9/27/22:With my text alert wildly warning of Ian's arrival, I prayed about what to blog this week. In an instant, the unexpected answer came: "Post that short story about hurricanes." Years ago, I wrote a collection of stories, Waterworks: Modern Tales of Redemption & Grace. This is a collection of twelve short inspirational stories for women, including reflective prompts and prayers for spiritual growth. I never published them, though one was featured in a literary anthology. I confess I'm not even reading this again before posting it. If you like it, will you let me know? I sure do hope you'll enjoy it!
9/30/22 UPDATE: I scheduled this post earlier this week. As of this morning, all is well. By the grace of God, Ian was a nonevent for us here. We were serenely hunkered down at my house. Grateful! Thanks to all of you who prayed and reached out.
It was just starting to rain now, clouds materializing out of an innocent, early morning August sky. Caroline rushed to shut the windows in the house against the coming storm.
She ran the headcount in her head. Betsy was pulling soggy laundry off the clothes line across the way. Raylene was playing with the rabbit ears on the TV. Her twin, Ruth Ann, was still down at the truck stop along 37. Sistah Sally, as they called her, was at the church preparing for the worst. Mary Pat was our running somewhere. Little Kitty was splashing in the muddy puddles quickly forming from the flat, grassless stretch of earth before the little compound they called Sisterville. All seven of us accounted for.
“Betsy!” Caroline called out the window. “Betsy!”
“What?!” Betsy answered impatiently, as she lifted a damp sheet off the clothes line to find her sister’s face. Already soggy from the light shower, Betsy stood with the plastic laundry basket resting at her feet and wet clothes slung over both shoulders.
“Get the rugs out back, too,” Caroline hollered. Betsy shrugged a reply.
It had all started three hours ago. Roused by a strong breeze early that morning,
Caroline had hurried to hang the wash and air rugs. Nobody said anything about rain.
The storm was supposed to pass far east of Cypress Creek, population 700. At eight a.m., when she finally sat down for morning coffee, her younger sister Raylene burst in the screen door.
“Talula’s comin’ this way,” she announced breathlessly.
“Talula?” Caroline asked indifferently, lighting a cigarette.
“Right.” She answered absentmindedly, remembering. “They’re really dredging for names aren’t they?” Caroline got up to pour herself another cup of coffee. “Want some?” she asked, lifting the pot.
Raylene crossed the small living room to the old console TV in the corner and switched it on. “I’m serious, Caroline,” she said fiddling with the knobs, “it’s coming straight for us.” Raylene smacked the side of the television, hoping to jar it into compliance.
“We’ve been through storms before, sis,” Caroline said, placidly returning to her chair at the small kitchen table.
“This is different,” Raylene bent over the top of the TV, which was covered with potted plants. “They’re evacuating the coast and then some,” she said as she rummaged through a tangle of wires and vines. “Why don’t you spring for satellite and get rid of this old piece of junk,” she said pushing aside some ivy to grab hold of the antenna.
“And what is it, a TV or a plant stand, anywho?”
“I don’t watch television, Ray,” Caroline said resignedly for the hundredth time. “And we’re a long ways from the coast.”
“Well, that’s just fine, you being in the house and all,” setting the antenna down and turning to her sister. “The trailers are gonna be river barges by tomorrow night if it whips up the Miss like they say.”
Caroline and their youngest sister Kitty lived in the tiny, three room log cabin that had been their parent’s home, while the remaining sisters lived in two trailers that flanked the cabin. Sisterville.
“Mama and Papa never left. We won’t either.”
Their parents had died five years earlier in a car wreck along rural route 564. Their old Dodge collided head-on with a flatbed full of hay bales on the dark country road one evening coming back from dinner at the VFW in nearby Collinsburg.
Deputy Warren Stohl showed up at the house late that night. “You being the eldest, Caroline, I come tell you first,” he said softly, standing in the peculiar orange glow of the front porch bug light. The memory was vivid.
“Caroline?” It was their little sister Kitty who appeared in the arc of the hallway to jolt her back to the present. “What was all that banging?” she asked. “It scared Thumper,” the stuffed bunny rabbit she clutched in her arms.
