When Jeton awakes, it is still dark. He hears dogs barking. Dogs are always barking on Ebeye. But somehow this sounds different, persistent like a warning. Next door a baby is crying: a faint but distinct complaint beyond the racket of rain. Lying on his cot in the closet-sized pantry behind his mother’s kitchen, Jeton stares at the ceiling and thinks it remarkable that the roof does not leak.
Wind makes the plastic over the rusted screens on either side of him billow and snap. He tries listening for his mother’s snore. Betra and Samson often complain of it because they share her room. Jimkin, his middle brother, sleeps at his girlfirend’s house His fatherand oldest brother are working on Majuro. His older sister sleep at a cousin’s house. Some nights Jeton finds himself taking this inventory, as if to answer the question, Where am I?
Rain pummels the roof; the dogs bark; the baby cries.
Then he remembers Stevie, who was sharing his cot.
Jeton sits up, swings his feet off, then yelps at the cold that seems to bite his legs. No, not cold exactly: wet. He stands abruptly—he’s up to his calves in water.
They say that one day all of Micronesia will be under water—maybe before Jeton is an old man. Even though teachers have explained this, how the ice at the top and bottom of the world is melting, it makes no sense to Jeton. How much ice can there be?
Now, sloshing through his mother’s swamped house, he decides that Ebeye is not sinking. There has to be some other explanation.
The house is not much larger than Stevie’s lost boat, the Irooj: kitchen with a small table, a 2-burner propane stove, and a refrigerator the size of an ice chest; one room for the TV and two bamboo chairs; then his mother’s room, with its two cots and a rosewood chest she is still paying for. He finds her lying on her back, her mouth open. She wears a cotton slip that looks like a housedress. Her snores are as loud as gull chatter. Betra and Samson are awake in the bed they share, watching the rising water with fascination.
Betra lies on her stomach and dangles an arm over the bedside, tracing her fingers across the water’s surface. Samson is pushing everything he can find into the water to see if it floats: pages from a calendar, a paper napkin, a paper cup, a pencil, the lid from his mother’s face cream, a plastic bottle, a plastic bottle cap.
Though it is night, it is as bright as a full moon because of the street light next to their house.
“Samson wants to be a jela,” Betra says. The noise of rain on the roof makes it hard to hear her. She is smiling.
“Do you see?” Samson waves his hands over the things he has set afloat.
“Did you try to wake jine-?” Jeton asks
Betra raises her brows in question.
“The water,” says Jeton, “doesn’t that worry you?”
“It is unusual,” Betra says finally.
“It’s bwebwe!” says Jeton.
Samson has waded over to his mother’s cot and is pushing at her shoulder. “Look, jine-!”
“Enana,” she says, one hand pawing the air in protest.
Betra puts her few things into a purple plastic backpack while Jeton takes down his mother’s dress from the nail next to the doorway.
When Jeton’s mother sits up, blinking, she says, “Jete awa kio?”
This makes Betra laugh. “It’s nana time,” she says.
Jeton’s mother rubs at her puffy eyes, then fixes her three children with a suspicious gaze.
“It’s the tide,” Jeton says.
Samson makes a playful splash. “See?”
She stares in disbelief at the water that surrounds them. “Mother Mary!”
When they open the front door, a surge of water floods in, swamping Samson, who flounders and kicks. Jeton fishes him out by the collar of his T-shirt: “Stand up, little brother!”
Samson rights himself uneasily, spitting water “Where’s my hat?”
“Why is the water so high?” their mother asks. “What has happened?”
“My Yankee baseball hat,” Samson says. “It’s gone!”
“We got no time to find your hat,” Betra says.
“I can’t swim,” their mother says. “None of us knows how to swim except you, Jeton.”
Jeton pictures himself swimming with the three of them on his back. “I will get you another hat,” he tells Samson.
“A Yankee hat,” Samson says.
“A Yankee hat,” Jeton repeats, thinking now of the promise he made to Stevie. The Marshallese are notorious for making promises they never keep—Jeton has heard the Americans say this. But the Americans don’t understand that when the Marshallese are making promises, they are simply trying to be polite: a promise can make people happy for the moment, the way Jeton has made Samson happy right now That is the good of promises.
Jeton hikes Samson onto his back, then the family moves into the crowded street, where the water is waist-high. Neighbors are shouting for their loved-ones, small children on the backs of larger children. Betra has trouble keeping up. Jine- pulls her along by one arm. Three dogs paddle past frantically, their heads barely above water, their eyes rolled back nearly to the whites.
It is just a matter of time before the sharks come, Jeton thinks.
The rain pounds steadily, the drops as big as quarters.
Jeton hears the sputter of a motorboat, then sees it wallow through the intersection ahead: it is already too crowded and will probably capsize as others grab for it.
If this were only rising water, people could stay afloat; it would not be so difficult. But the water is growing rougher, surging as the high waves tumble in.
Ahead in the crowd Jeton sees cousin Mike, two aunts and an uncle. When Jeton catches up, Mike says, “Where’s Stevie?”
“He was drunk like me,” Jeton says, as if this answered the question
“You’re still drunk,” Mike says dismissively. “Follow me.”
Samson starts singing, “Jeton’s drunk, Jeton’s drunk.”
Jeton feels more scared than drunk. In the intermittent glow of street lights and windows, the rain looks green. Within minutes, he loses Mike in the crowd. It’s hard to tell the panicked talking from the downpouring tumult.
His mother close behind and Betra between them, Jeton stops in front of the Good Day Variety store and lets the crowd press past. Betra is up to her neck in water.
