“C’mon, sweetie, it’s time.” Parker eyed the escorts at edge of their property, a National Guard duo outfitted in army fatigues; their faces not registering the persistent downpour that pasted their camouflage uniforms to their bulky frames. The presence of the National Guard on the site of his and Sam’s ravaged home accentuated the feeling of a war zone. The combat-ready pair was poised to evacuate Parker, Sam, and baby Bridget to a makeshift helipad, where a Black Hawk helicopter awaited. An airlift evacuation. Parker had never envisioned being airlifted out of anywhere, unless he was clinging to life after a climbing accident. But he was very much alive, as were his wife and baby; god-damned fortunate to be alive, as a matter of fact. They were simultaneously the luckiest and unluckiest people he knew.
A Mexican monsoon had hovered over Boulder, Colorado and the adjacent foothills for days, delivering more precipitation than they usually got in a year. The ground had become so saturated, the water cascading down the mountain carved fault lines beneath their home like the gaping epicenter of an earthquake. Parker had no one to blame, not even God. As an atheist, he was left with science. Water, saturated earth, and gravity had colluded to create a chasm in the foundation of their home that triggered a collapse, emitting a sound like an explosive device. He and Sam had been tucked in their canopy bed, Bridget in her adjacent crib when the house detonated; there were no early warning signs, just the rhythmic pitter-patter of rain on their roof, lulling them to sleep and then: kaboom! He had catapulted out of bed to Bridget’s crib and shouted, “Get the fuck out of the house!” The pajama-clad family narrowly escaped. An exploding house ranked as Parker’s most terrifying life experience, including a near burial in an avalanche and a climbing “tumble.” He wished he had had a god to shake his fist at, but raging against science felt foolish. For the first time, he understood the usefulness of a god, both as a source of hope and as a target of rage. But if he thought about it too much, he’d think his way back to atheism. Why would anyone believe an omnipotent force that caused undue pain could also produce miracles?
Sam was perched on their white staircase, the only part of the house not coated by a dense blanket of sludge, clasping baby Bridget in her arms. The white steps emerged from the mire, an artist’s rendering of a stairway to heaven in Pompeii.
“Bridget and I would like to stay.” Sam glanced from her baby to Parker.
“Stay and do what exactly?” He scanned the wreckage, trying to imagine what she was possibly thinking. Any path forward would require excavation, months of recovery and at least a year of rebuilding.
“We’ll fix it. Patch it back up. Put it back together again.”
He thought, it’s not Humpty-Dumpty, but he bit his tongue. More than anything, Parker wanted to bring light back to Sam’s face, but what she hoped for was impossible. He couldn’t give her the answer she wanted most, so he said nothing.
“It’s our home. We spent our entire lives saving for this.”
“It was our home until…” He couldn’t let himself be overcome by the devastation nor could he entertain irrational alternatives. He had to think for them both and quickly. “Listen; the National Guard is our best and safest options.” He had heard of people leaving on foot, even two guys on unicycles, navigating the deep fissures in the road, who had made a short film of their evacuation set to “Raindrops Keeping Falling on My Head.” Whimsy in tragedy. He imagined that might have been him—before a wife, a baby, and a home.
“I can’t just abandon it.”
“I know you can’t, but we have to. We need to do it for Bridget.”
“Leave our home with her sparkly princess room? Leave the mountains, stream, starry nights, and pine forest?”
When Parker reached out for Bridget, Sam held her tighter.
“We can pitch a tent on our neighbor’s property, like the McAlisters. It’ll be cozy, our little families all cuddled up together,” said Sam.
“It will be winter soon, and the roads are impassible. Let’s get settled in town, and, when we’re ready, map out plan—okay?”
“If you make me go, I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
“You and me.”
Parker flinched and his eyes pled with the stranger on the steps to unearth Sam. He reassured himself that it was just her grief talking.
“Excuse me, folks,” an unfamiliar voice broke through the rhythm of their stymied exchange, “if you’re going to leave, we need to go now. I know this is hard, but we can’t risk lives with delays,” said the towering National Guard member with a southern twang.