“That was your sister Raylene, trying to fix the television,” she replied, casting a stern glance at her sister. She turned back to Kitty. “Did you sleep well, honeybunch?” Caroline opened her arms to the youngest of the seven orphan sisters. When their parents died, Kitty was only six months old, a surprise baby. All in their late teens and early twenties by then, the other sisters had welcomed Kitty as though she were their own child, and cared for her with equal tenderness and attention. Providential, as it turned out.
“Storm’s comin’, Kitty Cat,” Raylene said in a scary voice.
“Stop it, Ray,” Caroline warned, pulling Kitty up onto her lap.
“Will we go stay in the church again?” Kitty asked excitedly.
“That was fun, wasn’t it?” Caroline said, recalling the prior summer when they’d found shelter in the church during a bad storm.
“It was fun!” Kitty squealed.
“Yes, well, maybe we’ll do that,” she lifted Kitty off her lap. “Go ahead and get dressed now, Kit. I’ll make you some breakfast.”
“Okay,” the child said brightly, running off, Thumper in hand.
Caroline walked around the counter into the galley kitchen to prepare breakfast. Raylene pulled a stool up to the bar and leaned forward over the counter. “Caroline, I mean it, I got a feeling about this storm.”
“Okay,” Caroline said beating eggs. “Let’s talk to the rest of the gang and decide what we oughta do. Let me just get Kitty fed and you round everybody up.”
“Good, I’ll see you in a few.” Raylene hopped off the stool with a flourish and vanished out the door.
Twenty minutes later Raylene was back, followed by everybody except for Ruth Ann and Mary Pat. Assembled, the sister’s kinship was evident. They all had their mother dark wavy hair and their father’s angular features. Other than the twins, that’s where the resemblance ended.
“Good morning,” Caroline said clearing dishes from the table. “Hi!” Kitty said, looking up from the book she was reading sitting on the living room floor.
“Hi, squirt,” Betsy said, mussing Kitty’s hair.
“Kitty,” Caroline said wiping her hands on a dishtowel, “why don’t you go play in the yard a little bit, honey.”
“Okay,” Kitty replied obediently, grabbing Thumper off the sofa and heading for the door. Her sisters each took turns patting her along as she scooted by.
“Where are Mary Pat and Ruth Ann?” Caroline asked.
“Ruth Ann’s at the diner,” said Raylene.
“I don’t think Mary Pat came home last night,” Sally said embarrassed.
“Out with that Pritchett boy prob’ly,” Raylene winked.
Betsy walked up to her eldest sister resolute. “I think Raylene may be right about the storm, Caroline. It could really be bad this time, sis. I’ve been watching the news and it does look like a big one.”
“Anybody hear anything from town?” Caroline asked.
“I talked to Robin, Pastor Kirk’s wife,” Sally answered. “She said Sheriff and them was heading out to ask folks to leave, told them to get the church ready for holdouts. I’m going over after this to help set up. I know we’ve done this before, but Robin said Sheriff was real worried. Said they’d never seen anything like it.”
As if on cue, Deputy Stohl appeared in the doorway and rapped on the storm door before letting himself in.
“Hi, Warren,” Caroline said. “We were just talking about Talula.”
“Hi, Caroline,” the Deputy nodded to the assembled group, “Hi, girls.” He removed his hat. “That’s what I’m here about.”
“Want some coffee, Warren?” Caroline asked, gesturing to the kitchen.
“No thanks, Caroline. I’m making the rounds this mornin’. Just stopped in to tell you that we’d like you to go by sunset. Storm should be up good by then. River won’t be far behind.”
Sally, who was leaning against the front door jam, glanced up at the sky through the storm door. “It’s just drizzling now.”
“I know, but it’s going to get worse. With all that spring rain they had upriver this year, it looks bad,” the deputy said urgently. “You got somewhere to go? Your Aunt up in Jackson maybe?”
“I don’t think we’re gonna leave, Warren,” Caroline said decisively.
“Right now, it is up to you,” Warren conceded. “But that could change, Caroline," Warren said carefully. "Storm’s picking up speed and Sheriff’s talking mandatory evacuation if the rain keeps coming.”
“Well,” Caroline said scanning her sisters’ faces for agreement. “If he does, then we’ll talk again.”
“OK, then.” Warren sighed. “I’ll probably be back before too long, one way or another.” He backed out the screen door. “See you later.” They heard him say bye to Kitty and then tires on gravel.
