From the novel From the Depths, Chapter 2:
Andie was relieved when school began in the fall because it was a safe, predictable place. The teachers noticed her efforts to be diligent and helpful. She received positive reinforcement with an unquenchable thirst, causing some of her classmates to label her a teacher’s pet. Andie didn’t care about the rudeness that some kids doled out because nothing compared to the wrath of Scott. She attracted friends by being kind, humorous, and defending those who were picked on by bullies. One boy was often the target of ridicule.
Wayne was born with a bright mind, hidden by physical deformities. Half of his body was normal, but his right side was misshapen. His face was dominated by a bulging upper eyelid that draped over his right eye. The pink tissue of the inner eyelid protruded grossly and oozed a yellow fluid that adhered to his sparse eyelashes in gooey strings. Half of his nose was bulbous and sloped lower than the left side. The right side of his mouth was enlarged and twisted, impeding regular speech. He loped along in an awkward, jerking gait because the right side of his body was larger and uncoordinated.
The students were once asked to bring in baby photos for the bulletin board in the main hallway. By the end of the week, everyone had a turn at guessing the identity of each child. The board was filled with plump-cheeked, smiling babies. Among them, baby Wayne gazed out of one eye, his toothless mouth half open in what resembled a surprised snarl. The swollen eyelid was even more pronounced on his tiny face.
Several kids had speculated about whether he was born deformed, or if he had developed these features. The photo confirmed that he’d entered the world this way. Andie wondered how his parents had felt when they’d first seen him. He was an only child. There was a rumor that the tumor was attached to his brain, so the doctors couldn’t remove the growth, or else he would die. He had undergone numerous corrective surgeries.
Wayne was frequently tormented. He loved airplanes and often hurried down the echoing school hall with his arms extended, his little briefcase dangling from his left hand. He made an airplane sound that caused his meaty lip to quiver as he zoomed, weaving close to the walls. Some kids called him names and mocked his garbled speech, others scared him to make him cry.
Benjy, a lazy student who often caused trouble during class, walked by Wayne one day during study time and rammed the end of his wooden ruler into Wayne’s right eye. Wayne’s shriek of pain was the saddest sound Andie had ever heard. He fell to the floor, screaming and writhing. The teacher ran to him and helped him into a sitting position.
Wayne was crying and bellowing, “Nooo!” Drool trickled onto his shirt, and there were smears of blood on his cheek. He kept both hands over his eye as his legs continued jerking.
The teacher finally escorted Wayne to the nurse’s office. Benjy was taken to the principal’s office by another teacher, undoubtedly to feel the sting of Mr. Anderson’s renowned paddle.
A few days after the incident, Andie approached Benjy at recess, where he stood against the red brick wall, watching a basketball game. She told him that she would beat him up if he ever touched Wayne again. Benjy looked at her through his perpetually half-closed eyes and shrugged his shoulders.
Andie grabbed the front of his shirt, twisting it and pulling him quickly forward. “If you think I’m kidding, I’ll be glad to show you how serious I am!”
She yanked him around the corner of the building, out of the playground teacher’s sight. Shoving him to the ground, she jumped on his chest and swiftly pinned his arms above his head with her knees. She flicked her middle finger firmly on the bridge of his nose, hoping to rouse him from his irritating somnolent state.
“Pay attention, because you won’t have another chance. If I ever find out that you even look at Wayne the wrong way,” she said, flicking his nose harder. “I won’t have any problem finding you after school and making sure you can’t walk straight on your way home. Got it?”
Benjy struggled to get free and sneered at her. “Why should I leave the retard alone?”
She dug her knees into his outstretched arms, and then pushed his jaw upward with both hands. “Wayne is ten times smarter than you! You’re the retard, you jerk!” She tensed her body and began to bounce all her weight on his chest. Nearby students had noticed them and were coming over to watch.
Benjy started crying out for her to stop as she continued moving up and down. “Look at how tough you are, Benjy! Do you like to pick on smaller kids? Is it fun? Does it make you feel big?” Andie had accessed a vicious part of herself, created by countless episodes with her brother. “How would you like a stick jammed in your eye?”
“Hey, hey, hey! What’s going on over here?” The playground teacher, a young woman with braids hanging to her waist, had seen the crowd gathering.
She pulled Andie off Benjy and began walking her to the principal’s office, calling out to the unusually quiet children that she would return in a moment. Once inside, she slowed down and asked Andie what had happened, but Andie just shook her head as she moved down the long hallway.
In his office, Mr. Anderson sat with his hands folded in front of him, studying her before he finally spoke. “Fighting is not allowed in school, Andrea. I know you’re aware of the rules. You’ve never had a behavior problem before,” he said, his penetrating eyes searching her face. “On the contrary, you’re an outstanding student, and you usually set a good example for the other kids. I’m disappointed that you’ve resorted to violence—it never solves anything.”
Andie was terrified that he was going to grab his paddle and tell her to turn around.
“However,” he continued, “Benjy is someone who has been causing quite a bit of difficulty for the teachers and some of the students. I know you were in the class when Wayne was injured. Did this have anything to do with Wayne?”
