human condition is breathtaking.” —Jonathan Ames, author of You Were Never Really Here
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11:00 PM SEPTEMBER 21, 1989
WKLB RALEIGH, CHANNEL 2
FIRST ALERT DOPPLER FORECAST
In Charleston right now, the wind will pick up anything. It will pick up little rocks off the ground. It will take things off your truck and make them missiles. It's gusting over 110 miles an hour right now and they haven't even seen the worst of it. What that means for us at this hour is rain. Three and a half inches so far as the first storm bands enter the viewing area.
That's a view of downtown Raleigh, quiet at this hour. Look at that. That should only increase, with a good chance that winds could reach tropical storm, even hurricane, strength here in the Piedmont by noon. That's something, people, that we haven't seen in this area since the records have been kept.
For more, let's go to the map.
* * *
The lights were off but the glass door was unlocked and Cliff followed Matthew into the tanning salon. Inside, Cliff blinked rain out of his eyes as they adjusted to the dark. It was near 4:00 AM and the street lamps shone weakly through the windows onto two dusty plastic plants and a framed poster of the tropics.
It seemed like they should be quiet, but Matthew said, "I think she'll be here. This shit is insane."
Then he opened a door in the back of the room and light cut out of the space like every fluorescent bulb in Lystra had been turned on at once. Past the door, seven tanning beds were turned on and a naked body lay in each. Sausage legs led up to hairy crotches, and then more naked people were just sitting around on long, slatted wooden benches. Many had drinks in their hands.
"What the hell is this?" Cliff said.
"See. It's insane," Matthew said.
"They're all naked."
"Yeah they're all naked!" Matthew yelled, making Cliff jump.
A naked man yelled back, "We're all naked!" and people began to laugh. One of the bodies lying in a tanning bed wiggled its toes vigorously.
It was all Cliff could do not to turn and run back into the rain. But he didn't. Instead, he pulled at his damp suit jacket. He straightened his tie. And he scanned the room for Rebecca. She was not there.
Rebecca was the one getting married tomorrow. She was Cliff's first and only cousin and she lived here in Lystra. Cliff lived in Chattanooga and had never even been here before. From all indications, though, things in Lystra did not fit into Cliff's normal experience. First off, a hurricane — Hugo — was due to blow through in the morning. Secondly, Cliff was getting the sense that the social scene here was unlike that of his high school friends at home.
He had hoped to make it to the rehearsal dinner and had driven in that afternoon with his parents — seven and a half hours in the Town & Country station wagon, across the Appalachians and into North Carolina. Still, they'd gotten in late and missed almost everything. When Cliff and his parents walked into the hotel event room, there was only one very pale busboy cleaning up.
Cliff knew it was stupid, but he was devastated. He wanted Rebecca to see him in his new suit, to see that she wasn't the only one who had grown up and moved on. There was tomorrow, too, but he needed to capitalize on what time he had. After they checked into the Red Roof Inn, he called Matthew, Rebecca's exstepbrother, from the front desk. Matthew's father had divorced Rebecca's mother before Rebecca was born, but Matthew always seemed to be around. Every time Cliff had seen him he was either drunk or just embarrassing. Cliff felt sure he'd know where everyone had gone, and on the phone he said that he did and that he was going out anyway and that it was good to hear from him and that Lystra was a shit hole but it was his shit hole and Cliff should get ready to tear this shit hole up!
Cliff had never even been to a bar. He was only seventeen. But he had his own room at the Red Roof Inn and his parents didn't even know that he'd left. After three bars, though, Rebecca still was yet to be seen. That was when Matthew led the way to this place. According to him, Tanfastic had parties.
Standing there, looking at all the naked tanners, none of whom were Rebecca, Cliff felt both disappointed and relieved. He did want to find her, but he was also so nervous. It had been two years since he'd seen her.
* * *
When Cliff was eight and Rebecca was nine, their families vacationed together in Myrtle Beach. It was the first of many trips there and Cliff and Rebecca shared a bedroom. On the third afternoon there, Cliff watched Rebecca take off her clothes as she prepared to put on her bathing suit. He wasn't hidden or anything; he just stood there watching her undress. She'd told him he could watch her if she could watch him. They were only kids, so they weren't thinking about the fact that they were cousins. When Cliff took his clothes off, Rebecca told him to slowly turn around three times. After that, Cliff asked her if she would lick his stomach. He didn't know how he thought of this, but she did it. She licked his stomach.
* * *
There's a strange pressure being the only clothed person in a room, Cliff thought. He was sitting on a bench with a girl whom Matthew had just introduced him to. She was Rebecca's old roommate, but Cliff couldn't remember her name. She was young, around Rebecca's age, eighteen or so, tiny with short blond hair, the smallest breasts, a gap between her front teeth, large freckles that bridged from cheek to cheek, and no clothing on at all. Her soft round face was snorting cocaine off of a People magazine that lay in the lap of a man who was naked, too, though the magazine in his lap covered things up. Leona Helmsley was on the cover. After the girl was done, she wiped white dust off of Leona's forehead with her index finger.
