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Queens Crossing, Louisiana
Nola Landry was out-of-her-head sick with a three-day fever and had lost all track of time.
It had begun raining the day before she got sick, and it was still raining the next morning when the aches and fever began. She'd gone to sleep with the sound of rain on the roof and dreamed crazy, fever-ridden dreams about alligators in the front yard and her daddy shooting at them from the porch. Then she woke up remembering Daddy had died when she was twelve.
She fell back asleep to the sound of rain blowing against the windows and dreamed Mama was calling her to breakfast and she was going to be late for school, and when she woke up, it was dark and she remembered Mama had died just before Christmas last year.
She crawled out of bed long enough to go to the bathroom and get a drink, then fell back into bed. Her long dark hair had lost the band keeping it in a ponytail, and was damp and in tangles from the fever that came and went. After soaking her last clean nightgown from a fever-drenched sweat, she'd crawled back into bed nude.
The last thing she remembered as she was falling asleep was wondering how long it would take someone to find her body if she died.
Sometime later, another dream began, and in it Mama was running through the house, going from window to window and wringing her hands when all of a sudden, she began calling Nola's name.
Nola! Nola! Wake up this instant! Put on your clothes! Get some food and water and get out! Hurry, hurry! You have to run!
Nola woke with a gasp, looking around her darkened bedroom in feverish confusion. She knew her mother was dead, but the urge to obey was so strong that she threw back the covers, turned on the lamp beside her bed and began to dress. She grabbed a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then pulled a hooded sweatshirt on over that. Her hands were trembling, her legs shaking as she sat down to tie her tennis shoes. The urgency to obey was increasing as she dropped her cell phone in a pocket.
She went through her house, stumbling on shaky legs, then into the kitchen, muttering to herself.
"Get food and water.. food and water."
She grabbed a bottle of water, a few sticks of string cheese and a package of peanut butter crackers, and put them in the front pouch of the sweatshirt and started toward the door.
gotta get my car keys."
She found the keys on the coffee table and was still moving on instinct when she opened the front door. Even though it was dark, she sensed something was wrong. She was all the way out onto the porch before she realized she was walking in water. Her heart skipped a beat as she backtracked to the kitchen for a flashlight.
Her hands were still shaking as she went back to the porch and swung the flashlight out into the night. It took a few seconds to recognize what she was seeing, and then, when she did, she was struck by pure, unadulterated fear.
There was nothing but black water as far as she could see.
The flashlight beam was weak, but the horror was real as she stepped off the porch into the rain to test the depth. When it went up past her ankles, she had to face the fact that her car keys would do her no good. The only road out would already be underwater.
While she had slept, the Mississippi River, which was nearly a half mile from her house, had gone out of its banks. She didn't question what she'd been dreaming because her mama had just saved her life. Her reality now was the need to get to high ground.
She looked back once at her beloved home, thinking of all she was about to lose: her studio, the half-finished paintings she was working on and the ones ready to ship, all of her brushes and paints, and the contacts she'd spent years accumulating.
When she thought of the family keepsakes and the pictures of her loved ones since passed on that would be washed away, she had to accept that none of it mattered if she lost her life with it.
The thought popped into her head that she could climb on top of the house and wait to be rescued, but the moment she thought it, she dismissed it. Mama had said run. So she ran through the rain toward the highest point of ground within striking distance: a stand of trees nearly a hundred yards away.
Slogging through the steadily moving water was exhausting, but fear gave her strength. When something live suddenly bumped against her leg she screamed, remembering that the gators would be flooded out, as well, but whatever it was moved past her.
In a moment of gratitude for the danger that had passed, Nola leaned forward, bracing her hands against her knees to steady her racing heart.
"God, help me do this," she said softly, her heart pounding as she made herself take that next step.
She was halfway between the house and the trees when she stepped into a hole and fell forward, catching herself on her hands and knees, and splashing water all over her face. Again she thought of the gators, snakes and snapping turtles that would be in there with her, and she scrambled to her feet and, in a panic, began running.
The next time she fell she lost the flashlight in the water and spent precious seconds feeling for it in the murky depths. When her fingers finally curled around the metal shaft, she grabbed it. By the grace of God the light was still shining, but she had no idea how long it would last. She swept the beam across the darkness, caught a flash of contrast in the distance when the light swept past the trees, and kept on moving.
The water was getting deeper now, almost up to her knees. The sweeping force of the flow made it difficult to stay upright. The urgency to get out of the water was paramount as she finally reached the grove. Sheltered somewhat from the downpour, she began trying to find the tallest, strongest tree she could physically climb, and just as she settled on one, the flashlight began to dim.
Without waiting, she swung herself up on the lowest limb just as the flashlight went out. Groaning with dismay, she had no choice but to drop it into the flood, grab the limb with both hands and begin climbing, feeling her way in the dark with the rain hammering against her face and the roar of the rushing water loud in her ears. She reached for the next limb, and then the next, climbing until she found a branch strong enough to hold her weight and managed to pull herself up, then straddle it. Exhausted, she wrapped her arms around the trunk, laid her cheek against the bark and screamed through the downpour just to hear the sound of her own voice. Just to remind herself she was still breathing.
When dawn broke in the east, Nola's clothes were soaked and she was exhausted. But daylight brought hope. It was no longer raining, and her fever had broken. She was weak, but what the hell. Things could be worse.
Twice during the night she'd had to climb higher to stay out of the water, and she was again straddling a limb and hugging the trunk. Her skin was raw from the abrasion of the bark, and the palms of her hands were bleeding from holding on so tight.
