“The Gathering Before the Storm”

Against her better judgment, Gladys takes a moment to notice that the sky looks deceptively banal through the kitchen window of her ground floor apartment, though the window itself is cracked and is just a flimsy single-pane in any case. No match for gale-force winds. The orchid that sits in the sill is hanging in there, despite Gladys’ horticultural insecurity that manifests in benign neglect. Orchids, to the uninformed, seem like such fussy and fragile plants, but they don’t need much water, and they must be tough little bastards to survive on the bark of fallen logs or in the crooks of branches in soggy cloud forests. She reminisces about the orchid hunting expeditions for which she was enlisted with the former fiancé, an old man in a young man’s body. He had a persistent negative outlook borne of fear that he was unlovable and a suspicion that he was superior to most of the people he was forced to interact with. Orchids were beautiful and simple objects for him to ponder and admire, and the artistic and biological complexity they do possess was enough to keep him interested.

But not Gladys. It’s not that she didn’t appreciate them when they found them. The sheer diversity fascinated and delighted her. It was the hunt that dominated every outdoor excursion in a certain type of ecosystem that became stifling. She went along because she is a person with a flexible temperament—both an advantage and a liability—but eventually the sameness of the goal dampened her enthusiasm. Some have judged her need for change and variety as a flaw. But she sees just as many drawbacks in the relentless pursuit of the same thing, over and over. You turn something attractive and pleasurable into an obsession. You make it your trap.

Now she has five minutes—four minutes—to gather up the last of whatever she might deem important and stack it by the door before her cousin screeches up to the curb and delivers her, probably forever, from the apartment where she has lived in relative stability for the last five years and where the orchid has accompanied her for the last nine months. She isn’t taking any of the rest of her house plants. Her half-Siamese rescue cat is already mewling in its too-small carrier. Though she knows the stories of people abandoning their pets even when they move by choice, rather than because they are running from catastrophic storms, she is not one of those people. In general, she cares about other living beings, of which the orchid is one, but there is a regrettable hierarchy of attachment and the tangible reality of space in the truck. She knows she shouldn’t be wasting her precious few remaining minutes making such a decision about a goddamn flower, but her brain has slowed down inexplicably and her thoughts slosh around her skull. She didn’t make the bed. Her jeans are too tight. Flash drive, she has a flash drive with scans of all her important documents in her purse—driver’s license, birth certificate, social security number, adoption papers, her bank account number. Why do they tell you to keep all these things when you know they are floating around on the internet somewhere? she wonders. Would the cafe on the corner still be open for coffee, or have the owners boarded up the place already? Her punch card is only half used.

“Flanders, stop that fucking meowing, please,” she snaps. “I can’t think.” It’s not Flanders’ fault she can’t think. Clothes, yes, she has some clothes. A creased picture of her birth mother in the frame she bought with her first paycheck in high school. A blank postcard from the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, when she and Gordon went orchid hunting for the last time. She loved Costa Rica but not Gordon, though he didn’t really love her either, certainly not enough, and even if the world is ending you shouldn’t couple just to have someone to hold you as you go hurtling through space, should you? Why is she still hanging on to a faded postcard from three years ago?

Who fucking knows. No one alive can tell her, or anyone, how to live through this because no one has any idea. The orchid—yes or no? What else does she have? Canned beans? Water? No, those are for a different disaster. She is evacuating. She is running away. Any person with sense and means is running away from this shit show. The fate of those with sense but no means . . . well, that is the point of heartbreak, and she can feel it coming on. Elon Musk, take me away, she thinks. But that jerk and Jeff Bezos and all the people channeling their obscene wealth into their private getaway space cars are missing the point, somehow. As far as she is concerned, they are violating a cardinal rule, something like but not quite like Do Unto Others. More like: Don’t Make a Fucking Mess and Leave It for Others to Clean Up. Or even: Don’t Entertain the Fantasy That We All Don’t Reap What We Sow. In her current state she can’t quite put her finger on it.

The orchid? she asks herself, still waffling.

The emergency signal blares over the radio, and she is tempted to throw it out the window. Suddenly Devin is pounding on her door, and she panics that she has forgotten something.

“Give me one minute,” she exclaims when she yanks the door open. He is standing feet apart and hands extended, as if ready for a football toss.

“Gladys, we don’t have a minute.”

“Stop being so dramatic!”

“We’ve got three other people to pick up, Gladys! Haven’t you been listening to the radio? We’re gonna be stuck on the interstate for hours as it is, and the storm is picking up speed.”

Now she starts crying and he barrels past her, swinging the cat carrier by the handle and throwing her duffle bag over his shoulder. Flanders groans low and scratchy as if suddenly remembering his people come from lions.

Fuck off, Devin, she mutters, though another force overcomes her at the same time, and she is now efficient, precise, clear-thinking. Her laptop, of course. Her hiking boots. Extra cat food. An empty journal she has never used, and her favorite pen. She’s never been much of a diarist, but this is a new age. Her original lease agreement. The legal system somehow always seems to survive devastation. She should arm herself with what protection she has.

Devin calls to her from the cab of the truck: “It’s now or never!”

She had bought the orchid at a farmer’s market one afternoon when she was feeling lonely, almost despondent, wondering how to make sense of such an ordinary life given that she had once embraced adventure, or at least traveled to places where she couldn’t speak the language. Choosing to be an outsider had been a powerful salve for her; simply feeling like one in the place where she grew up had the opposite effect. Then she chastised herself for having such bourgeois concerns when half of the people on the planet were fleeing pillaging armies. She had expected the plant to last a week, maybe two, just to get her over the hump of guilt-despair, but somehow it just kept surviving. It was the most beautiful thing in the apartment. She had sheltered it from direct sunlight and watered it per the directions. And she had started to feel a little more hope—her friends called her out of the blue just to talk sometimes. Her neighbors invited her over for potluck. She got an award at work and had one reasonably entertaining date at a zydeco festival, of all places. Life was not hopeless. And then the hurricane warnings started to crescendo. Everyone, whether they said so or not, knew this one was not routine.

A long, intrusive honk from the street. “Don’t make me leave you!” Devin shouts. She knows he’s not just being obnoxious. He is the person who helped her search for her family when she first discovered that someone other than the well-intentioned but distracted woman she’d known as her mother had given birth to her. She trusts Devin to help her get to safety, even if it’s only temporary.

She grabs her purse and slams the door without locking it behind her. The orchid in its cheap plastic planter bobs as she hustles down the steps. Maneuvering to avoid being poked by the stick supporting the orchid’s stem, she climbs into the passenger’s seat, and Devin barely waits for her to close the door before he punches the gas.

He glances sideways at the plant as he cuts across town.

“It doesn’t take up much space,” she insists. “And I can hold it in my lap.”

“For fourteen hours?”

She doesn’t answer him. The storm is now showing itself just on the edge of the eastern sky, like a broad charcoal line drawn by a demented cartoonist. There is a real possibility they could get trapped by flood waters on the highway. But if she thinks about that now, she is done for.

“Granted,” he says, squeezing her shoulder gently, “if that’s the biggest inconvenience you have to deal with today, you’re doing pretty good.”
That is what she loves about Devin—he knows how to give up a losing battle.

“My thoughts exactly,” she says.


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About Mary Fifield

Mary Fifield is a traveling story writer and community organizer with an enduring connection to Latin America. Her fiction has appeared in J Journal, Midway Journal, and ELJ Publications' Afternoon Shorts series, and one of her short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared in Cargo Literary and the anthology Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems. She earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and is working on a novel.