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Post Road Magazine #32

Water, Water Everywhere

Matt Jones


Shari Stone owned about thirty acres of mountain laurel and dust in the northwest hills of Lago Vista. She was my boss, and I worked fifty hours a week as her personal assistant; occasionally, she paid me extra to make the long and winding drive from South Austin up to her place so I could clear brush or haul away furniture that she deemed not to fit the aesthetic of her redesign.

Recently, she offered me a burnished blue leather armchair that she'd purchased from West Elm. When I told her there was no way it was going to fit into my hatchback, she offered to hire some movers and a truck to take care of it. When I told her that my apartment wasn't big enough, she said I should consider moving further out of the city where I could get more square footage per dollar.

"Or," Leanne had said in a tone closer to acid than breath, "she could just give you a fucking raise so we don't have to move even further away from your actual office." We were on Red Bud Isle, a peninsula-shaped dog park that extended like a finger between the two banks of Lake Austin. Leanne's dog Runt nosed the heaving fish trapped in the ever-evaporating puddles of mud. "Or," she said, her voice rising to epiphanic levels, "she could stop thinking of inane reasons to call you over to her house whenever she wants."

Leanne and I shared a two bedroom, so technically, our apartment was big enough to fit the armchair, but I declined the offer because gifts from Shari tended to get Leanne worked up, which, in turn, made me uneasy because I felt this constant tension between my girlfriend and my boss. And there was the fact that I thought it might actually do us some good to move further from downtown, to get a bigger place. I liked the blue armchair. I said, "Think about it this way. If we moved, we could have a yard. Then we wouldn't always have to drive to the dog park."

Leanne rolled her eyes and I watched Runt try and tunnel into the cracked mud where the water had receded. "I better not find out that you've been looking at places behind my back with some realtor. And," she added, incensed, "you like the dog park."

It was so hot out that the buttons on my shirt burned small pink circles in a vertical line up my stomach and chest. I saw that Runt had something in his mouth and was squeezing his way through a thicket of Sugarberry so he could gnaw in private at whatever it was. I said, "I don't love this one. Why can't we go to Zilker?"

Leanne clapped for Runt and said, "Because I don't want to have to keep him on a leash. He won't stop pulling."

Runt came trotting over with burrs hanging ornamental from his fur. His body smelled like fish and microbes and he stood up and pushed a set of muddy paws into Leanne's leg. "But this is the kind of shit that happens when he's not leashed. He makes a mess everywhere."

Leanne inhaled deeply and narrowed her eyes at me. "I swear to God right now. If this is about the couch," but all she could muster was holding a rigid finger in front of my face. There was so much frustration bound up in that one fingertip that I felt that, if she were to touch me with it, I might just go flying backward.

The couch, which was really a tan chesterfield sofa, was the first thing Shari had ever given me. She said it was "too lean" for her place. And at first, Leanne loved it, so much in fact that it became the centerpiece of our apartment. Dirty clothes were draped over the back of it. Drunk friends melted into it. Runt hid his rawhides in between the leather cushions. The very day I even suggested that we might try and keep it clean, Leanne said, "What do you care? It's not like we paid for it." And though my response had only sent us spiraling into the same argument over and over before, I found myself repeating my same words at the dog park.

"I know that we didn't pay for it, but it was a gift, okay? I don't think I'm asking a lot when I say we need to take better care of it."

Leanne knelt and rubbed Runt between the ears. I thought I saw a circus of bugs springing forth from his coat. "You know what," she said. "It's not even the gifts that bother me. If she wants to force bathmats and drapes on us, then fine. What really bothers me is how fucking flattered you are by them. But know this, Jacob," and she stood up to meet my gaze. "Shari is as old as your mother, okay? Just think about that."

Leanne had theories about why Shari gave us things, theories that didn't exist before the extended workdays and calls after eight and Saturday hours. We had a pottery barn lamp that looked like a golden rabbit in our entryway and Leanne acted as if every time I turned it on or off, there was some metaphysical alarm that got tripped halfway across town in Shari's mini-mansion.

