Towering cumulonimbus clouds filtered moonlight from the upper atmosphere, illuminating the flood of biblical proportions that stranded motorists along the east Nashville stretch of I-24, where Leland and Melissa waded through hip-deep waters near the overflowed Harpeth River to board the Metro Fire Department’s twenty-eight foot rapid-response boat. A half mile away, the abandoned Mercedes remained completely submerged in the lower-lying region. To the north, the Cumberland River crested above flood stage, forcing thousands of homeowners to evacuate from nearby Bellevue, Franklin, and Antioch.
Leland steadied his hand on the bow rail to help Melissa board while the other refugees huddled in close proximity on the center console boat, their faces painted from a palette of shock, disbelief, frustration, and fear. “You okay?” he asked Melissa above the noise from the twin outboard engines.
“I hope my car has flood insurance,” Melissa answered whimsically, clutching her soaking wet purse.
“We made it this far.”
“I’m not worried about us.”
Leland held her closer. He could feel her shivering. “How bad is it?” he asked the firefighter standing beside them.
“Nothing’s burning at the moment. Never seen anything like this in my life.”
“We need to contact our kids,” Leland urged.
“Power’s out everywhere. Cell towers have been up and down. Calls are spotty at best.”
“How many people have you found?”
“Too many to count. Harpeth River is almost five feet above flood level in Franklin. The Cumberland is worse. Too many roads underwater. Most are impassable. There’s storm damage six counties wide. People are hurting everywhere.”
“Where are you taking us?”
“Red Cross shelter at McGavock High School.”
“What about Belle Meade?” Melissa asked the firefighter.
“The golf course is underwater. Old Harding Pike is flooded. Richland Creek looks like the Colorado River. St. George’s church was flooded. Been reports of broken gas mains and fallen power lines. The Harrington water treatment plant is shut down from flooding. Nothing but bad news all around.”
* * *
Water lapped at Jonathan’s feet. Dazed and confused, he bled from a gash on his forehead. Above him, a dome light flickered on and off, revealing rows of vacant seats and blown-out windows. Toward the front of the bus, the sides caved to a v-shaped point as if a giant clever had dropped from above and nearly severed the bus in half. He could move his arms and legs, but the effort to stand met with pain along his side. He touched his head and winced from the sting of an open wound. He called out for Abby as he climbed over several seats toward an outstretched arm to find a lifeless body with a face lacerated by flying glass.
* * *
Melissa charged through the Red Cross shelter lined with folding cots along McGavock High School’s gymnasium floor. “I have to find my boys,” she yelled at the first volunteer she could find while Leland followed her inside.
“Slow down,” the Red Cross worker acknowledged in a calm, yet deliberate tone. She maintained eye contact with Melissa. “We’re doing everything we can.”
“Who’s your supervisor?”
“He’s been deployed to the shelter in Murfreesboro.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Local law enforcement is working with fire rescue personnel and the National Guard. This is the safest place for you to be right now.”
Melissa looked at Leland with a pained expression. “Not without my boys.”
“How old are they?”
“Eleven and twelve.”
“Are they alone?”
“They’re with my driver.”
“Then I’m sure they’re safe. Once the storm is over—”
“I need to find them now! I need a car or a truck. Anything you can spare to get us out of here.”
“I can’t help you.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Thank you,” Leland offered in an overt attempt to diffuse the situation and let the woman do her job. He steered Melissa away from the entrance, where hundreds of evacuees arrived by bus from the flooded Opryland Hotel and Convention Center.
“I need a drink,” Melissa announced.
“There’s bottled water.”
“I mean a real drink.”
Leland retrieved two bottles from a case stacked against the wall.
Melissa opened her purse for the Percocet prescription and swallowed two pills. “I’m not sitting around this place waiting for a Christmas miracle. We need to get out of here and find our kids.”
Leland gave her a water bottle and a chewy granola bar. “You should eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Melissa unscrewed the cap on the water. “I’m frustrated.” She drank half the bottle and stopped when her cell phone rang. “It’s Sid…” She tapped the screen to answer. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been trying to reach you,“Sid replied.
“Did you check on the boys?”
“No one home. I think they…“
She pressed the phone to her ear. “I can barely hear you.”
“House was empty when I got there. Roads are impassable.“
“Have you seen the boys?”
“What about Tomás?”
“I think they might be at the mall.“
“Where are you now?”
“About ten miles from Opry Mills. Traffic’s stopped in high water. Haven’t seen anything like this since the flood of seventy-five.“
“What about—” Melissa checked her phone’s signal strength when the call dropped out. “I lost him,” she told Leland.
“Keep trying. We need all the help we can get.”
* * *
Jonathan climbed over the lifeless body and advanced several seats to find Abby with her leg caught underwater in the twisted wreckage. An oily sheen floated on the water’s surface. “Can you move?”
“I’m stuck,” Abby pleaded, her ashen face a portrait of fear as the water level continued to rise inside the bus. “You’re bleeding.”
Jonathan pushed on the seat behind Abby to try and bend it away from her leg. “I’m fine.”
“My foot’s caught on something. I can’t see what it is, but it hurts when I move it.”
Jonathan stuck his head below the surface but couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. “It’s too dark,” he said when he came up for air. “Try to turn your foot or something.”
Jonathan crawled around Abby to get a better look as the bus wreckage slid along the steep embankment and sank deeper along the edge of the flooded river. “Can you move your leg at all?”
“My ankle’s stuck!”
Jonathan reached underwater to feel Abby’s ankle wedged between twisted metal. “I won’t leave you.”
“What if I can’t get out?”
Abby shivered in place. Her eyes darted wildly back and forth. “The water’s getting higher…”
“I’ll get you out.”
“I don’t know yet! Just give me a second to think!”