Quotes from Essence Churning short-story collection with The Companion Book sketchbook project – Post 19:
The rain poured incessantly from the ubiquitous dark clouds and the water’s rise within the walls pushed at her already brimming psyche. She could take no more. Yet still the rushing current of life flowed in overwhelming Mary’s last attempt to cope. Water poured from her eyes as she tried to select a couple precious things to take away with her most precious children—as if more moisture was needed inside the saturated hovel that she called home. She grabbed the photo album of their marriage and family’s first years, though she felt the happiness of that time had been washed away before the flood’s invasive drowning. And she took the book that her mother had bequeathed to her—already warped with Depair’s clammy touch.
“Ruined! It’s all ruined!” she allowed herself to bawl, when she took one last look inside after securing her babes in their child-seats in the Caravan. The high water seeped over the edge of her Wellies on her way to the car, freezing her feet in the filthy slime of devastation as she walked away—leaving it all behind.
The Sheriffs pulled out after her making sure she was moving along the swampy driveway to the main road. She kept going though she felt like pulling to the side and wallowing in the mire of her distress. Kenton had always handled the crises. Now she had to hold herself together for the girls.
She released the girls from their seats at the shelter and gathered them to her along with a bag of groceries from the fridge and the damp books. While she was fussing about the car, subconsciously searching for comfort to bring inside, Haylee burst into wailing tears. Kylee endured the outpouring of her sister’s anguish as she had the in-pouring of the flood waters, with interested silence.
Marietta Holding came out into the rain with two jumbo sized umbrellas and struggled to extend the temporary roofs in the wind while Mary found a hand to pull the howling Haylee in out of the squall. Marietta corralled Kylee ahead of them into the Center.
“So there’ll be three for the night?” the volunteer confirmed.
Mary nodded, feeling their missing fourth gaping like a dark, empty well in her heart.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes. Okay.” She dug through her dewy purse and produced her identity.
Mary had no need to gather the girls this time. They clung around her like nervous ducklings pulled from a pond. The high-ceilinged meeting hall was lined with cots and mattresses on the floor. There was a murmur of desperation as a backdrop to the faces that glanced off of them from around the room—all leaving a ping of Despair from the touch of their same-expressioned eyes. Displaced. Full of weary fear.
Marietta came across like a warm light and introduced herself by name. “Mary,” was all she could manage in return.
“Please put your things down by the spot that looks best. Here, let me carry your bag,” she offered.
“Oh, no.” Mary shrugged away from her. “But thanks.” She was aware she had been ungracious but felt unwilling to let go of the only things she had left.
“Hello, Haylee!” Marietta called enthusiastically. And the upset child ran into her open arms.
Mary shuffled over carrying Kylee on her hip. “I’d like to get them warm and dry,” she told Marietta.
“Of course.” The older woman crinkled her left cheek in an understanding grin. “…Most of the food will be cold, like cereal, but we keep one pot of soup going to help warm everyone through. And you’re welcome to unlimited coffee or tea without a voucher, anytime.”
As Mary listened a large tear welled up and ran down her cheek. She began to breathe raggedly as she suppressed her sobs. She set Kylee on the floor by her sister and pressed her knuckles to her lips.
“It’ll be okay,” Marietta soothed her. “It’s just a short while here. The water will recede and everything will get back to normal.”
Mary sobbed even harder.
“You’ll feel better when you’re dry and fed,” she counseled.
Mary began to heave in great breaths and puff out in gasps. A forlorn groan escaped as she fought the flood of emotion.
Marietta could see her distress was more than she could hold and the dam was about to burst. She stood and caught the woman into her embrace as Mary lost control and cried out her woeful heart. Despair stood at her back, but could not consume them in his deluge as long as Marietta offered Hope’s touch.
“Th..th..thank you.” Mary managed as she stepped back when the inundation was ended. “I…I…There’s so much more…”
“Yes, I can see,” Marietta’s practical face softened. She set a hand on each of the twins’ heads and reassured them with a stroke. “Why don’t you come back and visit with me later after supper. I’ll be here all night. You’re welcome to bring these lovely ladies and sit on my couch for awhile.”
Mary was a bit frightened by the visage she saw in the bathroom mirror when they got their turn for showers. She looked little different before than after—red, puffy eyes and soaked hair—but she felt a lot more stable. The girls went from waifs to wondrous. They were adorable in their donated sweatsuits—one red and one green, like Christmas. Mary was blessed by the gift.
At dinner, the girls opened up and began to giggle. The other refugees from the flood evacuations lit up when they saw the two playing in contented belonging like only twins can. Person after person came over to talk to Mary reaching for the hand of Hope the happy girls provided. But though she smiled at every one who came to them, Mary’s heart was breaking. She had worked so hard to keep their life together and stay on track after Kenton had left them, and she had barely survived. The thought of trying to clean up the havoc wreaked by the waters—having to go through and throw out so much of what she was clinging to, that she had never had a chance to mourn. To really start over. She bit her lip hard, trying to push back the flow that pushed her to cry again.
