Maggie’s kindergartners would come pouring through the door at 8:25, which meant she needed to get ahold of herself by 8:20. She sat in a kid-sized chair at the kid-sized table while she cut the construction paper pizzas she had crafted the night before into slices. Every few pieces she sniffed and dried her eyes.
Everyone’s first year of teaching is hard. She had heard as much from friends and professors and she knew, right after La Follette Elementary hired her, that she was in for a tough ten months. But those realizations did nothing to help. Starting her morning by silently sobbing in her classroom had turned into a ritual, like stretching before exercise. She repeated to herself that she loved the kids, and the curriculum and the art projects and the story times, and most days the routine gave her some focus and energy, but this morning was different. It was the middle of April, time for her first class field trip.
At 8:15 Maggie’s principal zipped into the room, her thick bracelets clanking and her pastel scarf billowing behind her. “It looks like we have beautiful weather for the big excursion today!”
“Good,” said Maggie. She pretended to arrange the supplies laid out on the table in front of her, the clay for the pizza art project and the pizza related picture books, while she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and took a few breaths.
“I hope you can find a little more excitement. This is supposed to be fun.”
Maggie set down her scissors and stood up from her tiny chair. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
“That’s okay,” the principal said. “But this field trip needs to go well. Your end-of-the-year evaluation is just around the corner.”
“I know,” said Maggie.
“I also need you to step up because, unfortunately, while this is one of my favorite trips of the year, I won’t be able to join you. Meetings downtown, all day.”
Maggie’s eyes went wide and her shoulders tensed. She had experienced these panic moments before, like her first time attracting the attention of twenty-one five-year-olds on the first day of school, or the first time a kid threw-up in class, or her first parent-teacher conferences, but this time felt worse.
“You’ll be fine,” said the principal, as more of a warning than a reassurance. “You’ll have Mrs. Gerke with you, and she’s been on this trip a hundred times. All right?”
“Yes,” said Maggie. “I’ll be fine.”
The students arrived along with Mrs. Gerke moments before the introductory bell. Kindergartners are more like zoo animals than people, and never more so than on days when something upsets their routines. The impending field trip to Vinnie’s Italian Bistro made them louder, jumpier, and more prone to crying and fighting than any other time since the day before Christmas break. Or maybe the Valentine’s Day party. Or Halloween.
Mrs. Gerke had been a kindergarten aide since before Maggie was born, so nothing cracked her grandmother smile. Maggie, on the other hand, almost yelled when Braden ate several of the paper pizza slices. She nearly grabbed Carson when he elbowed Nadine in the face during his pretend dough-throwing routine during story time. She needed to step into the hall twice to calm herself down.
“Everyone’s sure squirrelly today,” said Mrs. Gerke. Maggie knew Mrs. Gerke meant her, too.
Eleven o’clock arrived, and Maggie and Mrs. Gerke gathered the students and reviewed the rules for the walk to the restaurant. Stay in line. Stay on the sidewalk. No crossing the street unless you’re holding hands with the people in front of and behind you. Say please and thank you when it’s time for pizza. Don’t touch the ingredients during the kitchen tour. Vinnie’s was only six blocks away through a quiet residential neighborhood, but there was still plenty that could go wrong.
Maggie pushed through the front door of the school with twenty-one hungry kids and one stoic old woman behind her. She walked fast.
“Miss Larrabee, slow down,” said Frannie.
“Sorry,” said Maggie. “Try to keep up, everyone!”
Four blocks from school, a cloud precluded the warm spring sun as the group crossed Eisenhower Street. By the time they reached Fillmore, Maggie questioned the accuracy of the principal’s pristine weather forecast.
“That doesn’t look good,” said Mrs. Gerke from the back of the line.
The train of kids crossed the last street before Vinnie’s as a few drops started to fall.
“It’s raining,” said Justin, and then all twenty of his classmates joined in. “It’s raining, Miss Larrabee, it’s raining.”
