I had been in this city for fifteen years and saw it drown twice. The first was in 2010 when a freak storm smothered us in flood waters. That’s where this all actually started. The second time I saw my city gasp for breath was in 2019, when Brother Coleman’s people blew the dam. That’s where things get interesting. It was shortly thereafter that the “Army of Light” moved through. These three different, historic, altering, events helped me to the cross.
If that was yours, by the way, I apologize. After the things I’ve seen, I had a certain compulsion to destroy it. I hope you’ll understand.
I’ll start in 2010. At the time, I was a college dropout working a minimum wage job at the mall. I was tasked with handing out shrimp. Not at a local restaurant or even distributing stock to one of them. I handed out small paper trays of gulf shrimp to patrons who wished to feed the stingrays. The paper trays I describe are the same ones that one might receive French-fries in at a food truck. Cardboard baskets full of grade C shrimp not fit to feed a human being. I would fill these baskets and hand them, at three dollars a pop, to tourists who had just finished their meals at The Aquarium. The Aquarium was a swanky restaurant in the mall that boasted the city’s largest aquariums. Apparently, nothing makes one crave seafood like being surrounded by it. The restaurant was across the promenade from “Stingray City”, where I worked.
Stingray City was a place where the people finishing their overpriced lobster could go to feed actual stingrays. That’s really a misnomer. We had very few stingrays. The majority of our stock were Manta Rays. Far less dangerous to the general public, they lack the barbs commonly attributed to stingrays. Regardless, after a full meal, families would make their way to our store, buy food, ignore my tutorial, and feed the “stingrays”.
Business was so good, we had to practically starve these things after hours. As I mentioned, I was tasked with handing out the food. This meant I also had to give the standard safety lecture.
“Make a fist,” I would say, “Hold the food between your knuckles. Extending your fingers could lead to bites or other injuries.”
Rays don’t bite. While being directly related to sharks, they don’t have teeth. They have bony protuberances that they use to grind their food. The word “bite” was for legal. And it was useful. I could look any human in the eye and do my speech and none of them would hear me. I could very well have said, “This information will save your life,” and would have received similar blank stares. No one cared. They came here to feed the rays, and they were going to do so, by god. Those that didn’t listen to warnings got, at the worst, skinned knuckles. Rays don’t bite. They inhale their food over bony openings. Stick your fingers out, you’re bound to get scraped.
From time to time, you’d get a big spender that wanted to let his little girl to go nuts in the tank and would slip you a twenty. I always took the money, then shrugged when his princess ended up soaked with bloody knuckles and a new respect for a demi-shark. The fathers would scream until their faces were purple, and I would rage inside my head. I’m sorry, sir, that your spoiled brat of a kid didn’t heed the very specific warnings I gave to you. Perhaps, she needs a lesson in boundaries. Or just maybe, you need to understand that I will make the same amount of money in this fiscal year that you play with each day. Maybe I don’t feel like treating your precious princess like royalty today. But I digress.
The flood in 2010 started on a Friday night. My fiancée and I had been visiting my mother in Cookeville, my home town. It had been raining for at least eighteen hours when we started back to Nashville. We stopped in Lebanon to look at wedding dresses at a local shop, by the time we left, the roads were covered in water. We had to get a Hotel. We got back to Nashville the next day, a Saturday, when I got the call. Blake, the “marine biologist” for the restaurant and the attraction was calling all hands for removal of the animals. The mall, Opry Mills, seemed to be under water already with more coming. Word was that “the atrium” at the hotel was already under ten feet of water. It didn’t seem as serious at the time as it turned out to be. If the Army of Light hadn’t come through though, it would have been at least two years before the mall could open again.
I couldn’t get across the river. Both sides were flooded, they were actually ferrying people out on the General Jackson. I was ready to leave when I saw Blake pulling to the over-flown bank in a zodiac. I could tell he was loving this shit. He told me that the mall was underwater and we had to get the animals out. Time was an issue, there was already water in the mall and it was rising. The rays were to be collected and sent to the Chattanooga Aquarium. Riding into the mall in a boat was surreal.
