Servants of the Storm
HURRICANE JOSEPHINE IS ALMOST HERE.
The storm is coming faster than they said it would, and Carly and I are alone. The rain is so heavy, so constant, that we don’t even hear it anymore, and the house phone has been dead for hours. My parents are grounded at Uncle Charlie’s house in New Orleans with no way to get home until after the storm has blown over. Carly’s mom is trapped downtown at the hospital where she works. It’s painful, listening to Carly talk to her. They’re both yelling to hear over the storm, and the electricity is out, and I’m pretty sure the cell is almost out of juice.
“We’ll be fine, Mama,” Carly says, her voice firm and certain.
“But, baby. The storm.” Her mom’s voice through the speakerphone is the opposite, flighty and anxious and unsure. “When I think of you and Dovey alone . . .”
“Don’t worry, Miz Ray—” I start, but Carly holds up one furious finger to shush me.
“We’re sixteen, Mama. We’ve lived in Savannah all our lives. We know how to handle a storm. Besides, they said it’s coming too fast, and trees are all over the road. You’re safer where you are.” Carly looks at me, rolling her eyes and shaking her head at how ridiculous parents can be. Thunder booms, rocking the small house, and I gasp. She shakes her head harder, warning me not to scare her mama.
“I should have come home hours ago, but Mr. Lee’s respirator died, and we have to keep pumping him, and everybody else was gone, and I just couldn’t leave him. . . . Oh, sugar. I’m so sorry. Y’all get in the downstairs bathroom—”
The sound cuts off, and Carly stares at the dead phone like she wants to crush it in her fist. Thunder shakes the house again, and a flash of lightning illuminates the shabby living room. Suddenly everything seems very still. The wind goes silent. Our eyes meet in the dim light. We both know, deep down in our bones, that the storm is at its most deadly right when things get quiet.
“Come on,” she says, grabbing the flashlight and pulling my hand. Despite how steady she sounded with her mom on the phone, her palm is clammy with fear. I can see the whites of her eyes, all around, too bright against her dark skin.
Carly drags me down the hall to the bathroom, and we step into the bathtub. We’re both barefoot, and the puddled water from the drippy faucet is slick and cold. No matter what Carly
told her mom, neither of us really knows what else to do, so we just stand there dumbly in our too-short shorts, listening hard in the darkness. Up until just now the air was heavy, too hot and thick for November. They were calling it an Indian summer, a freak occurrence.
That’s what they’re calling Josephine, too.
I look at my best friend, and I’m afraid to speak; it’s as if the storm would be able to hear me, would be able to find us hiding here. Carly’s arms wrap around me, and the corduroy on her favorite orange jacket scratches my bare shoulders. We both started out in tank tops, but as soon as the clouds got dark, she went for her jacket.
“Storm keeps up like this, maybe you’ll finally get to see an albino alligator,” she says, voice shaking. “Gigi says floods bring ’em up from the sewer.”
I shudder at the mention of my own personal boogeyman. “Don’t try to spook me, girl. Storm keeps up like this, I’m moving to California. Earthquakes are quicker. And dryer.”
A quick smile. “If we get through this, I’ll go with you.” She trembles against me, tosses her head. The pink beads at the end of her braids clatter against the shower tiles.
A rumble builds outside, louder and louder. The sound is strange and unnatural and rushing, and then the wall shudders and I hear the splash of water lapping at the house. The Savannah River must have flooded, just like they said it might.
There’s a long creaking outside, followed by a loud crack. The
window glass explodes, half of an oak tree slamming through the tiny bathroom. We both crouch and scream as glass, branches, leaves, and broken tiles rain down. Carly grabs my hand and drags me out of the tub, the glass and splinters barely registering as we leave bloody footprints on our way into the hall.
Something crashes in the kitchen, and I realize we’re trapped. Every direction screams danger. The front door slams open, water gushing over the scuffed wood floors. Carly starts panting and shaking her head, her eyes squeezed shut. She can’t swim, and she hates dark water. I look up and grab the ragged string to her attic, pull down the stairs. There’s an angry creak and a burst of hot trapped air.