“Just a few drops,” she said. “A sprinkle. A spring sprinkle! We’ll be fine.”
They crossed the parking lot and snaked onto the plaza’s sidewalk and up to the restaurant’s front door. Maggie pulled on the handle, but it was locked. She peered through the glass into the dark dining room, and waved at the guy with a goatee and dreadlocks standing behind the counter. He came to the door and unlocked it, but only opened it a crack.
“Yeah?” he said.
“Hi!” said Maggie. “We’re the kindergarten class from La Follette Elementary. We’re here for our tour.”
“Oh, man,” said the guy, then looked behind him. “We’re closed.”
“But you open at eleven?” She looked at her watch. “Can we wait inside?”
“No, we’re closed closed. They shut us down… yesterday? Two days ago? I’m just here to pick up some paperwork.”
“Oh my god,” said Maggie.
Behind her, Mrs. Gerke and the students shielded their eyes and looked up as the sky darkened and the rain fell harder.
Maggie shook her head, shook off the sudden anxiety that felt too substantial for a missed pizza field trip. “Can we wait inside until it’s done raining?”
The guy squinted. “I’m really sorry, but they cancelled the insurance on the building. I can’t let anyone in here. The owner made a really big deal about it.”
The raindrops hit Maggie’s hair and dripped down her neck. They landed on the sidewalk and sent up a spray she felt on her ankles. “Please. I have twenty-one little kids out here.”
“I’m really sorry.” The guy pulled the door closed. Maggie held on for a minute, then let go. “Sorry,” he said again, then turned the lock.
Maggie stepped off the curb, looked at the sky, and a memory gripped her, something she hadn’t thought of in years. The smell of the precipitation and the damp chill transported her to when she was six, not much older than the students who waited in front of her with concerned stares. She recalled the last time the rain nearly washed her away.
* * *
Maggie and her older sister ran around the barn playing superheroes like they had every day since their mom moved the three of them back to her parents’ place, after Maggie’s dad left. Mom said the stay was only temporary, until she “got her feet back under her,” but Maggie loved the farm. Grandpa hadn’t grown anything on his land in over a decade, so the fields had returned to prairie and the old barn faded grayer every year. It was perfect. The girls climbed the wobbly ladders and jumped down from the hayloft and shot at the bad guys hiding behind the rusted tractor. While they played they heard raindrops on the enormous expanse of roof dozens of feet above their heads, but they didn’t pay much attention until their grandpa appeared.
Normally he rolled his eyes and told them to be careful. This time he looked more serious. “Come on, you two,” he said as he gripped the top of the doorframe. “We need to head inside.”
“Why?” said Maggie’s sister.
“It’s barely even raining.”
“Better safe than sorry.”
Maggie climbed down the ladder and her sister meandered across the barn floor, grabbing each post with one hand and swinging a circle around it. The girls paused as often as they could on the walk back to the house, to bend down and pick at pieces of gravel, to shield their eyes and look up at the sky, to give each other disgusted looks like Maggie’s sister had learned to do the previous year in fifth grade.
Each time they stopped, their grandpa turned and waved them on. “Come on, now,” he said. “Better speed it up.”
Grandpa held the screen door open for them as they took the porch steps one at a time, poking at each other and giggling until they finally crossed the threshold inside. The rain fell harder, in heavy, cold drops that exploded on the gravel into a fine, chill mist.
“Head downstairs, quick now,” said their grandpa.
The girls descended into the farmhouse basement. Maggie never went downstairs, if she could help it. The series of small stone rooms smelled like mildew and held all the creepy old stuff Maggie’s grandma deemed too precious to throw away. Still, Maggie’s mom and grandma had tried their best to make the place seem inviting for the family to wait out the storm. They made a circle of camp chairs around a tray table, and set an extra lamp on the washing machine to complement the naked light bulb on the ceiling.