Every ray was to be put in its own box with a specific label, so they would know which was ours after everything settled. I never imagined that things would turn out the way they have. I could never have guessed I was making a life changing decision. I had loaded four rays when everyone else bailed. The water was already at calf level. There was only one ray left to box, we called her Ruth. She was currently pregnant. I don’t know why I made my choice. I knew she could live in freshwater, it seemed like the end of the world, and I felt I had to give something a chance. So, I released Ruth into the floodwaters. She sank and fluttered against the impossible tile of the mall floor before gliding off towards the doors.
I could have been in trouble, but the mall went ass end up. The physical location of rays was the least of their worries. In the weeks after, I felt like I had really saved Ruth’s life. Even though I couldn’t know how her life turned out, all the rays we sent to Chattanooga died in their tanks. But Ruth, at least, had a shot. As unlikely as it could have been. Things were largely normal after that for about six months. FEMA, TEMA, they did their respective things, but the city felt different. We had been touched by disaster. That’s a thing that changes you. Makes you resilient. But also complacent. Disaster is a state of mind. We were still in the first one when the second showed up with bells on.
I still don’t know why we called them “The Army of Light”. I’ve never seen anything so dark. I mean, obviously, the lights on their armor had something to do with it. But the armor itself was dark. A kind of black I had never seen. Just empty.
Anyhow, they came through. In a way we never expected. Law enforcement, national guard…there was no negotiation. Anything holding a weapon got put down. They were the kind of brutal you read about. People with slingshots were executed like soldiers. People just trying to keep their kids alive.
Yeah, anyway, about two years after that mess; not really sure how long it had been. I had a day. Most days were that kind of day, but this one stands out.
We all had pretty much found our places in the dirt. The Army of Light had miraculously disappeared somehow, so we all found a spot in the wake. Mine was downtown Nashville, on the bank of the Cumberland. We had two rivers in Nashville; I trusted this one more than the other. After all, it had never wrecked everything I knew.
Before everything went to shit, the bridge I lived under was a pedestrian bridge. People could park in the poor part of town, and then walk to the stadium for the games. In the beginning, the government had a camp up there. I still remember when shit went south. Rape, murder… and that was the soldiers. Every once in a while, a soldier from the Light would stumble in. Can’t imagine what those poor bastards went through.
Anyhow, the survivors had moved off. The bridge was functionally deserted. I would get a walker from time to time. Always shopping carts; it was like the whole world was homeless. But most days, it was just me and the water.
Back in the day, I had a friend who worked EMS. He talked about the Cumberland. People fell off the bridge at least once a month. He talked about it a lot. Constantly told me one thing.
“It’s not the height that kills ya. It’s the current.”
So, with my legs dangling over the edge, this is the only thing going through my head. This wouldn’t be a quick death. I would float. Maybe for miles. I would get too tired to give a shit any more. Should’ve let the Light take me probably. But there I was, looking at the water. It was violent and peaceful all at the same time. Time is irrelevant, it didn’t exist in that moment. I just dropped off.
It probably only took a second and a half to hit the water, but it felt like a lifetime. I remembered high school. My first crush. First time on stage. The wedding. Everything before.
I had time to take a very deep breath. I had turned sideways. I remember hitting the surface and losing my breath. It was solid. Or more solid than I expected. I was flying to the banks as if jet powered. I was thrown on the bank, literally thrown. Pretty sure I broke my arm. I didn’t even notice the pain, just shot up. I saw two fins, flapping urgently in the river, back to deep water.
Part of me wants to believe that Ruth had been watching over me since I saved her. The other bit just wants it to be her. What are the odds? Was it her? One of her pups? This thing was at least six feet wide, but rays will grow as large as their environment allows. I need to believe it was her.
After that, I went and did what I did. We can talk about that tomorrow if you want. But I have to sleep. Any chance you people can get her, by the way? We have things to discuss.