The water was everywhere: it scudded through the streets, it filled basements and lobbies, it lifted cars off the pavement and carried them to the sea. It sliced brownish-gray past their knees, their navels, or their shoulders, depending on how much ground they had covered that day.
Warm and gritty, saturated with bits of concrete and brick dust, the water was not fit to drink. It lived in their clothes, their hair, their perpetually wrinkled skin.
Tumbling in the water’s current was every piece of refuse known to modern man, the everyday objects that populated the abandoned city: lens-less sunglasses, plastic water bottles, broken coffee mugs, Ziploc sandwich bags, cell phones, smartphones, wristwatches, dirty gym socks, television remotes, crushed paper cups, ketchup-stained napkins, flattened cigarette butts, empty cans of cat food, wads of soaked newspapers, bent credit cards, wrinkled candy wrappers, scratched flatware, waterlogged paperbacks, used coffee filters, giant gem paperclips, caps of ballpoint pens, nubs of chewed pencils, and more.
When they retreated to dry ground for the night, usually in an abandoned office building or a multi-level parking garage, the water squelched in their shoes.
The water stripped the labels from the cans of food they hauled on their backs, in canvas shoulder bags and school backpacks. Because of this each meal was an amusing game of chance. Tuna fish, crabmeat, kidney beans, diced pears in heavy syrup. They never knew what they were going to get for dinner, so they made bets and took wagers. It was one of the only sources of entertainment they had left, and it helped them forget the waterlogged world for a few minutes each night.
They were the ones who had stayed behind, the ones who were searching for lost family members, the ones who had been cut off from the world by the sudden rise of the water. And now they were trapped here together.
It was through this water that they trudged each day, forever marching westward in search of dry ground.
For safety, they waded through the water in a single column. There were fifteen or twenty of them in this group, the group The Catcher had been a part of for the past four months, and, with a few exceptions, they were mostly young men and women in their late teens and twenties. There were also a few children in the group, no more than four or five, and all of these were children or relations of one of the members, all of them but one, a blonde-haired girl of six named Christine whom they had rescued from an abandoned office building on the very same day The Catcher had joined the group.
The man at the front of the group was The Spotter. His job was to watch the water closely for any dangerous debris coming their way. Thick wooden doors, uprooted lampposts, cracked chunks of concrete skewered with rebar. Since the currents were swift and unpredictable, these were the kinds of things that could knock a person off his feet in an instant.
Those in the middle of the column hauled canned food in waterlogged backpacks and sagging shoulder bags. The group scavenged this food wherever they could find it: in bodegas and restaurants, in delis and pizza parlors, in fast food joints and abandoned food courts. Whenever The Spotter located one of these places, the group diverted their course for an hour or two to quickly search for supplies. More than six months after the flood had hit, there still seemed to be plenty of canned food scattered throughout the city.
Next in the column were The Strongmen. Before the flood they had been athletes, construction workers, stevedores, warehouse loaders. In addition to hauling food on their backs, they had one of the most important jobs in the group: they carried the children. Every morning, before the group started its daily march, each Strongman strapped a child to his chest with belts and twine and whatever else he could find. This way the children were safe and free of the water’s dangerous currents.
From what they could remember, the flood had begun in June. But for some reason, more than six months on, the weather had not yet turned cold. In fact, over the past few weeks, the water seemed to be getting warmer.
At the very end of the column, wading through the water more than two hundred feet behind everyone else, was The Catcher. Working not in rye but in waist-deep water, The Catcher was the group’s last line of defense. It was his job to try to save any member of the group who got swept away by the water’s current.
Before the flood The Catcher had been the starting goalie for the hockey team of a small upstate college. A young man of twenty-one, physically fit, trained to be a wall, to swallow things up and not let them pass, a lone man with nothing left to lose, no complicating emotions, no compromising entanglements, a mind acquainted with the psychology of loss, with the enormity of tiny mistakes, with how the entire world can flip on the spilt-second hesitation of the pectoralis major.
Four months ago, before The Catcher had joined the group, he’d been trailing them at a distance for a few days. With his two brothers lost in the flood and his cell phone dead he wasn’t sure where he was going or what he was doing or what was the point of continuing on, but the current was fast and the water was constantly rising, so he trudged on, day after day, never looking back.
Then, on a warm afternoon a few days later, while carefully climbing over a roadway median in his path, the water sucking and bubbling around the squared edges of the smooth concrete, he heard a woman scream from somewhere in front of him. Seconds later there was another scream, and then a man yelled something. By the time The Catcher’s back was braced against the concrete median a few moments later, he realized that every member of the group up ahead was waving their arms and trying to get his attention.