As if it took a man in uniform to jolt her out of her reverse Humpty-Dumpty world, Sam offered Bridget to Parker and steadied herself on the staircase to nowhere. The National Guard member extended his hand and Sam took it, descending toward the mud-covered bamboo floor they had painstakingly laid themselves so Sam and Bridget would have a mommy-daughter dance floor.
Damn, how did he do that? Parker had never seen his wife like this, and he sure as hell didn’t how to reach her in the grips of Disaster Brain. He only knew the woman with rock-solid judgment who had climbed Denali twice, once surviving a howling two-week blizzard in a snow cave. She yearly summited El Capitan, a big wall in Yosemite, hauling bags of provisions and sleeping in bivy sacks perched on precipices. Sam heli-skied expert terrain with professional ski racers, out-pacing avalanches. Her smarts, good instincts, and physical mastery had kept her alive while others had perished. She had never been irrational in assessing potential risks, until now.
Parker had cycled, run, hiked, skied, and driven down the mountain from their home, but evacuating in a Black Hawk helicopter was an exit strategy in an alternate universe. The evacuators rushed as the shell-shocked three-some ambled toward the forest clearing/make-shift helipad, the whirling helicopter rotors blowing back the grasses in the perimeter. Parker and Sam were so used to the torrent, they didn’t bother to shield themselves, but Bridget registered her complaint by shrieking. Instead of resenting her, Parker was grateful that she had brought him back to the wet, cold reality of the moment. Parker slipped her under his flannel shirt, her pudgy face peeping out, papoose-style.
Normally a lift in a Blackhawk would have been an adventure of a lifetime to recount dozens of times with an overreliance on the word “epic,” but Parker saw it as an epic fail, his inability to protect his family from disaster by setting up such a precarious existence in the first place. He was no longer a mountain man with well-honed survival skills, but an evacuee.
As the chopper escorted them to safety, Parker’s eyes traced their devastated mountain town; the surging river, the decimated canyon road, and collapsed structures and bridges. As they soared over the foothills, the destruction diminished and was supplanted by trees, forests, ridges, valleys, and open fields. None of the heartache was visible from the air. It struck him that without civilization clinging to the narrow canyons, the devastation would have gone unnoticed. Nature was redrawing lines, carving new gulches, and redirecting waterways.
And they were in the way.
“I’m not a therapy person. I’m usually pretty together, but I’m seriously losing it.” Sam gnawed on her nonexistent nails. She couldn’t get comfortable, shifting, repositioning, and fidgeting. When she realized she was just prickly in her own skin, she sighed and slid down the couch.
“What do you mean?” The therapist in an over-sized easy chair leaned in, a notepad balanced on her knees, a pen at the ready.
“You know, like falling to pieces, crying, raging at the world. Basically having random public meltdowns. And outbursts on social media.”
“Say more about that.”
Reflecting on her public meltdowns, Sam was awash with shame. When her face flushed, she wished for an escape hatch. She’d like to press a button, and whoosh! down she’d go into a chute with a permanent hideaway. She didn’t recognize herself and couldn’t get her bearings no matter what she tried. She believed if she could recover the lost relics of her life, if she could just hold her life in her hands, she’d feel like herself again.
“Parker’s upset because we got airlifted out, and I’m planning to hike back to our home.”
The therapist grimaced. “Sounds risky.”
“I know, but everything is up on the mountain—my guitar and drums, our photos and keepsakes, my butterflies. Covered in mud.”
Sam had purchased her favorite piece of artwork—butterflies in glass—at a local gallery after her beloved grandmother had died of heart failure on a balmy summer day. When she heard the news, she swaddled Bridget in a baby wrap against her fissured heart, and tromped to a meadow. She spread a fleece blanket amongst the columbines, Indian paintbrushes, and blue flax, choosing a spot that wouldn’t crush the wildflowers. Basking in the afternoon sun, she pressed her belly and breasts, filled with milk, against the earth, cradled her head in her arms, and sobbed until her tears ran dry. A whisper in the wind prompted her to glance up just as a swarm of lavender, midnight black, and burnt sienna Colorado hairstreak butterflies fluttered around their blanket. Bridget shrieked in delight. One of the ethereal creatures landed on Bridget’s forehead, lingered, and then darted off, the others taking the cue. Although she never shared her whimsy with anyone, Sam was fairly certain that it was her grandmother kissing Bridget as her spirit soared.
