2021, Senior, Creative Writing
“High tide!” Danny called. “Get off the ground!”
I frowned. “Are you sure? The bells haven’t sounded yet.”
“You know they aren’t always accurate.” He jabbed a finger over his shoulder. “Does this look like anything other than high tide?”
Waves rolled in from the distance, splashing along the shaky foundations of our stilt houses. The dirt began to darken at our feet.
I cursed under my breath. “Rhea was supposed to meet me here after her swim meet. She probably hasn’t noticed the water yet.”
“Go find your sister then. You have ten minutes tops before this neighborhood’s flooded.”
I dashed through the tangle of frayed rope and plastic winding between the houses, calling her name into the streets. Fear gripped my heart in a vise. Rhea may have been a swimmer, but the ocean was far more dangerous than the pools she was used to. After several minutes, I found her leaning against a wooden support, listening to music. I tugged out her earbuds.
She scowled at me. “What was that for?
“For standing around when that is happening.” I jerked my head toward the waves behind me.
Her eyes widened. “Is it high tide already?”
I grabbed her hand and sprinted inland. Our home was close enough for me to make out the plastic sunflowers woven around the porch railings. But the water had risen too high for us to reach it.
“Come on.” I boosted her up to a ladder. “We’ve got to get off the ground.”
Water flowed over my shoes, stinging my feet through holes in the soles. I winced and followed Rhea up to a faded yellow house. The sea filled the streets beneath us, sweeping up beer cans and battering away at debris. Thin rope connected the platforms on the second floor in an intricate spider web. The makeshift bridges swayed in the wind.
“Should we go home, Anna?” Rhea asked. “Mom and Dad must be worried about us.”
I shook my head and raised my fist to knock. “I don’t want to risk falling into the ocean.”
After a few moments, an old lady answered the door. A loop of seashells sat around her neck, swirled with delicate pink motifs. They were a far cry from the brittle, bleached-white fragments we normally found in the sand. “Are you Alice’s girls?” she asked.
I nodded. “We got caught in the high tide, and there was no time to make it back home.”
She nodded and ushered us inside. “I’ll call your mother and let her know you’re alright. The city should really send out maintenance crews before the alarms fail entirely. They haven’t come out in years.”
Mismatched chairs and carpets scattered across her sitting room. Pictures filled the coffee table and hung in rows on the walls. The old woman bustled to the back, knocking a frame to the ground in her haste. I picked it up and cradled it in my hands. The picture showed a little girl caught mid-laugh, sitting submerged in shallow water. White sand covered the shore, and the sea around her was bluer than I had ever seen it. Rhea peered over my shoulder. A door slammed shut, and I looked up to find the old woman staring at us with an odd look in her eyes.
“Sorry,” I said. “We didn’t mean to pry—”
Rhea plucked the picture out of my hands and held it up. “Was this you, ma’am? I thought people stopped swimming in the ocean a long time ago.”
I kicked my sister in the leg. “Don’t be rude.”
“No, it’s alright.” A wan smile appeared on the old woman’s face. “I’m aware of my age, and this city has changed a lot in my time.”
My gaze flickered to the other photographs around the room. They showed a child growing up surrounded by the sea—grinning with salt-soaked hair, leaning against a bright orange surfboard, tugging at giant goggles on her face, swimming with flippers through a school of fish. In all of them, the water had been a deep cerulean blue. Nowadays, all we saw was the same drab brown-gray that rolled in and out with the failing alarm.
“The ocean here used to be gorgeous,” I murmured. “What happened to it?”
“People did.” The old woman settled in her armchair. “Have you learned about the formation of carbonic acid in chemistry class yet?”
“Sure,” I said. “Water and carbon dioxide sort of mush together.”
She chuckled. “That’s the gist of it. Almost every appliance in the modern world emits carbon dioxide. The world churned out over two million pounds of it every second (Rice, 2017). When it dissolved into the ocean and reacted with the water there, the gas produced acid that also pulled oxygen from the waves (Ocean Acidification, 2020). Waters turned dangerous.” She pointed to a picture on the opposite wall. “The ocean used to have all sorts of wonders, and the acidity became inhospitable to them before it did to us (IUCN, 2018).”