Then he saw it: a foot kicked up out of the water just a few feet in front of him. Seeing this he leaned into the current, dropped down to his knees, and made himself as wide as possible. Now his head dunked under the surface; water crashed past his ears, forked up his nose, sputtered down his throat. Moments later, the impact. Her heel was the first thing he felt, a glancing blow to the side of his chin; the force of this strike wrenched his head to the side and sent his bottom teeth raking across his upper lip, slicing it clean open. An instant after that, the rest of her arrived: a body slam that hit with the force of a car, the sharp thud of a balled fist punched into his thigh, the seaweed scraggle of her hair coiling around his face. From here he pushed off the concrete median at his back and surged up out of the water with his arms spread wide. By the time the crash and patter of the splashing water finally went silent a few moments later, he stood gasping in the flow of the current with the young woman cradled in his arms. Aside from the ache in his jaw, the cut on his lip, and a few minor bumps and bruises on the woman’s arms and legs, both of them were safe and unharmed.
This was how he first introduced himself to the group.
Later that same day, while sitting in the employee break room of an abandoned office building, the entire group huddled around a crackling fire fueled by smashed wooden chairs, the young man named Carson accepted the group’s nomination to become their Catcher. But he did so only under the circumstance that the rest of the group agree to a rule of his own, the rule that he now knew was the only reason he had survived so long in the flood.
“You can never look back, no matter what happens,” he said to them, his upper lip fat and aching from the accidental slice of his teeth, the orange glow of the fire flickering across the group’s damp faces. “When someone gets swept up in the current, you can never look back. Because there’s nothing you can do for them. If you try to help them, that’ll be you under the water before you know it. And there’s no way I can catch two people. I won’t even try. The same goes for me. I have one chance to make a catch. If I miss it, I’m not going to look back. I’m going to keep moving forward. Because that’s the only thing I can do. Now that might sound terrible and heartless, but that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with here. Every single one of you put yourselves in danger today by looking back and shouting like that. We might’ve gotten lucky with a good outcome this time, but I know from experience that that luck won’t last. So the only way I’m going to agree to be your Catcher is if every single one of you agrees to follow this rule, with no exceptions. I will never look back, and neither can any of you. It’s just too dangerous.”
After he said this he saw a few of the women glance at each other. Then, once a minute had passed without anyone responding to his words, one of the women spoke. He had not yet learned everyone’s name, but this woman had a thin nose, a mole above one of her curved eyebrows, and a tangle of wavy brown hair tied up into a pony tail. The young girl named Christine, whom earlier in the day the women had found alone in this very building, slept soundlessly at her side.
“So we’re actually considering this?” The brown-haired woman said, slowly scanning the faces of the group. Her voice was sharp and reedy, and she spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent. “We’re abandoning our humanity because of a little water? Because of what one asshole tells us to do?”
Nobody answered, but during the next day’s trudge it was clear that the women had come to some kind of unspoken agreement. While all the men followed The Catcher’s rule completely—they never turned around, never looked back, and used only hand signals and shouts to communicate with those behind them—the women routinely disobeyed. They turned their heads and peered back at The Catcher every few minutes, as if to check if he was still there. At one point the brown-haired woman even walked backward through the water while she stared at him in suspicion.
That was four months ago. Since then The Catcher has been working on a total shutout, four catches in four emergencies. The second of these catches was no one other than the brown-haired woman herself, whom he now knew as a twenty-four-year-old former law student from Brooklyn named Joanne. And though she neither thanked him nor spoke a single word to him in the three months since he had saved her life, his four catches quelled the dissension within the group over his Never Look Back rule. But he knew his luck wouldn’t last. It couldn’t, it never did, and in fact it was usually just the opposite: each shutout streak he’d ever posted in his career had always been nothing more than a lead up to some fresh, unforeseeable disaster, like those seven goals he gave up in that 12–0 blowout against Boston College in his fifth career start two years ago.
But perhaps even more worrying than any of this was the heavy stone of uncertainty he’d been carrying in his stomach for the past month. Because for the first time since he joined the group, he was unsure about his Never Look Back rule.
This uncertainty came about thanks to his unlikely friendship with Christine, the blonde-haired child the women had rescued the same night he had joined the group.
Not long after the dispute with Joanne had started, Christine took an interest in him. At first it was nothing more than harmless staring. During dinner each night he would see Christine watching him from within the protective circle the women formed around the children, her striking blue eyes peering out through the shifting armpit gaps of the adult women lifting their scavenged silverware to their mouths, those upside-down almond eyes never looking away, always studying, watching him eat alone.
This continued for a few weeks. Then, on a cool night some time later, while the rest of the group sighed and farted in their sleep on the top floor of a multi-level parking garage, The Catcher woke from a dream to find Christine sitting cross-legged before him, her small knees hovering inches from his face, her large blue eyes staring down at him in fascination. It was very dark and he could hear the white-noise hiss of the flowing water in the street below, but a full moon was out and faint silver light illuminated the night.
Knowing that Joanne would most likely try to force him out of the group if he was seen even talking to Christine, he waved her away and pointed to the other side of the garage where the women and children were sleeping.
“You need to go back to the girls and get to sleep or else they’re going to be worried about you,” he whispered to her. He closed his eyes to try to make her go away.
Instead of moving, she stayed right there.
