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We Are Unprepared


Isolé—(French) / EE-zo-LAY / adj.: isolated, remote, lonely.

Isole—(English) / i-sol / n.: rural town in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Population: 6,481.

IT WOULD BE narcissistic to assume that the earth conjured a storm simply to alter the course of my life. More likely, we’d been poisoning this world for years while ignoring the warning signs, and The Storm wasn’t so much a cosmic intervention as it was a predictable response to our collectively reckless behavior. Either way, the resulting destruction— to North America and our orderly life in Isole—arrived so quickly that I swear we didn’t see it coming.

Looking back, I realize how comforting those months leading up to The Storm had been as we focused on prepar­ing for the disaster. News of the changing weather patterns gave each of our lives a new clarity and direction. It didn’t feel enjoyable at the time, but it was a big, concrete distrac­tion in which to pour ourselves, even as other matters could have benefited from our attention. It was urgent, and living in a state of urgency can be invigorating. But the fear can be mistaken for purpose, which is even more dangerous than the threat itself.



I pine, I pine for my woodland home;
I long for the mountain stream
That through the dark ravine flows on
Till it finds the sun’s bright beam.
I long to catch once more a breath
Of my own pure mountain air,
And lay me down on the flowery turf
In the dim old forest there.
O, for a gush of the wildwood strain
That the birds sang to me then!
O, for an hour of the fresher life
I knew in that haunted glen!
For my path is now in the stranger’s land,
And though I may love full well
Their grand old trees and their flowery meads,
Yet I pine for thee, sweet dell.

I’ve sat in the homes of the proud and great,
I’ve gazed on the artist’s pride,
Yet never a pencil has painted thee,
Thou rill of the mountain side.
And though bright and fair may be other lands,
And as true their friends and free,
Yet my spirit will ever fondly turn,
Green Mountain Home, to thee.

—“Green Mountain Home” by Miss A. W. Sprague of Plymouth, Vermont.
First published in 1860.


Chapter 1

WE WERE DRIVING east on Route 15 when the world first learned of the coming storms. Pia and I had just met with a fertility specialist in Burlington and we were both staring straight ahead at the road as we digested the informa­tion we’d received there. I didn’t want to see a doctor about having babies. That was for people who were old or sick or in a rush, and we were none of those things. But it was true that we had sort of been trying on and off for a year, so with little persuasion, I agreed to the appointment. Conceiving a child had become Pia’s obsession in the preceding months, and her determination trumped my ambivalence.

We sat completely still in our seats and stared at the empty road as we drove back toward our new home. I gripped the wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock, focusing on the act of driving to avoid looking over at Pia, who I knew was crying silently. I could feel the steam from the fat tears that rolled down her smooth face. I wanted to comfort her, to make them stop, but I couldn’t will myself to.

There had been soft Celtic music playing in the waiting room of the Full Moon Fertility Center and amateurish oil paintings of naked women in various states of pregnancy hanging on the walls, all of which annoyed me immensely for their obviousness. Weeks earlier, blood had been drawn and samples had been submitted, and this was the day Dr. Tan-Face explained to us in a soothing voice that conceiving a child on our own was unlikely. Pia had a hormone imbal­ance that would require “assistance.” It made Pia cry to hear this word, which made me almost as sad to see.

It was a hot September day in Vermont and everything that had been green was beginning to turn brown under the un­relenting sun. It was hotter and drier than it should have been on September 20. We passed roadside produce stands and fel­low drivers occasionally but were mostly alone for miles of farmland. Fireweed grew along the edges of the road and, if I squinted, I could see fluffy dandelion heads mingling with drying milkweeds in the fields. There was a group of graz­ing cows and a carload of children pointing excitedly at the lazy ladies. I was trying to conjure more sympathy for my wife as I took this all in. Species were propagating all around us, but we needed assistance. I understood why this news was difficult to hear. Other couples had told us of the heartache of infertility and the shattering of a romantic fantasy for how this milestone is supposed to unfold. I wanted to feel that heartache with her, but any sadness was crowded out by an overwhelming sense of relief—relief that it was her faulty machinery and not mine and, mostly, relief that we had just been given the gift of more time. The doctor had explained that getting pregnant might take a little while, which was all I really wanted to hear him say—that I would have a lit­tle more time to live life like the young, happy thirty-five-year-old I believed myself to be.