"Oh yeah, Rebecca's coming," she said, rubbing her gums with the finger. "For sure." She put the magazine in her own lap. "You want some?" She held up a rolled dollar bill.
"Is it cocaine?"
"We put in some of my Ritalin, too."
"Oh." This made no sense to Cliff. "No, thanks. That's OK."
"OK, but if you want, it's not that big a deal." Cliff looked at her stomach and thought he would do anything this girl ever asked of him. And, he thought, what was he going to look like if he just sat there doing nothing? What if Rebecca came in and saw him like that — just sitting there?
"OK," Cliff said.
She gave him the one-dollar tube and he lowered his face to her lap. His head brushed her stomach as he quickly inhaled the powder off of Leona.
Afterwards, Cliff said, "Whoa. I think I'm just drunk and hyper and happy."
"Me too you should take your clothes off."
"Me too you should take your clothes off."
Cliff's new suit was too large for him and had a purple handkerchief sewn into the jacket pocket. At first Cliff thought it was nice, and he had hoped that Rebecca would get a good look at him in it, but now it was making him self-conscious. People kept saying, "Nice handkerchief."
There was an older man with a huge grey beard beside them who had just taken off a pair of overalls. His body had the appearance of an old hide that had been poorly skinned, then stretched over a rocking chair to dry, and on his back he had a tattoo of a dancing rabbit from which several coarse white hairs grew. Nobody was even looking at him.
"Come on," the girl said.
So Cliff took his suit off. He folded the pants and jacket and set them on the edge of the bench, and when it got to his underwear, he pulled it off quickly, like diving into a pool to quicken the shock.
"You want to tan with me?" the girl said.
"Yeah. But actually no. I burn easily."
"At a tanning salon," she said, "they control the amount of UV so that you don't burn. Whatever your skin type."
* * *
When Cliff was fifteen and Rebecca sixteen — this was two summers earlier — they returned to Myrtle Beach. It was the last trip they all took together.
By the second night, Cliff was already sunburnt from only a couple hours in the water. The itch and throb of his red flesh kept him awake, aching and stinging at each toss and turn. He got out of bed and began to rub aloe onto his shoulders. Without speaking, Rebecca got out of her bed and started to help him rub it in. Then, she took his hand and led him to her bed. His greasy skin stuck to the sheets. Rebecca turned her back to him and pulled his arm over her, holding tightly onto his hand. His flesh made a wet gurgle as it rubbed against hers. Neither of them said anything for a while. Cliff could smell her suntan lotion. Then Rebecca said, "It's OK."
Cliff whispered, "What are we doing?"
That summer was when Rebecca started to play with Cliff's testicles. She said it was like rolling dice. That's what she called it, "rolling the dice." Every night that trip she rolled his dice for a long time. She'd go on for ten, fifteen minutes, and then she would take her hand away, pull him close, and say, "It's OK." The years were gone when all she wanted him to do was spin naked in the room so she could watch. Now they saw nothing. He preferred it that way. In the darkness he imagined that she was not his cousin, that what they were doing would last forever. It was the space and time that he felt the most himself. He never wanted the sun to come up. Twice Rebecca rolled over and presented her own back to him and then guided him inside of her. She was already on the pill that summer. It was 1987.
Cliff had promised Rebecca that he would never say anything to anyone about it ever and he hadn't and he never would. He thought about it a lot, though, the fact that they shared this secret. He liked that it was something that Rebecca kept only for him, something she would never share with anyone. And then there was the fact that Cliff had never been with another girl, never really even touched another girl. He had a hard time making friends in general, especially with the opposite sex. Cliff felt strange about how he held on to this secret history, though. It was the history of all that he'd done with his own cousin. Almost every day, in conversation with friends about girls, in watching his classmates, alone in bed, he knew he had both a secret conquest and a bizarre mark. He felt both drawn to the memory and ashamed of it. Still, it offered him a security, a solid item of radioactive potency to which he continually returned. There is always that, he would think. There is always that.
* * *
Rebecca's roommate pushed up the lid of the tanning bed and rose as if from a glowing coffin. A pair of plastic tanning eye-blockers were pulled up on her forehead and her skin shone with sweat.
"You want a beer?" she said.
Cliff still couldn't remember her name. Just ask, he thought. He followed her to a miniature refrigerator in the back of the room. It already felt too late to ask.
"I always thought these mini-fridges were so cute," she said. "I want one."
"Me too," Cliff said. He didn't know what he was talking about, but he just wanted to talk so bad. "Hey, do you want to talk?"
They walked back to the tanning bed and sat with their drinks. The lights were still on and Cliff felt them hot against his bare flesh. It was incredibly bright, and when he looked at the girl she was just a shifting blob against the glow. He tried to relax but was revved up on the stuff. He licked his gums like a wound.
