Sheriff Randy Moss is an uninvited guest at Pop Lawrence’s hurricane party. He says, “Oh, hi. Um, Shelly asked me to come in.”
Not everyone returns his greeting. David and Mary refuse to speak to him. Melissa turns her back and walks into the kitchen, brushing right past him, pours herself a big shot of straight whiskey and swigs it down, and then pours herself another and carries it down the hallway. She goes into a bedroom and kicks the door shut behind her.
A huge crack of thunder shakes the house. Outside the sky is almost as dark as night, but floodlights aimed at the front walk and out across the bay from the deserted deck highlight sheets of sideways rain that look like shimmering mercury. Another loud thunder boom rattles the house, and the lights go out. For a moment it is pitch black inside, until their eyes gradually adjust. Pop says, “David, go crank up the generator.”
David heads out to the garage, where he starts up the generator. The lights come back on. Shelly wanders back to the bedroom, taps on the door and opens it. Melissa is sitting on the edge of the bed holding her drink in her hands. Her eyes are red. Shelly says, “Sweetie, how come you’re in here drinking all alone? You’re not going to let that Randy Moss ruin your day now, are you? You can’t let your resentment ruin you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean running away every time he comes around. I mean hiding from him don’t hurt him one little bit, honey. You’re the one it hurts. I know how you feel, and if you want to know the truth, I think you oughta confront him. Tell him why you’re mad at him.”
“But you don’t know why. It’s…”
“It don’t matter. You just tell him right here in front of God and everybody. And then, as hard as it might seem, you got to forgive him. That’s the only thing that’ll bring you any peace. Look at what all you done missed ’cause a hiding from him. You missed Little Don’s anniversary barbeque because you knew Randy was going to be there. You didn’t even go to Barbara Brady’s wedding for the same reason. You made up a stupid excuse that she seen right through, and now she’s mad at you, and it’s all because of him. You couldn’t even stay in the room with us at the hospital when he came to visit. You went down to the cafeteria and sat there all by your lonesome. It’s time you set it right with him. Get it all right out there in the open and deal with it.”
For the longest time she doesn’t react. She continues to stare at the drink in her hand. Then she looks up and there’s a flicker of a smile, and she lifts her shoulders and looks Shelly fully in the eye and says, “You’re right. Damn if you ain’t. I’m going to do it. Right now.”
She tosses down the rest of her drink.
Outside the wind is growing stronger. Rain hits the deck like a hundred million spears of ice. The aluminum boat tied to the pier breaks loose and flies toward the house, crashing into the beams supporting the back deck. Inside they hear the crashing noise and feel the house buckle like an old man given out at the knees. But they can’t see out because of the plywood. Pop laughs, “Don’t know what the fuck just got busted, but at least we’re still standing.”
In the kitchen Melissa pours herself another drink, her third in fifteen minutes, and marches into the front room. “Hey everybody, listen up,” she shouts over the howling wind. “We’re going to play a game. It’s called guess who’s guilty. Y’all ever heard of that game?” The tone of her voice is manic, higher pitched than usual and unsteady. Shelly has followed her and stands close behind as if to prop her up.
Everyone stares at her in stunned silence, all but Pop who says, “Naw, I never heard of that game. How’s it go?”
Melissa takes a stand in front of the fireplace, legs spread, chest outthrust. She says, “It’s real simple. Everybody has to think of somebody they know who’s guilty as hell about something. Anything. It don’t matter what. Everybody’s got a secret on somebody. So you tell the secret and then everybody’s got to guess who’s the guilty party.”
She eyeballs person after person as if daring each I turn. David breaks out in a beaming smile. He knows what’s coming and he loves it. Randy senses what’s coming, too. He says, “I don’t know if y’all want to play this game.”
“Shut up, asshole,” Melissa hisses at him. “You don’t get a say in this.”
She pauses. Everybody waits. Randy looks like he’s about to throw up. Melissa says, “I get to go first.” She takes another swig of her drink and wipes her mouth with her sleeve. She says, “There was this guy, see, a white guy. It’s important to know he was a white guy because he was a racist pig and…”
And she gets no further because a deafening roar like that of a speeding locomotive silences all speech. The air outside is a solid sheet of hurling water and debris as trees and shrubs and parts of piers on the bayou are lifted up and the retaining wall below the house breaks apart and chunks of concrete and dirt fly against the house. David shouts, “Get down!” He grabs Sue Ellen and dives to the floor with her as a sheet of wind and water slams against the back windows and glass shards from the so-called hurricane-proof windows fly inward and pieces of trees and other debris come hurling into the house. Voices scream and bodies fly and the lights go out once again, and water gushes into the downstairs of the house. With a deafening sound of ripping and tearing, the whole house tilts like a giant gyroscope loosened from its moorings and tumbles down the embankment and into the bayou and spins like a stick caught in a whirlpool while David and Sue Ellen and Pop and Shelly and Melissa and Mary and Randy and Freight Train and Abdul and Beulah are tossed about like dice and deluged with water, water, water. The house is carried downstream to where, after just a few minutes, it slams to a stop in the cove a hundred yards south of where it once stood, jammed against a dam of fallen trees and the debris from their neighbors’ homes.