“Yes, sir,” Andie replied. “It had everything to do with Wayne.” She started crying, overwhelmed by the powerful emotions of the past fifteen minutes and embarrassed to be in trouble.
“I’m s-sorry, Mr. Anderson. It won’t happen again.” Andie attempted to compose herself, wiping at her tears.
He waited until she had calmed down, and then he leaned forward. “Andie, I have a favor to ask you.”
She looked up, surprised by his statement.
“Would you be willing to sit next to Wayne during lunch?”
Her eyes widened. She sat up straighter in the chair. “Yes, sir. I certainly would be.”
“Great,” he replied with a slight smile. “I’m going to let the teachers know of this arrangement. I expect you to continue setting a good example for the others. I’m counting on you, Andie.” He stood and opened the door for her.
She walked by the infamous paddle that hung on a hook beside the door. Everyone feared towering Mr. Anderson, who limped menacingly down the hallways, one arm lamely swinging by his side due to a childhood bout with polio.
Andie sat next to Wayne each day as he smacked and chomped his way through lunch. Wayne often asked her to find out if a pretty girl named Kelly liked him. He wanted to be her boyfriend. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that Kelly had said “Oh, dear” and laughed gently when she’d asked her about Wayne. She told Wayne that Kelly was too shy to admit that she liked him.
On the way home from school, Andie walked Wayne across the vast field to their neighborhood. She kept the marauding groups of kids away most of the time, simply by her presence. On a few occasions, she had to use force to keep him safe, but even the bigger kids noticed the fierce look on her face when they started taunting Wayne. She would immediately go after anyone, and she never backed down. It became well-known that it was not worth the turmoil of confronting her to bother Wayne.
Nearing their neighborhood, she’d turn and call out to Wayne as he continued on his way, “See ya later, alligator!”
He gleefully responded, “After a while, crocodile!” Chuckling and snorting, he flew down the street with his arms out to the wind, free to glide home.
From the novel All Flavors, Chapter 11:
The first full week of school went well until I started hearing about hurricanes again. Charley had been a tropical storm on Tuesday, but spun itself into a real hurricane by Wednesday when it was near Jamaica. Tropical Storm Bonnie was also churning away out there, a day away from hitting another part of Florida. Mr. Rodriguez had us doing a short unit on hurricanes. We learned about their formation and how hurricane hunters flew into the eye of the storm to get updated wind-speed readings and barometric pressure measurements every few hours. They were very brave people.
He also said that because of all the pollution in the air, our planet was heating up, which was called global warming and climate change. Global warming was supposedly causing extreme weather events throughout the world. I hoped we wouldn’t have more hurricanes in Florida.
I knew that I needed to get over my fear of hurricanes. My new friend Liz had moved to Florida from Montana, so she was really nervous about being in a hurricane. She’d seen a movie where people huddled in a house during a hurricane. The entire roof had gotten ripped off in one piece and everybody went flying around. I wasn’t the right person to help her feel better about hurricanes. There just didn’t seem to be an easy way of thinking about them, and when I tried to change my thoughts to another subject, something would bring the topic my way again.
By Thursday afternoon, Central Florida was holding its breath to see where Hurricane Charley would be heading, because it had strengthened into a category two storm around three o’clock. This meant that its winds were between ninety-six and one hundred ten miles per hour.
At the end of class, Mr. Rodriguez announced that there would be no school the following day. School was canceled throughout all of Central Florida. The next day would be Friday the thirteenth, and some people were saying that Charley’s arrival was going to be a disaster, just because it was the thirteenth. I realized how superstitions might come true if enough people believed in them.
Mom and I tuned in to hear the weather report at dinner time. Charley was now aiming for the Tampa area, which would keep the eye from directly crossing our county, but we were in for tropical storm force winds, tornado warnings, and flash flood watches because we would be on the more dangerous east side of it.
“Let’s head out to the store,” Mom said, getting up from the table. It didn’t escape me that she was leaving nearly half of her dinner on her plate.
“What else do we need?” My stomach felt heavy and twisted.
“Come here, Rylee.” She wrapped me up in a hug. “We’re going to do something special when we get back, okay? I know you’ll like it.”
I was curious. “Is it boarding up the windows with plywood?” I couldn’t figure out how we’d do that on the second floor. You were supposed to secure the boards across the windows on the outside. I wasn’t feeling too confident about this news.
“No. We can’t board them up, but we’re going to be safe. I know it,” she said. “I just want to avoid the rush, so then we’ll be home early enough to do something special.”
We joined the rest of the people in the store who had waited until the last minute to buy their hurricane supplies. We were able to get some of the rapidly disappearing bottled water, canned fruit and beans, two large jars of peanut butter, three loaves of bread, a new flashlight, three packs of batteries, four thick candles, and a box of storage bags. The shelves were quickly becoming bare, even though it was a big store. Everyone near us in the long checkout line was talking about the hurricane.