Raylene nudged Caroline with her elbow. “Why didn’t you ask him for lunch or something?” Everyone laughed except Caroline.
“Your sense of timing is really something else, Ray,” Caroline answered humorlessly.
“So, I guess we oughta get ready,” she added, not missing a beat. “I’ll get all the windows and storm shutters.”
“Let me see if I can’t get this darned thing workin’.” Raylene squawked grumpily, kneeling before the TV.
Betsy rose, “I’ll get the laundry,” she said, moving to the front door.
Sally joined her. “Wait up, Bets. I’m heading to church. I’ll be back in a few hours with a report from town.”
Betsy looked out toward the river, a small sliver of which was visible from this vantage point. “I hope we don’t lose the crop again,” she said anxiously.
The same storm that had put them in the church overnight last year had flooded their low fields, washing away the herbs and flowers they sold during the growing season. Years ago, their grandparents Lilly and Earl built the cabin just above the five acres of rich floodplain where they grew vegetables to sustain their family of three, including their only child, April. When April married their Daddy, Carl Jr. at 17 and he joined the family economy with his generous machinist’s pay, they were soon able to save enough money to buy a large double-wide, which they had placed next door to the cabin. Eventually, Papa Carl, by then a foreman at the small engine plant in Collinsburg, bought yet another trailer as quarters for the older sisters, since by then they had their six daughters stacked like cordwood in the doublewide. As each came of age, they migrated from the trailer to the henhouse, as Grandpa Earl had dubbed the place. It was an admittedly unusual arrangement, but it suited everybody just fine.
The simple log cabin was long and narrow, constructed of gray wood with a sliver of porch across the front, and built up on a substantial foundation of large, irregular stones and thick crudely applied mortar. The plank shutters were primitive, but apparently functional enough to stave off the worst of the weather. As shabby as the simple dwelling looked, it had proven its mettle by withstanding many a storm season.
White, with green, corrugated metal storm shutters, both the trailers were also as plain as could be on the outside. Papa Carl had insisted it be so. “No use fancifying somethin’ as humble as a mobile home,” he always said.
Even so, Grandma Lilly and Mamma had decorated each home’s interior with great care, the handmade calico curtains their crowning glory. The two worked for days to fashion pretty curtains for every window, peddling away on the heavy wrought iron pedestal of Grandma Lilly’s old-fashioned Singer sewing machine, her most valuable possession. They’d make the trip to Collinsburg for supplies, where an old spinster known as Miss Scarlett (because of both her southern belle ways and conspicuous rouge) sold fabric out of her two-car garage, which she’d converted into a sewing store from time immemorial. Grandma Lilly and Mamma taught each girl how to sew on the old Singer, making new sets of calico curtains every few years as the old ones wore thin. By now, they had nearly two dozen bolts of calico fabric, bundled in plastic garbage bags and stored in the attic.
It was these pretty curtains that Caroline pushed aside as she shut the windows against the increasingly unfriendly weather that morning. Caroline moved from room to room, shutting and latching each window carefully. The phone rang. She grabbed the cordless on the nightstand in the cabin’s downstairs bedroom.
“It’s me.” Mary Pat.
“Where are you?” Caroline asked, angrily.
“At Melanie’s, helping to move the horses up the hill to the Johnson’s barn.”
“I wish you’d call when you weren’t coming home, Mary Pat. Were you with Pritchy?”
“Yes.” Mary Pat said unapologetically.
“Alright then,” she said wearily, not wanting to argue. “When you coming home?”
“I want to stay with Pritchy. He’s downtown with his brother boarding up, but he’ll
come get me here later.”
“I’d like you to come home so we can be together if things get nasty.”
“I want to stay with Pritch, sis.”
“No way, Mary Pat!” Caroline yelled. The line clicked. Mary Pat had hung up. She stared at the receiver in disbelief. Mary Pat had been only 13 when their parents died. Given her sensitive age, the last five years had been especially hard on her, but Caroline couldn’t worry about brooding adolescent antics right now. She popped into the living room to tell Raylene about their sister, but Raylene was still intent on the TV and barely paid any attention to her.