Inside the house bodies are at the mercy of raging water for what seems like fifteen or twenty minutes of deafening chaos. Heads bob up like corks. They grab blindly for anything that might offer some stability and crab their way toward the stairway. Somehow most of them manage to find solid footing on the stairs leading up to the second floor, where they bobble while grasping the railing and holding each other. The wind outside has passed over and is heading farther inland. The brunt of the storm has passed. Their topsy-turvy world becomes quiet and still. Are they in the eye now or has it passed over? Nobody can even guess. Heads barely above water, they see that all around them the floodwater fills every space almost to the first floor ceiling. The stairwell where they cling to each other is at an odd angle, almost parallel to what should be the floor’s normal orientation. Light from outside filters in on oddly-angled beams, and throughout the house there is an eerie, dull greenish glow. David’s eyes are still clinched shut from being underwater. He feels a throbbing pain in his left leg, and when he opens his eyes he sees that blood is oozing from a cut on his leg and another on his hand. But those injuries seem minor. He sees silhouettes of bodies bobbing in the water around him like oil drums afloat. Everyone is scrambling toward the upstairs rooms. His foot grazes something soft. A body. He reaches down and feels around until he can grab an arm and lift. Fingers clutch his hand. Whoever it is, is still alive. He pulls. Sue Ellen surfaces like a spouting dolphin, sputtering, gasping for breath. They can barely see. David and Sue Ellen support each other as they look for the others. They spot Shelly a few steps above them. She too is searching for heads above water. “Is everybody here?” David asks.
Mary, Randy and Beulah, Freight Train, Abdul, they all speak up. They’re clustered close together. “Pop’s not here,” Mary says, and Randy says, “Melissa. Where’s Melissa?”
David immediately responds by diving underwater to search for Pop and Melissa. He knows he’s got to find them fast if he’s going to save them. Randy knows, too. Randy may have grown fat and slovenly and hateful, but he is still a law enforcement officer who, in addition to taking bribes and arresting bad guys (and sometimes not so bad guys) also saves lives in natural disasters, plus he is the man who once was the boy who raced David underwater. He calls on whatever strength he still retains.
They swim through rubble, vision cloudy in the underwater world within the house. Nothing is recognizable. Nothing seems to be properly oriented with anything else. Diffracted light swims in odd channels illuminating unrecognizable furnishings. David is holding his breath. He turns to his right, pushes aside an overturned chair, sees nobody, turns to his left, sees Melissa in a doorway, her skirt and hair flowing clumps of seaweed. There is something holding her down. It looks like a broken door or window frame jammed into the doorway. He tries to push it away. His chest is beginning to hurt. He feels another body, cold and wet, slithering up against him. He turns to look and sees that it is Randy. He’s reaching to tug Melissa free. They tug together, tug and tug and tug, trying to free her from her underwater entrapment. David can feel the pressure in his own lungs, and he knows Melissa has been underwater even longer. She’s probably passed out already, lungs filled with water. She can’t move, and they can’t pull loose whatever it is that has her trapped. And David still hasn’t seen his father. He knows he’s got to help Randy free Melissa first. The first rule of triage: help the ones that can be helped, and then, if necessary, retrieve the bodies. He grabs hold of the splintered two-by-four that’s jammed in the doorway and gives it a hard yank. It doesn’t budge. He taps Randy on the shoulder and signals with a pumping motion for him to push the top part while he pulls the bottom sideways. He hopes Randy can read his signal. He jerks sideways. Nothing moves. He does it again. This time Randy has guessed what he’s trying to do and puts his shoulder against the top of the door and pushes, and the whole thing gives way and floats upward to bump bump bump against the ceiling where there is about three inches of air above the water’s surface. Randy and David quickly surface to swallow air and dive again and grab Melissa and free her, and David swims with her to the stairs.
Once he’s halfway up the stairs and able to stick his head out of water. David says, “Take her from here.” He’s gulping air so desperately he can barely speak, but Randy gets the message. He drags Melissa upstairs and lays her out on the floor and begins blowing in her mouth and pushing on her chest. David gulps as much air as he can and dives underwater again.
In the upstairs hallway water gushes out of Melissa’s mouth and she coughs violently and vomits up bits of egg and sausage. Randy smells the whiskey she drank. He wipes her mouth with the wet tail of his shirt.