“Charley’s forward speed has increased more than they expected. They never know for sure!” A man was talking to the people in front of us, who had a little baby with cute feet. “We’ll get the next update in a few hours, but I guarantee that it’ll be a category three before tomorrow.”
Experts were suddenly everywhere. They knew the latest coordinates, the counties that were already under a hurricane watch, and they usually had their own prediction on the path— everything that people didn’t want to know, or at least I didn’t. I was facing the challenge of keeping a positive outlook on the subject.
“We’ll be just fine, sweetheart,” Mom whispered. “Don’t worry.”
We finally piled our items onto the conveyer belt and followed a mass of brisk shoppers out the door. There was a different feeling in the air. People seemed anxious as they quickly loaded everything into their vehicles and hurried away on their next errand. We stopped by the bank to use the ATM, and Mom took out forty dollars. We filled up our car’s gas tank after waiting in another long line. The news on the radio said that home improvement stores were almost out of hurricane supplies, and people were waiting hours in line just to get inside.
It was like being told that the Big Bad Wolf was coming, and you needed to choose what kind of house you were going to build. Some people were driving through town with a few sheets of plywood strapped on top of their cars. Several pick-up trucks were loaded with supplies like packs of blue tarps, generators, coolers, chain saws, and more plywood. We saw a man at the gas station filling up ten red containers while we were waiting for our turn. I thought we might be underprepared, but I didn’t want to say anything to Mom because I knew we couldn’t afford to buy much.
She’d let me get some extra snacks at the store, so I was happy about that. I tried to distract myself by appreciating things. I walked around the apartment cuddling Molly, while Mom finished organizing the supplies in the kitchen. I think Molly noticed that I was nervous, because she didn’t want me to hold her for very long.
I was pacing back and forth in the living room, but my mind kept going right back to thoughts about the giant storm that was on its way. Mom always told me to be gentle when I walked in the apartment, so the neighbors down below us wouldn’t hear me stomping around. But the neighbors must have gone somewhere else—possibly a shelter. There weren’t many cars in the parking lot. Maybe we should have left, too. I went into the kitchen to ask for potato chips. I needed to crunch on something.
“Rylee, let’s give Grandma a call and tell her that we’re going to have a hurricane party.” Mom smiled widely, handing me a bag of barbecue chips. “I already talked to Noah and Karin, so they know that we’ll be just fine.”
I thought she might be going a little crazy—a hurricane party? There was nothing fun about it. “Well, okay,” I said, looking forward to hearing Grandma’s voice.
Mom finished talking to Grandma, telling her how we were prepared and not worried about the storm, that we were having this party, and then she handed me the phone.
“Hello, my dear.”
“Hi, Grandma,” I replied, trying to sound happier than I was feeling.
“Well, I believe that you might need to find an easier way to think about this storm, hmm?” she began. “A party is a great idea. Have fun! You know what to do.”
“Yes, I know what to do. It’s just kind of hard right now.”
“I have another lesson for you. Hot off the press.”
“Okay, good.” She had all my attention.
“This is an extension of lesson three. I know your imagination is in excellent form tonight, so here is what I want you to do in a few moments. Go outside and look around. Look at the nearby trees, their roots are deep in the ground and their branches are secure. They’ve already experienced harsh weather and survived many storms through the years. Put your hands on them and feel their great strength, expecting them to hang on tight. Imagine looking at them after the storm and how relieved you’ll feel when they’re still there, just as they are now.
“Stand back and take a good look at your home. Notice how the entire structure is built. It has a flawless design, enduring and solid. Think of the wonderful engineering and dedicated work that it took to lay the foundation into the earth. The sturdy walls will remain upright through any storm. The beautiful, supportive roof will keep you safe and dry every moment that you’re inside.
“See the complete protection that is all around you. See it, know it, feel it, believe it. Not one doubt about it, Rylee. God will protect you if you will allow it. You just need to believe. That is one perfect structure that will be sheltering you every second of any storm ahead. Each certain thought about your safety allows God to provide you with it. All you need to do is ask, and then have faith that it will be so. God is right there, ready to take care of you. You don’t have to wonder how it will happen, because God will manage all the details.”
I felt it already. I knew that we would be safe, without even going outside. Grandma just had to remind me how to do it, because fear had blocked my ability to think clearly and carefully. There was no doubt about it! I decided that I still wanted to go outside, since she had asked me to, and I wanted to touch the trees.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Oh, Grandma, you’re awesome!” I exclaimed. “You make it so simple.”
“No, darling—God has made it so simple. I just gave you a push in the right direction, a friendly little reminder.”
While Mom and I were walking around outside, I looked across the field to the marsh where the edge of Lake Toho began. I knew that the birds and other animals would find a safe place to get through the storm. The alligators would have to fend for themselves, though.
We stayed up very late that night and played games, never turning the TV on for a weather check, laughing wildly as we played charades toward the end of the evening. We would have time in the morning to learn anything else we might need to know. Our long hurricane party had begun. I realized later that my mom wanted me to be tired enough to fall asleep on the following night, the night when Charley came to town.
From the forthcoming novel, Creation Song: