It rained all day on the Gulf Coast of Arkansas. It was a steady, drizzling acid rain that kept 14-year-old Jaci from going down to the shore to see if anything interesting from the Gulf’s past had washed up.
A huge underwater net prevented most things from reaching the massive seawall, but once in a while something interesting from sunken Louisiana would get through a big hole or over the top and through the seawall’s little channels. The Coast Guard’s hazmat beachcombers notwithstanding, it was usually a local child who found it first and then ended up in the hospital for treatment of a wound or decontamination or both.
Jaci didn’t complain to her parents about not being able to go to the beach. She’d been told often enough not to go there anyway; she’d just get another lecture and no sympathy.
She looked in the apartment’s living room, where her mother sat on the couch, her virtual reality glasses on. She was talking with her sister in Ohio.
Her father was in his office, also wearing his VR glasses; he was tapping the joystick built into the left arm of his chair. She walked in and spoke tentatively.
Ralph flipped his glasses up and smiled at his daughter. “Hi.”
“There’s a big hurricane coming in. It’s already over the old coastline.” He paused. “Go get your glasses and tie into my feed. I’ll show you what I’m looking at.”
Jaci hurried to her room for her VR glasses. Daddy often looked at some dull stuff, but at least he was paying attention to her. Jaci knew her father held dual degrees in meteorology and geology. That made him an important man on the New Gulf Coast, and that meant a really nice apartment, high above the floodplain but not so high that wind would be a danger. His salary also meant that all three of them had their own pair of VR glasses, which was a great luxury.
She pulled up a chair next to her father and sat down and put her virtual reality glasses on. Almost immediately she was under the Gulf.
“This was a city?”
“A small one,” Ralph said. “Near the Mississippi River on the Louisiana side. This is where our family, my side of the family, comes from. The Cubbes lived there from the mid-1800s until Supercane Boris hit.”
“Wow! That’s a long time.”
“In some ways,” he agreed. “This was Main Street, where most of the businesses were located.” Ralph moved the joystick again, sending a signal to the little probe he’d sent on this errand. The probe turned slightly left and scooted forward, down the old street.
“Is the hurricane going to go over this place?” Jaci asked.
“Yep. Pretty soon, too. We don’t have a lot of time before the visual signal will start to break up.” He maneuvered the probe off of Main Street and wound through a residential section of town.
“What will happen to the probe?”
“It will still send back telemetry until it’s damaged or destroyed. That’ll tell us some useful things about the hurricane.”
“Is it a supercane?”
“No, just a regular category 4 storm. It’s already starting to arc back eastward. We’ll get wet here, but the force of the storm will be a couple of hundred miles east of us. It’s not like one of the supercanes that changed the map, along with the polar ice melt. Let’s see … it’s around here somewhere. Ah. There it is.”
Ralph stopped the probe and turned it to the right. Their glasses showed them a submerged two-story house. The windows were gone but the front door was still closed.
“This is where five generations of Cubbes lived. My Grandpa Ralph – the man I’m named after – was the last to live there. The family had to evacuate when Supercane Boris was coming in. That’s when the family moved to Ohio.”
“But we came back,” Jaci said proudly.
“As close as we can get,” Ralph agreed. He steered the probe through the window and father and daughter were both quiet as they toured the ancestral home.
The pounding from Supercane Boris, and the beating later that season by Supercane Clea, had taken quite a toll on the place.
“There used to be a staircase there,” Ralph observed. “Two or three people in the family fell down it and broke arms or legs. You can see how steep it had to have been to fit in that space.”
Ralph turned the probe around and neared a wall.
“There it is.”
Jaci leaned forward as if to get a closer look. “What is it?”
“That is what is left of the photograph of your … I forget how many greats … grandparents Cubbe. The photograph was taken just after photography became a real business. It was hung in a place of honor in the house before this one and then here.”
Jaci could barely make out that the frame had held a photo of two people. The glass had been shattered and the sharp edges and the seawater had erased their expressions from history.
“Why didn’t Grandpa Ralph save it when he had to evacuate?”
Her father laughed but there was no mirth in it. “That’s been a bone of contention in the family ever since. Grandpa said he just knew he got it off the wall and that something must have happened to it on the way to Ohio. Some of the cousins figured – correctly, it appears – that he forgot it.”
“He was probably in a hurry to get away from the supercane,” Jaci protested in her late great-grandfather’s defense.
“True. You can see there are a lot of things that got left behind. But even if you have to leave your sofa and your bed and your good china, one rule of evacuation is you take your family photos because they can never be replaced. Still, even precious things can become so familiar that we don’t really see them anymore. That photo had been on the wall all of Grandpa’s life, and when it came time to leave it probably just looked like part of the wall to him.”
“Not much point in rescuing it now,” Jaci said.
“There are no grapplers on the probe, anyway,” Ralph said. “You’re the last of the Cubbes who will ever see even this much of that photograph.” He sighed and was quiet a moment. Jaci waited for him to speak again.
Ralph turned practical, as people often do to deal with loss. “Now why is that door still standing?” He turned the probe away from the battered portrait and nudged it toward the front door. A close inspection revealed the answer.
“Grandpa Ralph locked the door on his way out,” Jaci marveled.
“Yep. The two deadbolts and that tiny bit of hinge on the other side are keeping this thing in place.”
“Why would he have locked the door?”
“Force of habit, most likely. There was no question at the time but what Boris was going to sink the city. But either as a defiant gesture, or a hopeful one, or because he was used to doing so, he locked the door when he left.”
Ralph noted a stirring in his peripheral vision and he touched a control on the VR device’s buffer, clipped to his belt, to check a datastream.
“The hurricane’s just about on top of us.” He thought a moment, and then scooted the little probe out the window and toward the street. “Let’s watch the view downtown.”
Jaci heard the tightness in her father’s voice; she understood he didn’t want to watch in case his grandfather’s home was destroyed by the hurricane.
Soon, driving rain from the surface made its way deeper and stirred up the depths. Rotted timbers began to separate and rush past the little probe’s camera. Something dark rushed into Ralph and Jaci’s view in their glasses and there was no more picture as the probe was hit.
“Ow!” Jaci cried. Then she felt foolish.
Ralph chuckled. “You hurt badly?”
“No, just the probe. But…”
“I know. It’s instinct. I ducked, for all the good that did. We’re still getting basic telemetry so the transmitter’s still working. But that’s all we’re going to see.”
They both took their glasses off. Jaci watched her father for a moment as he thought deep thoughts. He shrugged.
“That’s life,” he finally said. “Anything we can make, nature can destroy. And will, given time, one way or another. Even our nuclear waste won’t last forever. It’ll likely outlast us, but it won’t outlast the planet.” He decided to abandon that line of philosophy. There was no sense being too negative with his teenage daughter. “Why don’t you go see if you’re mom’s still talking to your Aunt Steffi. When she’s done, we’ll forage for some lunch.”
“OK,” she said.
“Oh, and Jaci … I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your knowledge of that photograph to yourself. We don’t need the cousins badmouthing Grandpa Ralph.”
She nodded. “I won’t say anything.” And she trotted off to the living room.
She slowed down as she got close to her destination. She put out a hand and touched a photo that hung on the wall. It showed their family and had been taken two Christmases ago. She couldn’t remember the last time she had taken note of it, and one day, it, too, would be gone.
“But I’ll take care of it while I can,” she vowed. “I’m going to look at this every day so it doesn’t become part of the wall.”