Nineteen-year-old Margaret Fleming worked behind the counter at Fun Zone, a lakefront video arcade in downtown Maynard. It was Margaret’s job to tabulate paper arcade tickets and assist her under-aged customers in redeeming their prizes. Margaret liked the work. She was good at it. It took a certain diplomacy to tell a four-year-old that their handful of tickets wouldn’t come close to buying them a kazoo. The way Margaret figured it, here at Fun Zone, she was teaching an important life lesson, one that had to do with planning and self-restraint. Margaret knew firsthand the benefits of saving for the future, and had already tucked away nearly enough for her first year of college. And kids were so teachable, not like some others she knew. Most times she threw in a complimentary Swedish fish to soften the blow.
Some of the prizes at Fun Zone were substantial. Ten thousand tickets could get you a portable television set, although Margaret had never witnessed an exchange of this magnitude. The largest prize Margaret ever dispensed was the one-size-fits-all clown shoes. They went for eight hundred tickets. She sold them to a waif of a girl in a dirty windbreaker, who came in with an elderly woman hunched over a cane. Margaret was struck by the old woman’s enthusiasm. She whacked plastic alligators with a rubberized mallet and stopped to admire the animatronic chickens, all with a sense of wonder that seemed authentic. At the counter, her smile revealed a neat row of identical gold teeth. Together, she and the little girl whispered their purchasing strategies, in what sounded like Russian.
Margaret had quite a job sorting and counting their tickets. Some of them were worn to a tissue-like fineness, and had the faint, minty smell of a grandmother’s purse. Clearly, these two had been stockpiling for a while. Feeling they might be kindred spirits, she made a suggestion. “The metal safe on the top shelf has a real combination lock.”
The girl and the old woman considered Margaret’s recommendation politely, but in the end it was the clown shoes they were after. “Life is short,” the grandmother said, looking directly into Margaret’s eyes. With some effort, she bent over and helped her granddaughter slip the red, floppy shoes over her sneakers. Apparently the little girl was wearing them to go.
“Careful, it’s raining out,” Margaret warned, an obvious statement since it had been raining steadily for days on end. They only smiled and nodded their goodbyes. Margaret watched them leave, hand in hand, seemingly oblivious of the puddles ahead.
Margaret tried to remember if she’d ever been taken to an arcade when she was little. Nothing came to mind.
She did remember a family trip to the Jersey Shore, when she was a preschooler, exactly three years before her father left them for his secretary. Margaret kept a picture from that vacation in her top desk drawer; her only proof that they’d all been happy together—at one point, anyway. The photograph was taken on the boardwalk, outside of a fudge shop. They were all bunched together; her older brother Larry and Margaret—two opposites side by side; Larry so skinny with those hunched shoulders of his, and Margaret more sturdy looking, even in a pink, ruffled dress. One of Larry’s gangly arms draped casually over Margaret’s shoulder, like they were war buddies or something, everything so easy between them then. Next stood her mother, back when she was thin, looking like a movie star in her capris and sunglasses, and her father in that flat cap he always used to wear. Sometimes Margaret would hold the photo close, trying to make out her father’s expression, wondering if he was already laying down plans for his escape. It didn’t seem so. They were all smiling and squinting into the sun, blinded by the sheer brightness of the moment.
At quitting time, Margaret pulled on her knee-high waders. It had been raining for a record breaking forty days in a row. The newspapers were all making biblical references and one town eccentric was building an ark. The old man had been predicting Armageddon for years. He kept his wooden construction lakeside and hammered away at it all day long. Margaret heard the steady rapping as she locked up the Fun-Zone. She crossed the street to get a better look at Lake Boon. The eccentric was hard at work, shirtless and barefoot, his long grey hair streaming under his tie-dye bandana. A small crowd had gathered. People were taking selfies with the lake in the background. The lake’s water level was at an all time high and the legs of the lifeguard stand were completely submerged, so that it looked as though its chair were floating right on the water’s surface. Margaret snapped a picture of it with her own phone. She would show it to her father later when she visited him. Today was his first day home from the hospital.
Despite all of the puddles, Margaret made good time on the walk home. She kept to the highest ground. A man traveling down Main Street in a kayak waved to her and Margaret waved back. They were all in this together. Margaret weaved her way through back roads and side streets, until finally she began the climb up Hill Street into the working class neighborhood where she had lived all her life.
