The Tennessee River has swollen again, and nothing stops it. Not the locks or the dams. Not the TVA. I know that it was different once—that Chattanooga was a crossroads, alive and healthy; a place of promise and opportunity. But like all things left wet for too long, it warps. It rots. And now it would drown us all to keep us.
The great gorge fills, and the city sinks behind me.
In 1973 when the river last rose like this, my aunt Louise was fourteen years old and my mother Leslie was eleven. They lived on the north shore of the city, but this was back before the neighborhoods were renovated into quirky suburbia. There was no sprawling green park or blue-topped carousel with vintage-look horses.
On the very spot where the lion fountains spit water streams in the summer, there once was a closed-up armory. Like all things utilitarian and military, it was gray and smooth with no hint of ornamentation. It was a work building—a barn for the army’s cast-off supplies, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Lu said she never saw anyone come in or out of the place, and so far as the neighborhood kids knew, it was deserted—and therefore a target. This is a story I had to drag out of her throat, word by word.
She’s never liked to talk about my mother.
By the time the girls reached the armory, it had stopped raining and the river lapped up against the rocky bank at the bottom of the short hill. The chain-link fence was twisted open in more than one place, and any of those holes was big enough to fit a teenaged girl through.
It was a neighborhood game: who could get inside fastest, who could find the coolest souvenir. Who could stay inside the longest without getting scared.
“It’s empty,” Lu assured her little sister. “There’s nothing in there but a bunch of old equipment, and most of it’s covered up. I don’t know why you’re so keen to get inside.”
“Because you and Shelly went without me last week.” Leslie sulked, peeling the fence back and holding it tight. “That’s why.”
Lu ducked underneath and took Leslie’s hand to bring her through the hole. “If I’d known you’d make such a stink about it, I’d’ve brought you sooner. Now’s not a good time. It could start raining again any minute, and things are flooding up.”
“It’s got to be now, while Momma’s asleep. You were the dummy who got caught. If you hadn’t got caught, we could go on Sunday.”
“We could still go on Sunday if you really want.”
Leslie sniffed. “Can not. You’re grounded.”
“Only so long as she knows where I’m at.” Lu pointed up at a broken window. “That’s the best way in. There’s—” She cut herself off. A fat raindrop splashed down onto her cheek. “Jeez. Hurry up. It’s starting again.”
Though the girls looked much alike, Lu was the older, taller, and stronger of the pair. Her hair was knotted into black braids and her jeans were ratty around the knees, showing brown skin and scabs where she’d fallen one time too many. She put her shoulder against a sopping wet crate and shoved it hard. It inched its way to a spot beneath the window. “Hang on, it’s high. I’ll get another one so you can step up.”
“No, I got it.” Leslie hoisted herself onto the crate and poked at the broken bits of glass. She glanced down at her cut-off shorts and wished they reached farther down her legs.
“Don’t touch those. Look. Someone reached inside and unlocked it.” Lu pushed the frame and it scraped against the sill. “Hurry up and get inside. Aw, shit.”
“That’s a quarter for the swears jar.”
“Not unless Momma hears me, it’s not. Get in, and get your look around. We’ve got to be fast.”
“Look at the river.”
Leslie glanced over her shoulder, out to the south and to the bridges. “Wow. I’ve never seen it like that before. It’s right at the edge of the building. Usually it stays down by the rocks.”
“Yeah, it does. This is way too high, and I think it’s getting higher. Look at that boat over there. It used to be tied down at the dock. Look where it is now.”
Lu shoved at her sister’s bottom. “Go on. For real.”
“I’m going. What are you, scared?”
“Not of anything inside, no. But I don’t like the look of that water. It shouldn’t be so high.” Even as she spoke, gray waves knocked themselves against the south end of the old armory. They beat a slapdash time there, creeping up along the cinderblock walls.
Leslie’s legs popped over the windowsill and she dropped herself down onto something below. “What’s this?” Her voice echoed loud against the high, corrugated metal ceiling.
“I don’t know. Something to step on. Climb on down, if you’re going to. It’s raining again out here, and I’m getting soaked. And the river . . . I don’t like the look of it. It’s too full. And . . .”
Lu murmured the rest. “And I don’t think it’s supposed to be that color.”
“It’s always sort of gray and blue. Maybe it’s just the clouds or something.” Lu slung her leg past the broken glass and climbed inside to stand beside Leslie. Together they were perched atop another set of boxes, or possibly a large piece of machinery—it was something covered with a khaki-colored canvas that was thick like a tent.
Leslie stamped her feet. “It feels solid.”
“It is solid. Look at all the footprints on this thing. We do this all the time. Come on down then, if you’re coming. Let’s get this over with. The river’s rising, and Momma won’t sleep forever.”
“Shelly will cover for us.”