The girl said, "Feel my pulse," and Cliff put his fingers on her wrist. Her blood pumped rapid and insistent below, tapping up at his trembling fingers.
"I feel awesome," she said, then took his hand and placed it above her heart, right on top of her tiny left breast. "Feel it?"
Cliff felt it.
Right then was when the door opened and Rebecca walked in. She still looked so much like Cliff's uncle. She was very thin with bad posture, and her flat blond hair was soaked from the storm. She wore a tight, shimmering dress with a psychedelic kaleidoscope pattern on it, and in the crazy light, Cliff could see that she had waxed off the little moustache she used to have.
For a second Cliff thought that her fiancé wasn't with her, but then a man entered the room. He had two large golden hoop earrings and blond tips in his hair. Several peopled whooped.
The man screamed, "Hells yeah!" and ripped off his white shirt. Three white buttons scattered across the linoleum floor. Cliff had never seen anyone rip a piece of clothing off. The first thing he thought was, What is he going to wear home?
As everyone yelled, Cliff looked at Rebecca and she looked directly back at him. He still had his hand on the girl's chest and he felt her heart race even harder as his own did the same. He kept his hand there and started moving it around. He didn't know what he was doing but the girl didn't seem to mind. Rebecca began walking towards them. Cliff nodded at her.
"Well well well!" Rebecca said.
The girl said, "Your cousin's checking my pulse."
This is good, Cliff thought. Check me out, just sitting here naked with this girl, holding her breast. This is me moving on.
Rebecca smiled at Cliff, then looked back at the girl and said, "You know who this is."
"Duh," the girl said.
"He's the one."
"That's what I thought."
Rebecca laughed. "Jesus," she said, sighing. "It is so good to see you, Cliff. Where were you?"
"We were late," Cliff said. He felt like he was floating in some depth of liquid fluorescence. "But what do you mean, 'I'm the one'?"
Rebecca laughed. "I just meant that you're the one. I told her."
Now the other girl laughed, and Cliff felt it jiggle through her miniature breast.
"Cliff. She was my roommate," Rebecca said. She smiled and shook her head, then waved to someone across the room.
Cliff felt like he was starting to panic. The lights were blurring the edges of everything.
"What?" Rebecca said.
"It's just," Cliff said, "I don't know exactly what you're talking about."
"Cliff, please," Rebecca said. "It's no big deal. Cousins do that kind of thing all the time. Like in the old days and stuff."
Cliff felt like every blood vessel in his face was bursting.
"It's OK," the girl said, putting her hand on Cliff's face. "It's OK. Relax."
"No," Cliff said, brushing her hand away. "Wait. I really don't know what you're talking about. What?"
"Cliff. Come on. This isn't a secret anymore," Rebecca said.
The man who had torn his shirt off walked towards them. He had a Celtic design tattooed on his left pec above three Japanese words.
"Hey, come here," Rebecca said. "I want you to meet my cousin. Cliff, this is Stewart. My fiancé."
Stewart said, "What's up, big guy?"
Cliff just looked at him. There were no words, nothing he could say.
"My cousin," Rebecca said.
"Wait," Stewart said. "So you're the one ... that was porking you? Goddamn! No no no. Really, I'm serious. Wait, wait. Really, it's cool. I used to do that all the time. For real, though. Seriously. No, I mean, with my own cousin, Meghan. For real. Wait, man. I know you were just kids. I know you were just kids. Hey. For real. Respect."
Then someone yelled, "Stu-driver!" and Stewart turned.
"Oh shit, Big Dick!" Stewart yelled, then said to Cliff, "One sec," and walked away.
"Relax," the girl said. She put one hand on her chest, on top of Cliff's hand, and reached the other to his eyelids and closed them. Her skin was warm from the tanning bed. "Close your eyes. Yeah. This is what I do to the kids at daycare, to calm them down. This is what I do before naptime."
Cliff could hear Rebecca, who had walked away and was now talking to Stewart and Big Dick.
Cliff couldn't believe any of this. He felt both righteous and silly, as if his secrets deserved more respect but that it was childish to even care.
The girl continued petting his eyelids.
"Yeah. Relax," she said, then put her other arm around Cliff and lowered him to the surface of the tanning bed. She lay behind him, holding him.
"I ... uh ..." Cliff said.
It started to work. Cliff began to relax. He saw little red tracers as the girl's fingers passed over his eyelids. It was all so warm. His heart stopped racing and his stomach began to unclench. Cliff could see galaxies. He began to worry that he'd been on the bed too long, that he was burning himself, but then the bed clicked and he heard the electric buzz from all the tanning beds stop. He opened his eyes to darkness. People gasped as they banged into things. Then everyone began talking at once and it became clear that while they'd been inside, Hugo had hit. The hurricane had knocked out the electricity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Floodmarkers"
Copyright © 2009 Nic Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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