Excerpt from A Brief History of The Flood by Jean Harfenist, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Brief History of The Flood

by Jean Harfenist

A Brief History of The Flood
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 224 pages
    Jul 2003, 224 pages

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Mom always says she wanted twelve kids, an even dozen to love her forever, but Dad put his foot down after I was born and it took her six years to sneak in Davey. She likes talking about the eight kids she never had as if they're off waiting somewhere--maybe in the toolshed back by the road. She points to her stomach and says her tubes are tied in knots so we're all she's ever going to have: Randy, Mitzy, me and Davey. And Happy.

Mitzy's sitting with her feet straight out, slapping the backs of her knees against the deck, drinking soup from the pan. She stops and says, "It was your fault, Lillian. You were supposed to watch the baby."

"No I wasn't," I lie. "Randy was."

"You're jealous because you're not the baby anymore."

I eyeball her. I always thought when I watched the baby, Mom was watching both of us, that it was a helping-out job like breaking eggs into the bowl when she bakes brownies.

Mitzy slaps my arm with the spoon, leaving a warm wet speck of noodle. I grab the spoon, fling it over her head into the lake. She shouts, "Goddamnit!" and kicks out at me like a thresher. "Mom's been sleeping too goddamned long."

As if it's up to me. I roll into a ball and cover my head. My sister's thin as a toothpick, but being mean makes her strong.

Randy says, "You don't have to swear, Mitzy."

"But moms shouldn't sleep so long," she says, covering us with spit the way she does every time she says something with an s in it, like her tongue's too thick or her lips are too big or her front teeth are too short. Something's wrong with her. She grabs the pan by its handle and sails it out over the lake, where it lands upright, does a couple of slow spins and sinks like the weeds pulled it under. "I'm waking her up."

Ten minutes later Mitzy walks back down the lawn toward us, eating from a tub of chocolate chip ice cream with a new and bigger spoon. Her short hair is already white-blond from the sun, just like Randy's and Davey's. In the winter their hair turns yellow. I'm the only redhead. Mitzy says, "Mom's got the bedroom door locked." She jumps onto the boat, folds herself down onto the deck without missing a bite. "I knocked, but she wouldn't even answer."

Randy asks, "Dad?"

"Must have gone into town."

By one o'clock we've stashed Davey in his playpen on the beach and we're bobbing around in inner tubes. I'm hanging by my armpits, kicking slow, licking the hot black rubber so I can watch the sun dry off the wet mark, when music explodes from the house. Two seconds later Mom's on the patio, dancing by herself in her yellow bikini, elbows in the air, fingers snapping. She was the Minnewashka High School Posture Queen. When Dad's in a good mood, he pats her fanny, tells her she's a looker and they kiss because they're in love.

We paddle toward her as fast as we can.

"See, Mitzy?" I say, kicking my tube onto the grass. "She just needed a nap."

"Shut up."

Mom leaps onto the pontoon boat, light as Tinkerbell, and swivels to face the three of us on the dock. She's perfect except for a scar like a crooked seam where her belly button was before she had Davey, and Dad made her get her tubes tied because she was already in the hospital. Her scar never tans.

"Kids, your mother has an idea," she says. "Mitzy? Drag that roll of chicken wire down here from the ditch across the road, and get all the white paint you can find. Chop-chop. Lillian? Sweetheart? Art supplies. Dry markers, glue. And my sewing kit. Randy, honey, get a bottle for Davey."

We ask what we're going to make, but she just points in the direction she wants us to go and we run off still wearing our wet swimsuits. All summer we get to hang them on the clothesline at night and put them right back on in the morning. We even wear them into town and run squealing through the freezer section of Gill's Grocery.

Excerpted from A Brief History of the Flood by Jean Harfenist Copyright© 2002 by Jean Harfenist. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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