Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
The walls of St. Peters shook continually and the hail pounded the tile roof sounded as if it was slowly scouring it away. A few tiles had been torn away and in those spots the rain poured in, forcing those nearby to move away, slowly crowding everyone in the church closer together. Very few people were still asleep, but almost everyone talked in a low voice, if they talked at all. Many simply huddled with their loved ones, staring terrified into the darkness. There were only a scattering of lanterns in the large room, and their light did little to chase away the gloomy shadows that permeated the sanctuary.
Betsy was awake again, still resting in Angel's arms. Mostly, they were silent, listening to the dull roar outside, and the occasional cry of babies inside, along with a few screams from frightened children anytime a roof tile was blown away. Betsy felt a kiss to the top of her head and looked up, barely able to see Angel in the darkness. There were no lanterns in the balcony.
"Penny for your thoughts." Betsy patted her stomach, making comforting circles against the denim shirt Angel had been given by the nuns.
"I was just thinking about the first time I saw you," Angel chuckled. "You came waltzing into our little makeshift hospital, over in the schoolhouse, remember?"
"Yes." Betsy smiled. "I had a basket of socks for the soldiers. Lord, we had been knitting those things for a week. My fingertips were dry and cracked from the new-dyed yarn, and I was grateful the next day was Sunday."
"I thought you were the prettiest girl I'd ever seen." Angel stroked her hair. "Lucky for the fellar I was working on, I'd just finished up his stitches, 'cause I dropped my needle and thread on the floor, and almost forgot to finish trimming off the ends of the thread on his forehead. I don't remember much else after that. I think I floated through the rest of that afternoon."
"Oh, you." Betsy lightly slapped her on the leg. "I must've been a sight. It was hotter than all get-out if I recall, and I'd been working all day at the church. It was packed with ladies' aid women and we were almost shoulder-to-shoulder. I remember being glad of the chance to go outside and see if a bit of breeze would cool me off."
"You were a sight, alright." Angel kissed her forehead again. "More like a vision from Heaven. I went to church the next day real early and stood over to the side of the meeting house under a tree, waiting for you to show up."
"You never told me that." Betsy's eyes grew wide and she looked up at Angel, picturing twinkling mischievous eyes looking back at her, although she could not actually see Angel's face, hidden in the shadows of their corner. "You sly devil, you. You slid into that pew next to me, smooth as silk, all polite, helping me find my place in the hymnal, and asking if you could share my prayer book."
"I had to meet you, and I figured church was a safe place, and a safe bet of where you'd turn up." Angel took her hand, twining their fingers. She felt the wall behind her rattling and she shifted a bit, getting more comfortable. "I remember your Daddy, he didn't take much of a shine to me. I think he saw what was between us before we did."
"He didn't like you one bit, that's certain." Betsy snuggled closer. "I didn't understand why until that day in the barn." She smiled shyly, despite the darkness. "You were absolutely petrified, when you decided to talk to me."
"My palms were sweating, my scalp was prickling, and my tongue felt twice its usual size. I remember thinking my heart was going to beat right out of my chest." Angel laughed quietly. "Did you honestly think I needed help saddling a horse?"
"No." Betsy joined in the laughter. "I knew you wanted to be alone with me. I wanted to be alone with you too. I just didn't understand why until you asked if you could kiss me."
"What possessed you to just up and kiss me instead of answering the question?"
"You looked like you were about to keel over, sweetheart. I figured I'd best grab hold of you. Your lips were so soft." She reached up, touching the body part in question. "'Course I didn't get much chance to sample them, since you keeled over anyway."
"But we made up for it when I came to, didn't we?" Angel leaned over, quickly stealing a kiss, careful to look for prying eyes first, and finding none.
They broke apart and were silent for a long while. The wind grew louder, picking up velocity, and Betsy shivered.
"Do you regret any of it?" Angel's lips were very close to her ear.
"Not a minute. You made me feel loved , every day we've been together." Betsy shivered again, for a different reason. "I can't imagine a happier life than the one I've lived with you."
Warm lips nibbled at her neck and she closed her eyes, listening as those lips moved back to her ear. "You are my happiness, Betsy. I was born again the day we met, and my life was complete the first time I held you."
Betsy was crying softly and turned, burying her face into Angel's shoulder. She sniffled, feeling a warm hand gently rubbing her back, as Angel held her, knowing her fear and feeling it echoed in her own gut. She could hear the water coming in through the gaping holes in the ceiling, pattering in a growing flood on the first floor of the church. Most of the people sheltering below them had taken to the pews, or moved into any remaining space in the balcony.
"Shhhhhhh." Angel stroked Betsy's hair, which was still flowing loose down her back. "No matter what happens, I'll be right here with you." She felt Betsy's shoulders, shaking as she cried silently, and felt the tears well up in her own eyes. "Did you think we'd ever meet two other women like us?" She tried to change the subject.
"No." Betsy smiled through her tears and took a deep shaky breath. "They're so sweet together, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are. I think they'll have an easier time than we did. They seem more comfortable than we were starting out."
"They had our example to follow, sweetheart." Betsy had quit crying, finding a strange peace growing in her heart, despite the severity of the ever-louder storm.
"We've done alright, though, haven't we?" Angel waited, knowing Betsy would look up at her. As she did, she reached out, catching a few remaining tears by feel, and brushing them away.
"We've done more than alright. We lived our life as freely as we could, and not get arrested, I believe." Betsy leaned into Angel's hand, as it cupped her face, her eyes fluttering closed as Angel stroked her cheek with her thumb. "Maybe a day will come when people like us won't have to hide how we feel."
"I don't think we've done so good a job at that, my love." Angel traced the sun-worn wrinkles of Betsy's face, re-memorizing every line. "Anyone with eyes could see how we feel about each other. It's plain as day on our faces."
Betsy laughed softly. "That's true. I guess folks see what they want to see."
"Come here." Angel pulled Betsy back into a warm embrace. "Let's try to get some rest."
"Are you tired?" Betsy curled an arm around Angel's middle, resting her head against her shoulder.
"I'm always tired at the end of a work day, but this one has been especially trying." Angel closed her eyes, hearing Betsy's breathing close by, and further away, sounds of distress from a few of the people below them, as the floodwaters rose. The balcony was growing more crowded, as more and more people tried to move up higher, away from the water. Several people had taken up space on the stairs as well.
"This balcony won't hold all of them, will it?" Betsy read her thoughts, and felt a slight tremble in the warm body that held her.
"No," Angel spoke slowly. "I keep thinking about that family down there on the pew near the bottom of the stairs."
"The one with the three little girls?" Betsy could picture them down there now, terrified, most likely. The little girls all looked alike, with curly thick brown hair and large matching brown eyes. Their mother looked barely old enough to have born all three of them, the father not much older.
"Yes. I keep thinking how their father must feel -- helpless, I'd wager. Nothing he can do to protect them and there's no room left up here, leastwise not much."
"Our space on this blanket is big enough for all of them, isn't it?" Betsy spoke the unthinkable, eyeing the edge of their quilt. A few people had scooted closer to them, enough that they had whispered the more private aspects of their conversation. Their neighbors had been incredibly polite, however, most of them not paying much attention to two older women huddled together in the dark.
"No." Angel's response was measured. A part of her was willing to give up her life for another, but not at the risk of Betsy giving up hers as well. "Alright, I guess it is. But still. No."
"We don't know how things will turn out here." Now Betsy moved closer. "We might survive this night, and we might not. But I don't know that I could survive the cries of those children down there if things get much worse."
"And I couldn't bear your cries if we give up this space." Angel held Betsy even closer, almost too tightly, only letting hold a little when Betsy squirmed in her embrace. "Sorry. I didn't mean to squeeze too hard."
"I won't cry." Betsy's voice was very low and gentle. "And even if the water rises, you and I both know how to swim and float. Those little girls, if they've been raised like most girls on this island, they don't. I'm not even sure they're old enough to swim."
"But the water is so cold," Angel protested. "I don't want you becoming ill."
"I'll have you to keep me warm." Betsy took her hand, forcing her to sit up with her. "It's the right thing to do. You know it is."
Angel didn't answer, but held her ground, literally digging her heels in and keeping Betsy from standing. Betsy rose to her knees, taking Angel's face in both hands. "We've had a good life together, my love. My greatest fear of late has been facing the day when death might part us. I don't know how I'd go on without you. At the same time, I don't want to go first and leave you behind."
"If I go first, I'll wait for you at Heaven's gate," Angel's voice trembled and she swallowed, choking back unexpected tears. "And if you go first, I fear I might try to follow you before my time."
