Brett Riley


Brett Riley is the author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His stories have appeared in Solstice, Folio, The Evansville Review, The Wisconsin Review, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in Role Reboot, Wild Violet, Rougarou, and Foliate Oak Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.


Closed for Storm

Sometimes I dream I’m walking through a dusky conifer forest, the treetops disappearing into wispy, low-lying clouds. I’m with a group, sometimes strangers but often friends, younger than they are now, my best friend his high school self, my wife the girl I’ve only seen in pictures. We hike, and we hike, and then it appears, as if we flushed it with the noise of our coming—an abandoned amusement park.

A broken, rusting chain-link fence surrounds it, some of the gaps wide enough for two cars to pass abreast. A wooden rollercoaster curves overhead, dwarfing the young trees under it. Disintegrating metal thrill rides frozen in mid-swing dot the landscape, waist-high foliage surrounding them. Grass grows through the cracks of a gray go-cart track. Abandoned bumper cars squat like tree stumps. Collapsing midway stalls lean into each other like old drunks.

We mill about the dilapidated structures, feeling time’s weight. Wherever we were going, whatever our quest, we stand transfixed in the dying light, hearing the echoes of long-dead children’s voices raised in jubilation. Some of us weep.


The blue 14.8-liter cooler with my name stenciled on the side in black Sharpie holds two ham and provolone sandwiches with mustard and lettuce and two handfuls of Nacho Cheese Doritos sealed in plastic bags, plus six bottles of water buried in ice. My daughter, Rhetta, walks beside me. Seventeen years old, with pixie-cut chestnut-brown hair and hazel eyes, she is thin and tan like a river reed. Bored already, she stares at her phone, her thumbs in constant motion. How has her generation avoided walking off cliffs or into open manholes? I have allowed her to bring the phone in case of an emergency. Why is she using it now, after what she did?

Behind us, a rented Honda Accord sits alone in the trash-strewn parking lot. We left our Bentley at our Lakeside home, which is big enough for four families. Rhetta had fallen in love with the place while we were house-hunting, desperate for the space our two-bedroom, one-bath apartment did not provide. She begged us to buy the house, but we could not afford it. Then my first film quintupled its budget. Hollywood offers poured in. Move to Los Angeles, everyone said. Nobody in the business lives in New Orleans. But we never moved, because of Rhetta. My baby.

Now, the girl who once twirled like a ballerina in our carpetgrass sighs and huffs and wishes we’d just, like, move to L.A. already, where people are, I mean, so much cooler.

Hand over the phone, I say.

Just a second, she says.


She rolls her eyes and looks at me as if I’m a green, three-headed Martian. She hands me the phone—more accurately, she shoves it at me—and crosses her stick-figure arms. A stiff wind could carry her away like a kite. If she were a character in a script, I’d give her an eating disorder to raise the stakes.

Why are we here? she asks. This place is gross.

You loved this place once.

She considers Six Flags New Orleans, flooded during Hurricane Katrina and abandoned, useful only when some movie like Jurassic World needs a broken-down, haunted location. The old rides’ structures reach toward a flawless blue sky. Establishing shot, I think. Deep focus. We pass the welcome sign—a cutout of a man in a suit pointing to the park’s logo. Someone has spray-painted HELL IS EMPTY AND DEATH IS QUIET over the emblem and rendered the man’s face as a grinning skull. Beyond this apparition, the walk leads into the park proper. Its discolored concrete has buckled. Weeds sprout in the fissures. The faded green tracks of the Jester, a steel rollercoaster, arc across the sky. The thoroughfare takes us past disintegrating buildings, their facades so covered in graffiti and rot that it is difficult to tell what they once were.

God, Rhetta says. I feel like we’re in a horror movie.

Alice’s life is a horror movie, I say. You wrote the script yourself.

She looks away. She would rather stare at the ruins around us than face the wreckage she caused. She and her clique cyberbullied Alice, their classmate, by spreading rumors about the girl’s sexual activities. Alice endured it for three weeks before opening her wrists with a kitchen knife. Now she’s resting in a psychological care facility. Her furious and devastated family want Rhetta’s blood, and my little girl, who once ran across our lawn with flowers in her hair, shows no signs of remorse.

Whoever wrote that knew what’s up, she says, pointing to a sentence painted in thick black letters on a wall—THIS PLACE SUX.

