"Renovation" is a work of short fiction dealing with themes of friendship, trust, and forgiveness.
The House had been underwater for three days, and it was getting tired of waiting.
The flood had come on Monday night. There had been no weather warnings, no sirens to alert anyone of the coming tsunami that swept across the midwest. All of the residents of Raymore were peacefully asleep when the wave overtook them. They and their houses were carried away, with only one exception.
The House, an out-of-place, Victorian inspired thing, had stood firm against the onslaught. Its frame had gently swayed and squeaked as the torrent quickly submerged it, but no more so than it did during the nights when the winds rose over the plains. The House was much too old for weathering intense storms and had half a mind to collapse like the houses to the East and South. But even as the tides lapped over the top of its gables, even as the wreckage of new bungalows floated around and above it, it stubbornly stood upright, protecting its two occupants.
The two tenants had awoken Tuesday morning to a sunless day. Much screaming, crying, and slamming doors ensued. The House had expected as much. It couldn’t blame them, though it was getting weary of their rough handling of its doors. It held firm, waiting for them.
But stubbornness and sheer will can only get a thing so far. By Thursday, the basement began to leak.
Mave was sleeping when the water finally eked through the floorboards of the basement. It claimed her room bit by bit. Records slipped from their comfortable spot on the low table into the deepening pool, while her ratty rugs and old futon swelled with the murk. A floorboard wriggled out of its rightful place, tipping over Mave’s tripod table and throwing her bong to the floor. This, finally, woke her. Her blurry eyes registered an invader but didn’t give it form. Slapping her glasses onto her face, she surveyed the room through water-dappled lenses.
The water was four inches deep.
A lantern she’d hung at the base of the stairs days ago flickered unreliably, only partially illuminating the far end of her room. She used the high-powered Maglite she’d slept with to light the other half. She pointed it at her runny Van Halen posters and wanted to cry when the beam caught her comic library as it reverted to a literal pulp. The shards of her bong glimmered back at her in the growing deep. A metallic stench hung in the air, and the taste of it clung to the roof of her mouth. Her mattress took on water, icy fingers of it seeping up through the cushion to cradle the back of her thighs. The sensation made her sick. It was time to get up. Throwing her legs over the edge of the bed, she felt the cold grip her feet, and she inhaled sharply, yanking them back to her chest.
Nowhere to go but up— She thought.
Carefully resubmerging her feet, she sloshed to the bottom of the basement steps, taking care to avoid the glass.
For one single moment that morning, as her eyes opened and fixed on the small chandelier she’d hung in her room, Sadia didn’t remember that she was trapped. In her sleepy autopilot, she’d gotten up, made her bed, and wandered downstairs to make herself scrambled eggs. She’d grabbed the cold metal handle of the fridge, which was when she remembered opening it on Tuesday. She’d found its contents spoiled. The reek was so awful she’d gagged and retched for nearly five minutes. The memory brought reality crashing back.
She ran to the windows to open the curtains, only to find herself still surrounded by water. Rays of sunlight petered down through the green gloom, making the room shimmer. She shut the curtains again and began shivering. There was nothing else to do. She could not have coffee; she could not take a shower. She could not even have eggs. A chattering hysteria within her repeated not even eggs, not even eggs, not even eggs before she gripped her arm so hard it hurt. Between the darkness and the hideous glimpses of water, she’d take the dark every day of the week. The curtains couldn’t keep out sounds, though.
The House tried to make as little sound as possible, in an attempt to be courteous. But after several days of keeping up appearances, the tremendous pressure was showing. Each passing swell caused it to groan with strain, and tiny streams of water would sneak through the gaps in the windowsills and under the edge of the front door. But the most panic-inducing sounds came from outside.
The debris of their neighbors surrounded them constantly. The House stood, defiantly, in the center of a great current. All the ephemera of lives lived near and far away passed by them. Or into them. They heard small slaps of trash against the siding, something metal nicking the roof, and, worst of all, the heavy thud and squeal of something against the windows. Like a hand smearing on glass, only much, much larger. That had sent both women screaming into their separate bedrooms. The House hadn’t cared for it, either.
Sadia had been trying to steel herself. She’d thought wildly by listening to the sounds of the debris against the House, she’d finally gather enough courage to do something. To be done with the terrible waiting. Of course, it didn’t work. With each new skittering or clanging, she only grew more afraid, and nearly jumped out of her skin when the basement door opened.
