Jack’s bike rumbled as he wove his way through traffic. Fat drops of rain pattered against the rapidly fogging visor of his helmet. The myriad of cars and bikes around him honking the song of the road. Wheels hissing wetly on the pockmarked tar, audible despite the deluge.
He drove rear guard of a pack of his friends, people that he had grown close to in the years since he moved to Vietnam. They snaked through the chaotic mass of vehicles, every driver on the road like an ant plugged into the hive mind. Driving here is as much about intuition as it is about skill.
Brian, Jack’s best friend, drove at the head of the pack – his preferred position. Behind him came his wife, Sarah, carrying their friend Alan on her bike. Jack’s wife had to stay behind in Hanoi because of work, so Jack rode alone. The four of them hoped to make it to the relative safety of their homestay before the typhoon hit the coast.
Central Vietnam had been suffering from historic flooding of late, and Jack was beginning to think it might have been a bad idea to come. He reduced his speed as they made their way down the declining road before the bridge.
The brown water churned angrily below the old steel and concrete structure. To his right, there was a low concrete wall topped by a rusted metal fence. Jungle dominated his left, broken only intermittently by corrugated iron roofs denoting the shacks of farmers.
Traffic slowed to a crawl on the bridge as motorcyclists slowed to brace themselves against the grasping gusts of wind that threatened to unseat them. The cars reacted by slowing as well, and soon a bottleneck formed at both ends of the bridge. Cars and bikes on either side, pushing desperately into the oncoming lanes in search of some advantage, added to the overall chaos.
Brian caught a gap and made his way onto the bridge ahead of his friends, who remained stuck in the press. Jack felt an uneasiness tugging at his mind and drawing his gaze to the left, to the river. The river had bunched itself into a rolling hill, coiled to strike like a serpent.
Jack reached over to grab at Sarah on the bike next to him, “Run!”
His voice cut through the cacophony, and she followed his gaze to the charging flood. Jack was already off his bike, abandoning it to its fate, and pushing his way over to the small concrete wall. Sarah and Alan made it up the concrete a moment after him. The three had nearly crested the fence when the wave hit the bridge. Half a breath later, the water rose above the low wall and pulled their legs from under them as they dropped on the other side.
Jack’s finger snagged in the fence and was badly torn as he was knocked down. Sarah grabbed Jack by the wrist, giving him enough stability to stand up in knee-high and rising water. There were no screams as the river claimed those stuck on the bridge, only the rushing of the water and the slow wail of the steel bridge collapsing under its weight.
He removed his sodden helmet as he followed Sarah across the flooded square to a row of houses set along the slope of a hill. Alan was struggling to extricate himself from the tangle of his plastic poncho as he followed nearby.
“We have to get to higher ground,” Sarah yelled as she dropped her helmet in the water.
They fought the flood until they reached the palisade gates of the row of homes; the wind driving them on from behind, growing to a howling gale. Rain splattered painfully against their backs as they searched for some way onto the property.
The house was a bright yellow duplex, accented by green along the windowsills and balcony. There was a yet unflooded section of the yard leading from the front yard to the back, on the left of the house.
Jack swore and started to climb the brick and palisade wall, vaguely aware of the pulses of pain coming from his ripped finger. He helped pull Sarah and Alan over the wall once he crested it.
“Jesus, your hand!” Alan exclaimed as Jack pulled him up.
“Fuck my hand! Let’s go!”
They tumbled into the muddy yard as another surge of water rushed in, bringing the floodwater up to their thighs. Jack sloshed down the narrow strip to the left of the dwelling and made his way into the backyard that sloped rapidly up into the steep hill.
The water kept rising as Alan started climbing up the side of the shoddily built shack that leaned against the slope of the hill. Sarah followed him onto the corrugated iron roof, bowing the weak metal precariously.
“The roof won’t hold all of us!” Jack cried, standing on a crate next to the shack.
Alan’s eyes were wide with fear as he looked back at Jack before jumping up and grabbing onto an exposed root at the crest of the worked earthen slope. Sarah cupped her hands and pushed him up as he clambered up. The water had risen to cover Jack’s knees by now. Will it ever stop, he wondered.
Sarah followed Alan up the slope before Jack risked getting onto the roof. Both of them reached down and grabbed his arms. They pulled Jack up into the wet vegetation of the steep hillside, and they sat for a moment regarding the devastation below.
The bridge had disappeared beneath the murky surface of the lake that had once been a town. Here and there they could see people wading through the chest-deep water, some carrying crying children upon their shoulders. Others weren’t so lucky, swept away by the tumultuous current that ripped in random directions – commanded by some terrible god to find those unflooded spaces and fill them.
They could do nothing but call out to those below, trying in vain to be heard above the roar of rain on water. The wind whipped stinging drops of rain against them, blinding them and drowning out their voices. Jack’s finger was aching now as he regarded the loose flap that used to be the tip. The rain washed the blood away as fast as it could come, mixing the crimson with the brown water below.
“Where’s Brian?!” Sarah yelled.
“I think he made it across the bridge!” Jack replied, unsure.
“It’s still rising!” Alan interjected.
The water had risen to where it now lapped onto the corrugated iron roof.
“We have to keep moving!” Alan yelled.
They turned and started climbing up the steep hill, pulling themselves up by the thick vegetation as the water continued its relentless pursuit. Jack had to grit his teeth against the protests of his ripped flesh as he clawed into the vines and dirt. After several agonizing minutes, the group made it up to a level area several meters up from the now submerged shack.
They sat panting and shaking from exertion in the rain, huddling together for warmth and the sheltering comfort of community.
“What do we do?” Alan asked.
“I guess we wait,” Jack said.
“Keep climbing until we run out of hill,” Sarah intoned, eyes searching the carnage below.
“I’m sure Brian’s somewhere on a hill too,” Alan said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
Jack ripped his shirt with his teeth and tore a ragged strip from it before clumsily trying to bandage his finger. Sarah took the strip from him and wrapped it firmly around his finger.
They sat and watched the water slowly rising to cover the houses below, turning their plateau into beachfront. Fear drove them ever upward, the plants of the hill scratching at the tired bodies of the invaders. Eventually, they crested the slope, the valley below revealed in its full devastation. The town was gone, not a single trace of humanity was left above the water.
They lay exhausted on the rocky peak; the water ceasing its rise several meters below. Strong winds tore at them, threatening to dislodge them from their perch and stealing the breath from their lungs. There, upon their stony refuge, they would attempt to wait out the storm. Solitary pinpricks of humanity against the inky black uncertainty of the deluge.
Hope came and went as the months passed, and the deluge showed no signs of receding. They spoke little, at first for fear of the breath-stealing wind, but eventually because everything had been said.