I let out a long sigh and said, "She's just trying to help us out."

"Can you stop saying that?" Leanne snapped, slipping Runt's leash onto his collar.

"Stop saying what?" I asked.

"Us," Leanne moaned. "You act as if she's giving this stuff to us, when really it's all for you. She's doing it to get under my skin."

"That's insane," I said.

Leanne's eyes bulged. "Oh no. You don't get to call me crazy. She's trying to smoke me out. Hell, she's got the money. She'll just keep redesigning her house and calling you over on the weekends and trying to push fucking rugs and stainless steel cookware on you until our apartment is so full that I'm out on the street. Well, let me tell you something: that is not going to happen. You'll quit your job before that happens."

"I'm not going to quit my job," I told her. After graduation, it had taken me the better part of a year to find something that wasn't part time. The market had been terrible and though Shari had her quirks, she was successful. The law firm was her own. The house in Lago Vista was her own. She kept horses on a ranch just outside of Dripping Springs. I had a mildly impressive degree in Business, a heap of student debt, and Shari said, "You've also got a lot of potential. I can tell. I'm never wrong."

We climbed into Leanne's car, mostly because I refused to take mine to the dog park anymore, and Runt leapt into the back and curled into a wet half-moon in a patch of sunlight. The ignition faltered and then caught. We cranked the windows down because air conditioning meant more gas and we were both soaked through with sweat already anyway. Even still, the air that slapped us in the face felt feverish. The whole interior smelled like Runt and I said, "So you'll wash him before we go inside?"

"I need to do it in the bathtub."

"What? Why?"

She turned onto the Congress Bridge and I looked out at Lake Austin, so low in some spots that I could see straight through to the bottom. "Because, Jacob," she explained. "Last time I used the hose, one of our narc neighbors reported me for water waste and we got fined $50."

I leaned my head out of the window and sucked down a mouthful of heat. One of the ways to effectively end a conversation between us was to bring up money. Much like the fish stranded in small, standing puddles of water, scales being dehydrated one by one, Leanne and I were in a rough patch. We fought over bills sometimes. She wanted to go on vacation, to recharge, but we were always low on money. Plus, Leanne had another theory that said Shari would never give me the time off anyway.

There was a part of me that wanted to immediately get home and hop in the shower and rinse all of the grime of the day off my body, but there was also an equally insistent part that knew I'd need to let Runt get bathed first. Because if it didn't happen right away, then it wouldn't happen at all.

*

Come early August, it hadn't rained for 71 days, which wasn't all that uncommon for the Hill Country. What was interesting about the last two months was that every day had achieved a temperature of over one hundred degrees. There was a burn ban from Houston to Midland. APD officers were stationed every couple of miles throughout the green belt to make sure people weren't smoking on the biking trails and there were signs posted all around town urging residents to call and snitch on any neighbors that employed the use of automatic sprinkler systems. But Shari didn't have neighbors.

Her house was clouded by acacia tree and live oak and when I was finished hosing down the mountain laurels, I was then supposed to go and wet the front yard to keep the dust from rising up and coating the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up most of the house.

Despite the heat, it was a beautiful piece of land. I could easily see owning something similar in the future once I saved up enough. While Shari didn't pay me a king's ransom, there were perks. Lunches at the steakhouse on the corner of 5th and Congress. Cocktails with investors. Shari even ran an incubator alongside the firm. Once a year, she'd hear pitches for business ideas from young entrepreneurs and one lucky person would walk away with the Stone Prize for Innovation and Excellence, which, while also not directly consisting of money, did offer a year's worth of free legal services, office space, and branding advice.

After I was finished with the yard, it was half past ten and I walked inside to find Shari considering two different but oddly similar paintings on her couch. She didn't turn around and said, "Quick, which one?"

Because she valued decisiveness, I said, "The one on the left."

She nodded slowly as if having some sort of internal debate and said, "Excellent. You can have the other. I don't want to clutter the walls."

Then she turned around and smiled. She was tall and lean with fine lines etched around her eyes. "Are you all finished?" she asked.