“But you’re here and safe,” said the therapist.
“That’s just it. I’m still up there. This life, I don’t know.”
“Tell me about the part of you that’s up there.”
Sam scrunched her forehead and squeezed her eyes into blocking-out-the-world slits, pushing against a torrent of emotion. She swallowed hard to wash it down. “My hopes of raising my children in my mountain town are literally mud. Our sweet community has been wiped out. I can’t feel anything except for heaviness, and when I look at Parker, I just feel pain. His face used to be a resting place for me.” Sam yanked her hoodie—designed for shielding her from driving rain, ice pellets, and snow—over her face to muffle her deep, guttural sobbing.
She lost track of time; she could have been crying for a minute or for hours. She managed to produce exactly one sentence during the torrent. “What would you do if your home had collapsed and taken you with it?”
“I don’t know what I’d do. Let’s figure out what you’ll do.”
“You absolutely cannot go back there. The ground, the house, it’s all unstable,” Parker said leaning against the Formica kitchen counter under the florescent lights in their temporary apartment rental.
Sam poured half a bag of chocolate chips into a jumbo jar of peanut butter, stuck a large spoon into the gooey goodness, extracted a spoonful and devoured it.
“We were just evacuated by the National Guard.” Parker had to save Sam from herself. He saw that her willfulness, her determination that had served her well during her wilderness adventures was now working against her.
“I have my team lined up,” she said, her mouth full of home-made Reese’s, the only food she claimed was palatable to her in the flood aftermath.
“You can’t risk our friends’ lives just for some stuff.”
“It’s not just stuff; it’s our life.”
“We can’t wish it back, as much as we’d like to.”
“Oh my god. You too?”
“Wanting me to move on so you don’t have to deal with it anymore.”
“What if something happens to you? What about Bridget?”
“I’ll make sure nothing happens.”
“Tell that to the roads, bridges, and houses that collapsed. Are you suddenly immune to risk after our house exploded?”
“Please, just understand it’s something I have to do.”
“Sam, trust me on this.”
“I came down the mountain because you gave me no choice. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be up there.”
“Right. Sharing sleeping bags with the neighbors.”
She slammed the jar on the counter. The spoon flew out and clanked on the floor leaving peanut butter skid marks. They watched it land, but neither picked it up. “What do you want me to do? Give up?”
“Bring back the old Sam.” He had been thinking it, but he knew he shouldn’t have said it the split second after he did.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for her. Maybe she’s unrecoverable.” Sam snatched the giant jar. “Like our home.” She dashed out of the kitchen, locking herself in Bridget’s room.
When Parker’s insistent gentle knocking couldn’t sway her to let him in, he slid a clean spoon under the door. “You’ll need this,” he said to the door.
Parker held vigil outside Bridget’s room in the dark hallway, hoping that Sam would reappear, so he could hold her; tell her he was sorry for saying he wanted the old Sam. He sat vigil through Mary Had a Little Lamb, Little Lamb, Little Lamb played by the musical mobile, through Sam singing off-tune lullabies to Bridget, and then while she snored in slumber. But he fell asleep on the floor before she emerged. When he awoke, she was gone. She had left him an instructions note for Bridget, even though he knew them by heart.
Sam’s recovery crew was fifty percent smaller than her original recruits. Some friends cited flood aftermath duties; others came clean. They weren’t game for zip-lining over a surging stream.
Her team embarked at daybreak and ascended three thousand feet through drenched underbrush, weaving through scorched spindles of trees that had burst into flame three years earlier. The irony. She and Parker knew they were risking wildfire when they had bought their place; the last thing on their minds was a flood that would blast their home into smithereens.
New growth was scant since the Four-Mile Fire, just dappled ground cover poking through bare patches of earth. It would be a decade before fledgling evergreens were waist high. The trek was muddy and damp; their pants and boots were drenched, but like good soldiers, they marched on. Each hauled the biggest backpack they could find, empty, ready for the recovery mission, with a shovel strapped to their packs. Sam led the expedition, driving her hiking poles into the saturated dirt. Nothing seemed overly dangerous about the route they had taken, as long as they steered clear of the deep gulches carved by rivulets gushing down the mountainside. They would soon discover ziplining was unnecessary, as the stream had receded, and they could cross with no incident, other than waterlogged feet.
