The power went out at exactly 10:37, leaving us in complete and total darkness. I carried my bulky bed comforter and pillow to my brother’s room, easing between the cool floor and my warm blanket. I shivered in the silence.
If only I knew how long the silence would last.
When I woke up in the morning, the floor wasn’t cold, it was wet. From my surprise, I sat up quickly, sloshing the water that surrounded me.
My brother stirred on his dry bed, his breathing becoming normal as he slightly opened his eyes.
“Dixon, there’s water on the floor!” I finally stood up, realizing the amount of bacteria that was probably in the water that pooled at my bare feet.
The sun wasn’t rising, it was staying behind a cloud, making the inside house of the house a gloomy grey color and no sort of light was there to help it. Dixon quietly observed the few inches of water that his room was drowning in.
“Go wake Mama K, the water is rising and it ain’t even hit yet,” he said, his eyes drifting to the front yard, which looked like a lake. That lake stretched on for about a mile before the road curved up and we could see how dry our neighbors stayed during the night.
“What hasn’t hit yet?” I asked.
His hands found my face, “Just go wake her.”
Dixon’s voice was stern, so I walked out of his room, picking my feet up out of the brown water to take every step. My mind wanted to avoid my room but my eyes had other plans. I looked and saw that the pink walls were dulled by the muck that covered the floors. My stuffed animals that I kept in a pile on the floor were floating, one came so close to the doorway that it tapped my ankle. A ruined picture of Dixon and I floated by, his face blotchy and removed by the water.
I held in questions while I woke Mama K and instead just said: “There’s water in the house.”
She sat up and looked at me with a puzzled expression. “It hasn’t even hit yet!”
What hasn’t hit? I wanted to ask, but I kept quiet as her dainty feet dropped into the warm water and shuffled over to her closet.
“Wake the other children, there’s work to do,” Mama K said, and I just stood there. “Did you hear me? I said wake the other children. Go on, now.”
But I still stood there, my feet and ankles forgetting the water that I was standing in. I stared in front of myself, right at the water mocassin that was trailing behind Mama K as she slipped on her purple robe. Outside of the room, I could hear the sounds of a searching radio and I stood there long enough that I heard it find a station.
“Lena, are you okay?” Mama K asked, concern covering her face.
I would have answered but I just didn’t have the time or the quick reaction that Dixon would’ve had. I stood there for a long while, so long that I was able to watch the black snake dip its fangs into Mama K’s tan skin and get a taste of her blood. I even saw it slither back into her closet, right back where it came from.
Dixon ran in when he heard Mama K start cursing and using the Lord’s name in vain. She fell right down into the water, grabbing her leg and holding it like she was scared it was going to fall off. More children crowded into the hallway, all of them trying to get a look at the two red dots on Mama K’s leg. Some cried, some secretly rejoiced.
I remember my life in the orphanage as well as I remember the day that Mama K got bit. Dixon and I grew up there, never adopted or even considered for adoption. We watched kids come and go. Some even came back more than once. Mama K loved us and we tried to love her. We were fed just enough to keep the skin on our bones.
Since Dixon and I were to never be adopted, Mama K let us have two of our own rooms, I guess she felt bad. After she did that, I didn’t have to try very hard to love her anymore.
My best friend was Nick. He came all the way from another country but he couldn’t remember which one. I believe it was England because his words sounded like honey and I enjoyed mimicking him while walking around the house all the time.
My biggest remembrance of the orphanage is the day that it drowned. No one expected it.
Not even Mama K.
Nikita, a girl from Russia, cried after she hammered a nail straight through her thumb. It was the night that Mama K had us nail wooden boards to the windows of the orphanage. I did a fairly good job, my boards weren’t crooked and my fingers were all intact. It was mainly because Nick helped me.
After that, we all went inside and I spent time in the junior boys’ room talking to Nick before Mama K found me and reprimanded me. Not long after, though, she was next to my bed, sitting on a stool, her feet propped up on my bed to avoid the water. Her words filled the silence of the missing hum of the world and I felt comfortable in that moment, like I could get used to the eerie quiet. She told a story but not from a book, from her own magical mind. I fell asleep to Mama K’s silk voice wrapping around me like a blanket.
But I woke up to rain pounding on the roof. I don’t think I could have even heard myself yell over the thousands of droplets that knocked on the roof in unison, one after another, taking turns torturing my sensitive ears.