I stop, put down the cooler, and pull a thick sheaf of photographs from my back pocket. I have arranged them by geography. Rhetta’s eyebrows rise. I take out the first half dozen pictures, medium and long shots of pre-school Rhetta running past squads of sweaty and sunburnt strangers. She looks over her shoulder, brown hair flowing, baby teeth uneven and as white as the walkway. In one photo, her mother pursues her, both of them blurry with motion. Rhetta was forever running ahead, overeager to stumble into puberty and adolescence and adulthood, and we gave chase, lest she leave us behind too soon. Perhaps she has.

Look at these, I say.

She takes the photos and flips through them. Then she hands them back, exhibiting the particular brand of ennui that afflicts teenagers confronted with anything over ten years old. I can’t believe you guys still have printed pictures, she says, stifling a yawn.

I pocket the bundle. Your mother and I came here when it was still called Jazzland. After your first time with us, you never wanted to leave.

She shrugs. I was a little kid.

Inside, you still are. This business with Alice proves it.


I take her by the shoulders. I have no idea what my face looks like, but she averts her gaze. No, I say. Not whatever. See that arcade? You’d drag us inside and spend half our cash playing games you didn’t even understand. This place meant something to you, before you decided that nothing means anything.

She shakes loose and turns around. She stares at the arcade as if it owes her all that money, all that time. Why are we here? she asks again.

To witness.

Witness what?

That’s a good question.


From nearby streets, cars’ engines rev. The metal-on-metal squeal of someone’s brakes suggests pads in need of repair. Somebody honks. In Six Flags New Orleans, though, nothing moves but us. We come to the pond lying in the shadow of the Skycoaster and the Spillway Splashout, the water bordered on one side by Ponchartrain Beach, on another by Main Street Square. The shells of a café and a paddleboat station stand sentinel near the hanging hulk of Lafitte’s Pirate Ship. Freed from its moorings, could it have floated down New Orleans’s flooded streets? Might the desperate and dehydrated citizenry have manned it, dropping some sort of improvised anchor long enough to plunder and take on fresh water?

Rhetta stares across the pond. Didn’t there used to be a fountain out there?

Yes. In the center. And over there is the channel that leads to the lake.

That’s how the water got in, she says. It came over the little levee and filled this place up like a bathtub.


We stand at the rusting balustrade in Main Street Square, shading our eyes with our hands. In the water lie at least a dozen elongated shadows, the rough pocked backs of gators, their unblinking eyes just above the surface. Two of the creatures watch us, the nearest one twenty-five yards away. It swims forward, the water rippling as it swishes its tail. Five yards from the balustrade, it stops and watches, watches, watches. I shift the cooler into my other hand, my shoulder aching.

Rhetta has been looking at the dead Ferris wheel across the way, its seats stained and mildewed and bleached from years of sun. Now she sees the gator. God, she says. He’s a big one.

Ten or twelve feet, I say.

Another one, an eight-footer, swims up and parks parallel to the big fellow. The new arrival stares, too.

How did people use the paddleboats if this pond is full of alligators? Rhetta asks, squinting against the sun reflecting on the water.

The gators weren’t here then. They came with the flood. When I was ten or eleven years old, my parents took me to Ponchartrain Beach. We rode the rides and ate corndogs and funnel cakes. Somehow that junk tasted like happiness. Jazzland came later. Six Flags bought it in 2003 and brought in new rides. A season pass here would get you into any Six Flags in the country.

Wow, she says, sounding sarcastic.

I let the remark pass. In August of 2005, Katrina drowned the place. Closed for Storm, the road sign says, but the park belongs to the gators now.

We move past the pirate ship and into the café’s shadow. Another gator floats ten or twelve feet offshore and watches the place as if wishing for a bowl of gumbo or a fried turkey leg. The building looks as creaky as the rest of the park, the graffiti thick and overlapping. We walk to the water’s edge.

The gator slides through the water, slowly at first, then faster. By the time I realize what is happening, it has nearly reached the shore. I grab Rhetta’s arm. She shrieks as I yank her back toward the building and on top of an outdoor picnic table. The gator makes landfall, its mouth open. It sits in the grass, still again, watching us with ancient eyes. I breathe fast, my heart pounding. Rhetta stands beside me, fists pressed against her mouth. Somehow, I have kept hold of the cooler.