“I thought we could play a game,” said Grandma. She pointed at the stack of options sitting on the dryer, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders and a half-dozen more, all way too young for Maggie and her sister. Their mom reclined in one of the camp chairs and read a magazine. Through the small window above their heads the sky looked an upsetting gray, although the window probably hadn’t been cleaned in years.
Grandpa came down the steps a few minutes later with a battery powered radio and sat in the open chair. He fiddled with the dial until the station came in clear, but all they heard was country music.
“Is there even a warning?” asked Maggie’s mom.
“I thought so,” said Grandpa. “I swear he said we should take cover.”
“How long is this going to take?” asked Maggie’s sister.
“Not too long,” said Grandpa. “Maybe it’s going to miss us.”
The rain made a hum, reverberating through the attic of the house and down the walls. The white noise covered the gravel lot in front of the barn and sounded through the windows that topped each tiny stone room all the way back to the old wood-burning furnace.
“It’s really raining,” said Grandpa.
Grandma turned the lamp up another notch. “So, what do you think? Hi-Ho Cherry-O?”
Maggie didn’t know how long she sat cross-legged in the camp chair next to the water heater. She waited for whatever came next with the blank face of a bored kid. She pulled at a loose stitch on the arm of the chair, and tapped her foot in time with the song from Grandpa’s radio.
“That’s a lot of rain,” said Grandpa.
“I can kiss my tomatoes goodbye,” said Grandma. “They can’t handle this much moisture.” She stood up, then sat back down. “Are you sure you closed the bedroom windows?”
“Yes,” said Maggie’s mom. “You already asked me that. I closed them. All right?”
The last few minutes of Maggie’s life where rain was just rain, where rain was part of the background and passed by like so many sidewalk blocks and telephone poles on the side of the highway, occurred without any other comment or conversation. Maggie tapped the tips of her index fingers together and rested her head on her scrunched shoulder.
“Here we go,” said Grandpa, pointing at the window. They all looked up. A line of brown water trickled from the bottom corner of the frame down the rough stone wall. “God damn windows,” he said. “I’ll get a rag.”
While Grandpa rustled through one of the small rooms farther down the basement, the trickle became a stream, then a gush. Mom pulled her feet up and looked to Grandma, who shook her head. Maggie’s sister didn’t look disgusted anymore. She stared at the water too.
“It’s coming in all the windows,” said Grandpa when he returned. “The creek is flooding.”
“What should we do?” asked Grandma.
“Hope it doesn’t get much worse.”
Over the next few minutes, it got worse. The puddle on the floor approached and passed the legs of their chairs. Through the window they watched the line of water rise halfway up the glass, then three-quarters.
The window in one of the small rooms behind them shattered, and the water that came pouring in sounded like a bathtub filling. Then they jumped out of their chairs.
“Grab whatever’s important and take it upstairs,” said Grandpa.
Maggie’s mouth twisted downward. “Grandpa, I don’t know what I should…”
“Just start grabbing,” he said.
They each took a room and tried to fill their arms as full as they could and raced through the basement and up the stairs and dumped their loads on the kitchen table, or on the couch. They paused at the top of the narrow stairway to let each other come up, then plunged back underground for more. The water covered their shoes, then their ankles. The lines of mud on their shins marked the increase in depth each time they returned from the basement. They tracked mud through the kitchen and onto the rugs.
Maggie didn’t think, she just took. The room she picked looked like a library storeroom, with old books and magazines and binders, some stacked loose, some on old shelves, others in plastic milk crates on the floor. She couldn’t lift the crates, nor could she reach most of what sat on the shelves, so she used her arms to pinch whatever stacks she could and wrestle them upstairs. She ignored whatever the water had already touched, and she ignored whatever looked too heavy. She left the piles that looked too old and dusty. Anything with color attracted her attention, and that’s what she grabbed.
“Good job, keep going,” said grandpa when he passed her on the stairs.