"I've thought the same thing." Betsy raked her fingers back through Angel's hair. "We can do a good thing here. We can give that family a fighting chance. And if we die, we die together. If by the grace of God we survive, we survive together. Come with me." She lowered her hands, taking Angel's and pulling her to her feet.
As if in a dream, they picked their way through the horrified and sometimes fitfully resting bodies that populated the balcony, and carefully navigated the stairs, reaching the bottom few steps that were already underwater. They waded the short distance to the last pew in the church, finding three very solemn little girls, clinging to their parents, who had all three of the children tucked between them for protection and warmth.
"Excuse me." Betsy leaned over so the couple could hear them over the rushing wind outside. "We have a perfectly lovely spot in the corner of the balcony up there. We'd like for you and your family to take it."
"We couldn't." The woman's face showed hope, despite her automatic polite response.
"You must." Betsy felt Angel at her back, both hands resting on her hips from behind. "You see, we can't in good conscience sit by while your little girls are in danger."
"Go on," the man urged his wife. "Take the girls with you."
"You too." Angel stepped in, moving to Betsy' side, and eyeing him sternly. "If your family lives through this night, they're going to need you."
"But I "
"The offer is only good if all of you go." Angel held firm, feeling Betsy take her hand and squeeze it tightly. "Go on now, before we change our minds."
"Mama?" One of the little girls looked hopefully up at her mother's face. "Mama, I'm afraid."
"Thank you." The woman was already standing, picking up her youngest, barely out of diapers. Her husband followed suit, hoisting up the other two girls and balancing one on each side. "God bless you."
"Is there no room up there for all of us?" The man insisted.
"No. I fear there isn't. If there were, I'd find another family to take that space," Betsy clasped the woman's arm. "Can I ask one favor?"
"Anything." The woman's eyes shone with tears in the lantern light.
"If something happens to us, get word to some friends of ours, if they're still on the island. We pray to God they got off, but if not ..." She carefully gave the couple their address, listening and nodding affirmatively as the man repeated it.
"Go." Angel could hear a rising roar outside, and grabbed Betsy, pulling her toward the pew and settling down. The water was almost up to the seat, and they stretched out lengthwise on the hard wooden bench, despite the fact that their feet were once again soaking wet.
The family scurried toward the stairs, reaching the top just as a wall of water came crashing through the front of the church, shattering what remained of some stained glass windows. Pandemonium broke out, as the people nearest the front screamed, while angry cold waves came rushing down on top of them, burying them instantly in a watery grave.
"Betsy?" Angel's voice was high-pitched, as they clung to each other, watching the water as it swirled toward them. She felt Betsy's hold tighten on her, as the water quickly rose, lapping at the edge of the pew.
Betsy held tightly to her, finding her ear again, feeling oddly calm, given the circumstances. "Whither thou goest, I will go"
Angel felt the peace too, now, even as the water began to cover them. "Where thou diest, will I die," she repeated their vows from so long ago.
Another great wave followed the first, breaking down the entire front wall, and filling the church to balcony level in a matter of minutes. Screams resounded throughout the room. Behind the water, the wind rose and burst into the room like a freight train, gusting to 140 miles per hour, removing a good section of the cathedral roof in its fury.
In the corner of the balcony, a young family huddled together, crying silently in gratitude to two good Samaritans who had surely saved their children's lives, at least for the time being.
The roar of the storm was wearing on all four occupants of the third-floor loft. Even talking was difficult over the shriek of the wind outside, and they sat in silence, listening to the storm, and watching the low flicker of the lantern and the large shadows it cast on the walls around them. Mattie and Rachel were back on the bed, propped up against a pile of pillows, and Billy and Lillie were stretched out, dozing fitfully along the length of the sofa, which had been pulled away from the window after it cracked from a large hail stone.
Mattie sighed heavily and buried her face into Rachel's shoulder, covering her one exposed ear with her arm. She could almost, almost, block out the noise that way. With her eyes covered, and one ear pressed against Rachel's body, if she concentrated really hard, she could hear Rachel's heartbeat and her breathing, and if she inhaled deeply, she was rewarded with Rachel's own clean scent, tainted slightly by a salty smell, which clung to her skin from their long trek home from the bridge. Soft cotton flannel caressed her face, and she could feel Rachel's fingers combing through her hair.
"Mattie?" Rachel leaned down close so she could be heard. "Are you alright?" She felt Mattie snuggle in closer, wrapping one arm tightly around Rachel's side, her fingers absently stroking Rachel, running up and down the small of her back. "Mattie?"
When she got no answer, she simply circled her lover with both arms, kissing the top of her head and nuzzling her hair. "It won't last forever, I promise you." She felt a shiver run through Mattie's body, and heard a quiet sniffle, and she thought again about all they had been through in less than a day's time. "No storm can last forever. The sun has to come out again sometime."
From her dark warm nest, Mattie pondered that, and about her life, and how she had spent nearly all of it doing what other people told her to, trying to be what they wanted her to be, and all the beatings she had suffered at Adam's hands when she failed at being what he wanted. She looked up, tears glistening on her eyelashes, which fluttered closed as a very concerned Rachel gently kissed them away. She knew she was frightening Rachel, and she drew in a deep breath, trying to order her thoughts. "My whole life was a storm." She heard her own voice catch and stopped, swallowing.
"I'm sorry." Steel eyes lowered, as Rachel realized she could never truly understand everything Mattie had been through. She felt soft fingers trace her jaw line, tilting her head back up. "I wish I could "
"You did." Mattie cupped her face. "You're right. No storm can last forever. Mine ended when I met you. You were the sun that came out, for me."
"I don't know that I deserve that. I wish I could have done something a lot earlier than I did." Rachel felt Mattie's thumb against her lips and she closed her mouth, waiting patiently as hazel eyes focused on her.
"You saved me, Rachel. Before you, I never knew I had a choice. You showed me what life was meant to be like. And convinced me I didn't have to stay with someone who hurt me." Another tear escaped, and Mattie sniffled, feeling Rachel's hand against her face, brushing it away. "So don't you ever feel like you haven't done enough for me. I meant it. To me, you are the sunshine that drove away the storm."
Rachel hugged her close, swallowing several times to clear her suddenly-tight throat. "I think we saved each other." She finally found her voice. One hand wandered down, landing softly against Mattie's stomach, imagining the baby there, and wondering if it was sleeping through the turmoil outside. " How are you feeling?"
"Twinges are all but gone." Mattie covered her hand with her own. "I'm a little bit afraid, Rachel."
"Of having a baby?" Long fingers danced against Mattie's nightgown before her hand rested flat again.
"Yes." Smaller fingers twined with longer ones, and she studied Rachel's hands. They were large, the backs covered liberally with scars. Her palms bore the calluses that were a testament to her work on the docks, and the skin on the back was a dark rich tanned brown, in stark contrast to the pink and white tones of the palms. They were strong and capable, the muscles and bones plainly visible as they flexed, wrapping around her own hand and swallowing it. She'd seen Rachel heft 200 pound bales of cotton with seeming ease, and watched those fingers nimbly work on the tiny clasps and catches on the horses' harnesses out in the barn. Her guts clenched as she thought about those same hands, which held her with infinite care, and had caressed her with the gentlest of touches, bringing her pleasure she had never imagined possible. She lifted Rachel's hand and reverently kissed it. She could already picture a tiny baby, cradled in Rachel's arms, supported by those warm strong hands. She had no doubt that both she and the baby could never hope for a greater protector than the one holding on to her at that moment. "I never thought I'd have a baby. And I've not been around anyone much who was pregnant. I barely remember when Carrie was born. I've never seen anyone give birth."
"I have." Rachel's eyes took on a faraway look. She shuddered, thinking of her mother's last painful battle, and her father's stoic sorrow as he was presented with his seventh child, even as his wife lay dying in the next room. She remembered clearly her own grief and confusion, as she was thrust into the position of mother to her six younger siblings. What she had never grasped was what her father must have gone through in those dark days, and what it must have been like to lose the wife he had been married to for almost twenty years. She had known Mattie for less than a year, and couldn't conceive of how she would carry on if anything were to ever happen to her. No. I'm not going to think about that right now. She shook off the morose thoughts. "Helped deliver a couple, actually. You will be fine. I have faith in you, Mattie."
"You'll be with me when the time comes, won't you?" She looked down at their joined hands, resting against her body. "I think I can face anything if you're there by my side."
"I wouldn't miss it." Rachel lifted their hands, kissing Mattie's knuckles. "You can even hold my hand and call me names if you need to."
A red head cocked in puzzlement. "Why on earth would I want to do that?"