“Chill, it’s me,” Mave sounded exhausted. She looked at Sadia’s dramatically alert posture and smirked a little. “Expecting someone else?”
Sadia glowered at her. Mave sighed, wandered over to the couch, and flopped on it. Sadia had not been talking to her. Had, in fact, gone out of her way to avoid being in Mave’s presence. Even stomped off to her room to slam the door when Mave tried to speak to her, which felt especially theatric. She couldn’t totally blame her for the reaction. Two days ago, Mave had accidentally suggested that they might be the only people alive for miles, forgetting that Sadia’s family lived just a town away.
They hadn’t been on especially great speaking terms, anyways.
Mave regretted being the bearer of bad news, but it had to come out one way or another.
“The basement’s flooding,” she said, examining her fingertips. There was a beat of incredulous silence.
Looking up from her fingers, “I said the basement—”
“I KNOW WHAT YOU FUCKING SAID!” Sadia exploded. Mave winced and the House braced itself.
“Goddammit, Mave, it is always just something with you! Always coming up here and expecting me to solve your problems while you just give me more shit to deal with!” She was on her feet and pacing again. “‘Hey, Sadi! Can you house me, rent-free, for five months while I recover from my bullshit break up?’ ‘Sorry, Sadi, I couldn’t take that $1000 gig because the owner is an asshole!’ ‘Oh, hey, Sadi! I know I said I would pay rent this month, but I can’t because I don’t have a job! And by the way, the washing machine’s broken! Why? BECAUSE THE FUCKING BASEMENT IS FLOODING!”
Mave made a barking dog shadow puppet on the ceiling.
She stomped across the room, tore the mag out of Mave’s hand, and threw it on the floor. “I need your help! Be useful for once in your life and help me because I don’t know what to do, and you’re just dicking around like you always do!”
Mave started laughing, and Sadia’s eyes bulged. Seeing the look on her face only made Mave laugh harder. After a minute, Mave finally got herself under control.
“What do you want me to do, Sadi?” she gestured limply. “Like, what do you actually want me to do? Want me to go get help? Should I call someone? Would you like me to order a pizza?” Her voice was soft, and Sadia stared at her. She continued.
“We’re in a house that is literally, not figuratively, underwater. I don’t know what sort of… anomaly, I guess, is causing this to happen, but it’s about to go away. My room is actively turning into a rec center swimming pool,” Mave smirked at the thought, “and we are most certainly going to die. Because, best I can tell, no one knows we’re down here. That is if anyone is even alive to not know that we’re down here. So, if you could, like, manage yourself for a few minutes while I process, I’d really, really appreciate it.”
Sadia didn’t know what to say to that. They shared several long moments of silence, staring at each other and then at the floor before the sound of furniture shifting downstairs made them glance at the basement door. Mave stood, wandered to it, stared down the steps for a few moments, then descended. Sadia felt a rising panic and almost called out to her, but Mave resurfaced a few moments later, lantern in one hand and her acoustic guitar in the other. She gave the steps one last mournful look and shut the door.
Sadia checked on the water in the basement every few hours. The bottom step was gone in an hour. The fifth in the second. The eleventh in the third. There were only sixteen steps.
“What do we do when the water gets to this floor?” Sadia asked quietly. She was hugging her knees, leaning against the lovely mid-century modern couch she’d purchased to make the living room look bigger. Mave was sprawled out on the floor, lying on her back with her guitar on her chest. She strummed it idly and shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t know, Sadi. I imagine we’ll get pretty damp.” She sounded bored. Then, grinning, “You know, with all this weather, I don’t think I’m going to make it out by the first.” A hysterical little giggle rose in her throat. “Would you mind prorating me until all this water clears up? I think the movers are going to have a bitch of a time getting to us.”
Sadia began shaking, face in her arms.
“You know what it actually means, don’t you? I’ll have to move up into your room!” Mave snorted and cackled. “You’ll have to live out the rest of your days with me right next to you! Sharing half of your bed with me when you didn’t want to even share a house with me!” she crowed. The House groaned disapprovingly. This silenced Mave long enough for her to finally notice Sadia’s soft weeping and see that her face was firmly planted into her hands.
Oh, hell. —Mave thought.
Sadia sobbed as Mave pushed aside her guitar and crawled over to her.