“We’re almost there.” Sam broadcast without glancing back.
“Dude, you’re such a badass for coming back to a place you were evacuated from.”
“Well, if I don’t do it, my life will just become worm food.”
“What do you want us to get?”
“Whatever looks salvageable.”
“Is it safe to go in? I mean, how do we know the house isn’t shifting and collapsing as we speak?”
The group was comprised of rock climbers, Slater, Buck, and Logan, guys who lived for adrenaline rushes and were accustomed to high-risk activities. This was her tribe, or at least they used to be. In a flash, her tribe had gone from adrenaline junkies to evacuees.
“It’s such a bummer there’s no access to climbs because all the trails are closed,” said Slater. “Apparently if you sneak in, you can get ticketed a thousand bucks.”
“I heard they may not open until spring,” said Buck.
“We’ll be stuck inside with pussies and yuppies,” said Logan.
“Do you hear yourselves? People have lost everything and you can’t climb for a few months. Tragic,” said Sam.
“Chill,” said Slater.
“Do you even get it?” Her pace quickened, and she fumed at their petty concerns, which would’ve been hers had her house not imploded.
“Sorry, man,” said Slater.
As they approached the property, their vantage point revealed Sam’s severed home. A creek cut through the middle and shrubs stood where walls used to be. The upstairs had caved in, but the stairs to nowhere were spared. The ceiling had collapsed in on a leaning wall still upright with an intact window, sheer curtains and artwork, exposed insulation, crumbling drywall. This scene socked Sam in the gut. All her special touches defiled. Nature: the sacred earthliness she had so wanted her daughter to be a part of. But nature had betrayed her, crashed the home she had worked so hard to create, uninvited. For the moment, Nature was the enemy invader, the spoiler; it had stripped her of everything. Almost.
“Holy shit!” said Slater. “You weren’t kidding. This is like a war zone.”
“Just grab everything you can find.” Sam charged into the sludge like a rescue worker racing against time to recover victims, only, in this case, the victims were artifacts from her former life.
She traversed the wreckage to the butterflies, feeling emotionally precarious, on the verge of another breakdown, if she found that they, too, had been snatched from her. But she couldn’t show that side of herself to her climbing buddies. They would never again view her as an intrepid climbing lead if they witnessed her emotional fragility.
She told herself if the butterflies had survived, at least she would have salvaged one piece of her life. She traipsed over mini-gulches and severed flooring to the study. Lo and behold, the butterflies behind glass were displayed on the wall, still intact. Her pulse quickened as her gaze flitted from one tropical insect to the next—turquoise, azure, indigo, crimson, and canary—wings frozen in flight. This was her favorite piece, even though she had to convince onlookers that a massive butterfly slaughter hadn’t occurred for art’s sake. The butterflies were collected by waiting until they plunged to the ground. If they were unable to take flight, death was imminent. The insects could then be harvested guilt-free and mounted, their celestial splendor taking flight, radiant behind glass.
Sam extracted the butterflies, cradled them, and swathed them in her fleece jacket, positioning the artwork against the frame of the backpack. One piece of her life would carry forward into the next. Whatever that might be.
After the crew had crammed their packs with salvageable stuff, they couldn’t find Sam.
“Hope she’s okay,” said Logan.
They found her in a corner of the kitchen, covered in mud, hunched over, digging. Slater put his hand on her shoulder. “Girl, what are you doing?”
“I need to keep digging for a while.”
“What are you hoping to find?” asked Buck.
Sam stood up, heaved a sigh, and braced against tears. She scrunched her face and broke down over her shovel wedged in the dirt. It served as a kickstand, stabilizing her unsteady body.
Her search and rescue team members huddled around her, scuffing their boots in the mud. Slater broke the silence. “Dude, let’s recover what we can and split.”
“You’re free to go.” Sam thrust her shovel in the sludge and extracted nothing but mud, pebbles, twigs, and earthworms.
The guys exchanged glances of helplessness. “We’re not leaving you here by yourself,” said Buck.
They excavated for an hour and recovered a pot, a pan, a potato masher, and a measuring cup.
