Megan Butcher, Allison Zhuang

FOAM RUSH by Allison Zhuang


When she opens the basement door, the sound that was a trickle is now a flow. She can hear actual burbling, and a warble of water against the metal of the washer. Emily shuts the door, wills herself back to ignorance. Everything in the basement is either broken or boxed up in plastic, so she can make herself believe it’s no issue, at least for a few hours. 

The door and her mind shut firmly, Emily heads down the hall to where it opens up to form the small rooms of her apartment at the back of the house. The larger room has her kitchenette in one corner, a chair and her small television in another, and in the third and last free corner, her futon. Emily strips the sheets off it and folds them neatly, tucking them into a basket under the bed, then grabs the bottom rail and shimmies it into a couch. It’s been a long time since she’s had someone over, so the movement is awkward, and the bed creaks a protest as she shifts it. 

The smaller room is a closet, literally, but just big enough to have a row of hanging clothes and small dresser on one side, with her “studio” on the other. She brought the guitar and amp with her when she ran away from home, but over the years has managed to collect other people’s cast-offs. Her prized possession is a 4-track salvaged from the dumpster behind the university’s music lab. She can spend hours in this closet, with its dead sound and filtered light from the window under the eaves. She’s painted the walls a dark blue-green, and it often feels as if she is being held by the sea when she sits in here.  She rests for a moment. The phone rings, but it sounds far away, and she ignores it. The sound stops, then starts again, and stops, and she sits, still and quiet.

The last room is the bathroom, which she cleans meticulously, her father’s voice in her head as she scrubs the back of the toilet with a toothbrush. When she’s done, she places the supplies carefully under the sink, then goes through the door just to her left that lets out onto the small back porch. There’s not much to look at back here, but she’s made it nice. There are only two chairs under a small overhang separated by an overturned milk crate that she’s decorated with a remnant of fabric. If she takes a step forward and reaches, she can touch the back fence. But during a storm she can watch the clouds roil as she stays dry, and it’s all hers. She double-checks the lock on the gate and goes back inside.  

When she first moved in, she thought of the main room sardonically as the Great Room, as if she were back in her suburban home or a medieval castle. Over the two years she’s been living there, though, the cynical note has dropped from the voice in her head and she feels the space is just that. One great room. A safe place. She pats her two cushions into place on the couch, and puts the nice napkins she’d found at the Sally Ann in a fan on the counter, then goes down the long hall to wait for her family on the front porch. 

They are precisely on time, as she knew they would be. Her mother is carrying the pizza and her father is helping Gramma out of the car. Her mother gives her an awkward side hug as Emily holds the door open.

“All the way to the back?” her mother asks. If she is worried about the neighbourhood, or the state of the house, this does not shine through in her voice. 

“Yes, Mom, all the way,” Emily replies. “I’ve made space on the counter for the box. I’ll help Dad with Gramma.”

Her Gramma, Dorothy, is the person who pushed this plan into reality: she pushed Emily’s mother to push Emily’s father to make the call. “We need to check in on that girl,” Dorothy had said to her daughter. “Something’s not right with her. You make that husband of yours swallow his pride and call her. We’ll take dinner and pay her a visit.”

On the porch, Dorothy hugs her granddaughter tightly, squeezing her. “Well,” she says, standing back. “Good thing we brought lots of pizza. You’re nothing but bones, young lady. But we’ll fatten you up.” She kisses Emily’s cheek and moves slowly past her down the hall. 

Her father comes in a few steps and pauses, waiting for Emily as she locks the door and double-checks it’s shut fast. When she turns, he doesn’t move. They are quiet a moment. He looks thoughtful, then opens his mouth to speak. Emily holds her breath. She’s not sure what she’ll say if he apologizes. He pauses, cocks his head. 

“What’s that sound?” he says at last. 

When she focusses on the sound behind the silence, she can hear it too, beyond the basement door just behind her father. The flow of water has become a rush. 

“There’s some water in the basement,” she says, opening the door. Just looking down the stairs, she can see that the water is up to the second step, maybe calf-deep. 

Her father looks at her. “You knew about this? How long? You didn’t call your landlord?”

“Just a couple of hours ago. I haven’t called yet. I didn’t want to ruin dinner. It didn’t sound like much when I heard- ”

“You mean to tell me that you heard this hours – in the plural, hours – ago? You heard it, from here, and you didn’t think it sounded like much? Emily, this is exactly what your mother keeps trying to tell you. About this, Michael, school. You need to pay attention. You need to act. You can’t ignore everything and hope it will go away.”

She tightens her lips, says nothing. He senses danger, pulls back, changes his tack.

“You know your Grandma S., my mother? She used to work for a family in this area as a domestic. The story around here is that the basements are all wet because the stream that used to be here haunts the houses.”