When she finally arrived home, Margaret paused on the sidewalk to consider the house she shared with her mother and brother. The green, two-story row house had a roof that sagged and its paint was peeling. When her father was living with them, upkeep had been better, but not anymore. Shutters became loose, and then unhinged, before finally falling down behind the flat-topped shrubbery. Margaret wished she could do more, but at nineteen, she was not yet savvy in the world of home maintenance, and besides, her mother didn’t save for those sorts of things. Many times, Margaret had needed to dip into her own savings to cover their basic expenses, much to her father’s chagrin. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he always said. “Your mother gets plenty of alimony.” Easy for him to say. He didn’t have to endure the pouting, the silent treatment. Margaret walked to the front steps and rested her hand on the wooden railing. What bothered her most was that whenever she paid for this or that, she never got a full thank you from her mother. It was always “Of course, I’ll pay you back, that goes without saying.” That was one of her mother’s favorite expressions for things that would never actually happen—“that goes without saying,” and Margaret was expected to go along with the facade. She pulled at a flake of green paint bubbling up off the bannister, finding it strangely satisfying when it peeled off in one large sheet. I wonder how much paint costs, she thought, as she navigated over a rotted porch step onto the top landing. Resting against the screen door sat a large UPS box. Margaret sighed and brought the package inside. She deposited it next to her mother who lay, as she did most days, convalescing on the couch.
“Oh good,” her mother said when she saw the box. “I bet that’s my Flavor Wave Oven.”
Margaret had seen the Flavor Wave advertised on TV. It looked like an enormous crockpot, and had the ability to cook a pork roast or a birthday cake, indiscriminately.
What was unique about it, Margaret’s mother was in the process of explaining, was that it used a patented 3-way cooking process. “It’s one of those INFRA-RED jobs,” she said.
“So, like a microwave you mean?” Margaret asked.
Her mother made a face like she’d just tasted something sour and shook her head scornfully. “We’ve already GOT a damn microwave!”
The most obvious question of course, the one that remained conspicuously unasked , was the question of where they would store the new purchase. The counters in the kitchen were still burgeoning with last month’s acquisitions. The Eggstractor which peeled eggs in seconds, sat unopened atop the Meatball Magic meatball press.
Margaret pointed at the Flavor Wave. “You want me to make dinner in it?” she asked, trying to smooth things over. She was always trying to smooth things over.
“Nah,” her mother said, “It’ll hold its value better if it stays in the box.”
Margaret looked away. “We’ll have hotdogs then,” she announced, and set off to get started.
The burden of fixing dinner usually fell onto Margaret’s broad shoulders. Her mother wasn’t well. Recuperating, she always said, from an undiagnosed condition, the predominant symptom of which was a chronic state of lethargy. Margaret’s brother Larry appeared to be similarly afflicted. He was twenty and held no job to speak of and spent most of his time in chat rooms, or investigating the odd blog.
The small, galley-style kitchen was more of a closet than a room. Margaret opened a package of hotdogs and dropped two into her mother’s Hammacher Schlemmer hotdog cooker. They fit perfectly into the cylindrical holes provided. Grabbing some rolls from the breadbox, she inserted these into the separate browning baskets on either side of the appliance. It was like a toaster. One press of the thumb and the entire collection of frankfurters and buns descended into the contraption, where a 660-watt electronic heating coil cooked them all to perfection. After just three minutes, Margaret heard the familiar ping.
“Supper’s ready!” she called out, nesting the cooked hotdogs into their buns, and efficiently popping two more down.
Her mother began the slow shuffle from the living room, her slippers making that familiar scraping noise with each step. Margaret buzzed around, setting various items onto the table: mustard, potato salad, a jar of pickled beets.
“Is this all there is?” her mother asked, the folds of her chin quivering.
“I’ve got some devilled eggs that might go nice,” Margaret offered in earnest. Just then her brother Larry appeared, his long hair disheveled, shirt untucked, goatee overgrown.
“I hate devilled eggs,” he muttered, taking a seat at the table.
Quietly, Margaret set the hotdog platter down in front of him and went to fetch three cherry cokes from the kitchen.