Buck piped up, “Sammy, it hardly seems worth it to dig for hours to recover kitchen stuff you can get at Target.”
Sam’s mouth trembled. “I’m trying to find my grandmother’s baby spoon she gave to Bridget before she died. It’s been in the family since my great-great granddad came from Wales.”
“Look at it this way: it’s a ceremonial offering to the earth,” said Buck.
“I won’t let the earth rob me of what’s sacred,” said Sam.
Sam trudged off-trail, bushwhacking through brambles, brush and branches, snapping underbrush and crunching fallen leaves. The sun’s rays lasered her flesh. She admonished the sky, “You’d never know by your innocent baby-blue hue that you ransacked this place!” She trekked solo; her friends, who had rallied around her at the height of the disaster, were resuming their lives and urging her to move on more quickly than she ever could. It was better that she was alone. “My life can’t be fixed by a Target shopping spree,” she said to no one.
Sam blasted through a chasm in her house; the front door had become pointless. She trudged through the thick blanket of sludge into her living room, passing boulders, fallen trees, branches, the couch, easy chair, and coffee table mud lumps, ruins from her former life. She felt a kinship with the ancient Romans and Greeks whose ruins told stories about lives of old, the only difference being her life had become ruinous in an hour, not over thousands of years.
She peered at the sage and snowy linen curtains in her living room, the ones she had hung with pride of home ownership on move-in day after she and Parker had toasted with a shot of tequila. The curtains fluttered with cheery optimism, not aware that they were no longer window dressings to a cozy homestead, not aware that they would soon be saturated and frozen stiff, and when they thawed in spring, they’d be home to cocooning moths, web-spinning spiders, and host to millions of spores of mold. Something about nature defiling her curtains unloosed a piece of grief that had burrowed into her heart. It ricocheted up through her chest, tunneled into her throat and burst forth in a wail. She doubled over to prevent lightheadedness from taking her down into the hungry mud. If she wasn’t careful, she, too, would be submerged. Her weeping tapered as a gust of wind whipped through the chasm and whirled her hair. Just as quickly as it arose, the wind fell calm. In the stillness, Sam caught a glimpse: it wasn’t just her home in ruins. Her life, forcefully redrawn by an act of god, didn’t have to be. She just wasn’t sure how to gain her bearings, redefine her life, and begin again.
Sam’s peripheral vision registered movement. She snapped her head in the direction of the shape-shifting, spotting nothing but evergreens swaying through the great chasm. Perfect, now I’m seeing things.
She had promised Parker this was her final archaeological dig. She hoped she could keep her promise. She’d trace her steps one last time—from the living room, through the entryway, and to the kitchen where she had reached her culinary peak alchemizing meals, one part art, another part science. As she entered, her hands flew up to her mouth in a finger lattice to intercept a startled shriek upon seeing a huddled mass of shiny brown fur, claws and teeth ripping, shredding, and munching packages of crackers, cookies, and chips. A massive black bear hunched over and feasted on pantry goodies. Her family’s goodies. He released a throaty grunt, peering up from his hibernation preparation project, his eyes registering an intruder, his bulk rising up. Her first instinct was to admonish him, “Get out of my kitchen, bear!” but her survival instinct overrode her territoriality. She bolted, nearly skidding on the mud, and cowered at the outer edge of her house where her garden once flourished. Her pounding heart overtook her breath. There could be more than one, she thought. The earlier fleeting shadow-presence could be his compatriot.
Later, she would reflect on this scene and acknowledge that she had experienced direct Darwinism. Survival was first-come-first-served and involved squatting rights. Staying alive meant backing away from the bear and leaving the place she called home to its new inhabitants, who didn’t have the burden of a mortgage, she’d add with irony.
At the time, she felt it was just one more way she was no longer welcome in her own home.
Weeks later, Parker was on baby duty while Sam escaped for a little mommy time. He didn’t have breasts for feeding Bridget, but he had the next best thing: breast milk pumped into bottles of oxytocin goodness. She’d never know the difference, except that she did and would cry out for her mama. Dads were clearly a poor substitute.