The gator does not advance. After a moment, I sit down. Rhetta stands for a while, ready to run if the creature moves. Soon, it does, but not toward us. It turns and slips back into the pond and submerges.

Is it gone? Rhetta whispers.

Let’s not go down there and find out.

She scowls. God, this is stupid.

No. Stupid is using Facebook and Instagram like bludgeons. Stupid is telling a girl you grew up with that she’s a slut, that she should just kill herself. Stupid is acting surprised and innocent when she slits her wrists, getting indignant when your principal expels you, sleeping like a baby when you should be on your knees asking God to forgive you.

She reacts as if I’ve slapped her. I have seldom said a harsh word to her, have never spanked her, have grounded her only once, when she was fourteen and lost her retainer. I have never suggested that she has disappointed me, that I question her character. Her reaction—widened eyes, open mouth, two or three aborted attempts at reply—suggests that she has never considered the possibility of my disenchantment. She used to love cotton candy and stuffed animals and stray dogs. We used to be close. Then, one day, this stranger replaced her, the alien who always looks annoyed, the one who seems surgically attached to her phone and only likes Pixar movies ironically, the one who browbeats peers into hospitals.

I’m not stupid, she says.

That makes all this even worse.

We sit for a while, watching the gators. None of them shows any interest in us. After fifteen minutes, I get down, hauling the cooler with me, and walk away. Rhetta stays on the table until she is satisfied that the gators won’t pursue me. Then she follows. I lead her past the Muskrat Scrambler and hang a left at the Zydeco Scream. More cracked pavement, more trash, more graffiti, a mélange of gang signs, lovers’ declarations, statements of being like Sal Wuz Here, and philosophical musings such as What if you’re dead and just don’t know it? The sun beats down on us like a fist.

Imagine what it was like after the storm, I say. What if that gator had come after us with this whole place underwater?

We’d probably be dead, unless we climbed up a ride or onto a roof.

That’s right. We would have had to swim, climb, hold out under a sun like this one. No water, no food.

We never had to worry about that.

No. We had a car, money, our health.

People could have left. The city sent buses all around town. I read about it.

I groan. Did you read about how those buses actually worked? There weren’t enough for everyone. And where did they take you? Some town in central Arkansas or Texas, where you had to pray there was a hotel room you could afford or an empty cot on some stadium floor? What if you were sick, or your family was? What if you were stuck in a hospital that nobody evacuated?

I don’t know, she snaps. I guess they should have saved more money.

Once you’ve had to live on nothing, come back and talk to me about saving money.

Look, she says, hands on her hips. I don’t know what any of this has to do with Alice or her stupid wrists.

I drop the cooler. It smacks the concrete, the ice crackling inside it. Once, this whole town felt abandoned and betrayed, I say. We kept you from all that. Maybe we shouldn’t have. Then you might understand how seeing those nasty, thoughtless comments posted where anybody could read them—her parents, her boyfriend—made Alice feel like the gators were closing in and there was no high ground.

Alice doesn’t have a boyfriend.

I look at her a moment. Then I pick up the cooler and walk away.


We pass under the black and yellow tracks of the Batman ride, down the Ponchartrain Beach midway, over the levee and into the shadow of the Mega Zeph. We pause in front of the log ride. I pull out the pictures and show Rhetta a park-generated photo of us in the log-shaped boat, Rhetta in front, me with my now-absent beard and longer hair, my wife Louise behind us, blonde hair flowing in the wind. We are cresting the tallest rise, at the point where gravity takes hold and pulls us down. Rhetta looks both terrified and delighted. Now grime and rust cover the tracks. Thick strata of dirt, pollen, and mildew coat the plastic and metal cars. The roofed area leans dangerously, the wooden parts ready to collapse onto the metal railings that herded guests in zigzag patterns until their turn came.

I remember this place, Rhetta says.

You made us ride dozens of times.

She takes the picture and looks at it for a long time. Something passes over her face—sadness? Longing?

Let’s get out of here, she says.

But soon, as we pass a buckling photo booth, she stops again. I show her the photos we took there, the goofy faces we made and the light in our eyes. As we move away, she glances back, just once.

