Anna shoved clothes into the depths of her daughter’s suitcase as quickly as she could: fistfuls of underwear with fuchsia hearts, shirts shedding glitter like dog hair. “I need these,” said Maggie, adding a pair of tiny high heels designed for kindergarteners to play dress-up with, but Anna clenched her jaw and took them out without a word. She reminded herself that her daughter was five and couldn’t fully understand what it meant that a wildfire was closing in on their house. At least her son Sam, at age eight, could be trusted to pack his own suitcase.
Anna had already packed photo albums, her jewelry box, a few of her husband Carlos’s nice suits, and although she admitted it was foolish and sentimental, the scale model of the Apollo 11 spacecraft she’d built in sixth grade. Now she loaded up pink sparkly hairbands, pink sparkly socks. Maggie dropped teddy bear after teddy bear into the suitcase, but Anna tossed them all back toward the toy chest.
“But I have to save them from the fire,” said Maggie.
“No,” said Anna gently but firmly, “we have to save ourselves from the fire.”
Wind rattled the house, and for the fiftieth time, Anna went over the numbers in her head:
6 miles per hour: The rate at which the fire was moving, according to the local news, but high winds could push that up to 8, 9, 10 miles per hour—about as fast as Anna could run, except she would get tired and the fire would not.
25 miles per hour: The likely rate at which her husband Carlos was driving home from work right now, due to fire-related traffic, after going into the office that morning even though Anna told him he’d just be sent home.
145 cubic feet: The maximum storage capacity of the minivan. She couldn’t fit the plasma-screen TV and the custom sound system, even though they’d cost thousands of dollars and she and Carlos had spent hours perfecting the acoustics.
91 miles: The distance to Carlos’s parents’ house outside Dallas, where they planned to stay until the fire was under control.
It was the drought that was making the fires so bad this year. The drought and the heat. When Anna was growing up in Michigan, there had been no wildfires. Here in East Texas, they seemed to happen with monstrous regularity—and were followed, ironically, by violent flash floods during the rainy season. You could burn or drown or both. Anna’s house, it seemed, was going to burn.
She had tried to implement all the official advice. Every evening, during her nightly call to her mother back in Michigan, Anna would recount her methods to save water and prevent conflagrations. Instead of using the sprinklers, she put a bucket in the shower to collect water for the rosebushes. Instead of using the dishwasher, she did all the dishes by hand. She checked all the smoke detectors, light switches, and electrical outlets. Maggie got a bath only every other day, and Sam was no longer allowed to pour half-empty glasses of water down the sink as soon as they got lukewarm. Carlos spent weekends pulling the flammable weeds in the yard. Together they packed four emergency kits, little red backpacks stuffed with water bottles, protein bars, space blankets. Anna told her mother all this, and her mother said, “Good girl.” Her mother knew how to take care of everything. With Anna’s father never really in the picture, she’d had to.
In the end, that effort was all for nothing, because someone fell asleep smoking a cigarette several towns over, and now all the fire departments in the county couldn’t put out the blaze.
Gray smoke trailed by outside the window as Anna finished Maggie’s suitcase off with a pair of sneakers. With their wads of fluorescent-pink molded plastic, they hardly seemed any more practical than the kiddie high heels. Anna didn’t understand the princess fixation, the bubblegum world through which her daughter flounced with almost manic gusto. As a child, Anna had been content with canvas sneakers and spent most of her time alone with Legos or books about outer space. She couldn’t imagine her mother buying these pink things for her even if she had wanted them.
But a good mother helps her children succeed in life, and in Tyler, Texas, you had to dress your daughter in spun sugar or she’d start losing out socially. No invitations to birthday parties, no hope of becoming class president—a bite out of her college application before she even started first grade. The engineer in Anna recognized the means to the end, even as it recoiled from the Calamine-colored glut. It was why she read to both kids every night, minimized junk food, sent Sammy to a tutor for math lessons above his grade level. It was why she stayed home with the kids full-time while Carlos went to work.
