Rain drops slapped against their ground level window. “I can’t hear it yet, can you?” Amber said, lying flat in her bunk, but her eyes on the water flecked glass. “Jessie said it was going to turn and hit North of us at the last minute anyway.”
“What does she know?” Glenna said from the bunk above. “Fucking idiot.”
“She said North is good. It’ll miss us, and swing back out to sea. Go fuck up like Africa or England or something.”
“Don’t you got babies up in Myrtle? You wishing this shit on them?”
Amber took a deep breath. She thought about her little ones at her mama’s house. About their round cheeks and their big eyes. Her mama’s half of a run-down duplex with its loose shingles, the single pane windows, the draft down the crumbling chimney; the car that rarely started, and never had enough gas to go anywhere, and the pile of bottles in the recycling. She didn’t have anyone to call, neither of their daddies were worth anything, none of her so-called friends had it any better. She bit her lip and hoped her mama was sober enough to get them to the Baptist church, or the high school.
Something flashed past the window. Amber told herself it was a bird. Definitely not debris whipped by building winds.
“You won’t hear anything down here anyway. Not until it’s too late, then you’ll hear all the water rushing down the hall. It’ll be a fucking river.”
“Water in the hall?”
“Don’t you know nothing? Ms. Hot-Shot High School Diploma. Fuck all it’s doing for you now. This whole place is below sea level, and we’re in the basement. When the water comes we’ll be like fish in an aquarium.”
Amber sat up. Her eyes on the seal at the bottom of the door. “If it comes. It’s gonna go North, Jessie says.”
The rain splashed dirt up onto their window until they could no longer see out into the yard. Amber paced, her eyes alternating between the window and the bottom of the door. “Why ain’t you scared?”
“I gotta plan,” Glenna said.
Amber snorted. Of course, Glenna had a plan, she always did. Some stupid plan like having Amber distract Selma Banks at lunch while Glenna stole her pork chop, or having Amber risk her sweet job in the laundry to slip Glenna some extra socks. Lord knows what she needed those socks for. Glenna’s plans always included a risk for someone else, for minimal gain.
“You know that secret phone of yours ain’t gonna save you. You can’t call fucking 9-1-1.”
Glenna didn’t even turn her head. “I can swim,” she said.
Amber’s heart sped as she looked from the window to the door, and thought about the one time she’d been in water over her head, a friend’s birthday party at the Holiday Inn. The novelty, she’d never been in a hotel pool, and the cool green of the water, and the proximity of the solid concrete edge had tricked her, lulled her into believing when the other girls called her a chicken, and told her it would be fine to jump in, that it would be. She remembered the seconds of joy as she flew through the air, the crash of the bubbles fizzing their way up her body, but then how the chlorine burned her eyes when she opened them; when she discovered she couldn’t breathe, that she’d somehow got lost on her way back up. How since she didn’t know how to float, she’d sunk almost to the bottom, too buoyant to be able to push off, but too heavy to rise, to breathe, she was stuck in the limbo of the middle where she used up all her air watching the other girls swim above her, before everything went emerald green, and then black. Somebody’s mom’s boyfriend pulled her out and smacked her on the back until she could breathe again. She looked at Glenna and wondered if she would pull her out, or if Amber would watch Glenna swim by.
When the water level rose above the window outside, she closed her eyes and tried to remember how to pray. She knew how, at one point, as a child, when the thought of a big man in the sky watching her was comforting and not creepy, back before she knew what men could do, would do, if they had the chance to get her alone. It took prison for her to learn that women would do the same if they had the chance. Back before she knew that no one really cared about anyone else, that everyone was just out for themselves. Praying felt like asking for help and Amber didn’t like doing that. It never ended well. Favors always came with strings and debts bigger than she could pay. Asking for help in school, she’d ended up on her knees behind the Principal’s desk; asking for a place to live where her Mama’s boyfriend wouldn’t hit her, she ended up with a black eye and a broken rib; asking for help feeding her kids ended up with her watching them pull out of her driveway in the back of a police car. She’d ended up inside, because to pay the never-ending list of fines and penalties she sold the last thing that she had, her body, only to find out she wasn’t allowed to do that either.
A ripping sound, of seals stretching, of silicone breaking, of something strong finally giving way to something persistent, pulled Amber from her thoughts. She looked toward the sound and saw the paint beneath the window was glossy. She stood and reached her hand out to touch the line of shine that stretched to the floor. Wet. A trickle that she feared would soon be a river. Her stomach was filled with cement. The seal on the window was failing under the pressure of the water. She ran to the door and started banging. “Hey! Hey,” she shouted.
No one came.
She pressed her ear to the door. The normally loud hallway was silent. She slapped the door, the flat of her palm cracking against the metal. “Helen!” she screamed, “Helen!”
“I can’t believe you’re thinking about tits right now,” Glenna said.
“She’s nice to me. She’ll help us.”
“She likes those blue eyes, and your soft hair. Probably thinking about what it would feel like on her giant thighs. Should I tell her I know?”
Even through the panic Amber could feel the heat rise to her face. “She’s our best chance out of here.”
Amber’s feet were wet.
“Ain’t nobody letting us out of here,” Glenna said. “What, you think they’re going to put us on a bus? A tin can of convicts stuck on 95 with all those minivans full of families and upright citizens? Can you imagine the television coverage? Nah, girl…”
Her hands still pressed against the metal, Amber thought about all of the locked doors between her body and outside; there were at least a dozen.
“Ain’t nobody coming to save us,” Glenna hissed into Amber’s ear as she shoved her hands under Amber’s sweatshirt and squeezed her breasts too hard.
Saving herself wasn’t worth it, instead, she closed her eyes and grit her teeth, and begged the ceiling to keep her babies safe. “Please, please…” she whispered against the steel.