Soon we find ourselves in the area called Looney Tunes Adventures, a cluster of kiddie rides—a small set of rotating swings, many of which have fallen like puppets with cut strings; a mini-wheel with enclosed cars; an airplane ride. I hand Rhetta a wad of pictures, which show her on every attraction, sitting beside Louise or me.

I loved those planes, didn’t I? she asks.

I laugh. It sounds deranged in all this waste. God, yes. We spent most of our time in this part of the park. After two hours or so, your mother and I were miserable.

Well, how come you stayed, then?

Sometime love means being miserable so you can make someone else happy.

Why didn’t Mom come today?

Because her heart is broken. She’s taken the brunt of all this while I’ve been on set. Even strong people need breaks.

Rhetta walks up to the planes and lays her hand on one. I imagine it feels rough, grainy, warm. She looks across the water, back the way we came. Did you guys ever ride Batman?

Yes, but not together. One of us always stayed with you.

At least you got to go.

She studies her manicured nails. Her designer t-shirt clings to her like a second skin.

You probably don’t remember some of the nastier reactions when the city flooded, I say. Some so-called Christians went on TV and claimed that Katrina was God’s fist, smiting this city for all its sins. Others said that we deserved to drown because we were stupid enough to live in a bowl below sea level. Can you imagine them saying something like that if the Rockies collapsed and buried Denver or a tsunami flooded Seattle?

She snorts. When that big storm hit New York a few years ago, nobody blamed them for living on the coast.

Exactly. It’s sad and unfair when thoughtless people lash out at you.

She gives me the side-eye. Again, she seems on the cusp of saying something. Again, she closes her mouth. She turns to the swings, perhaps remembering the times we strapped her in and told her to hold on, that it would be okay no matter how high she rose, that we would be just on the other side of the fence. The first time she rode them, she wailed and shrieked like some kids do when you plop them down in a mall Santa Claus’s lap. Afterward, she ran to us, hugged her mother, and asked to go again.

You know how a lot of people went to the Convention Center? I ask.

Uh huh, she says, twisting her necklace and pulling the pendant back and forth. It is a gold pave razor blade that reflects the sunlight into my eyes.

One day, this group of kids showed up. Four or five of them, if I recall. The oldest might have been a first-grader. They were alone. Their parents died in the storm, and they made it over the waters, past the bodies and ruination. All by themselves. Can you imagine?

Uh uh, she says.

I wait, but she says nothing else, so we move on. We pass a concession area that sold hot dogs, ice cream, overpriced crap with Six Flags’ logo. Do all the memories flood back to Rhetta—sounds and smells and tastes long forgotten, a storm surge swamping her teenage certainty that she knows everything, has always been right, must suffer a world too stupid to understand her?

Somebody took all the merchandise away, I say, even though it must have been waterlogged and mildewed and muddy.

Like those people who floated big TVs down the streets, she says.

Maybe. Or maybe they just needed clothes. We can’t know for sure who did it or why. Thinking that we know everything about someone else’s life, who they should be, what they should have done in a situation we weren’t in—that’s vanity. Do you remember Mr. Lemieux?

Old bald guy? The one who used to bring me hard candy?

Yes. He lived down the street from us before we moved to the Lakefront. He worked two jobs—streetcar driver by day, security guard at Xavier University at night. After we moved, I ran into him sometimes. He always asked about you.

Okay, she says, looking for the trap I’m setting.

I saw his wife in Wal-Mart a couple of years after Katrina. I asked about him. Turns out he died.

She looks furious, as if I’ve played a dirty trick. That sucks, she says. But I don’t know why you’re telling me now. My Facebook posts didn’t kill him.

No. And neither did the hurricane—not directly, anyway. He was working the night shift at Xavier when Katrina hit. He and some other guards had to stay on campus because a lot of out-of-state students, some only a year or so older than you are, got stranded. They moved into one of the taller buildings and waited in those stifling rooms for days. The guards foraged for food and water, swimming through ten feet of gunk. They couldn’t see the bottom. At night, they heard gunshots and huddled together in the dark.

So what happened? Rhetta asks. Did he drown?

No. He died from heat exhaustion. One day, he just lay down on the floor and closed his eyes and never opened them again. When the other guards realized he was dead, they carried his body to a storeroom and left it. They had no body bags, no way to treat the corpse. When the rescue boats came, they had to leave it. When the clean-up crews found Mr. Lemieux, he had bloated and burst.