…. the twins grew quiet, absorbed in playing with the new bear. Mary’s thoughts went inward, and she opened her purse and pulled out the book she had saved. She had never had the time to read it. Her mother left it to her specially, choosing it during the time she fought cancer and knew she was bound to go—just after her beautiful twin grand-daughters were born. Mary turned the warped pages still soft with the moisture they had stored.
Selena grabbed life with two hands, pulling it from the heavens and wrapping it around her dreams. Berinia smiled on her and spilled laughter from its golden vessel to overflow on earth’s child who reached with such vigor for joy. The laughter filled the empty wells that Selena’s tears had sprung from, and her spirit soared. When she alighted, she pulled up buckets full to share with her children—to flood the world with hope.
Mary shut the book. Her pulse had quickened and she felt Hope’s hand on her shoulder. She held the book to her heart as she looked at her girls lying on the makeshift bed together side by side on their backs. Haylee held the bear in the air, and Kylee moved its arms and told a story in the bear’s gruff voice. They erupted in giggles once more.
Marietta startled her slightly as she laughed next to Mary’s bed. When Mary looked up and smiled, she extended her a cup of tea.
“Thanks, and thanks for all you’ve given us today,” Mary gave her as she accepted the pleasant offering. A delicious orange spice aroma surrounded her.
“Ah heck, Sweetie, I don’t give it, I just help pass it along. And I get the best gift of all—happiness.” She laughed out loud again. “I can’t tell you how much joy I feel watching you all warm up into the comfort of this place. The world can be very cold.”
Mary nodded, and her smile flat-lined as Despair’s icy touch piqued her fear and loss.
“Please join me over in my sitting area for awhile,” Marietta invited again. “The girls will be okay over here together. We can see them plain as day.
The girls nodded big exaggerated yeses in unison, and Haylee got back on the bed with her twin.
When they were settled on the couch, Marietta surprised Mary by remaining silent. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she opened the book again. Instead of reading, she said to Marietta, “my mother gave this to me—when she died.”
The older woman nodded quietly. Mary didn’t go on.
“Is that what was breaking your heart in two earlier? Missing your mom?” Marietta’s eyes were soft.
“Well, no. Well maybe that too. It’s just everything.” Tears rose, gently washing Mary’s eyes to a fresh blue. Hope rinsed her heart and eased her pain as she shared it with this kind stranger.
“Floods can make folks mighty hopeless,” Marietta said.
“I think it just brought it all to the surface. You see…” she hesitated. “My husband left us. He…he was overwhelmed by the day in and day out responsibility and reality of raising the twins. He just couldn’t cope. It is really hard, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t even come to see them.” She stopped again, trying to get rid of the choke in her voice. “Kenton sent money, so it wasn’t that, but I could hardly seem to keep our house and home together. Then the storm came, and I was already floundering in the grey deluge when the water level began creeping toward our foundation. I could feel the fear rising as it got closer. I turned off the electricity and wrapped the girls in fleece when the water came into the living room through the glass door. It seemed like my home began melting around me as the dank moisture clung to everything and saturated it to the core. I began to panic as the filthy water saturated the carpet and started up the walls. I felt like I was drowning in my own inadequacy. I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t know what to do. The sheriff showed up at my door about then, and told me to grab my purse and my girls and get out. I didn’t want to abandon my home, but I was helpless to resist.”
Marietta looked at Mary and longed to smooth the lines of stress from her brow. “I’m glad you came. You needed to escape from more than the rain. You’ve been living in a storm for far too long.”
Mary broke down again, but her tears were gentle like a spring rain. “This is the first time I had a moment to read this book my mom left for me. I feel like she gave me a light in the darkness, and I didn’t take the time to turn it on.”
“I can’t think of a more encouraging book that I ever read,” Marietta smiled as she finished the last drop of her tea. “I think I would have liked your mom.”
“She was the best.” Mary’s eyes went distant, but glowed with love.
Marietta took the offered empty cup to bus with hers back to the kitchen. “Sleep well, Mary, and be sure to come and see me before you leave here…and any time.” She smiled at the smooth face of the young woman. Despair had fallen from Mary’s features at least for the night. Marietta turned and hummed her way to the kitchen.
Mary and the girls stayed at the Center of Hope until late the next day when the Sheriff’s department said the water had receded enough for them to go home and access the situation.
“Do you have somewhere to take the girls while you check the house?” Marietta stopped her when she was ready to go.
“No, I was planning to take them with me.” Mary looked down.
Marietta nodded. A knot sat in the center of her usually dancing brows. “We’ll see you later then.”
Mary swung the girls down from the Caravan to the muddy driveway. She took a couple steps onto the spongy lawn and watched as water pooled in her footprints after she reached the stepping stones. “Come on in girls,” she told them. They followed without a peep.
When she opened the door, Mary’s heart dropped into the filthy muck that was once her carpeting. The humidity made her feel like she was breathing under water, and the odor made her worry for the well-being of her girls. She shored up her spirits before she turned to them.