I nodded and said, "That should be everything," instead simply choosing to not acknowledge her suggestion about the painting.

She pursed her lips and said, "I almost forgot. The shower is finally finished. I never thought it would get done, but it really is."

She was referring to an outdoor shower tucked into a corner of the deck that wrapped around the house. Shari was a neat freak and I sometimes suspected that she'd had it installed only so I wouldn't track dirt inside.

"That's great," I told her. "How's it look?"

She tipped her head to one of the sliding glass doors and said, "Come see. You can tell me whether or not I got ripped off by that contractor." And while I didn't know anything about construction or architecture, it was nice to know that she sometimes consulted me on things. What to order. What to drink. How to file something. And sure, she often asked for the advice after the decision was already made, but it felt good nonetheless.

I followed her out onto the porch and gazed at a gleaming, steel showerhead mounted into one wall of the house. The shower stall itself was only walled in on two sides. Other than that, blue jays, armadillos, and roaming deer alike were free to have a peek.

"So," she said, "what do you think?"

"It's excellent," I told her. "I wish I had one."

She tipped her head to the side as if having a tiny revelation. "Well you can be the first to break it in!"

I swallowed and looked at my watch. I told Leanne I wouldn't be home any later than noon. I said, "That's okay. I don't want to mess it up."

"Oh, please," Shari insisted. "I feel bad for sending you back home all sweaty and gross. I'm sure Leanne must detest me."

They had met before, Leanne and Shari. Once. In between receiving an end table and a Vita-mixer. Shari invited us both out to her place for dinner and we ate on the back part of the porch and drank wine that was colored pink and orange by the sunset that eclipsed the glasses. I thought we'd had a perfectly nice time, but as soon as we got into the car and backed out of the driveway, Leanne confessed, "Wow, That was painful."

I checked my rearview mirror as we drove away and was momentarily blinded by a searing purple in the sky. "I thought it was nice," I said. "What did you think about that...that...what was it? Braised scaloppini?"

Leanne snorted. "Look at you, the little gourmand." She held her arm out in front of the dashboard, swirled the contents of an invisible wine glass, and said, "I'm detecting hints of Sage. Lavender. Chocolate and," she sniffed like a rat above the unseen rim. "pretentious bullshit."

I turned the wheel and pulled out onto the main road and Leanne said, "No offense, but your boss is kind of a snob."

"For inviting us to dinner?" I asked.

Leanne rolled her eyes and said, "For trying to make me feel stupid for not knowing which fork to use for the first course. And Jesus, did you hear what she said about my dress? 'I've always loved how casual this city is,'" Leanne echoed in a high and whiny pitch.

"Austin is casual," I told her. "And she doesn't even talk like that."

"As if you even noticed," Leanne said. "She was practically fawning all over you."

"That's just Shari," I told her. "She wants to impress people. You should take it as a compliment."

Which, in a way, was how I thought about the situation when she insisted I try the outdoor shower: She was trying to be kind by not having to send me home covered in dirt to my girlfriend who was waiting for me to get back so we could talk about whether or not I'd asked her about the thing I was supposed to ask her about. And because I still hadn't asked her the thing I was supposed to ask her about, and because Leanne would kill me if I didn't ask, I said, "Sure, but I don't really have clothes or anything."

Shari held up a hand and said, "You don't worry about it. I've got everything you need." With that, she pulled the lever and a stream of thick water poured from the head. It splashed her arm and she said, "Perfect temperature. You just do what you do and I'll make sure to get you a towel."

After she was gone, I glanced around to make sure nobody was there. But of course, no neighbors. Had there been any, they surely would have rung up the secret H2O police and sent them my way.

I tossed my clothes over the railing that ran around the porch and stepped under the stream. The water was cold, but because of the heat in the air, it did feel just right. I wet my hair and watched rivulets of muck make their way down my chest and stomach and legs until they disappeared between the seams of the wood.

And it was only once I was starting to get clean that I realized Leanne might be more upset at the fact that I'd taken a shower at my boss's house. However, I also hoped that once I asked about the thing I was supposed to ask about and had been given a solid yes, it wouldn't really matter.

