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"2100" by Andrew Payton
When his teacher projected a map on the screen she sometimes pulled over the chalkboard, Arthur Leonard learned that his neighborhood would one day be underwater.
Arthur raised his hand, asked, “When?”
“Six and a half feet by 2100,” the teacher said.
“How far away is that?” he asked.
“I won’t be alive,” she said. “But you all might.”
Since seeing the maps, in the time between the school bus dropping him off and his mother coming home from the restaurant, Arthur has been walking the neighborhood with chalk and ruler. He picks his favorite buildings—the church that paid him five dollars an hour to scrape and paint the shingles last summer break, the old theatre where seat cushions spray stuffing and chandeliers dangle cobwebs—and he marks the rise of the water. Arthur places the edge of the ruler on the ground, stands on a milk crate he found in the alley behind the corner store, and marks one foot with his thumb, then two feet, three, and all the way to six and a half. There he draws a bold white line and writes “YEAR 2100.” Beneath the line he writes “UNDERWATER.”
After marking the buildings, Arthur likes to walk along the river. Not the big river that passes the famous buildings he once visited on a school trip, but a smaller river, one whose name few remember. Arthur doesn’t know if it will be that water or different water, and he doesn’t know how fast. Maybe the people will have time to move to other places, those the blue doesn’t cover on the map. Or maybe it will come with a heavy rain, and his house will be like one of the houses on the TV after brown water covers the lawns and pours in through windows and leaves every rooftop a square island populated by people waving signs.
At home, Arthur trades his sister the main floor bedroom and a year of doing the dishes on her nights in exchange for her room in the attic. The room is long and slender and the ceilings vaulted. He places his books in neat rows along the walls and fixes his glow-in-the-dark solar system to his new ceiling. That night, over dinner, when their mother comes home from the restaurant with leftover noodles and tomato sauce, his sister calls him stupid.
“The upstairs is too hot anyway,” she says.
His mother shakes her head. “As long as you’re both happy, I don’t care.”
Arthur finishes his spaghetti and asks to be excused. He goes out into the night with his chalk and ruler. Arthur pulls the picnic table against the house, climbs atop, and measures six and a half feet. His mother will be gone, and his sister too, in her new room. But his small window is higher up, safe at that height. He can’t see it from here because of all the houses and apartments, but Arthur knows how to walk to the river and he knows how the river will walk to him. He wants to know: How long will the rooftops float? And once the river swallows the houses and the street signs, will they change that river’s name?
Andrew Payton is a Maryland native and MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. His fiction is published in Greensboro Review and Masters Review, received finalist commendations by the Chicago Tribune for the Nelson Algren Award, and won a fellowship to the Aspen Summer Words Writing Retreat. He is currently at work on a novel.