Rachel merely chuckled and snuggled up closer. "My mother usually had a few choice words for my father while in the throes of childbirth. And I suspect he heard them, even if he was all the way out in the barn at the time she was yelling at him."
"Such as?" Mattie poked her in the ribs, giggling when Rachel jumped.
"Ouch!" She smiled. "Wouldn't be polite for me to repeat them to a lady."
"But your mother was a " Mattie stopped, listening intently. "Is the wind dying down?"
"I do believe it is." Rachel untangled herself from her lover and the covers, and swung long legs over the side of the bed, ambling to the window and cautiously pressing her nose to the glass, trying to see outside. Then noise was indeed lessening, and the house no longer shook.
"Billy." She made her way to the sofa, the boards in the floor creaking with her steps. She shook her sleeping friend. "Wake up. Storm's about to blow over, I think. We should go check out the flooding."
"What?" Billy sat up, rubbing his eyes, having forgotten briefly where he was. "It's still dark outside. I don't think we'll be able to see much."
"No, the flooding downstairs." Rachel picked up the lantern, making the shadows on the wall dance and take on lurid shapes.
"Is it truly over?" Lillie also rose, stretching and looking toward the darkened window. The heavy sheeting rain was gone, and the glass no longer rippled with the forceful winds that had battered it for half the night. "What time is it?" She yawned sleepily, hugging herself and rubbing away the chill in her arms.
"Little past midnight." Rachel checked her watch and placed it carefully back in it's small tabbed pocket at her waistline. She started toward the door, hearing Mattie stir behind her, then felt her lover hook a finger through one of her suspenders. "You shouldn't get up, sweetheart."
"Rachel, I have to see. Please." She tugged harder to emphasize her words. "I promise, if I feel the slightest twinge, I'll come get back in bed."
Rachel frowned but nodded her approval, and they crept toward the staircase, followed by Billy and Lillie. The stairs were once again all visible, though puddles of water were liberally scattered across the now warped and ruined wood.
"Stay put." Rachel cautioned Mattie. "Don't want you taking a tumble on these slick steps. You too." She shook a finger at Horace, who whimpered in protest, before obediently going back in the room and curling up under the bed.
"You be careful." Mattie released her and watched as Rachel cautiously took the steps, one slow step at a time, swinging the lantern around to see ahead of her. She reached the bottom and peered into the second-floor hallway. "Well what do you know?"
"What is it?" Billy followed after her. "I'll be damned."
"Would you two please say something that makes sense to us women folk?" Lillie stepped down just one step, feeling Mattie's hand on her shoulder.
"No flooding down here, just a lot of very wet wood floorboards." Rachel shuffled to the next staircase. "This one's mostly clear too." She started down. "Ugh. Clear of water, but not of mud." The first floor and the staircase leading up from it were no longer submerged, but they were covered in a layer of mud and seaweed, mixed with a gritty substance Rachel suspected consisted of sand and fine shell fragments from the ocean floor.
"Pewey. Stench is pretty thick down here too." Billy stopped, removing his boots and socks, leaving them at the top of the first floor staircase. He made his way on down, and heard footsteps on the stairs above them. "Do they ever listen?"
"No." Rachel grinned. "And I'm the lucky one for that. If Mattie listened to what folks told her to do, she wouldn't be here with me, now would she?"
"Oh." Billy nibbled his lower lip. "I hadn't thought of that, but you're absolutely correct." Lillie caught up with him, placing both hands on his shoulders, letting him guide her down to the first floor.
Mattie hung on behind her, dancing from foot to bare foot as cold gooey sludge oozed between her toes. "Oh, it is truly foul down here." Her nose wrinkled at the stench of dead fish that greeted her. Rachel backtracked, handing off the lantern to Billy and allowing him to take the lead, as he slipped past her and allowed her to join Mattie.
"Told you to stay put." Rachel's voice vibrated close to her ear. "Might save you the stinky smell."
"I know." Mattie felt a protective arm slide around her waist, supporting her as they both took careful steps through the muck. "I couldn't bear to wait up there and not know what was happening down here."
"At least Horace listens to me." Rachel felt a pinch at her waist. "Hey. That hurt."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." Billy had opened the front door, only to be greeted by a wall of debris and shattered wood, piled up almost as high as the second floor. Eerie darkness lay over everything, his lantern the only source of light. He stepped out on the porch and made room for the others, as he shone the lantern around in an arc, only to find more debris completely surrounding the front part of the house.
"My sweet lord." Lillie sat limply down on a heavy iron and wood porch bench, which had miraculously survived the storm, and sat exactly where they last remembered seeing it.
Rachel remained silent, her eyes flicking around taking in the destruction. Without a word, she began climbing the pile of boards, stopping and pausing to pluck out an ornate brass doorknob, which she studied in rapt fascination. "I do believe I'm climbing up the remains of the house next door." She tossed the knob to the ground. "Billy keep the lantern where I can see for my footing, please."
"Rachel." Mattie stood at the base of the pile of rubble. "Your feet. You might get nails or splinters."
"I'm watching out, sweetheart." Rachel continued her climb, teetering a few times on unstable boards, until she reached the top of the pile, where it was completely dark. She heard an odd sloshing sound and knelt down, peering into the darkness until she realized she was looking into a pool of water. "Billy, can you hand that lantern up for a minute?"
"Hold on." He climbed halfway up after her, handing up the lamp with an upward stretch of his arm. "What do you see up there?"
"Water, I think." Rachel stood up, shining the light outward. "My God." The lantern didn't project terribly far, but from what she could tell, the debris had formed a dam of sorts, protecting the house from a 20-foot deep pool. Beyond that, as far as she could tell, everything had been destroyed. She leaned over, shining the lantern on the surface of the water, covering her nose at the smell. Dead fish floated on the surface, and as she bent closer, something odd floated just beneath. She reached down, poking it, and a body ascended to the surface. It rolled over and a garish bloated face stared at her with one open eye. She barely recognized the man as the neighbor with whom Betsy had traded baked goods for milk and eggs.
She squelched a scream, which died in her throat, and felt the bile rising in its place. Quickly, she scrambled down, almost tripping, handing off the lantern as she passed Billy on her way to the ground. She landed with a thwacking sound in the mud, and stumbled to the side of the house, leaning over and retching violently.
Mattie was at her side in an instant, patting her on the back. "What happened?"
"Dead man." Rachel choked out, spitting and swiping the back of her hand across her mouth. She stood, feeling her knees shaking like jelly. She grabbed hold of a porch column, seeing spots before her eyes for an instant, before her vision cleared. "Mr. Jameson, I think."
"Oh, no." Mattie steered Rachel to the porch where she practically pushed her down onto the bench next to Lillie. "Are you alright?" She patted a pale cheek.
"Rachel, sorry." Billy sidled up next to them. "I heard what you saw. I should have gone up there first."
"No, it's alright." Rachel's sight turned inward, picturing their neighbor's face again. "I think we might ought to get used to seeing things like that."
"Why do you say that?" Mattie touched Rachel's forehead, checking for fever.
"I think we're alone." The dark head dropped down, as Rachel covered her face with both hands, resting on upraised elbows against her knees. She massaged her own temples, and felt Mattie stroking the back of her head.
"Sugar, I don't understand." Lillie patted her on the leg. "What do you mean by 'alone'?"
"There was nothing else out there." Rachel whispered. "Not a house left standing, far as I could tell. Maybe with sunrise "
"That can't be." Lillie looked around, and up, at the slanted porch roof overhead. "Why was this one spared? There have to be others that survived."
"Just listen." Rachel cocked her head. The sound of a gentle breeze rustled past them, stirring leaves on the ground that had been stripped from the trees. It rippled across the water surface from beyond the debris pile, the liquid sound reaching their ears. Otherwise it was silent.
"I don't hear anything," Billy frowned in puzzlement.
"That's my point," Rachel stood, pacing to the end of the porch, feeling the wind lift her bangs off her face, the refreshing coolness going a long way in settling her stomach. "No trolley cars, no dogs barking, or cows mooing, nothing at all. You'd think, after what we've been through, if anyone else out there had survived, we'd hear them now, doing what we're doing, going outside to see what we can see."
Mattie closed her eyes, taking in the sounds of what passed for peace, if not for the destruction all around them. The silence practically roared in her ears, replacing the blasting sound of wind she had all but become numb to. She crossed her arms over her chest, and stepped down off the porch, away from the lantern light and around to the side of the house, trying to ignore the dozen or so dead fish that littered the ground along with everything else.
There, away from the light, she looked up to the sky, taking in rolling clouds. Between them, she saw a few faint twinkling stars, belying the cyclone that had so recently passed over the island. Even the rain had stopped, though the smell of it was still strong in the air, mingling with all the other odd scents, both pleasant and putrid. "Rachel, will you come down here, please?" She turned, spotting the brooding figure leaning against a column, staring out into the darkness.
