"The Storm"-Part 3
by Sandy Kay Slawson
Hilde noticed Gene's half asleep effort to get off the couch. She grabbed his arm and pulled him along with her to the hallway. Her mother, father and elder brother Paul followed behind them.
In a sleepy slur Gene asked, "What's goin' on?"
Before anyone could enlighten Hildie's little brother, a roar arose that drowned out every other sound. Her father and older brother both threw their bodies atop the rest of the family as if they could protect them from the monster tornado outside. Hildie wanted to scream but fear made her mute instead. Though her mother's mouth couldn't be more than six inches from her ear, Hildie barely heard her cry of, "Help us, Jesus!" No sooner had the tornado come than it was gone again. The storm still raged outside, but their house had not been destroyed by the monster. Hildie prayed no others would come.
Mr. Eugene Sablich and Paul pulled their soaked bodies off of the group. Her mother sank against the wall with a "Thank you, Jesus," on her lips. Gene's ice blue eyes, so much like her own, were as wide as saucers, and he scrambled into his mama's lap. Hildie leaned against the other side of the hallway. She studied her daddy's pensive expression and waited for him to speak...to confirm they were alive.
"We're alright, but that thing hit mighty close. I'm gonna take a look around outside and see if any of our neighbors need help. Paul, get some dry clothes on and then get back in the hallway. I'll be back as soon as I can," said Eugene.
"But Eugene-" Joannie reached for her husband's hand in vain as he limped out of reach and then out the front door. Paul left for his and Gene's room.
Joannie set Gene on the floor with a kiss to his cheek. "I'll grab us some food and water. Hildie and Gene, gather pillows and blankets. Make pallets in the hallway. We'll have us a campout here tonight."
Hildie recognized her mama's cheerful suggestion as her attempt not to worry. She blew out a shaky breath and tried to emulate her mama's example.
"Hey Gene, you know how daddy got his 'lucky limp' don't you?" Hildie passed him two pillows and grabbed a blanket from her parents bed.
"Mama, don't like it when daddy calls it that," said Gene.
"I know, but do you know how he got it?"
"'Course I do, in the second war. He came home on crutches. I don't remember much else, though," said Gene.
The two went to Hildie's room next. She handed him her pillow and yanked her quilt from the bed. She spread the blankets in the hallway as Gene went into his room for more bedding. Paul followed him out.
"Daddy calls it his lucky limp, 'cause he took the shrapnel in his hip just two months before D-Day. He lay safe in an Army hospital while almost all his buddies died storming Omaha beach in Normandy, France. Only one other soldier from his squad survived and he became a prisoner of war not long after," said Paul. He spread out his blanket and dropped his pillow.
Hildie stepped around her brother's bodies now laid out on their pallets and went to help her mom at the hallway entrance. Joannie passed her the large picnic basket and both boys scurried over to look inside before she'd even set it down.
"We're starved," said Gene.
Joannie gently pushed them away and took out a mason jar of water.
"Drink this, and I'll fix you each a plate." Joannie worked on their supper of ham sandwiches, apples and oatmeal cookies. "Your daddy's limp was not luck, but a blessing from the Lord. He knows that as well as I do, but he tries to use humor to hide his true feelings. He's thankful he didn't die on that beach with his friends, but at the same time he wishes he'd have been there to help them."
The front door opening and then slamming turned all their attention towards the sound. The conversation stopped. They never discussed the war around their Daddy. Daddy never discussed the war. Eugene stopped and wiped his drenched sleeve across his dripping nose.
"Our immediate neighbors are fine. It's too dark and too dangerous to look further tonight. I imagine by the time the worst is past tomorrow morning...or afternoon we'll have plenty of people to help," said Eugene.
Joannie stood and grasped his work roughened hand. "You've done enough for the time being. Go change while I make you a plate of food."
Hildie's daddy gave a somber nod, kicked off his boots, and took a step onto the first pallet. All the kids scrambled out of his way and let him pass.
Eugene ate the last of his food and finished off the first jar of water. He laid his head against the wall.
"Daddy, what took you and Paul so long to get home? Are things bad down by the harbor?" Hildie saw the glance which passed between Paul and her dad. She hoped they'd tell her the whole story and not try to sugar coat it.
Eugene sighed and glanced at Joannie who also appeared eager for the answer. He shook his furrowed brow.
"It ain't good news and sure as shootin' it's worsened by the hour. Paul and I had to wade out of the factory parking lot. My Ford and most everyone else's vehicles in the lot were already flooded by the time we left work. We hadn't gone far before we heard word The Point flooded, too. We went to see how we could help those poor factory workers and their families who live out there."
