Best Of The Terrible Lies

By Ben Leib

During flood season, Dr. Sherman asked the students if anyone’s home had sustained water damage. Petaluma was having a tempestuous winter, and some of the at-risk neighborhoods had flooded, leaving several blocks of houses evacuated and uninhabitable. In the worst cases, houses were entirely submerged.

As Dr. Sherman took attendance, each student offered the same answer to his question: “No, no I did not get flood damage.” After hearing twenty students repeat the question in Spanish, after hearing them confirm, in Spanish, that their homes had been spared the high waters, it was my turn to respond. I hate the monotony, I thought to myself.

 “Did your house sustain any flood damage?” I repeated the question in Spanish. “Yes,” I responded, “my house was damaged by the flood.”

 “My God.” Dr. Sherman reverted to English. “That’s terrible, what happened?”

“It was pouring out. We knew about the warnings, but figured that the water wouldn’t be able to sneak up on us. It was the middle of the night when the house flooded. When I fell asleep the driveway was under water, and it just kept rising. When I woke up, the water was creeping over the edge of my bed – it didn’t make a lot of noise like you’d expect. If I’d slept any longer, I might have been trapped. I might have drowned.”

Dr. Sherman sustained a chorus of sounds, each meant to express new levels of amazement and empathy.

“I live over on Payran. The whole neighborhood flooded.” It wasn’t true. I lived on the east side of town, in a residential neighborhood of upscale prefabs. I did know somebody, my friend Hector, who lived on Payran Street where the flooding was the worst. His house had sustained some water damage, but nothing close to the destruction that I was imagining.

As Dr. Sherman hemmed and hawed Emmy jabbed me in the side with her pencil. “You’re full of shit.” She smiled.

 “What happened to your family?” Mr. Sherman asked. “Is everybody all right?”

“Yeah, everybody’s fine. My brother was at my mom’s house, but I had to get my dad and my stepmom out of bed. They’d slept through the whole thing and had no idea thing’s had gotten so bad. If the water had filled our house like that, we knew it was at the same level outside. The cars were flooded… Everything.

“We waded through the house. By then it was above our waists. Debris floated through the hallway and in the living room. All the things we took for granted bobbing around our house. And it was pitch black. There was no way to know if a bedside table had floated in front of a door, or that a bookshelf had fallen across the hallway. We made it to the front door, but couldn’t get it open. Maybe something was blocking it or water pressure was keeping it closed…

“Since the front door was out of the question, we knew a window would be our best bet. The water level reached to the base of our kitchen windows. It was dark out there too. The streetlights were all out, so it was only the moon, but when we looked out the kitchen window, we could see how high the water had gotten. It had risen to about a foot above the window and was sloshing against the pane. My dad positioned himself on top of the sink, so that he could get a footing. He warned us to get out of the way…”

“This is unbelievable. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“The water poured in and just swept him off the sink. It was so powerful that it ripped the screen out of the frame. It broke both window pane. My dad cut his arm when he fell off the counter.”

“It took a couple of minutes to get out. The water was filling the entire house. We couldn’t force our way through the current. We gathered in the corner of the kitchen, knowing that there was broken glass and that the pressure was probably carrying pieces through the house. All the stuff floating around the surface followed the current into the living room, down the hall, and into the bedrooms. We could hear this whistling of the air being forced through any unsealed door or window frame. The yard debris poured into the house. Finally the water levels equalized.”

“Then we swam up to the kitchen window. My dad went first, then I went, and together we helped to pull my stepmom through. We couldn’t stand in the backyard. The water was deep enough that we had to wade and swim. But it wasn’t quite high enough that we could climb onto the roof…”

Emmy jabbed me with her pencil again. “Tell him your dog died.” Emmy’s approval was my fire.

“Once we got outside, my stepmom started screaming, Leroy! Leroy! Our dog had been chained to the tree in the back yard. My dad and I swam over, but the branches were underwater, and they kept us from getting close. My dad dived under the branches. But it was impossible to know which way you were swimming. The water must have risen around Leroy. His leash was long enough that he could have swam around at the surface and survived, but he got caught in the branches. We couldn’t save him.”

“I am so sorry.”

“We lost everything. There were helicopters out with their spotlights shining into the water, looking for people stranded in their houses. Several blocks had been flooded, and we started swimming west. As it turned out, earlier in the day my neighbor had pulled his outboard canoe out of the garage. He originally did it for fun, you know, just floating around while his house sank. But then he started helping people out of their houses when things got bad. As he pulled up to us, I saw who it was.

“He brought us up towards the boulevard, three blocks, from my house to the railroad tracks behind the Lucky’s shopping center. That’s where the canoe bottomed out, and we could walk again.”

Dr. Sherman was astounded. He wasn’t making noise anymore, just stood slack-jawed, staring at me.

“We called my Grandparents from the payphone over by Lucky’s, and they came to pick us up. I stay with my grandparents pretty often, so I had some extra clothes over there. Luckily, I do all of my school work there as well – they live right up the street – so my books and my homework were safe. Other than that, everything we owned was destroyed. The house looks awful. The neighborhood’s still flooded, but the water level has gone down enough that we were allowed back yesterday afternoon to see if anything was salvageable. Nothing survived. It’s just mud and debris. We had Leroy cremated, and we’ll bury him in the backyard once we can move back. Until then, I’m staying with my grandparents.”

“What an adventure.” Dr. Sherman said. “What a tragedy.”

“It’s been tough.”

“Can we do anything to help you? I mean, as a class? I could organize a day trip to help with the clean up.”

“No, it looks like we’re going to have a pretty easy job with clean up. We have pretty good home owner’s insurance, and repairs are taken care of. But they’re only going to give us so much, and that will cover repairs, but we’re still going to have to replace everything. What we really need is money.”

After the telling, class proceeded as usual. Emmy and I worked together on our textbook exercises, and forgot about the lie. As the bell rang and the students lined up by the door, Dr. Sherman called me to his desk. “Can I have a quick word with you?” he asked.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I’ve been considering it, and I’ve got something that I want to give you.” Dr. Sherman slipped me a check, folded in half. “I hope everything works out for your family,” he said as the bell signaled the end of the school day.

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