Rhetta says nothing. We walk. We look. We suffer the heat and absorb the breeze off the water. The sound of trucks roaring down the Interstate comes to us like voices from a nearby room.

Then she stops and turns on me. Tears streak her mascara. Her lower lip quivers.

Look, she says. I’m crying now. Is that what you wanted? Are you happy?

She stomps off, the sound of her footsteps hollow and clipped.


We sit on the Gazebo floor. In one direction, the ruins of a bakery obscure our view of the pond; in the other, three small pavilions stand only yards from each other. If seen overhead, these pavilions, our Gazebo, and the walks between them would form a cross. We sit at the base of its nave. Rhetta faces the chancel. Cross-legged, I watch the bakery, the water. I can feel the ghosts of those who walked this place—cavorting children, teenagers hired to run the rides and sell bottled water, parents and young couples holding hands. Their absence feels as tangible as the wood beneath me. One storm, one earthquake, one recession, one election, one gunshot, one verdict—all the Earth is a powder keg waiting for a match. What did Alice think about on the day she logged onto Facebook and saw those comments? How did she feel when she selected the knife and looked at her parents, her room, for what she thought would be the last time? Had she been happy when she woke? Had the day seemed bright with possibility and love? Or did she sense the coming calamity, the way that animals can sense a tornado?

I’m hungry, Rhetta says.

Okay, I say, opening the cooler. I hand her a sandwich and a baggie of chips, plus a bottle of water. I take out my food and arrange it in my lap. Rhetta does not open her provisions. Now she, too, is watching the bakery.

Do you see that? she asks.

I swallow a mouthful of chips and sip a little water. See what?

By the bakery door. Plastic jugs.

I squint but see nothing. Too much distance, too many years. Are you sure?

Yeah. Ten or twelve of them. Do you think they’re left from the old days?

No. The wind would have blown them away a long time ago. Maybe somebody lives there.

She shivers. How could anybody live here? She stands up and goes to the railing.

Before, you said this place was like a horror movie, but maybe it’s a dump, I say. A lost place where abandoned people live disposable lives. But somebody cared about them. Once.

She turns to me, her teeth clinched. Her face is red, from shame or anger or heat. I never called Alice disposable.

You told her she might as well kill herself.

I didn’t, like, mean it literally.

I’m sure that would comfort her parents.

God. What do you want from me? Don’t you understand I can’t take it back? She turns and pounds the railing with her fist.

I want to go to her, hold her, tell her that it’s all right. But it isn’t. Yes, I say. I understand that.

Rhetta gathers her food and puts it back in the cooler. Then she picks up the cooler and walks down the steps, onto the walk, toward the bakery. I cap my water and follow her.

At the bakery’s warped and disintegrating front doors, we find a dozen gallon jugs filled with water. Their seals are broken. Likely, they have been filled and emptied and filled again, someone’s lifeline, a scene in a film we will never see. Rhetta puts the cooler down near the jugs. Then she turns on her heel and walks away fast. I follow again, watching her sweat-stained back. She heads for the front gates without asking permission or even looking at me. I don’t stop her.

On the way out, we pass an old cooling station we used many times all those years ago. On the ground underneath it lies a disembodied plastic clown’s face, grinning and maniacal, free of its moorings and its old life, trapped in the stasis of its present like an object in a photograph.

We pass through the old turnstiles. Younger and lither, Rhetta reaches the car fifteen yards ahead of me. I unlock the doors, and we get in. Soon, we drive away, the air conditioner running full-blast, the tires humming on the pavement. I take her phone out of my pocket and hand it back to her. She looks at it for a long time. After a while, she turns down the radio and dials a number. She puts the phone to her ear as the road spins toward the horizon, pulling us along with it.

I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. New Orleans is my favorite city, and before the storm, my family visited Six Flags many times. I’m also generally fascinated by the world’s lonely places—the deserts, the open ocean, abandoned buildings, and haunted, eerie locales. Combine all that with my belief that America’s empathy is atrophying in ways almost as destructive as climate change, and I came to wonder what it would be like to visit the corpse of a beloved place with a cynical, self-involved loved one. This story is my answer.