“Hey, hey, hey, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Mave tried to wrap her arms around Sadia, but she would not be consoled. “I’m sorry I was a dick, I was just trying to be funny.” An especially loud wail poured out of Sadia, and Mave would have laughed if it hadn’t sounded so genuinely mournful.
“I wuh-wasn’t truh-trying to k-kick you out to be meaaaaannnnnnnn,” she blubbered. “I ju- just cu-couldn’t huh-huh-huh—” “Okay, honey, okay. Time to breathe,” Mave sat next to her while rubbing her shoulders. Sadia cried for a while, then took a moment to collect herself.
“I wasn’t trying to kick you out to be mean,” She wiped her eyes furiously. She was embarrassed over her outburst, and she was positive it was going to happen again. Her voice cracked “I just couldn’t pay for the rent and the groceries and the utilities by myself, and I barely have enough money for myself, and now it doesn’t even matter because we’re gonna di-di-di dieeeeeeeeeee!” and the dam broke again.
Mave didn’t really know what to do. She rubbed Sadia's back with one hand, staring at a strip of green light that wiggled across the floor. She noticed Sadia looking at her, tears still rolling down her face.
“How are you doing it? How is this not affecting you at all?” she sniffed. Sadia’s question was genuine, and it hurt a little to hear. Mave shifted uncomfortably.
“I mean, it is affecting me.”
“It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just… like you always are.”
“Sadi, I’m freaking the fuck out.” Her voice wavered, but only a little bit.
“Are you? I feel like I’m the only one that is having any kind of reaction to this. You’ve been laughing all day, like this is some kind of joke.”
“Well, yeah. I don’t know what else to do. Both of us can’t be screaming and crying, we tried that already.”
All three of them were silent. Then Mave spoke.
“I know you weren’t, by the way.”
“I know you weren’t being mean. When you told me I had to leave. I was furious about it, but I knew, I know, you weren’t being mean,” Mave sighed heavily. “Look, I know I took advantage of you. My thing with Sam, I knew she was bad for me. And I just wanted to… I don’t know, relax for a while, I guess. But I was selfish in the way that I did it. It’s not self-care to avoid paying rent, especially to a person who’s basically my only friend.” They sat next to one another, staring across the room to the black pitch that was the kitchen. A thought passed through Mave.
“Do you remember when you first moved in? This place was a total wreck, but you saw it for it’s potential. You saw that it had good bones, and the way it needed to change so it could be a home for you. And you didn’t mind putting in the work to make it happen! You were so ambitious. I just… knew you had it. That’s why I wanted to help renovate. Because you knew what to do with it, and how to put me to work. You knew how I could help. I—” Mave struggled to find the words. “It had been a long time since I’d felt useful or appreciated.” Her voice hitched a little. “I’m really sorry I took advantage of your kindness.” She felt one of Sadia’s hands slide into her own, and when she turned, she was greeted with a soft, bleary-eyed smile.
The House remembered when its tenants had first moved in. Its builders had abandoned it decades before. It was a weird-looking house, especially for middle-of-nowhere Kansas, or for anywhere, really. Oddly Victorian turrets decorated with mismatched Tudor influences set into a split level house. Too small to be a family home, with only the one-bedroom, and too strange-looking for local tastes. Its white paint and pink trim peeled away, collecting dust and rot. After sitting on the market for years, the city was planning on demolishing it. Who would want such a thing?
The warm summer day when the petite woman visited the House, it had not expected such a lovely and composed person to be enchanted with it. She ran a manicured hand along the wall as she climbed the staircase, opened the windows so that fresh air might move through it, and even sprayed a bit of WD-40 on its rusty hinges. The House had been surprised when the tattered “For Sale” sign had been pulled from the front yard. Even more so when the petite woman, who called herself Sadia, reappeared a day later in dirty, paint-spattered overalls. Many people helped Sadia refurbish the House that summer. Amongst them was a lanky woman with frazzled brown hair. She painted walls with Sadia, set windows with Sadia. But she remodeled the basement by herself, being the only one brave enough to clear the rusted tools and generations of spiders that lived there. Sadia and the other woman, named Mave worked tirelessly, long after other’s had left. The last night, when everyone else had gone, and the beautiful mohair sofa had been settled, and the paint had dried, and the curtains were installed, Sadia and Mave sat on the floor together, drinking beers and laughing until they cried. Mave moved into the basement two months later.
“None of this really matters now, does it?” The words were thick in Sadia’s throat. “We’re still stuck here. Still going to die from drowning or lack of air or starvation or some other horrible thing.”
