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Elliott flaunted the ring again with diamonds big enough to jam a downspout. He held Barbara at arm's length, surveying her in a way that made her stomach roll. "You want to finish college? Whatever for? You're beautiful, Barbara, and more than smart enough to be my wife."
Her eyes snapped open and the vision of Elliott and the vulgar ring disappeared. As she glanced out the car window, Barbara shook her head to clear the memory of their disagreement about her completing her music degree. Oh, well, if he didn't want her to have a career, she could lead a church choir like her mother. After all, marriage was compromise, and it was what she really wanted, right?
A small red and white sign caught against the running board, grazing the side of the family's reliable old Ford. A Burma-Shave signI proposedrode a gust of wind and skipped like a rock across the water. Water?
She sat up, a shiver of fear running through her. "Dad, where are we?"
Her father didn't say a word.
Leaning over the front seat, doing her best not to awaken her sisters, Barbara eyed his white knuckles digging into the steering wheel of the family car. Water pushed against the undercarriage, sending them first in one direction and then another. Panic shimmied through Barbara's veins as she stared at the sheets of rain.
Shifting in her seat, she nudged aside her sister, Abby, all the while pressing her nose against the glass like the kids at the toy store window where she worked weekends. Lightning flashed, and before she could blink, thunder shook the sky. It rumbled through the car and through her. Her heart strummed the message in her ears: This is no toy store.
"Dad, are we going to be all right? What's happening?"
"Barbara, sit back!" He rarely raised his voice, making her realize how serious the situation was.
Her mother turned in her seat, her mouth tightening into a pencil-thin streak across her face. "Don't disturb your father."
Barbara wriggled back between her two sleeping sisters. Assuming control, she draped an arm around each of her younger siblings and pulled them close. Their steady breathing reminded her to remain calm and not frighten them with her own insecurities. That wasn't easy when fear prickled so expertly along her spine.
Why had they decided to stop for breakfast? Now the buckwheat pancakes rested like thick maple sludge in the pit of her stomach. If only they had stayed on the main road for the last leg of their trip when they had left Georgia and crossed into Tennessee, they would be well ahead of the storm and well on their way back to New Castle, Indiana. Water wouldn't be threatening their lives. Oh, why had Father brought the family on one of his "adventures" at Christmastime of all times? They'd never get back home in time to celebrate with her aunts.
Barbara drew in a deep breath, eased it out. She craned her neck around her sister to look out the window.
After what seemed an interminable spell, a rush of water struck from behind, and the car lurched forward. Her mother screamed. Dot and Abigail jerked awake. Barbara's arms shot out and grasped the front seat, pitching her sisters forward. Pain jolted her shoulders and she longed to be young again, allowed to cry. But she'd be twenty in one month. Her parents expected her to behave like a woman.
Dad sucked in his breath. His hand reached across, restraining her mother as the tires dug into something firm. The front wheels gripped, coming to rest on semisolid ground. Ahead, nothing but water for about a hundred feet. To the sides, nothing but water. Behind them, a veritable lake. Yet beyond the flooded section, the ground rose slightly where a town sat on a shallow plateau like a castle surrounded by an enormous menacing moat.
"What happened?" Abigail cried.
Dot scrambled over Barbara's lap to see, her knees gouging into Barbara's legs. "Are we there yet? Oh, where'd all that water come from?"
The rear of the car swung, unsettling Barbara's stomach. "Dad, what was that?"
He downshifted and inched forward until all the tires caught and the car stopped on a rise. The frightful rocking motion eased. "It's all right. I think we'll be safe now." He let out a breath he must have been holding a long time. "I'm not sure how we got caught in the spillover from that tributary." With a shake of his head, his mustache twitched at the edges. "The storm came up so quickly. But I'm mighty grateful for being here safe at last."
Barbara trembled. "Where are we?"
"I see a few buildings ahead. New Hope, Tennessee, is on the mapsmall town just off Lake Nickajack. Storms overflowed her, I guess, or maybe a dam broke and the water pushed us up here. Whatever delivered us to this spot, we'll stay in the car for now and be grateful." And undoubtedly meant only for himself, he mumbled, "Dear Lord, let's hope so. Please keep us safe."
He mopped sweat from his forehead to the back of his neck, smashing his hair against his scalp. When he locked eyes with Barbara in the mirror, he broached a smile. "Sorry to have scared you girls."
Barbara stiffened her spine and hugged Dot closer. "Oh, I wasn't scared." Much.
He leaned his arm onto the seat and looked over at their mother. He had to see what Barbara sawMama hunched over and frozen in place, clutching the car door. "Listen, here's an idea. If you all stay in the car, I'll try and wade through this, see if there's a dry place to spend the night."
"You are not get ting out." With her head a flurry of shakes, Mama spoke the same way she addressed the girls when she gave way to anger, which wasn't often.
"You're right, Mary. The water's too high. Best we wait right here for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders." His lips tipped at the edges, but no one laughed.
Jackson staggered through the water and tapped on the car window.
In the driver's seat sat an older man, disheveled and with panic defining his face, who turned his head at the noise, staring wide-eyed. "What?" Slowly he cranked down the glass.
"Sorry, sir. Didn't mean to alarm you."
"S'all right. Who are you?" His gaze stretched from Jackson to the blanket of water. "How did you get here?"
Jackson nodded up ahead. "If you'll help me pull that rowboat closer, we can get your family into town. It's drier the farther you go." He tugged at the end of a rope and the small craft bobbed. "Good thing you found this rise. I watched a car slide away not ten minutes before I spotted you."
A woman leaned across the seat, resting a shaky hand on the ledge of the door. "Are the people all right?"
Jackson nodded and dipped his head to her level. "Ma'am. Some fellas are working to get those folks out now. South area was hit the hardest. A small dam broke. That's probably what pushed your car here." He pointed ahead of them. "Town sits up away from the flood plain and the water's not so deep. You folks hit the worst of the overflow, but seems like that worked in your favor." He leaned against the car and saw the fearful expressions coming from the faces in the backseat. With a lighthearted glance, he smiled and winked at the three girls through the window.
The biggest one's cheeks flamed red and her back squared like a soldier's. His mom always said a smile could put anxiety to rest.
The girl lifted her nose high.
Or maybe not.
Having twisted her head away from his gaze, she leaned into the front seat where her mother wore a frown. Jackson had no clue how to put this family at ease. He had to get Little-Miss-What's-Her-Name and the rest of the family to safe, dry ground before the water shifted their car again.