I snuck in between floods.
A couple months after one. You could still smell the mud. Still had to dodge the crumbling edges of highways.
They banded together, those people, in that flood. Cleaned up their school together. Cleaned up their roads together. I slid in late, and, having done nothing to help, became a spectator, pretending to understand the words and looks that communicated whole paragraphs between the people who were there to see it.
I never fit in that school, that county. Never particularly wanted to. I was nervous, anxious, the whole time I stayed. Trying not to say the wrong thing. Trying not to do the wrong thing. No one was unfriendly, but I didn't make friends. Didn't know how to relax into the rhythm of a place that felt so desperate, so distant. I was homesick for any other county, any other school.
My kids were all right. They bounced back. Just, every once in a while, one of them would stop typing or reading or coloring and look up at the ceiling.
"The water came up real fast that day."
"We was out playin' and Mommy hollered for me to get in, it was floodin'."
"This computer won't work. Did it get flooded?" and "My marker's out of ink. Did it get flooded?" and "This rug smells yuck. It musta got flooded."
Sounding every bit like some little old man embellishing the tale for his grandkids. So matter-of-fact. Uphill both ways in those kids' days. They were six and seven and eight years old and they knew more about mud and water and shifting foundations than I ever hope to know.
I loved them, but I couldn't wait to leave. Consumed by the selfish, by the desperate. Eaten up by anxiety and guilt, not about the flood, not about anything in particular -- just the way the gray sky and gritty air down there will make you desperate. I wondered how any of the older kids managed it, the desperation, the will to leave. You could see it on some of their faces as early as fourth grade, fifth grade.
But -- not on as many faces as you'd think. So content, some of those faces. So unaware that the sky could be any color but gray. Or maybe they just saw blue in places I didn't.
Maybe I was seeing gray in places nobody else did. That's part of why I loved those kids, and why I never understood them -- they could see home, shining bright, beneath the tiniest sliver of blue sky, while I couldn't spot home anywhere, even in bright sunlight.
I got out, finally, feeling scarred and still desperate. Glancing over my shoulder, shivering, trying to shake off the grit and the gray. Still not seeing blue. Still not all the way gone.
Then Saturday dawned lovely, if rainy -- a soft, gentle gray I hadn't seen in a while. My best friend took me wedding dress shopping and we put the perfect gown on layaway. Had lunch out. Tried on shoes. I felt good. Distant. Like I'd finally escaped.
That very moment, back down in that county, the creeks were escaping their banks again, claiming gardens and bridges and basements and churches. Sneaking into hallways and whispering down alleys.
Now I'm back in this odd state of being half-gone. In my head I keep seeing hopeful gazes, hearing matter-of-fact little voices. Want to gather them up and rebuild their basements, help them structure their hopes around something dry and solid.
But I'm gone.
And life there continues without me, like it did before me: wet and gray, oddly hopeful in the face of things I've never seen.