A Flood Will Come, He Says - Second Place
by Mathew Gostelow, October 10th 2022
The dog-faced boy has come to warn us. A flood will come, he says. I have never seen anything like him before. His fur looks wet. He is bluey-green like peacock feathers. It reminds me of petrol station puddles, how the hot sun makes him shine.
He shows his fangs when he speaks. They’re big, sharp and white, like lion’s teeth. His nose sniffs the air as if he can smell my thoughts. I run to hide my face in mummy’s skirt. I’m afraid of the dog-faced boy. I’m afraid of the flood he talks about.
His voice is loud. Terrible, horrible things will happen, he says. His eyes are wet and shiny, like blue ice pops. I want to pretend his words about the flood are lies. But I feel it in my heart, that it’s all true.
Mum says we should ignore the dog-faced boy’s warnings. All the grown-ups think he’s silly. Behind his back, they joke and laugh.
They say things like: Who does he think he is, this strange blue furry boy?
They act like the flood will never come.
The dog-faced boy is walking out of town today. He says he will go back to his family, who live in the sea. He calls his family a pack. I will speak to the giants of my pack, he says. My pack is unhappy with the flatlanders, he says. He calls us flatlanders. You deserve everything that happens next, he says.
I’m frightened again, but this time I don’t hide my face.
The flood arrived without storms, under a cloudless sky, lit by ruthless silver moonlight. The water simply rose up overnight, from the earth, from the drains. At first, Alice was excited. It was like a book she’d read in school. When the water was just below the back step, she scribbled a note, rolled it into a plastic bottle, and sent it bobbing over the lake that now covered their garden. “Help, we are entirely surrounded by water!”
As the day went on, sun beating down relentlessly, a stench of human waste wafted from the murky rising tide. A choking reek. Alice tried to hide from the smell in her bedroom, holding Catbaby, a snuggly plush kitten, up to her nose and mouth.
The floods made mum ill. Alice covered her ears and shut her eyes tight as the sounds of retching and heaving came through the wall. Later, as they got ready for bed, mum said she had a headache that would split her skull apart. Alice struggled to sleep, troubled by dreams of her mother cracking open like an egg.
On the second day, the taps ran with the same cloudy, rusty water that covered the streets and gardens. It carried the tainted tang of sewers. Mum said they shouldn’t wash or drink. She wished they’d filled up bottles when they had the chance.
By evening, rancid water flooded through the ground floor of the house, wrecking their kitchen, their living room, spoiling their food. The lights went out. None of the switches worked. Alice looked downstairs and saw the water inside was knee-deep, dark brown and stinking.
Alice and mum slept together in the big bed. Mum’s face was damp and bloodless in the dark. They held each other close, curled like question marks, listening to the water lapping and slapping gently at the walls downstairs.
In the morning, mum’s phone was dead. She paced, holding it high, trying for a signal. No messages, no calls, no news. She scratched her wrist compulsively, the way she did after granny died. Alice reached out and touched mum's arm gently with Catbaby's paw, to reassure her. But mum was distracted. She barely seemed to notice.
"Alice, sweetpea, we have to go out. We need to find somewhere high. A hill or something, out of town. The one in the park, maybe. Everything will be okay then."
As they got ready to leave, Mum was anxious. Short-tempered, sickly, clammy. She had scratched a raw red patch in the skin of her forearm. When Alice hugged her, she smelled different. The sour stink of stale, rancid damp, like the time Alice forgot her swimming bag under the bed for two weeks. She hid her face so mum wouldn’t see the tears as she packed her diary, her pencils, and her Catbaby into a rucksack.
Alice and mum waded towards the town centre. The main road was clogged with plastic bags and bottles floating in great matted rafts. The water reached almost to Alice's waist and the walk was tiring. She wanted mum to carry her, but she knew she was too big for carrying. And one look at the hunched, exhausted figure stumbling beside her told Alice she shouldn’t ask.
Mum leaned on a bus shelter to catch her breath. There was a stink of spoiled food emanating from the homes and shops they passed, mixing with the effluent stench of the flood.
They searched for something to eat or drink at an abandoned convenience store, but it was already stripped bare. As they were about to give up, Alice found a can of hotdogs, with a ring pull lid, that previous raiders must have missed. They wolfed the soft meat down, finishing the metallic brine in thirsty slurps. Alice turned away as mum doubled over and vomited into the brown water around her knees.
The streets in town were full of people, wandering in ones and twos. Struggling in the flooded streets. They waded without purpose or direction. In some areas, a thick black layer of sulphur-stinking oil floated on top of the grimy water. Alice saw an elderly man slip and fall, submerged for a moment. When he struggled back to his feet, he was coated in a grey-brown film that dripped, treacle slow, over his eyes and mouth.
As evening came, Alice and her mum slumped on raised steps outside an office building. Mum’s eyes rolled back, lids half closed. She coughed and coughed, making painful hacking, wheezing sounds. The air was warm and carried a battery acid sting that made Alice’s throat feel raw.
As they rested, Alice saw a boy struggling in a mess of strings and ropes that had washed into the alleyway opposite. His legs were tangled. His arms thrashed. He spluttered and gasped. Mum seemed not to see him. She leaned her head into Alice’s shoulder, exhausted. Soon the pair slipped into troubled sleep.
When Alice woke, the sun was high once more, hot and fierce. The boy wasn't flapping in the alley any more. He lay still, floating face down. Alice focussed on her mum, whose breath now came in shallow rasps. A slow, sticky trickle of blood came from one nostril. She didn’t stir, even when Alice shook her shoulder.
“I’ll get help, mum. I’ll come back for you.”
Alice set off, through water that had risen above her middle, taking a last look back at her crumpled, unconscious mum. She could see the hill in the park outside town and headed towards it, zigging and zagging around the flooded shops and homes. The air smelled burnt, like spent sparklers. Alice pushed through plastic debris and patches of oozing black oil.
In the afternoon, she saw fires raging on the water’s surface. Houses ablaze. Nearby, two figures staggered, waist deep in the toxic flood, their bodies, arms and heads consumed in orange flames. They didn't make a sound, but flailed wildly before toppling and disappearing in the murky water with a sharp hiss. Alice sobbed as she pushed on through the deluge.
It was evening when she dragged her heavy legs out of the water and up the steep grass of the hillside. She looked out in all directions, desperate to see a grown-up, a doctor, an ambulance. Anyone who could help her mum. Alice tried to spot the office building where mum was resting, but she couldn’t make it out. Everywhere was water and fire, black smoke and acrid air. People screamed. Bodies floated.
Far off, toward the horizon, where the setting sun hung like a slice of blood orange, she saw two gigantic blue dog heads rearing from the sea. They were enormous versions of the scary dog-faced boy. The one who had visited before the flood began. As she watched, the creatures let out deep unearthly howls. The sound was strange. A cry of triumph, or a mourning wail? Alice could not tell. Alone on the hilltop, holding Catbaby tight, she curled into a ball and wept.
The dog-faced boy comes back after the fires start and the waters rise high. He finds me lying on the hilltop. I’m crying, on my own. He is quiet and he puts his hand on my arm.
You are the one who hid her face from me, he says.
I look up and he is blurry from the tears in my eyes. But I’m not scared of him anymore. He calls me a survivor. The dog-faced boy says he will take me, and other children like me, to his pack.
Do not be afraid, little one, he says. These rising tides will make the world anew.