“You look like my dad but not bald,” she said at full volume, her voice echoing strangely off the hard concrete floor of the parking garage. “And not old. Not that he’s that old. He’s only thirty-five. But you look like what I think he would look like if he was still young.”
“Okay,” he said very softly. He kept his eyes closed and tried to think about anything other than his two lost brothers, but it wasn’t working. From here he drew in a slow deep breath and feinted sleep, just in case someone from the group had woken up and was watching him in the moonlight.
“My dad’s in the military. He was in Iraq fighting the bad guys but I think he’s probably back now looking for us. When he gets here you guys should be friends. I think you’d be good friends since you look just like each other,” she said.
He opened his eyes for a quick moment and looked up at her. She was smiling. Seeing this he felt a thin sliver of warmth slowly spread through his chest. This was something he had not felt since his brothers had been lost, a feeling he thought had leaked out of him forever, and it scared him to feel it again. So he closed his eyes and tried to ignore it. Still, he couldn’t stop his mouth from curling into a small smile.
“Your dad sounds like a good guy. But you have to go back to sleep.”
Now he heard the squelch and scrabble of her wet shoes on the concrete.
“He is good. He’s the best. Do you promise to be friends with him when he finds us?”
He didn’t know what to say. He felt her staring at him. After a long while he sighed softly.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Now go to sleep.”
Another long minute passed without a sound between them, and then she answered.
Following this he opened his eyes and watched her walk away.
From then on, Christine came to talk to him every night. Eventually she learned to whisper, which made things easier. Because of this, The Catcher stopped worrying about Joanne’s wrath, and actually started to enjoy Christine’s visits.
For the first few nights, Christine did most of the talking. She told him how her dad used to build model ships inside glass bottles, how her mom used to bake the most delicious chocolate chip cookies anyone had ever tasted. Hearing these stories The Catcher considered asking her how she had ended up all alone in that abandoned office building where the group had found her, but he thought better of it.
Though he knew it was a mistake to engage with the girl, The Catcher couldn’t stop himself.
She’s not lost yet, he told himself each day as the group trudged through the rising water. And maybe if I know her better, I’ll be more motivated to make a great catch if I ever need to.
Not long after thinking this, he started telling her some stories of his own. Almost all his stories were about him and his two younger brothers who had been lost in the flood, Scott and Glen. In a hushed whisper he told her about their love for hockey, their dedication to the New York Rangers, their endless pick-up games with the neighborhood kids in the dog food factory parking lot near their old house back in Topine. Once hockey was exhausted he told her about Glen’s obsession with the punk band Rancid, and about Scott’s five-hundred-hour save file on Pokémon Pearl.
But as The Catcher’s fondness for the girl deepened, so did his uncertainty about his Never Look Back rule.
For the first time since joining the group, he understood Joanne’s hatred for him.
Weeks later, while trudging through the murky water on a warm morning in January, the pale blue sky saturated with the pink-gold glow of morning sunlight, The Catcher looked to the front of the column and saw The Spotter make an x over his head with his arms. This was the signal for an oncoming emergency. Apparently a large, dangerous object was caught in the current and moving fast toward the group’s position.
Seeing this The Catcher quickly looked around for a sturdy object against which to brace himself in case he needed to make a catch, but before he could find anything, a flash of color streaked through his periphery. Turning in that direction he saw a gap in the center of the column: two of The Strongmen were suddenly missing. Moments later one of them emerged from the water about fifty feet up ahead, the man’s body leaning heavily against a bent lamppost, his backpack split open and emptied of the cans of food he’d been carrying. It was Javier, the former warehouse loader. His child, Jose, was still safely strapped to his chest.
The relief The Catcher felt at this sight didn’t last long though, because before he had a chance to ask Javier what had happened, a heavy object slammed into him under the water and took out his legs. Now he was under the surface; water roared past his face while he tumbled helplessly in the current. Pavement scraped his shoulder, his knee, the back of each elbow. In the frenzy of the water he flailed his noodle-weak arms in every direction, clawing for something to grab hold of, but nothing was there. An agonizing half-minute of this passed before his upper body was suddenly free again, sprawled across the hood of a rusting taxi. From here he shuddered with deep, honking coughs and spit up little puddles of the rank gray water that had rushed down his throat while under the surface. Now he looked to his right and saw Tyrone, the second Strongman that had been swept away. Conscious but dazed, Tyrone leaned against the metal bars of an old construction scaffold and held his bloodied head in his hands. From what The Catcher could see, Tyrone’s injury was nothing more than a small laceration of the scalp, nothing too serious, but then he looked down and saw that the belts and twine draped across the man’s chest were all broken and snapped clean in half. Moments later, before anyone from the group could witness him breaking his own rule, The Catcher rolled off the car, splashed into the water, and began swimming downstream with the current at his back. He knew it was foolish, irrational, and dangerous to chase after Christine, but still he pushed on. If she had taught him one thing in their time together, it was that some things are simply too valuable to let go of without a fight.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor Magazine, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.