Sam didn’t say how long she’d be gone. Parker assumed she’d be right back. When he noticed the dimming light outside, he dialed her half a dozen times, but his calls went straight to voice mail. Had she taken an impromptu road trip? When dinner time rolled around he frantically texted her friends, who replied, “Is everything okay?” “Haven’t heard from her.” “Sorry. Do you want me to go look for her? Do you think something bad happened?”
Parker catastrophized even though he wasn’t a black-and-white thinker. He reassured himself that catastrophic thinking was epidemic in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The thing that everyone claimed wouldn’t happen actually did happen. She may have gone back up the mountain even though she promised her grief-stricken pilgrimages were behind her. Something had collapsed, and she was trapped in the rubble. Then a dreadful thought drifted in: had she left him and Bridget for a new life, somewhere without a disaster doubling as a home? He would wait until morning to alert the police to give her time to return.
Parker awoke from a fitful sleep at 4:03 am. In a daze, he ambled down the florescent-lit hallway to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and the dreaded call. Suckling and cooing noises emanated from the living room. A faint lullaby. There she sat, slouched and cross-legged on the beige carpet, nursing Bridget as if she had never left. Her hair was matted, her sweatshirt and yoga pants soiled and stained.
“What the hell happened to you?” asked Parker.
Panic gripped Parker’s limbs. “Done with what? Me?”
“That’s great, but I was just about to call the police.”
“I didn’t know I was going to stay up there.”
“But once you did, you should’ve let me know.”
“My cell phone died. But did you hear what I said?”
“Yes. If you’re done, what were you doing there all night?”
Parker’s face fell. She’s not really done. “What it would be like to have our house back?”
“No. What it was like before our house interrupted the flow of heaven and earth. I didn’t care that there wasn’t a roof overhead or a floor underfoot. I slept on the ground with the stars suspended above our living room. Who needs twinkle-lights when you have stars?”
“Perfect. What did the three bears think of your sleepover?”
Sam shook her head. “No bears. Just Goldilocks, the breeze, pine-scented air, a few stray bats, brilliant stars. And…You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“The house spoke to me.”
“Talking houses, the three bears, what’s next: a fairy godmother?”
“Would you please be serious for one minute? Here’s the thing: the house told me it would be okay without us—that we’re free to find another.”
“I’m glad we have the house’s permission. Now we just need our insurance company to get on board. Could you have the house call the insurance company?” Sam cracked a smile, almost laughed even. “A talking house is very serious business. I get that,” he said.
The fire in Sam’s eyes dimmed. “There is still one thing I can’t shake.”
“I never knew to be afraid of the rain.”
Her words resounded, reminded him that he was vulnerable. He hadn’t known either. The rain, a soothing rhythm overhead, a welcome visitor in the drought-ridden high country, had persisted long enough be deadly. When the rain came again, how much would be too much?
“Let’s teach her not to be afraid,” he said.
“If she’s like me, she won’t be afraid of anything…until life shows her she should be.”
Parker crouched down and held Sam from behind, his muscular legs flanking hers. She spoke the damned truth, and there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it. There was nothing he could do about the torrential rain, a cascading mountainside, a mudslide, a flash flood, a home detonating with his family inside. There was nothing he could do about the deluge that swept away the woman he adored and left in her place someone he scarcely knew. He rested his cheek on her shoulder and wept into her tangled, matted hair. For the first time since their home had collapsed.
Minutes later, Parker noticed through a film of tears that Sam’s attention was off in the distance. He felt stung by her aloofness when they were sharing a moment of intimacy, rare in the aftermath of the flood. Words of hurt danced on his tongue. Before he unleashed the words, he followed her gaze across the wall to a hanging object that disrupted the stark whiteness. The butterflies! Not a scratch or chip, no water damage. The piece was perfectly preserved. “You didn’t tell me…”
“I wanted to surprise you.” She squeezed his thigh. “At just the right time.”
Although he was a non-believer, there was something irrefutably mystical about this piece being spared. An invisible hand had reached out from the torrent and cradled the butterflies. There existed no sufficient scientific explanation for such an occurrence, only guarded musings about a compassionate force in the universe: a protective hand on which delicate butterflies alight.
He enveloped his little family so snugly, Bridget cried out with a half-whimper. Sam rested her head on Parker’s chest, unloosed her clenched body, and surrendered to his embrace.