Here’s the short description — the first third of the story is farther down this page:
Jonny lives with his mom on the hardscrabble coast of North Carolina. The old coast is underwater — Jonny’s dad makes a living diving to salvage valuables from drowned towns, rarely home. It’s a hard life. When Jonny rescues Kitty Itty he learns a bit about responsibility and caring, but the coming hurricane Xerxes may teach them both some harder lessons.
This one is a bit of a departure from my usual. It’s just barely science fiction, set in a near future in which climate change and sea level rise have chewed away a lot of the US coast — and the North Carolina coast is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, with low barrier islands and lots of low lying land. It’s a YA tale with a poverty-stricken preteen protagonist learning some lessons about caring for others and how hard it can be — especially when you’re trying to care for a headstrong young tomcat.
I know I always say this, but I think you’ll like it. It’s a good yarn, and I’m proud that it came out of my very own personal brain.
Here’s a preview of the first third of the story:
Kitty Itty and the Seawall Broke
Jonny was a boy. Hair blond and sun-bleached, eyes deep black, skin sun-beaten into the color of coconut shell, he was a creature of the beach. The beach itself was pale sand streaked with rich dark veins of sand from the old wrecked barrier islands folded into the new.
Jonny did not remember the old beach or the drowned towns of the barrier islands that had been ground away by the last century of growing storms and rising seas. But he had heard, at the feet of his widowed grandmother. And he knew that the things he hunted in the sand were pieces of an older life, pieces he could touch. He thought he could feel the past through them sometimes, vibrating, connecting him like a lamp to electricity (they had it in the kitchen, provided by a state that liked to boast that it left no home in the dark), lighting him up with the way things had been, before the ocean chewed up the tourist draws, before the money went away, before his family was reduced to digging a living from the sea in salvage.
Before the town of New Kill Devil spent what little it had to build the seawall, to stop the ocean where it cut across the dunes to the south, to chew at the backside of the town.
Jonny looked up as the wind gusted a spray of stinging sand across the beach. The waves broke in churning brown and white at the steepness where the sea ate the land; farther out, a mile or more, a ragged white line marked where the waves broke the first time before coming ashore, over the tops of what his grandmother said was drowned road and town. His father was somewhere out beyond that white line, for weeks, months at a time, diving into the wrecks along the coast. The same job that had killed grandfather. One day it will probably kill dad too, Jonny thought.
One day it will kill me. He threw off the chilly thought with a shrug of his bony shoulders and attacked an odd lumpy lay of damp sand with the pointed stick he carried. A lay like that might only be a bubble churned into the sand by the high tide. It might be a tangle of seaweed, a corroded-out aluminum can, a clam (though these were rare and had grown even more so in Jonny’s short memory). Or it might be something of value.
The stick struck a hardness. Scrawny cables of muscle showed on Jonny’s arms as he twisted and dug the stick under it, exploring its edges. Then he levered at it, pushing it to the surface. It squeaked, he thought, an odd thin sound. Bending metal? But it hadn’t bent. It was a rectangle, metal etched by salt, its glass face cracked and marked with a thin white maze, the broken foundations of a cluster of barnacles that had died young.
A tablet computer, a half-century out of date. A thing his family could not afford, old or new, never had been able to, never would.
Jonny shoved the tablet into his net bag. There were a few grams of precious metals in the thing. The battery would have a few grams of rare earths.
The little it was worth was a small contribution, but like his father Jonny earned money for the family. It made him feel like he really belonged—in his family, to the beach and to the sea and town. He set his stick in the sand, threw his head back, sucked in the salt through his nostrils, tasting it, making it part of him.
And he heard the squeak again. He looked: there was nothing under his stick, under his feet. His bag had not shifted. The tablet was long-drowned; it could not have made a sound.
It was coming from the land side, where the beach grass struggled to hold root, battered ragged by storms. And it wasn’t a squeak.
It was a meow, thin and weak.
Jonny lifted his stick and walked up slow, beachcomber’s eyes picking out details.
There, the grass waved against the wind, twitched. Jonny crested the low dune. He glimpsed a trace of red flicking among the brown seed heads. A fox, working the dunes like Jonny was, searching for sustenance.
The fox had cornered something in a sand pocket in the lee of a dune. Something that meowed; if it was an adult cat it would be spitting and clawing. A cat in its prime might face down a fox.
So it was an old cat, or a wounded one, or a kitten.
“Scat, y’all!” Jonny shouted from the top of the dune, and he flung his digging stick like a spear. The fox popped up in the air like it was on springs and the stick gouged the sand under it. The fox seemed to be running before its paws came back down to ground, sending sand rattling in the stiff brown-green reeds, red tail drawing a streak through them over the next dune and gone.
