This story is by Heidi Matherne and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Shirley felt the warmth of morning sunlight hit her face. Her eyes popped wide open. She looked over at her little brother lying next to her.
“George, it’s time to get up!” Shirley shook him. Waking up George was the hardest! He loved to sleep. If he woke up before he was ready, Boy, was he cranky! George was Shirley’s most difficult chore. It was her responsibility to dress him, help him brush his teeth, and comb his hair. He was never cooperative, always wiggling out of his sister’s arms to run away. Shirley sometimes wanted to spank him, but she knew it would only cause more trouble for her!
Shirley’s impatience with George was because she couldn’t ride Lighting until all her chores were done. Lightning was a black quarter horse she got for her fifth birthday. He knew her better than any two-legged breed of a person. Shirley was happiest when she was with her horse. He was her best friend. She loved Lightning and Lightning loved her.
Shirley grabbed George’s hand as they walked down the rickety old stairs into the kitchen. “I can do it.” said George, pulling his hand from hers.
“Fine, if you slip and fall, it’s not my fault!
Shirley walked downstairs to a swarm of activity. Her dad was outside boarding up the windows. Her mom was loading up can goods in boxes, and Grandma was filling water jugs.
“Mornin’ kids,” said Mama, “Shirley, after you fetch the eggs from the coup, pack three days’ worth of clothes for you and George. We are heading to Grandma’s house.”
“What’s going on?”
Grandpa chided in. “Caroline is in the gulf. The island’s expectin’ a direct hit; and she’s a monster of a storm. With the island between the gulf and the lake, I’m sure we’ll see flooding. She’s goin’ to get here by nightfall, so you better get to it.” Grandpa fiddled with the radio tuner between static.
“Why aren’t we staying home? Asked Shirley.
“Higher Ground, baby, but enough questions, you have to get movin’.”
Shirley rolled her eyes behind her grandpa’s back, only because her mama wasn’t looking. She wouldn’t be able to ride Lightning today, probably all week. But, she did as she was told. She collected the eggs and packed them up in a carton. Mama didn’t have time to cook breakfast. A piece of fruit would hold Shirley over until lunch.
“Mama, what are we doing with the animals? the chickens? And Lightning?”
“The dogs and chickens are coming with us to Grandma’s and as far as Lightning…the stall is on higher ground than the house. He’ll be fine.” Shirley didn’t like the hesitation in her Mama’s voice. But, understood there was no other option. Grandma didn’t have a stall for Lightning to protect him against the storm. This worried Shirley. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer for her friend.
As evening approached, Shirley and her family sat in Grandma’s living room. The wind and rain was picking up. Grandpa stood on the front porch akimbo style, assessing the storm. The screen door flung open. A cool breeze flowed through the house. Shirley hadn’t felt that kind of breeze since winter vacation. The lights had been out for about an hour. Shirley and her mama played Bourré over a gas lantern. Her grandma taught her how to play the card game last summer. It was a pleasant distraction from the chaos outside.
Close to midnight, Shirley’s eyes began to get heavy. She tried to sleep, but the wind howled like the coyotes she sometimes heard from her bedroom at night. Sleep was too scary. Shirley saw the worry on the faces of the adults. Her mama held George tight in her arms while he slept. The walls looked like they were breathing with every gust of wind.
Grandpa was out on the porch again. “The water is rising fast. We need to go to the attic.”
Shirley felt the fear and the tears rise from her knees, into her stomach, into her nose. Her daddy picked her up in his arms. Shirley felt she was too old to be held, but she felt safe in her daddy’s large arms and warm body.
Shirley and her family sat silent in the darkness of the attic. The roar of the wind and rain beating against the house was the only sound.
The sudden noise woke George. He started to cry. Shirley grabbed her grandma’s hand. A wave knocked the house off its blocks. The house began to float across the marsh.
Grandpa looked out the attic window. “We hit the levee.”
They were safe for a moment. Then another strong gust of wind and the house began to move again. The waves bounced the house around like a tether ball rebounding off its pole. Pieces of the attic floor started to crumble beneath their feet. Shirley’s dad busted a hole in the roof so they could climb through. As scared as Shirley was in that moment, all she could think was how smart her daddy was to bring an ax.
Through the night, Shirley hung on to black shingles until her hands bled. She was so afraid to be swept by the tide, because she couldn’t swim. By morning, the broken and battered house had floated clear across the lake.
The angry night wind became a gentle daytime breeze. Shirley loosened her hands and closed her eyes. Rain sprinkled her battered face. But, the nightmare wasn’t over. In the lake water, Shirley came face to face with a water moccasin. They were everywhere! As they tried to sliver onto the raft, her daddy would hit the snakes with his ax. Grandpa was picking them up with his bare hands and throwing them back in the water.
For hours, Shirley and her family waited for help. She knew they were lucky to be alive, and prayed everyone else on the island was safe.
Their neighbor, Mr. Olivier, and a few other men Shirley didn’t know, pulled her family off the roof into their motorboat. George was excited to go boat riding. He acted as if the whole ordeal was an adventure. Shirley felt that was a good thing.
From the dock, Mr. Olivier drove them home to assess the damage. The old wooden house was still standing. It was beat up, but livable, kind of like Shirley and the rest of the folks on the island. The devastation was as far as one could see:uprooted trees, scattered debris, dead animals.
Shirley’s daddy put his arm around her. He handed her a trash bag.
“Let’s get to work, we have a lot of cleaning up to do.” This was the way of islanders. No time to grieve or feel sorry for yourself. You had to pick yourself up and get back to life. But, Shirley wanted to grieve. She felt sad and overwhelmed. She didn’t see how the island could ever be the same. Then she heard a sound in the distance.
He was alive! She recognized his neigh over a herd of horses. Shirley felt guilty for leaving him during the storm, but she knew he was calling for her. She dropped her bag of trash and ran, and ran, like lightning, towards hope.