Caroline went to the bathroom to start the tub water running for reserves, and caught sight of Kitty outside, still playing mindlessly in the rain and mud, filthy and happy as a piglet. She let the water drain, realizing the little girl would need to bathe.
Caroline opened the small window over the tub and called out, “Kitty, come inside now, honey.” The little girl looked up with a beaming smile and immediately ran toward the front door. You never had to say something to Kitty twice.
Caroline raced to the front door to intercept the muddy urchin. “Take your sandals off outside, sweetheart,” she said, holding the door open against an unexpected gust of cold wind. It was raining much harder now, the sky looking more ominous than even moments before.
“That was fun!” Kitty said happily.
“I can see that.”
Raylene looked up from the TV, which now had a fuzzy picture and sound. “It’s coming this way,” she said in a singsong voice. She stopped when she saw Kitty. “Boy, you are the cutest little piglet.” Kitty giggled.
“Let me get mudpie here in the tub.” Caroline had Kitty rinse off in the shower, then turned the faucet on and poured in an abundance of bubble bath. “You clean up good now, honey. I’ll see you a minute.”
Caroline sat on the armrest of the old chintz sofa. “So, what’s up?”
“It’s a category four. They expect it to make landfall ‘round five. At the rate it’s going, that would put it here couple hours later. There’s a lot of water coming down.”
Caroline stopped to think. “Will you get Kitty out of the tub in a little bit? I’m going to finish shutting windows and get Betsy.”
Caroline stepped out into the warm cascade, momentarily imagining the tropical origins of the oddly hot and heavy drops of water. She ran across the yard, leaping over the large puddles, and quickly shut all the windows in the twins’ trailer. Then she back-tracked, taking Betsy’s porch steps two at a time. She rushed in the front door and found Betsy sitting cross-legged on the floor, drying her hair with a towel and watching the weather channel.
Betsy pointed at the screen. “It’s bad, Caroline. Really bad.”
“It’s coming a lot quicker than they thought, too.”
“I know. We’ll batten down the hatches and hole up at the house. We should be fine.”
The sound of the steady rain, amplified by the hollowness of the uninsulated porch roof betrayed their claim.
The sisters’ preparations consumed the afternoon and they scrambled in the downpour. While Raylene entertained little Kitty, Caroline and Betsy assembled every potential missile from the cluttered yard—garden tools, Kitty’s toys, lawn chairs—and stacked them haphazardly in the Amish shed, chaining the flimsy door with an old high school pad lock and chain.
They were closing the last of the trailer shutters when Sally returned from church around five, reporting that Hilltop Assembly of God was stocked up with food and water, and ready for whatever would befall them. Last year’s blankets and sleeping bags had been pulled from storage, she reported, and filled every square inch of the basement, choir loft and sanctuary, providing room enough for 250 souls. They were boarding up the windows when she left, Deputy Warren urging her to have the sisters return for shelter as soon as possible.
“But it’s not mandatory yet?” Caroline asked, seeing a swirl of dark clouds on the distant horizon.
“No,” Sally admitted. “But there’s a flood watch now.”
Caroline hesitated for a moment before speaking. “Well, we’re staying put,” she said resolutely. “River’s never been up this high.”
Standing on the cabin’s porch, they saw Ruth Ann’s baby blue Malibu pulling up. She honked in greeting. “See y’all’s good and ready for Tulula,” she hollered, emerging from the car. Her yellow and brown waitress uniform was soaked and streaked with dirt. She ran for the shelter of the porch. “Can you believe they had us boarding up the Park ‘n’ Dine?,” she said, unzipping the front of her dress. “Dwayne Hinkle and his boys went into town to help board up down there. Jose and the kitchen help and Lilly and me done all the diner windows ourselves.”
“We coulda used you here,” Caroline said. “But I’m glad your home now.”
“I guess we’re stayin?” Ruth Ann ignored her eldest sister’s rebuke.
The sisters nodded.
“Where’s my foxy twin?” she asked, pushing past her siblings.
“Inside with the baby,” Sally answered, holding the screen door open. They filed inside.
“Hey, sis,” Ruth Ann said loudly to Raylene who sat on a kitchen chair inches from the TV.
“Shh, all of you,” Raylene put her finger to her lips. “Kitty’s asleep.”