The water kept rising, past her knees, then onto her thighs. Each trip got slower, and the coffee-colored flood claimed more of the stacks that Maggie hadn’t gotten to. She pushed hard, to grab more, to wade through the water faster. Her chest burned, her arms shook.
The sound of Grandpa yelling made her jump. “God damn it!” He shouted from the top of the basement stairs, with real anger and real fear. “The power’s still on.” He banged on the stairway wall with his fist, fast and hard. “Get out of there now!” he screamed. “Drop whatever you have and get up here.”
Maggie started crying as she let her armload fall into the water. She turned and left her room and used her hands to paddle herself towards the stairs. Behind her, her mom and sister did the same. Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders bobbed in front of the dryer like little rafts. Paper floated everywhere. Mud covered everything.
“Keep going,” said her mom. “Don’t stop now.”
They reached the stairs and raced up them. Grandpa grabbed Maggie’s hand and pulled her the last few steps. She fell into the kitchen, then scrambled backwards and sat against the cupboard and put her face in her hands. Grandma leaned over the sink and tried to catch her breath. Maggie’s mom and sister joined her on the floor, where Mom grabbed both girls with her shaky arms and pulled them as close as she could.
Out the big window behind the dining room table, the farm and yard and driveway and road had turned into churning brown water. And still it rained.
“Do you think we need to go upstairs?” asked Grandma.
“It’s looking that way,” said Grandpa.
* * *
Three hours later, the water started to recede. The flood reached the top of the porch, but stopped shy of the last step up into the house. The girls calmed down. Maggie’s mom made them a snack. The power had gone out eventually, so she gave them chocolate milk out of the warming fridge. Mom and Grandma laughed about what they could make for dinner out of the freezer. Ice cream and frozen bratwurst. Plain hamburger and frozen orange juice concentrate.
“Might as well go through what we managed to save,” said Grandpa.
Family memories filled the kitchen table and the furniture. Great Grandma’s quilts and Grandpa’s antique toy trucks, Maggie’s mom’s stuffed animals, and Grandma’s wedding dress. They moved the treasures to the extra bedroom and the attic. All the items earned smiles and appreciative comments. “I’m glad you grabbed this, we couldn’t have saved this.” “I forgot we kept this. Thank God you rescued it.” Maggie felt a wash of pride when they reached the couch, where she had stacked everything she pulled from the basement.
But they all just stood there with arms crossed and confused looks on their faces.
“Maggie, is this all you grabbed?” asked Grandpa.
“Yep,” she said.
“Sweetheart, why’d you pick these things? It’s just old magazines.”
Grandma gasped, and covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh my God,” she said. “That was the room with the photo albums. And the birth certificates.” She stopped herself, then turned to Maggie and tried to smile, so her granddaughter didn’t feel bad. But the upturned corners of Grandma’s mouth wavered and fell, and her hand started shaking. She lowered herself onto one of the dining room chairs and said, “That’s awful, that’s just awful,” again and again, quietly, to herself.
Mom pulled Maggie close and spoke right into her ear. “You did good, sweetie. You did everything you could.” But nothing could stop the tears that fell from Maggie’s face onto the old worthless copies of Life and National Geographic like a downpour, like a deluge.
* * *
Rain can cleanse, and rain can elicit new life. Or it can smother and choke while things buried and forgotten float to the surface. As the rain fell harder in front of the shuttered pizza parlor, Maggie dashed to the back of the line toward frowning Mrs. Gerke. “What should we do?”
“Don’t know. You’re in charge,” said the old classroom aide.
Maggie wanted to run. She wanted to grab the hands of the kids and sprint back to school, and there would be falls and scraped knees and tears, and parents would be upset and the principal would be livid, and Maggie would lose her job for sure, but that’s what she felt she should do. The other option was to seek shelter, but the only other store still open in the old plaza was Herb’s Liquor, which had a reputation: booze for next to nothing and the clientele attracted to next-to-nothing booze. There was no way Maggie could take kids in there.
