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Nine

The jangling phone jolted him to consciousness. Nate. “Hello.”

“Bill, I’m at the hospital.”

Mindy’s strained voice pulled him upright. He turned on the light. “How bad is it?”

“Not as bad as last time, I think. He asked me to bring him.”

Last time Nate had refused to go until Bill threatened to pick him up and carry him. “Well, that’s something,” Bill said. “What does the doctor say?”

“They’re still assessing. But I’m sure they’ll admit him.”

“They’ve never not admitted him. What about Alex?”

“I took her next door. She hardly even woke up.”

“She’ll like waking up at Libby’s house.” When she was little she’d thought it was a game they played with her, taking to her best friend’s house while she slept. She was older now, though. She might see the pattern—when they took her to Libby’s in the night, they weren’t home in the morning because they’d taken Nate to the hospital.

“I’ll try to be there when she wakes up,” Mindy said, “if I can talk to the doctor before then.”

“I’ll get a flight as soon as I can.” He was sorry he had left Memphis. Now it would take him an extra couple of hours to get to the airport. Bill hung up the phone with a sigh. Nate, Nate, Nate.

Then he remembered Margaret. He could not just disappear in the middle of the night. Bill dialed her cabin and woke his sister. She insisted on coming over.

“It’s raining again,” she said as she traipsed through the door in a bathrobe and sneakers.

Bill hadn’t noticed. “I’ve got to call the airline.”

“I’ll make coffee.” Margaret moved toward the small pot and pouched coffee that Bill had left untouched since his arrival. A few minutes later, he heard the gizmo gurgling appropriately.

“Yes, I need to change my flight arrangements. … Memphis … Cleveland on Monday. Now I need to go to Denver today. … Yes, today. As soon as possible, actually. Family emergency. … But this is an emergency. My son is seriously ill. … Are you sure? … One storm did all that … Oh, another storm now … There must be something you can do … I see. I understand.” He rattled off the motel’s phone number. “If I don’t hear from you, I’ll call back.”

Margaret handed him a cup of coffee and raised an eyebrow.

Bill shook his head. “The storm yesterday canceled a lot of flights in and out of Memphis.”

“Yes, it was even worse there than it was here.”

“I didn’t know that. Now the airlines are all backed up. They don’t have the right planes in the right places, and they have too many people who want to get on the ones they have. And now another storm is starting.”

“So … ?“

“So they won’t fly even the planes they have with this much lightning in the sky. So they’re just backing up even more.”

“They didn’t offer you anything at all?”

“She gave me a number to call on Sunday.” Bill ran a hand through his hair.

“Today’s Saturday.”

“Therein lies the problem, my dear sister. It gets worse. The Sunday plane is overbooked as it is. I’m supposed to wait for them to let me know if there’s really a seat for me. But probably there won’t be anything until Monday.”

“Maybe you should just go camp out at the airport.”

“They specifically discouraged that. So many people are stranded already.”

“We could wait at my house. Closer to the airport.”

“Yes, I suppose that would make sense.” After breakfast, maybe. They had nothing to keep them in Morrowville.

“Drink your coffee, Billy Byler. It’s getting cold.”

He nodded obediently and sat down on the edge of the bed, cup in hand. “You’d think this would be old hat by now. He’s been in the hospital so many times.”

“When your child is sick, it’s never old hat.” Margaret moved a curtain to look out the window. “The rain’s getting harder.”

“Do you know he doesn’t even like us to stay with him in the hospital at night anymore? Not since he was about twelve. So we go home, sometimes, but still only one of us sleeps at a time. If you call it sleep.”

“I suppose it’s too early to get a weather forecast on the television.” Margaret was still staring out the window into glimmering blackness.

“I remember once when he was two. We were walking around the neighborhood, and he was picking up stones and sticks and meticulously arranging and rearranging them in his pockets. I started thinking it would be fun to take him backpacking when he got a little older. Twelve hours later, we were in the ER.”

“Did you ever go backpacking?”

Bill shook his head. “Just day outings. I was afraid to be that far from a hospital.”

“I suppose you don’t remember the time Charlie took you hiking along the White River. You can’t have been more than three and a half, and he was in high school, but he wanted to take his brother fishing. Promised Mama he’d bring home enough dinner for all of us.”

“Really? No, I don’t remember.”

“Mama never forgot. Charlie brought you home drenched. You got a surprise bite, and it pulled you off balance and into the water. You were a stubborn fool even as a child. You wouldn’t let go of the pole. Charlie fished you out instead of bringing home dinner.”

“You’d think I would remember something like that.”

“You were so little. And if I know Charlie, he made it sound like a game so you wouldn’t be scared enough to remember.”

