By Sarah (McClintock) Angleton (Sarah Angleton currently lives and writes in Missouri, but is proud to have been born and raised in Jacksonville. Her short fiction has most recently been appeared in the anthology Coffee & Critique. She blogs at sarah-angleton.com.)
Tiny hairs rose on the back of my neck as I listened to the crack of thunder outside my bedroom window. It was one of this early springtime days that wasn’t quite warm, but which carried within its dense atmosphere the promise of hot sticky days to come.
I’d always liked storms. I found a certain comfort in the rhythm of the raindrops, in the low-lying clouds drawn close over my world like a worn, hand-sewn quilt. Rainstorms meant my busy family gathered together, taking shelter in our cozy, South Jacksonville home, wondering if the lights would go out, or if the tondo siren would wail. In heavy rains, our basement would begin oozing trickles of water that flowed to the drain in the middle of the concrete floor. In response, we would quickly work together making sure boxes of family keepsakes were removed from harm’s way.
But there are a dew storms I remember less fondly. One I vividly recall occurred when I was eight, old enough to think rationally, but still young enough to be easily frightened by my own wild imagination.
The school day had ended and I was home with my older brother, Robb, who was thirteen at the time. Mom was still at work, teaching a class at Illinois College. My older brother was already away at the University of Illinois by then. My sister, a senior at JHS, would arrive home later with dad, who taught at the school.
I played happily by self, dressing my dolls, occasionally pausing to look out the window at the swaying and bending trees in the increasing wind. The knock on my door came only a second after I heard the siren. I didn’t have time to answer because Robb burst into my room, his face a pale mask of panic.
“To the basement. Now!” He barked his order, as insistent as a drill sergeant, though he didn’t need to. I was an old hand at tornado alarms, coached from birth that my stuff wasn’t as important as my safety. I dropped my dolls and ran out of the room past my brother.
We were in the basement in under a minute, leaping over the rivulets snaking across the floor and hunkering down in the windowless area behind the stairs that Dad used as a kind of indoor workshop for helping with school and Scout projects.
Then the phone rang.
Robb looked at me, his eyes wide with fear. “Should I answer?”
That he might expect his little sister to know what to do this situation both surprised and frightened me. All I could think to say was, “Well, I’m not going to answer it.”
Robb gave the slightest of nods, and raced back up the stars, tracking water from the basement floor as he went. I heard him answer and talk for what felt like an eternity before he came poising back down the stairs.
“It was Mom,” he said, breathless, as he wriggled into our safe space, much closer to me than either of us would have found acceptable under normal circumstances. But, this wasn’t a normal circumstance. This was a full-fledged emergency.
“What did she day?” My voice sounded small and I had begun to shiver.
“The brook is flooded. She can’t get across town.” He paused, emphasizing his next words. “We are on our own.”
His words echoed in my head, dread seeping into me, threatening to flood my thoughts with terror. I knew heavy rains often caused the brook to flood and become impassable, effectively dividing the town into north and south. I also knew that it sometimes took hours for the water to recede.
“What else did she say?” My voice was tinged in not just fear, but anger at the injustice of the situation. I might lie for hours in the rubble of our splintered home with only my dopey brother for company as we awaited rescue.
“Well,” he said, “I told her that the siren was going off and she yelled at me to hang up the phone, grab you, and get to the basement.”
That sounded sensible to me, and it calmed me to know that my mother understood the desperation of our situation. I told myself we’d be okay and this would all be over soon.
“I just hope she doesn’t drown.”
That was exactly the kind of thing Robb would say. One afternoon, when I had been playing at a friend’s house in our neighborhood, my mom walked over to tell me it was time to come home. She and my friend’s mom started chatting. I guess she was away from the house for fifteen or twenty minutes. While she was gone, Robb came home on his bike and found the doors unlocked with no one at home. He panicked, grabbed his Red Ryder and searched the house. When my mom and I walked in, he met us a gunpoint, livid because we had worried him so.
I knew he had the tendency to let his imagination get the best of him. And so when he said, “I just hope she doesn’t drown,” I should have been able to shrug it off.
Except I was eight.
Instead, I asked, “What do you mean? Why would she drown?”
His voice was eerily calm, very matter-of-fact, as if he’d already worked out the whole scenario in his mind and knew how we would survive it. “Floods are dangerous. If she tried to drive across to us, she could get swept away. They might not even find her body for weeks.”
Suddenly I was no longer nervous about the raging tornado or angry to be stuck in the basement with my brother. All I could think about was my mother being sucked out of her car and dragged miles and miles through the raging current of the swollen brook. I just knew they would discover her mangled body thrown onto the muddy banks when the rain finally stopped.
As if reading my mind, my brother thoughtfully offered, “I bet she ends up in the parking lot of Jolly Tamale. Maybe Dad will find her on his way home.”
I punched him.
The sirens had long since died down and when we peeked through the high half-windows on the other side of the basement, we saw blue sky. Our house still stood, as did all the houses in our neighborhood. The funnel cloud never touched the ground and aside from a few downed branches and a little muddy cleanup, the town was unaffected by the storm.
It was another couple of hours before the flood waters receded enough for my dad, and sister to make it across town. On their way, they did spot my mom pulling out of the parking lot at the Jolly Tamale where she’d picked up dinner. She followed them south on Main Street and into our driveway, completely unharmed.
“Robb,” I said, looking at my brother, who I’m happy to report is now a very responsible adult, who put his vivid imagination to much better use than terrifying small children, “Next time there’s storm, I’m in charge.”
The Town Brook Initiative of the Jacksonville Parks Foundation held a Town Brook History Contest in an effort to help reconnect the community to its waterways. The Jacksonville community has a long history and a myriad of connections with Mauvaisterre Creek and its urban tributary the Town Brook. The town grew up near its banks; the creek was used as a byway for travelers on the Underground Railroad; its waters were dammed to provide a water supply to support development; generations of kids grew up playing in the brook – hunting for snakes, looking for crawdads, exploring its banks. The stories, along with others, will be part of Brook Tales – a play written by Ken Bradbury and performed by his Lincoln Land Community College class. Performances May 17-18 (Saturday & Sunday) will benefit the Town Brook Initiative. Click the History tab to find out more, or to submit your story to the history project.