"How's it feel?" a voice called through the partial wall that separated the water from the window.

I called back, "It's great."

Shari said, "I just realized I forgot to give you soap."

"That's okay," I told her. "I'll just rinse."

"Don't be silly," she said, and I heard her voice growing louder in my ears until she appeared standing in front of me.

I immediately dropped a hand beneath my waist and she hiccupped laughter and said, "Oh I've seen it all before."

She set down three bottles in front of me and said, "Now the dark green one is shampoo and the light green is body wash. I'm not sure if you condition, but I'll leave this one here for you too." Then she faced out toward the open acreage and said, "Boy we could really use some rain. If it stays this dry, I just might have to get you to dig a moat around the house."

Then she turned sharply toward me. "That's just what I'm talking about," and she sighed and I was pretty sure that what she was talking about was the water pouring down from the showerhead, except in exponentially amplified quantities all across the county. She stuck a hand under the stream and sighed again. "Refreshing."

I saw that as perhaps my best moment to ask her the thing I was supposed to ask about. Leanne had another theory that every gift Shari gave us was a power move. Something she did so she could demonstrate that she had the upper hand. That she had the better life. That she was in charge. I said, "Umm, Shari."

She raised her eyebrows to show she was listening and I said, "Leanne and I were wanting to get out of town for a few days next week. Just to unwind. And I just wanted to see if it might be okay to be out of the office. Maybe take a long weekend."

Her eyebrows stayed frozen in place and she inhaled deeply. "Well, where does Leanne want to go? Because I can give hotel recommendations. I could even put the two of you up."

It was a nice offer, but I knew Leanne would hate it. "Oh, we couldn't," I told her. "That would be too much."

Shari narrowed her eyes and said, "Well, sure. You two deserve to take some time off. Hell, it seems that you probably don't get to spend any time together as is." Then she glanced into the stream of water and said, "You should probably turn that off now. Don't want to waste too much."

*

We left for New Braunfels on a Thursday morning where I had booked a small cottage on the Guadalupe. We had suffered brief visions of a getaway in Denver or DC, but planes tickets were expensive. Then there was a spontaneous spark of desire that led us to picturing a sultry, alcohol-soaked weekend on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but Texas had recently declared a state of emergency and closed the I-10 going east because of the fires that were burning up the highway around Sealy. And, of course, there was the matter of Runt, who couldn't simply be left at home. Who couldn't be boarded. So why not bring him?

New Braunfels was only about an hour from Austin, but being that we only ever spent time at our apartment or at work, it felt long enough to seem like we had escaped something. Before we had left, Leanne insisted that I didn't tell Shari we were going to New Braunfels. "If that woman knows we're only an hour away, then she'll never let us have any peace."

But at lunch on Wednesday, Shari weaseled it out of me. She said, "It's not like you to keep secrets. I thought we shared things."

Shari's first call came in around Buda and my phone buzzed in the cup holder while Leanne said, "Your mother's calling. Do you want me to get it?"

She called again around San Marcos and once more passing through Hunter, and despite the lingering voicemails, my phone stopped buzzing by the time we arrived.

The cottage itself was a quaint pale yellow with a tin roof and blue window sidings. Shari might have called it rustic, but Shari wasn't there. It was just me and Leanne and Runt and the dark green Guadalupe lined by bald cypress and water moccasins that nested within the leaves. Was it not for the burn ban sign nailed directly into the trunk of the live oak that overhung half the tin roof, you'd think we were in a different world altogether.

We had barely so much as set our bags inside the door before Leanne started peeling her clothes free from her body and digging around for her swimsuit. Runt disappeared down the hall and I said, "Don't let him pee in here. We'll lose the deposit."

Her bikini strings hanging loose down her back, Leanne huffed and called for Runt. When he came, she ushered him outside and asked, "Are there tubes here?"

I nodded. "The website said so. They should be in one of the closets. We'll just have to blow them up."

Leanne stalked off down the hall and a few moments later I heard her exhaling as hard as she could into the tiny plastic nozzles. Then she called, "Can you do it? I'm not having any luck."

