Paula Presley surfed the television news from the recreation room of the Tennessee Mental Health Institute. Every local channel showed the same footage of a city decimated by what some were calling the worst storm in Tennessee history.
Safe inside the confines of her secure facility, she paused on the last station with a young female news reporter dressed in hip waders and a yellow rain coat, standing in a flooded parking lot with a yard stick at her side to emphasize the obvious, as if the bevy of submersed vehicles behind her didn’t give away the whole story. “Have you seen this?” she asked the attorney in the chair beside her—a svelte gentleman with neatly combed hair and a flashy gold pen beside the visitor’s badge clipped to his breast pocket.
“Who hasn’t?” the public defender replied without looking up from the last page in his black binder. “Sign here,” he instructed Paula. He pointed to the underlined section below the last paragraph and gave her his shiny gold pen under the vigilant eye of a super-sized orderly who monitored the room of permanent residents dressed in white pajamas.
“This it?” Paula asked.
Paula signed the page and gave the pen back. She changed channels, hoping to find anything but more news about the storm and the impact on the local economy. “They said the Cumberland rose to fifty-two feet.”
“That’s the highest water mark since 1937.”
The attorney reached into his leather attaché case and replaced the signed paperwork with another legal folder.
“The first water treatment plant is still shut down,” Paula continued. “They’re saying the second one might close too. And there’s still nine thousand people without power.” She scratched behind her ear and looked at her attorney. She could see the concentration on his face while he reviewed the next page. “Do you have family here?”
“Vermont,” the attorney replied, after pausing to reread the last paragraph.
“My husband, if you can call him that, and my daughter, are all I have. Family is everything.”
“Do you have children?” Paula asked.
“Are you married?”
“If you do find yourself with children one day, tell them the story of this hundred year flood. There’s no life without water, but this kind of water isn’t natural. Someone pissed off Mother Nature awful bad. All these carbon emissions people talk about. And global warming. Not to mention all those experiments they keep doing in space. I’ve always said it’s a matter of time before we do something bad we can’t take back.” She changed channels to find another news reporter commenting about the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and other Nashville landmarks impacted by the storm. “How long do you think it will take for all this water to subside?”
The attorney shrugged his shoulders and marked a small ‘x’ on the bottom of the page where he wanted his client to sign.
“A few days? A week?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Take a guess,” Paula urged him.
“I’m sure it will clear up soon.”
“Clear up soon? You sound like you’re talking about a late spring shower. This is cataclysmic. Half the city is underwater.”
The attorney made eye contact with the orderly to signal he was ready to leave. “We’re almost done here.”
“I hope my daughter’s safe.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
“I heard the storm’s claimed ten lives already. I’d be careful if I were you.” Paula pointed to the television screen, where news footage showed water rushing into ground floor apartments while residents looked on from second-story balconies. In another segment, firefighters waded hip-deep to rescue a drowning dog before the camera cut back to show hundreds of people stranded in overcrowded shelters.
“Read this last page carefully before you sign.”
Paula took the leather binder from her attorney and skimmed the first few sentences of legal jargon. “You sound so gloomy. This is supposed to be a good thing.”
“The judge still has to approve it.”
“The judge is more worried about getting his car towed out of the drink.”
“Once you sign the papers, I’ll submit the application to the courthouse.”
“How long will it take for the court to decide?”
“Depends on the case load.”
Paula slammed the notepad against her lap, drawing unwanted attention from the orderly who approached to put his hand on her back. “Then give me a ballpark figure.” She flinched when she felt the orderly’s meaty paw on her shoulder.
“Several days at least. Could be weeks, maybe months.”
“I don’t control the schedule. I’m just a servant of the court.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“I never said it would take months, I said it could take months. There are lots of variables.”
Paula muted the television with the remote. “You don’t think I have a shot at leaving here?”
“I never said that.”
“But you’re thinking it.”
“I’m late for my next appointment. If you don’t mind—”
“I imagine you don’t like me very much. What with everything I’ve done and all. But I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. Remember this before you go marching off to your next appointment in your fancy suit with your fancy pen. I’m a good person. A good mom. I deserve to have what any good mother has.”
“I’m not here to assess you, Mrs. Presley.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“I think you’ve made a lot of progress in recent years.”
“That’s exactly what I told my husband. He doesn’t believe me.” Paula eyeballed her attorney without blinking. “But you believe me?”
“I think you have good intentions.”
Paula broke eye contact and focused on the legal paper in her lap. “I get it. I’m not asking for redemption. Just a chance to make things right.” She muddled through the legal gibberish, tuning out the screaming tantrum emanating from the room next door; the sound of knuckles tapping on a window; random babble from a new patient who’d arrived the day before; the pervasive humming from the guy in the corner conducting his own symphony. She’d made mistakes, no doubt. But after years of psychiatric treatment, she’d come to terms with her transgressions and saw her future in a different light.
The attorney pointed to the signature line at the bottom of the page. “Are you sure about this? If you leave here, you’re on your own.”
Paula reached for the pen and signed her name. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”