“Okay everyone,” she said. “Look over here.” They were scared, she could tell. Their shoulders drooped, and several lower lips quivered. “We’re going to try to get back to school fast.” She wiped the water that dripped down her forehead. “We need to hold hands, and we need to run. But we also need to be careful.”
Every time it rained after the failed pizza field trip, for the rest of Maggie’s life, she hated it. This included the rain everyone normally loved, the showers that broke the drought, the sprinkles that washed away the dirty snow, the day-long storms that forced cozy afternoons with books and blankets, pets and kids curled up next to her. None of the rain that fell on her after that morning necessarily conjured the memory of the flood on her grandpa’s farm. That memory started to fade, like memories do. But while she stood outside Vinnie’s, she could smell the wet magazines, and feel the cling of her muddy clothes, and hear her grandmother sob. Except this time, she had a chance to save what needed saving.
“Never mind,” she said to the kids. “Follow me.”
Maggie returned to the front of the line and led her students down the sidewalk, past the empty storefronts, up to the door of the liquor store. The bell over the door clanged as she pushed through.
The gaunt old man with wild white hair, probably Herb himself, looked up from the newspaper. “Morning,” he said. “Can I help…” He stopped as the line of children marched into the store. He stood up off his stool. “What are you doing? You can’t bring them in here.”
“We’re the kindergarten class from La Follette, and we just need to get out of the storm.”
The man came out from behind the counter like a lean Doberman defending its yard. “I don’t think so.” He leaned toward her, and pointed at the door. “Get them out of here.”
“We’ll only be minute,” she said, returning the intensity of his gaze. “It’s raining.”
The man hit the counter with his fist, rattling the bottles of clearance brandy sitting next to the register. “Listen to me. Get those god-damned kids out of here before I—”
Maggie hit the counter too, and took a step towards the old man. “I said, it’s raining.” Maggie knew if she stopped talking, it would all be over. She would start shaking and retreat with her class out into the storm. But if she kept going, maybe she could succeed. “What kind of person sends a group of six-year-olds into a storm? How does that look? No, sir, if anyone is going to wait outside in the rain, it’s going to be you, because unless you plan to drag each of us…”
The old man leaned toward Maggie and brought his face even with hers. “Fine,” he said. He brought his hand up and pointed at her, his finger inches from her cheek. “But they better not touch nothing. I’m serious.”
“You heard him,” said Mrs. Gerke from back by the door. “Have a seat, kids. Keep your hands to yourselves.”
All twenty-one students sat cross-legged on the dirty old linoleum while the rain continued to fall. Some shook the water off their hands. Others’ heads pivoted to take in all the colorful bottles and fluorescent beer signs. They stayed quiet for several minutes while the pulse of the rain rose and fell.
Maggie kept her eyes on Herb. At first he stared at the class like he expected a riot, but as the minutes passed his expression softened. They were just kids. “Okay,” said the old man. “This isn’t so bad.” His shoulders relaxed, and he leaned back against the counter. He looked down one of the aisles, then back at the kids. “I have an idea.”
He retreated to the back of the store and returned with a bag of ice and a package of disposable wine glasses. He counted the number of kids, and as Maggie and Mrs. Gerke stared in disbelief, he lined up the appropriate number of clear plastic cups. He grabbed a bottle of margarita mix, and poured each of them a few swallows. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just the mix. It’s non-alcoholic. Like juice.” He finished pouring, and set the cups on the edge of the counter. “Come on, kids, come grab one. You like juice? It’s juice.”
Maggie sipped her virgin margarita as she stared out the window and the kids behind her made slurping noises and laughed at each other.
Mrs. Gerke stepped up next to her. “Nice work, Miss Larrabee. You’re starting to look like you’ve done this before.”
The rain fell in sheets and waves. It roared and it consumed. The streetlights came on. Maggie watched the power of water and wished she were dry. “Thanks, Mrs. Gerke,” she said. “This isn’t my first storm.”