"Carol?" Hildie covered her mouth. Her best friend Carol Miller and her family lived there. "I knew you'd be worried about her. Paul and I made our way to her family's house which took us awhile. We passed plenty of others who struggled to save themselves," said Eugene.
"Oh my, what a cryin' shame," said Joannie.
Eugene nodded his agreement before he continued. "The water came to our thighs by then. We assisted Carol and her family until they reached the elementary school. It's been turned into a shelter. A slew of people were already there. Everyone looked like a bunch of half drowned rats, and talk about chaos...but they're safe. Besides the little amount people could carry, the Miller's and the other families from The Point will lose everything."
"We'll do what we can for them when this is all said and done, Hildie. Don't fret. At least they're out of danger. Thank goodness your father and Paul were there to help them. I can't imagine trekking a mile through this storm with six children, and one of them a baby." Joannie shuddered.
No one spoke after that. Hildie's daddy and Paul had exhaustion written on their features. Paul had to grow up fast when their Daddy went to war. Hildie had never seen him like this, though, like he'd aged five years since breakfast. She reached for his fingers and squeezed. He focused his dewy gaze on her, offered a half grin and squeezed back. Good. He'd understood her attempt to comfort him. After her daddy, her big brother had been her hero ever since she could remember and even more so after tonight.
Their Grandfather clock woke Hildie at five in the morning. She stepped around the scattered bodies as she made her way to the bathroom. When she finished her business, she tried to peek through the storm shutters, but the sun hadn't risen and darkness still prevailed. The ferocious wind had not managed to knock the house down around their ears. It sure had tried. Though they'd heard other tornadoes in the night, none had come as close.
When she exited the bathroom, her mother went in. Everyone else slept. Her father's snores comforted her when she heard them above the noise outside. For some odd reason it reminded her of his strength and fortitude despite his war injury. He'd do anything to protect them. Hildie loved him more than ever. He'd gone through a hurricane to help her friend. How much more would he do for her? She snuggled under her quilt and attempted to return to sleep but the thought of her friend's loss kept her mind in a whirl. Tomorrow, I'll go through my clothes and give her as much as I can spare. And shoes. And...Hildie mentally inventoried her belongings and decided what else she could spare until sleep, at last, claimed her again.
The next time she awoke, Hildie found herself alone in the hall. When she went in the living room, she saw her mama at the opened front door with Gene peeking around her. Paul nor her daddy were in sight.
"Mama, what's going on?" asked Hildie.
"Come and see!" answered Gene instead and waved her toward them.
Hildie went to join her mama at the door and gasped at the sight. Though dark storm clouds hid the sun, enough light came through to reveal the murky, muddy water that had risen to their top step. A few more inches and it would reach the porch and then a few more and it would be in their house. Hildie glanced at her silent mama. She didn't look at the water so close to them but out toward the street. Hildie followed her gaze and squinted through the rain. The houses across the street, a little downhill from them, were already flooded.
Their next door neighbor Pastor Jay and her daddy came out of old lady Webb's house carrying her between them. They tucked their heads against the intermittent sheets of rain. The widow had been bedridden for as long as Hildie could remember. Her fearful gaze followed the threesome as they traversed the swirling, debris filled water.
A motor boat she hadn't noticed before idled close by with one of the sheriff's deputies at the helm. They transferred Mrs. Webb into his care. Paul came out of the next house over with the four year old Seymour boys. Their dad and mom followed behind. Mr. Seymour held six year old Jenny and their mom held two year old Johnny. Paul along with the Seymour family also went to the boat and they all boarded except for Paul. Pastor Jay, her daddy and big brother moved out of sight down the street.
For the first time, Hildie realized the wind didn't appear or sound as violent. "Is the storm about over?"
Joannie went out onto the porch and then glanced over her shoulder at Hildie and Gene. "We're at the back end of it. Mostly rain from here on out is my guess. You and Gene stay in the house. It won't be safe out there until this water recedes."
"But Daddy and Paul--"
"Listen to mama, Gene. Daddy and Paul are real heroes, not like your All Winners Squad comics." said Hildie. She left Gene at the entrance and went in search of food. Halfway through the living room she noticed the rear windows. Most of the shutters were gone. Hildie opened the back door and inspected the damage. The water reached the second step on this side of the house. The yard itself pert near dropped her to her knees. That tornado had nearly done them in.