“So, what’s happening in the world?” she heard her mother ask Larry. Every night their conversation tended to revolve around her brother’s online discoveries for the day.
“They’re still trying to get a buyer for Neverland.” Larry offered.
“Oh, well that’s a shame,” her mother said. “I always loved that Elvis.”
“That’s Graceland mother,” Margaret called from the kitchen, “Neverland is Michael Jackson’s old place.”
The correction seemed not to register. “I ordered some great Elvis collectibles last spring,” her mother continued.
“MARGARET!” she bellowed over one shoulder. “Where are my Elvis martini glasses?”
Margaret came out of the kitchen then, and set the drinks down on the table. “I think they’re in the bathtub with your Marie Osmond dolls.” she said.
The Fleming’s upstairs bathroom was used as a storage facility for her mother’s Christmas ornaments, craft supplies, and collectibles. Margaret had kept the c’s together in an attempt to stay organized.
“I need to get those glasses OUT ,” her mother said irritably, as though Margaret had been purposely hiding them from her. “Maybe have some people over for a little get together.”
Margaret’s eyes shifted to the packages crowding every open seat in the living room. She imagined their guests sitting right on top of the boxes while they sipped their martinis, their feet not quite reaching the floor.
“You can get a ton of Elvis stuff on ebay,” Larry said, offhandedly. “I saw once they were selling his x-rays.”
Her mother’s right hand, holding a spoonful of potato salad, froze in mid-air. “ Really? ” she said. “For how much?”
Her mother hadn’t always been a hoarder. Back when Margaret was really little, her mother had energy for housekeeping. Margaret even remembered her sitting cross-legged on the floor for games of Chutes and Ladders. But that was long ago.
Margaret still couldn’t figure out what went wrong exactly, or why. First came the sleeping. Their mother just stopped getting out of bed. Margaret and her brother, who were still quite young at the time, adapted. They got themselves ready for school, Margaret pouring the cereal, while Larry fished clothes out of the hamper for them to wear. Once, on Picture Day, he’d even tried to braid her hair. After school, they usually arrived home to find the house dark, their mother still asleep. The gloominess frightened Margaret. Larry made a game of things. They took flashlights into a blanket fort; a secret safe space, and ate Fig Newtons on little plastic plates. Larry protected her from things, back then. Their father tried his best, working long hours but filling in gaps when he could—bringing convenience store groceries home in one small bag.
Their father’s leaving had been harder on Larry. Her brother’s anger was a gaping wound that nobody was allowed to soothe. He boycotted the shared custody agreement and blamed Margaret for continuing to see their dad on the weekends. No more forts, no more Fig Newtons on plastic plates. Losing her brother was the most difficult part of all for Margaret.
After dinner, Margaret went to visit her father in his apartment across town. She found him propped up in the hospital bed that Hospice had delivered.
“Make yourself comfortable,” her father said, motioning to a chair, before breaking into a hacking cough. He took the oxygen mask off his face and spit into a tissue, which he balled up and threw it into a wastebasket full of other similar wads. Margaret’s father was dying of lung cancer.
“Your brother’s not making an appearance today, huh?”
“No, he had some work to do I guess.”
“Yeah,” her father snorted. “Work.”
His wife, Betty, came in, balancing a bowl of soup on a bed tray.
“How about if we watch a movie together?” she suggested, settling the tray across her father’s lap. “Something uplifting.” She tucked a napkin under her father’s chin.
Betty wasn’t so bad. Margaret had wanted to hate her, especially in the beginning, but just couldn’t. Even back when she was seven, she had some understanding of why her father felt the need to go. She only wished he’d taken her with him.
“Sure, a movie sounds good,” she said now. She went over to their shelf of DVD’s and started reading titles aloud. She paused when she got to the Jimmy Stewart section.
“Oh…It’s a Wonderful Life. I love that movie.” Margaret said. “I mean—I know it’s not Christmas….”
“You would love that movie Margaret,” her father said. “You’re George Bailey to a tee.”
“Aww, thanks Dad,” Margaret said.
“It’s not a compliment!” Her father yelled. “That George Bailey never got anything he wanted in life. He gave up his career ambitions, his trips to Europe.”
“Yeah, but he came through for people, and his friends supported him in the end,” Margaret argued.