“Here,” Jeton says. “Climb to the roof.” He lifts Samson to the top of a soda machine and instructs him to reach the low roof nearby. Betra follows. Agile and eager, the children move quickly, then wave down, grinning from their perch. Next, Jeton’s mother tries but she’s too heavy and doesn’t have the strength to pull herself up. Jeton offers her the stirrup of his intertwined hands. He strains to hoist her—he feels his elbows pop from the weight, his shoulders burning—but then she buckles and falls back, slamming him into the store’s grilled window.
Jeton tastes the salty bite of his bloody tongue. “Damn!” he says in English, shaking his head to clear away the stars.
His mother rises from the water, sputtering. In the red glow of the soda machine, she gapes at him with a wide-eyed mijak face—like those masks the Americans wear at Halloween.
If she drowns, he realizes, this is what she will look like when she returns to haunt him.
He shouts instructions into her ear and, trembling, she nods her understanding. “Okay?” he asks.
“Okay,” she answers.
Then he’s down on all fours, holding his breath in the deepening water, as she steps onto his back. Now, slowly, he rises, keeping his back straight, wanting to scream at the pain, his lungs kicking for air like a landed snapper. He prays to no god in particular, prays that his mother finds the strength, that her capable hands find a hold, that she pulls up, up, up.
When he breaks the surface finally, nearly sobbing, he can’t tell any longer where the weight is. But then he sees that his jine- is above him, kneeling precariously on top of the soda machine.
“Stay there, don’t move,” he says.
Behind him he hears a crack, like a tree splitting in half, and he knows it’s a transformer blowing, a common sound on Ebeye. Two more cracks follow. Then the lights are gone—boom! like that—and a communal wail rises from the darkened island.
Jeton makes a basketballer’s leap for the roof lip: he grabs hold but pulls away only tarpaper. Then a passerby gives him a hoist up and Jeton scrambles onto the lower roof. When he turns around to offer a hand to his helper, he sees only more passing crowd.
Quickly he pulls his mother up, then they clamber onto the higher roof of Good Day Variety, a cinderblock building that should be able to withstand the storm waves. About 50 others are up here too, families with their chickens and goats, the children running too near the roof’s edge. Jeton wonders if the roof will hold. Buildings on Ebeye are poorly made, everybody knows. Jeton cautions Betra, Samson, and his mother to sit toward the edge, facing the lagoon.
From this height, he sees streams of flashlight rising and crossing like poles of yellow bamboo on other rooftops. Below, on higher ground, several stalled cars and pickups send wavering blue-green beams into the rising water. And beyond, where the waves are tumbling in from the ocean, he sees the luminescence of foam in thin jagged lines.
More lights approach from the lagoon: lanterns on the boats. Now bigger boats are able to motor through some of the streets. There’s the Blue Lady a block away, looking eerily lovely, its strings of white lights glimmering from its mast. Some people swim for the boat. Jeton hears much shouting. There will never be enough boats for all of Ebeye’s 13,000 people.
Suddenly an orange light drizzles from overhead: a single flare rocketing a smoky arc toward Kwajalein, just two miles south. Another follows. Then another.
“Fireworks!” Samson exclaims.
Several of the children are pointing with glee.
“There,” Jeton says. He wipes rain from his eyes. “Isn’t that Hideo’s boat?” It’s a big white apparition in the near distance.
“Hideo doesn’t care about us,” his mother says.
Peering through the downpour is like peering through a swirl of sandy water: the many lights shift and bleed in the haze and the shapes swell then shrink instantly.
“Stevie said he was going to borrow Hideo’s boat.”
“Hideo would not be happy about that,” his mother says.
“Maybe Hideo’s on Majuro.”
“Stevie knows better.”
“Wave. Let him see where we are.” Jeton flails both arms.
Ah, there it is, Hideo’s big white boat—now the size of a bread loaf. But it does not come nearer, though people aboard are waving. They are illuminated by the white lights under the boat’s canopy. Jeton cups his hands over his eyes. Who are they?
“Is it Stevie?” Betra asks. She waves too.
Jeton cups his hands, then shouts, though he knows his voice won’t carry in the rain.
“Why are they waving?” Jeton’s mother asks She sounds tired. “They are not coming here.”
“Is it Stevie?”
“I’m cold,” Samson says. “Let’s go someplace else.”
“We’re waiting for cousin Stevie,” Jeton tells him. “He’s coming with a boat.”
“Not that boat?” Betra asks.
Already the big white boat is lost in the rain. At first, it seemed there were many boats plying nearer and now it seems there are none.
Jeton fingers the rain from his ears, then wipes at his face with both hands. “No, not that boat. Let’s wait and see.”
“I could’ve brought my umbrella,” his mother says.
Then Betra chirps, “I won’t have to wash for a month!”
Jeton turns to smile at her, smoothing the soaked hair from her face. He wonders if his older brother and sister got on a boat. And cousin Mike and Anjua, the smart girl who won a scholarship. And Stevie. If Stevie was too drunk, if he didn’t watch where he was going. . . .
Someone flashes a light into the street and Jeton sees so many things afloat: buckets, pans, corrugated plastic, cans, clothes, plastic bags, a plastic tricycle, a drowned cat.
The water is now halfway to where they stand. Maybe they will be safe here, though they are closer to the oceanside than Jeton would like. Right now, the waves coursing over Ebeye and channeling through the streets seem manageable because there is so much to break their currents: walls, trucks, cars, houses. But soon, who knows?
Jeton tells himself there is nothing to do but watch and wait. Maybe Stevie will come. Maybe the rain will stop. Maybe the Americans will arrive with their big boats and save them all.
From MISSILE PARADISE. Used with permission of Ig Publishing. Copyright © 2016 by Ron Tanner.