New horror came with daylight when she looked back at where her house once stood and realized it was gone. Either it was underwater or had washed off the foundation and moved past her in the night. Her vision blurred as she quickly looked away. No need dwelling on what she'd lost. Unless she got rescued, the issue was moot.
She looked down into the dark churning water below her, then out through the branches to the vast expanse of flooded land, and gasped. The water was rife with the remnants of people's lives, like the boiling stew in a witch's cauldron with its eye of newt, a goblin's ear and the scale from a fire-breathing dragon. This cauldron had pieces of houses swept from their foundations, bloated animal carcasses and uprooted trees, all caught up in the floating debris, all rushing downriver at a breakneck pace.
Her heart was pounding so hard she couldn't think, her hands shaking so badly it was difficult to hold on. It finally occurred to her that part of this was her body's cry for sustenance, and she remembered the food and water.
She found the phone as she was digging in her pocket for the food and felt a few moments of relief, thinking she would soon be rescued. She'd completely forgotten she had it. Her hands were shaking as she took it out, and as she did, water ran out of the case and down her arm.
The sight sent her into a new wave of despair. She was sobbing as she tried desperately to get a signal, moving it in every direction, but it was obvious the phone was dead, water-soaked and beyond repair. She dropped it in the water and leaned her forehead against the tree. Her face felt hot. Her eyes were burning, which meant her fever was back up. Scared and shaky, she dissolved into tears as the runaway river rolled on beneath her feet. When she managed to get herself together, she finally ate some cheese and drank some of the water, wishing time would move as fast as the water rushing past her. But the law of physics was impervious to the Mississippi flood, and so she closed her eyes, held on to the tree and focused her thoughts on happier days.
She was sitting in Granny's lap on a hot summer night, listening to the bullfrogs croak and the night birds calling while Granny was putting her to sleep. The soft, low-country drawl of the old woman's voice was soothing to a little girl's heart.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
Creak, creak, creak, went the rocker as it rocked against the loose boards in the porch.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters."
Nola sobbed. Where, God? Where are those still waters now?
Creak, creak, creak. Still rocking. Still listening as the verses spilled out of Granny's mouth as easy as honey in a spoon. Still feeling the strength and the love in Granny's work-worn hands.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."
"Why are we feeding the enemy?"
Granny's laugh rolled through Nola like wind through the trees.
"Close your eyes, baby girl, and just listen."
Creak, creak, creak, went the rocker on the same loose board. The last thing Nola heard before the Sandman took her under was Granny's voice.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
It was the loud crack, and then the sound of a big tree dying as the roots gave way that woke Nola up with a start. She looked down just as a tree from the grove fell into the flood with a tremendous splash. She watched in horror as it hit and bounced, making waves large enough to reach up within feet of where she was sitting. Then it was pulled into the current and became part of the debris floating downriver.
She threw back her head and screamed, both in fright and in rage, wondering how long it would be before her tree went down and took her under, too.
As the river continued to rise, she was forced yet again, to climb to a higher limb. But once she'd reached that height, it became apparent she was not the only one stranded in this location.
The Lewis family were her nearest neighbors. Their house was across the road and about a hundred yards upriver, normally hidden from view by trees. Only now the trees were gone and Nola had a clear view of the house, which was nearly submerged. Only the very top part of the roof was visible, and the occupantsWhit and Candy Lewis, and Candy's mother, Ruth Andrewswere on it and clinging to each other, just feet away from being washed off and into the flood.
Horrified by the sight, Nola started to call out to them, but then decided it would serve no purpose. She was just as stranded as they were, and just as likely to drown. She hugged the trunk a little tighter and once again, let her thoughts drift to the past.
Out of nowhere, Tate Benton's face popped into her mind. She used to love to look at him. From an artist's perspective he had a most interesting face: a broad forehead, high cheekbones that angled down toward a very stubborn chin, with a nose that was in perfect proportion to his other featuresperfect except for that bump from breaking it in the eleventh grade. He'd grown to well over six feet before his sixteenth birthday. It had taken him until his second year in college to grow muscles to fit that height. By then he was a man, both in physical strength and attitude. He'd known from a young age that he wanted to be in law enforcement, and they had planned all the way through college to go back to Queens Crossing to begin their life together.
Then, one night just after they had graduated college, he came to her house in a panic and told her he was leaving. He begged her to go with him but wouldn't tell her what was wrong. She kept begging him to stay, to explain what had happened, but he wouldn't. They fought. He walked out, and she never heard from him again. Without an understanding of what was wrong there was nothing to hold them together, and he disappeared from her life.
She wondered if he was married, and if he would feel bad when he heard they'd pulled her body out of the river. Then she told herself it was the fever making her think crazy. Screw Tate Benton. She didn't want to think about him anymore, but when she closed her eyes, the first thing she saw was his face and the way his eyes crinkled up at the corners when he was laughing. Because he'd lived in town, he'd always loved to come out to her place to go fishing. He had a fishing pole, and she had her sketch pad. He fished while she drew him over and over and over. She still had those sketch pads somewhere.
And then she looked out across the water and remembered she didn't have anything anymore. The river had taken it away, just like it was trying to take her. She climbed a branch higher, struggling to stay awake by drinking more of the water and eating. She ate another piece of cheese and one of the peanut butter crackers, then had to move because her legs were so numb from hanging down she could no longer feel her feet.