In the photo, a preteen girl in scuba gear swam through a brilliant coral reef. Tendrils waved in the water, harboring a myriad of animals. The colors seemed to leap off the page.
I tore my eyes away. “But not all of the carbon dioxide dissolved right? Otherwise, the greenhouse effect Ms. Freeman mentioned wouldn’t make sense.”
The old woman nodded. “The gas emissions trap heat in the atmosphere. We may not always feel it, but we see its effects all around us. It changes the places we used to know. When I was young, this neighborhood was filled with summer homes for the wealthy. They liked to come down here to surf and tan on the beaches. My family was no exception.”
She pointed to another picture behind us. With a jolt, I realized it showed the same house we were sitting in now, painted a cheerful yellow. The porch we had climbed up used to be a charming balcony, and there was a welcome mat placed on the ground floor with a two-car garage where bare foundations stood now.
Rhea frowned. “But why would you want to deal with the high tides? The rich people spend millions to cluster in the high-rise apartments uptown.”
The old woman shrugged. “The flooding wasn’t always a problem. When temperatures rose, the polar ice started melting and made the seas start to rise, which changed our coastlines (Kulp, 2019). They’ve been rising my entire life.”
“Did no one try to stop it?” I asked. “Didn’t anyone realize what was happening?”
“Oh, we knew, honey. The scientists were issuing warnings before I was born, and the activists fought as best as they could. By the time I was in middle school, we were being bombarded with statistics about it in science class. Ocean acidity was up 30% since the Industrial Revolution (Ocean Acidification, 2020), sea levels had risen as much as eight inches within the last two and a half decades (US Department of Commerce, 2008), and average temperatures had risen about two degrees Fahrenheit since the turn of the nineteenth century (ICUN, 2018).”
Rhea frowned. “Why weren’t you more concerned?”
“The numbers scared us at first, but we grew numb to them. We had our pizzerias and gelato shops with Mr. Giovanni’s Happy Hour Tuesdays. It seemed ridiculous that the world we knew could disappear from rising temperatures.” She gestured toward the flooding streets outside the window. “Yet here we are. The industries back then refused to accept regulations, and we let them get away with it because everyone was frightened of messing up the economy (Guardian News and Media, 2020).”
I pictured our neighborhood full of ice cream stores and seaside restaurants in place of the damp alleys and clanging alarms I had grown up with. A sense of injustice filled me. The wealthy had driven the deterioration of our world, yet when coastal cities flooded and homes submerged underwater, they simply left the neighborhoods for inland penthouses and let the rest of us suffer the consequences.
“Do you think we could ever have an ocean like the one you used to have?” I asked. “Or is it too late?”
She leaned back in her chair. “It won’t be easy. Prevention’s easier than cures, and we failed to stem the damage when we had the chance. It’ll require collective action that my generation failed to take. But who knows? Problems usually aren’t as dire as they seem as long as people are willing to work toward a solution.”
The pictures around the room beamed down at me. My sister met me gaze, determination in her eyes. When I leaned back, I could almost hear the laughter of children playing on dry streets, set against the crashing waves of an ocean restored.
I have always heard of climate change described as this equalizing disaster in the world. After all, if the Earth turns inhabitable, everyone suffers regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, as I started to research about rising water levels and global warming, I found that wealth tends to influence both the severity of natural disaster effects and the amount of resources dedicated to recovery. As coasts change and water levels continue to rise, low-lying homes, which also tend to be low-income, will be hit the hardest by floods. The view of climate change as a polarizing force inspired the neighborhood in this story; the characters suffer the instability of rising ocean waters because they cannot afford to move out while others with greater wealth take refuge on stable ground. Though I wrote this based on a worst-case scenario situation, if we fail to take action, the world in this piece of fiction could become reality. The apathy I see towards climate change worries me, and I hope people who read my work are inspired to take collective action against climate change while we still have a chance to prevent it.