The tousled head lifted, the lantern light catching faint glints from Rachel's eyes, which warmed at the sound of Mattie's voice. "Be right there." She hopped over the porch railing, landing solidly in the muck, and slopped over through the thick goop to Mattie's side. "I feel like a hillbilly, in my bare feet in the mud."
"Your voice is shaking," Mattie commented mildly, with a knowing roll of her eyes in Rachel's direction.
"And I'm trying very hard to pretend it isn't." Rachel circled Mattie from behind, resting her chin on the top of her head. "Damn." She could still feel the tremors coursing through her blood, making her limbs feel like water.
"You are not alone." Mattie draped her own arms on top of Rachel's. "We are not alone. Look up there." She raised one hand, pointing toward the sky. "If the stars are out, I have to believe you were correct. The sun is going to rise, come morning. This " she gestured toward the remains of their neighbor's house. "is a nightmare. But we are going to get through it." She turned in Rachel's arm. "We were spared, Rachel. We're alive. If I ever needed affirmation of the love of God, I have it. If he were in the business of punishing sinners, all four of us should have been struck down in the first few hours of this mess. But we weren't. I believe there is a reason we're still here. Here." She placed Rachel's hand flat against her stomach, feeling the long fingers splay against her in a gesture that had become automatic. At the same time, she placed her own hand against Rachel's heart, feeling it flutter at her touch, before it settled down into even steady beats. "Every reason in the world I need to live is right here with me. How about you?"
"You are my life." Rachel kissed her forehead. Her knees were still weak, and her brain was still spinning at the devastation she suspected was out there. It made her feel off balance in more ways than one. She wasn't used to losing he composure or showing weakness, but as she searched Mattie's face, she found only compassion and gentleness looking back at her, mixed with a healthy dose of concern. She closed her eyes, shutting out the wreckage all around them, and focused in tightly on what had become her whole world. "Thank you." She folded Mattie into a warm hug, allowing the love to wash away some of the horror.
"Come on." Mattie squeezed her before stepping back, leading her by both hands. "Let's go back inside, and get our feet clean, and try to get some sleep. Morning is going to come soon enough."
Rachel followed, realizing that she didn't always have to be the strong one, and sheepishly suspecting that many times, true strength was of the heart, and came in petite redheaded packages.
"Hey, Jake, wake up." The U.S. marshal shook his fellow deputy.
"Huh?" Jake slowly opened first one eye and then the other. His head was pounding and his mouth felt like sawdust. He decided it would hurt too much to raise his head just yet, and instead rolled one eyeball around, spying an empty whiskey bottle and a pile of cards in the middle of the table his head was resting on. Across the table and next to him were two complete strangers, or at least he didn't remember meeting them, although he didn't usually play poker with unknowns. He focused again on the man who had woken him up. "Ben? Where are we?"
"Saloon. Don't you remember? Storm's over." He moved around the table. "Doc, get up. I suspect folks will be needing you out there."
"What?" Dr. Mills sat bolt upright and looked around, then glanced toward the second-floor window, where the first light of dawn was just beginning to peek through. The room they were in was small, and it took him a minute to remember where he was and why. "Bullock!" He cuffed the saloon-owner. "Wake up! We're alive."
Bullock snorted in mid-snore and jerked awake, swiping a bit of drool from his mouth. "By God, we're all here, aren't we?" He looked around the small bedroom and grinned. When the doctor and the two marshals had shown up at the saloon looking for Adam, he had thought they were insane. Water was already rising on that end of the island, although the saloon itself sat on a rise and only the first floor had been flooded. By the time they had searched the premises for Adam, it was too late for any of them to escape to higher ground. With the water already pouring under the front door, they had moved a table and a case of whiskey to the second floor, intent on gambling and drinking until death or sunrise, whichever came first.
Dr. Mills stood and scratched his stomach, then moved to the window, peering out. "Water's gone down, mostly back out to sea." He squinted across the alleyway. "Good lord, your stable is gone, Bullock." He hung his head. "'Spose that means my horses are gone as well. And my buggy. Dang it. I loved those horses."
The saloon owner joined him at the window, clapping him on the shoulder. "Sorry about your horses, Doc. I sent mine to town earlier yesterday, when the flooding first started down on the beach." He opened the window, letting in a fresh cool breeze. "Flattened everything out there, didn't it?" He surveyed the ruined buildings near him -- an abandoned boarding house, a blacksmith shop, and a feed supply store. Other than the saloon, those were the only buildings nearby. A healthy two-mile stretch of empty land had always separated the saloon of ill repute and the smelly smith's shop from the nearest part of town. "I always figured this place was solid as a rock." He thumped the thick wooden wall, as he looked up at the rafters over his head. "Not a shingle out of place."
"Far as you know from in here," the doctor supplied. "But judging from the damage out there, I'd wager you ought to get up on the roof and make sure."
"I will." He turned and faced his two impromptu guests. "Gentlemen, will you be searching for Adam today?"
"Got no choice," Ben sat back, propping a booted foot up on the table. "I reckon his house is gone by now. It was already washing away when we found the doc down there yesterday. The widows' house was empty when we dropped by there. I figure unless he got across one of the bridges, he's still here somewhere. We'll have to start asking around town."
"I need a headache powder," Jake moaned. "I swear I haven't tied one on like that in over a year. Last thing I remember is us yelling out bids over that blasted wind outside. Breakfast would be a good start before we start looking for Crockett."
"Well, I guess we can all start walking toward town, being as any food I had down in the saloon is most likely ruined by now." Bullock picked up the deck of cards, shuffling them for good measure before he slid them back into their protective box. "Hey, who finally won?"
"I think we all fell asleep," Dr. Mills eyed the four separate stacks of bills and coinage stacked on each side of the table. "What say we each take whatever is sitting in our place, and assume that's what we had when the last one nodded off?"
"Sounds good to me." Ben scooped up his winnings and smoothly pocketed them. He studied the red paisley wallpaper on the walls, along with the matching flocked velvet bed spread and curtains, and a droll smile twitched at his moustache. "Say, Bullock, I'm no idiot, but I'm willing to cut you some slack in terms of the legality of this establishment, seeing as you took us in last night. But I do have a question. Where are all your women?"
Bullock turned a choke into a cough, covering his mouth and hacking violently for a minute. He took a deep breath and stood up straight, eyeing the marshal suspiciously. "I am unmarried, sir, in case I failed to mention it. I have no women."
"You know good and well what I mean." Ben chuckled. "I'm just asking for reasons of the ladies' safety is all."
"Well, sir, any women who might or might not have been on the premises were all sent into town to seek shelter about an hour before you arrived here." He leveled his gaze. "Does that answer you question satisfactorily?"
"Indeed it does." Ben swung his leg down with a thump against the clapboard floor. "Jake, you in shape enough to walk back into town? Sounds like the doc's horses aren't going to be available for the return trip."
"By all means, let's go." Jake slowly stood, noting with relief that the room was not spinning. "My empty stomach is winning the war with my aching head."
They made their way down slick seaweed-covered stairs and out the back door into the alley. The alley itself was littered with debris, along with dead fish and two dead dogs. At the end of the alley, Dr. Mills found one of his horses, also dead. "Good ol' Blaze," he knelt down, touching a still-wet muzzle. "Ah well," he stood back up. "Guess we're lucky to be alive ourselves. Should we check the smithy's and the feed store?"
"Nah." Bullock urged his companions on. "They left the same time the ladies did, all of 'em headed into town, I think to seek shelter in one of the churches." He snickered. "Assuming the churches would let any of the 'ladies' in, that is."
"Surely even the priest himself wouldn't turn away someone in a time of dire need. Isn't the church still a place of charity?" Dr. Mills stepped carefully across the sodden ground, his boots making a sucking sound each time he lifted them.
"We'll find out soon enough." Bullock stopped, bumping first one boot and then the other against a broken hitching post, knocking some of the muck from the soles. He scraped them against the post for good measure, then continued on behind the others. "I told them to go to St. Peter's. It looks large and sturdy enough to weather almost anything."
They trudged on in silence, feeling the warmth of the first rays of sunrise, and spying the sun itself starting to peer up over the edge of the gulf, painting a scattering of clouds bright pink and red. It was difficult to fathom such a great storm had washed over the island only a few short hours before. There, in the early hours of dawn, in the open stretch of land, only the flattened grasses and the occasional fish gave testament to the destruction of the night.
Dr. Mills was drinking in the peace, when they topped the last rise before town. "My God." He stopped, feeling his companions at his back and hearing their collective intake of breath.