“Meew-eeeww,” the kitten said from its pocket in the sand, body heaving with the two-part meow as Jonny approached. It was hardly more than a handful; it shivered as he lifted it. It felt lighter in his hand than an apple. Its tail was bitten and one of its back paws, too.
Carrying the kitten in the crook of one arm, Jonny collected his digging stick and net bag in the other and headed home.
“’Kitty Itty’ is a name a four year old would pick,” his mother said. “Pick another.”
“He’s itty-bitty, mom,” Jonny said.
“He won’t be later,” she said. “Little kittens grow up to be big Toms. Do you think he’ll want to be ‘Kitty Itty’ when he’s a big cat looking to start a family of his own?”
“It’s his name,” Jonny said. “He’ll be my responsibility. I’ll change his sandbox from the beach and I’ll hunt seagulls if we got no scraps to feed him.” Anticipating her protests. It worked.
“You be sure you do, then. I’ve already got a boy to look after, I don’t need no cats, too.”
“He just needs cared for, mom. I can do it.”
“Easier said than done, Jonny,” she said, voice soft and mellow because… he didn’t know why. She ruffled his salt-stiff hair, her scarred and calloused fingers rough on his sunburnt scalp. “It gets to be too much, Jonny, you come talk to me. I won’t take him over—he’s your’un—but I’ll help with any troubles you have. How’s that sound?”
They shook hands solemnly. She sighed, that a boy so young should need to be so serious. He thought she was only worried and gave her a hug. He took Kitty Itty to the bathtub to wash out his wounds, and she made a nest of old worn-out rags in a box for the kitten’s bed and set it next to Jonny’s cot.
“Thanks, mom,” drifted back to her in the kitchen while she cut salt pork for the turnips and greens she was making for dinner. She smiled a little smile and kept cutting, quiet.
Too few boys learned to care for others, came to understand that caring isn’t just for girls. Her eyes drifted up to the sea outside the window beyond the dunes, then back down.
It’s the job, she thought. It’s not Mark’s fault. He tries to be a good father and husband. But it was a hard thought to hold on to, excusing his absence, through all the weeks alone.
Weeks alone were what she had, and Jonny too—he had never known different. His father had grown up like Jonny, dragging the beach for salvage, and he had gone off to sea shortly after marriage. A beachcomber made only pennies; a salvageman made dollars worth bringing home to a wife and child.
He returned to them only once in the whole summer. By then Kitty Itty had recovered from his wounds and begun to grow like a weed, fed on rich bits of salt pork and chicken and fish and bacon from the table, and on the seagulls foolish enough to come near Jonny when he went out with his hand-pumped pellet gun.
The seagulls never went on the table; Jonny’s mother wouldn’t allow it even when all there was to eat were dandelion greens and wild onions she gathered with her own hands. Poor people could afford only a little pride. Jonny’s mom clung to the little they had fiercely.
When Jonny’s father came home in the summer, he had a damp canvas bag slung over one shoulder. He was a little man, sawed off short and swaying on bowed legs, but broad across shoulders heavy with muscle grown by the hard work of salvage. His hands and face were stiff like leather, burnt with salt, and his voice was gravelly from too much time sucking air out of damp rusty tanks while diving.
“Jonny!” was the only word he said as he stepped up on the porch. The old boards whined under his weight. Jonny threw himself into a hug under his dad’s one free arm, and Kitty Itty came out to see what the fuss was about, rubbing against their legs.
Inside the bag was a pair of fat fish, puppydrum with big ink-black spots on the tail. He pulled them out and showed them to Jonny’s mom, grinning, then set them down to embrace his wife. All they said was ‘I missed you’ before she turned to clean the fish, dropping the heads and collars in with the dandelion greens. They never seemed to have many words for each other.
They had plenty of words for Jonny, though. His dad told him all about diving off the coast of South Carolina, working a drowned yacht dealership, and how the crumbling old boats on the seabottom waved back and forth with the current, threatening to roll over on the divers but never quite doing it, and how they’d pumped up enough diesel from the tanks there to run the salvage boat’s fuel cells for a year. His mom told him that the roll of cash his dad handed her would keep them in their little house all the way to winter, and replace the shoes and jeans he had outgrown to boot. When the words died down Jonny put a fistful of flaky fish flesh in Kitty Itty’s bowl and told his parents he needed to head to the beach to change the sandbox. He retrieved the smelly plastic bag he kept under the porch for the occasion, stuffed his net bag in a back pocket just in case, dumped the contents of the cat box in the plastic bag, and left his parents, hopefully, to actually talk to each other.