I tried to close my eyes against the darkness and fall asleep to the sound of the rain, but I only drifted off and on. It wasn’t just the rain that held me awake, it was the conscious idea that something was wrong.
And something was really wrong.
Mama K died that night.
I couldn’t understand. She wasn’t old, she wasn’t frail. Mama K was healthy and shiny and lived so many lives from the stories she had told.
Dixon didn’t have the heart to tell me it was my fault but I somehow knew.
The darkness was just the beginning of our problems.
If we had a boat, we would’ve been able to leave the house and get some help for Mama K. But we didn’t. So we closed her bedroom door (which was hard since the water had risen even more from the rain) and pretended she wasn’t there.
Dixon said the snake was poisonous and the poison was what killed her.
I think I was what really killed her.
The rain didn’t stop knocking on our roof for a whole twenty-four hours. When I looked out the window, I couldn’t see the dry road anymore. The wind began to pick up and whistled through the chain-link fence in the backyard. I nestled right beside Dixon, denying my fear of the rain while he combed my hair with his hands. We lived in a candle-lit house, the power never coming back.
When I finally found out what Mama K and Dixon were talking about when they said “It hasn’t even hit yet,” there was a flash flood.
The water came into the house through the boarded windows and the cracks under the doors. The glass windows cracked with pressure as I screamed next to Nick.
“Hold on!” I yelled, my feet kicking, trying to find a piece of furniture, a counter, something to stand on.
“Lena, I can’t!” Nick was beside me, spitting out water, his head bobbing up and down while his skinny legs tried to hold him up.
My head was as close to the popcorn ceiling as it had ever been. A few other children were screaming next to us and Nikita’s mouth was stuck in an endless cry for help. The water was a murky brown color, the color of death, the color of helplessness.
I couldn’t find Dixon. When the water broke in, he was counting food in the kitchen. I didn’t hear a yell or even a protest from him.
“Dixon!” I yelled.
“Follow me!” Nick croaked through the water that coated his lungs. He started swimming towards the front door and I tried to stop him.
“It won’t-it won’t open!”
His eyes were desperate when he turned back towards me. He still tried. It didn’t open. There were fewer heads floating above the water, a few children found something to hold onto or were standing on unidentified furniture under the water. I looked around frantically, searching for anything that could save us.
That’s when I saw a string hanging from a door in the ceiling, the water teasing it and pulling it from side to side.
“Nick!” I yelled, pulling my hand out of the water to point at the string. When he saw it, I swear I saw a smile so I smiled back. We’re going to be okay, I thought. We’re going to be saved. I started swimming towards the string when something tapped my arm. It was the lightest touch, I could’ve ignored it if it wasn’t for the look of horror that painted Nick’s face pale when he saw it. A pink, bluish arm stretched out to me, its fingers carelessly draped over my shoulder. The other hand gripped a can of spray paint and I stared at that before I saw the terrifying face of the person.
Dixon. My Dixon. His eyes flooded with the brown water from the world. His white shirt gripped his torso like a glove and I finally saw him. I saw my brother floating there while I kicked against the greedy water. I saw his green eyes, which I closed with two fingers. I saw the rested look on his face and it was like he was sleeping. Just last night his warm chest was my pillow and I drifted off to sleep with the help of the sound of his steady heartbeat.
I couldn’t help but wonder, was there still a heartbeat there?
There will be if I keep moving, I thought.
So I did.
Grabbing the spray paint out of his hand, I wrapped my other arm around his shoulders and kicked as hard as I ever could. Nick had made it over to the string and pulled it down, revealing the rotting wood of the attic. He yelled for other surviving children to follow him up the ladder that was submerged in the water up to its top two rungs.
When I finally made it to the ladder, Nick grabbed Dixon and helped his limp body up. I climbed up after them and marveled at the stillness. The sound of the water churning below kept me moving.
“Look for anything that could break through the roof,” I said to the four other kids that stood in the room with us, shivering. One of them couldn’t take her eyes off of Dixon. “He just hit his head, he’ll be fine.”
Soon enough, Nick found a rusty ax that looked sturdy enough to break through the roof. Another girl, Kendra, found an old hammer, which she handed to me. I found a soft spot on the roof where the rain had gotten soaked and started banging in between two wooden beams. Nick did the same thing with the ax.