“She’ll try.” Lu hopped down to the cement floor and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “But there’s no telling if it’ll work or not. I’m grounded, remember?”
“Forever and a day. Do you think she meant it?” Leslie stepped down beside her, and copied Lu’s hand-wiping gesture.
Lu shrugged. “Probably. But that don’t mean she can make it stick. Well, this is it. You happy now?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “I guess. It’s dark in here. Did you bring a light?”
“No. It’s still daytime. We don’t need a light. Your eyes’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll walk you through and then we’ll leave and you won’t make a big stink about it anymore. Deal?”
“The whole thing. I want to see everything you got to see with Shelly.”
“Fine, yeah. The whole thing. But we’re going to do it fast.”
By then the rain was not so much falling as plummeting. Louder and louder it came down, and Leslie was right—it was dark inside, despite the afternoon hour. Within the disused armory, all the space was filled with veiled gear and shrouded military tackle. From floor to ceiling the ghostly monsters stood still and silent, lumpy and lame.
“What’s underneath the sheets?” Leslie wanted to know, but Lu didn’t know and nobody else did either.
“Stuff. Army stuff. Big machines and trucks. Boxes of junk. Most of those sheets are tied down, and it’s too hard to pull them up.”
“What? I can’t hear you.”
The rain was too much, the echo was too hearty. Water poured onto the old metal roof as if the river had overturned to empty itself. It drove so steady that the sound fuzzed out to a harsh white noise.
“Hurry up,” Lu said, ignoring Leslie’s request to repeat herself.
“We’re going to have to ride our bikes home in this, aren’t we?”
“It’s only getting worse. This is stupid. Les, this is stupid.”
“Not getting scared, are you?”
Lu looked back up at the window, and down at the floor. “Les, the water’s coming in. We’ve got to go.”
“Shit,” the younger girl whistled, lifting her sneaker up and splashing it back down.
“Quarter for the swears jar.”
“Not if Momma doesn’t hear it, right?”
They stared back and forth at each other, and held their breath while the sky dropped down outside. “Les. Let’s go. It’s not letting up. It’s just getting worse.”
“Can’t get much worse.”
Lu took Leslie’s wrist and tugged her back towards the window. Leslie’s token resistance was feeble. “We can’t ride in this weather. Maybe if we wait it’ll let up,” she protested, but the water was climbing up her ankles, and the fight was leaving her.
The older girl reached the makeshift exit first and scaled the now-soaked tarp with a couple of well-placed footholds. She used her arm to shield her eyes from the blowing rain that gushed through the broken window.
Leslie prattled on below. “We’re going to have to run for it. We’ll have to walk the bikes and we’re going to get wet in the rain.”
“Jesus, Les,” Lu said. “We’re going to have to swim for it.”
“What? Don’t say that. It’s just rain.”
“No, it’s not just rain.”
“It is rain—I’m standing in it right now!”
“No, Les. It’s the river.”
More water squeezed through the cracks beneath the doors, and the tide crawled up past nervous ankles, past the hems of jeans, up along skinny shins. “Lu? Lu, I don’t like this. Lu?”
“I don’t like it either. Get out of that water. Get up here, now. Come on. You’ll catch cold.” She sent down one hand and Leslie grabbed it, pulling herself up.
“Let me see out the window.”
“No. It’s just water, but it’s coming up fast and I bet we don’t have bikes anymore anyway. They probably washed away by now.”
“You’re just trying to scare me,” Leslie accused, but she didn’t push past Lu to look outside. She reached down to her feet and squished her shoes to let out some of the water. She twisted the bottom of her jeans and wrung out more. “It’s getting cold in here. And the water—where’s it all coming from, Lu?”
“What? Be quiet, I’m trying to think.”
“Lu, look at the floor. Lu, look at the floor.”
“I’m looking! I see it, okay? I see how the water’s coming up.”
A loud creak popped through the hideous white noise of the hammering rain.
Leslie jumped and scrambled higher, to stand just below her sister. “What was that?”
“How should I know? Stop it, you’re panicking. Don’t panic. It’s just water. It’s just water.”
“It’s a lot of water.”
“But we’re on top of all this stuff. We’re real high up. It won’t reach us. When it stops raining, it’ll all run back down to the river, that’s what it’ll do. It can’t rain forever. Maybe we’ll even find our bikes. Maybe Momma won’t kill us.”
“You’re going to be grounded until you’re dead.”
“Get on up here.”
Leslie squeaked with alarm, and pointed back at the ground. “It’s still getting higher!”
“Well it’s not going to get as high as the roof or anything. There’s—there’s an attic, Shelly said. She went up there with a boy once, but don’t tell her I told you about it.”
“I don’t know. One of ’em. Just, come on. We can climb across these, over to the other side—I think that’s it, that’s the attic door in the ceiling, see it?” They were both getting drenched, standing beside the open window. Lu took Leslie’s face in her hand and directed it to a handle above them, across the armory space.
