A man in uniform showed up about daybreak and asked in a big voice if there was an Arlene Allman staying there. She hurried to the door and next thing I saw, she was on the floor, on her knees, one hand raised up over her head like I've seen her do in church, just crying and saying, "Jesus, Jesus."

I had been praying to Jesus that Daddy would make it out somehow, but I knew in my heart right then that he was gone. A cold shiver shot down my soul that made me think of what it would be like living without him. I had it planned out that Mama would sleep in her room and I would stay in mine and we'd just go on like other people do when someone is killed in a mine explosion or a cave-in. Then I remembered that our house was gone and so was our car and we were wearing the only clothes we owned.

Mama stayed with the man a few minutes getting information on a sheet of paper, then collected herself and came over and knelt in front of my cot. The dam had burst on her and the tears just flowed and it didn't seem they were ever going to stop. Then I saw something in her face—a spark, I guess. Something that told me to hope.

"Billy, listen to me," she said. "Your daddy's alive. He's not dead; he's alive."

She kind of shook me because I guess my mouth was open and nothing came out. She said something about him being pulled out of the creek and taken to a hospital. Unconscious at first. Then he spoke up and gave them his wife's name and his son's name. She pointed at the paper that listed the name of the hospital. The Guard people were going to try and get us over there, but they were dealing with other injured people and all that came with the cleanup. And there was a lot of that to do.

"He's there waiting for us. They're going to get him all better, so you don't have to worry. Jesus was taking care of him all this time and we didn't even know it."

I managed to say something finally. "What happened?"

"We don't know. But somebody pulled him out of the mud and saved his life. Some good neighbor who was at the right place at the right time."

All I could do was hug her and hang on because even though it was good news, I didn't know whether to believe it or not. Until I could actually hold his big, calloused hand, there was part of me that couldn't believe.

"Your daddy is going to be so proud of you," Mama said.

I picked up the mandolin and held it tight to my chest, rubbing the front of it and hoping it was true and not some cruel joke. That news was like getting Lazarus back from the dead, and to this day I still remember the sight of him, wrapped up in bandages, his arm in a sling, gauze over the eye that got gouged out and scrapes all over his face, lying there in the hospital bed watching I Love Lucy, except he wasn't watching; it was the fellow next to him watching. I was still holding the mandolin when I hugged him, and the nurse had to pry me off there because she had to take blood or give him a shot or something.

"Thunder didn't make it, did he, Daddy?" I said.

"I reckon he didn't, Son. But he knew there was something coming, didn't he?"

I nodded.

"He was a faithful dog to the end, but that water was too much for him. But the Lord saw us through it."

"What happened to the people in Miss Dreama's house?" I said.

Mama looked kind of sad at me like I hadn't obeyed her, but I couldn't help it.

Daddy looked down at the covers and sort of smoothed out the sheet a little bit, and a big old tear formed in the one eye that wasn't covered. "It was just awful, Son. I don't expect I'll ever be able to take it all in. It's just tragical."

"Did they make it?" I choked. "Those two little girls?"

He shook his head and looked at Mama. "I don't see how they could have. When we got close to the bank, I jumped down into the sludge and the mess but I couldn't hold on. The current was too strong. I never should have made it out myself, but God must have something more for me to do, I reckon."

Mama's mouth started giving way, her chin puckering. "They found them in the creek, down past the railroad trestle. All of them together except the littlest one. They haven't found her yet."

She put her head down on the bed, and Daddy put his bandaged arm around her and tried to pat her. There with the people on the TV laughing at something Lucy said, my mother and father had their most honest conversation I ever heard.

"I didn't mean for you to get hurt," Mama said. "I just wanted Dreama to know. The last thing in the world I wanted to happen was to see you get hurt."

"Arlene, you listen to me. There wasn't nothing going to stop that water once it made up its mind to come down that valley. You were looking out for your neighbors as you would yourself. I'm just glad you stayed on high ground."

Mama looked up at me, and I knew we were going to keep our secret from him. I knew he was not in a state to hear the truth. So I kept quiet. It was some time before he heard about the car and how I was stuck in there alone. It liked to kill him when he saw how damaged it was, and it wasn't long after that we moved out of the creek.

But all of that time, from my tenth birthday until the day he died, I never told him what really happened in the car. I told Mama and Daddy what I have written here before, and that is, I just got up enough nerve to jump. But that is not the truth.

My first reaction was not to believe what happened. I was scared that I had made it up. In a little boy's mind it's possible to get the truth mixed up with the make-believe. After I decided I couldn't make up something like that, I was scared that people would think I was uppity. That they would figure I thought I was something special.

But if you want to know the truth about how I got out of that car, I'll tell you.

After Mama slipped out and I was by myself, it was like the world went into slow motion, like one of those old movies of the Kennedy assassination. The black water poured through the back window as a wave came over the car.

I cried out to my mama and to Jesus and my daddy. I had to tell myself to breathe because it was the scariest thing I've ever seen. We hit the telephone pole, and the windshield cleared enough for me to see another house coming toward me. That's when the car rose up and I fell into the backseat.

And this is where my story changes, because I did not see an open window and know this was my chance to escape. I did not pull myself up by any kind of courage or will. There was nothing that rose up in me that was greater than the floodwaters. Like the 125 others who died that day, I would have drowned or been crushed in that backseat if I had been left to my own devices. I did not jump out of that car and I certainly didn't grab my daddy's mandolin.

With the swirling waters around me, thick as a coal milk shake, I was lifted out of that car. By some force of nature or the supernatural. Or maybe it was love that lifted me like a helpless little baby out of that window and placed me on the ground where my mama found me. And right beside me was my daddy's mandolin.

Now that may sound far-fetched to you, and if you think I am touched in the head, you can stop all the speculating because I'm as sane as anybody. But I'm telling you, as sure as I sit here and write this, I had no hope of living and I went from the backseat of that car to being on the ground just as fast as you can blink your eyes. I was another dead body in a car about to be smashed. But by some miracle I wound up alive alongside a river of death. Me and an old mandolin. How can you make people understand a thing like that?



Almost Heaven 
Copyright © 2010 by Chris Fabry. All rights reserved.
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
www.tyndale.com

Chris Fabry is a 1982 graduate of the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall University. He is heard on Chris Fabry Live! each weekday on Moody Radio, the Love Worth Finding broadcast, and other radio programs. Chris's first novel for adults,
Dogwood, received the 2009 Christy Award in the Contemporary Standalone category. His last novel, June Bug, was released in July 2009. For more information, please visit www.chrisfabry.com.