It was around two in the afternoon and I took over tube duty while Leanne slathered herself in sunscreen. My cheeks felt like they were about to pop trying to force air through the dense, rubber walls of each tube and I could hear Runt barking outside. I felt Leanne grab at the bottom of my shirt and shimmy it up over my shoulders. She pressed slick palms into my back and rubbed the lotion in small circles. "Don't want you to burn," she said.

When I was finished, I changed into my suit and grabbed the tubes. Leanne fished a bottle of whiskey out of our luggage and we crunched our way over dead grass to the river's edge. The water looked low and slow and Runt was yammering away at a twist of cypress roots that dangled like dozens of pairs of legs inside the water.

Leanne uncapped the whiskey and held it up between us. "What do you say?" she asked. "To us?"

She tipped the bottle back and chugged longer than I could count and passed it to me. "To us," I said.

She hooted up into the sky, tossed her bikini top to the side, and charged for the water. Runt went splashing in after her, and for a moment, I wondered if this experience might make her reconsider moving further out from the city. On the other side of the river were only dense tangles of root and dried bark. The whole place felt like a garden all our own. I imagined Shari surveying the property and the cottage and saying, "It's quaint. I don't know how I feel about the singing fish above the fireplace, but it has potential."

Leanne floated on her back in a meager patch of shade and I slipped my suit down to my ankles, ready to join her when I heard Runt start yelping. I couldn't see him at first, but I saw a long, black sliver of muscle slithering over the water's surface. It passed right by Leanne and kept on going downstream, then Runt came paddling pathetically out of the cypress roots.

Leanne was still on her back, the water in her ears having kept her from noticing what was happening and I thought as to how nice that must be: to be completely unaware of reality.

I yanked up my trunks and dashed forward to where Runt was limping on the shore and I yelled, "Leanne!"

Startled, she dropped beneath the surface and soaked her hair before popping back up, the water at her belly button. "What?" she said, startled. "What is it?"

I picked up Runt in my arms, which, given that it was such a rare occurrence, was probably enough to tell Leanne something was wrong. When she got out of the water, she ran over and I said, "I think a snake bit him. I heard him whimpering and saw one swim right down the river."

Her eyes widened and she took Runt from my arms. He was whimpering and shaking and she said, "What the fuck? When?"

I said, "Just now. We should get him to a vet."

She seemed shocked, almost unsure of what I was saying, but then something registered on her face and she jolted straight to the car and yanked the passenger side door hard. "It's locked, Jacob. The car is locked."

I ran inside to get my keys and tossed them to her. Then I dashed back toward the banks and she screamed, "Jacob, what the fuck are you doing? Get in the car!"

The window was open and Runt must have been quivering on her lap because I couldn't see him. Instead, all I could see was Leanne's bare chest, a glassy bewilderment in her eyes. I grabbed her top from the grass and held it up in the air.

When I climbed behind the wheel, I tossed it on her lap and said, "You can't just go out into the world topless."

She fumbled to put it on and said, "Don't fucking lecture me right now. Just drive." I supposed that the turn of events, if anything, were more likely to reinforce Leanne's love of the city. Where she was close to bars and coffee shops and her friends. Where she could go out late and stay out later and stumble back home to the comfort of the tan chesterfield sofa. Sometimes, just before she passed out, she liked to rub the leather over and over in small circles and say, "So cool on my skin. So cool."

*

After a long night in the emergency clinic, I had another voicemail. I'd already managed to covertly listen to the first three when I had to shuttle between the vet and the cottage to get Leanne something to wear.

"Hi, Jake," Shari started. "I forgot to tell you that I had a bunch of road food—chips and jerky and what not—leftover from when my nephew came to visit. That little brat hardly touched it. My sister's got him doing this whole vegan thing. Anyway, doesn't Leanne like that kind of stuff? Let me know if she wants it. I'll have it in a box on the front porch."

Delete.

"Hey, me again. Don't forget that we have an early meeting on Monday morning. Breakfast at Annie's. Might be good to talk strategy/wardrobe beforehand. Let me know if you have a few free minutes while you're away."