The House creaked dramatically. It was going to be the first one if they didn’t hurry.
“Well, the way I see it, we have two choices,” Mave slapped her knees and stood, carrying herself over to the basement door. She opened it, and water spilled out into the kitchen before she closed it again. “We can stay here and definitely die, or we can leave here and probably die.” Sadia looked at her incredulously.
“Leave? How are we going to leave?”
“I have literally no idea.” Sadia stood, joining Mave at the kitchen island. From a cabinet, Mave retrieved two beers, popped their tops, and toasted Sadia. They both took a long swig. A very long swig. Sadia set down her empty can and thought.
“Okay, we definitely don’t want to go out the front door. The minute we open it, the House will flood and then crumple like a coke can.”
“But there’s a brief moment between the two, right? Before the water comes in, and the House gets coke-canned?” Mave reasoned.
“Yes, but not long enough for us to get out. The whole downstairs would have to fill entirely before we could leave. You know, like people say about cars when they drive into the river.” Sadia drummed her fingers on the countertops. Then it hit her. “What if we went out through the attic? There’s a little window up there. The little circular, stained glass one.”
“Jesus, I forgot about that one. How the fuck is this House still standing?” Mave wondered. Sadia ignored her.
“We’ll be closer to the surface, and we might be able to get out before the house gets flooded or collapses.”
“But that window is only big enough to let one of us out at a time.”
“Right, so we’ll have to tie ourselves together.”
“Problem: we don’t have any rope.”
“Okay, we’ll have to use the curtains.”
The dripping and creaking in the House got louder, more insistent. They worked quickly, twisting the curtains into long braids as water began to trickle down the chimney. They created longer strands by melting the polyester fiber with a lighter. They tied ropes around one another, crafting ill-fitting harnesses. Once they had been strapped together, they took a moment to stare out the windows.
The whole of their lives floated outside. Forms kicked up in the muck that stuck to the windowpanes, and shadows swayed in the distance. Occasionally, some identifiable piece of trash floated by. But for the most part it was a blurry, bottle green emptiness that began to grow dimmer the longer they stared at it. Once the pool from the basement lapped at their ankles, they headed upstairs.
The upstairs was only Sadia’s bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom was a pale blue, and had a tiny shimmering chandelier where a dusty ceiling fan used to be. The light from the mag caught a crystal and threw small lights all over the room. Pictures of Sadia’s brothers and sisters. A photo of her parents smiling. Happy. She grabbed a little family photo and stuck it in her pocket.
They hoisted each other into the attic, along with the lantern and Mave’s acoustic guitar. The women kneeled on either side of the tiny porthole, which was no larger than a bus window. They stared out the window, at one another, then back out the window. Inexplicably, they both burst into laughter.
“This is fucking crazy, isn’t it?” Mave laughed through tears.
“It’s absolutely batshit!” Sadia cried back.
“I mean, I’m just gonna smash this thing right through the window?” Sadia nodded. “And we’re going to be hit with a lot of water, and then we’re just gonna swim out??” Sadia nodded again, sobering up. “And somehow, we’re going to make it to the surface?” Sadia reached for Mave’s hand and squeezed it.
“We’ve got the rope.” Mave stared into Sadia’s bright, confident eyes and squeezed back.
“Okay. Here we go.”
Mave stood, white-knuckling the neck of the guitar, holding it like she was getting ready to hit a home run. Both of them inhaled deeply, exhaled, and inhaled again. In sync, timing their breath. One last inhale.
The House sighed, thankful that its long wait was over.
Mave swung the guitar, and the water, which had been waiting, shot into the room.
The jet was vicious and freezing, knocking both women down and tearing at their skin. It geysered against the back wall, flooding the space in an instant. With nothing to hold it back, every window downstairs burst, and the rush of water from the floor below welled into the attic, shoving their heads into the peak of the gable. Wild-eyed and choking, hungrily gulping air in the diminishing pocket, they shouted at each other, “Follow!”
Ducking under the water, hearing the first-floor tear itself in two, doggedly swimming right leg left leg toward the window. Squinting through the silt, they could not see the hole, so they let the jagged glass edge of the window guide them through. Mave and Sadia swam upwards toward the green glow, lungs screaming, hands clasped, vision tunneling and something below repeating right leg left leg right leg left leg kicking kicking don’t stop kicking
And, finally, the sky.