The wind hit the walls again. Anna ran down the stairs with Maggie’s suitcase. Maggie followed slowly behind, dragging a stuffed bunny rabbit in each hand, one lilac, one peach. In the driveway, the haze stung Anna’s eyes. Ashes and partially burned bits of paper fluttered in the air, the remains of people’s books and diaries.
Carlos’s car pulled up as she piled Maggie’s bag into the minivan. Her diligent husband, loving father of their children and provider of more money than either of them could ever have imagined. She turned to greet him, and there it was—the fire, peeling the grass from a hill in the distance. It had to be moving faster than six miles an hour. She tried to approximate how far away the hill was, how much time they had left, but her mind felt quilted with cotton.
“Thank God you’re here,” she said to Carlos. “Look.” But Carlos didn’t look. He caught her and mashed his mouth against hers, his mustache still wet from some recent sip of water. She kissed him back, but then said, “Look.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The wind is blowing straight south. It’ll miss us by miles.”
A rumble of plastic wheels, and Sammy pulled his suitcase, splattered with video-game characters, out into the driveway. She didn’t let him play violent video games or watch violent superhero movies, but she let him buy the merchandise so no one at school would have any excuse to make fun of him. He was shy, good at math, physically fit but without much facility for team sports. He could have the cartoon T-shirts if it meant he wouldn’t be an outcast.
“Let’s see how you did,” Anna said. She unzipped the bag. It was perfect. Jeans and dress pants folded in straight lines like graph paper, toothbrush in a plastic carrying case. If a wildfire weren’t racing up behind her, she would have taken a picture.
“Nice work, buddy,” she said, and reached out to tousle his hair. He cringed and ducked away, as if she were going to hit him, though she never had. Then again, maybe Anna had misread her son’s fear, because now he threw his arms around her waist and hugged her tight.
“Honey, don’t crowd me,” she said, softly unlatching him from her body. He coughed and covered his eyes against the smoke. “Time to get in the car.”
Carlos still hadn’t started packing. Instead he was crouched in front of Maggie, listening to her sniffle. “Mommy says I can only take two, so I’m taking Alice and Man-Man because they’re married.” She held up the stuffed rabbits.
“That’s very wise of you,” said Carlos.
“Honey,” said Anna, her voice firm. Both Carlos and Maggie stopped and looked up. Anna leaned over and lifted Maggie up onto her waist. She pointed to the orange flames on the hill. “Do you see that? We don’t have time to discuss your stuffies. Our lives are in danger.”
At this, Maggie’s sniffles turned to wails. Anna carried her to the minivan and buckled her into her booster seat. She kept crying but didn’t struggle much. Sammy was already in his seat with his seatbelt on, fidgeting with the hem on his shirt. She shut the door.
“Wasn’t that a little harsh?” said Carlos. “She’s five years old.”
Anna grabbed Carlos’s hands and squeezed them so hard she felt her wedding band dig into her finger. “Baby, I love you,” she said. “But we need to go.”
Carlos looked, finally, at the fire and sighed as if it were a tiny raincloud, a mild annoyance. “Okay, okay,” he said. He climbed into the passenger’s seat.
“You’re not going to pack anything?” Anna asked.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
The car door swung closed. Anna wished, not for the first time, that they lived in Michigan, not Texas. That they were driving to her mother’s house, not his. She loved how Carlos could make the best of a bad situation, but sometimes he took it too far. Her mother would know just what to say to make Carlos listen. She’d tilt her head in that way she had, like an owl looking at a mouse, a look Anna could almost hear during their nightly phone call. She didn’t say any of this. Instead, she backed the car out of the driveway and drove off. It wasn’t until the freeway on-ramp that she realized she’d forgotten all their emergency kits.
This drought was the worst on record, this year the driest year. All across Texas, cattle and crops went thirsty. Lakes shrank into puddles, revealing mysteries hidden by water for years. The strangest of these mysteries was debris from the space shuttle Columbia’s explosion, which had turned up in Lake Nacogdoches.