“His friends weren’t helping George, they were bailing out Uncle Billy, and that incompetent was never held accountable for anything!” her father yelled, his vocal chords bulging.
“Don’t get yourself worked up, dear,” Betty murmured, patting his leg.
He pushed Betty’s hand away and leaned forward. “Margaret, I want you to promise me that you’ll stop enabling your mother.” His eyes softened. “You’re so full of promise, Margaret. Stop dipping into your savings and get out of here. If I hadn’t gotten sick…”
“Stop, Dad. I know you’d help more if you could. I’m just waiting until I have a little bit more of a cushion.”
Her father shook his head. “If you’re always waiting for the perfect time to start living your own life, it will never happen.”
“I get it, Dad. Life is short, right?” She regretted the comment as soon as she made it.
“You have no idea,” her father said, before lapsing into another rattling cough.
That night Margaret dreamt she was drowning in the middle of Lake Boon. Flailing her arms, she fought to stay afloat, while something under the water’s surface tugged at her legs. In the far distance, her father drifted by on his hospital bed, IV pole and all. “Save yourself, Margaret!” he rasped, the force of his cough acting like some sort of jet propulsion system, moving him away from her and out of sight. Margaret turned to find a young George Bailey extending a hand. “Chain gang!” he called out, the same life saving direction he gave in the movie, but when Margaret got near, she saw that George himself was shackled about the neck. She watched helplessly as he was pulled violently beneath the water’s surface. Scattered debris bobbed all around her—Christmas ornaments, craft sticks and collectibles. Margaret clutched wildly at all of it, but it was no use. None of the clutter was buoyant enough to save her.
At work the next day, Margaret found her boss Reggie boarding up windows.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Hurricane’s coming. It changed course late last night,” he explained. “We’ve only got a few hours to board up these windows and get things off the floor.”
Margaret hurried inside and turned on the news. The governor had declared a state of emergency. People residing in low-lying areas were encouraged to evacuate and seek shelter on higher ground. Cots were being set up in the high school gym. Margaret called her father’s house first.
Betty answered the phone. “Thanks for thinking of us, honey,” she said, “but your father and I have talked it over and we’re gonna stay put. We’re on the third floor after all. People are saying we’ll be fine. It’s just really hard for your dad to move right now.”
Margaret felt her chest tighten. “Jeezus, that sounds crazy! Can’t an ambulance come and take him to a hospital or something?”
Betty was quiet for a moment. “Margaret honey?” she said. “Your dad just got out of the hospital. He asked to spend his last days here at home and I feel like I should try to honor that wish.”
It was hard to argue with that. Safety precautions didn’t seem particularly important for somebody who was dying.
“What about you though Betty?” Margaret asked, her voice softening.
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she said. We’ve got tons of supplies, and like I said, we’re on the third floor here. How high can the water get?
Margaret wished Betty wouldn’t ask questions like that.
It hadn’t been easy to convince her mother and brother to leave their house to shelter at the high school. Now that they were there, any shortcomings of the accommodation seemed to be blamed on Margaret. All night long the winds lashed out, while rain pummeled the gym’s steel roof.
“I feel like I’m living in a drum,” her mother said, looking pointedly in Margaret’s direction.
Some two hundred occupants sat on the edges of their cots, watching the news, which was projected on the sidewall, right alongside the rock climbing apparatus. By the time the hurricane hit land, it had been upgraded to a category five. Newscasters theorized that the levees might have held out, if the water level hadn’t already been so high beforehand. At around midnight, the gym went black.
“That’s just great. A shelter that doesn’t have a generator,” Margaret’s mother muttered from her cot, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Winds raged and water ravaged the streets. By early morning, the hurricane was finally declared over, but twenty-three people were reported missing. One by one, their faces flashed up on Margaret’s Facebook feed. She gasped when she saw the picture of the Russian grandmother and the little girl. “I know them,” she whispered, to nobody in particular.
“Shut that cell phone OFF Margaret,” her mother snapped. “We’re gonna need the battery on that thing to get out of this hell hole.”
“Let me just try Dad one more time,” Margaret said. She hadn’t been able to get through since late last night. All of the phone lines were down and neither he nor Betty owned a cell.