The sweat on my back had seeped through my tank-top by the time we made it onto the roof. We made sure the hole was big enough to fit everyone through, including Dixon. In my head, I counted everyone that wasn’t up there with us. Juniper, Amybeth, Jack, and Dizz were missing. I hastily said a prayer for them, hoping they were okay.
“I think there was a hurricane,” Jenson said, looking around at our neighborhood, which was completely submerged in water. Trees, trash, and other debris floated by. It was a strange sight, the world covered in the substance that was only supposed to be held inside a cup. How could Mama K not have warned us of what was coming?
“Are you hurt?” Nick asked, walking over to me with concern in his eyes. He looked years older than he did last night, when we were so carelessly talking about school starting in a week.
“I think I’m okay. Are you?”
“My arm got a gash.”
“Let me see it.” He held out his arm and there was a good bit of blood. There was bruising too. I touched it and he winced.
“You’ll be fine,” I said.
“I know. Will Dixon?”
I didn’t say anything, but in our silence, we both knew the unsaid answer. We looked over at my brother, laying so unnaturally still beside the rushing water. That’s when Nick pulled me into a much-needed hug. He smelled like sweat and Mama K’s laundry detergent and before he backed away, I nestled my head into his neck. He turned his face towards me and whispered something only for me to hear. Not for the wind, nor the water, not even for Mama K.
It was just for me.
“I’ll never go away. You’ll never lose me, Lena. I promise.”
“Thank you.” It was all I could think of, but I meant it.
The orphanage completely drowned in August. There was the smallest patch of roof left when a boat whirred by and ran into our chimney. It was banged up and bent in the front but it was our escape. There was no one in the boat, which brought unwanted images and scenarios into our minds of what had happened.
Everyone loaded into the boat while Nick helped me pick Dixon up.
“Lena,” Nick said, his brown eyes finding mine and lifting them up from my brother's bloated body.
“I think we should leave him.”
“Yes. He’s not going to be okay. He’s…”
“What? Dead? You’re just going to give up like that, Nick? Are you? We’re standing on a roof for Christ's sake. We’ve made it this far. The least you can do is lift my brother onto this boat. I’m not going to watch him float away into the water!”
“Lena, there’s not enough room.” His voice began to shake.
“Yes there is!” I let Dixon go and started towards Nick. “Don’t you dare tell me I have to leave my brother after what happened to Mama K! Don’t you dare!” I started punching him. I hit him wherever I could. In his arms, legs, across his face. I didn’t stop until Jenson came over and pulled me away, knocking me into the side of the boat. Nick stood feet away from me, panting and holding his arm as he walked over to Dixon. He picked him up himself and limped over to me, placing him in the boat with ease.
As Nick steered the boat away, I stared at Dixon, still refusing to accept the fact that he wasn’t okay.
He was my brother. He was strong and brave and told me I was his world, that he loved me. He was his own person. He was my family.
And he was dead.
We encountered looters, men with guns, dead bodies, and hopeless survivors. We saw destruction and chaos. The streets were littered with people’s belongings that no longer mattered. We saw faces in bedroom windows, messages written on roofs.
“Mama, will we be okay?” Kaye whispers in my ear.
“Yes, it’s just a small storm,” I say.
“He’s on his way home from the airport. He’s picking up a surprise guest!” I say, trying to make the mood more lighthearted than the raging storm outside. Please bring him home safely, I pray, silently.
At the sound of the thunder, my daughter moves in closer to me, putting her head on my chest. She looks up at me with her caramel brown eyes and I can see the innocent fear mixed into them.
“We’ll be alright, Kaye.”
The storm dies down a half-hour later, just before the lock on the garage door turns and I hear the tinkle of keys. Kaye looks up at me from her spot on the ground and smiles, jumping up to run to the door.
“Uncle Dixon!” I hear her yell, her bare feet pattering on the ground. Dixon lifts her up and spins her around, planting a wet kiss on her forehead.
“Hey little Kaye,” he says, his eyes filled with love.
I smile at Nick as he walks over to me.
“Thank God you made it home safe,” I say.
“Well, I did make a promise.”
Dixon sets Kaye down and walks over to me, smiling. He engulfs me in a warm hug that brings me right back to the night of the drumming rain and flickering candles.
“I’ve missed you,” he says.
Me too, Dixon. Me too.