It had landed there in 2003, eight years ago, which was easy for Anna to remember—in fact, impossible to forget—because it had happened on the day Sam was born. In her memory, the two events were inseparable, though in reality she hadn’t known about the explosion until several days afterward, when she saw the headline in a stack of unread newspapers: 7 ASTRONAUTS DEAD IN DISASTER. She picked up the paper and, her whole body still sore, tiptoed into the kitchen, where Carlos was unloading groceries.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. She hadn’t been following it closely, but she’d been vaguely aware that the Columbia was on a mission.
“Your mom would’ve killed me,” he said. “She said you couldn’t handle any extra stress on top of the birth.”
Anna sighed. “She was probably right. I used to want to be an astronaut, you know.”
“Of course I know,” said Carlos.
It was all she’d wanted as a child—the weightlessness, the freeze-dried ice cream, the small immaculate room pinned up in the infinite blackness of space. She read everything she could about space travel back then: the conical design of the Apollo ships’ crew compartments, the risk of decompression sickness if you didn’t breathe pure oxygen before putting on a space suit. How miraculous that the human mind could conquer the chaos of the galaxy with mere numbers. If you just figured out the right position, velocity, trajectory, you could walk on the moon.
Carlos put a carton of eggs in the refrigerator. “Your mom’s a little…”
“A little what?” said Anna. An unfamiliar anger cut through her.
“I’m sorry my mom has high standards.” She wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but she was ready to fight about it.
Carlos picked up a package of diapers, and she followed him into the baby’s room. Awoken by their voices, Sam began to fuss in his crib. Forgetting her anger, Anna picked him up and settled into an armchair to nurse him. Science told her that babies who breastfed had fewer allergies and ear infections, higher IQs, lower rates of chronic disease. What it didn’t tell her was that breastfeeding would feel exactly like what it was: being eaten alive, her body no longer a living organism but a dumb sluice through which milk poured.
“You look so beautiful like that,” said Carlos.
She smiled to let him know she had heard him, even though it seemed beside the point. She was doing this for Sammy’s immune system, not to look pretty.
“I’m sorry about the astronauts,” he said.
“It’s okay,” said Anna.
She was too young to have seen the Apollo moon landings on TV, but in 1981, at age eight, she watched John Young and Robert Crippen take off in the first manned space shuttle: the Columbia. A few years later, the smaller but stronger Challenger followed, with its fancy heads-up display in the cockpit and a robotic arm so heavy it could only be lifted in the weightlessness of space. In these sleek vehicles, astronauts studied plasma physics, repaired faulty satellites, grew protein crystals more orderly than the ones on earth. Anna was especially fond of the women. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Anna Lee Fisher, the first mother. Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to perform a spacewalk, tethered to the Soyuz T-12 with only a meager umbilicus of rope.
On January 28, 1986, twelve years old, Anna and all the other students in Mrs. Connelly’s homeroom class watched on live television as the Challenger—her Challenger, the one with the fancy cockpit and the gigantic robotic arm—exploded. She saw it, but she didn’t remember it, because she fainted and hit her head and was sent home.
Her mother tried to comfort her by telling her it could never happen to her. She was smart enough to be an astronaut, of course, but would never pass the physical, couldn’t even pass the presidential fitness test. Anna readjusted her dream downward from astronaut to aerospace engineer and later to mechanical engineer. But even as an adult, she imagined slipping free of earth’s gravity, dwelling in the constant freefall of low earth orbit, shielded from outer space by aluminum and silica and American ingenuity. The Challenger was supposed to be that shield, until it blew up. And now the Columbia had too. And all she could do was be food for her baby.
A few miles out of town, Anna could almost forget that the fire was the reason they were in the car. With enough concentration, she could imagine the smoke was just a batch of neighborly barbecues. Burgers, a cooler of beer, Carlos distracted by some rocketing soccer ball, the kids burping chlorinated water, and all she had to do was smile and put a knife in a watermelon. The traffic, which had been atrocious, suddenly opened up. Maybe that meant some part of the fire had been contained. In a surge of optimism, Anna hit the gas.
Then, without warning, a dark mass scurried in front of her car.
She screamed and swerved, nearly hitting the car in the next lane, to no avail: she ran over the thing anyway. Now the kids were screaming too, and the driver of the car next to her was blaring his horn and giving her the finger.