The air blowing in from our open windows smelled like overheated livestock and corn that had passed its prime. I could picture the exact stage of transformation that the ker­nels on the mature stalks would be entering at that moment. The extreme heat had forced early harvests and they were al­ready losing their plump, yellow corn complexions as the sug­ars dulled to starch. I knew those smells. I knew that the cut stalks were already so sharp that if you ran through them in your bare feet, they could slice right through the skin. These were passive memories, absorbed unknowingly in childhood and left dormant for the years I’d been away from Vermont. They surprised me in their specificity and sureness, awak­ened by the smallest triggers. It was as if a whole room in my brain had been locked for a long time, but when it finally reopened, every object was just as I had left it.

When the silent crying and focused driving got to be too much, I reached for the stereo dial on the dashboard of our aging Volvo, permanently set to Vermont Public Radio. It came on too loud, which was awkward at that moment. My hand rushed back to the knob, but as I started to turn it down, Pia grabbed my wrist and said, “Wait, Ash.”

A somber, male NPR voice was explaining that the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had just briefed the president of the United States about the latest long-term storm forecast. At first, it didn’t sound all that serious. Big storms had already become the norm. Tornados, wildfires, floods, hurricanes—it seemed as though some part of the country was always in a state of emergency. But the tone of the reporter’s voice and the odd timing of the report suggested that there was something new here.

“What we know for sure,” the reporter said, “is that, due to rapidly rising sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, we are now approaching a period of extreme weather events. NOAA is predicting as many as thirty named tropical storms and hurricanes in the coming months, along with likely heat waves and drought, and even severe blizzards. It’s too early to know precisely when or what we’re in for, but these water temperatures are unprecedented and the storms they trigger will almost certainly be record breaking. These storms have the potential to be very, very disruptive.”

He said disruptive with emphasis; we were expected to infer larger things from the restrained word.

“Jesus,” I said out loud.

Pia had stopped crying. She was leaning in toward the dashboard as if coaxing the news out of the speakers.

“How firm is this science?” a female interviewer asked the male voice, and I wished that we had heard the report from the beginning.

“Government scientists say the data on rising seawater tem­peratures and levels are reliable. They are less certain about how these variables will interact with other weather forces. Storm experts that I’ve spoken with say that there is a plau­sible worst-case scenario that the government doesn’t want to talk about just yet.”

“And what’s that?”

“If this warm air above the Atlantic collides with a colder pressure system from the west, they could create a sort of superstorm along the eastern seaboard that could be posi­tively devastating. But again, no government officials have made such a warning. All we know for sure right now is that we have several months of extreme weather events ahead. But I believe this is the first time the federal gov­ernment has issued such an early and emphatic warning of this kind, so it must be dire.”

The radio voices went on to discuss global ramifications of extreme weather—food scarcity, political unrest, war—but we had already drifted back into our own minds by then. Moments before, we were fixated on creating new life, and now we were confronted with the uncertainty of the life before us. We didn’t linger for long on the thought—our babies were as abstract then as the coming storms.

I turned right, toward our house, past the broken mail­box I kept meaning to replace and down the dirt path that served as our driveway. I loved everything about that house. I loved the way the overgrowth of sugar maples and yellow birch trees along the driveway created a sort of enchanted tunnel that spat you out steps from our expansive porch. I re­ally loved the way the porch, crowded with potted plants and mismatched furniture, wrapped all the way around the faded yellow farmhouse. This was our dream home in our dream life and, though we had been there for only three months, it felt as if we were always meant to live there. The yellow farmhouse was the realization of all the fantasies borne from our marriage. To be there, finally, was a victory.

There was a creek that ran through the backyard, thread­ing all of our neighbors and hundreds of spring thaws to­gether. Some of the people in the area kept their yards neatly manicured, but most were like us: they mowed now and then, but they gave the wildflowers a wide berth and relished the sight of a deer or—even better—a brown bear, snacking on the ever-encroaching blackberry bushes. This was where you lived if you wanted not to conquer nature, but to join it. This was the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and there was nowhere else like it on earth.