“Good timing, Ruth Ann,” Raylene reached for her twin’s hand. “I was worried.”
Raylene leaned into her. “Mary Pat stopped at the diner with Pritchy earlier,” she said blankly, instantly mesmerized by the muted satellite TV images of the whirling storm system. “Said she was staying with him.”
“Yep,” Caroline said.
A thunderclap startled them.
“I need to get out of these wet clothes and take a shower,” Ruth Ann said, walking down the short hall.
Betsy called out to her softly, not wanting to wake Kitty. “Tub’s full.”
“We’re saving fresh water,” Betsy answered.
“Forget the shower, Ruth Ann, and just stay put,” Caroline ordered.
Someone was banging on the door. Before anyone could open it, Warren stepped in. He wore his wet weather gear head to toe. “Y’all best go,” he said breathlessly.
“Why, something changed?” Caroline asked.
“No, Caroline, nothing’s changed,” Warren said, pained. “It’s just a real bad storm whipping up the river.”
“We’re not leaving.” Caroline’s terse pronouncement silenced the room. The hard tapping of the shutters straining against their stays were an odd percussion to the indistinguishable sounds of TV static and pelting rain.
“You’re being stubborn, Caroline,” Warren said quizzically, “and I just can’t understand why.”
“My parents never left this place, Warren. It’s all we got,” she moved around the room tugging at the curtains busily. “You bullied me into leaving last year,” she added accusingly, “for no account, as it turned out.”
“What’s last year got to do with it, woman?” Warren said with uncharacteristic frustration. “You being here isn’t gonna keep the river from running this place down.”
Betsy spoke. “Caroline, Warren’s right…”
“I’m the oldest and I’m in charge.” Caroline yelled. “We’re not leaving!”
“Stop yelling,” Kitty appeared in the doorway, sleepily clutching Thumper. “You always yell, Caroline.” The room fell silent.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Ruth Ann said, switching on her flashlight and pointing it at Caroline’s face.
“Bossy,” Raylene said in a snide tone.
Caroline’s face clouded over for an instant, a slight ripple moving across her mouth. Then, through clenched teeth, she spoke. “We’re not doing this now.” She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Somebody has to be in charge and it’s me. You want to leave? Leave.”
Nobody moved. Then, Ruth Ann’s footsteps on the creaking stairs broke the silence.
Warren sighed. “Well, I need to leave. I got to get up to that Canton place, check on them animals.” He didn’t wait for goodbyes. He pulled the door shut firmly behind him and left.
Moments later, the lights flickered and went out.
“There goes th’electric,” Raylene said, slapping the television senselessly.
In the now dark, shuttered living room, Caroline reached for the electric lantern she’d set out for this purpose, it’s artificial, blue-green glow illuminating a circle around her. She held it aloft. “Where’s the wideband?”
Raylene had it in her hands and was switching it on as the words left Caroline’s lips.
“Sally, light those two torches,” she snapped. “Everybody got a flashlight?”
Switching on the battery-operated lanterns and setting them carefully around the room, Sally spoke in a near whisper, without turning from her methodical tasks. “We ought to go to the church while we still can, Caroline.” She didn’t turn to look at her sister.”
Betsy ignored the exchange and was in the kitchen making sandwiches. “We better stuff ourselves.” She said, filling paper plates. “This food ain’t gonna last.”
“We can put some stuff in the freezer.” Caroline said, annoyed. “Keep the fridge door closed, Betsy.”
They ate in silence, all of them keen on the wet wind squeezing and shaking the little cabin around them. Sally and Kitty played games quietly in the far corner. Raylene carefully monitored the radio for updates, listening for relevant news amidst the static reports about towns further south. Every so often, she’d relay a progress report.
“Shhhh.” Raylene raised a hand while holding the radio close to her ear with the other.
“Flood warning!” she called out. Ruth Ann pressed her ear against her twins’.
Sally clutched Kitty. Betsy moved around the kitchen counter.
“Miss broke her banks at Tenley.” Raylene reported. “Says everyone in Collins County should move to higher ground right away.”
Caroline stared at her sister, unbelieving. The river had breached in Tenley? It’s never happened. She crossed to the front door. Resting her fingers lightly on the doorknob, she debated whether to open it. “We’re up high,” she said, as much to herself as to her sisters.