Delete.

"I was trying to work the remote access to the office computer and I couldn't remember the number for the IT guy. Did we switch? Call me when you can. I hurt my back the other day trying to remove some of the tools you were using and I can't drive into the office."

Delete.

Delete.

I assumed the one I'd left unheard was only Shari telling me that she knew somebody who owned or cooked for a restaurant that overlooked the river. That she could get us reservations or comped meals. Shari had good taste. It was one of the things I liked about our business outings. She wasn't opposed to having a few glasses of good wine and extending a late lunch into early cocktails. I used to be worried about drinking in front of her. I didn't want to come off as unprofessional, but she said, "There's nothing unprofessional about taking a little pleasure in what you do. In the same way I wouldn't begrudge a kindergarten teacher for stepping into the bathroom for a joint during naptime, I wouldn't hold it against a lawyer for settling into a glass of pinot over lunch. Is that right?" she asked. "Kindergarten teacher?"

Caught off guard, I said, "Who?"

Shari said, "Leanne."

"No, preschool," I clarified.

Shari picked up the stem of her glass and stared intently at the liquid inside of it. "I'm sure she's exhausted working around all those kids. Just imagine if she did it full time. Have you two talked about that? Kids?" But before I could answer, Shari tipped her head back and laughed. "Who am I kidding? You're both two young to be thinking about that. You've got long lives and lots of twists and turns ahead of you," and to that, she raised her glass.

I supposed the snakebite was one of those twists and turns. When I got back to the vet, Leanne sat crumpled in a waiting room chair. She looked at me sleepy-eyed and said, "I'm starving."

I sat next to her and said, "How's he doing?"

She stretched her arms out and said, "Better. But weak. Can you run out and get us something?"

"Food?" I asked.

She nodded and said, "Maybe burgers if you can find a place."

I sighed. I didn't want to fight. We were both exhausted, but I worried about the extent of the vet bill. The anti-venom. The intravenous fluids. In the panic of the day before, I'd offered to call Shari and ask her to help us out, but Leanne ended up putting in a desperate call to her parents and maxing out one of her own credit cards. "I don't want her help, Jacob. He's not her dog," she shrieked, implying that Shari's assistance might then somehow cede her some majority share of Runt's ailing body, and an ever further stake in our relationship.

I thought longingly about the box of snack food that Shari had left on her porch for us. I said, "Burgers, huh?"

"Jacob," she pleaded, sounding on the verge of tears.

Then my phone buzzed in my pocket. I saw it was Shari calling and Leanne said, "Don't. Not now."

I swallowed and sent the call to voicemail and Leanne seemed to relax. Then there was another and another, and by the fourth one, I picked up. I saw Leanne's face flare right about the time Shari said, "Jacob! I've been trying to reach you. We're being evacuated over here and I need help getting my things into the car."

"What?" I said. "What do you mean you're being evacuated?"

That got Leanne's attention and she stood up and mouthed, What does she want?

I covered up the receiver and said, "Lago Vista is being evacuated. She needs help getting her stuff out of there."

Leanne furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes. As loudly as she could manage without drawing too much attention, she said, "Tell her to leave it. I'm sure she's got great insurance."

I heard Shari's frantic voice slipping through my fingers, so I pressed the phone back up to my mouth and said, "Maybe it would just be good to get out of there quickly. Don't worry about your stuff."

"Don't worry about my stuff?" she moaned. "That might be easy to say when all that's really yours is an Ikea desk and a hand-me-down mattress," and I couldn't tell if that was geared more toward me or Leanne or both of us.

"Tell her that we're on vacation," Leanne spat. "Hell, tell her that we're in god damned Peru."

I frowned at Leanne and said, "She knows where we are."

But I heard Shari shouting through the receiver so I put it back to my ear to catch the tail end of, "...so there's time to get here. Just get in your car and come straight to my place."

Leanne was opening and closing a fist in front of me, either indicating that she wanted the phone, wanted to hit me, or wanted to hit Shari through the phone.