The pine tree her and her mama had heard fall the evening before had disappeared. The tree and her daddy's shed were gone. Just gone. The place where the pine's roots would have been was hidden under the water, leaving no evidence a tree had ever been there. Half their fence had disappeared as well and the other half floated around like spilled tooth pics. Without the fence to block her view, the back neighbor's house came into her line of sight. Their roof had been pulled away like the top of a sardine can.
Mr. Gollott stood in the rain with waders on and stared at his damaged house. Hildie's gut clenched at the picture he made. With his fists grasped in front of his mouth, he simply stared and stared.
"Mr. Gollott?" yelled Hildie. "Is everyone alright?" She thought he didn't hear her at first but then he turned her way, gave a slow nod, and then faced his house again.
"It must have been awful scary for them," said Hildie to herself. She held the door frame and leaned out enough to get a better look at her own home. Some of the shutters had been ripped off but otherwise she saw nothing wrong. Still she quaked at how close the tornado had come to them. "It's like it hopped into our yard, onto his roof and then went on its way."
A racket behind her made Hildie shut the door and spin around. Her daddy and Paul stood inside. Their clothes dripped filthy water onto the linoleum floor. Hildie ran to grab towels. When she returned, her mama took the towels and passed them to the men.
"Hildie, go to your room a little while and let the men change in here. Gene, go get Paul a change of clothes. I'll get yours, Eugene," said Joannie.
Thirty minutes later, the whole family ate cold leftovers at the dinette in the kitchen and listened to the rain come and go in spurts. The men didn't say much about their rescue efforts. Not to her. Her mama and daddy's whispered conversations and downcast expressions made her wonder if everyone had not made it to safety.
"Are we gonna flood, too, Daddy?" asked Gene.
"I hope not. It depends on how much more rain we get. Not much else we can do but wait and see," said Eugene.
The whole family grew quiet. Wait and see. Wait and see if the water drained faster than it fell. Wait and see if the storm took everything from them as it had Carol's family. Wait and see if they had to be carried away in a boat like Mrs. Webb and the Seymores.
Hildie's mama opened the credenza where they kept board games. "We might as well do something to pass the time while we wait for the rain to stop, and the water to make its way back to the gulf. We've got...Monopoly, Sorry, Tiddly Winks, Mr. Ree, Camelot...and The Shadow game. What do y'all want to play?" asked Joannie.
"Sorry!" said Gene.
"The Shadow," said Paul.
"Mr. Ree," said Hildie.
"Monopoly," said Eugene.
Hildie's mama pulled out the Monopoly and closed the credenza. The next four hours were spent playing the game. Every once in a while her Daddy with the family following behind him, would go check on the depth of the water. About two hours in, the water began to lap over the porch. Three hours in, the rain stopped.
By the fourth hour, Hildie's daddy bankrupted the last player and won the game. Eugene grinned and said, "Maybe someone else will win next time."
No one ever beat her daddy in Monopoly. They went to check outside again. The water barely reached their first step. It reminded Hildie of a river the way it flowed down the street so fast. The storm had come and gone, but it wouldn't be forgotten anytime soon. The sun shone down on the destruction around them and glistened off the receding water. Time to assess the damage. Time to clean-up. Time to help those in need.
Two months. Two long months since Hildie had been to her beach. Though her city and many others from what she'd heard still recovered, her mama finally let her take an afternoon off from the work...the sweltering, dirty, muddy, sweaty, overwhelming work. When the gulf came into view, she wanted to cry. The beautiful sight of the water soon became marred, however, by the wreckage and mess left from the storm.
Mounds of sand piled on the roadway. One boat rested half on and half off the road. Another boat held suspended several feet in the air by four twisted and broken pines. Shells and fish bones littered the beach. Seaweed, kelp, driftwood, boat parts and house debris lay as far as she could see. The shrimp boats, sail boats and motor boats down at the harbor were a jumbled mess piled atop each other. The only thing left of the boat docks was the pylons.
Hildie sank onto the concrete barrier, afraid to remove her shoes because of the glass and debris. If she had her bike, she'd return home for a rake to start a cleanup effort here, but her and Gene's bikes hadn't been found since the storm. With so much devastation and loss of life, fifty-one people dead she'd heard, the loss of their bikes seemed a small thing. Even the disarray on the beach didn't matter that much except for the ruined shrimp and fishing boats needed to make a living.
"It's an ugly scar on the face of our lives here. Will it ever be right again?" Hildie's whispered prayer blew away with the breeze. In its place her mama's words filled her with a peace and strength like she'd never known...
"Whether on the inside or outside, scars are reminders of trials we survived by God's grace."
Happy Monday and Happy week. May the Lord God bless each of you and your families with faith, hope and love. In Jesus' Name.
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