“Don’t do it, Caroline,” Betsy grabbed her sister’s shoulder. “Let’s just go upstairs.”
“I want to see what’s coming.”
Sally reached out for her sister’s hand, while she still held Kitty closely pressed to her side. “There’s no seeing what’s coming now,” Sally pleaded.
Caroline tugged the front door open. The storm door was shuttering in its frame. The sky was churning. Caroline could make out trees swaying in the wind. “I’m just gonna check where the water is. I won’t go far. Wait for me upstairs.” Before anyone could answer, she’s pushed through the storm door and stepped out into the downpour, pulling the door shut behind her.
The ground was clearly steeped in water, a shallow puddle covering the ground before their homes. Caroline stepped off the porch and was pelted by a rain as hard and fat as a garden hose on full jet. She walked across the yard without regard for the ankle deep soup. Striding purposefully toward the river, Caroline waited for it to come into view. Nearing the crest of the small rise on which their homes were built, Caroline felt her heartbeat quicken and a rush of adrenalin. The sound of rushing of water.
“Go upstairs!” she yelled as loudly as she could, running back toward the cabin. “Go upstairs!”
She saw Betsy’s half-lit figure standing in the doorway peering through the storm door, flashlight in hand, searching uselessly in the fractured prism of light reflected on the sheets of rain.
“Upstairs, Betsy, run!” she screamed, arms waving, hoping she could be seen if not heard.
Just as she mounted the porch stairs, Betsy finally saw and heard Caroline’s frantic warning. She turned to alert her sisters who were standing at the base of the stairs expectantly. Caroline found them scrambling up the staircase just as she reached the door.
Panting, Caroline burst through the door, shutting it senselessly against the coming deluge. “It’s coming fast,” she gasped, pushing Betsy up the stairs.
“Are we high enough?” Betsy said.
“Go to the attic! Caroline cried up to her sisters assembled at the top of the stairs. They opened the short door in the hallway.
“Will we be high enough?!” Betsy repeated.
Caroline lowered her voice. “I don’t know.” Betsy stopped for a moment, her eyes wide with fear and doubt.
“Hurry girls, hurry!” Betsy shoved her sisters up the narrow attic stairs.
Caroline closed the attic door and raised her lantern to scan the ceiling. She could hear the rain drumming on the roof, but there wasn’t a leak in sight. She saw the sunken square of the roof hatch at the far end of the attic. She reached into the hollow and felt the sides. Dry. Tar, she realized, desperately. They’d tarred the roof again only last year and must have sealed the hatch.
“We have to open this hatch!” she moved the lantern around her feet, looking for something to use. “Help me!” she begged. Betsy and the twins searched the attic floor frantically.
“Thumper’s afraid,” Kitty said, still enveloped in Sally’s arms.
Sally gently caressed her little sister’s hair. “Let’s pray, sweetheart.” They murmured the Lord’s Prayer in the darkness.
“You keep hold of her,” Caroline said needlessly.
“Will this work?” Betsy held up an old broom they used for cobwebs.
“I’ll try it, but keep looking.” Caroline said, pulling an old trunk beneath the attic hatch.
Caroline stepped onto the trunk and jammed the doorway with the broomstick as hard she could.
“Papa’s old toolbox!” Ruth Ann dragged a large, orange metal box over to Caroline’s feet. She kneeled to fumble with the latch.
“Quick, find something, please!” Caroline pleaded. “This isn’t working!”
“Oh my God, is that water?” Betsy stood at the large hexagonal window that overlooked the front yard.
“What?” Ruth Ann looked up from the toolbox. Raylene moved to Betsy’s side.
“Ruth Ann, I need something now!” Caroline screamed.
Ruth Ann was pulling old, rusty tools of the toolbox one by one. “Here!” With effort, she lifted an enormous wrench up to her sister.
Caroline threw the broomstick across the room and took the wrench with both hands.
Struggling to hold it over her head at an awkward angle, Caroline mustered all her might to bang on the edges of the attic hatch. With the first blow, the door gave a little.
“It’s working!” she cried with relief.
“Hurry,” Raylene said. Looking down through the window, she could see that the water covered the porch roof and was still rising.