“Ha!” her mother spat. “I wouldn’t worry about that man. Your father always finds a way to come out on top, and that wife of his is no different—always looking out for herself, that one.”
By ten o’clock in the morning, news was starting to drift in. Many areas had been destroyed, but the homes in Margaret’s neighborhood were salvageable. Margaret took advice from a man that she met in the lobby, and called a flood restoration contractor, where she learned about things like homeowners insurance. “Most deductibles are typically around one thousand dollars,” he said. Margaret felt her jaw unclench. She could afford that and still have something left over for college. Back at the cots, she asked her mother about it.
“One thousand dollar deductibles are for rich people, Margaret,” her mother said. “Stop living in a dream world.”
When Margaret learned that her mother had opted for the cheaper, eight thousand dollar deductible, she felt her knees buckle. Her entire college fund.
“Margaret, don’t…” Larry said.
Her mother looked away and started picking at some lint on her blanket.
“What else are we going to do?” Margaret said to Larry. Their mother had already told them that all of her credit cards were maxed out.
Larry put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll get a job and pay part of it back,” he promised. “For real this time.”
“Well, of course we’ll pay her back,” her mother huffed. “That goes without saying.”
All night long, Margaret worried about her father. She called everyone she could think of to get more information: emergency hotlines, family friends, his lawyer. It was over ninety degrees in that gym, but she couldn’t get her teeth to stop chattering.
At six o’clock in the morning, Margaret finally got the call she’d been dreading. Emergency workers had found both her father and Betty in the flooded stairwell, unresponsive. It seems they’d been trying to get to the roof.
“But they were on the third floor,” Margaret said, somehow feeling that if she argued the implausibility of the situation well enough, her father and Betty would revert back to being alive.
The shock of it all caused a noticeable shift in each of them. Margaret was overcome by a state of lethargy so great that she felt tranquilized. Larry, however, assumed a leadership role. He furrowed out supplies, made their beds for them, and brought Margaret cups of tea. Their mother, for her part, stopped her incessant complaining for a record-breaking four-hour stretch. By noon though, her irritability finally won out.
“What do we have for lunch, Larry?” she said. “I’m famished.”
“They’re setting up stations in the cafeteria now,” Larry reported. “The Red Cross has donated sandwiches and water bottles.”
“Water…bleghh. Water makes me nauseous. Did you bring any cherry cokes, Margaret?”
Margaret could barely bring herself to look at her. “No mother,” she said. “Did you?”
For days, Margaret couldn’t keep her mind away from the what ifs. What if she’d tried harder to convince her father to evacuate? What if she’d notified the authorities sooner? She ran a hand through her hair, unable to escape the loop of regret that kept re-playing in her mind. “God!” she said aloud. “What was I thinking? What kept me from staying with them?”
“Margaret,” her mother moaned, as if on cue. “I need you.”
She needed help with the laptop, but neglected to close out all of the tabs before Margaret reached her. When Margaret saw the screen, her jaw literally dropped. “Are you serious? You’re ordering on Amazon?”
Her mother looked down guiltily.
It was almost as though she felt her father nearby. His hand on her shoulder. His whisper in her ear urging her to action. “Let me get this straight,” Margaret said. “I’m about to use my entire college savings on your house, while you continue to charge things that you can’t afford on a credit card that you claimed was already maxed out?”
“For your information, these are absolute necessities!” her mother sputtered. “And I’m charging them on my emergencies-only card!”
“Emergencies only? What do you call flood repair?” Margaret yanked the laptop out of her mother’s hands and saw that each tab had a different filled shopping cart with a separate credit card being used for each.
“I’m not spending a dime of my own money until all of your own cards are maxed out,” Margaret said. “ You’ve got one ending in 3245, 8765, 2137, and 3456. Hand them all over now.”
Her mother did whine and she did cry, but she also complied.
Margaret kept her eight thousand dollars and gave her mother’s credit cards to the contractor, instead. Larry accompanied Margaret over to the house, promising to help any way he could. There was a foot of water throughout the downstairs, and a hole in the roof caused flooding upstairs too. When Larry asked what, if any of their possessions, could be saved, they finally got their first piece of good news.
“Nothing,” the contractor said.