"Looks like Hell has come to earth." Bullock stood just behind him.
"Sweet Jesus." Ben stopped, rooted in place, with Jake at his side. Before them was a two-story high pile of boards and rubble for as far as they could see. The town was no more.
"Rachel," Mattie whispered softly into her lover's ear. They had gotten precious little sleep since the trek outside after the cyclone ended, and had spent the wee hours of morning lying awake, holding onto each other in the loud silence the storm left behind. Mattie had debated, knowing Rachel had only been asleep for the better part of an hour, but there was something she needed to do. "Rachel." She placed a light kiss on full lips, watching as relaxed features took on tone and expression. "Come with me, please."
"Wh ?" Rachel blinked into the semi-darkness. It was not yet sunrise, but certainly not yet dark either. "Come where?" She rolled over, resting her head on an upraised hand, and reaching out in instinct, tracing the curves of Mattie's face, which was mostly in shadow.
"Go for a walk with me?" Mattie glanced over at the two still figures sprawled on a pallet on the floor next to the sofa. "Just the two of us, please?" She felt a nudge at her feet and smiled. "And you too, Horace." The dog wagged his tail, thumping it against the mattress, and wriggled closer, resting his head on Rachel's hip.
"Walk?" Rachel frowned. "Might be difficult with all the rubble out there. And what about your ankle? And the baby?"
"No twinge at all. And I've got my ankle bound up real good, and it hardly hurts at all after staying off it most of the night." Mattie sat up. "Please. We have to go somewhere. Not real far."
Curiosity got the best of her, and Rachel rolled up, locating her boots. Her lips were a thin grim line, as she tugged at the rawhide laces, pulling them tight and double-knotting them. "No telling what we might see, sweetheart. I don't want anything upsetting you."
"Rachel." Mattie knelt down, placing her hands on her lover's knees. "There won't be any sheltering me from this. Don't even try. I saw last night. I know. A lot of folks have died. We'd be fools to think otherwise. So, please, come with me, because I have to go somewhere, and I want you there with me."
"Alright. I'm dressing as fast as I can." Rachel covered both of Mattie's hands, chaffing them once before she stood, helping Mattie up with her. "Hey. You're already dressed." Now fully awake, she noted the trousers and man's shirt, which had dried hanging up overnight. "And ready for the road, I see." She found a smile.
Mattie tucked a hand in the crook of her elbow, dragging her toward the door. Rachel shook her head, but her lips twitched in amusement, nonetheless. Already, the dark emotions that had swirled around in her heart for most of the early morning were dissipating, replaced by a small measure of happiness at the anticipation of whatever it was Mattie had in store.
Did they have a right to be happy, given that more than likely folks out there were already waking up, and grieving over lost loved ones, and lost homes? She pondered that, and thought about all the people they knew, whose fates as yet were unknown to them. Betsy and Angel crossed her mind and she realized a trip to the warehouse district would be in order before the day was over, no matter how hard it might be to get there.
They carefully descended the stairs all the way down to the first floor, with Horace following close behind, his toenails clicking on the wooden steps. It was still mostly dark, and as they paused on the porch, looking up to see a navy blue sky and just a few remaining stars. There was a healthy scattering of clouds, some of them edged with the first light of the coming dawn.
Most of the front of the house was blocked with their neighbor's destroyed home, so they silently picked their way around to the back, and found to their relief that the back yard, while totally destroyed, was navigable, with only a few odd pieces of lumbar washed into what used to be the garden. The barn was nothing but a pile of boards, and both women realized the horses they had left in the livery stable were probably a loss. "Can't believe we were in there -- what -- was it yesterday morning?" Mattie stared at the stable remains. "Unbelievable."
"And to think that this time yesterday, our biggest worry was getting caught in that barn." Rachel felt a squeeze to her forearm, where Mattie's hand was resting.
"This whole thing is surreal, isn't it? I don't feel quite myself, almost as if I'm standing outside looking over some strange dream." Mattie shook her head sadly, her shoulders slumping in sadness. "I need to find a place that feels normal. That's why I needed to go for this walk. Come on. Forget the barn." She led on, out of the yard and down a path that roughly followed what used to be an alley between houses. All the homes on their side, other than Angel and Betsy's, were destroyed, crumbled and falling into one another in a long row.
"Looks like they all went down in a row, one after the other," Rachel commented. "Must've been that very loud crashing we heard last night. And I thought it was just the one house." She looked to the other side of the alleyway. "Fared a little better over there, I see. A few are still standing."
"Maybe it isn't as bad as we thought it was." Mattie heard a rustle, and a woman approached them from out of the shadows beside one of the houses. As she drew closer, Mattie recognized her as one of the women who had sometimes visited with Betsy over the back fence, while they worked in the garden. She'd seen them from her hidden place inside the house, and had longed to be able to go out and join them.
"Hello." The woman's face was pale, and her eyes registered shock. "I'm looking for food. My husband -- he's inside. Won't come out. I think his mind's done gone and left him. We're hungry. Do you have anything at your place to spare?"
"Y .." Mattie felt an almost painful squeeze to her hand and she closed her mouth, turning indignantly to Rachel to chastise her. A warning flashed from steel eyes and she stopped, waiting as the taller woman stroked the inside of Mattie's palm with her thumb.
"No ma'am. We're looking ourselves. Maybe you could try fishing down on the beach. Storm's bound to have driven more fish than usual close to shore." Her eyes swept the woman's yard. "You have a fishing pole?"
"Yes." The woman's face lit up. "Why yes. Yes, we do. It's still resting in the entryway where my James left it yesterday when he came home. I'll do just that. Thank you. And God bless you." She turned and wandered back inside her house, which was collapsed on one side, the roof caved in and the porch hanging askew off the back.
"Rachel?" Mattie looked up expectantly, waiting for an explanation.
"We don't know how bad it is, Mattie, and in this I'm going to be selfish." Her hand dropped to Mattie's stomach. "We don't have much food left -- maybe a few days' worth. I won't risk it. Not when it comes to you and the baby. I I guess that sounds harsh, doesn't it?" Her voice wavered uncertainly.
"No." Mattie lifted her hand, kissing it. "It sounds like someone this baby is going to be lucky to have looking after it." She tucked her hand back into Rachel's. "And so am I."
"I did the right thing, then?" Rachel's feet began to move, picking their way through rubble, as they walked on toward the east.
"Yes. I think you did." Mattie stepped over a dead fish, wrinkling her nose. It was still gray and dark out, with just enough light breaking through the clouds for them to find their path. The scent of soggy wood, seaweed, and more unseen dead fish assaulted their noses, and other more rank smells drifted around, hinting at death and things they would see more than enough of, once the sun came up.
As they walked on, the destruction became more pronounced, with long stretches of buildings completely leveled or washed away. At times it was difficult to figure out what street they were on, or if they were on the street at all. With patient winding in and around rubble, and dodging dead animals, they drew ever eastward on a mission known only to Mattie. Horace eagerly darted back and forth, sniffing at garbage and picking up fish from time to time, until Rachel harshly told him to stop. He slunk over to her, hopefully wagging his tail, and yipping with happiness when she bent over, scratching his head in reward for his obedience. He trotted along behind them, nosing at the ground, occasionally fussing and growling at demons only he could see.
"Where we headed, anyway?" Rachel swung their joined hands, glad to be out of the house.
"The beach." Mattie's eyes were thoughtful, catching the first rays of dawn. "I just have to see it."
"Alright," Rachel drawled. "How's your ankle?"
"A little sore," Mattie had been carefully trying to hide a growing limp, determined to finish out the task at hand. "But nothing I can't handle."
"And you're feeling alright otherwise?" Rachel draped an arm across her shoulders. "No more of those 'twinges,' as you call them?"
"No. None." Mattie drew in a breath of fresh salt-tinged air, as her first view of the Gulf came into sight. "I feel much better than last night."
"Good. Any sign of pain at all, and I'm carrying you back to the house." Rachel gently bumped hips with her lover, grinning as Mattie bumped back.
"Don't know about that," Mattie teased. "I've put on a little weight the past week or so. My stomach has felt tighter, if that makes sense. Next step, it'll be filling out."
"I think I can handle it," Rachel suddenly scooped her up, carrying her like a child the last block of their walk, as Mattie giggled, pretending to struggle for a few steps before she finally settled into Rachel's arms, enjoying the ride. "Still light as a feather. Any place on this here beach, you want to go in particular?"
They reached the sand, which was packed flat, the sand dunes washed away in the flooding. "No landmarks, are there?" Mattie looked around as pale gold light began to paint the sand at their feet. "They're all gone."
