This story is by Marka Ormsby and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thirty minutes after the levee broke, Grace found herself in the attic of a two-story house that was her dentist’s office, with water lapping half-way up the attic steps. Usually closed on Fridays, Dr. Winthrop catered to his wealthier clientele, and agreed to meet her at 4:00 PM to address a broken tooth. He’d given her the lock code to enter the house since she’d arrive ahead of him.
Grace was shaking and frightened beyond anything she’d experienced before. She’d barely made it to the attic before the floodwaters engulfed the house in a matter of minutes.
Kneeling at the attic opening, she looked for her purse, her $900 purse, imported from Italy. It was gone, dropped in the chaos as she fled the water. Her phone was in her purse. Her lifeline to her husband Jack, her friends, or anyone who could help her.
She shouted for help, knowing the futility of the effort. Dr. Winthrop hadn’t arrived before the flooding began, and he wasn’t likely to now. She’d made this last minute appointment and didn’t tell Jack where she was going.
Grace was totally alone, maybe for the first time in her privileged life. She’d always had someone to handle life’s difficulties. Where were they now? Her father was gone, so Jack was supposed to protect her now.
She sat on the plywood flooring with her back against a joist with her knees drawn to her chest. Her pants, wet from her knees to her feet, clung to her legs. “That’s another $400 down the drain,” she said, thinking of her ruined slacks while listening to the flood waters below.
She sobbed uncontrollably and put her head against her knees.
Looking at her Rolex, Grace had about three hours of daylight left and shuddered at the thought of spending one of perhaps many nights in an attic, alone, with no food or water. Her throat went dry, and her stomach growled.
When had she eaten last? Lunch, at the country club sitting next to her husband as he talked business with a potential client, while Grace entertained the gentleman’s wife with talk of traveling to the Riviera, Italy, and Tahiti.
If she could travel anywhere, Grace would go to Egypt or China to study the roots of past civilizations to give meaning to the present. She’d always enjoyed history and might have pursued it had her life not been scripted for becoming a wealthy man’s wife.
“Okay, Grace, get a grip. What did the therapist say? One step at a time.” As she stood, she banged her head on the sloping roof joist.
“Shit,” she said, and instinctively looked around, making sure no one heard. She smiled. Grace never cursed out loud. It was uncomely for a woman to curse, her father used to say, and her husband’s clientele, well, it just wouldn’t do.
The attic’s plywood flooring covered the entire area, so she could walk around, as long as she avoided the roof joists. Wire mesh covered the louvered vents at both ends of the attic.
She explored, searching for anything useful. In one corner, she found a large box labeled “Christmas Stuff.” She dug through its contents, emptying them on the floor. Ornaments, tree lights, and a large tree skirt, which she set aside. Digging deeper, she found an unopened can of mixed nuts and four 12-oz Club soda bottles still in the plastic ring. The nuts were just past their expiration date, but as long as they weren’t rancid, she would eat them.
“Food and water? Ugh,” she said, taking them to the tree skirt she placed beside the attic door. “My new home.”
When she’d scrounged what she could from the box, she pushed it aside, finding a small toolbox behind it. The upper tray contained a screwdriver and a small pen-sized flashlight which she switched on. The weak beam of light indicated the batteries were failing. She turned it off, saving what power remained. She removed the top tray and found a hammer.
Over the next three hours, Grace struggled to pry the wire mesh from the vent, but couldn’t reach high enough to get good leverage. Even if she removed the mesh and the wooden slats, she still wouldn’t fit through the opening. It needed to be enlarged.
Grace sat on the tree skirt and opened a bottle of club soda. It spewed the last of its carbonation, leaving her with warm, flat water. She was so thirsty, it tasted good. She took three long swigs and put the top back on. She’d save the nuts for later.
As the sun set, the attic grew darker, and the air more oppressive. Overcast skies kept the summer temperatures tolerable, but what about tomorrow?
Grace lay on the tree skirt, alone, wet, and trapped in the attic. She pulled the tab on the can of mixed nuts. Not fresh, but they tasted good. “Amazing how old nuts can taste good, all of a sudden.”
After nightfall, Grace bunched one end of the tree skirt into a pillow and lay down to rest. The floor was hard, and she was scared. “I just want to go home,” she whimpered. But home to what? Playing the role of the dutiful wife, a role to which she’d been groomed since childhood. When she’d mentioned to Jack she wanted to take history classes at the local university, he gave her the look. “Why do you want to do that?” he’d said in that condescending tone he used when she wanted to do something for herself.
Scratching noises along the rafters drew her attention back to the attic. She sat with a start, grabbed the flashlight, and directed its weak light toward the rafters. Two beady eyes stared at her. A rat. A big one, sitting motionless in the light waiting to see what Grace would do.
She scrambled to her feet and picked up a piece of cardboard and threw it. The rat turned and ran down a stud toward the second floor with two more rats following behind. They were looking for high ground and food. The attic provided both.
“Get out of here,” she screamed. Angry and frightened, she pointed the shaking beam of light in the direction they’d fled.
“Oh, God.” Grace stood on the tree skirt. How long before sunrise? She glanced at her watch before turning off the flashlight. She was surprised to see she’d slept a few hours before the rat’s arrival. There’d be no more sleep tonight, though!
By morning light, Grace was relieved to have made it through the night with no more critters making unwelcome visits. She spent the next few hours working to break through the louvers and exploring the attic. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the heat grew unbearable. She lay on the tree skirt to conserve energy, her face flushed from the heat.
After an hour or so, Grace braved the floodwaters, stepping down the attic steps to wet the lower parts of her slacks. Climbing back into the attic, she used the screwdriver to tear off wet pieces of cloth to put on her face and neck. She lay still, wondering if she’d be rescued before dying of heat.
Mercifully, clouds covered the late afternoon sun, and the temperature moderated, giving her hope she’d survive the day. To take her mind off spending another night in the attic, she began working on the louvers again.
“I’m going to get out of here,” she said. She’d survived the flood, the rats, and the heat. I’m not helpless and dependent.
With a sense of power and resolve, she took the hammer and beat on the mesh and louvers with all the strength she could muster. “When I get out, I’m going to take those history classes, and I’m going to Egypt, with or without Jack.” After a couple of hours, she sat back on her spot, frustrated and angry.
“FUCK!” she screamed loudly shaking her head from side to side. A scream releasing her need to hold life together for everyone but herself.
“Yeah, Grace McCormick said ‘fuck.’ I’m going to say it again.”
After two more screams, she sat back laughing until she could barely breathe. Tears ran down her cheeks, smearing what was left of her makeup. Through her laughter, she heard the drone of an outboard motor.
“Hey, anybody in there?” A man’s voice shouted.
Grace rose to her feet. “I’m up here in the attic,” she yelled while banging on the vent. “Help me. I’m trapped up here.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m tired, hungry, and thirsty, and I want out.”
“Hang in there. We’ll get a rescue crew here with a saw.
“Hurry it up,” she yelled. “I’ve got places to go and things to do…DAMN IT.”