Back at the gym, the lights were back on and so was the news. A blonde newscaster in a bright yellow raincoat purported to have “Breaking news from Lake Boon.” Inexplicably, the waterline had receded significantly, even with all of the continued rainfall. An overhead shot showed the original beach, tan and smooth, and the newly exposed lake floor, which was mucky and full of rocks and sediment. Lake Boon was shrinking by the second and no one knew why or when it would stop.
“Where could all that water be going?” people on nearby cots kept asking each other at regular intervals. Later that evening, they finally got some answers.
Apparently, the excessive rains had unearthed a sinkhole in the center of the lake. The reporter claimed that this sinkhole, the dimensions of which were unknown, was thought to be centrally located.
“This is unbelievable,” a woman nearby said. “The whole lake is gonna get sucked into that hole.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Margaret’s mother said.
“That’s what they’re saying,” somebody persisted.
“Oh well, newscasters….” Margaret’s mother answered.
By eight-thirty CNN and CSPAN were covering the lake story too. Every station showed the same striking overhead shot of a body of water that had slowly begun to spin in a whirlpool motion.
“It’s like someone pulled the plug in a bathtub,” somebody said.
Yes , Margaret thought. That’s exactly what it was like .
Margaret, Larry, and the contractors, cleared the house out in a week. They rented a dumpster and loaded it full of junk; old high chairs, broken vacuum cleaners, her mother’s soaked and mildewed collectibles. When the upstairs bathtub was finally emptied, her brother pointed at the daisy shaped tread pads stuck to the bottom. “Remember these?” It was the first time they’d seen them in over ten years.
“I forgot they were orange,” Margaret said.
It was close to midnight by the time she and Larry were finished. They climbed into their mother’s rust colored Lincoln. The rain had finally stopped, and the effect was surreal. Margaret drove slowly along the deserted streets, her nerves feeling jagged and raw. Even the sound of the blinker seemed loud and intrusive.
When they passed Lake Boon, Larry spoke. “Pull over,” he said, “I want to see it.”
As worn out as Margaret was, she conceded. Even she could not resist such a spectacle.
For a while they just stood next to each, straining to fully comprehend what they were seeing.
“It’s gone,” Margaret finally said.
The grand expanse of desolation was like nothing Margaret had ever seen before. Dead fish were scattered about and the air was tainted by a necrotic stench. Three hundred yards out, the sinkhole sat at the center of it all. A volcanic-like crater surrounded by buckling earth. It seemed as though an asteroid had struck, or a bomb. Mud-drenched debris was scattered everywhere: beer cans, sand shovels, an old doll, all of them uniformly brown. It was just as they were turning to leave that Margaret noticed a single splotch of red. Lying on its side, covered mostly, but not entirely in mud, was one of the Fun-Zone’s clown shoes. That was what finally made Margaret break down and cry.
“Why do the sweetest people always have to die?” she sobbed.
Larry held her, and listened while she described the pair.
“Wait, what? The grandma with the gold teeth? You haven’t heard the news then?”
Margaret shook her head. She’d purposely stopped watching the news.
“Those two were found! They’re OK!”
Larry pointed across the lake to the ark that now stood perfectly upright, sitting in sludge. “Apparently, they went on that crazy guy’s boat. A bunch of people did. They all survived.”
For some reason this made Margaret cry even harder.
Larry tried to cheer her up, promising her that things would get better. With her father’s inheritance, college might actually happen sooner for Margaret than she’d originally planned. “You might even wind up with a little extra money,” Larry said. “You’ll probably put it into some sort of low risk bond,” he teased.
“You’re wrong there,” Margaret said. “I’ll buy myself a car. A red one.”
“I’d love to see that,” Larry said. “You, driving out of here in a red car. ”
Maybe her brother was right and things would get better. Margaret tried to think of what had been saved; her relationship with Larry for one, and the little girl and her grandmother. She tried to feel grateful for all that her father had left her—the sure knowledge that she was loved, and an inheritance that might actually set her free. Still, there was no denying what had been lost. Margaret looked out at the wreckage surrounding her, and couldn’t help but feel that they were all, in one way or another, still left with a gaping hole, one that nobody seemed to know how to fill.
Alison Bullock’s short fiction has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Boston Literary Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and the Momaya Annual Review. She lives in Massachusetts.
© 2020, Alison Bullock