“Not supposed to go upstairs in a storm,” she whispers.
Before I can answer, dirty water sloshes into the hall from the kitchen, rushing cold over our feet. When I start up the rickety steps, she pauses for just a moment before following me, the old wood of the stairs complaining under our weight.
Carly’s attic is the same jumble of crap as everyone else’s, and the first thing I do is bang my shin on something. The flashlight is gone—I must have dropped it in the tub. There’s a little bit of light coming from the place where the tree slammed through the house, a ragged hole showing the dead purple-green sky outside.
I maneuver around the boxes and broken furniture to the corner of the attic opposite the fallen tree, and I can hear Carly crawling behind me. The attic is unfinished, and we pick our way
carefully across rotting plywood and empty places filled with musty insulation.
“Y’all should have finished this rat hole,” I say, and Carly snorts.
“You got two good parents, and your attic’s worse.”
I smile to myself, glad she can talk again. If she’s sassing me, she’s still okay.
We find enough space to fit both of us and sit together, knees drawn up, hands clasped. The noises outside are loud and confusing and terrifying, all rushing water and cracks and crashing.
She leans against me. “Remember when we said we were running away, and we only got as far as Baker’s house before it started raining?”
“Freaking downpour. He found us hiding under his trampoline with a backpack full of wet peanut butter crackers. Brought us an umbrella and tried to convince us to come inside and play Tomb Raider. You wouldn’t do it, though.”
Carly chuckles. “I was mad. Didn’t want to eat my damn collards, no matter what my mama said.”
“You always were stubborn. But I like that about you.”
She slings an arm around my shoulders. “You just got to learn to stand up for yourself, Dovey. You’re stronger than you look. You’ve just got to own it.”
“I’ll get right on that, once this storm’s over.”
I know she’s talking to make me feel better, and it was working at first. But things have gotten louder and more frantic outside, and I can’t feel my feet anymore.
“Josephine’s one mad crazy bitch,” Carly says. “But I bet Katrina was meaner.”
The roof explodes over our heads, a thick branch slamming into Carly. I scramble up, but the tree is heavy and tearing down through the attic. As I back away, I try to pull Carly with me as the rain pounds down on our heads. Half the attic rips away, and the wind and rain lash us from every direction. I can barely tell which way is up. And Carly won’t budge. Her hand slips from mine, and I push things out of the way, making a path for her to follow as I scramble toward the attic stairs.
“Come on! We have to get out of here!”
“Daddy?” Carly says, her voice all wrong. Instead of moving away from the tree, from the hole in the attic, from a furious sky vomiting rain and lightning, she moves toward it. I step closer and see blood trickling from a big gash on her head.
“Carly! Let’s go!”
But she doesn’t hear me. The branch must have hit her pretty hard. I pick my way over the jagged timbers and weak spots of insulation, but she’s almost to the edge of the hole. A board snaps under my foot, and I lurch sideways, almost fall through the ceiling. She sets a bare, bleeding foot onto the tree trunk.
“You can’t go outside, fool,” I say. “Come back in. It’ll be over soon. We’ll get you to the hospital.”
“Daddy’s outside, Dovey,” she says in a weird, childlike voice. “Daddy, and your nana. Waiting.”
“It’s a goddamn storm, girl. Snap out of it!”
I grab her hand and yank, but her skin is wet with sweat and blood and the rain that won’t stop pounding down on us through the place where the roof used to be. She slips out of my grasp and sits on the ragged tree trunk like it’s a slide. I grab for her again, but she pushes off, letting herself fall. I reach for her hand, but she’s gone. The last thing I see of my best friend is her dark skin and bright pink fingernails swallowed up by the swollen river running down the street we grew up on. The water is up to the window below, churning grayish brown. I scream and search for Carly. Swirling along with the water, I see cars, bikes, children’s toys, tree branches, bloated hairy things. But no Carly.
I stand there so long that I can’t feel my hands. I stand there, looking for my best friend—first for her alive and swimming, and then dead and floating. At some point I drag myself deeper into the attic and hide under an old rug that smells like cat piss. I stay there, shivering and crying, until the storm is over and I hear Carly’s mom calling her name.