Bill wished he could remember. “Until you have your own kids, you don’t understand why your parents fuss as much as they do,” Bill mused. “If something like that happened to Nate or Alex … .”

Lightning split through the cabin, followed immediately by the shudder of thunder. They both startled, Margaret flinching away from the window.

“I guess we can’t get any closer to the center of this storm,” Margaret observed.

“That does not bode well for getting a flight,” Bill said.

“Think positive.”

He wasn’t sure he remembered how to do that.

“Nate made up a play about that once,” Bill said. “He was nine or ten, and he wrote this elaborate script about everything bad that could happen to his main character. He rounded up half the kids in the neighborhood to play the parts and set up a stage in the backyard.”

“Was his character sick?” Margaret ventured.

“No, not at all. He tripped on a banana peel and lost a hundred dollars he’d won in a contest and threw up his favorite lunch and stuff like that. But he never stopped smiling. Nate had painted a big clown smile on his face, but even without it we got his point.”

“Like I said, think positive.”

“As I recall, he ended up in the hospital not long after that production.”

“Billy Byler, that’s enough of that nonsense!”

Bill chuckled. “Okay, okay. But I’m still fifteen hundred miles away from my son while he can’t breathe, lying in a hospital bed. There’s still a thunderstorm, probably a whole string of them across the Tennessee Valley. Mindy has been up two nights in a row now—she’s got to be exhausted. Alex is going to wake up in a different bed than the one she went to sleep in. And I picked this time to come to Morrowville. You tell me how that makes any sense at all.”

He hung his empty coffee cup on one finger and put his head in his hands, sighing heavily. “I’m glad you’re here, Margaret.”

“We’ll figure this out.” She looked toward the window again. “This sludge was a pretty poor excuse for coffee. I think I’ll go out and see if I can’t find us the real stuff, maybe some breakfast to go with it.”

“It won’t be light for another two hours, and it’s pouring down rain,” Bill protested. “Let’s wait awhile and go out together.”

“Since when do you think a little rain is going to stop me when I’ve made up my mind?” She was already on her feet. “I’ll have to get dressed, I suppose. You stay here and wait for the early morning weather report, and I’ll get us some grub.”

“Margaret, really—“

“Billy Byler, don’t you argue with me.”

“No, ma’am,” he said in reflexive. “I wouldn’t think of such a thing.”

“That’s better.”

“But you’re a lot more like Mama than you like to admit.”

“Billy Byler, I just may forget your half of the grub.”

He did not like that she had gone, the weather being what it was, but Bill knew better than to try to stop her.

He tracked down Mindy at the hospital. Years of experience had revealed all the tricks to finding each other in odd places. She was still in the ER, and one of the nurses called her to the desk to take his call. She took the news of his flight trouble calmly, as she did everything. It took a lot to fluster Malinda Byler. Before Nate was born, Bill could not have known how much he would come to admire that quality. She wanted him there, at Children’s Hospital in Denver, but she did not fall apart because he could not get there. Nate was in the middle of a nebulizer treatment, and they would probably start antibiotics soon. Mindy was going to stay to see him settled in a room, then go home to Alex for a couple of hours.

“I shouldn’t have been traveling,” Bill said flatly.

“You have to make a living, Bill. He was fine when you left.”

“I’m going to look for a new job.”

“Whatever. Don’t decide that now. How’s Margaret?”

“So you knew she was coming?”

“I told her you were there. I can’t control what she does with the information.”

Bill almost heard a chuckle in his wife’s voice. “You did this on purpose,” he said.

“You’re glad she’s there, and you know it, even if Nate were fine.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs, it’s practically still the middle of the night, and she insisted on going out for coffee.”

“She’ll find it. She knows where all the old haunts are, the ones you forgot were ever there.”

“We’ll probably check out in a few hours and go to Margaret’s to wait for a flight.”

Mindy promised to call with an update later, and they hung up. Bill watched the clock, wondering if Margaret had found anything open. After a while, he turned on the television. It was Saturday, so there wouldn’t be any network morning news shows. He just hoped for a weather report, and he found one crawling across the screen below a syndicated talk show. Bill muted the sound and read the scroll. “Heavy thunderstorm warnings in effect from Little Rock to Memphis. Use caution when driving. Reports of rural bridges being washed out. Check flight status before going to airport. Many flights cancelled or delayed.”

Bill’s mind indexed the route between Morrowville and Memphis. Were there any bridges that might be washed out? Surely not, but Margaret would know for certain.

Where was Margaret, anyway?”