I covered up the receiver again and said, "Listen, what if I just head up there for the day, help her out, and come back down by tonight? We've got the cottage for a couple more days and you should stay with Runt anyway."

"Give. Me. The. Phone," Leanne said. "I'm going to tell her that you're quitting. This is too much, Jacob. It's insane."

I pulled the phone away from her reach and heard Shari crackling through the speaker. "Give it here," Leanne said, looking so tense that I could see a small vein bubbling through the skin around her temple. "I mean it, Jacob. You can't work for this woman anymore."

"No," I snapped back. "I'm not doing that."

Leanne set a hand on her hip and said, "You're a personal assistant, Jacob. It's not like you're giving up the presidency."

And without fully knowing where it came from or whether or not I truly felt that way, I said, "And you're a fucking preschool teacher. You change diapers for a living."

"I'm sure she'll be having you do just that once she's aged another ten years," Leanne spat.

We stared at each other, huffing, and I put the phone to my mouth and said, "I'll be there soon. It shouldn't be more than an hour if the traffic isn't bad."

Shari said, "Thank you! Thank you! I promise I'll make it up to you!"

I hung up the phone and Leanne sank into her seat. "You told her that you'd be there in less than an hour if the traffic wasn't bad," and Leanne laughed. "Well guess what, Jacob? The traffic is going to be fucking bad. The road is going to be fucking closed. You think they're going to let you just drive into a place that's being evacuated? You think you can just pull up to a roadblock, flash your personal assistant's badge, and be let in? Or maybe, just maybe you'll beat the shit out of the firemen, hijack their truck, and stave off the blaze all by yourself."

I started to say something, but Leanne, clearly fueled by the fact that everything she had suspected seemed to be coming true, said, "Now that would be truly worthy of a raise!"

"Leanne," I pleaded. "I'm coming back. I promise."

But she only shook her head and said, "Oh no. If you leave now, you better do all you can to keep that house from burning, because you're going to need a place to stay."

*

The interstate went to shit just outside of Buda. I saw red and blue lights flashing up ahead. A huddle of uniformed officers herding people off at the nearest exit. My phone kept buzzing in my cup holder and, looking down at it, I expected Leanne to have called at least once. But yet again, it was Shari.

"Hey," I said, before she should get a word in, "I'm on my way but they've got roadblocks up everywhere."

Shari said, "You didn't take 35, did you?"

I sighed. "Yes, but I'm getting off now."

I could hear her oozing disappointment through the receiver and I couldn't help but think about how much that would have satisfied Leanne.

Edging my way over to the right lane as Shari instructed me about how to take the back roads west into Driftwood and up through Cypress Hill and into her neighborhood, I began to wonder just how much stock I should be putting into her advice at all. I thought about simply turning around telling Leanne that I'd had a change of heart, but part of me knew she'd smell it on me. The lie.

I said, "Is Driftwood being evacuated too?"

"Listen," Shari said. It was how she always started off a sentence when she was going to explain how simply something could work. "Just get up here as fast as you can and I'll be sure to send you and Leanne away on an all-expense paid trip to wherever you can think of. Hell, I'll send you all the way to Kukui. You know where that is? Maui. It's beautiful. Never stops raining there. You couldn't spark a match if you tried."

I thought about telling Shari that Leanne wasn't in the car with me, but it seemed pathetic. Or maybe too personal. It was odd to think that somewhere else in the world, the sky wasn't filling with soot and ash and smoke. That the soil was damp and lush with fungus and old growth, although I think I'd always heard something about how fires were beneficial in some way. That flames were just a catalyst to a whole new life. "Sure," I told Shari, angling my car off the highway and onto the feeder road. "Whatever you say."

"You would just love it," she exclaimed. "There's a great little Marriott right there on the water." And from the way she talked, it sounded as if she could already envision us there, no pets or girlfriends allowed, our faces reflected in rain-soaked windows gazing out on the waves of the Pacific. "They have the best Mahi-mahi you can find. It's exquisite," she said, like she wasn't even in danger anymore. Like there was no need to worry. Like there was simply water as far as the eye could see. Just water, water everywhere.



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