In the murk below, David swims froglike through the house. Not only can he barely see, not only does nothing look familiar, but he feels disoriented to the point that he’s not sure which direction is which. If he could see outside and if there were anything familiar out there with which to orient himself, which there may or may not be, he would know that the house was tipped partially to one side and is jammed with its south wall against the shore of Walker Cove half a mile south of where it stood before the storm hit. If he could somehow get out on the roof or onto the deck, he could jump to the ground. But no he couldn’t. Because the ground would be ten feet underwater, just as the first floor of the house is. But if he could, what would he do then? Go for help? Where? The rest of Freedom is surely long since evacuated, so where would he look for help? It drives him crazy that he can’t think clearly. He begins to panic. The simplest thought processes seem impossible. Nothing makes sense. He tells himself to calm down. Think. All of this time he is underwater, moving aimlessly, not so much swimming as propelling himself by pushing and pulling in and around chairs and tables and careening off walls. Boiled shrimp and hamburger patties swim with the fishes. He surfaces as best he can, gasping air in the few inches by the ceiling, and then he dives again. He sees something huge and black in the muddy water. It’s his mother’s grand piano. It’s turned sideways against a wall. The top of the piano has broken loose and is floating against the ceiling, but the mass of it is jammed underwater. He sees Pop’s leg protruding from beneath the piano. He knows he can’t lift it. Not even if he were on dry land. But if he could just break it loose from whatever is jamming it, wouldn’t it simply float up? Does he have the strength to work it loose? Everyone knows that people are capable of inhuman feats of strength at such times. Who knows? Why not at least try? He grabs an edge of the piano and lifts, but of course it does not budge. Then he sees another body coming toward him. It’s Randy. He’s already helped save Melissa, and now he’s diving in to help save Pop. He swims up alongside David and they nod heads in recognition that together they can do it. Friends or enemies, they nevertheless spent their youth together in these waters swimming long distances, holding their breath ungodly lengths of time and building the kind of strength and determination that just might help them conquer this challenge. Never mind that Randy has put on thirty pounds of pure fat and his once powerful muscles have gone to flab. They push together but they cannot move the piano. And then they see something that scares them both half to death. A giant fish has somehow gotten into the house, probably swimming right through the broken back door. It looks like a small whale or a dolphin. Oh God! Could it be a shark? It’s coming right at them, and just when they are sure it is going to ram into them, they realize that it’s not a fish at all. It is Freight Train Taylor, all three hundred pounds of him. With Freight Train’s added heft they are able to push the piano off, and David lifts Pop and swims with him to the stairs. They carry him up to the second floor bedroom, and Shelly begins trying to resuscitate him.
Melissa, still groggy, lies on the bed, which is damp but still upright and jammed at an odd angle in a corner of the room. She shivers under heavy blankets. From the big cedar chest in the master bedroom Abdul and Beulah have dug blankets out for everyone. They’re damp but better than nothing. David crawls to the bed and slings his arms across Melissa and rests his head next to hers on the big pillow, cheeks touching, and between deep gasping breaths asks, “Are you all right?”
“Y-ya-ya-Yeah, I’m f-f-f-f-fine. What about Pop?”
“I don’t know.”
Shelly has wrapped her arms around Pop from behind. She’s trying to perform the Heimlich maneuver, jerking him around like a rag doll despite their huge difference in size. Dirty water mixed with undigested bits of shrimp leak from his mouth. She uses his own watersoaked shirt to clean up the vomit as she places him on his back and begins CPR.
Randy falls on the floor with his head propped against a wall and, like David, gasps to restore normal breathing. Freight Train, not quite so winded, hunkers down on his knees to watch as Shelly attempts to breathe life into Pop. Sue Ellen, Mary, Abdul and Beulah all stand by anxiously. For the longest time no one speaks. They listen and watch as Shelly tries to bring her husband, their friend and father, back to life. Shelly knows the procedure. She has taken classes at the YWCA and has practiced on dummies. Now she practices on her husband, patiently, tirelessly. Two breaths and then pump on his chest thirty times, repeat, repeat, repeat. All of this is happening in the murky light filtering in from outside. It’s not even noon yet but it seems to everyone in the house that it must be getting on late into the evening.
When Shelly gets too tired to keep blowing and pushing, Abdul takes over. He’s never done CPR but he’s learned from watching Shelly. He bends over the body intently, his braids falling in front of his face. Shelly pulls the braids from in front of his eyes and loops them together on top of his head. “How’s that?” she asks.
“That’s—huff, huff, fine—five six seven—thanks…”
After a few minutes Mary says, “He’s gone. Let him go.”
But Abdul ignores her. She says, “This is not a movie. This is real life. There are no miracles here.”
But Abdul keeps breathing life into the old man, pushing and blowing and counting, and Shelly prays out loud. She has no illusions. She doesn’t expect God to answer her prayers. She’s not even sure that she believes in God. Her prayer is not really a prayer so much as it is an expression of her desperation vented for relief. Over and over she mumbles, “Let him live, let him live” in rhythm with Abdul’s pumping motion.
Author’s note: This scene leads up to the story’s climax. I can’t let you know whether or not Pop
*Clayton is a self-published novelist and feature writer. His work includes six novels and a book about art with the latest novel is due out this summer. Clayton writes a theater review column for The News Tribune and an art review column for the Weekly Volcano. He resides in Olympia with wife, Gabi. Together they founded and run Mud Flat Press (www.mudflatpress.com), a home-based company dedicated to helping other self-published authors prepare manuscripts for publication, including editing, formatting and cover design.*