Ten

August 1942

I slept real well that night, in my own bed. Mama didn’t much like the idea, but Charlie stuck to his guns and made himself a place to sleep on the screen porch. He said that he’d slept in a lot worse places. Mama didn’t like the thought of that, either. All I know is that I was glad to be back in my bed, and it made Charlie seem like not such a bad guy after all.

Folks at the Baptist church we went to every Sunday were sure glad to see Charlie that morning. Mama had been telling everybody for weeks that he was coming, and Elizabeth was acting like nobody had ever seen a Navy uniform before. This time I reminded her that we were at war, so what was so amazing about a fella in a uniform? There was an Army base not that far away. I’d seen the soldiers come to Morrowville looking for girls on Front Street. I’d even seen my sisters looking back at them when Mama couldn’t see. Elizabeth just mumbled something about how I was too young to understand the patriotic significance of a uniform. She never thought of me as anything but a baby, I guess. But it didn’t really bother me. If I’d let all the stupid stuff she said bother me, I would have gone nuts a long time ago. Anyway, it was hot at church, and I was glad when the preacher said the last amen.

As soon as we got home from church, I yanked off my long blue pants and white shirt and got into my shorts. We were all headed out to the Island, where my Grandma Goodman lived. Technically it wasn’t really an island, but it was a chunk of land that stuck out into the river far enough that it felt like an island, so everyone had always called it that. Grandma had lived out there since a year or two after she married, and nobody could convince her to move into town, even though Grandpa had passed on when I was really little. My mama was always carrying on like Grandma was all alone on the Island, and I never understood that, because Randy and his mama and daddy were out there.

Randy was almost exactly my age, and we were the best of friends. I loved to go out to the Island. Grandma Goodman was a lot of fun, and I got to see Randy, too. She’d take us fishing out on the river or just sit and talk like most grownups didn’t have time for. Sometimes Randy would come back into town with me for a few days, especially in the summer. His granddaddy had worked for my granddaddy, and now his daddy was out on the Island working for Grandma, doing whatever needed doing, tending a few crops and looking after the animals. Randy didn’t have any sisters to bother him, but he saw mine enough to understand why I wanted to get away once in a while.

It made Mama kind of nervous that Randy was colored. In Arkansas in 1942, there wasn’t much mixing of coloreds and whites, especially in town. I never could figure Mama out about that. In her head she knew Randy and his mama and daddy were just like the families in our neighborhood. She even liked to sit and work on her quilt patterns with Randy’s mama. But there was always that expression on her face that looked like maybe she wasn’t all too sure. She liked Randy well enough and was glad that I had a friend out on the Island. It was plain to see that he was a nicer boy than Bobby and Jerry Runyan. But when he came into town to stay overnight, she was nervous for days and made a point of making sure everyone who saw us knew that his daddy worked for my Grandma and they would all say how generous she was to invite him into town. Somehow that made it all right in Mama’s mind.

We got out to the Island just in time to see Grandma Goodman rounding up the chickens she was planning to fix for Sunday dinner. The chicken yard was not too far from the back porch. Grandma was past sixty, which to me seemed really old, but she got out there in the yard every Sunday with those chickens and grabbed for them just as quick as anyone I ever knew. That Sunday she wanted three. With a flip of the wrist she wrung their necks. They flopped around for a while like they always did, and when they stopped she dropped them into the big black iron washing kettle with a fire under it to keep the water boiling. She dunked them and got started plucking. It was kind of interesting to watch, but the best part was eating the chickens after she fried them up. No one in the whole county made fried chicken as good as my Grandma’s.

I went looking for Randy soon after I got there, and I didn’t have to look far. He was hanging onto the back fence waiting for me.

“Did da sailor boy come wid ya’ll,” he asked.

“Yeah, he’s here,” I answered. “He ain’t so bad, really.” I could hardly believe I was saying that, but it was true, whether I liked it or not.

“How long he gonna be home?”

“Three weeks, I think. Or till he gets orders where to go next.”

“Ain’t they decided that yet?”

“It’s the war, ya know,” I said seriously. “Ain’t nobody can be sure what’s gonna happen next.”

Neither of us really understood much about the war. We hardly even knew where Europe was, or Japan. My teacher last year in school always had a geography map up on the wall, particularly after Pearl Harbor, but somehow those places never seemed real no matter how many times she made us find them. Of course Charlie wasn’t the only guy from town to be in the service, especially since we joined the war. We’d seen men home on leave all the time. So what if we could find Germany on a map on the classroom wall; the borders outlined in pink made the countries look like such tiny little places so far away that it was hard to understand why the United States was even involved in the war.

“What’s Charlie think about the war?” Randy asked.