“What was that?” said Carlos.
“Nothing,” said Anna.
But Sam twisted around to look behind them. “It was a possum!” he said. “With babies!”
He was right. It was a possum, now shunted to the side of the road, with half a dozen babies still clinging to its back, wriggling like maggots feeding on a corpse—which they were, in a sense, because they’d probably keep nursing from their dead mother until the milk ran out and they died too.
“Are the babies going to be okay?” said Sam. Anna could hear the tremble in his voice that meant he was going to cry. So could Maggie, and she burst into tears.
“Don’t cry,” said Anna. “It was nothing.”
Now Sam began crying too.
“Don’t cry!” said Anna. “It was nothing!”
Carlos turned and reached for both children’s hands. “If Mommy says it was nothing, it was nothing,” he told them.
“It was just a piece of rubber,” Anna said. “Someone’s tire blew out.”
“Does that mean someone crashed?” said Maggie, still crying, now even more panicked. Anna fantasized about shutting the kids up with ice-cream cones or lollipops or something, but that would be so irresponsible of her.
“It just means they had to use the spare tire,” said Carlos.
“What’s a spare tire?” asked Maggie.
“Well,” said Carlos, “it’s an extra tire you keep in a panel in—”
“What’s a panel?” asked Maggie.
A memory Anna hadn’t thought about in years: she and her mother, stranded with a flat, trying to change the right rear tire on their decomposing Ford, snow threatening to fall. Her mother couldn’t budge the lug nuts until Anna, ten years old but already mechanically minded, thought to bash the handle of the wrench with a rock. A man pulled over to help them, but Anna’s mother moved him along. “We don’t need any help,” she said, palming the top of Anna’s head, and they didn’t. They made it home before the snow started.
As Carlos explained spare tires, the kids’ crying turned into whimpering and then into quiet. In the rearview, Anna saw Maggie extend a hand toward her brother. Sam ignored it. Maggie held one of her plush bunnies by the ears and swung its body toward Sam but still couldn’t reach him. Finally, she tossed the bunny at her brother, its beanbag mass jingling against him.
He frowned and put the bunny back into Maggie’s lap. “Don’t crowd me,” he said.
Half an hour later, the kids had fallen asleep in the backseat. “You seem stressed out,” Carlos said.
“We’re fleeing a fire,” said Anna. “Why wouldn’t I be stressed out?”
“I mean in general.”
Behind them, Sam snored lightly. Maggie was asleep too, her dark curls hanging in tangles. (One hundred twenty-five decibels: The volume of Maggie’s screams when you tried to brush her hair, as estimated by Anna, based on the fact that that was the point at which loud sounds became physically painful to the human ear.) Sometimes Maggie seemed like one giant tear duct, a soppy mucus membrane of a child. She hadn’t made her bed that morning like she was supposed to. If the fire took their house, that was what it would find: clutter, disobedience. Sam made his bed, but then he spilled a glass of orange juice and blamed it on Maggie.
“Do you want to go back to work?” Carlos asked. “Back to school?”
“That’s no way to raise kids.”
“Most kids are raised that way,” said Carlos. “My parents both worked. Your mom worked.”
“But they had to,” she said. “We can afford not to.”
“Okay. But just know that I appreciate how difficult it is to stay home.”
Anna was glad her mother wasn’t around to hear this nonsense. Raising the kids wasn’t easy, but Carlos did statistical analysis for the parent company of several supermarket chains. He managed a whole team of people, and if he made a mistake, he could cost his employers millions of dollars.
“Raising kids is a privilege,” she said. “Your job is difficult.”
“You’re right,” he said. “It ain’t easy being full-time handsome.” He gave her the grin. Seventeen years: The amount of time he’d been giving her the grin. Fifteen years: The amount of time the grin worked on her. It still worked on waitresses, she noticed. On the kids’ teachers. She wanted it to work on her, but after years of excavating diapers and eating leftover fishsticks at the kitchen sink, her body didn’t seem to respond to things like that anymore.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Remember how much I hated it at Greenwood?”