With a final bang, the roof hatch opened and was promptly pulled from it’s fragile hinges by the gusting wind. “Let me see what it’s like Caroline said, boosting herself up and out the hatchway.
Caroline crouched on the rooftop and looked around. There was a strange, artificial glow that illuminated the surreal scene. The rain and wind had subsided noticeably in absurd contrast to the roiling of the fast-moving flood water beneath her. Impossibly, it seemed, the twin’s trailer was already gone and nowhere in sight. The other was completely submerged. Trees were floating by, their bare roots protruding from the water like they’d never lived in dirt. Branches filled the water like a box of matchsticks emptied into a bathtub. The roof had the expected slight tackiness of cured tar, and only the chimney and bath vent interrupted the smooth black surface. The roof pitch was mercifully slight.
Caroline leaned into the hole. “You twins come up first,” she said loudly. “Sally, then you and Kitty. Hurry.”
Ruth Ann boosted Raylene through the hatchway, and Raylene immediately pulled her sister up behind her. The twins then reached down together for Kitty. “Leave Thumper behind, honey,” Ruth Ann chided.
“Hand him me,” Caroline said, reaching in the hole.
Together, Ruth and Raylene lifted Kitty onto the roof, where she immediately reached for her precious stuffed animal, half falling into Caroline’s ready embrace. Sally followed.
“Where’s Betsy?” Caroline asked Sally over the din of wind and water.
“Checking to see where the water is.”
Caroline handed Kitty to Sally and leaned into the hatchway again.
“The water’s at the bottom of the attic steps,” Betsy’s voice called from the dark attic.
“Get up here!”
When Betsy joined them on the roof, they sat in stunned silence for a few moments before Sally spoke. “Someone will come from town.”
“Soon,” Betsy agreed.
“It’s your fault, damn it, Caroline,” Raylene said with disgust. “Who elected you boss, anyway? You just appointed yourself after ma and pa died.”
“She was bossy long before that,” Ruth Ann added, satisfied.
“Come on, now,” Sally said. “This isn’t the time to lay blame.”
“Stop being so nice, Sally,” Betsy lamented. “You said it yourself. We should have left for the church hours ago.”
Caroline’s face was stony, but tears were pooling in her eyes, visible even in the rain.
“Always thinks she’s right. Always telling others—”
“Thumper!” The stuffed animal must have slipped from Kitty’s grasp and rolled a few feet down the roof. Kitty broke away from Sally’s embrace, rose to her feet and took two steps after Thumper when she slipped and fell. In an instant, she disappeared over the side of the roof. In an instant, life changed.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Sally cried, scrambling to the edge of the roof. “Kitty, grab something!” she screamed before diving into the rushing water without a moment’s thought.
The women left behind cried out in terror, watching the current take their sisters away. Caroline rose to her feet and took an unsteady stride to the edge of the roof. The twins acted quickly, and pulled her down. She fell clumsily, and the twins laid across her body as Caroline howled in despair. Betsy watched as Sally and Kitty were swept out of sight down the Cypress-lined lane that had been their driveway. She sat immobile, clutching the chimney as though it were mother-comfort.
An hour passed. The rain had stopped and the water had stilled. Painfully, Sisterville had been engulfed in the mindless rhythm of the great river. Caroline, Betsy and the twins hadn’t moved. Frozen in shocked sorrow and bewilderment, they waited for whatever came next.
A small Jon boat emerged from the very passage that had swallowed Sally and Kitty.
“Hey there!” Kneeling in the fragile craft, Warren raised his hands above his head in greeting, a broad smile breaking across his face, until he saw the expressions of the listless figures staring back at him.
The Jon boat, guided by a vaguely familiar face from town, pulled up close to where Caroline and the twins still rested, close to the roof’s near edge. “What’s wrong?” he asked, rising gingerly to grab the gutter some two feet above the water. Not receiving an answer, he searched the rooftop. “Kitty. Sally,” he croaked in comprehension.
He hoisted himself onto the roof and asked the obvious questions. Betsy responded flatly, her voice sterilized by grief.
“We can’t know what happened to them,” he asserted. “We got men plucking people outta trees, ladies. Left and right,” he added with sincerity. “We got reason to hope.”
“Caroline!” he nearly shouted, crouching near, his eyes seeking hers.
“It’s my fault, Warren! They wanted to leave. I made them stay!”
