By Nancy Jane Moore
Evacuating early was the smartest thing she’d ever done, Dora Castillo thought as she stared at the ruins of her apartment. They’d left Pearland two weeks back, twelve hours before Galveston ordered mandatory evacuations and a day and a half before Houston tried to put in place staggered ones. I-45 had been slow as hell when she left, but it hadn’t been close to the twenty-four hour gridlock that happened when everyone else tried to leave at once.
Her friends told her she was crazy. ‘It never gets that bad here,’ one said. That person ended up leaving in a boat. Hurricane Elmer had blown all the other record storms — four new records in the twenty years since Harvey — off the map. Most of Houston and everything between the city and the Gulf had ended up under water.
Coming back wouldn’t make the list of smart things, though of course she’d had to do it, had to see if anything had made it through even though she’d heard floodwaters had risen to the level of second floor apartments. If they’d stayed, they’d have been lucky to get out at all and the truck would have been ruined. She had the truck and the kids and her tools and all the important papers and some clothes and food. No insurance on the apartment — tenant insurance cost too much and didn’t cover flooding anyway. No point in making a claim with FEMA; word was the federal government was tapped out. The state wasn’t even contributing to cleanup.
There was so little money for relief and rebuilding that there wasn’t work for carpenters. Getting some work was the other reason Dora had left her kids with a friend in Plano and come back down. Instead of landing a job, she’d done volunteer work alongside everyone else. The trip hadn’t even yielded enough money to pay her friend for watching the kids. She took one last look at the wrecked building, decided there wasn’t any point in trying to pull anything out of it, and headed north on I-45.
The truck had been another good decision. It had cost an arm and a leg, but the solar panels for charging in spots with no electricity and the locked tool chest under the camper cap had made it worth it. She’d scrimped on other things to pay it off and keep it in good shape.
When she’d called her folks to let them know she was safe, they’d told her to join them in Mexico. But there wasn’t work in Mexico, either. Besides, she wasn’t a Mexican citizen. Her folks had dual citizenship and U.S. Social Security checks; she needed a job.
The traffic this trip wasn’t as bad as it had been the day they’d evacuated. She passed the exit for state highway 19, the back road she’d taken to get out of five-mile-an-hour traffic that day. Traveling that road had led them to the Davy Crockett National Forest. That had been another good decision. It had been late afternoon when her daughter Tensia had spotted a weathered sign for the park that included the word ‘camping’. She’d decided it might be a good idea to stop for the night.
They’d taken one back road and then another before finally coming across a campground just as the sun began to disappear. At the entrance, they saw an old RV, a weatherbeaten sign saying ‘host’ in front of it. Dora’d figured there must be some check-in process, so she’d knocked on the door. A man who looked old enough to be her grandfather — silver hair curling above his dark brown face — had answered. ‘Nah, there’s no check-in these days. Ain’t seen any Forest Service folks in two years. Just pick any open spot you like. Y’all trying to get away from that hurricane?’
‘I ’spect a few more will straggle in over the next day or two. Gonna rain here, prob’ly, but likely not too bad. You should be able to sleep out tonight, you want to. Maybe not tomorrow.’
His name was Frank Jones and he’d been living there about three years. There were a few other long-term folks — the old rules about two-week stay had disappeared with the Forest Service — plus a couple of people living deep in the woods that he almost never saw. ‘Would rather not see, to tell the truth,’ he told her. ‘I’m a peaceable man, but I got my shotgun handy, just in case.’
Dora found a site with a solid picnic table and an intact grill about a hundred feet from the latrines and water faucet. Frank said the water hadn’t killed him yet and the toilets still flushed. She fed the kids peanut butter sandwiches and bedded them down on a soft spot of ground on top of the tarp from the truck. She lay there, staring up at the moon and stars in the gaps between the tops of the pine trees. It took her a long time to go to sleep.
The next day dawned cloudy, but the kids woke as excited as if this was a vacation. They bolted down some cereal and began to explore. By mid-morning they’d found three other kids staying there. Tensia — oldest of the group — was already leading them in exploring the old trails. Dora called out cautions about snakes and poison ivy, though she doubted they listened.
‘The rangers didn’t bother to cut nothing off when they pulled out,’ Frank told her. ‘But the electricity in the latrines and charging stations is kinda wonky and there are some leaks in the roof and in the pipes.’ He nodded toward the truck. ‘You do some of that kind of work?’
That first day she cleaned off some of the solar panels, patched some bad spots on the latrine roof, and put some gaskets in faucets to stop the leaks. Then the rain came, and everyone holed up under anything they could to wait it out. The hurricane had turned east, aiming for eastern Louisiana and maybe back down to New Orleans, so they didn’t get the brunt of it.
Missing the worst of the storm was cause for celebration. A couple of older women who lived in an old pickup camper on the edge of the site were growing vegetables, and they contributed some tomatoes and squash. The old man who was looking after his grandkids disappeared off in the woods and came back with a rabbit and some squirrels ready for the barbecue. Frank fired up a grill.
Dora spent another day doing some more repairs and making sure her truck had a full charge before she headed on to Plano. Frank had been sorry to see her go. ‘I was kind of hoping you’d decide to settle in here. Nice having more kids around and someone who knows how to fix stuff.’
Dora had laughed and said she was a city girl.
‘I’ll save you a space, just in case,’ he said. ‘Imagine we’re gonna get a few more refugees up here.’
The kids had cried when she said they were leaving and Tensia sulked all the way to Plano. It had been crowded at her friend’s house — another reason she’d gone back down to Houston to check out the apartment and the work options. She knew she’d have to find someplace else to go as soon as she got back.
But where was she going to go? She’d looked around Plano, but the ’62 depression had crippled the Dallas region worse than the Gulf Coast. Nothing to be had anywhere for a carpenter but odd jobs and cheap repair work. Nobody was building anything new.
Dora drove past the exit for 19, on into Huntsville. A few miles down the road, she saw the exit for another road, one that crossed 19. She’d had a late start and it was almost dark now. She might as well camp out, finish the drive to Plano tomorrow. The kids would be OK one more day. Where was she going to take them, anyway? No home to go back to. No work.
She got off the freeway, meandered around the back roads until she got to the campground and spotted Frank’s camper. Here. She was going to bring them here. She’d build them a tree house in one of the big oaks. They could do school online with their tablets – no one had turned the WiFi off when the Forest Service abandoned the place. She could get odd jobs in Lufkin or Nacogdoches, maybe. They could learn to gather nuts, hunt some game, maybe grow vegetables.
Not forever, Dora told herself. Just for now.
A native Texan, Nancy Jane Moore grew up in the area flooded in the above story, and now lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of The Weave, and her short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies as well as in her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies. In addition to writing, Nancy Jane Moore is a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and teaches empowerment self defense.