After they’d graduated from Rice, she’d found engineering jobs elusive and started working for a recruiting firm that matched jobseekers with positions in technical fields. They told her she had great people skills, which she’d never heard before. She’d hoped to figure out how to someday land one of those technical positions, but instead she stayed on at Greenwood year after year. She was never sure why. Boys not old enough to drink, in suits that seemed to be gulping them down like pythons—they stared at her chest, expecting her to find them plum internships. Middle-aged men in khakis that ended an inch above their ankles—they talked down to her like she hadn’t graduated from a better school than they had, like she didn’t have college friends who worked for NASA. Occasionally there were women, and the women weren’t so bad, except that they wanted so much, and she wanted so much, but somehow they knew how to get it and she didn’t.
“Maybe we should go on a vacation,” said Carlos now. “Get away for a few days, as a family.”
“Our house could be burning down as we speak, and you’re talking about a vacation?”
“Perfect timing! We’ll need someplace to stay anyway.” He leaned his head against the window, too tired to deploy the grin. This was something the kids shared with him but not her: none of them could stay awake for long in a moving car.
“No way,” said Anna. “You’ve seen the kids when they have to share a room.”
“I know, but don’t you think—”
“Today, Maggie stole that superhero cape Sammy got for his birthday and scribbled all over it in silver Sharpie.”
“When I was young, we never had enough money to go on a real vacation,” said Carlos.
“I didn’t even know we had a silver Sharpie!” Anna turned up the air conditioning. How could she tell him that whenever she thought about taking the kids on a trip, she didn’t think about where they’d go but about leaving the kids there and flying home alone? How could she tell him she had thoughts like these too often to deserve a vacation? “Anyway, they’re too young to appreciate travel,” she said. “My mom took me to the Grand Canyon when I was Sammy’s age, and I barely remember it.”
“But you remember something.”
“Not really.” She remembered a crimson topography of sunburn, the sour shame of spilling food on her shirt at a restaurant. She remembered being dragged on a hike, the rocks sharp beneath the thin soles of her sneakers, begging to go home until her mother threatened to leave her behind: “If you don’t stop crying by the count of three, I’m leaving you with that donkey.” She also remembered that their hotel room had one queen-sized bed instead of two twins like it was supposed to. For three nights, her mother, sound asleep, searched out Anna’s body and nestled against it. Anna woke up each morning in a sea of her mother’s long brown hair, warm and fragrant.
Carlos leaned his car seat back and closed his eyes. Fifteen minutes later, he had drifted off, and the car was silent. The traffic choked up again; they made slow progress. She considered stopping somewhere to stretch her legs, maybe even try to pick up a bottle of wine for Carlos’s folks.
How strange, Anna thought, that she could do something like buying wine for her husband’s parents, as if she were a real adult. When she was young, she’d had the sense that childhood was a sort of ongoing state of failure. You would know you’d reached adulthood when you could get through a day, a week, a month, without making a mistake. Childhood was getting everything wrong, until you grew up and your mother no longer had to reprimand you for neglecting to set your school clothes out the night before, or for wanting her to brush your hair every morning even though you were too old for it. She felt like a child all throughout college as she continued to do things wrong—sleeping through early-morning classes, gossiping with her roommate instead of studying for finals. Everyone else seemed to know which professors were lenient or strict, which dorms had the best cafeteria food, how to start extracurricular clubs and apply for research grants. She stayed a child, though, calling her mother every night to ask for more advice, almost frantic until she could find some way to make those two words fly down the phone line, cool as aloe: “Good girl.” She eventually became a child with a bachelor’s degree, a child who got married. It occurred to her, as she piloted the car forward, that she was not even a real mother, but rather a child with children.
And then she saw it. At first it was just a spasm of movement on the horizon, but as she kept driving, she could make out ripples and waves brown with muck, sloshing forward in a waist-high wall.
A flash flood.
There was a split second in which she seemed to have more simultaneous thoughts than her brain could physically produce. There was the double take, where her attention, straining toward the water, was off the road for what felt like whole minutes. There was the slim bright possibility of speeding directly into it, and some dizzy notion that God had launched fire and flood to cleanse the world of all the wretched mothers who couldn’t even get their kids to make their beds in the morning. She looked at Carlos, asleep, and then at the flood. She looked at the kids, asleep, and then at the flood. No one in the cars around her seemed to be pointing or gaping or reacting at all.