“I see it. Yeah. We can make that, can’t we?”
“We can make it.” But the water was rising still, filling up the spaces between the cloaked machines. A foot at a time it crawled the walls, so fast that if Lu picked a spot on the wall to stare at, she could count to ten and watch it disappear. At the window the rain was finding easy entry, and the river was waiting its turn.
“This is bad, isn’t it?” Leslie fretted. She stood close to her sister and shivered.
“It’s not that bad. Here. Stretch your legs, you can make that next stack—see? Just crawl and be careful. You won’t fall. You go first. I’ll help you.”
“You go first.”
“All right. We’ll do it that way, then.” Lu reached out one long arm and snagged the tightly-fitted tarp on the next pile of junk over. By shifting her weight she closed the distance and grabbed a handful of canvas, using it to haul herself over. She extended her hand back to Leslie. “Here—come on. I’ll pull you.”
Leslie nodded and held out her hand. She let her sister heave her across, and when she arrived on the new spot, she clung to the heap and dug her fingers into its bulk. “Only one more, right?”
“Just one more. Then we’ll be right under the attic, and I’ll pull the door down so we can go up inside. It’ll be drier there. We’ll be safe for a long time. Long enough for the rain to stop and the water to go down, anyhow.”
“Okay. Okay. Don’t let go of my hand.”
“I’ve got to for a second. The next one’s closer, see?” Lu only leaned to reach the second stack of covered military detritus. She could span the gap between them if she stretched her legs apart, so she made herself a bridge and let the smaller girl scramble across her body. “Now give me your hand again.”
She didn’t need to ask twice. Leslie thrust her fingers into Lu’s. “I’m getting scared.”
“That’s okay. This is kind of scary. But don’t freak out on me. Freaking out only makes it worse.” Lu reached for the metal latch above her head and gave it a good yank. The ceiling held, and groaned.
“You’ll have to—Les, put your arms around my waist. Pick your feet up, yeah. Like that. I’m not heavy enough. Pick up your feet. There, that’s it.” Combined, their weight pulled against the springs and coils above, and the hatch reluctantly slumped down with a jerky flop. A ladder on a set of rollers followed it. Lu grabbed the bottom rung and pulled.
“It’s dirty up there.”
“It’s dirty and wet down here. Go on. I’ll hold the door down, you go up the steps.”
“You go first.”
“I can’t. You’re not heavy enough to hold the door down. Just go. I’m right behind you.”
“You better not be fooling me.”
“I’m not fooling you.” Lu’s arms shook as she held the door low enough for Leslie to scale. Beneath them, the water soaked its way up the veiled machines, rising foot by frightening foot. By Lu’s estimation, if they’d stayed on the floor it would have been up to her little sister’s waist; but she also knew that on the other side of the window, more water waited. The whole river was knocking, asking to come inside—and it had shown up quick on the doorstep. She’d sworn the flood wouldn’t make it to the armory’s old roof, but she wasn’t as sure as she pretended.
Later she would learn that a dam somewhere up river had failed, and that’s why the water had come so high, so fast. And later, it was easy to say that if she’d only known, she never would have brought her sister out to explore.
But back then, as the afternoon grew late and the sky went dark and the Tennessee River oozed up out of its bed, Lu could only work with the decisions she’d already made. She pushed at Leslie’s feet, then scurried up after her.
With the weight of the girls removed, the door clapped itself shut into the floor behind them.
“It’s dark up here,” Leslie whispered, because big, dark places made her think of church.
“You said it was dark down there.”
“Well, it’s even darker up here.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
The attic was as dirty as Leslie had declared, and darker than Lu was willing to admit. Rain noise was louder there too, since nothing but the thin metal roof separated the girls from the sky.
Lu peeled off her sweater and wrapped it around Leslie, who was wetter and colder, or so it seemed. “Don’t touch the pink stuff in the floor,” she said, pointing to the half-finished floors. “It’ll make you itch, or that’s what Shelly said. It’s insulation. Walk on the boards in between them, if you can.”
“Okay.” On shaky legs Leslie did as she was told, struggling to stand astride the beams that would hold her. “This sucks. We can balance up here above the itchy pink stuff, or balance down there above the water.”
Lu lifted her voice to be heard above the battering rain. “The pink stuff is warm, at least, and it won’t drown you if you sit in it too long. So I’ll take the pink stuff, if it’s all the same to you. Let’s go back there—the floor’s more covered. Less pink stuff to worry about.”
Together they tiptoed across the wood planks and dodged curtains of cobwebs, Leslie going first with Lu’s hands on her shoulders. If either of them had been any taller, they would’ve had to crouch. But as it was, both of them could lift their hands and brace themselves on the underside of the roof.
Leslie coughed and wiped at her face. “It smells gross up here.”