"Afraid so." Rachel spied the remains of an overturned boat several yards down, and began walking toward it. "Is this a good spot for what you had in mind?"
"It'll do." Mattie felt herself deposited on the sand, her booted feet hitting it with a wet thunk. "Sit with me, please?"
They rested against the boat's hull, as Mattie settled into the curve of the arm Rachel offered her. Horace wandered off down the beach, eagerly exploring the sand and surf, while staying close by in sight. "You want to tell me why we're here?"
"Shhhhh." Mattie touched a finger to Rachel's lips. "Close your eyes, and listen. And smell."
Rachel complied, blocking out the rolling waves and cloudy sky. The roar of water filled her senses, as waves crashed ashore near them. She could just make out the sizzling foamy sound as they broke up and ran way up the sand, and the slight trickling suctiony sound as they washed back out to sea. A gentle steady wind sifted through her hair, and brushed the fine hairs on her arms, tickling across her skin.
She drew fresh salty air into her lungs, tainted by the scent of leftover rain. The wooden scent of the boat drifted up around her, along with a hint of soap from Mattie's freshly-washed face. With her eyes still closed, she buried her face into Mattie's hair, allowing just that scent alone to completely overtake everything else. She felt Mattie relax against her, her head against Rachel's shoulder, and she laughed quietly as Mattie found a bare spot of skin just below her ear to nibble at. "Mmmm." She inhaled. "You smell good. And that feels very nice."
The nibbles traveled up, as Mattie explored further, nipping at an earlobe. "What do you hear?"
"The ocean, mostly." Rachel tried to focus her concentration outward. "And your breathing. Otherwise, it sounds just like it always has. Am I listening for anything in particular?"
"No." Mattie ceased her nibbles and simply rested against Rachel's body, feeling the rise and fall of her lungs as Rachel breathed. She placed one hand against her left ribcage, smiling as she found the steady heartbeat there. "Now, open your eyes."
The steel blue orbs fluttered open and Rachel blinked, feeling the warmth of the sun begin to hit her face. Out to sea, it was mostly cloudy, as the rays of the sun fought with them, breaking through in an arc of light out over the water, fanning across the horizon in alternating stripes of pink and gray below billowing white and dark clouds. Way up above the clouds, clear blue sky began to peek through, promising a new day, just like every other morning. "It's beautiful," Rachel whispered.
"You were correct. I just had to come out here and see it for myself." Mattie rubbed Rachel's belly, then squeezed her thigh. "The sun will surely rise, and life is going to go on. Our whole world may be upside down, Rachel, and people we care about are most certainly dead, but out here, we can still see a part of our world that stayed the same." She turned, taking both of Rachel's hands in her own. "There are so many things I'm not sure of. What kind of mother I'll be. Where we're going to be living -- how we'll earn our keep. But three things I'm certain of are right here with me on this beach."
"Yeah?" Rachel was getting lost in earnest hazel eyes, feeling the warmth and the connection between them. She shook her head, focusing in on her lover. "And what are those three things?"
"That ocean out there is going to keep rolling ashore, come rain or come shine. And that sun up there, it will eventually rise, just like you said it would. And this." She placed her hand over Rachel's heart, feeling Rachel's larger hand curl around it. "What we share between us. Everything else might be swept away, but the one thing I know is this love we share -- it can withstand any storm."
There would be many horrors to face before the day was over, and they would be bone-weary by its end, but it couldn't touch that one golden moment, sitting there on the beach, as the sun rose, and a few brave sea gulls flew overhead. There were no more words for what they were feeling, as Rachel drew Mattie to her in a warm solid hug. She kissed the top of Mattie's head tangling her fingers in thick red waves as they rocked back and forth slightly. "I love you," she whispered, finding Mattie's lips as they gratefully welcomed a brand new day.
The sun was full up as they walked the half-mile back home. In the unforgiving light of day, the devastation was beyond comprehension. Entire blocks were leveled with not a recognizable building left standing in some parts of town. Mattie cried quietly, trying to come to terms with the numerous dead bodies they encountered, not only of animals, but of people as well. Rachel kept her arm tightly around her lover, frequently stopping to allow Mattie to simply turn and bury her face into Rachel's chest each time they saw another body. The first one had been a horror, as had the second, third, and fourth. After that it became a walking nightmare, devoid of much color other than the brown of waterlogged broken-up wood mixed with sand.
Mattie had studied the first body at length, her large questioning eyes looking to Rachel for guidance. "We can't do anything for them, sweetheart." Rachel stroked Mattie's long red hair, which was hanging loose, spilling over her shoulders and down her back to her waist. "Clean-up will begin soon enough." She disengaged herself from Mattie long enough to respectfully drag the person, an older gentleman, from beneath the small pile of rubble that covered the lower half of his body. She laid him out flat in front of what she could only assume had been his house. She shuffled through the debris, looking for others, but found nothing else, save a scattering of dead fish in a shallow pool of water.
The smell was already rank, as the late-summer sun peeked through the clouds, ripening the carcasses of man and beast alike at a rapid rate, the stench carried away on a stiff cool breeze. They lost count of the number of dogs, cats, and even a few horses and cows they passed, as they made their way back home. Two blocks away, a clear, sweet chiming noise rang out, piercing the morning air and shattering the deathly silence.
"Ursuline Convent, if I'm not mistaken." Rachel lifted her head in wonder, cocking one ear toward the sound. "It's Sunday, and almost time for worship."
"We should go," Mattie declared decisively. "Get Lil and Billy, and go, if only to see who all else is there."
"If you'd like." Rachel engulfed her in a side hug as they continued on their way, only to be met by Billy, Lillie, and a few other dazed wanderers who were also following the beckoning church bells like the lost sheep the church proclaimed them to be. Billy merely nodded at them, his arm wrapped firmly around Lillie's shoulders, as they fell in next to the two women.
As they arrived at the mostly-broken down convent, Mattie and Rachel stopped short, hovering together near the back of the small crowd. Most were in some state of disarray -- clothing torn, wet, or dirty, hair unkempt, and expressions ranging from fear, to anguish, to shock. A few nuns wandered through the group, speaking quietly to each person in turn.
Some of the women were crying openly, and Mattie caught bits of whispered conversation regarding missing or presumed-dead loved ones and friends. She solemnly nibbled her lower lip, clinging to Rachel, not caring what anyone thought of her actions at that moment. Her ankle was throbbing fiercely, and she was hungry again, two things she was trying to hide from Rachel until whatever news or mass might be over.
"Bless you children." A plump kindly sister approached them, reaching out and taking one of Mattie's hands. "Child, your hands are freezing." She vigorously rubbed the hand in question.
"I I'm just tired, is all." She felt Rachel's scrutiny and swallowed, looking up, unable to avoid her penetrating gaze. Her eyes dropped. "And a little bit hungry."
"She's with child," Rachel unconsciously placed one hand over Mattie's stomach. "We think her husband drowned yesterday morning."
"You poor dear." The sister shooed both of them to a bench next to the ruined building. "Come, sit down. We're about to pass out some fresh loaves of bread. We had just finished baking them when the storm hit, and the blessed saints must have granted a miracle, for all the bread made it through intact." She disappeared inside and Mattie elbowed Rachel affectionately.
"My husband drowned yesterday?" She frowned at Rachel. "I'm sad for him, Rachel, but we both know I'm not exactly the grieving widow."
"Tell me you're not about to faint from hunger," Rachel studied her gravely, getting a sheepish smile in response. "Thought so. I'm not beyond a bit of harmless deception when it comes to your health, Mattie, so get used to it."
"I I'm sorry." Mattie looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap, her hair framing her face and hiding her trembling lower lip from Rachel's view. She suddenly felt very small, and extremely disoriented, and quite afraid to look up past the group. The destruction was starting to sink in, making her feel vaguely as if she were observing the world from some point outside her body. "What are we going to do?" she finally whispered, a small whimper of genuine fear choking out behind her words.
"Hey." Rachel pulled her close, tilting her chin up with gentle fingers. "I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"I'm afraid, Rachel. It's too much." She felt Rachel's thumb against her skin, swiping her tears away. "What kind of world is my baby going to be born into?"
"Any world you want." Rachel cupped her cheek. "This one, or as far away as you want to go."
"What do you want to do?" Mattie hiccupped.
"I want to be with you," Rachel quickly kissed her forehead.
It hit her then, and she remembered their talk on the beach. Being together -- it was all that truly mattered, in the end. "Let's see what the day will bring," Mattie looked up as the nun approached them.
"That's my girl," Rachel's breath tickled near her ear. "One day a time, Mattie. That's probably the best any of us can do for now."