Anna pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped the car. She rattled her head around and popped her fists against her eyeballs, but the flood was still there, as if the world had been tipped sideways and all the hidden water that escaped the drought was freefalling toward them. “Wake up,” she said, shaking Carlos’s arm. “What do we do?”
She staggered out of the car, the flood rumbling like a skyscraper coming down. Everyone else on the freeway zipped madly forward. No traffic now—everyone was just dying to hit the water.
“What are they doing?” she yelled to Carlos. He was still waking up, scratching his mouth.
She heard Maggie keening, “Mommy, what’s wrong?”
Anna ripped the girl from her booster seat and hoisted her into the air to see the oncoming water. Adrenaline let her lift Maggie up as far as her arms could go. “Look!” she shouted over the mounting roar. Maggie began to whimper and fidget, her heels crashing into Anna’s cheekbones. “Stop squirming,” said Anna. “Don’t you see it?” Maggie only squirmed harder, her feet battering Anna’s face.
“Stop it!” Anna said, bringing Maggie roughly to the ground.
Maggie stumbled backward a step, still whining. Always whining.
Anna raised her hand and slapped her daughter across the mouth.
At the gas station off the next exit, Anna lurched into the mini-mart. The temperature was in the nineties outside, but inside, the air conditioner was on full blast. She was not thinking of how good-bad it felt to swing her hand, like tearing a scab from your kneecap. She was not thinking of Carlos rushing from the car at the sound of the slap. She was thinking only of how, when she looked up from her daughter, the flood was gone. No trace of it, not a drop. She couldn’t have explained it to Carlos, although he wanted to understand, his eyes were desperate with it. He seemed more concerned about Anna than about Maggie, even as he kissed Maggie and secured her back in her seat. “Are you okay?” he asked Anna. “What’s going on?”
Now, in the mini-mart, she shook her head as if the memory would tumble out. A refrigerator door separated her from rows of emerald pop bottles. She placed her forehead against it and wondered what to do next.
Her mother had been strict, had demanded behavior that met her high standards. But she had never hit Anna. Not once.
Anna took out her cell phone and dialed her mother’s number. “Hi, Mom,” she said in a weak chirp. “I just wanted to let you know that there’s a wildfire, but we’re on our way to Carlos’s folks’ house where it’s safe.”
“My goodness,” said her mother. “What about the house? You can’t lose the house, after all the precautions you took.”
Anna imagined the fire sauntering through the city of Tyler, leaving everything else untouched and going straight for her home. First it would take the lawn. Then the rosebushes—Carlos probably hadn’t really pulled those weeds, he’d just said so to appease her. The fire would consume the browning, flammable yard, weeds and all, and then it would lay an experimental tongue on the house. It would find the house delicious, she was sure. All the money and effort it represented, all the hours she’d spent inside it pacing and wiping food off the floor and staring at the ceiling. The fire would eat that all up. It would swallow the plasma TV and the sound system. It would make black ash of Maggie’s pink bedroom and devour all the books she’d read to Sammy at bedtime over the past eight years. It would not take long once it started. (Twenty minutes: The amount of time in which a fire can completely destroy a house under the right conditions.)
“I can’t save the house,” Anna said.
“Well, bring your husband’s parents a nice bottle of wine,” her mother said. She had perfect diction, no mush in her vowels or lipstick on her teeth. “I don’t want them to think poorly of you.”
“I will.” Anna looked up at the mini-mart refrigerators as if expecting to find a stately chardonnay next to the Mountain Dew.
“Good girl,” said her mother.
Anna stepped into a poorly lit corner stocked with bags of chicharrones. “Mama?”
“I made a mistake, Mama. Maggie was misbehaving, and I…I spanked her.”
Anna wanted to lie, but her mother always saw through it, and however mad she was about the truth, she was twice as mad if you tried to hide it. “Well,” said Anna. “I slapped her.”