“The stream?” she asks.

“You don’t know about Goodwin Stream? I’m surprised none of your neighbours have said anything. It was famous at one time. I think Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about it. Used to run right through this neighbourhood, but they buried it in the 1800s. The only part still aboveground is the pond in The Downs.”

“The Downs.” Emily stares, her brow furrowed. “Wait, I know that pond. I pass it on my way to work at the Phillips’ every morning. They live just up the street from there.”

Her father gives her a strange look. “At the Phillips?”

“I’ve been working there since spring,” Emily replies, as if that is an answer. 

By way of response, her father takes off his socks and rolls up his pants. “Strange thing, I think that’s the name of the family your Grandma S. worked for.” When he stands up, he levels his gaze at Emily. His thin lips twist, alive, frowning at first, then smoothing out.

“Come with me,” he says. She follows him down the stairs, waiting a step above the waterline as he walks in. He moves towards the whirlpool in the middle of the floor, then stops, looking around the basement.

Emily knows what he’s looking for. “There’s a hanger on the dryer, Dad,” she says, and can feel her skin relax when he smiles. 

He unwinds it, pokes it into the centre of the swirl. Emily hears a gurgling sound, then sees the water start to rush faster. Her father puts his hand into the water and fishes around, bringing a large screw with him when he pulls it back. The water moves faster, and within a few seconds, the top of the bottom step appears out of the murk.

“There,” he says. “Just a bit of gumption. We’ll see what the water’s like after dinner and you can call your landlords with more details.” 

Her father folds the hanger up carefully in quarters, places it and the screw onto the dryer, and looks around again. Emily grabs a rag from the pile on the shelf beside the stairs that she passes to him as he approaches. He smiles again and wipes his hands.

Dinner is a delicate affair. Their kind attempts to reach each other waver in the air like seaweed trying to find the current. Her father is bright from having been helpful and she feels lighter for his lack of anger. Her mother and grandmother pat her thin back gently and smile warmly at her, though behind Emily’s back they exchange worried glances and urge her to take another slice of pizza, offer her another Coke.

As they’re finishing, rinsing cans, boxing up leftovers for Emily to eat tomorrow, shaking napkins out over the sink, Emily’s father starts into the story of her stealing a jar of raspberry jam from the cupboard when she was six and eating it straight out of the jar until he’d found her. Everyone has heard it before, but not in this space, not with this much air around it. This time Emily does not roll her eyes or huff out of the room, but laughs when he touches her cheek in the spot where it had been streaked red all those years ago. The doorbell rings down the hall and Emily ignores it. Everyone she was expecting is with her already, and the few friends she has know not to drop by without calling first. The bell rings again, and her Dad pauses in his story.

“That for you?” he asks.

“It’s my doorbell, but I don’t think so. Must be for upstairs.” Emily replies.

“Maybe you should go check anyway. You never know.”

Emily knows it’s easier to answer the door than argue with her father, but she makes a futile attempt. 

“Dad, people for upstairs get the wrong bell all the time. If I don’t answer, they’ll figure it out.”

“Emily Spurling,” he says, his voice suddenly low and too-calm in a familiar and frightening way. “This family does not treat people like that. They will figure it out even faster if someone politely tells them they have the wrong door.”

She grits her teeth and crosses the room, but before she’s made it to the hallway, she hears a pounding on the back door. She freezes. Her father turns to look at her face and sees the terror etched between her eyebrows, in the lines around her tightened mouth, the tendons running taut down her neck. 

“It’s Michael,” she whispers. “He’s climbed the fence. He was calling earlier.” 

“I’ll manage this,” her father says. He puffs his chest forward like armour and strides to the back door, shutting the bathroom door behind him. 

They sit, the women, quietly, while the men yell. 

Her mother reaches out to hold Emily’s hand. Emily starts to tremble.

The back door slams. The bathroom door opens. Her father is red-faced and breathing hard, and he asks for a glass of water. Emily’s mother jumps up quickly to get him one. Emily is still shaking.

“He’s gone,” her father says. “I don’t think he’ll come back.”

“I’m sorry,” Emily says. “I should have handled that myself.”

Her father looks at her sternly for a second, then lowers his eyes to his glass and lets his shoulders slump.

Megan Butcher is a librarian turned paper-pusher at a national institution in Ottawa, Canada. Sometimes a queer-about-town, mostly a homebody, she lives in a small tilty house on a hill in her adopted city. 

Allison Zhuang is a writer and photographer from Palo Alto, California. A current gap student and an alumna of the 2019 Kenyon Review Young Writers Summer Program, her work aims to explore the self and express the inexpressible. She likes to write. When in the throes of writer’s block, she can be found punning, collecting manatee plushes, or exploring Northern California’s beautiful coasts.