I turned off the engine and looked over at Pia, whose ex­pression had turned from sullen to intrigued. Her face had reassembled itself back to its baseline of beauty. Pia was gor­geous. Her thick, wavy blond hair was twisted off over one shoulder, frizzing slightly in the unseasonable heat. She had bright green eyes protected by long lashes that were still wet with tears. She sat back and looked at me with one bare heel up on the car seat, short cutoff shorts nearly disappearing in that position. Her body and her utterly unselfconscious own­ership of her body was an invitation—not just to me, but to the world. Pia was that enviable combination of beauty, self-possession and grace that makes people want to be closer. She was magnetic. Not quite fit, but small and smooth in the most perfect ways. She attracted attention, male and female, everywhere we went. Every head tilt and arm stretch seemed effortless, though I knew that they were choreographed for an imaginary camera that followed her around. As an artist, she’d achieved only middling success, but Pia was unmatched for the artfulness with which she inhabited her own skin.

“I think this is serious, Ash,” Pia said. Her eyes were wide. “We all knew these storms were coming eventually, and now they’re here—not that they would ever admit the real cause.”

There had been no mention of global warming in the news report, but by then no one needed our reluctant gov­ernment to confirm what we knew to be true. Pia was re­flexively defiant of all authority and she seemed to enjoy the vindication that this weather report was already providing. I reached a hand across the front seat to squeeze her knee, sensing that the mood in the car had shifted. We had been drawn out of our own anxious heads and were feeling uni­fied now by our fear and fascination with the coming storms. A familiar wave of guilty relief washed over me. I suggested that we relax on the back porch with cold beers, which she did not object to.

Pia stretched out on a hammock on the porch while I went inside to grab two Long Trail Ales from the fridge. The sun was low in the sky by then and our house was finally begin­ning to cool. Even though it was September, the tempera­ture hadn’t dropped below eighty-five during the day yet.

I held a wet beer against Pia’s thigh, which made her squeal. She pulled me into the hammock with her, an un­steady arrangement, but I was happy to have her body pressed against mine after a particularly trying couple of days. She was a virtuoso of affection—both creative and infectious with her demonstration of love. After years together, I was still always grateful to receive it.

I ran a finger along the curve of her breast and she closed her eyes.

“We need to start planning,” Pia said. “We need to start stocking up and fortifying the house and…getting seriously self-reliant.”

We talked about self-reliance in those days as if it was a state of higher consciousness. It was the explanation we gave for leaving our jobs in New York and starting a new life in Vermont. We wanted to grow things and build things, pre­serve things and pickle things. We wanted to play our own music and brew our own beer. This, we believed, was how one lived a real life. There was a pious promise in the no­tion of self-reliance—a promise that we would not only feel a deep sense of pride and moral superiority, but also that it would ensure eternal marital bliss. Some of this we were not wrong about: it was supremely satisfying to eat cucumbers that we had grown and sit on furniture we had made (two Adirondack chairs assembled from a kit, technically). Pia was taking a pottery class in those days and our house was filled with charmingly lopsided creamers and water pitch­ers with her initials carved into the underside, like a proud child’s bounty from summer camp. I had taken a weekend-long seminar on beekeeping and the unopened bee materi­als that I ordered online were still stacked neatly against the house. When the news of The Storms broke, we were only three months into this real-living adventure and we hadn’t learned much at all yet.

Pia and I weren’t alone in these aspirations. There were others like us around the country, young(ish) people, intent on living differently. In the aftermath of America’s economic crisis, a burst housing bubble and an overheating earth, we were part of an unofficial movement of people who wanted to create a life that wasn’t defined by a drive for more stuff. We wanted to spend less time at work and more time with each other. We were smug, sure, but I still believe we were basically right in our quest to find pleasure in simpler pur­suits. It wasn’t so much a rejection of our parents’ choices as it was an admission that those choices weren’t available to us. The world was different and we were adapting.

Isole, Vermont, was an answer to those yearnings. It of­fered a delightful mix of hippies and rednecks, cohabitat­ing in the picturesque valley between two small mountains. You went there only if you knew what you were looking for. There were old farm families and loggers who had been in Isole long enough to remember when it was pronounced in its traditional French way: EE-zo-LAY. But the economic engine of the region came from outside money in our time—reclusive liberals with trust funds, self-employed tech whiz­zes and socially responsible venture capitalists, all hiding out in a picturesque hamlet that was too far from a city to ever be truly civilized.