“Slapped her!” her mother said.
“I’ll do better, I promise. It’s just that I saw something so strange. A mirage or something.”
“What do you mean? Are you all right?”
“I don’t know what happened. I was hoping you could…” Anna didn’t know how to finish the sentence. What was she hoping her mother could do?
“My love,” said her mother. “Please be honest with me, I only want what’s best for you. Are you—?” She made a strange little inhaling sound. “Are you taking drugs?”
Anna didn’t know how to fix this situation. Even worse, she realized, her mother didn’t know how to fix this situation. This was a woman who could tell you how to change a tire, what to wear to a job interview, when to wean your baby. But she had never faced down a vanishing flash flood, and she had no idea what to do about it.
“Never mind,” said Anna. “Everything’s fine.”
She hung up. Her mother called her back immediately, but Anna ignored the phone’s vibration. Her mother would be upset. She would not say “Good girl.” Anna felt like she was swimming in the ocean and had just turned around to find herself much farther from the shore than she’d realized.
She needed water, and of course she’d forgotten the emergency kits, so she took four water bottles from the mini-mart refrigerator. On the way to the register, she tripped and nearly knocked over a cardboard display case of candy bars. Midnight bars, the sign said: dark chocolate, the wrappers covered with stars. She decided to buy some.
“How about that weather?” said the cashier, an older man with white hair and a belly barely contained by his uniform’s blue shirt.
“I’m not sure I can stand it,” said Anna.
“They said on the radio everyone’s going crazy.” He had a ringing Texas accent, pronounced it ever-one. “People shooting people, animals running through the streets.”
“Animals?” She thought of the possum.
“All kinds of weird things,” he said, whipping the snacks over the barcode scanner. “A woman around here went missing a few years ago, and they just found her car yesterday. She drove into a lake and killed herself. Left two kids behind. No one even knew where she went until the lake dried up.”
“That’s horrible,” said Anna. Her voice came out in a whisper.
The cashier looked up. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said with genuine concern. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Anna looked at the plastic rack on the counter next to her. “I’ll take one of these maps, too.”
They used to drive everywhere, she and Carlos, before they married, before the kids. They’d take road trips, picking a city on the map—El Paso, Albuquerque, wherever—and setting out to conquer it. Anna would plan ahead: motel reservations, a cooler of snacks. And then Carlos would scuttle half her preparations with spontaneous stops at roadside fruit stands or hilariously low-rent tourist traps. It was good, though, in those days, to have her plans upended. It felt giddy and liberating to eat homemade Cajun peanuts in the desert, to hear her boyfriend murmur to her in Spanish over the creaking of a cheap mattress. And the plans never went completely awry; her organization balanced out Carlos’s improvisation like oil complements vinegar. (Forever: The amount of time she knew she’d be happy with Carlos, knew it like her multiplication tables.)
That was all so long ago, though. Longer ago than childhood somehow. Thinking about it was like remembering a movie she’d only seen the first half of. Whereas thinking about the present was like trying to pitch a tent in very gusty winds, or accidentally dropping a wineglass from a second-story window.
The kids, it turned out, were easy enough to placate. They so rarely got any candy at all, let alone a whole chocolate bar each.
Anna got in the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition.
“Why don’t you let me drive the rest of the way?” said Carlos.
“I already told you,” she said. “A truck almost tipped over. I was very scared, but I’m perfectly fine now.”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Carlos, frustration in his voice. “Let me help.”
“I’m fine,” she repeated.
He may have been annoyed, but he couldn’t help it: once the car was in motion, it quickly lulled him to sleep. In the battle between exhaustion and fear, exhaustion won. She consulted the map and veered south. Sam and Maggie stayed up, munching uneasily, but that was fine. They didn’t know where she was supposed to be going.
As for Anna, she ate her Midnight bar in three bites and threw the wrapper out the window. “When I was your age, I had never eaten a whole candy bar by myself,” she said to the kids. “I wasn’t allowed to.” They said nothing.
Her mother kept calling, but—and this was a revelation—she couldn’t make Anna pick up.