“Don’t know. Ain’t asked him.”

“Ain’t nobody asked him?” Randy knew how curious my sisters were.

“Don’t know. I ain’t paid no attention.”

“Oh, well.” Randy shrugged his shoulders. I guess he wasn’t all that interested either. “Let’s go swimming.”

We ran down the hill to the makeshift dock, pulling our shirts off over our heads just in the nick of time before leaping off the pier and into the water. On a hot day, the water was deliciously cool and we thrashed around furiously, coming up for quick gasps of air and turning our faces to the sun. Randy and I had learned to swim together; I could hardly remember a time swimming in the river without him there beside me. The rest of the family seemed content up near the house, and we were thrilled to be on our own in the water.

Eventually we had to slow down and catch our breath for real. We floated limply in the water on our backs, our heads bobbing gently and soothingly.

“Here dey come,” Randy said.

“Who?”

“Who ya think? Yo sistahs.”

“All of ’em?” I wriggled myself upright to look for myself. To my dismay, all four girls were making their way down to the dock. This was going to ruin everything. They were going to sit up there and complain about being splashed, which was crazy. If you don’t want to get wet, why do you come down to the river?

“You think they see us?” I asked hopefully. We were keeping our heads close to the water.

Randy smiled in response and the shook his head. Silently, with the water barely rippling, we made our way to the area under the dock and waited, keeping perfectly still.

Through the cracks in the slats we could see the girls’ feet as they walked out to the end of the dock. Of course they were all talking at the same time, too. We could have been making a ruckus ourselves and they would never have heard us. It’s some kind of game with them, trying to be the one who can talk the most and the loudest.

“Oh, it’s so wonderful to have a day off,” Margaret said, looking for sympathy for her working schedule at the theater. I looked at Randy and rolled my eyes. “I just wish Speedy could have come with us today.”

“Maybe he can come next weekend,” Amy said. She was the only one who really tried to understand Margaret.

“Virginia, I need more room to spread my towel out,” Elizabeth was saying. “Ya’ll move over.”

“Ya’ll move over yourself. I’m already fixed right here.” Virginia had no intention of pleasing Elizabeth. She stretched out on her towel without budging an inch. Elizabeth was furious, of course, and the two of them went at it like they always do, getting louder and louder all the time.

Randy and I looked at each other and grinned. The moment was right. We took deep breaths and glided under the surface of the water till we were about thirty feet out. Then I broke through to the air, gasping and throwing my arms and legs around.

“Help! Help!” I screamed. “It’s got Randy! The River Monster’s got Randy!” Just then Randy yanked on my leg and pulled me back down under and we stayed down until we thought our lungs would burst. We screamed again and gasped for air, pulling each other up and down and making as much ruckus as we could. “Help! Help!”

All the girls were up on their feet now. Elizabeth marched out to the end of the dock. “Billy Byler, you cut that out! Ya’ll are scarin’ us half to death.”

Just the effect we were hoping for. We kept it up, screaming and thrashing.

“Billy! You all right?” Much to my delight, Virginia sounded genuinely concerned. As I pushed up for air one more time, I saw Amy running back up the hill.

We both took a huge breath and disappeared under the water. Gliding silently through the water, we found our way back to our hiding spot under the dock. We came up for air and listened carefully. Amy was back and Charlie was with her.

“Where are they?” he asked.

Margaret pointed straight off the end of the dock. “They was out there. But it’s been a long time—why do they have to swim so far out anyway? No telling what’s out there.”

“What do you mean?” Charlie asked.

“The River Monster, of course.” Randy and I could barely stifle our snickering. I ducked under the water to keep from being heard.

“Ya’ll don’t really believe that stuff!” I could tell Charlie was about to laugh, too.

“Well, no, not really,” Margaret said, sounding embarrassed. “But you never know. Billy does this all the time. What if some time it’s for real?”

“Where are they?” Elizabeth was annoyed, but she just couldn’t leave it alone.

Randy and I took one more dip under the water and pushed off the pilings and glided out as far as we could. We came out of the water on the opposite side of the dock and started making small noises. We waited for the girls to hear us.

Charlie saw us first. He turned and winked at us before touching Margaret on the shoulder and saying, “There they are.”

She spun around on her heel and glared at us. Elizabeth and Virginia immediately started arguing about who believed in the River Monster and who didn’t. Amy just stood there looking from Charlie to Margaret and back again.

Finally Charlie couldn’t hold it in any longer. He broke into a loud laugh. “Pretty scrawny River Monster, if you ask me!”

We were laughing so hard we barely noticed when he peeled off his shirt and made a perfect dive off the side of the dock.

 

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