MAN OF THE HOUSE • by Pauline Yates

“When the river laps the chook pen, it’s too late to evacuate.”

John’s words play on my mind as I peer through the driving rain and watch the river swell. I can see the roof of the chook house, but the mesh fence is under a metre of water. It’s past time to go.

Turning from the window, I call to my fourteen-year-old son. “Billy?”

“I’m here, Mum.” He runs from his bedroom, a bag slung over his shoulder. He looks so much like his father, tears well in my eyes.

“Help me plug the windows. Rain’s leaking through the sills.”

Billy shifts uncomfortably on his feet. “Mum, I heard on the radio just now the river has broken its banks. Shouldn’t we go?”

“We’re safer staying put. The roads will be flooded.” I force a smile. “We’ll be fine.”

Billy’s face pales. “What if the house goes under, like it did in the last flood?”

I don’t want to think about the last flood. Billy had been nine at the time, but he still has nightmares. We’d lost everything. Our clothes. Our furniture. Billy’s fox terrier, Trixie, had been washed away in a torrent of water as we fled the house. In the aftermath, we’d considered selling, but nobody wants a house in a flood zone. John did the only thing we could with the little insurance payout we received. He made our home safe. “We won’t flood. Your father raised the stumps on the house, remember?”

“But, Mum—”

“No more buts.” I reach for a bunch of towels I’d pulled from the shelf earlier, but as I pass one to Billy, there’s a rap on the front door.

“Mrs Stevens,” a voice calls from outside. “You in there?”

“It’s emergency services,” Billy says, dropping the towel.

He runs to the door and pulls it open. Two men dressed in orange overalls stand on the top step. I know one of them well — Stan Mackay, the familiar face of our town’s emergency response team. He was the first on the scene at John’s car accident and since then has always looked out for me. I step to Billy’s side but when I look through the door, I catch my breath. The river has risen halfway up the front steps.

“Time to go, Sally,” Stan says.

“No, we’re staying. John raised the house. We won’t flood this time.”

Stan steps to my side and places his hand on my shoulder. “John was a good man, but not even he could predict how high this river can rise.”

I don’t want to believe there’s a chance we’ll return to nothing again, but I can’t ignore the roar of the river. I look back out the door. In the time we spoke, three more steps have gone under.

“Mum—”

Billy’s white face sends a shiver down my spine. I’d promised John on his death bed I’d keep Billy safe, but is staying in the house the right thing to do? I trust John left me a home I’d never have to leave, but the peril at our doorstep is real. I twist my hands together, wishing he was here to guide me. “I haven’t packed a bag.”

“I did,” Billy says, patting the bag still on his shoulder. “Just in case.”

I nearly cry. “It’s my job to look after you.”

“You do,” he says. “But we should go.” He steps to the front door where the other emergency worker waits with the boat. Grabbing my handbag from the table, I follow Stan to the door but I’m gripped with fear when I see the height of the river. Water laps at the top step. Our house is the highest in the street, which means my neighbours’ homes are already lost. But as Stan helps pull the rescue boat closer so we can board, I remember one thing I can’t leave without.

“Wait.” Turning around, I run back to the living room and pick up a small, ceramic casserole dish from the top of a bookshelf. With no money left after John’s cremation, I couldn’t afford a proper urn to hold his ashes. The house may end up beneath the river, but I’m not losing my husband again. Clutching the dish to my chest, I hurry back to the door, but a gust of wind knocks me off balance. Losing my grip on the dish, it slips from my hands and smashes on the floor.

“No!” Dropping to my knees, I scoop John’s ashes into a pile before the wind can steal him from me. Billy rushes to my aid, but as he kneels beside me, there’s a sickening crunch outside the house.

“Look out,” Stan yells, pulling the other man inside.

I watch in horror as the trunk of an uprooted tree, pushed by the force of the river, rams into the boat and flips it over. Splintered timber spears through the door. Throwing my arm over Billy, I curl my body around his. The tree roots jam in the doorway, the house shuddering from the impact, but a wave of water spreads across the floor and washes the ashes from beneath my fingers.

***

We were stranded in the house for three days before the river receded, but we were safe. The river reached its peak an inch below the floorboards. I have more than a raised house to thank my husband for. Had I not gone back for his ashes, we would have been in the boat when it was overturned by the tree trunk. I’ve no doubt we all would have drowned. Stan puts it down to luck, but he doesn’t know my husband as well as he thinks. John’s highest priority has always been our family’s well-being. I believe now, even in death, he’s still watching over us. I don’t have his ashes anymore, but I’ll never sell the house. How could I when our home is his final resting place?


Pauline Yates is a keen horsewoman and avid gardener who loves to cook up a feast for her family. Her short stories can be found on The Casket of Fictional Delights, Short Fiction Break, and Metaphorosis.


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