There was one big difference between the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster: the Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff, but the Columbia made it all the way to space. The crew knew they’d lost a piece of foam insulation off the main fuel tank during the launch, but they weren’t sure how bad the damage was. Plenty of missions had shed a bit of foam and returned to earth safely. NASA wasn’t concerned.
Seven astronauts, commanded by Rick Husband. Five men, two women, in orbit without incident for sixteen days. Anna read up on it afterward. The crew studied the viscosity of xenon and the way spiders spin webs in zero gravity. They observed a new atmospheric phenomenon, a red glow in the dust over the Mediterranean. Then they headed home.
What no one realized was that the fallen foam had nicked the thermal insulation on the Columbia’s left wing. The speed, the heat, the friction of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere—the damaged wing couldn’t take it. The ship was already losing parts as it crossed into California airspace at 7:53 AM, heading east. As it reached Texas a few minutes later, there could be no question about what was coming, but it was too late to do anything about it.
How did the astronauts feel as the ship began to streak the sky over Dallas with debris? Was there even time to panic? Did they think of their children, their spouses, the scent of their mothers’ hair? Did they regret every choice that had led them to this moment? Or were their minds still on the memory of floating across the crew compartment, the earth an exquisite bauble in the darkness below them? They all knew the risk, they all saw what happened to the Challenger. Was it easier to face death if you already knew what it was like to ascend off the planet? Was it worth it to pay for the miracle of spaceflight with your life?
At 8:05 AM, the last of the Columbia exploded over Tyler, Texas, where Anna lay in a hospital bed giving birth to her first child. She didn’t hear the boom, distracted as she was by the pain, and the painkillers. Neither did her husband, her mother, or her in-laws. But her neighbors heard it. The garbage collectors and dogwalkers and the teachers and students at the school her children would one day attend heard it. And the pieces of what used to be a spacecraft scattered across Texas and Louisiana, landing in Tyler and Hemphill, Palestine and Shreveport, in Lake Nacogdoches, where they would remain submerged until the drought burned the water away.
Anna drove two hours down 19. She didn’t care what Sam and Maggie did as long as they stayed quiet. Carlos didn’t raise his head until the car slowed for the off-ramp. She hoped he wouldn’t notice the sun starting to set.
“We should be there by now,” he said, sitting up and squinting out the window at the unfamiliar scenery.
“I had to take a detour,” she said. “Because of the fires. Animals crossing the road.”
“I thought you said a truck almost tipped over,” said Carlos. Then he said, “Where are we?” and this time his voice had a note to it she’d never heard before.
“Almost there,” she said.
Then—it was bound to happen—he caught sight of a road sign. “Are you joking? You’re hundreds of miles away, Anna!”
Anna checked the rearview. Maggie was winging her stuffed rabbit at Sam, who was picking at the hem of his shirt. She glanced at the map in her lap and made a lefthand turn.
“Is that a map?” said Carlos. “Did you take us here on purpose?”
Hands at ten and two, she reminded herself. No, hands at nine and three. Hands at six and seven—who cared?
“Will you please just answer me?” said Carlos, yelling now.
By the time she pulled the car into the parking lot, Carlos’s face was a few inches from hers, vermilion. She decelerated, refusing to look at him as he shouted, spit from his lips hitting her cheek, “Qué haces, qué chingaderas haces?” In the rearview mirror, she saw Sammy still plucking at his shirt with his right hand, but now his left hand held the cottony ears of a lilac-colored bunny. The bunny’s body stretched across the back seat, its ears in Sam’s hands, its long feet in Maggie’s. Maggie was crying, but—for once—softly.
Anna parked across three spaces, got out of the car, and started walking. A few picnickers drank beers to her right. A scrawny boat sat in the water. Carlos was only a few steps behind her. If she listened, she would have heard him shouting and shouting, like a vacuum cleaner hitting a wall. But she wasn’t listening. She was looking at the last of the sunset splashing iron-red across the water, the trees crisping into silhouettes, the distant smoke, and, somewhere farther from the shore, maybe, the silver hide of a ship that had sailed into space. Lake Nacogdoches. Her mother back in Michigan wouldn’t even know how to spell it.