“Okay, girlie-wirlies, we’re gonna play swamp fort. I’m going to set you up on the kitchen counter, and we’ll pretend you’re in a tree house and can’t come down ‘cuz there’s alligators below.”
“Whad’s ali-ga-tor?” Kylee asked.
“Ay-eee,” Haylee roared as she snapped her jaws. She apparently remembered the kid’s show that Mary was thinking of when she came up with the game.
“Ay-eee,” Kylee roared back as Mary lifted her to the counter.
“Ay-eee!” Haylee roared louder as she flew in Mary’s arms through the air to Kylee’s side.
Mary heard them continuing the silly alligator calls as she explored the horrid confines she called ‘home’. She took the Mylar ruler they’d given her at the center and measured up from the floor. “Two inches,” she practiced reporting. That meant she could probably keep the drywall if they dried it before mold set in. She put her hand on the mahogany table she had got from her dad’s side of the family and was reassured by its resting place above the flood’s evidence. Still, avoiding the damage from humidity was a race. She decided to run for help.
“Okay girls,” she said much more cheerfully than she felt. “Let’s go.”
“Ay-eee!” Haylee shouted as Mary set her outside the door.
“Ay-eee!” Kylee shouted in the air. “Al-gator gonna get me!” she protested kicking her legs as Mary tried to put her down on the porch.
“The aligator’s are gone now, Kylee. Mommy won’t let them get you,” Mary assured her, but she kicked and cried until Mary had to hoist her back up and carry her to the car. “Come on, brave Haylee,” Mary extended her hand to drag Haylee along beside them, and she secured them in their seats without their losing any limbs to the swamp critters.
When she arrived back at the Center, Marietta met her personally. “I already lined up cleaners and dryers to meet you by six. I just need to verify and enter your information.” She looked at the page Mary had filled in when she got back to the car with the measurement. “Yup, you’re good to go. And I know you’re going to protest, but I lined up daycare for Haylee and Kylee until midnight. You don’t have to pay. I called in a favor with a friend I’d trust with my firstborn.” She gave Mary her most implacable glare.
“I…Thank you so much, Marietta.” Mary’s shoulders fell a notch with relief. “They may be impossible. I never leave them with anyone.”
“…my firstborn,” Marietta reminded her. “Now scoot back to your house and start moving out whatever good stuff you can salvage… Just be back before midnight, Cinderella, and you and the girls can stay at the Center as long as you need to.”
Mary waved at Marietta as she went out the door back to the Caravan. She felt odd just hopping in and driving off without the ritual of strapping in the girls…she cried herself all the way back home.
Before Mary worked on the house, she cleaned up her tears with some paper towels that had been sealed in plastic…She was making pretty good headway until she found a box of photos that she had forgotten were under the bed. When she peeked inside, she realized it contained her mom’s college portrait and a bunch of shots of her and Kenton’s wedding. The smeared and washed away images stuck together in a horrendous gob brought home the loss she had so little time to mourn. Mary sat up on the discomforting bed and wailed like her two-year-olds.
She was just calming down and had almost caught her breath when she heard a knock at the door…she knew there was no hiding her breakdown.
“Hi, come on in,” Mary said to the two rather tough looking women and the young guy who stood on her porch ready to clean.
“I’ll go back out to the truck and help Kenton with the rest of the equipment,” the guy said to the girls.
Mary’s heart sent up an abrupt flutter at the sound of her ex’s name. She found she hoped it would really be him, and laughed at herself for even thinking such a thing. “What can I do to help?” she asked the women.
She had her head inside the cupboard under the sink, trying to find some more gloves and rags, when she thought she was hearing things.
“Mary?” she heard again.
She bumped her head as she brought it out and met the eyes of the man she had married. “Ow!” she cried out in shock.
“Oh, sorry. Are you okay?” Kenton was genuinely concerned. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to…I mean, I hope it’s okay I came. I work for these guys, and of course I recognized the address and…”
Tears smarted in her eyes. She wasn’t sure whether they were from the bump on the head or the stab to the heart. She was so glad and so upset to see him.
“I can take the truck and go after I give them the equipment. I can send someone else back if you’d prefer…”
She shook back the tears. “No. No. It’s really cool that you’re willing to come…to help. I just wish the girls…” she bit her tongue as her voice gave a wobble.
“You don’t have them here in this mess, do you?” he asked, concerned.
“It’s the best mess I can give them,” her brow knit in pain, trying to hold back the deluge again. “They’re not here,” she managed.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he soothed. Tears were evident in his unsteady voice too. “I thought I could help make things alright again. I can’t live here, but there’s nothing wrong with stopping in. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t do it before. But when the address showed up for flood clean-up assistance, I realized that the girls need me. And I’ll give them what I can.”
“Thanks,” Mary said, mastering her loneliness. “Whatever you can give them will always be appreciated.”
“Let’s get to work then.” He pressed a smile and moved off to help mitigate the damage of the storm.