Warren turned to the twins, then Betsy. “Get in the boat. Bob’ll run you to the church.”
He shooed them with both hands. “Ain’t room for all of us anyway.” The three women stood mutely and allowed themselves to be helped into the boat.
“Take ‘em on back please, Bob. We’ll be right here waiting on ya.” The small boat motored off.
“Caroline,” Warren said gently, resting his hand on her shoulder. Caroline’s khaki shorts and coral tank top were filthy; her short black hair a tangle of damp curls framing her ruddy, sun-freckled skin.
“When Ma and Pa died, I told them, standing at the grave, that I would tend to my sisters just like they did. Especially, Kitty,” her voice cracked, but she bit her lip. “And
Sally, well she was always the sensitive one, always tending others.”
“We don’t know where your sisters are. Ain’t no use grieving that until you know what’s what.”
“I said we would stay. I said the house could take it. I said no when they wanted to go to the church. I told Sally to take Kitty.”
Warren grabbed Caroline’s shoulders. “Caroline, stop it please. I know you’ve always been the responsible one,” he squeezed hard. “But you ain’t responsible for all that happens in this world. You aint’ the only power that be and God knows you ain’t perfect.”
Caroline looked far off. “Warren.”
“Caroline, no,” he insisted. “Sometimes, it’s only when we come to the end of ourselves that God can help us. He doesn’t need your help, Caroline.” They were interrupted by the sound of an outboard.
“Warren!” Bob pulled up in the Jon boat.
“We’re coming!” he yelled back. “Come on.” He stood and extended a hand to Caroline. She looked up, hesitated, and finally stood.
The short ride to town was strangely familiar. Even submerged, the landscape was recognizable from the tree tops: the seven magnolias, one for each of us girls. The cypresses Mamma demanded line their drive as though it led to a Tuscan estate. The big white oak at the corner. The Ryan’s peach orchard. Looking further, Caroline saw the church steeple rise out of the green horizon. The church was this side of town, on the only high ground for miles and just a few minutes drive from Sisterville. How foolish that they hadn’t come to this sanctuary, Caroline thought.
Rooftops seemed to float on the surface of the muddy water. They passed the Ryan’s farmhouse. The gas station. The long strip of row houses where momma had grown up. Here, the water lapped at front porches, but the top two stories were untouched. A moment later, they came to the bottom of the short, narrow drive that winded up to the church.
There, standing at the stop sign as though waiting for a bus, were Sally and the rest of the older girls. Sandwiched between them, with a blanket over her shoulders, was Kitty, holding onto Thumper with all her might.
As it turned out, Mary Pat and Pritchy had yanked Sally and Kitty out of the Ryan’s orchard, where the girls had found refuge in an unusually tall peach tree. That first night after their reunion at the church, the young couple unceremoniously announced their engagement to hoots and hollers from the gathered survivors. The next day, Mary Pat and Pritchy returned to his family home with everyone’s blessings.
The twins boarded in a trailer at Hinkle’s Park ‘n’ Dine and worked round-the-clock serving all the help that came to town.
Caroline, Betsy, Sally and Kitty stayed at the church for a few days until one sunny September morning, when they all squeezed into Warren’s pick-up to visit Sisterville for the first time since the storm. As the ruins of the little compound came into view, the sisters took each other’s hands. They let out a collective sigh to see that the cabin looked surprisingly intact.
Leaping from the truck, Kitty ran to the front door, which was wide open.
“Careful, girl,” Betsy cautioned.
Walking into the house where they’d grown up, they saw that the river had washed so much away, coursing through the shattered windows, and finding every hidden space.
What was left was in tatters.
“Look!” Kitty squealed, pointing.
There in the corner, where it had always been, stood Mamma’s Singer sewing machine; wedged beside it, three large, green plastic garbage bags, bulging at their knots.
Warren looked on puzzled, as the sisters laughed with joy.
Have you recently been through a storm? Ask God to reveal if it was meant to sweep away--a thing, a thought, a behavior--something dead and done, making room for something new. Journal the possibilities.
What real or imagined baggage can you let go today to enjoy a fresh start?
Prayer: God, help me see your hand in the storm. Help me see what personal, place, practice, or thing must go. Thank you. Amen.
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