by Diana Wolfe
You didn’t have to ask them twice. The news was still playing Katrina footage, for Christ sake! Cheryl and Bob sat up all night, hypnotized by the images of the gestating storm, a swirling spiral christened Rita, weighing in as a Category Four hurricane, coming straight at them. When the mayor of Houston said, “go,” the Lockharts heeded.
Bob, all ex- Marine, packed their Toyota RAV-4 with flares, flashlights and batteries, water jugs, protein bars, a camp toilet, a tent, and sleeping bags, while Cheryl, all panic, crammed a trash bag with a jar of vitamins, her blow dryer, alarm clock, a scrap book she made when Andy was born, a half-empty bag of candy, and five bottles of wine. When she brought this outside to Bob, he opened the bag, inspected its contents, placed the five wine bottles carefully into the trunk, and handed the rest back to her. “Jesus Christ, Cheryl, get a grip.”
Andy came out of the house in his Spiderman jammies, holding Bandit.
“We can’t take the cat, buddy,” Bob said, “And you have to get dressed.”
Andy’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want my kitty to die!” he wailed. “Mommy!” he pleaded, “tell Daddy that cats die in hurricanes!”
Bob craned his neck up to the pre-dawn sky. “Andy. We’ll only be gone a day or two.” He cut his eyes to Cheryl. “We’re only taking necessities. The cat will be fine.”
Andy’s face crumpled and Cheryl’s chest tightened. “No, he’s right, Bob. We have to take him. It would be irresponsible to leave him here.”
Bob pinched the bridge of his nose, released it and inhaled sharply. “Okay. Listen up. Stop crying. We are leaving in five minutes. You need to put your clothes and shoes on, now. The cat can only come if you put him in his cage. Got it?”
“But Daddy,” Andy sniffled, “Bandit doesn’t like his cage. He always meows really loud when Mommy puts him in it to take him to Dr. Moon.”
“You’re pushing it, little man. We all have to suck it up today. Now go. Or we’ll leave you and the cat here.”
Cheryl tensed, watching Andy trudge back into the house with his cat.
“He’s seven now,” Bob hissed when Andy was out of sight. “Time to cut the cord, Cheryl, if you want him to have any kind of a normal life.”
Their plan was simply to head north on the 45, then west on the 290, out of the way of Rita’s predicted path. They sailed along easily until they hit the freeway and folded into the long sea of cars that had been crawling all night from the even more vulnerable island of Galveston. The sun glowed orange on the horizon and began its steady climb into the summer sky.
When they hadn’t moved in over forty-five minutes, Bob turned off the ac and lowered the windows. The heat and humidity poured into the car leaving Cheryl breathless and pinning her to the seat.
“Mommy, I’m hot,” Andy whined.
“We have to leave the air off, buddy,” Bob said. “We have to save gas. We don’t know when we’ll be able to fill up again.”
Cheryl looked at the cars surrounding them, the endless stretch of cars in front of them. She had a bad feeling about this. Maybe this was a mistake. She pulled her enormous purse onto her lap and dug around until her hand closed on the small pill case. She flicked it open with her thumbnail and eased out a Xanax. On second thought, she eased out another, clicked the case shut and palmed both pills in one smooth motion. Then she hunted around some more until she felt the cylinder of Lifesavers and dug one free with her trusty thumbnail. She popped the Lifesaver and the pills into her mouth, smiling at her stealth. She offered a Lifesaver to Bob, who refused, and to Andy, who asked if he could keep the whole roll. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t let him, but they were not in the ordinary anymore.
An hour later, they had moved twenty feet. Suddenly, Andy shrieked, “He’s sweating, Mommy! Lookit! Bandit is sweating!” She pealed herself off her seat, twisted around, and saw the miserable tabby, his mouth open, pink tongue out in a silent pant, his fur dark and wet. “My God!” She yelled, and pushed the seat belt release.
“Don’t!” Bob hissed. “We could start moving any second.”
She ignored him. “It’s all right, Andy. He’ll be all right.” She brushed her son’s sweaty bangs off of his forehead. “Hey, look at it this way—we learned something new today: cats sweat!”
“It’s not funny, Mommy,” Andy said, running his hand down the cat’s back.
“Turn around, Goddamnit!” Bob shrieked. “Turn around and buckle up!”
“You folks on the road, if you’re listening to us in your car, just hang tight,” the mayor said through their radio. His voice was soothing. “We know about the gas situation, we know some of you may be sitting still right now, but we’re working on it. We’re working on opening the contra flow lanes. We’re making arrangements to get gas tankers out there. The important thing is to keep going. When this storm hits, and it’s gonna hit us hard, you’ll be much better off if you’re out of town.”
Cheryl’s back ached. Her legs were asleep. Her face was slick with sweat and her tongue was thick and fuzzy. Every once in a while they would drive a few feet, then stop again. Bob was inscrutable behind his mirrored Ray Bans. Andy hadn’t spoken in a long time. Cheryl stared out the window without blinking, seeing nothing.
Years and years had passed since they had water, and the sun sizzled the humans in their cars like tinned meat. Abandoned cars lined the shoulder of the highway. Guys with shirts tied on their heads did knee bends next to their cars, their bodies glistening with sweat they couldn’t afford to lose. Little boys peed onto the hot asphalt, laughing as it sizzled. Dogs were walked in the shoulder of the road, as if this were the norm, lightly tramping on the detritus of bygone, carefree times: Burger King wrappers, empty Marlboro packs, Starbucks cups, crushed water bottles, lighters, cellophane, cigarette butts. Cheryl had taken the dead cat away from a sleeping Andy, and placed it gently in a clump of weeds growing out of the concrete on the side of the road. They were three miles from their house.
Cheryl dozed hot and twitchy, coming to now and then. The Xanax and the heat and humidity expanded her brain until it reached the limits of her skull. Through her torpor, she heard “contra flow” and “hunker down” and “shelter in place” and “category four” and “tankers” and “the long haul” and “dry ruin.” Had Bob just told her she had “old fashioned breasts”? I should have been a rocket scientist. She types it into her profile on marriedbutlooking.com “I should have been a rocket scientist, but my breasts are too old fashioned.” Once, she opened her eyes and saw Bob chewing his lips—the only sure signal of his fraying nerves. She closed her eyes again but felt him watching her, so she opened them and turned her face toward him. “What?” she asked, the effort of speaking almost knocking her out again.