"Child, how far along are you?" The nun pressed three loaves of bread into Mattie's lap.
"About two months," Mattie could smell the fresh wheat scent of the bread, and her mouth watered, as her stomach twisted and growled in anticipation. "Thank you," she patted the sister's arm.
"Sister." Rachel idly accepted a chunk of bread that Mattie tore off and handed to her. "What have you heard of the town north of here? What about the orphanage and the warehouse area?"
"Gone." The nun knelt down, placing one hand on Rachel's knee. "Have you kin that lived in that area?"
"Gone?" Rachel's voice choked, as a lump rose up in her throat. "All of it?"
"The orphanage is mostly a loss," the sister shook her head. "As far as we know, not a child or sister survived.
"Oh." It was a pitiful little sound, and it took Rachel a moment to realize it came from her own lips. "Are you certain? Did you find all of them?"
"Oh, my child, no." The nun smiled sadly. "The orphanage was empty. So close to the beach, we can only assume the children and our sisters were all lost to the sea." She stood. "Mass will begin in a little while, but please rest here for as long as you need to."
"Thank you, sister." Mattie shaded her eyes with one hand, looking up into the sun as the nun walked away.
"I have to go up there." Rachel turned to Mattie. "I have to."
"You want me to stay here, don't you?" Mattie knew it was for the best, despite her yearning to come along. A pain shot through her lower leg and she gritted her teeth, managing to ride it out without Rachel seeing.
"You need to rest, Mattie. It's a long way, and no telling what all I might have to climb over and around to get there. I I can see what became of your old house, and look for Betsy and Angel, and I have to look for the boys." Her heart hurt, thinking of Albert and Frank. "So young." Her eyes blurred for a moment and she swiped her hand across her face.
"Alright." Mattie sighed. There was no way she could walk so far with her injury, even if she weren't pregnant. All she really wanted to do was go home and prop her leg up, although she wanted Rachel to snuggle with while she rested. "Take Billy with you, please?"
"I will." She looked around, spotting Lillie and Billy standing under a palm tree that had somehow survived the storm. "Billy!" She motioned them over.
"Bread!" Lillie's eyes lit up, and she smiled gratefully as Mattie handed her a loaf. "Thank you, sugar. My tummy's been gnawing on me something fierce." She stopped, looking from Rachel to Mattie and back. "What's wrong? Other than the obvious?" she hastily amended.
"They think all the orphans drowned." Rachel felt Billy's hand drop to her shoulder, and she covered it with one of her own. "Will you go up there with me? I just have to see maybe somehow " her voice trailed off.
"Sure." He looked to Lillie, who nodded her silent approval. "Might as well see what's left of this island while we're at it. You want to head up there right after mass?"
"No." Rachel's voice was low and decisive. "I want to head up there now. Lillie, you know how to use a gun?"
"Why sugar, of course I do. You forget so soon where I used to earn my keep." She frowned. "Why?"
"After mass, take Mattie back home. Load up her pistol and keep it handy. Take turns keeping a lookout. Don't let any strangers in. Maybe not even friends." She spoke quietly, as she studied the crowd standing nearby. "This island has no bridges, no railroads, and no electricity, which means no telephones or telegraph. I expect some folks are gonna get mighty desperate for food and shelter before we get anyone from the mainland over here to help." She plucked at the crease in her trousers as she talked. "I can't take any chances with that house or our food supply. Have to think about my baby."
"Your ?" Lillie stopped herself, noting that Rachel didn't realize she had referred to the baby as her own. Her eyes met Mattie's, which shone with warm pride and affection. It was a small spark of hope in the middle of the most hopeless of circumstances. Those hazel eyes turned full on Rachel, the adoration clearly visible as they looked the taller woman slowly up and down. Mattie leaned over and whispered something in Rachel's ear. Lillie couldn't hear it, but there was no missing the blush that rose from the edge of Rachel's shirt collar, slowly flooding her face and neck to a dark pink hue.
"Ladies and gentleman." A man called them to attention and they all turned, recognizing him as one of the town councilman. "At 10 a.m. this morning, Mayor Jones will convene an emergency meeting of what city councilmen are able to attend. The newspaper will go to press as usual, and we will get what news and plans we can to the general population, as soon as is practical."
"What do you think?" Billy tilted his hat back. "Go to the meeting first, then up to the orphanage?"
"Most certainly." Rachel stood and turned, leaning down to speak quietly to Mattie for a moment, before she kissed the top of her head. "Ladies, we'll be home as soon as we can. You take care of her, you hear?" She pulled Lillie aside, out of earshot of Billy and Mattie. "She's stubborn, and prone to try to do more than she should. She needs to get in bed and sleep, and eat as much of a regular meal as you can pull together. And get her drinking some of that fresh water y'all stored up. And re-bind that ankle. She thinks I'm blind to that limp, but I'm not. She's hurting."
"Yes, ma'am," Lillie teased her. "Rachel, what did she whisper to you a minute ago?"
"Oh." The blush renewed itself, dusting Rachel's cheeks bright pink. "Partly, she called me 'Papa.' The other part, I can't repeat."
"Oh, come now, sugar. I've heard just about everything since moving to Galveston. There's very little that could shock me." Lillie tucked a hand into the crook of Rachel's elbow, whispering conspiratorially.
Rachel scratched her ear, which was even redder than her face. "She um naw. I can't. Not word for word, other than it had to do with her firm belief that if I tried hard enough, I could probably provide that baby with a sibling."
"Well, aren't you the debonair one?" Lillie ribbed her. "Sugar, I'm just glad to see the two of you happy. No two people I know deserve it more, and it does my heart good to see y'all together -- makes seeing all this horrible wreck around us a tad bit more palatable."
"I am happy." Rachel smiled, glancing back at Billy and Mattie, who were engaged in what appeared to be rather serious conversation. "You told me I could be someday, didn't you?"
"I never doubted it for a minute." Lillie squeezed her arm. "I'll take care of your Mattie, and you take care of my Billy. Don't let him go trying to lift entire buildings, you hear me?"
"Deal." Rachel steered them back to the bench, where she collected Billy, and they set out for the north side of the island.
Two silent figures walked slowly along the beach, approaching the orphanage, which even at a distance was in obvious shambles. "I don't know if I can take this, Billy." Rachel grasped his elbow, curling her fingers around it and stepping gingerly over a pile of seaweed-encased debris, which included a few purple bloated jellyfish. "I don't understand how something so awful could happen to children."
"It rains on both the rich and the poor, Rachel." Billy patted her hand.
"True." Rachel looked up toward the cloudy sky, trying to reconcile it with the black roiling mass it had been the day before. "But the rich usually don't have leaky roofs."
Billy chuckled listlessly. "What did you think about the Mayor's announcement? Do you think y'all will stay here?"
"I'll have to discuss that with Mattie. We're both quite fond of beach life, but I dunno seems a daunting task ahead of us." She brushed a lock of hair out of her face and turned, studying his strong profile, and the mass of unruly blonde hair covering his head. "What about y'all?"
"Difficult to say. Part of me is a mind to take off for parts unknown. Another part seems like there might be a lot of opportunity ahead for steady work, assuming they're paying good wages to the workers involved in re-building." He chewed thoughtfully on a reed he'd plucked along the way, and twirled the end between his fingertips.
"Think you'd miss fishing and the docks?" Rachel herself was debating. She'd hoped to make something more of her life than that of a laborer, but she also saw the vast field of opportunity -- a small silver lining to the very black cloud of the storm's devastation. She also thought about the docks, and life on the sea, and the peace of fishing, along with the satisfaction she felt at the end of a good day of it. "Billy. We know Gentry's dead. The docks are a wreck, but they'll repair those right off -- too much of the island's livelihood depends on the freighters being able to get in and out of here. What if you and I start up a fishing business of our own?"
"Now that is tempting, Miz Travis." His eyes twinkled as he gazed out toward the Gulf. "We ran Gentry's boat for him as it is. Only thing wrong is he got most of the profits of the catch. Times are changing, Rachel. Folks are traveling by train and by automobile. I even read about some folks out east trying to build a flying machine. This place " He swept his arm around in an arc. " folks will be flocking to it in years to come, I reckon. Hotels saloons dining establishments. Might be a steady market for a couple of enterprising fishermen."
"My thoughts exactly. Whether we're involved in rebuilding or not, seems like Galveston might be a very good place to make a living." She thought about Mattie, and their walks on the beach when they'd first met, and their special evening out on the fishing boat. "My heart is here. I think Mattie's is too. Betsy and Angel said we could stay with them long as we need to "
"Is the mill area next on your agenda?" He gently cut her off.