It was hard, when dad was out so much of the time, Jonny thought. All the time they spent together, they spent getting to know each other again. They never really got to be comfortable, just doing the things a family does. He wondered what it would be like, all of them together all the time.
When he got to the beach he walked far to the side of the trail, to dump the cat sand. Then he walked out almost to the edge of the water and sat down to watch the ghost crabs explore the moonlight. Giving his parents time.
A ghost crab spends a lot of time in its hole, hiding. It comes out when it thinks nobody is around, then comes out bit by bit, skittish.
Jonny watched the beach, sitting, marking the crashing of waves like the ticks of a clock, until one came out. He saw it peek, almost big as his fist and pale, shoving half its body out of its burrow sideways in a single motion, not there one moment, there the next. It paused, frozen. Jonny was careful not to move, not to speak or cough, to remain absolutely still. If he scared it back down, it would take a long time to gather the courage to come back out.
A jerky inch at a time, it emerged. All over the beach, tiny motions made it look as if the sand were twitching, and in the space of a minute a dozen, two dozen more ghost crabs skittered out, poking around the edges of rocks, crouching over deposits of windblown junk in sand pockets, crawling over twists of driftwood. Once one ghost crab comes out, the rest follow. New Kill Devil was like that, Jonny thought. Mostly folks kept to themselves, but on holidays, or on Saturday for shopping and barter, everyone came out all at once. But you could feel the jerky crab tension: everyone was ready to go rushing back home at the smallest disturbance.
Jonny watched the crabs comb the beach, digging up the crumbs that kept them alive. The moon slid down the sky, shadows tilted and stretched behind the crabs, the breeze freshened, and eventually Jonny noticed he was shivering.
He scooped up his bag of fresh cat sand and headed home to sleep. In the morning dad was gone and they had the fish he had brought home for breakfast. They didn’t talk at all while they ate. Jonny sat, chewing slowly, feeling as if his father might as well not have come at all, this stranger who grew more distant every visit.
Summer turned to fall. Dad returned, this time with no fish but with more money and a huge ham from up in Virginia, the butt and shank together all the way down to where the trotter had been cut away from the ankle joint. He stayed three whole days, and left right before the town came together to celebrate Labor Day in the square. Mom cooked a big pot of greens for the potluck with the ham’s shank bone and they took turns carrying it as they walked to the town square.
It was a good picnic day; a couple of the old men of town brought out radios and they all listened to music from inland, wavery broadcasts cut with static pops, all the way from Rocky Mount and Raleigh-Durham. They listened to the music, and also to the ads peddling used cars (solar, ethanol, autodrive, zero down!) and fast food burgers and air conditioners, all the things the devouring sea had chased off the coast ahead of it.
In between plates of greens and cornbread and fried chicken and potato salad, the robot voice of the National Weather Service cut in with a warning that Hurricane Xerxes was turning north coming off of Cuba and could be expected to run up the coast, maybe into Florida, maybe straight into Virginia, it was too early to tell.
Already this year two hurricanes had whooshed past the town, out to sea; they had been no stronger than a regular nor’easter. But that meant winds over fifty miles per hour, and more sand lost off the beach, and more beating on the seawall that kept the waves out of New Kill Devil’s backside.
“They built a seawall at old Kill Devil, too,” his grandmother said. She had met them at the picnic; they didn’t see her as much as when Jonny was little. She had moved inland, just a few miles, the other way out of town from them. “You should come live with me,” she said, as if that connected to her first sentence. She found a way to say that every time they saw each other, and every time she did, Jonny could see his mother turn stiff. “Your father left a little pension when he passed, and I make a bit of money sewing. I could take in more work if you were there to help. Jonny could help too. He’s big enough to handle most chores around a house, and that would make us more time to sew.”
“You know how little Mark gets to see us as it is. If he had to make a trip inland from the boat and then back out every time, we’d hardly see him at all. With us by the beach, when he comes ashore for a day we see him for a day. It’s important a father spend time with his boy,” his mom said, her hand squeezing Jonny’s shoulder. As if, if I didn’t exist, it wouldn’t matter, Jonny thought.
“Then button up the house and come inland ’til this Xerxes passes,” grandma said. “You just need safe. Go on back after it passes, if you want.”
“We don’t need no help,” mom said.
“Any help. I swear, child. And I sent you to school.”
“Mother,” Jonny’s mom said to grandma, biting the word off hard, and she pulled Jonny away by the arm. The plate tilted from his hand as she tugged, and potato salad tumbled to the grass. Wasted food from people who had nothing to waste…
And that’s the preview. Though I’ll leave you with one more little piece of preview: Xerxes isn’t turning aside. Things are about to get even rougher for little Jonny.