Down by one of Lu’s feet, curled in a pink, fluffy bed, the remains of a rat lay decomposing. “It’s just . . . old stuff. Old places. They smell like this, after a while. Don’t worry about it. Keep going.”
When they reached the back corner they sat down, curling their arms and legs until they folded around themselves, and around each other. “I’m cold,” Leslie complained, but Lu knew she was mostly just afraid and didn’t want to say so.
“Yeah, it’s chilly in here. But you’ll warm up as you dry off.”
Down came the rain and washed out all the other sounds except for the occasional cracking, creaking complaint of the old armory. But the armory was built to last. It would not fall, it would only fill.
Night settled in early because of the weather, and the rain kept coming.
Antsy and damp, the girls huddled close without speaking much. Once it was dark there was no sense in speaking. There was no reason to talk about heading home; the only real question was when to start shouting for help. The time hadn’t come quite yet—there was a balance that must be tipped. Their fear of their mother had to be outweighed by their fear of being trapped, and for a long time the fear of their mother won out.
Lu also thought that if they stayed missing long enough, there might be a chance that parental relief would be great enough to overrule parental retribution. Her hopes weren’t high, but she was running low on hope as the night dragged on, so she clung to what she could get.
Lulled by the violent downpour and its insistent beat on the metal roof, eventually the sisters dozed.
But they awoke with a jolt and grasped at each other’s arms.
“What was that noise?” Leslie demanded, though she knew her sister didn’t know any better than she did.
The noise sounded again and they were both awake enough to hear it clearly. It was something hard and knocking. Something dense and thick, with deliberate intent.
“Somebody’s there?” Lu guessed. “I don’t know. It sounds like . . .” She hesitated, listening hard.
There, again. Another blow. This one made their bottoms jump.
Leslie breathed faster. “Somebody’s right underneath us. I think.”
“Not somebody? Maybe something floating.” Lu knew as soon as she said it that she shouldn’t have.
“What? You think the water’s got that high?” There was the panic again. “Floating up so high that it hits against the ceiling underneath us? You don’t really think—”
Lu thought of the river outside the window, and how it boiled at the walls of the armory. She believed yes, that the water could get that high; and she figured that yes, something must be floating up to the ceiling in the hollow space below. But to say so meant that her sister must know it too; and though she was not such a nervous little sister as little sisters went, ten or twelve feet of water underfoot might be enough to send anybody into a fit.
But there wasn’t much point in denying it. The banging continued faster, or maybe only in more places. Maybe it came from more than one—crate? machine? At least that’s what it sounded like to the girls, who crushed their bodies against each other, trying to be small, and trying to be blind.
Lu said she didn’t really want to know. Leslie didn’t either, and that was why she let Lu cover her eyes with a sleeve, even though there wasn’t anything to see.
There was plenty to hear, from every direction all at once.
“What is that?” Leslie groaned again, her head buried in the crook of her sister’s neck. It did not occur to either of them to call out for help. Whatever was bungling and bumping its way along the ceiling was not friendly, and it was not helpful.
“Shhh—” Lu told her, and she rocked her back and forth.
Pound, pound, pound went the noise until it was louder than the rain had ever gotten, though less rhythmic.
“Oh shit, Lu. You know what they are.”
“They’re hands, aren’t they? Listen, do you hear them? Listen, Lu. They’re hands. But they ain’t alive anymore.”
“Shush up. Stop talking.”
Leslie lifted her head and narrowed her eyes. “I can hear them. Can’t you? Don’t you hear what they’re trying to say?”
“No, and you can’t either. Hush it, would you?” Lu tried to force her sister’s head back down but Leslie wouldn’t let it go.
“But that door is really heavy, ain’t it? They won’t be able to pull it down, I don’t think. Not unless the water gets higher, and, listen, it’s stopped raining.”
She was right. The sudden quiet threw into sharp relief the dull staccato beneath the floor where they sat.
“Be quiet, Les. For Jesus’ sake, shut up. You want them to hear you?”
“Who cares?” she said, and the eerie, knowing glare she gave to Lu made her stomach knot and sink. “Can’t you tell? They already know we’re here.”
But the door was heavy, and it held. And by the time the first hint of dawn came creeping down the Tennessee River gorge, the water was retreating its way back to the river’s bed. Though they wouldn’t open the attic door, the girls shouted out to police when they heard the sirens, and when the man with a megaphone called to them from a small, flat boat.
They were home by breakfast, but all of their mother’s worry didn’t keep the pair of them from being grounded indefinitely.
And late at night, while her little sister slept, Lu listened for the hammering of the searching hands. She never heard it again, but Leslie dreamed of it for weeks—whispering frantic prayers into her pillow between twilight and dawn.
Tell the burned-up man it was all a mistake. Tell him it was all a mistake.
Copyright © 2007 by Cherie Priest. All rights reserved