I liked to think of myself as a native because I grew up in central Vermont, but the real locals knew us as outsiders. We had come from Brooklyn, where we’d spent the previ­ous twelve years building successful and lucrative careers. Pia had worked in advertising and I was a partner at a graphic design firm. The firm was well established by the time I sold my portion of the business back to my colleagues, but I had been there in the early days, before we had an in-house gym and black-tie holiday parties.

Pia and I fell in love with our Vermont farmhouse on va­cation earlier that year. We had taken an extended spring weekend on Crystal Lake. It was too cold to swim, so we took long drives around the Northeast Kingdom, basking in the slowness and serenity. On the last day of our stay, we drove past a perfect yellow farmhouse on a slanted dirt road with a just-posted for-sale sign out front. It was our sign, we decided. We had been waiting for it.

Years before, Pia and I had made a pact to live a different sort of life one day. We had only the vaguest plan to escape the city and remake ourselves, but we were sure the details of this plan would present themselves when it was time. So when we found the farmhouse, we recognized it as the nat­ural extension of the dream we had created together. I sold my piece of the firm and stayed on as a long-distance con­sultant. Two months later, we were unpacking in Vermont. It was such a fast and easy process that we didn’t have time to iron out all the wrinkles of our new life. Pia didn’t have a new job lined up yet and we hadn’t met a soul there.

It sounds reckless in the retelling, but that was an impor­tant part of its appeal. Pia was great at embracing the new and unpredictable, but I was far more cautious, so this leap to a new state also felt like a leap toward my wife. We were going to forge a new path together, armed only with years of shared daydreams about a country life.

The hammock rocked gently as the breeze picked up, and I could smell the goldenrod that was being mowed at the farm upwind. Pia was still listing things that would need to be addressed before The Storms came: gutters, faulty wiring in the basement, a stuck bedroom window. I knew she was probably right; if this storm was for real, then we did need to start preparing. But I stroked her hair and suggested that we spend the rest of the now-enjoyable Friday relaxing. We could get to disaster preparations tomorrow.

“Hey, dudes. What are you doing?” said a squeaky voice.

Approaching us was our seven-year-old neighbor, August, whose dilapidated little house sat on the other side of a thick wall of trees and shrubs to the east. His place was invisible from our porch but connected by a short, neat path that I had helped August clear to facilitate easy movement back and forth. I had met August on the first day of our arrival, when he walked through our open front door and began peppering us with questions. He seemed desperate for friends and bub­bling with curiosity. Since then, I’d seen him almost every day. He’d come over to kick a soccer ball back and forth or invite me to check out the new fort he’d built in the woods behind our homes. Pia thought August was sweet, but it was I who spent so much time with him. I wondered sometimes about the adults in his life who had left him so hungry for attention, but I didn’t ask many questions, mainly because I didn’t know what exactly to ask, but also because I enjoyed our time together and wanted to just be with him. And Au­gust was helpful. He’d spent his entire short life in those woods and he knew more about self-reliance and country living than Pia and me combined.

“What’s up, buddy?” I said, reaching a hand out for a sticky high five.

As usual, August was barefoot, filthy and smiling. The burdock lodged in his curly auburn hair appeared to have taken hold days before.

August wanted to play Frisbee, so we hoisted our bodies out of the hammock and met him on the lawn. The mood had shifted and we were happy to play. That was the way things changed with Pia: she could be crying and sad, but the minute it was over, it was really over. Most of the time,this was a relief, though there were times when I knew we probably should have actually worked things through in­stead of just riding them out. But it was so much easier to just wait for storms to pass, and the highs were so high that we didn’t want to look back at the lows once we had escaped them. We just drove forward, secure in the knowledge that we were in love and nothing was worth dwelling on. This unspoken arrangement required a willingness on my part to indulge every emotional whim that Pia wanted to follow. In return, she kept things uncomplicated and asked very few questions. Abiding by the rules of this dynamic felt intimate. It worked for us.

Copyright © 2016 by Margaret Reilly

We Are Unprepared
by by Meg Little Reilly

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778319431
  • ISBN-13: 9780778319436