"Yes." Her face clouded and she took a long shuddering breath, realizing that they'd reached the edge of what once was the orphanage yard. "Well I'll be." She stopped, turning back and looking down the shoreline. "We've done passed the area where Mattie's house was. Beach is so changed by the storm, I can't even make out any landmarks. It's gone." She squinted, shading her eyes as she studied the long stretch of beach they'd traversed. "I don't think she'll spend too much time grieving over it."
"I can't imagine she has many fond memories of that place." Billy's own face darkened with rage on his friend's behalf.
A tiny smile played at Rachel's lips. "She might have one or two." She glanced up at him just in time to catch a charming blush. "But overall, you're correct. Seems like she's made every effort to leave that part of her life behind."
"You think Adam's dead?" Billy took her arm, guiding her to the wreckage of the building.
"He'd best be." She stopped, looking up at the ruined caved in roof. "Dear lord, what a horror it must have been to be under that when it hit." She stood, hands on hips, looking around at the muck of the yard and several downed palm trees. "He'd best be " she picked up her earlier train of thought. " because if he ever comes near Mattie again, he will be dead in short order."
"I'll help, if you need me," Billy growled. A rustling noise caught their attention, and they made their way closer to the back area of what had been the girls' dormitory. They heard the noise again, coming through a shattered first-floor window. "Hey!" Billy shouted. "Anyone in there?"
Three small faces popped over the edge of the windowsill, as three pairs of eyes grew large. "Miss Rachel?" Albert's hoarse voice cracked, as his face lit up with a very tired smile. "Miss Rachel, have we all died and gone to Purgatory?"
Rachel yelped with joy and ran toward the window. "No. Not at all. Hold on." She took the steps up and leaped across the porch, flinging the remains of the front door open and bursting into the room to be met by an armful of wet, frightened little boys. They almost bowled her over, and she just managed to keep her balance as she knelt down at boys-eye level. "Where were you earlier? Folks have already been by here and thought all y'all were " she trailed off. "Anyone else in here?"
"No'm." Frank's voice was equally hoarse, and his small forlorn eyes looked down. "We's the only ones, Miss Rachel. The sisters, and all the other children -- they done gone and drowned." He sniffled and swiped a hand across his eyes.
"We spent the night in a tree." William eyed the woman curiously. He'd seen her before, but was not as well-acquainted with her as his two survivor friends. "We climbed down after the sun come up and the storm was gone, and come back here to look for breakfast."
"A tree?" Rachel laughed through happy tears. "How'd you end up in a tree?"
"We wasn't tied to the others." Albert unconsciously played with her long braid, tugging it as he talked.
"Tied?" Her face fell. "Oh, of all the ignorant " She could see it in her mind's eye -- a chain of children and nuns all pulled into the storm, one after the other. "The sisters did that? Tied the children all together?"
"Yes'm," Frank answered her. He had fallen back on an old habit, and had to remove his thumb from his mouth to speak. "But Albert told me and Willie not to tie up, so we didn't."
"Smart boy," Billy's voice sounded from the doorway. "You boys want to go for a walk with us?"
"You gots any food?" Albert looked up hopefully, his stomach growling at the thought.
"I imagine we can rustle up something." He looked around the muddy and lop-sided room. "Though probably not here. We're walking on into town a ways, then back to the house we're staying in." He looked at Rachel's face for clues and she smiled, nodding her head. "You boys can come stay with us until we figure out what to do with you. How'd you like to sleep in a nice warm house tonight?"
"Not sleepy." William yawned, despite his answer, and quickly clamped a hand over his mouth. "Leastwise not much."
"Willie is that your name?" Rachel tousled his dark head as he nodded affirmatively, shy eyes blinking behind long lashes. "Willie, even I am sleepy, and I'm an adult. I imagine three boys who spent the night in a tree shouldn't be ashamed of needing a good night's sleep, or even a nap. After we get your bellies full, that is."
"Well " he kicked at the floor with the toe of a well-worn and soggy boot. " guess I might could sleep some later, after breakfast."
"So could I." She stood, crossing her arms over her chest and looking out the window. A chill ran through her, as if a ghost had walked over a grave, and her heart felt heavy in her chest. Her back was to the room, but she could feel four pairs of eyes watching her. She heard Billy's feet, as he moved toward her, and she turned, her jaw clenched tightly. With a toss of her head, she stood up taller, holding out a hand to Albert, as Frank slid in next to her on the other side. "Well, then. Let's go see what we can find at the mills, shall we?"
"Rachel. We don't know "
"Don't." She cut him off, as gently as possible, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "Just don't."
"Don't what, Miss Rachel?" Albert could feel the tremor in her hand, and he squeezed it, smiling when she squeezed back.
"Billy, maybe you should take them back to the house with you. Might not be fitting for them to see anything if "
"And leave you to go looking alone?" Billy tipped his hat back, rocking back on his heels. "Mattie would not be happy with me if I turn back up without you."
"She'll understand, especially when she sees the boys. Tell her " she pursed her lips inward. She could feel the doom ahead. There were some things a person just knew. " tell her I'll be home before nightfall, alright?"
"Nightfall?" Billy frowned at her. "I don't understand. Surely it won't take you that long to find out "
"No." She released the hands of her two charges, giving them a slight push in his direction. "Go on. Go with Billy here. He's my friend, and he's going to take you to my house and get you some breakfast. How does that sound?"
"Breakfast!" Frank's voice cracked with happiness. All three boys had sore throats from being out in the elements, and their cheeks were chapped and red from the night of lashing by wind and rain.
"You gots flapjacks at your house?" Albert tugged at Billy's trousers leg.
"Well, probably nothing quite that fancy, but we do have some apple turnovers, and maybe even some milk. You three, go out on the porch for a minute, and let me talk to Rachel here. I'll be along shortly." He waited, as three small pairs of feet shuffled out the door. They could see them through the window, and being boys, they quickly moved beyond the porch, down to the battered shoreline. Billy studied Rachel for several minutes. Her jaw clenched and she swallowed hard a few times. He'd seen the hardness there before, knowing it for what it was. Rachel was not going to let anyone watch her break down. Not that she was at the breaking point just yet, but if she found what they both feared she'd find
"Rachel." He moved toward her, placing a cautious hand on her back, waiting until he was certain it wouldn't be shrugged away. "You don't have to do this alone. I can flag down someone to take the boys back to the house."
"I have to go, Billy." She turned to face him. "I can't remember how much I've told you. My mother she was a good woman, but there were too many of us at home. I was the oldest, and sometimes there just wasn't enough mothering in her to go around. So I sometimes took that place with my brothers and sisters -- filled in the places that she just didn't have time for. She meant well, but she never understood me. Saw nothing wrong with keeping me out of school to help out at home, and there was this sort of twisted logic -- instead of letting me go when it was my turn, they figured best to let the ones already in school keep going -- just have one ignorant child instead of a bunch of them "
"You're by no means ignorant." Billy rubbed her back in comforting circles.
"Took me a long time to figure out that there was more to intelligence than just book smarts, but anyway " she ran her fingers through her bangs, fluffing them out of her eyes. "My mother, she loved me in her own way -- and in her mind, I was going to do what she did, grow up, get married, and have babies, so the schooling, it weren't so terribly important in her mind. That's a long way of saying that I loved my mother, but she wasn't always much of a mother to me. Betsy and Angel at times they showed me more mothering and concern than I ever got growing up, so yes I have to go do this alone. If it's bad, I need some time to put the pieces back together before I go back to Mattie. And I never was good at pulling myself together if there was someone else around I felt like I had to be strong in front of. Do you understand?"
"You don't have to be strong for me, Rachel." Billy stepped back. "But I do understand, and respect what you want. Just get home as quick as you can. Otherwise you might be having to put Mattie back together twice today. Once over you not being there and again if if your news is bad."
"Good point." She cuffed him on the arm. "Go on, take those little fellows home and feed them, and see if there's any dry beds to be had besides the one in the loft."
"Alright." She looked back out the window. "Albert! You boys get out of that water right now!" Three figures scrambled back to the beach. "My lord." She shook her head. "You'd think they'd had enough of being in the water to last them a lifetime. There's something to be said for how young they are, though. I imagine they saw some pretty terrible things last night, but they'll be fine a lot quicker than any of us will be."
"True." Billy draped an arm across her shoulders, giving her a quick hug before he moved to the door. "Come home, Rachel. Soon," he admonished her. "There are those among the living who are counting on you. Don't forget that."
"I won't." She flashed him a trembling smile, then waited, watching until he and the boys were well on their way, before she finally began the long walk to the mill.
Continued in Chapter 15
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